Steven Burgauer - The Grandfather Paradox: a time-travel story
Marooned in the present, their only hope for the future lay in the past.
But first there was still the small matter of staying alive. The planet they were marooned on was crawling with bird-beasts, immense parrotlike carnivores that stood two meters tall, weighed upwards of fifty klogs, and had a giant scooped beak like a pelican. They normally swallowed their prey whole, though not before crushing them to death in their vise-like jaws.
Then there were the vipers — writhing snake-like creatures armed with dozens of sucker-bearing tentacles. They sprayed their victims with acid, then ate them while they were still alive.
But it got worse. Much worse . . .
Now, join Andu Nehrengel and his female clone companions on an intense voyage through time. First stop: the Civil War and the Battle of Shiloh, April 1862, one of the most horrendous land battles of all time. Meet Mark Twain when he is still a riverboat pilot. Journey with him north to Missouri when he joins the Confederacy.
Then it's back to the future and on to Mars!
And when you're done reading this adventure, check out these other fine books by author Steven Burgauer: The Night of the Eleventh Sun, The Road To War: Duty & Drill, Courage & Capture, and his newest historical fiction piece, Nazi Saboteurs on the Bayou.
Avid hiker, Eagle Scout, and founder of a mutual fund, Steven Burgauer resides in Florida. A graduate of Illinois State University and the New York Institute of Finance, Steve writes science fiction and historic fiction. A member of the Society of Midland Authors, Steven is included in The Dictionary of Midwestern Literature, Volume 2: Dimensions of the Midwestern Literary Imagination and the ALA's Librarian's Guide to Cyborgs, Aliens, and Sorcerers by Derek M. Buker.
Burgauer's The Road to War: Duty & Drill, Courage & Capture is based on the journals of an American WWII infantryman who landed at Normandy, was wounded and taken prisoner by the Nazis. Publishers Daily Reviews says of it: Five-plus unequivocal stars . . . an extraordinary read that everyone should enjoy.
Some of his SF titles include The Grandfather Paradox, The Railguns of Luna, The Fornax Drive, and SKULLCAP. Other books of his include The Night of the Eleventh Sun, a Neanderthal's first encounter with man, and The Wealth Builder's Guide: An Investment Primer. Steven contributed to the zany, serial mystery, Naked Came the Farmer, headlined by Philip Jose Farmer.
His work has been reviewed in many places, including LOCUS, the EUREKA LITERARY MAGAZINE, PUBLISHERS DAILY REVIEWS, MIDWEST BOOK REVIEW, THE BOOK REVIEWERS, BOOKVIRAL, and PROMETHEUS, the journal of the Libertarian Futurist Society. Science Fiction Chronicle (June 2001) says of his The Railguns of Luna: Steven Burgauer writes old style science fiction in which heroes and villains are easily identified, the action is fast and furious, and the plot twists and turns uncontrollably . . . This is action adventure written straight-forwardly and not meant to be heavily literary or provide pithy commentary on the state of humanity.
Of his book Nazi Saboteurs on the Bayou, The Book Reviewers write: "An engaging, slow-burning wartime thriller with an epic feel and a large cast of characters." Midwest Book Review writes: "In a war that rips apart entire worlds, who can truly be the winner? Add a dash of romance to the intrigue for a solid World War II thriller that's intricate, frighteningly realistic, and hard to put down."
When Steven lived in Illinois, the State of Illinois Library included him in a select group of authors invited to the state's Authors' Day. He has often been a speaker and panel member at public library events and science-fiction conventions all across the country.
Underground Book Reviews: https://www.undergroundbookreviews.org/author-spotlight-steven-burgauer
JULY 30, 1942
Lake Pontchartrain, New Orleans
“You fool! You’re doing it all wrong!” Andrew Higgins boomed. He was the military’s foremost boat builder. “Don’t cut the engine as you approach the shore. Gun the damn thing!” The trainees were practicing boat maneuvers out on the choppy waters of Lake Pontchartrain. An early morning storm was brewing in the distance.
“But sir, the Coast Guard taught us to always throttle back in shallow water or on approach to a pier.”
The coxswain was a young man, one of nearly two dozen onboard the landing craft, each no more than twenty years of age. To a man, every last one of them had enlisted in the Coast Guard and were now enrolled in the Higgins Boat Operators School. The school had been organized the summer before at the request of Marine Corps General Holland Smith. Nevertheless, Higgins paid all of the school’s operating costs.
“I don’t give a fuck what the Coast Guard taught you, boy. You were taught wrong!” Higgins boomed again, more red-faced than before. “And the same goes for the rest of you Coasties. This is a Higgins boat, not some damn, second-rate Yankee skiff. A Higgins boat is not like other boats. It is made to be run up on a riverbank or over a bar or onto a rocky beach. Gun it, I tell you, or we will surely run aground and get stuck but good!”
Andrew Higgins was in a foul mood. He had only yesterday returned from Washington, D.C., where he testified before several congressional committees. He told them in no uncertain terms how disgusted he was with the Navy’s recent cancellation of the multi-million-dollar Liberty boat contract. That contract had been extended to him only sixty days before. The adverse decision had cost him oodles of money and set his business plan back by months, if not years.
Higgins growled. “Step aside, boy, and let me take the wheel.”
Higgins pushed the young Coastie roughly aside and throttled the boat up to full speed. The bow fairly leapt out of the water as he charged the concrete banks of Lake Pontchartrain at top speed, nearly 20 knots. The boat’s Gray Marine diesel engine was basically indestructible, if a bit noisy and messy. But, like a sawed-off shotgun, it was hard to argue with the engine’s effectiveness.
“Jesus H. Christ, we are all going to die,” the young man exclaimed as he fell back against the gunwale.
“Rubbish! We are going to learn how to drive a Higgins landing boat. Hell, the Brits have been driving these things without problem since before we Yanks got in the war. If the Limeys can learn to do it properly, so can you pirates.”
Andrew Jackson Higgins was not a man to be trifled with. Rough-cut and brusque. Hot-tempered and outspoken. Foul-mouthed and brilliant, with a wild imagination. The man had been trained in the school of hard knocks. He knew everything there was to know about building and sailing small boats, and he expected these men to learn the basics as well as he — small boat handling and navigation; use of compass; position finding; essentials of celestial navigation; signaling; emergency boat and engine repair.
The motor was running full bore, now, as they closed uncomfortably fast on the concrete shore. He shouted over the roar of the engine.
“Your average man is a chickenshit. His every instinct tells him to cut his speed when a boat runs aground on a sandbar. But this craft operates full throttle. And it continues to do so until it clears the bar. Even when troops are jumping from the boat on the beach, the engines continue to run wide open. It’s counterintuitive, I know. But that is why you boys are here — to learn how to do it the right way, which is to say the Higgins way.”
The young man nodded his head, as if he agreed. But he held tight to the gunwale expecting to be thrown from the boat at any moment. The other trainees onboard the LCVP were doing the same.
“Believe me,” Higgins said. “The boat can take it. Thick planking. Strong frame. Heavy keel and skeg.”
Without flinching, Higgins ran the Eureka boat straight up on the concrete bulwarks of the shore. The boat creaked a bit but held together fine.
“See?” Higgins said as the boat ground to a halt on the step-type concrete seawall of Lake Pontchartrain. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”
The young Coastie, mostly white-faced, looked over the side of the boat. Most of the length of the boat was clean out of the water. All he saw beneath the hull was concrete. He was properly impressed.
But Higgins was nonplussed. He had done this maneuver a thousand times before, always with the same result: the boat came away undamaged.
“What now?” the Coast Guard recruit asked. “How do we get out of here? I mean, are we stuck for good? Do all of us have to get out of the boat here and push?”
“No, not at all,” Higgins said. “But now it’s your turn. Take the wheel. Slam her into reverse. She’ll back her own self right off the seawall, sweet as you please.”
“Seriously.” Andrew Higgins was a man of extreme confidence.
The engine controls were a single lever combination throttle and gear, binnacle mount system. The young man grasped the controls gingerly and slammed the throttle hammer into reverse. Instantly the boat jerked backward and, much to his surprise slid easily back into the water. He swung the wheel hard to port as Higgins directed and pushed the boat back out into deeper water.
Though the hour was early, the bugs were already out in full force. Another hot summer’s day was getting underway in New Orleans. It was one of the many pleasures of driving a fast boat — the bugs couldn’t keep up; they didn’t bother a man much when the boat was in motion.
“Now run the boat up to the seaplane ramp at Shushan Airport. It is that way. At this speed, it should take you no more than five minutes to get there.” Higgins pointed. “The airport is near Pontchartrain Beach. Adjacent to Industrial Canal. That is where I will be getting out. When you get there, run the boat full speed right up the seaplane ramp. Don’t hesitate. Just do it.”
Higgins turned now to speak with Captain Richard McDerby. Mac, as McDerby liked to be called, was chief instructor at the Higgins Boat School. Since the school opened a year ago, Mac had already trained more than two thousand servicemen from various branches of the military to pilot and crew various classes of Higgins boats. Mac didn’t like it when Higgins interfered with his class, but Mac was a patient man. Higgins was his idol, so he didn’t say much.
“Mac, this is what these boys need to know. This is why I set up this school. This is why I pay for its operation out of my own pocket. Rip these boys a new one, if you have to. But teach ‘em how to drive our fucking boats. And run them through the obstacle course after you drop me off. That will wake them up and get their attention.”
McDerby smiled. The run with the boat through the obstacle course was always a hoot. Bounding over logs as much as three feet in diameter, over fifty-gallon drums floating in the water, across two sandbars, through a thick cluster of water hyacinth, and then up the concrete boat ramp at high speed.
When, two minutes later they had reached the seaplane ramp at Pontchartrain Beach and the coxswain had driven the boat up the ramp, Higgins jumped from the boat and said his goodbyes.
“See you later, Mac, back at the plant.”
“Sure you’ll be okay?”
“Hell yes. It isn’t much of a walk from here to the electric streetcar line. I’ll jump on the Spanish Fort Line, switch to the Canal Streetcar Line, then ride back downtown. My sons will be waiting for me. Thanks for the ride!” And then he was off, digging in his pocket for the 7-cent fare.
As Higgins walked the short distance to the streetcar stop, his nose hairs twitched. He could smell the sudden electricity in the air. A storm was moving into the bayou from out in the Gulf of Mexico. It made him remember. He harkened back to his early days as a lumberman in Natchez. It was the first business he owned.
Higgins stood that day, twenty years ago, under the roof of the portico of their small home and winced under the weight of the hot, humid, heavy air. Angele was pregnant with their first child, Edmond. A rumble of thunder rolled into the bay from the Gulf of Mexico only a dozen miles away. He lifted his eyes to the horizon and saw the menacing bank of dark storm clouds make their approach.
This one is going to be bad, he thought. Higgins knew it instinctively. The fury of a gulf coast squall was nearly unmatched on the planet. Violent, straight-line winds. Torrential rainfalls. A sudden down-rush of cold air. Torturous, gale-strength cloudbursts. Fierce twisting winds. Saltwater spray pushed miles inland.
A gulf coast bayou was little more than a series of ugly thumbs of water poking into the land in a hundred ways and in a hundred places. No spot of land was ever dry, only less wet than other spots. Houses had to be built on stilts, sometimes wood, sometimes stacks of cinder blocks, sometimes metal posts badly rusted. Storms could charge onshore with surprising speed and leave behind destruction, a storm surge and a devastating amount of rainwater.
The plant vegetation of the bayou was immune to the onslaught. But, human structures were feeble irrelevancies in the face of a tropical storm. The landscape regenerated itself. Uprooted trees regrew. Rivers changed course. Animals found new shelter. Fish washed ashore, rotted in place, became added fertilizer to an already rich soil.
The wind would rise; the leaves would quiver, shiny side up; the deer would take cover; smaller mammals would scurry away. The bayou was blanketed by a bottomland hardwood forest. The dominant plant species was the bald cypress tree. It grew in wet, marshy areas, which meant pretty much everywhere in the region. The cypress tree’s most striking feature was its “knees” — woody, often gnarly protrusions from a tree’s root system. The knees projected above the surrounding ground or water.
The trees grew tall. The knees provided the tree with stability and structural support. Sometimes the roots formed a buttressed base, a strong intertwined root system that allowed the tree to resist extremely strong winds, even of hurricane strength.
Higgins felt the first drops of rain on his face. He hurried now to the streetcar stop, where there would be a bit of cover. The drenching downpour would start soon enough.
AUGUST 4, 1942
The sun was setting in the western sky and the streets of New Orleans were beginning to come alive.
Nico Carolla found solace in these quiet moments at dusk. The sky yellowed, then reddened, then grew steadily darker. The stars made their first appearance overhead. Then began the low drone of cicadas, a veritable symphony of noise accompanied by a percussion of sea gulls barking in the distance.
But darkness also brought risks, and Nico had to be careful. It was unsafe for him to be out at night alone. For protection, he always carried with him in his pocket a .25 caliber semi-automatic pistol, a Bernardelli.
Luca and Vittorio trailed after him, as they did nearly every night. They too were armed. Nonno insisted upon it. He feared for his grandson’s life. Any number of rival crime families might want nothing better than to ambush Nico one night on the street and make a move onto Carolla turf.
From out of the darkness, a girl approached Nico on the street. “Heh, big fellow. Want a blowjob?”
He looked at her with unrepentant contempt.
“Only ten dollars,” she said. Then she recognized Nico for who he was and switched to Italian. “Bocchino? Only ten dollars.”
Nico shook his head, then shooed her away with a flick of the wrist. He kept on walking.
There were streetwalkers everywhere, not one of them high-class. They reeked of sweat and tobacco. This one, a dark-haired woman of average looks, next tried to sell her wares to Luca, then to Vittorio. Both men waved her off with equal contempt.
“Whore!” Luca said. “Troia! Va fanculo. Go fuck yourself.”
She gave him the finger and turned away.
“Where we headed tonight, boss?” Luca asked. Both he and Vittorio were armed with revolvers and primed for trouble should it suddenly step out of the shadows.
“Same as every Tuesday night,” Nico said. “Angelo’s taverna off Bourbon Street. Angel runs a good game of poker in the backroom four nights a week; that is, if you can stand the constant racket from the coins spilling out of the slot machines. Plus, his mother makes a good muffuletta. We three can share a bite to eat before I join the game.”
“Hard to protect you in that place,” Luca said. “Rough crowd. Lots of dark corners. Too fucking many places to hide.”
Nico knew the risks. If a man walks the streets of New Orleans alone at night, he is either looking for trouble or looking to get laid or perhaps looking to get drunk and party. Lonely men would often come to town looking for all three at once and at the same time.
The three men crossed the street shy of the corner, entered an alley, and came upon a drunk urinating against the wall of the adjoining building. He hadn’t been the first to urinate in this spot. It was appalling. The smell assaulted the nostrils. Urine. Feces. Dog waste. Spilled alcohol. Tobacco smoke. Vomit. Soiled cigarette butts.
They exited the alley, crossed a second street, and then they were there, on the doorstep of Angelo’s Taverna Monreal. The Sicilian tavern and gambling hall had a covered patio out front, with a canvas awning overhead, a few smudge pots outside for lighting beside the front door.
A guard stood beneath the awning at the entryway. The bulge beneath his coat said he was armed with a large weapon, probably a .45. The man was picky about who he admitted to the club. Most of what went on inside was illegal. Carolla-supplied slot machines were the backbone of Angel’s business, along with roulette tables, craps, and high-stakes poker in the backroom. Up one flight of stairs was a brothel.
The slot machines were the product of years of sly political maneuvering between rival crime families. During the Great Depression, the mayor of New York City, Fiorello La Guardia, began a crackdown on organized crime. The one-armed bandits he chased out of New York City soon made their way to Louisiana. Sylvestro Carolla personally negotiated a deal for those machines with the New York mob, a deal brokered by Louisiana Senator Huey Long.
Gaming and vices were synonymous with New Orleans. Dice games, bull and bear baiting, gambling, dog and alligator fights — all products of the raucous, anything goes atmosphere.
Tonight, the gambling hall was loud inside, loud and gay. Off to one corner of the smoke-filled room was a four-piece band. It was busy hammering out a collection of spirited jazz blues. Brass trumpet, jazz piano, wood clarinet, and drum. Sometimes the musicians would switch instruments and the sounds of a trombone or saxophone would enter the mix, perhaps a banjo or guitar, sometimes a cello or bass violin. People were talking and laughing, hard liquor was flowing.
These days, jazz music was standard fare in a place like this. The music, robust and rhythmic, was played with gusto and brass instruments, usually second-hand military band instruments. The big names in jazz were all products of the New Orleans jazz scene. Louis Armstrong, the trumpet player, grew up only blocks away, in Storyville, practically next door to Lulu White’s place.
“Something to eat?” Angelo asked Nico from behind the counter as the crime boss approached.
“One of your mother’s muffuletta. Salami, provolone, prosciutto. Extra peppers on the giardiniera, if she doesn’t mind.”
“Enjoy the music five minutes, Nico. I will bring the sandwich to your table when mia Madre is finished making it. Mettiti comodo, come a casa. Sit, make yourself at home.”
Nico relished the thought of food. He hadn’t eaten since this morning with Martina. The muffuletta was a two-fisted working man’s lunch, portable and hearty, a stable for the tradition-bound Sicilians that inhabited the French Quarter and the Trémé just north of it. Since the turn of the century, this neighborhood had been known to one and all as “Little Palermo.” It included the Storyville red-light district.
Nico found a table where his back was to the wall and settled into a chair to enjoy the performance. Luca and Vittorio sat either side of him.
Nico knew his music. It was his one diversion. Martina had been the one to introduce him to Cuban habanera, said it was the earliest form of rhythmic jazz music played in the French Quarter. The most distinctive versions were accompanied by a Cuban conga drum, one of those tall single-headed drums played with the flat of a man’s hand. This type music, with its lively beat and distinctive backbeat had deep roots in the African tradition.
The habanera rhythm was known to the locals by many names — conga, or tango-conga, or just simply tango. A simple man like Nico Carolla didn’t know whether to dance to it with wild abandon or to cry with joy at its sound. He was known to do both.
Nico drew his chair up close to the table at the edge of the big open room and drummed his fingers on the tabletop. He tapped his foot with the beat, allowed his legs to sway idly to the music. A wave of emotion washed over him and, suddenly, he felt at ease, as if all his troubles could simply melt away with the sound. The melody was soothing and at the same time jarring, perfect for a man in his present state of mind.
Angelo approached the table, now, with a plate, napkin, and platter in hand. “Extra peppers, like you asked. Mia Madre was generous with the meat, cheese, and giardiniera. She warmed the bread a bit to melt the cheese. I hope you don’t mind. Enjoy.”
Nico had always eaten this type sandwich cold before, so warming it was a new taste. The bread had a dry, crumbly crust. But the giardiniera kept the sandwich moist, even a bit soft. The melted cheese added to the flavor. Every cook prepared their giardiniera differently — pickled vegetables marinated in wine or vinegar or olive oil. The medley of vegetables normally included carrots, cauliflower, gherkins, and a variety of peppers.
Nico cut the sandwich into three parts and pushed one slice across the table to Luca, the other to Vittorio. The three ate hungrily. When the door to the backroom opened, mealtime was over. It was time for the game to start.
Nico got up from the table, made his way across the smoky tavern to the backroom, where tonight’s game was being played, 5-card stud, minimum ante fifty dollars. For the briefest moment, he thought he saw the visage of his estranged brother Earl Ray standing in the shadows near the far end of the bar.
Nico stopped, looked again, and the face was gone. Must be imagining things, he thought as he entered the room.
Luca and Vittorio followed close behind Nico into the backroom. They were nervous. Rumors were swirling. Capone’s Chicago Outfit was still looking for payback. Twelve years ago, when Al Capone himself traveled by train to New Orleans, he demanded that Carolla supply his Chicago Outfit with imported alcohol and that they cut-off supplies to a rival Chicago gang. But Sylvestro turned the tables on the other man. With the help and assistance of three police officers, Sylvestro “Sam” Carolla disarmed and broke the fingers of Capone’s bodyguards as they exited the train, humiliating Capone and forcing him to return to Chicago empty-handed.
Now, no sooner had Nico sat down at the poker table and anted up his fifty dollars, than his eyes locked on the man sitting directly across the table from him. This was Vinny, second man in the rival Provenzano gang, a gang that had recently allied itself with remnants of Capone’s Chicago Outfit.
At about the same instant, Luca saw the man as well. His eyes moved rapidly around the smoke-filled room. There were two other suspicious-looking characters lurking in the shadows along one wall.
Luca’s mind instantly jumped to the worst possible scenario.
It was a set-up! The Provenzanos had staked out Nico’s usual Tuesday-night game and the rival gang was about to strike.
Luca nudged Vittorio on the shoulder, drew his attention to the presence of the other men.
The two Mafiosi loyal to Nico did not even have to work out a plan of attack. Instinct and long-standing practice defined their actions. Vittorio moved rapidly across the room, so as to block the line-of-sight of one of the two other men. If necessary, he would use his own body as armor to shield Nico from harm.
But the Provenzano men were having no part of it. One of the men instantly drew his gun and leveled it at Nico’s head from about thirty feet away.
Vittorio drew his weapon at almost the same moment. He did not hesitate to pull the trigger, but immediately fired at the rival gangster who held Nico in his sights.
There was an explosion of gunpowder and noise when the firing pin of Vittorio’s .38 Special revolver connected with the business end of the shell in the chamber.
Now things moved rapidly. Nico had drawn his own semi-automatic pistol as soon as his eyes locked on those of the man sitting across the table from him. He hauled back, now, twice on the trigger at pointblank range. Everyone at the table dove for the floor. Chips and money flew in every direction.
Then the door into the room burst open. Two of Nonno’s closest associates stepped in, Carlos Marcello, his lieutenant, and Fernando Marcos, his bodyguard. Each man held in his hand a sawed-off shotgun. Angelo lay dead on the floor behind them, his head bathed in a pool of blood.
Carlos took crude aim on the rival gang member still aiming a pistol in Nico’s direction. He let loose a volley from both barrels of his shotgun, spraying blood and guts across the wall behind him. Fernando did the same against another man. It was all over in a matter of seconds.
Next, in stepped Sylvestro, Nico’s grandfather. He was flanked by two additional men. These men held Tommy submachine guns in their hands, ready to spray the room with bullets if necessary. A Tommy gun was a devastatingly effective killing tool at this range.
“You okay, Nico?” Sylvestro asked.
“Che minchia? What the fuck?”
“You know better than to keep to regular programma!” Nonno barked angrily, stumbling on his English. “Make you easy target. Easy to stake out and kill. Cazzo! How could you be that stupido? Have I taught you nothing all these good many years?”
Nico wiped the spent gunpowder from his shirt, stood up from the table. “Angel sold us out?”
“Yes, but his son now shy two fingers and sua madre has two broken ribs. Eventually boy broke and gave up father.”
“Only two fingers?” Luca asked. “Why didn’t you take the whole hand?”
“Must leave something for sharks, no?”
“You have a plan for this traditore?”
“Oh, Nico, he much more than traitor. More like doppiogiochista. Two-faced double-crosser. Carlos and Fernando have boat standing by. Angel and son and brother are about to be chum for one of those great white sharks that circle out in Gulf. Those great whites going to sleep fat and happy tonight.”
Nonno paused for dramatic effect. “Now may we all please go home, where we can be with families and sleep night safe and sound? Tomorrow, Nico, you and I will talk. Angelo not only one involved in attempt on your life.”
Nico did not like being put off. “Can it be lunch? I already have plans for the morning. Luca and the boys are off at first light tomorrow morning to do a job for me.”
“Sì. Pranzo. Lunch.”
AUGUST 7, 1942
The ship’s bell rang. It was time.
Private Brock realized he had fallen asleep. He propped himself up now on one elbow, tried to make sense of where he was and what was going on.
He sensed noises, unfamiliar sounds. Where the hell was he anyway?
Aircraft from the carrier USS Wasp (CV-7) dive-bombed multiple Japanese installations on the neighboring islands of Tulagi and Gavutu-Tanambogo.
Now the big guns onboard the taskforce ships let go a salvo. The cruiser USS San Juan (CL-54), the destroyers Monssen and Buchanan. The sound blew away the last vestiges of sleep. Brock was instantly awake and alert.
Now came the deadly symphony of artillery. Booming cannon fire. Banks of deadly rockets. Shells launched from armored tanks on deck. All from a menagerie of Navy ships positioned in and around the LSTs in the sea.
Again from the San Juan. Sixteen, five-inch guns. Sixteen, one-point-one-inch guns. The ship heeled over following each discharge from its big guns.
The thundering cannonade was deafening. Down on the deck of LST 15 it was next to impossible to make oneself heard over the din. Hand signals were now the order of the day.
The LCVPs were now off their davits and in the water, the men clambering down the cargo nets and aboard their boats. The motors running full-tilt in idle. The shore, a distant blur a mile or more away, cloaked in smoke and morning fog. The relentless thunder-like percussion of big guns pounding out volley after volley of artillery shells.
Brock’s landing boat was now ready for its run, Coast Guard man at the helm. The tide was rising rapidly. Most underwater obstacles were now safely submerged. Earlier boats had cleared several “safe” lanes through the obstacles and onto shore. It was much like clearing a minefield. The only safe passageway was to follow closely in the wake of those who had gone before.
The thousand-yard run to shore was frightening. Bodies in the water. Splintered plywood. Backpacks. Boots. Blood. Sharks circling.
And not just in the water. On the beach too. Mostly on the beach. Wounded soldiers. Damaged boats. Discarded equipment. Shrapnel. Body parts. Blood.
Their Higgins boat was underway, bow slightly raised, water flashing along the gunwales. It was flanked on both sides by other such boats. All riding low in the water. All aimed for a shoreline blanketed by gunfire and volumes of smoke. Shells were raining down on the stretch of beach ahead. Ceaseless explosions. Distant outcries of pain. Their boat was supposed to aim for a seaplane ramp. But the seaplane ramp had already been blown to smithereens by enemy fire.
Saltwater tore at his eyes. Brock breathed hard.
Would they be struck from behind by friendly fire? Or would the big guns parked to their rear offshore cease firing in time?
Just as that thought crossed his mind, the pattern of shelling changed. No longer were the Navy gunners parked in the bay just offshore targeting the beach and shoreline in front of them. Now they had begun directing their fire inland, at suspected enemy positions.
The boat was rocking crazily. It had a shallow draft. The water was rough. Men got seasick. Puked all over themselves and their buddies.
Thick, acrid smoke hung along the shoreline, now nine hundred yards away. The yellow-green smoke was lit up here and again by booming flashes, the product of American shells detonating on the sand dunes and rocks beyond the beach. Now booming plumes of water sprouted from the sea as Japanese guns returned fire. The enemy blasted away at the beachfront and at the ocean, but did so blindly.
Their LCVP was less than half a mile out now. Other LCVPs had already landed ahead of them. Marines were moving from shore to the first line of dunes. The beach was actually the front line in the initial stages of battle.
From offshore, the destroyers unleashed bank after bank of deadly rockets on the enemy lines and known positions. Intell was constantly changing. The machine gunners onboard the landing boats began to lay down fire.
This was a critical moment. Close-in support fire had begun. Only a couple hundred yards, now, from “RAMP DOWN!”
Geysers erupted in the water around them.
The Nips are firing back, Russell thought nervously. This is about to get hairy. Support fire shifted up the bluffs. Return fire answered the threat.
Ping! Ping! Ping!
They were being bombarded by small-arms fire coming from somewhere up ahead onshore. Bullets were bouncing off their landing craft, sometimes splintering the plywood hull.
Instinctively, the men ducked. The incoming fire was sporadic and unsustained, not entirely lethal at this range, but fear-inducing nonetheless.
When the moment came, would he wilt? Or would he measure up?
Russell couldn’t be sure of the answers himself. His courage had yet to be tested under fire.
Some men were already out of their boats, clawing their way up the beach under constant and heavy enemy fire. Soon, he would be too.
Dead bodies drifted past their boat. Everyone saw them. The boat sat so low in the water, their dead eyes were practically at sea-level. Young, broken bodies; all so recently killed; faces still warm and pink, but eyes quite dead.
Fuck! Could there be a harsher reality?
Suddenly they were there, at the shoreline, motor idling, people shouting orders, others screaming.
“RAMP DOWN! RAMP DOWN! RAMP DOWN!”
Now the men were on their feet. Now they were on the steel ramp. Now they were on the muddy sand. Bullets were peppering the water around them. Some men had already been hit and gone down.
Russell Brock suddenly realized something. He had been singing silently to himself. Trying to calm his nerves, perhaps. But singing nonetheless.
“ . . . Mine eyes have seen the Glory of the Coming of the Lord. He is trampling out the vintage where the Grapes of Wrath are stored . . . ”
The Battle Hymn of the Republic. His mother had taught it to him when he was a boy. They had sung it day after day in the boys’ choir at Randolph-Macon Academy. He had to memorize every verse of it for English class. Now he was belting it out in full voice. Over and over again. First silently, then in quiet whispers, then aloud.
“ . . . He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword. His truth is marching on . . . ”
Machine-gun fire danced all around them. Half the squad hit the dirt.
Gunnery Sergeant Forrester yelled at his men. He had told them time and time again during training.
Move directly off the beach. Keep moving. Never hit the dirt, no matter what.
But sometimes fear trumps training. Evolution teaches a man one thing; the military teaches him something else.
The Gunnery Sergeant bolted into action. He grabbed first one man, then a second, and propelled them both bodily across the rock and sand and up the sloped dune.
“Get on your feet, God damn it! Off your asses! Up the beach!”
Sometime during those first few moments, probably when they were exposed coming off the landing craft, Brock got creased by a bullet. It struck his upper arm, took out a measure of muscle.
But the funny thing was he never felt the damn thing hit, at least not right away. Too much adrenaline pumping through his veins. The body’s natural defense mechanism. It turned off the pain, spurred a man to action.
Brock only discovered the gunshot wound moments later, when his right hand felt sticky as he went to grab hold of his carbine. He looked down, now, and saw the blood. It had run down his arm and onto his hand from the spot where the bullet dug into his flesh.
Once Brock reached a spot of relative safety, he dropped his web belt and his backpack to the ground, then removed his field jacket. He had his friend Woods cut open his shirt sleeve, sprinkle sulfa powder into the wound, and apply a bandage. That would have to do for now.
Brock slipped his field jacket back on, as well as his backpack. He and Woods moved to catch up with the rest of their boat team. The team’s walkie-talkie had been pierced by a bullet and was now useless. The squad leader discarded it in the sand.
PFC Brock looked back across the short section of beach they had just crossed. Ugly business. Blood mixed with sand. Dead mixed with wounded. Sand dyed dark brown by blood.
A battlefield possesses a sick smell all its own. Burnt gunpowder. Warm, spilt blood. Seared flesh. Smoldering oil. Vomit. Urine. Feces.
For the longest moment, Brock could smell nothing else. The stench hung thick in the stagnant morning air, unmoving, unyielding, the whole lousy revolting sickening smell. He hated his mother. But now he missed her dearly.
The smells violated his nostrils in a way that few things could, an unholy alliance of smells these men were not likely to soon forget. Some men would soon add their own vomit and urine to the mix.
What an awful bloody horror.