In this latest excerpt from River City One, author John J. Waters recounts a bizarre combat death and the embellishment he later told.
The following is an excerpt from River City One: A Novel (Knox Press; November 7, 2023).
“West and me took a walk around the big base,” I started. “We wanted to see all the things we’d been deprived of and enjoy the freedom of stretching our legs without fear. West wanted something from the exchange, a tin of Copenhagen maybe. I can’t remember what West wanted so bad it couldn’t wait until we got home.”
I paused to sit back on the couch and take in the faces of the men and ladies from our church group. They were spellbound. The man across from me looked like a child listening to a bedtime story, his eyes wide and mouth hanging open, listening with anticipation.
“We walk into the tent and it looks like any convenience store on the inside, the kind of place we hadn’t seen in months. The two of us just wandered the aisles, staring at the stacks of beef jerky and canned soup, holding candy bars in our hands like they were made of gold. I spot a rack of glossy magazines. I tell West, ‘Hey, man. I’ll be up there waiting for you.’ He kind of flicked his head, tipped his forehead up to say he understood.
Then it happened.
I remember the mechanical voice sounded calm on the base’s transmission system.
‘Incoming! Incoming! Take cover.’
There wasn’t time to take a step.
I learned later it was an artillery round, a 120-millimeter rocket, the one-in-a-billion shot that hits its mark. This one landed just beyond the exchange. There’s a flash of light then darkness. I lose consciousness for a few seconds. When I come to, I’m on my back. The world is red and brown around me. Dust so thick the insides of my mouth were coated in it. I scramble to my feet and there’s a light bulb flickering inside my head, eyes blinking open and shut, a high-pitched sound like a dial tone ringing from inside my ears. I couldn’t hear myself scream.
I found West on the ground, on his back. His face was peaceful, his eyes closed and his arms out to his sides. He looked normal, as if he’d laid down to take a nap in the middle of the aisle. Everything was so normal.
I paused to touch myself on the cheek, then reached toward the candle on the coffee table of the living room. I fingered the outer rim of a seashell bulging from the side of the wax cylinder.
“West’s face was smooth,” I said. “A piece of metal was stuck into the side of his neck, and it’s kind of funny, isn’t it? How the rocket turned a soda can into a projectile. I remember the can was still fizzing brown soda in West’s dead hand.”
I paused again to look out the window, setting my gaze on a woman pushing a stroller on the path. I tried not to blink.
“And I find myself wondering, some days more than others; does it count? West’s death. His sacrifice. We were done by then. We had survived the gunfire and explosions. We had finished fighting the enemy. Does it even count because of the way West died? Or is it just friendly fire when your buddy is killed by a piece of shrapnel from your own case of soda?”
The room was quiet.
The man closed his eyes.
A woman raised a hand to her mouth.
“Why, I never heard a story like that in my whole life,” the woman said. “It’s just devastating.”
Come to think of it, I had never heard a story like it either. In fact, no one had ever heard such a story because I made it up. I invented the story right here in her living room.
“Son, God bless you. God bless your sergeant, too, because that is just the most senseless thing I ever heard,” the man said. “God loves you.”
The woman put out her hands and closed her eyes for a second time this evening.
Everyone bowed their heads, hands joined with one another.
“We pray for John, that he may keep the faith through this senseless loss of his friend, the Sergeant, and for the repose of the Sergeant’s soul, which we pray is in heaven, and that John knows his friend died so that we may gather here prayerfully in your name, Lord. Amen.”
I knew that truth had become irrelevant. The arousal of a good story was all that mattered. They accepted mine like a drug and suddenly there was nothing left for me to say.
This article was originally published by RealClearBooks and made available via RealClearWire.
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