So, there I am at my favorite diner in the valley.
It’s a bright Saturday morning; I’m tucking into a stack of Silver Dollar pancakes smothered in blueberry syrup and a damn good cup of coffee, and enjoying the company of the man seated across the booth from me – one Stevland Hardaway Judkins, born May 13, 1950. You know him better as the genius who wrote ‘Higher Ground’, released on his 1973 album ‘Innervisions’.
We were talking about this, that and the other thing and before long the conversation turned to dreams, so I told him about the time I dreamt I was being chased across the Gobi Desert by a vengeful Mariachi band…
I ran until I could run no more and when they finally ran me down, they marched around me in an ever-tightening circle, blowing their mighty trumpets as if to crumble the walls of Jericho. I lay where I fell, battered by the force of the angry sound, balled into the fetal position and doing all I could to protect my head while they stomped ever closer. Spikes of hot sunlight glinted off their polished golden instruments and the sequins of their exquisite costumes; their brown leather sandals kicked up mile-high plumes of hot dust and desert sand like explosions in an old war movie…
It was a dream within a dream.
I can see it now; the four of us, the only ones left from the Fightin’ 88th – Little Joe, Arizona Frank, Mikey-from-the-Bronx and me, the MoPic – running like Hell while the Devil took potshots at our unprotected backsides. We dove as one for the relative safety of a foxhole, blown over the top of the uncoiled concertina wire by the force of a nearby explosion.
“Well,” gasped Little Joe a few moments later, “Whadda’ we got left?” We dumped out our bags. It didn’t look good. We had 40, maybe 45 rounds of pistol ammo between us, 23 rounds for a Thompson with a jammed feed, three hand grenades, two canteens of water and no rations to speak of.
Arizona patiently counted the ammo a second time. “We’ll be fine,” he says looking at the rest of us with a bemused grin, “so long as there’s only 39 of them left and none of us miss.”
As for me, I’ve got three frames left on this roll and a bagful of stuff that will probably never see the inside of a dark room. I snap three quick portraits of the other men – something for grieving widows to frame and place on the mantle right next to the wedding photo. Hurriedly, I jot my name and rank, the date, I.D. for each of the men, my serial number, press affiliation, and some final ironic observations about the brutality of war into my field notebook before stuffing it and the camera back into my old canvas bag, covering it with my pock-marked helmet and covering the whole thing with a pile of stones and a white handkerchief. Hopefully one of our guys finds it. Looks I’ll have to accept that Pulitzer posthumously.
The eyes of the haunted stare back at me, their faces drawn. It is silent for a moment, save for the boom of distant shelling. The minds of the doomed men reach out to the friends and families they know they will never see again.
Little Joe suddenly grabs the radio, twisting the crank on the front like a man possessed. Arizona slowly reaches over and points out, yet again, the gaping bullet hole in the face plate that prevents it from working. Disgusted, Joe casts it aside. “This is it,” he fumes.
“I reckon yo’ right about that.” Arizona speaks slower than a sunset.
“No way! We’ll get out of this! Right? I’m supposed to get married!” That’s Mikey-from-the-Bronx, dumb kid, still green. Brand new to the unit, barely 17, lied about his age to impress his old man, killed his first Kraut about an hour ago.
The explosions creep closer, slamming into the ground like a giant’s footsteps… closer, closer still… I jump with each blast, as dirt and debris rain down around our heads. They’re zeroing in on us… better this way, I guess. Faster. A mighty pressure builds in my chest, and try as I might I cannot breathe… we’re not gonna make it out of here, not this time. We’d pushed our luck taking out that machine gun nest.
Suddenly the air is filled with the Doppler scream of an incoming round. This is it. Without thinking, I light up a smoke and jam my fingers into my ears – I don’t know where I’m going next, but there’s no sense in showing up deaf… I close my eyes, shouting to be heard above the banshee wail of the mortar shell.., louder, louder! “It’s been a hell of run, gentlemen!”
I awoke with a start to discover my own hands clutching my pillow tight against my face and my alarm clock beeping like a dump truck in reverse.
Stevie clapped his hands and laughed with delight, swaying back and forth the way you imagine he might.
We called for more coffee, and continued to talk as the morning sun shone brightly.