We had gone as far as the train would take us. The fascists had uprooted the tracks past the point we had reached.
"All out! All out!" a commanding voice shouted. "Move it out. On the double."
Some 650 Americans who made up the Abraham Lincoln Brigade quickly jumped out of the rickety boxcars, throwing to the ground blankets, rifles, ammo belts and knapsacks. We were in a strange part of the country. The air was hot and the countryside was dry. We could smell burnt gunpowder in the hot breeze. We were glad to leave the boxcars that had been our home for the past day and a half. It had been a slow, cautious trek as the train worked its way from our southern takeoff point to this northern town in Spain, a town that few of us had ever heard of.
Less than half the men in our refurbished battalion were seasoned troops. Most of us, including myself, were new arrivals from the States. We had had about three weeks of training in Tarrazona, the base camp for the American volunteers.
We spent that training period on dry maneuvers that is, maneuvers where we only went through the motions of firing a rifle or a machine gun. We used rocks to simulate the lobbing of hand grenades. Some days were spent at lectures, or in classes breaking apart our rifles and machine guns, learning the importance of all the parts, then putting them back together. We were limited to only one type of rifle and one type of machine gun, both made in the Soviet Union.
None of us had fired more than five live rounds of ammunition during all of our days in training. Ammunition was expensive and hard to come by for the republic. Firing live ammunition was a luxury frowned upon. "Wait," we were told. "You'll have a chance to fire all the live ammunition you want. At the front. At the fascists."
The train started to move in reverse once we had cleared off it. The engineer and trainmen were nervous and eager to get away from the air that heavy with spent gunpowder.
We were just two kilometers away from the fascists. Only a small hill blocked our view of our objective, the town of Quinto. Nearby our artillery batteries had dug in with their two anti-tank cannons and two French 75s. The shelling had started early in the morning. For the first time in my life I was within 20 feet of a cannon as it went off.
Our pace quickened as we charged toward the front, passing the artillery units, lugging our machine guns with one hand, toting a can of ammunition with the other; our rifles strung across our backs weighed us down further. Now we had left behind the cannons; still, each shot made us feel as though our heads would roll off. We thought the metallic screeching and ringing of weird whistles would never still. Our main fear was that a shell would fall short and land on us.
As far as the eye could see to our left and right, battalions of men were advancing on the town. I recognized several high-ranking officers standing on the high spot of the hill, directing operations.
The town's only church tower suddenly appeared in view. Surrounding the church clustered the town of Quinto, a town of cobblestoned streets and two-storied stone houses, a town that the fascists had boasted was superbly fortified.
To the republicans, it was a town that was the front door to the more important cities of Belchite and Zaragossa, and a town that had to be won. It was the beginning of a huge government offensive.
As we got over the rise our company paused for a moment. We watched a group of light Russian bombers, flying in a low wing-to-wing formation, drop their bombs in unison on a heavily-fortified position. The thundering sound of the bursting bombs and the smoke and dirt rising into the sky dispelled any illusion , if one held any, that this was not the real thing.
Our pace quickened. We were running toward the town. Far to our left, we could hear the yelling of an American infantry company advancing to the first line of the fascist trenches.
Bullets were whistling past us, making their crackling, popping noise as we neared the line of fire where we could be observed by entrenched fascists and picked off easily.
Bill McCarthy, an ex-altar boy, an ardent anti-fascist and my close buddy, found a gully that headed toward town. Crouched over, we advanced. A Spanish soldier from another company crossed our path. We heard the crack of a bullet and the soldier fell flat on his face. McCarthy and I ran to see if he was dead. The Spaniard looked stunned, then tried to get up. As he lifted his head from the ground blood started to flow from his jaw in the same manner as wine would flow from a keg once the plug was pulled. The sight of the blood panicked him. He put up his hands toward the small hole in his jaw to stop the flow. Now the blood ran through his fingers and down his arm. He tried to get up. McCarthy jumped on him, holding him down. To stand up would guarantee a target for a sharpshooter.
He shouted out, "Pedro, Pedro," but no one answered. I had my emergency bandage on my belt. I ripped it off and opened it, and McCarthy deftly applied the bandage to his face. The bullet had entered his jaw, then rounded its way down his body and out his lower back.
The mass of blood on his clothing, face, hands, and even in his hair made it appear that his life was over. He must have felt that way, too. Using every available word we could muster in Spanish, we tried to convey to him that he was okay, that the war was over for him, he would go to a hospital, then home.
We got him calmed down enough to get the bandage securely around him, then told him to stay quiet and in the same spot until he could gather a little strength, or until the stretcher-bearing first aid men caught up with him. We commenced to move away from him. We got no more than a few feet when we heard the sound of panic behind us. Our friend had turned around and discovered he was lying just a few feet from a dead Moor. The sight of the Moor with bandages wrapped around a head wound and his body puffed up by the sweltering sun was enough to make our wounded friend decide not to wait for the stretcher bearers. With great effort he was crawling toward the rear.
The closer we advanced toward the town the fiercer the fighting became. The fascists were now lobbing artillery and mortar fire at us. Shells were landing in a disorganized pattern. Bullets went pop-pop-pop overhead and whined as they ricocheted everywhere. There were the shouts of those in command: where to direct your fire, where to advance . . . "Where the hell's the Third Company?" And there were calls for the stretcher bearers.
We had come upon an abandoned fascist trench. Several of the enemy lay close by. There had been no time for the fascists to remove their dead. In fact, there had been no time for them to properly dress their wounded. One dead soldier had part of a bandage taped around his head while the rest of the bandage lay neatly at his side.
Joe Sansome, an automobile worker from Detroit and a buddy of ours, came charging up close behind us. He noticed one of the dead fascist soldiers was wearing a pair of abrogados, Spanish rope-soled shoes with steel cleats. He started to untie them from the soldier's feet. I protested.
"This sonofabitch is wearing better shoes than I am," he roared back. "Besides, he has no use for them anymore." He proceeded to pull them off the soldier.
We moved on, panting and sweating under the midday sun. We found a shell hole and rested for a moment to catch our breaths and gulp a mouthful of water from a quart-size canteen that felt as heavy as a ship's anchor.
I closed my eyes for a moment to avoid a droplet of sweat from rolling into them. It felt good. The restful moment got me thinking that at this time yesterday I had been enjoying the Spanish countryside as our train chugged its way past olive groves and vineyards. The only noise we had heard was was the sound of the clanking engines as they labored pulling us up through the mountain pass.
Now the tranquility had ceased. The beautiful countryside was no longer green and lush and sweet-smelling, but a landscape of manmade horror of mangled bodies bloating and swelling in the scorching sun, eyes popping right out of their sockets and stomachs swelling, bursting open and sending forth a stink of rotting human flesh that would infiltrate the depths of your being.
McCarthy was trying to say something to me, but I was oblivious to all but my own thoughts we cannot enjoy the luxury of a long respite. We must move out and stay closer to the rest of the Company. The blasting of shells and the popping of bullets are intensifying. Seems like every goddamn two-bit problem in the world is coming to a head around us. Damn it to hell, it's boiling hot. Even the pebbles and stones we crawl over are hot to the touch. Not a cloud in the sky.
My face is covered with sweat and heavy dust. We move about with our mouths open, sucking in air. Our nostrils have long ago stopped functioning. They are clogged with the fine dust of the Spanish earth. The stink of the dead brings us to the verge of vomiting. We try not to breathe in the stinking air. Big buzzing flies are everywhere. They fly from feeding on the dead to land on our faces. We grow to hate them with a vengeance.
The sight of the dead has a psychological effect, even though the dead are fascists. Nobody had lectured us about what no-man's land would look like. The noise, the sight and sound of a ricocheting shell twirling through the air is frightening to even the most experienced soldier. If the eyes are the windows of the soul, then I wonder if anyone looking in my eyes right now could see my deep inner feelings: the urgency of wanting to get at the throats of the fascists, yet the fear that one of them will get me before I get him. I wonder, too, how I'm stacking up in the eyes of my fellow soldiers, whether or not I'm falling short in my responsibilities to them. Myriad thoughts are weaving in and out in a fleeting moment.
I even try to find humor in the situation by asking myself what the hell I'm doing here, going through all this torture, when I could be safely home with an easy task like passing out leaflets calling for support of the Spanish people's cause or stuffing envelopes for some political campaign. I'd be free from the dangers and the stink of death all around me. I know I would not be satisfied with that, and I try to remember where it all started, this great urge to right the wrongs of an insane society. Was it back when that cop slugged me on the picket line during my first effort to build a union? Or was it during the reform school riot when the guards forced me up against the wall with my hands raised over my head and made me watch as they clubbed into unconsciousness many of my friends?
No, it went back farther than that. Somewhere the handwriting was on the wall and my destiny was spelled out for me. Perhaps it was when I was clutching fast the handle of the baby carriage . . . away back to those tiny hands clutching the handles . . ..
Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.
The Kid from Hoboken