War and the Compassion of Cows
R. Newell Searle
In general, a dairyman and his cows know each other intimately. He identifies each one by her name, appearance, personality and habits. Cows are sensitive and recognize their owner’s voice, look and touch. They won’t easily let down their milk to a stranger because a dairyman is married to his herd. That kind of marriage didn’t suit 18-year-old Henry Gershon in 1942.
When the war came, he was happy to leave his father’s drafty dairy barn and enlist in the 101st Airborne. The heady months of paratrooper training in Kentucky and England remained a romantic memory of uniforms and badges; demanding drills and unsupervised pleasures. Completing jump school put him in the ranks of elite—a proud parachutist with corporal’s stripes. When his unit based in England, he dank in the pubs, dated the ‘birds’ and took in the sights! He was, as the Brits griped, over-paid, over-sexed and over there. No matter. He believed he was about to do something more important than pulling tits and shoveling shit. It was a fool’s prelude to horror.
That was 50 years ago! Why couldn’t he forget the war? Why couldn’t he wash it out of his mind and memories? When he jumped into France he landed in an eternity of mud, fatigue, misery, destruction and death. He still shuddered at the memories of fighting across pastures littered with the bloated carcasses of cows among the corpses of dead GIs and Germans. Dead GIs and Germans—he expected that—but why did cows have to die? Many times, he looked carefully to be certain his target was a soldier and not a cow. During this fitful year of combat, he expected a bullet to find him but it didn’t. Instead, bullets killed the men on his right and on his left.
In the decades after the war, he held at bay the horrific memories of his decimated company slogging from one brutal fight to another. His youthful delusion of heroic action darkened to a grim determination to stay alive. If he survived, he wanted to marry and settle down with his own herd of Guernsey’s. Nothing seemed as peaceful as a dairy. All he had to do was survive.
When the peace came at last, he returned home and used his savings and veteran’s points to buy a herd. Then he married Shirley, his high school sweetheart, and they raised two daughters and a son. For half a century, Shirley’s bubbling laughter, the children and the grandchildren kept him from talking about the war. Then Shirley died and he had nothing to keep the dark memories from returning at night and staying all day. Without Shirley, he had only the cows for companions. He talked to them, confided in them and apologized to them for the boys who didn’t return home. The cows didn’t speak but they listened without comment.
“I’m sorry Dickey. I’m sorry I got you killed,” he whispered as he attached the suction cups to the cow’s teats. “My fault … all my fault,” he muttered. “I should of known …” As he moved from cow to cow, he called each of the dead squad members by name and apologized for their deaths. “Danny, your chest! Oh my God, your chest …” he said, except it was a lumpy sack of oats that resembled a corpse. He avoided looking at window panes because he sometimes saw their pallid features, like portraits, each as boyish as they were in 1944. We thought we were immortal. But we weren’t. Now they’re dead and I’m not. The cows’ tails swished away the flies but not his memories.
Daily, he hoped for consolation and forgiveness but the cows offered no solace or comfort or release. Little by little, the war and dairy became inextricably entwined until he dreaded rising in predawn darkness to milk the herd. The memories were the worst in the morning twilight when Germans attacked out of the darkness and nothing was as it seemed.
The sounds of zipping coveralls and buckling goulashes took him back to the night of June 5th, 1944, when he jumped into hell. Lately, his small milking galley seemed as confined as the C-47 transport that took him over France. He snapped on the radio because the polka music banished his thoughts and calmed the cows. Then he let in the herd and each cow went to her stanchion. One by one, he hooked the suction cups to the udders and turned on the milking machine. Its compressor hummed but the vacuum pump pulsed and, in its two-count beat, he heard the jumpmaster’s order: “Stand-up, hook-up—stand-up, hook-up” as the troopers leapt from the plane and floated downward through the fog of war to a life or death landing in the drop zone.
The 101st Airborne suffered heavy casualties from German snipers and machine-gunners among the dense French hedgerows or bocage. The company’s ranks thinned quickly and captains replaced colonels, lieutenants became captains and sergeants were promoted to lieutenants. As green as he was, they jumped him from corporal to staff sergeant in charge of a platoon. At 20, his responsibilities weighed more than a loft full of hay. He thought he was too young for the rank but the other boys were younger and someone had to do it. Men died fast in Carentan, Bastogne and Floy. They died but he didn’t.
Danger and misery welded them together but bullets and mortars ripped them apart. In the woods near Bastogne, they huddled in foxholes without winter coats and shivered as snow drifted around them. Then he got orders to attack a German outpost. He sent four men to flank their machine guns while he and the rest rushed straight in. All the flankers died silencing the guns and three more comrades went down in the frontal assault. He knew men died in wars. That’s what war was. It wasn’t heroic. Just death and misery.
Just before Shirley died, he received an invitation to the 50th reunion of his Airborne unit. For years, she urged him to attend the once-every-five-year reunions but he resisted. No, he couldn’t do it. He feared a meeting with his old comrades would remind him of the boys who died carrying out his orders. Now, as memories of the war closed in, its chaos and terrors lurked in the guise of familiar things. He saw danger where the paddock fence was weakest. I’ve got to reinforce the line. Can’t let them break through and flank me. Digging a post hole brought back to the mucky smell of foxholes. On another day, he heard the rumble of a diesel engine. My God a panzer tank headed this way! He took cover before he realized it was his neighbor plowing an adjacent field. The worst was the day he ran toward squeals behind the barn, yelling “Medic! Medic!” and came upon two hogs fighting over an ear of corn.
He could never erase the faces of the young men who died following his orders. At the age of 20, he couldn’t know what lay ahead. Now, at 70, he knew and still feared the recurrent terror of killing and the anguish without surcease. So, he talked to the cows, apologized to them and said he was sorry that one trooper or another would never get home. He apologized for all the Thanksgiving dinners they would never eat, the girls they would never marry, the children and grandchildren who would never carry a bit of them into the future. His squad had come from all over—Michigan, Nevada, Alabama, Connecticut and other states and they died all over. Those who didn’t make it home slept in France, Belgium and Germany. Far away. Forgotten.
His war ended on the day he rose in the dark and the house felt cold although it was June. He dressed with care, zipping his coveralls over his clothes and buckling the galoshes over his boots. Then he went to the barn and put the things he would need later on a bale of hay. As usual, he set out feed and let the cows into the barn. Mocha, the herd’s leader, found her stanchion and stood patiently waiting for him to close it around her neck. They seemed nervous this morning. He didn’t turn on the radio or talk to them as he hooked the cups to their udders. The machine pulsed its one-two rhythm and the milk flowed warm and white from the udders to stainless steel cans. When he finished the milking, he unhooked the cups and opened the stanchions so the cows could go to the paddock.
Mocha didn’t move but stood in her stanchion and looked at him as he removed the goulashes and coveralls. Henry stood before them in his Army uniform with the eagle patch and chevrons on its shoulder and the paratrooper’s badge and bronze star on his chest. The sergeant went to the bale and pulled a .45 pistol from its canvas holster Then he opened a bottle, swigged some whiskey and saluted the herd with “Cheers.” Surely, a drink would make his war end more easily. Henry jacked a bullet into the pistol’s chamber, gripped it in both hands and tipped the muzzle under his chin.
Mocha craned her brown neck and looked back at him with dark, moist eyes. Then all the cows turned to watch him. He looked at Mocha, knowing cows could pick up on emotions and sense when things weren’t right. They always differently when he and Shirley were angry at each other. Was it possible Mocha and the others sensed he was up to something?
Why haven’t they left the barn? What are they thinking? What do they know? Their somber eyes carried no hint of judgment or anger or recrimination. Only a question—why? Shirley had large, dark eyes like theirs and often asked that silent question. The cows stood, ears out, square muzzles down, their lower jaws chewing with a sideways rotation. They waited for what he might do next.
In a flash of clarity, he realized no one would find his body until the creamery truck arrived, four days hence. Who was going to milk the cows between now and then? If they weren’t milked twice daily, their udders would swell painfully and they would come down with mastitis. He remembered all the dead cows she saw needlessly killed on the battlefields of France. I can’t leave them this way.
The cows watched with wet eyes. Looking from one to another, he saw the same patient expression his men gave him while awaiting his orders. Whatever you say … We signed up to live or die. And we did that. That war wasn’t about me. It was about us. So, what is this about?
Henry lowered the .45 and slipped on the safety. I gave the orders but my men died for each other. Who am I dying for? Myself? He dropped the pistol onto the bale and Mocha tossed her head. Maybe she understood. He felt she did. It was important to be understood.
Then, still chewing, Mocha turned toward the barn door and the others followed her outside to the paddock.
He watched them go and slumped against the door jamb as the sun cleared the horizon. Morning light flowed across the rolling fields of new corn. A breeze carried the promise of warmth and lifted the scents of dewy alfalfa. Crows waged their ancient war against an owl perched in the windbreak. He picked up the stainless-steel cans and poured the fresh milk into the holding tank. For the first time since Shirley died, the sounds of war ceased pounding in his head. He felt clean, cleaner than from any shower or bath; the feeling of purity. Whiskey bottle in hand, he stood in the doorway and poured it on the ground. The herd stood in the paddock’s corner, their heads together, and gazed at him.
“Thank you,” he said, swelling with gratitude for their compassion. I’ll go to the reunion. The war is over.
image by Bleron Çaka, 2011, Boge-Rugove, Kosovo (Wikimedia Commons)