by: Michael Shields
Faith challenged amidst the horrors of war blossoms anew as something else entirely……
Round musket balls and buckshot zipped past the Colonel in every direction, skimming him, maiming his garb and deafening his hearing. He stood above his infantrymen upon an old weathered wagon too often utilized for hauling bodies from the front line to be buried. The Colonel held his sword high above his head in defiance of the oncoming assault, a magnificent Tiffany and Company silver blade he received from his commanding officer a few months back “in token of his high regard and confidence.”
“This day is ours boys! Not a man among them is worthy of the First Regiment. Triumph will be ours on this good day!”
The First Regiment was besieged from all sides, huddled together en masse while loading muskets and firing with abandon. Lives were lost, many in fact, and as the hours went by it became ever so apparent that they were outnumbered, outgunned, and in the tightest of spots. But the Colonel, the good Colonel, stood his ground and screamed to the heavens so that every man under his command could hear his proclamations; could relish in his confidence.
“History will know. Oh, how they will know. They will write of what we did here today. Generations will share the tale. The day is not lost, for this fight has nearly just begun, and victory shall side with the brave, and the strong of WILL. Victory will be ours!”
Suddenly, a heaping mass of Earth erupted not ten feet from the Colonel and his wagon, sending generous helpings of soil, rock, and soldiers upon him. The Colonel lost consciousness. Hours later he came to, confused and alone; a single candle by his bedside flickered and danced in the night, and the hellish sounds of war assaulted his senses from about.
Just then a drape was pulled back and a young Major tentatively entered the Colonel’s tent. “Sir, it is Major Simon Avery. I was sent here to check on you. Are you okay Sir?”
With total disregard for the aches and pains his body hurled at him the Colonel lifted himself from his blood-stained cot onto the adjacent wooden chair, concealing any and all discomfort.
“Yes Major, I am fine. Please come in.”
“Is there anything I can do for you Sir, is there anything you need?”
“What I need is to know what is going on out THERE? I need to know what is happening to my boys?”
“Uh, yes Sir. I do have the casualty reports from each brigade, and the commands from the General himself.”
The Major withdrew a tightly-rolled scroll from the interior pocket of his blazer and handed it to the Colonel, which he quickly unraveled and analyzed its message with a visage of great concern. When he finished he meticulously re-rolled the scrolled paper and set it aside. “Major, could you please do me the favor of fetching my pipe?”
Upon acquiring his pipe The Colonel retrieved a wad of matted tobacco, which sat exposed in his side pocket. He ripped a chunk of it off and as he packed it neatly in his pipe he began to speak in a contemplative tone.
“It appears that we are to weather this awful storm to whatever end may be. It seems as if we are part of a much larger offensive and we are to distract, so to speak, the seditionist to the bitter end. And I fear, my boy, that this will not end well for the First Regiment.”
“So, this battle….” the Major stuttered as he grappled with the concept presented to him, “…we are not to prevail? We are merely a decoy?”
“Hmm. It appears as if we are. Yet, every mountain is unclimbable, until someone climbs it.”
The Colonel confidentially extracted a small tug from his pipe and continued.
“You see Major, orders are orders, and you can do little about that. You assume they are for the best and that what you are told to do is for the betterment of the cause, that they will help achieve an end to this God-forsaken war. We can do little about the orders, but how we carry out those orders, well, that is up to us. And that is where I will need your help, and the help of every battalion leader we have. Like yourself, I truly hope our sacrifice out here is not in vain, but we must prepare for the worst. You must join me in preparing the regiment. We must not let my boys die with fear in their mind and doom in their hearts.”
“We must not let what I’ve shared with you today leak out to the regiment. It is imperative we instill confidence in the soldiers; let them believe they have a fighting chance. We must let them know how courageous they are, and how strong. It is IMPERATIVE they face this fight with the affirmation that we can prevail. That they have a chance to LIVE.”
“But we do not. That is what your….saying,” The Major sputtered. “We do not have a chance to live?”
The Colonel stared deep into the Major’s eyes and in a grave and sobering tone plainly offered…”No. We do not.”
The Major fell mute, and rubbed his sweaty palms together letting the news of his imminent demise wash over him, and gathering the courage to accept the Colonel’s challenge.
“Sir, Do you mind if I…..if I ask you a personal question?”
“Not at all. Anything you like Major.”
“Do you believe there is more sir…..when we are gone? I only ask as it seems we are facing…..”
“I understand Major. It is a fair question. Not an easy question, but a fair one.”
The Colonel paused for a moment to accumulate his thoughts, and then began speaking in a gentle manner, a soothing sympathetic tone.
“Over the years I have believed in much. I was certain of things. My faith was, always, resolute. But, with what I have seen….what WE have bore witness to, one struggles to hold onto faith, even though we have little else at times.”
The Colonel halted once again, to take a long slow pull of flue-cured tobacco from his trusted clay. He released a waft instantly, in a huff, and then held in the rest for a moment. The remainder of the smoke slowly seeped out as he continued speaking.
“You see my belief was so strong, so ABSOLUTE, that I never even took the time to question it. Why would I? It was all I knew, all I had been taught. But the unimaginable horrors of these killing fields made me think. Then made me think differently. Day after day the belief I had in what may be beyond, in an afterlife, in a God….that began to wither. I lost my faith. For good, it was lost.
Believing was just too much for me. Belief, well that requires enough evidence for justification, regardless of desire. I fear we do not hold enough truth regarding a higher power to rationalize belief. Why would I truly believe with so little evidence, and now so much vile evidence to the contrary? Despair began to grow within me, bubbling like a pot on a fiery hearth.
But as the belief faded something else came to take its place. Something that was much easier, and more realistic to hold onto. Something I needed and that I cherish onto this very day. Something much different than mere blind unwavering faith….
War has a way of separating out the things that matter and the things that don’t. It helps one focus in many ways, see straight you might say. I began to realize the arrogance of my ways. How could I truly know?
This melancholy was only quelled by the look in the eyes of my boys. Within their courage, and yours too of course Simon, I saw strength and, well there must be a catalyst I figure. Fires don’t start themselves I have found.”
The Major sharpened his tone, his enthusiasm enhanced.
“It isn’t the belief that matters Major. It’s the HOPE. Hope demands only plausibility, and some longing I do suppose. It is this chance of something more, the mere opportunity of it, that we must clutch firmly onto and not relinquish for any reason. On many a frigid, unpleasant day, I garner strength from hope, and hope alone.
So, to answer your question, I don’t know. I do not know for certain. I do not have faith in anything, but I certainly hope that there is more than this. More than all this pain.”
The Major spent a moment in thought and then rose to attention. “I believe I must be on my way Colonel. I desire some time to think about all this Sir. Thank you for taking the time to speak with me.”
“Of course Major.”
The Colonel eased back in his chair, which creaked beneath his movements. He struck a match and lit his trusted clay once again and breathed it in to full capacity. The Major haltingly made his way to the tent’s threshold, and before he exited turned and asked one more question.
“It is possible we somehow fight our way out of this, right? I mean, there must be a possibility we can fight our way out of this?”
“I have always appreciated the romantic idea that anything is possible.” The Colonel said as the Major pulled back the drapes to re-enter the fires of hell for one final time, “So let’s make damn sure the entirety of the First Regiment believes in this prospect.”
The Colonel eased back into his chair once again to finish soaking in the smoldering wad of tobacco. Slowly he pulled himself to his feet and began to dress himself, starting with a freshly pressed pair of sky blue trousers. He took his time, lost in thought. Alone, he was free to be scared. Out there, he would present an entirely different man, confident and steadfast. Reluctantly he fastened the two rows of seven buttons on his double-breasted frock coat and then, finally, positioned around his waist a crimson sash and his sword belt. The Colonel took a steadying deep breath and then exited the tent to face the uncertain future.