A work of fiction which finds a soldier’s love for a game steadying him as he navigates the hellscapes of war…
by: Nathaniel Neil Whelan
The other soldiers kept photographs of their girls tucked inside their helmets — black and white images of young women with hair pulled back by enough pins to melt down and load a thousand rifles. Jack Ransom, on the other hand, kept a baseball card. But it wasn’t any ordinary card. It was a Mitch Macklin, former right fielder for the Cincinnati Reds.
A painted rendering of the man in dull greys and beiges made up the front of the card. He wore a cocky expression, a curling of his facial features different from the unsmiling mouths of other players. On the back, underneath a tobacco advertisement, were Macklin’s stats. Most of the print was indecipherable — tape and beet juice saw to that — but it made no difference. Ransom had long ago memorized all the numbers.
He bought it thirteen years prior, back during Macklin’s heyday when cigarette and tobacco companies first began producing cards. He used his own money, a fact he had been extremely proud of. The other kids on his block spent their pennies on candy or chewing gum. Not Ransom. His baseball card wasn’t sugar-coated or filled with jelly, but chores never offered a sweeter reward.
His obsession with the game had overshadowed everything: school, church, community functions. All he wanted to do was practice, his hands twitching like old Aunt Ida’s whenever he was stuck behind a desk, pew, or cheap folding table. How fast the summers flew by, each evening spent at the park with his dad, the setting sun a brilliant indigo and orange backdrop. Every time Ransom added another scuff to the baseball by knocking it beyond the distant treeline, his father would boom: “And it’s a home run, folks! Macklin has done it again!”
Being called Macklin had always been a point of pride for Ransom. He didn’t want to be like him. No, Ransom wanted to be him. Right down to that cocky smirk.
He spent his teenage years working hard to imitate his idol, mastering the small details that made Macklin great: his wide stance, his cocked hips, the slow circular motion of his bat while staring down the pitcher’s mound.
But those days were ancient history.
Bombs and bullets were the only things flying his way these days. And photographs of pretty girls, the ones that adorned the inside of his friends’ helmets. These snapshots, so often passed around at night in the light of a flickering lantern, were the envy of all the men whose helmets remained empty. Stories were traded like priceless commodities, tales of mischievous debauchery in neighbouring barns or skinny dipping under the midnight moon.
With no special lady himself, Ransom took in stories of suitors from across the States. Daniel Diggory fought for Lucia, a nightclub singer with lipstick as black as a starless sky. William Teller fought for Florence, a bright-eyed Kentucky gal who baked the best apple pie in all of Louisville and had a blue ribbon to prove it. Even high school dropout Kenneth Bradley fought for someone he loved: the mother of his unborn child, a woman who, he constantly reminded them, would be thrilled to host Thanksgiving once the war was won.
Unlike these men, Jack Ransom fought for no one. He had no one. His mother died during childbirth and was laid to rest in a small cemetery in Cincinnati. His father had been buried there, too, at the age of forty. Factory accident on the eve of the war. After that crushing July day, Ransom’s Mitch Macklin baseball card doubled in value. It was much more than a thin piece of cardboard. Macklin had been his father’s favorite player and so he had been his.
“Surely you have someone,” Teller asked one night, a legion of flies buzzing about his mop of hair.
Leaning against a stack of sandbags, knees up to his chest, Ransom shook his head no.
Diggory joked that Ransom fought for the dashing man he kept hidden under his own helmet, the one with the smirk.
This was also not true. Macklin’s baseball days were well behind him. Ransom hadn’t been there, but he remembered as if he had. It was the ninth inning of the last game of the season. Cincinnati was not advancing into the playoffs, but in true Macklin style, he was determined to win regardless. His mistake had been keeping his eyes on his admirers rather than the field as he made his way to third base. Glove held high to receive the ball from the outfielder, the third baseman was mid-jump as Macklin came charging in. A poorly placed foot on his extended right leg sent him straight into the dirt. Every reporter swore you could hear the crunch of bone amid the collective gasp of the crowd. It was apparent even before the medics hit the field that it was a career-ending injury.
But Macklin would not let one failed moment be his legacy. Hand over hand, he dragged himself from third base to home plate, a zagging line of blood trailing behind him. His teammates chanted his name and his fans cheered. Even the opposing team stopped the play and clapped for Macklin as he pushed past the pain to slap his hand on the white pointed base. Among the whoops of hysteria, the medics loaded him onto a stretcher and marched him off the field, Macklin waving to his fans all the while, oblivious to the white shard of bone jutting from his leg.
“Just a wrench in the plan,” his father had told him. He seemed to be more optimistic than most regarding Macklin’s condition. But it didn’t matter. Macklin never took the field again.
If he could, then maybe Ransom would have fought for his idol. But instead, he fought for his love of baseball, for a chance to play the game himself. And perhaps, if he was lucky, have his own likeness on a card one day.
The war — the Great One some were calling it — had upended everything. Life had been put on hold, but when the foolishness finally ended, there’d be a desire for normalcy, for a return to the good old days when men talked sports during their lunch breaks instead of politics and death tolls.
Ransom could feel that desire even now among his friends, a need for routine that didn’t involve rats scampering over your boots and bugs bedding in your hair. The thought of returning to the States and a cornucopia of half-depleted rosters — empty slots to be filled by promising young talent — was the only thing keeping him motivated.
That and the small success from a few hours previous.
As Ransom studied the map of the French countryside unfurled beneath Buchanan’s splayed hands, he recalled watching in surprise the fifty or so men who, feeling emboldened by the day’s lack of casualties, had leapt from their positions and sprinted across no-man’s-land. Struck by their courage, Ransom’s battalion provided cover fire, cheering on their fellow soldiers as they leapt the rows of barbed wire like Olympic runners to overpower the enemy’s first line of defense.
But one question needed answering: now what?
A brave move it had been, but one that bordered on insubordination. Still, it would have been a waste to ignore their efforts. Immoral, too, to deny these men help, men who now hunkered down in foreign territory with nothing but their prayers to save them. Such a punishment would be to surrender them to an enemy who was surely going to retaliate within the hour.
High command had been contacted and a hasty decision reached.
“So to be clear,” Lieutenant Colonel Buchanan said, the command post at his back, “we’re to regroup with our countrymen across the way and advance through the support trenches. With any luck, we’ll push those sauerkraut-numskulls back to their reserve line.”
Ransom decoded military jargon by translating it into sports talk; it helped him understand and remember his orders more completely. He had to admit, it made his tour of France less grueling and horrific, if only a little.
What he saw now looking down at the map wasn’t two opposing armies etched out on yellowing paper. No. Instead, he interpreted the information as two sports teams, both used to playing on their own turf. But now, they were scheduled for an away game.
“It’ll be dangerous. And a lot of good men will die,” Buchanan grumbled, making no effort to calm nerves. “These Germans are tough bastards. But taking the enemy here will get you closer to earning a ticket home. Any questions?”
There were none.
“Alright. Get over there fast and get it done. Easy as pecan pie.”
“Actually, out of all the pies to bake, pecan can be surprisingly difficult to—”
Diggory’s joke was abruptly cut off by a classic Buchanan scowl. The man had a permanent grimace, like he was suffering from a migraine he couldn’t quite shake. Nonetheless, a few of the surrounding men snickered behind hands caked in dirt, fingernails split or bit to stubs.
Without another word, their battalion quickly divided into groups, size depending on the section of trench they were expected to secure. Ransom was assigned to Diggory, Teller, and Bradley. His face lit up with glee after one look at the diamond shape of his portion of trench.
“Something amusing, Ransom?” Buchanan barked. It was the sort of voice that sounded as if it had been through the woodchipper.
Ransom confirmed that there was indeed nothing funny, sir.
Satisfied with this answer, Buchanan proceeded to warn them against getting cocky. One victory didn’t guarantee a second. Celebration could wait until they were on a boat back home. Win the war, not the battle.
“And most important,” Buchanan said. “Stay focused and in the moment.”
Ransom thought about that last one: stay in the moment. Most try, but never do. In the heat of battle, men like Diggory, Teller, and Bradley thought of the women they were fighting for, because even if it was only in their minds, it might be the last time they got to spend together.
But not Ransom. As always, he’d be thinking of that green field and the chalk diamond drawn in dirt. And a clear summer sky overhead. Not like it was now, a starless swatch of grey.
Must be a malfunction with the stadium lights, Ransom thought with some humor.
As they made their way to the front line, he surveyed his unit. Some looked harried, their darting eyes as wild as their hair. Others scared, the knocking of their knees audible over the general buzz of activity. The rest appeared excited, like men heading off on an adventure; these tended to be the men who feared boredom the most, that looming specter that drove men mad in the trenches as they stewed in their own piss just waiting for something — anything — to happen. Bruised, battered, and broken, little was left to identify any of them as civilized men.
Their own front line was a passage of packed earth and sandbags that had provided little protection from snipers. With their earlier victory, it now offered a modicum of security.
Somewhere down the line, Buchanan could be heard saying: “The game is ours to lose. And remember, your fans are counting on you.”
Or at least that’s how Ransom interpreted it.
A whispered good luck from soldier to soldier toppled down the line like dominoes. Then, in groups of six or seven, they gathered around the rickety ladders that led above the lip of the trench. A silent gesture from Buchanan meant: play ball!
Two men who Ransom couldn’t name scrambled up first. Diggory followed suit, then Teller and Bradley. With a steadying breath, Ransom heaved himself up the ladder, swapping the relative safety of the dugout for the vulnerability of the playing field.
Pocked by violence, no-man’s-land was a terrifying expanse of thick mud and rust-colored water. Dead trees, twisted and charred from battle, stood guard over the fallen. Birds circled the ashen sky above, unphased by the ghastly smell of damp soil, smoke, and burnt flesh. Ransom swallowed hard; he could taste it in his mouth.
To some, the trench had been a prison, a claustrophobic tin can of nerves and fatigue. Ransom thought of it as a safety blanket — a very wet and moldy safety blanket. With the enemy’s first line of defense down, crossing no-man’s-land should bear no casualties, but out in the open with nothing but the skeletal trees as protection, Ransom felt completely exposed. And cold despite his wool jacket.
Mud seeped into his boots, soaking his socks and squishing between toes already shriveled to raisins. His feet might as well have been twenty pound weights given the effort it took just to take one step. He thought of his countrymen waiting for them across this wretched field. How much adrenaline must have been pumping through their bodies to not only get them to the enemy’s trench, but to take it as well.
His limbs were stiff from weeks of inactivity. The base of his neck throbbed with pain and his lower back ached something fierce. But his inner thighs hurt most. Raw and irritated, the needle-sharp prickle pearled his eyelids with tears; it was almost as if he could feel the spots glowing red. Exhausted though he was, he managed a sigh. That rash had been clearing up.
Determined to see his mission through, he continued onward. Crouching low, he took one step, and then another. He did his best to ignore the crumpled and disfigured bodies around him, but it was hard not to recoil at the bent leg sprouting up out of the ground like a weed.
Up ahead, barbed wire glinted dully in the soft moonlight. Buchanan had expressed his concerned about the stuff, but after months of combat, what had been rows of deadly wire had been reduced to isolated clumps. Still, the battalion gave each coiled tangle of thorny metal a wide berth.
What only took ten minutes seemed to take hours, but eventually, the battalion approached the lip of the enemy’s front line. With another silent gesture from Buchanan, those who had been assigned the task hastily spilled over the edge, rifles at the ready should they discover that the Germans had already reclaimed their territory. A whistle — one made to sound like a bird call —indicated it was safe. Ransom joined his unit below.
He forced himself up, kneecaps like rusted hinges. His inner thighs were ablaze, radiating heat like a furnace. But still he shivered, the night wind nipping at his exposed skin. He hobbled forward, teeth clenched, not daring to lower his rifle to button up his wool jacket.
Five massive leaps and Ransom reached the rendezvous point. There wasn’t any movement down the passage from where Diggory and Bradley were expected to emerge.
Up ahead, thick boards ran above the trench, creating a makeshift tunnel guiding soldiers toward the support lines beyond.
He didn’t have long to think about which passage to take before a German flung himself at Ransom. The two men wrestled, arms locked in a mock embrace, faces contorted in desperation. An elbow to the ribs forced Ransom back, leaving his side vulnerable. The enemy, arm bandaged and uniform soiled, took advantage of the moment, using his good shoulder to slam Ransom against the side of the trench. The impact knocked the air out of his lungs, sending him to his knees. Head slumped, his helmet tumbled to the ground. Ransom tried to regain his balance, a groan hanging on his lips, but a thick root jutting out from between two boards sent him face-first into the mud.
Stars spotted his vision. Somewhere nearby, his rifle waited, its trigger begging to be pulled. Blinking rapidly, he searched for it in the mud. His heart thud-thudded against his chest, quickening at the sound of approaching boots. It was all happening so fast. Scrambling, Ransom sucked in a deep breath, snatched his rifle, and swung it like a baseball bat. A yowl of agony as the bayonet met his opponent’s face, slicing a deep gash across his forehead. Blood seeped between fingers pawing at the fresh wound. Eyes screwed shut, the soldier didn’t see the end — his end. Ransom took aim and put a bullet through his temple. The soldier’s helmet fell from his head as he spun backward.
Ransom huffed and heaved for breath, his lungs burning. He stood and tried to take in his surroundings, but they didn’t completely register. Blurring in and out of focus, he made out the sandbags, the wooden tunnel, the body by his feet. And the growing puddle of blood, made brown by the sodden ground.
One step and his boot nudged one of the two fallen helmets. It was no real obstacle, but still he stumbled.
Stay focused and in the moment.
Focus. That’s what Macklin once said was the key to his success. Ransom had read the quote one morning in his father’s newspaper.
That’s all he had to do: focus. It would be pretty foolish to ignore that advice now.
He bent, picked up a helmet, and realized it wasn’t his when he inspected the inner lining for his baseball card. The pretty woman in the blue milkmaid’s outfit didn’t share Macklin’s trademark smirk. He traded the helmet for his own and took two steps toward the tunnel and the trenches beyond when he heard it.
“Lucia! Ah God…Lucia!”
The words were followed by a childlike wail. It wasn’t the sound of someone who was right in the head, but rather the incoherent babble of someone lost in grief.
Lucia. Where had Ransom heard that name before?
When Daniel Diggory shouted the name a fourth time, Ransom finally remembered. The nightclub singer with lipstick as black as a starless sky. His friend’s beau. That Lucia.
Ransom swallowed, his heart pounding with the weight of an anvil at the thought of Diggory lying in the mud, God knew in what condition, calling out for his love, for a piece of home. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he heard the sharp thonk of ball hitting bat.
He moved forward as if sleepwalking, unaware of the movement of his own body. A small voice inside instructed him to go through the tunnel and cut across the outfield, but he needed to help Diggory, needed to get him back to the front line.
“Ransom, stop!” Teller shouted from somewhere behind. “That’s the wrong way!”
But it wasn’t. The path to home plate was clear. He could do it.
Pain no longer inflicted his body; that had been a different man from another time. Instead, his muscles felt loose. He must’ve looked a right fool, his limbs flinging about, but it felt great — grand actually — to run free.
Another explosion. A wall of mud rocketed skyward. The force jolted him forward, the ground quaking under his boots. Bits of wood and foodstuff rained down, plink-plinking against the tarnished steel of his helmet. As if to reassure himself it was still there, he touched the place where his treasured baseball card was tucked safely inside.
For a moment, he could sense him there. Could feel the grin spreading across his own face. There was self-confidence in the curling of lips, a surety and cockiness unmatched by his peers.
It was Macklin, running the diamond of dirt and chalk one last time.
He found Diggory crumpled against a sack of spilt peanuts. His friend was a blackened mess of mud and dirt, but his eyes, the whites shone like two tiny moons in his frightened face. It took them a moment to register who he was seeing.
“Ransom? Is that you?”
Ransom held up a peanut and asked if he had any Cracker Jacks.
“And I thought I made the j-jokes.” Diggory’s voice was flat and dry.
Ransom knelt and trickled some water from his canteen into Diggory’s mouth. His hands, held up with no real purpose, shook terribly. Taking hold of both, Ransom heaved Diggory to his feet; the man’s ankle was severely twisted.
“I can’t. I can’t.”
Ransom took hold under the armpits and told him he could, that it was just like running a baseball diamond.
“You and your b-baseball,” Diggory retorted, a string of saliva dangling from his lips.
Ransom managed a smile and out of the corner of his eyes, he spotted Diggory’s helmet belly-up in a pile of peanuts. He bent to retrieve it when he saw the torn photograph of a sequined dress; the rest of Lucia had been eaten away by the violence of war. Ransom straightened, hoping Diggory wouldn’t notice, but he was too far gone anyway, his eyelids half-closed.
Together, they hobbled forward, Diggory clutching at Ransom’s jacket with desperate and grimy hands. Over their shoulders, two grenades popped off one after the other, destroying second base in an angry cloud of grey smoke.
Up ahead, Kenneth Bradley lay in four separate places. What remained of his face was red mush. Ransom expected Diggory to recoil in horror, but he didn’t even seem to notice his fallen friend. His lips were moving, however. Ransom hiked him up higher and moved his head closer to hear.
“Give…give them a wave,” Diggory huffed, pointing with a crooked finger. “Your fans. Give them a wave.”
Ransom’s brain flashed a warning. He looked along the lip of the trench wall and saw several German soldiers emerging from behind a row of barbed wire. One of them — a building of a bloke with a nasty snarl — leapt down, weapon raised. A single bullet clipped Ransom’s arm. Pain erupted like a geyser, but even so, he swung his rifle like a bat again and sent the man to his knees, nose gushing blood.
No better than the sack of peanuts he found him on, Ransom struggled to coax Diggory onward. The liquid running down his arm, sticky and warm, did not help with things.
The ground rattled as a series of grenades went off in the next trench.
Diggory’s head lolled back. Jaw slack, he looked up at the sky as if watching fireworks. “A little early to celebrate, isn’t it?”
Ransom ignored the comment. It took some effort, but he eventually got Diggory moving again, his gaze still aimed heavenward.
He used his makeshift bat on whoever got in his way. A swing here. A jab there. The opposition, it seemed, had abandoned all the rules of the game. But again, this was no game. There were no rules.
“Highly unsportsmanlike,” Diggory scoffed, blood collecting at the corners of his mouth.
Third base — a recess of medical supplies and empty bottles — was drowning in fog. A single lantern provided enough light to see by. To their left, a cracked square of mirror hung on a post, an abandoned shaving kit housed beneath on a shelf.
As he passed, Ransom tried to flash that signature Macklin grin, but there was pain behind that smile, pain he’d never felt before.
Stay focused and in the moment.
He inhaled deeply. Exhaled the poisoned air.
Focused. In the moment.
It was Teller, chasing them from behind.
“Hear that?” Diggory said, teeth stained red. “They’re cheering your name.”
Then a whistling screech like a firecracker on the fourth of July. Agony, biting and savage, exploded in his right leg. Before he could register what had happened, Ransom found himself on the ground. He seethed through gritted teeth as his mud-clogged eyes inspected his leg through a layer of smoke. It had become his world, that greyish soup. But it cleared just enough to see the bone jutting out several inches below the knee, blood gushing in pulsing waves.
Eyes wide in horror, Ransom’s fingers contorted above the spot as if trying to cast a spell. An animal sound grew from deep within and exploded outward. His entire body screamed with him: neck, arm, lower back. And that itch, the one down below, blazed with the fires of Hell.
Convinced he couldn’t mend his leg through magic or anger, he examined the blackened cocoon that was his uniform. Three patches of red decorated his jacket, but he could feel others blooming beneath the mud frosting.
As if searching for some clue as to what to do next, he turned his head to the right. Diggory lay unmoving several feet away. And to the left, past a stack of sandbags and that thickening screen of mist and smoke, he spied home plate.
A wheeze of disbelief and hope fluttered from his mouth. He rolled onto his stomach, his entire body shaking. It might be the end of him, but he was determined to make it. Why did it matter much now, he couldn’t quite figure out. All he knew is that it came from some place of yearning deep within.
Reaching out with his right hand, he grabbed a rotted board and pulled himself forward. He grappled for the next with his left. Then right again. He dragged himself closer, inch by inch, unrelenting and desperate. And all the while, what felt like molten lava spewed from his leg where bone pierced flesh.
He had to get there. It was important for him to do so.
But as he reached for the next board, he took notice of his hands. At first, he didn’t recognize them as his own. They were grotesque mittens, dotted with splinters.
Up ahead, he could see it. Home plate. It was so close. But he was too exhausted. What energy he had a mere minute earlier had already drained away. Mud filled his mouth as his neck muscles gave out.
Lying flat on his stomach, he removed his helmet and slipped out Macklin. Past the bloody thumbprint, tape, and beet juice, he looked at the thin piece of cardboard he wished were no different than the mirror he passed at third base. But the groomed gentleman was not how he felt now. Beaten and bloody, he was nothing like this picture of health. He turned away disgusted with his current state, a grimace crumpling his features.
“Ransom!” came Teller’s voice again. “Ransom!”
He lay motionless, listening to his name.
The tension in his face relaxed somewhat. He sighed, a soft sound living somewhere between regret and satisfaction. His fans. They were cheering his name. Just as he had cheered for Macklin.
A gust of wind slipped the card from his damaged fingers. It danced on the breeze, circling the air once, twice, before landing idly, almost cruelling, on the empty sack he had dubbed home plate not twenty minutes earlier.
Ransom watched it sitting there, more fascinated than concerned for his prized possession.
A grenade, roughly the size of a baseball, landed beside him.
Taking his eyes off home plate, he peered at it as one might size up a mouse who’s appeared out of nowhere. He didn’t bother attempting to scrabble away. Instead, he took the time to think of his father and all the summer evenings playing catch at the park.
He thought of his girl, the one who never adorned the inside of his helmet.
He thought of his child and the stolen times they could’ve spent together.
And he thought of the kid, who in his mind had no face, who spent his weekends doing chores just to buy a Jack Ransom baseball card.
“A wrench in the plan,” his father had said about Macklin’s career-ending injury. He had been right about that. Baseball was just a game. Games were fair. But this…this was the whole toolbox.
Ransom suddenly became aware of how quiet it was. No one was cheering his name. Not the men back at the front line who were preparing for combat. Not the Germans skulking in the darkness above the lip of the trench. Not even Teller was chanting his name anymore.
Surely someone should be.
So he said his own name, over and over, cheering himself on, tasting the saltiness of his own tears, until the world finally went black.
Nathaniel Neil Whelan has an M.A. from Carleton University and a diploma in Professional Writing from Algonquin College. He currently works as an Outreach Officer for Carleton International and as a Social Media Editor for the Canadian Museum of Nature. In addition to several other publications, he is the winner of the 54th Jerry Jazz Musician Short Fiction Contest for his story “A Failed Artist’s Paradise.” Whelan lives in Ottawa with his partner and pet cats Goose, Loki, and Peggy. You can follow him on Instagram: @thebeardedfilmbuff.