The old rusty helmet was big on the child’s head, tilting far down over his eyes with each lilting step. The little boy had found the army-green helmet nestled in the corner of the basement as if sharing a foxhole with some faded journals and worn photographs. Seeing as he couldn’t read, and the pictures were all of smiling faces he didn’t know nor care about, it was no surprise the helmet became his treasured toy. With its broad lip and sturdy metal frame it was the perfect prop for a reenactment.
He spread his arms and made zooming jet noises as he buzzed around the musty space, bumping into most everything but continuing on like a true soldier, valiant on the battlefield. As he came around a wide stack of boxes, his helmet struck the corner and flew off his head, plummeting with a resounding clang! on the wooden floorboards.
“Jacob?” his father called.
The boy grimaced, dropping onto his hands and knees and army-crawling to his fallen comrade.
“Jake, what are you still doing down there?”
Jacob, clutching the helmet to his chest and waiting for discovery, said nothing. He squeezed his eyes tight until he saw glowing spots, his breathing quick, his heart pounding.
Soon, heavy footsteps thudded down the ladder rungs and a flashlight beam blinded him, shining through his closed lids. “Come on,” his dad said, scooping him up into his arms, “it’s time for dinner.”
The thunder of bombshells was deafening. Mud and blood sprayed everywhere with each boom. The dark hand of devastation was drawing nearer, tightening its grip around the soldiers of the 142nd Army Infantry Division and choking them out one by one with fingers of lead bullets and mortars. The rain the previous day had turned the trenches to mush; men skidded around as they scrambled to find more guns, more ammunition, more hope. Today the sun had been shining in the bright blue sky, but now it was clouded with thick smoke and primal screams.
William Jacob Cooper (“Coop” as he was known to his comrades) shot upright, took aim, and fired. An impending shadow fell. He pulled back the bolt, fired again. A hail of bullets forced him to crouch down and curse, waiting for a break. There were yells, orders, prayers. Coop took a breath and jumped up, firing at wave after wave of combatants. He wondered if this was what it was like on Normandy at the moment, the waves crashing in, full of soldiers and tanks and carrying out blood and bodies, over and over again in an endless cycle of determination and death.
A bullet screamed past him, imbedding itself between the eyes of Thomas, one of his only friends, who crumpled to the ground beside him.
“Tom!” he cried, biting the pin of a grenade between his teeth and slinging it over the trench wall and into the barbed wire swamp ahead. Mud sprayed back at him along with enemy body parts and blood following the explosion.
He dropped down, fingers scrabbling for his first aid kit as he set his friend upright, back against the trench wall. “It’s okay,” he muttered. “You’ll be okay, you’ll be okay, you’ll be okay…” Coop’s dark eyes met Thomas’. They were glassy, staring vacantly ahead, a rivulet of bright red blood dripping across the bridge of his nose and down his muddy cheek like a teardrop.
“Gas!” someone screamed. Coop’s numb senses snapped to attention even as his eyes clouded with tears and rage. Shaking hands thrust his gas mask to his nose and mouth as he forced his legs to work and a heavy knot of worry plummeted into the pit of his stomach. He scrambled for his gun, fingers slipping in the mud. Gunfire echoed around him as he dashed through the trenches. Men dropped like dominoes in a fit of gasping coughs.
Careening around a corner, he fell to the ground; his mask flew off as he swallowed a mouthful of slop and mustard gas. “They’ve breached the walls!” a voice screamed, followed by the sharp crack! of gunfire and the grunts of close-quarter struggling.
Coop crawled on his stomach through the filth to a bunker, gasping for breath as the gas filed his burning lungs and German soldiers piled into the trenches.
And so, gripping his helmet tightly to his chest, William Jacob Cooper waited stoically for death.