Part One - Settling
Forrest Barton's Christmas tradition was to visit his boyhood hometown of Kansas City. What few relatives he cared about still lived there, and so he made the trip every year, dropping by for short visits and exchanging of gifts. He'd departed the Missouri Ozarks and his U.S. Route 66 job site on a Saturday morning, December 23, 1944. After driving five hours to Kansas City, Missouri, he crossed over to the Kansas side, to the house of the one relative he cared very much about -- his cousin, Wilton Zukel.
The two were one year apart, had grown up near one another, and Wilton was the lone surviving blood from Forrest's maternal side of the family -- at least of those who had immigrated to the United States. Whatever others existed were in Croatia. Another reason for Wilton's importance to Forrest was that when it came to relationships, Wilton was no traditionalist. Wilton had a special friend, a man, Gaither Hollis, who lived with him in his home.
Forrest felt comfortable with Wilton and Gaither. He could talk freely there. They understood some of the issues with which he was dealing -- mainly, his special friend, Ernest (Ernie) Surbaugh, who was fighting the Germans in Europe as a member of the U.S. Third Army -- and so Forrest stayed with them during his Christmas visits.
After arriving and greetings, he settled into his room and ran water in the tub. The plan was for him to bathe, dress, and join Wilton and Gaither in the kitchen for conversation, but Forrest fell asleep while soaking.
After thirty minutes or so, Wilton poured two mugs full of coffee and carried them up the stairs.
"Did your trip wear you out, Forrest?" Wilton stood just inside the bathroom door, one mug in each hand.
Opening his eyelids, Forrest scooted up a bit and turned to look. "Nah, not really." His closed-lip smile was minimal, forced. "It's my brain that's tired. Too much thinking about things I can't control."
"Thinking about Ernie?" Wilton stepped toward the tub, offered Forrest a mug.
With an affirming nod, he took the coffee and sipped. "For three years I've been fretting over him. It's stupid, I know. Just a waste of time. Hell, Wilton, you know I was over there in the Great War and I never much worried for folks back home and what they were going through. Guess it never occurred to me what it's like, not knowing, wondering if your soldier is cold or hungry or a prisoner or injured or..." He stopped, stared blankly for a few seconds and then took another sip.
"Same here, Forrest. All the time I was in the Navy, I'm sure Mama's heart skipped a beat whenever there was news a ship had been torpedoed, at least until she got the name of the ship." Wilton noticed the bath water was clear, no soap. "Let's talk up here for awhile." He set his mug on the floor and reached for the cigar Forrest had snubbed, its remaining half parked in an ashtray atop a small table between the wall and tub. After firing it up with a Zippo taken from his shirt pocket, Wilton handed over the stogie. "When's the last time you heard from Ernie?"
"A couple of months ago." He puffed his cigar, and then tweezered it in his fingers. He took another sip of coffee and set his mug on the table. "Got a letter. He was still in France. Said they'd soon be on the march straight into Germany, but then again, he says that in all his letters."
Wilton reached for a wash cloth and lathered it with soap. "Was he still with Patton's army?"
"He didn't say, so I assume he was."
"And probably still is." Wilton gently scrubbed his cousin's chest and cued him to raise his arms one at a time for a cleaning of his arm pits.
"This German offensive sounds bad." Forrest stuck his cigar between his molars. He spoke of an ongoing battle in Belgium called the Ardennes Offensive, a last-ditch effort by Hitler to turn the war in Western Europe back to his favor. Launched December 16, 1944, it would, in time, be known as the Battle of the Bulge. "If they break through it could turn the whole thing against us." Forrest's back teeth chomped on his cigar, causing his front teeth to whistle when he talked. "And I guess you've heard that Patton's army is racing up there to the Ardennes Forrest, hoping to engage the German army's western flank before they can surround our men and cut off their supplies."
"Sure. Been reading about it and listening on the radio." Wilton handed the soapy cloth to Forrest. "Here, wash your crotch, and then I'll do the rest."
Forrest took the wash cloth and lifted his pelvis above the water's surface, scrubbing. "I've tried to ignore the news today. Driving up here, anytime a report would come on the radio I'd turn it off." He lowered his middle, handed the cloth to Wilton and lifted a leg for scrubbing. "You know, I really was getting better. From the time I knew Ernie was in Africa in 1942, until we liberated Paris, I've checked the newspaper every day. Looking at the casualty lists... and deaths, for Ernest Surbaugh, E. Surbaugh, anything that ends in Surbaugh. I don't want to look. Afraid I will see his name in there, but not knowing eats up my insides, so I turn to the page and scan the names."
"I understand that. If Gaither were over there, I'd be doing the same thing. You should've hooked up with a man your own age."
Forrest lowered one leg and lifted the other. "After Paris, it looked like just a matter of time before we'd be in Berlin and the thing would be over. For awhile there, back in the fall, I even toyed with the possibility Ernie might be rotated out before Christmas. Ha, so much for that idea."
"Those Germans are tough. You've got to give them that."
"I know. Shit, if they pull this off, we'll be right back to square one, and I just don't know if I can take it."
"You?" Wilton dropped the wash cloth in water. "Who the hell are you? Sitting here all comfy in your warm bath, while Ernie and the rest of our men are out there in the cold. Caught up in a hellacious fight." Wilton stood and picked up his mug. "Come on, Forrest. Since when are you such a weenie? You're tough as nails, or at least I thought you were. You survived doing battle over in Europe. Even now you run those Missouri Highway Department road crews, fixing bridges and highways in all kinds of weather. Telling men what to do and scaring the hell out of 'em if that's what it takes to get the job done. I've always admired you, cousin, but if you've come up here to mope around and boo-hoo about this war and how hard it is on you, then you might as well get your ass back to the Ozarks. Celebrate your Christmas at your job site all by yourself, 'cause I ain't going to put up with it."