July 27, 2013 by jamesessj
Took Hill 403 today. But we lost Hills 217, 326, and 451-458 inclusive. For every step we take forward, the Nazis push us back two. Eventually we’ll circle under the earth and conquer Italy from the north. Sergeant Dinkins tells me the men are restless. They have begun to brush their teeth in a haphazard manner. Across the gums, not up-and-down. What are we fighting for, I wonder, if not proper dental hygiene? The Germans don’t even floss! They gargle mouthwash and pretend they’ve brushed. Subhuman bastards! They must be stopped.
Lieutenant Collins was killed today. Blown to bits by an artillery shell. Damn this war. He was the only man who could get my Florsheims to shine with that special glow, the one like in the shop windows. Who’s going to mind my shoes now? Smithton? The man’s a joke. Can’t expectorate to save his life. Holyoke? Possibly, but he’s young, so very young. Hardly up to the demands of a colonel’s pair of Florsheims. A captain’s Buster Browns, maybe. But then this war has made men of so many boys before their time. Could this time be Holyoke’s? I’ll give him my wingtips to practice on.
All Hallow’s Eve in Italy. The men, naturally superstitious, believe the ghosts of dead comrades are returning to harass them. To reassure them I say, “Why would your dead comrades return to harass you? They were your brothers-in-arms! No, these ghosts are the haunting revenants of the thousands of Germans you have slaughtered.”
The Italians are incorrigible. They smell of olives and marinara and they steal everything in sight. They even took Ewart’s toenail clippings. What possible use could they make of toenail clippings? The men have taken to grooming in secret. One Italian grandmother, who resembled Jimmy Durante in sackcloth, approached me today with an appeal that I officiate the wedding of her grand-niece and grand-nephew. I informed her I did not possess officiant powers and that, anyway, brothers and sisters shouldn’t be marrying. Whereupon she spat in my face. The good news is, I may have found a shoeshine gal.
We are bogged down outside a small village called Napoliti. A beautiful spot for a war. The wine is exquisite and the gnocchi is sublime. The men are well-fed and satisfied, when they’re not digging trenches to escape the relentless bombardment. I may return to this place, after this confounded war is finished, with Mary. She would find Napoliti as charmingly quaint as I do. I have ordered our howitzer fire concentrated on the location where I hope, when this is all over, to build our cottage-for-two.
Thanksgiving in Italy. We are still bogged down outside Napoliti. Mary and I could never live here now. The place is a wasteland. If life ever arises again within a six-mile radius, it’ll be unicellular. The men are frustrated and angry. I shudder at what their soft palates must look like. We kill Germans by the score — yet always there are more. Haven’t Teutonic women ever heard of prophylactics? Dinner not of turkey and stuffing, but donkey meat and boiled shoe leather. My poor Florsheims!
Three days to Christmas. Captain Beaumont wants me to dress up as Santa Claus for the men, but I fear this would lead to an inevitable breakdown in discipline. Once you’ve sat on a man’s lap, it’s all but impossible to take him seriously as a battle commander. This is what led to Napoleon’s downfall, if the rumors can be believed. He played Père Noël to his troops and, six months later, Marshall Ney orders the French cavalry to repeatedly and suicidally charge the British squares at Waterloo. I will not stand guilty in the eyes of history of making the same mistake. Because I’ll be sitting. Hee hee! That was a good one.
New Year’s Eve. Plenty of fireworks, of the sort that can remove a man’s ability to sire children. No worries on my account, as I’ve been impotent ever since seeing that photograph of Mary’s mother in a two-piece. But the men, terrified of losing their manhood, keep their legs crossed at all times. Hilarious, if tragic, results ensue. Casualties have been steadily mounting as we throw wave after wave at the ancient monastery of Monte Cassino, which towers over the landscape like an enormous finger in our eye. In my off-duty hours I have developed an ingenious alternate plan to conquer the Italians: apprise half of the country that the other half is testifying against them at their upcoming RICO trial.
Valentine’s Day in Italy. I found PFC Martinez behind the ammo dump, crying because there hadn’t been as many cards in his construction paper heart cubby as there’d been in the other fellows’. I told him this is a rough day for soldiers — far away from loved ones and the Italian girls expect you to buy them a big meal first. He said the real reason he was weeping over his c-rations was that he’d gotten a Dear John letter from his girlfriend Stateside. The worst part of it, Martinez sobbed, his breath appalling, is that his name isn’t John. It’s Esteban.
Still at Cassino. Going on three months, we’ve been shelling this place. I feel as if I’m back in Boise endeavoring to get Mary to give up her chastity. Except that didn’t take as long. Every day it’s the same – artillery pours its fire, aircraft pour their bombs, and come five o’clock nothing’s changed. The monastery still stands and my eardrums have receded into my scrotum. HQ is planning another all-out assault. Here’s hoping that, as with Mary, the third time’s the charm.
Monte Cassino has fallen. When we inspected the shelled-out ruins we found two nuns and a schnauzer. Apparently one German general had bet another German general that Monte Cassino was such an impregnable citadel that it could be held by two nuns and a schnauzer. He was very nearly right.
Progress remains slow. The Germans fight for every inch of Italian soil. One of our men, Corporal Jennings, picked up a handful of dirt and was immediately downed by a sniper. Morale has never been lower, not even when the men were reduced to eating their own dogtags. I am debating whether to re-stage my one-man drag show, Colonel of Truth. The last time I put it on, Corregidor fell. But Stars & Stripes gave me a rave review, saying that if I’d been as committed to taking Tobruk as I was to the role of “Popcorn Colonel,” the war would have been over by now.
Mary has written me a seventeen-page letter explaining why she wants a divorce. Her reasons, I cannot argue with. I have not been the best of husbands. But did she have to leave me for Igor Stravinsky? Not the composer, the meat guy from Gannigan’s. Though they’re both butchers. Sixteen years of wedded bliss, down the drain, just like that? I should never have married a woman with a weakness for hideously ugly men.
We have entered Rome. To celebrate, a number of the men have entered Romans.
Word from Normandy — the invasion of Europe has begun. Did I miss something, or is Italy not in Europe anymore? What the hell have we been doing down here, playing with ourselves? Okay, once or twice a week, but mostly we’ve been killing Nazis! And the occasional innocent civilian. But there is always a price to pay in war. Apparently ours is, to have been a sideshow. Popcorn Colonel, indeed.
Received another letter from Mary taking it all back. Stravinsky is a pig, she writes, and his music is indecipherable. (Seems I was mistaken about which Igor Stravinsky she was leaving me for.) She begged my forgiveness and described in great detail the various positions she is now willing to try. Shall I grant her absolution? It’s not as if I’ve been entirely faithful myself, these sixteen years. There was that WAC in Tripoli, and that shepherd’s daughter in Messina. Not to mention that shepherd in Messina. War brings out the worst, and best, in all of us. But if Mary thinks modified missionary is the best she can do, she’s got another thing coming.
General Clark visited the troops today. He requested a moment alone in my tent, where he presented me with a token of his esteem for my efforts over the past nine months: a brand spankin’ new pair of Florsheims. I tried them on as soon as he’d left. War may be hell, but those patent leather insoles are absolute heaven.