“I know what I saw,” said William.
Mister William was old when I interviewed him years ago. Ancient, actually. Mid-nineties. Bent and pale.
A television was playing in the background of his nursing home apartment. Old people like to have televisions playing in the background. It’s like having company.
“It was World War II,” William began. “I was in Italy…”
Young William was walking along a rural Italian road. His uniform was tattered and stained with blood. He was not far from a battle zone. And he had just been through combat hell.
His unit had been overtaken by an ambush. Almost all of them died. Shells everywhere. Young men were slaughtered. The nucleus of his team disintegrated. It was every man for himself. Hardly any survived. Except William.
But here he was. In enemy territory. He was on his way back to his auxiliary unit operational base on foot. And he was praying—praying out loud—that no German Kübelsitzwagens came cruising down this highway to find him walking, or he was a dead man.
He heard an engine. A loud engine.
William leapt into a ditch.
The vehicle stopped.
William cocked his weapon.
From his hiding place he saw a Ford GP. The door flew open. “William, is that you?” a familiar voice came calling.
William didn’t know what to think. This must have been a hallucination. Had to be. How could anyone know to be looking for him? He was just a doughboy private.
He came shyly from the bushes. He recognized the driver. It was and old friend. From Detroit. The guy’s name was Danny. He grew up with Danny. He had no idea Danny was even in the Army. Let alone on Italian soil.
“How’s your sister?”
“She’s good. How’s your mom and dad?”
“They’re good. Haven’t seen them since I shipped out.”
William and Danny were schoolmates. They weren’t tight friends, but they were childhood pals. They played football together. They grew up only a few houses apart. They were always in the periphery of each other’s lives.
William couldn’t believe his luck. What were the odds? Two old pals, meeting on the side of a highway in hostile territory, halfway across the globe.
William hopped into the Jeep.
Danny threw the vehicle into gear.
“How’d you know I was here?” William asked.
Danny didn’t answer, except to offer William a pack of Luckies. They both talked about old days. About home. About Mom and Dad. About girls once loved. And when they arrived at the auxiliary base, William hopped out and thanked Danny for the ride. For saving his life.
“Don’t mention it,” said Danny.
They both shook hands and gave the universal farewell of the American GI. “Take care of yourself.”
And the Jeep drove away into the ink darkness.
Years later, when the war was over, on William’s first week back home he went around asking about Danny. He found Danny’s mother in the kitchen, making supper. William told her the story about how Danny had picked him up that fateful night.
His mother stopped chopping carrots.
“That’s impossible,” she said.
She took William into the living room and showed him the triangular folded flag. She said Danny died a year before William’s story took place. And Danny had been stationed in France. Not Italy. There was no way it could have been Danny. Absolutely no way.
“But I know what I saw,” said the old man.
“I know what I saw.”