The Last Hill
It started very simply A telephone call asking for information. The call opened up memories long forgotten. The call did away with 50 yrs.. “What was it like in Korea?”. A college student writing a paper on a part of history which not too many people know of. A professor challenging students to look into what has rather unhappily become known as the “forgotten war”. The need for some “first hand” information. The call, the student, the professor the need all seemed to converge on me.
It took time to answer. To dig away all those years and to find in the shoveled space the feelings, experiences so long past was not going to be a happy task It was a challenge to resurrect memories that had been dealt with. They had been safely tucked away in a safe depository in my pyche. Did I want them to stand in the light again? Surely it would have been wiser to say “no” to rhe request. There was a voice inside of me, however, saying that perhaps this could be another step in the healing process. After fifty years it was not complete.
“What was it like?” I remembered the fear. It was the constant companion. Fear was the cloud under which we all lived. Sometimes the fear held you in vice like grip. At times it was subtle. At times the fear was like a hurricane, blowing and screaming inside of you. The fear always challenged you. Who was going to win the fear or that inner part of oneself which whispered “do not let it control you”.
One learned about fear very quickly. Learned that it could paralyze, that it could destroy the human spirit. This bed fellow which arrived in the heart the moment you realized that someone was trying to kill you. You learned that there was no escaping it. It became part of who you were. Somewhere in the shadows of the psyche it was there.
To say it was not there would be denying a reality . To deny it would be opening not only yourself but those around you to danger.
Fear could also be your friend. You learned that fear when controlled, and not controlling, had a dynamic all its own. It could drive the human heart to deeds which were thought to be impossible. Fear gives life to a deeper sense of responsibility because everyone shared it. No matter what race, creed or color the cord which tied all together was this fear. Because of this being tied together the men around you took on new meaning. There was a mutuality of life protecting. Being bound like this in a real sense someone else life was an extension of your own. This is why I always thought death in combat brought an extra sadness not expressed. It was looking at the dead body and somewhere in that mysterious entity we call the human person to see yourself.
As I sat in my silent and non- fearful room trying to answer the student’s question the fearful memories came back. The silence of my room was shattered by the sounds of war. Exploding shells, shouting voices, cries of pain, filled my room. It was then that I realized that the fear had never really been forgotten, it was just waiting to be called into the daylight. Hands did not sweat as they did those many years ago, the pressure behind the eyes was not there, but the fear was real, the sounds were real. All the years and miles vanished. It was no longer in the past tense but in the present .
Is it possible that letters forming words popping from a typewriter can build a bridge which spans all the years and miles? They made the “then” a “now” the “there” the “here”
. My thoughts changed. It was no longer the fear that captured my memory. It was the cold. Fear could become a friend, fear could transcend the moment and travel to somewhere higher. Cold was never a friend. It wasn’t that the therometer was so low, it was that the cold was always with you. Fear had its moments of highs and lows, the cold did not change.
Everyone, everywhere and everything was cold. There was no escape. As many new things about fear were learned so cold revealed its nature. The desire to find relief from its biting stabbing fingers could become obsessive. The dehumanization which it worked on the body, the numbing of the spirit so that at a point you were so cold that no longer would the spirit acknowledge its presence. A protection which God built into who we are. Skin hardened and peeled without feeling, hands and feet blued, lips chapped-bleeding, and always the dream, the hope that soon there would be warmth.
I remembered looking out over the valley and seeing fires in the enemy lines.. Just for a moment a touch of bonding took place. The enemy was human. Looking at those fires I came to realize that they were cold, they were afraid. The impersonalization of the enemy disappeared. In my imagination I saw them huddled around that fire trying to get the last bit of warmth talking of the same things we talked about, getting home. They felt the same wind, the same cold. The cold and the fear were common factors between enemies.
The fear and the cold lived inside of bodies without sleep. Sleep, that simple thing which over the years has been taken for granted was then a prized possession . It would be sort at any time, any place. It was more important than food. Sometimes there were days without sleep. The eyes would become dazed, the brain numbed. There was no thinking, basic motor reactions were all one could hope for. Trying to find that last scrap of energy which would make the next step possible became a task. I realized that sleep walking was a reality in your life. What the fear and cold had not eaten the days without sleep would finish.
Another paradox emerged. On the one hand life was brought to the very basics. It was stripped of the comforts, and even the necessities. Common denominators had been found. Warmth, sleep, freedom from fear, these were the important things. Having reduced life to these bare minimums one also came to realize the great dignity of life. The accruements of culture seemed to trivialize life. It got hidden under a lot of “things”. Reducing life to these basics seemed only to elevate it.
The fear, the cold, the sleeplessness all lived on a hill. I wondered, as I sat in my room bringing up these old images, what these hills looked like now. Are they green? Are there trees? I wondered whether these long ago places of death had turned into places of life.Were the marks of war now covered with the signs of a hoped for peace? It was on these hills that our constant companions were always with us. It was in the dust, the mud, the snow, of the hill that they were lived with.
My answer to the students question was complete. The fax machine sent the pages quickly. All those years were lived in such a short time. All those miles were spanned in a blinked eye. Perhaps, I thought, that delving into the past was a reminder that the shooting has stopped, the cold, the fear, the sleepless days are no longer part of my life, but in some way they will never end. They will always be part of who I am.