I could hear the meat sizzle as it touched the grill. I licked my lips, tapping my fork against the table, already anticipating the food. “Is it done yet?” My brother whined, voicing my thoughts.
“Not even close,” my mom snorted, “eat your side dishes.” Mashed potatoes were being passed around, but the only person even remotely interested it them was my grandpa.
“You kids have such a good life,” he said, “back in my day, mashed potatoes were a real treat.” I rolled my eyes. He was always hung up on the past. “I spent four years in the army, you know,” he continued, “any food we could get our hands on, we were grateful for.” My stomach stopped grumbling for a second. He’s never gone into much detail about his life as a soldier. I don’t know if it was the food, or the warmth from the grill, but something made him want to tell his story tonight. He showed me a world beyond my wildest imaginations…
I was 16 when I left home to join the army. I wasn’t drafted, and even if I was, my family was one of the fortunate ones that could buy me out of the draft. At the time, I volunteered because most of my friends were going. Looking back now, it was something that I could be proud of, the fact that I’d defended my country. I didn’t remember much on the day we left, just that my mother threw an extravagant party, with delicious food that could’ve lasted a lifetime. I was filled with warmth and excitement, not knowing yet what a dreadful situation I had gotten myself into. However, that night, as I passed by my parents room, I had heard crying.
“He’s not going to make it back.” My mother’s voice was shaking. “No one ever does.”
“I know.” If my mother’s words didn’t knock the air out of me, my father’s certainly did. He was supposed to comfort my mother and deny what she had said like usual, not agree with her. By the time I had tucked myself into bed that night, there certainly was no more warmth nor excitement left in my body.
I didn’t remember anything about the next day. Not my mother’s kisses or tears, nor my father’s goodbyes or the trembling smile on his face. I didn’t remember anything about the months of training either, except that the guns were very heavy. How could I, when most of my memories were taken up by what had happened on the battlefield?
We lived in tents, ate only the scraps of food, and had a shower rotation system. We were surrounded by dirt roads and scraggly plains. By the end of the first month, we’d lost half of our soldiers. That was about 700 people already dead, their bodies strewn across the earth. Worst of all, we couldn’t even contact our families. The families of the ones that’ve already perished were still holding onto false hope, and the families of the ones that were still alive were pretty much convinced we were dead. I was lucky. I hadn’t suffered any major injuries up to then, only a bullet that barely grazed my leg and a few scratches. I was up on the battlefield again in a few days, after receiving a row of jagged stitches. I had been grateful that I hadn’t spent much time in the tent for the wounded. Nurses in red hats had ran around, trying to attend to everyone, but they were running out of medicine, and the smell of death lingered in the air. I remember that blood was everywhere. On the beds, on the walls, on the ceiling.
Life as a soldier was very repetitive. Wake up, have a small meal, onto the battlefield, then back into the tents late at night if we were lucky to have a break. The day my best friend went down was, without a doubt, the worst day of my life. Or maybe it was the best as well, because I met her for the first time. But when I saw my friend fall, there were no words that could describe the amount of hate I had felt for the enemies against us. I was tired of the war.
My grandpa’s voice cracked as I looked at him in shock. He threw his arm over his eyes, having a moment before continuing.
That’s when I saw a red capped girl rush across the lines of fire, not hesitating in the slightest. She dragged my friend’s body into the medical tent all by herself. I was amazed. The nurses had no obligation to come onto the battlefield to save a soldier, but she did. I should’ve known better to be distracted from my anger though, because a sudden pain in my left arm appeared about of nowhere. No, not nowhere. It came from the bullet that had been shot straight at me. Everything went black.
I saw her again in the medical tent when I came to. Her face was blurry from the drugs I’d been given, but I knew it was her. She had tended to my wounds with soft hands. I had tried to stay conscious for longer, to try and see her face clearly, but the chemicals were stronger, and I was pulled under again.
I was told that I nearly died. My wound became infected just as we ran out of medication. New supplies and drugs were being flown over at the moment, but even that could take days. Nobody trusted that my body would hang on for that long, even I had doubted it. As the time I stayed on Earth increased, the amount of good-byes I received did too. The day before the medicines were expected to arrive was the day I felt myself drifting away. There was no pain left, as my body was already preparing to collapse. I had mentally chanted what I wanted to say to my family, to my friends, and my fellow soldiers. That’s when the nurse appeared again. “A few more hours,” she had pleaded, “give us a few more hours and we can save you.” I saw her face clearly this time. I had recognized her from my old school, from my old life that seemed so far away. She sat there until the medicine arrived, but I knew that it wasn’t the medicine that saved me. She did.
My wound was severe enough that I had to stay off the field for months. By the time I healed, the battle was over. We’d won, but nobody had felt like cheering. In a sense, we’d also lost. We just gathered up what was left of our belongings and headed home. ‘Home’ I’d thought. The word seemed so foreign, something that I didn’t recognize anymore. Only 3 soldiers that had came from the same area I did survived. It seemed wrong that I returned without them. Even worse, one of the remaining soldiers died when our plane landed. He was so close to getting back to his family, but he passed without seeing them one last time.
We all went to do one final check up with the local doctors. I thought I’d pass it easily, since I was treated and missed the worst of the battle, but it was discovered that the infection from earlier on continued spreading even when the physical wound had healed. “You’d have a few more weeks, maybe 2 if you were lucky.” The doctor had said. But here I am, 82 years old and still alive.
My grandpa grinned, and I did too.
“Oh, and the nurse that I’d fallen for? That’s your grandma, who passed away 3 years ago. I miss her everyday,” he added, “I wished I could’ve saved her like she saved me.”
“But she lived a long, happy life.” My dad declared, not wanting to see him cry again.
“The meat is ready!” My mom finally exclaimed. “Here, have some.” She wiggled a piece under my nose.
“No thanks.” I smiled, reaching for the cold potatoes.