I walk through the snow and it blows into my face. The wind is fast and hard like sand—painful—I grin and bear it, unhappy and fearful. My helmet is strapped to my chin. When the shells roar in I don't want the tin pot to fall off my head as I hit the ground—hard and fast. I don't feel the cold this winter of 1953; instead I sweat—that's what fear does to me—better than a fire. I am 18 years old and as the man says, “What got you into this mess?”
I answer “Mind your own business, Private Johnson, you're here with me.” Private Johnson tries to give me back a snappy answer, but just then a barrage of mortars lands amongst our squad. Private Johnson receives a direct hit and is no more. Now there are only four of us left out of fifteen that we were four days ago. We are the Third Squad, or what's left of the Third Squad, Fox Company, Fifth Marines, First Marine Division. The Chinese army has had its way with us and we wait for our turn to die. Not like in the movies where we have John Wayne who will lead us to victory over the enemy. This is the Chinese Peoples Army who know more about war then we do.
I am the corporal of this fire team of four marines.
The mortars have buried us under mounds of dirt and rock and Korean soil. I can't believe I’m still alive. It's been four days of this battle (the Nevada cities battle) for three combat outposts on hills our military has named Reno, Carson, and Vegas. We are combat experienced now and stay down until the shelling stops. We await another Peoples Army attack. It does not come this time.
Pfc. O’Brien is shouting while trying to pull his rifle out of an enormous pile of earth that fell on him.
“Don't be so upset,” I say, “that's life.”
“No, it’s not life,” he says “or it should not be.”
“It is” I insist, “that's what it is. “And life like death lasts only a little while.”
And so it goes for us four marines, not so tough anymore after the pounding we have been taking . “Listen I've got the sickest notion. Deep in the mirror I am scared, don't know who the hell is there. Yeah, I'm losing my reflection."
Pfc. O’Brien looks at me and thinks I must be going crazy. Well why not—best thing I could do for myself. Get sent back to the rear. Make way, here comes the brave corporal Kennedy ready for the sick bed and nice nurses to feed my sad face. but I don't have the smarts for that. I'd be found out and sent to the brig. Besides these guys are always looking at me to see which way the wind blows. I feel like shouting out: “We all die together in the awful hills of Korea. So lets saddle up and get on with this war. It's got to be over sometime.”
So we fight on and two more go down, wounded not dead. July of 1953 the fighting stops and Pfc. O’Brien is promoted to corporal. I turn down a promotion to sergeant. When my turn comes I board the ship for the three week sail home to the U.S.A.
A few years later I learn to sing “I’m gonna lay down my sword and shield ain't gonna study war no more, ain't gonna study war no more.”
The Bus Operator
The bus depot is in the South Bronx. It is named “The Walnut Depot.” I am fifty years old and therefore the oldest new bus operator. I am thinking that maybe I’m too old to be starting this kind of work. I have only three weeks of training, and I have never driven anything larger than a car. This is the kind of work you start when you are about twenty and retire from in your fifties. I had it backwards. I am worried that I will not have the energy to do the job. I have to shape up at 5 AM to get my bus. My last job was as a banker with banker’s hours, from 9 AM to 3 PM, so I am not a happy camper.
My route begins in the South Bronx at 138th Street and goes north to Riverdale. My first day is cold and snowy with gale force winds which shake and rattle the old bus I am about to drive. There is no power steering and no power brakes; the bus should have been taken off the road years ago. Why did I get such a clunker to drive? Just my luck what with all the new buses with power brakes and steering all around me.
I get into a seat torn from years of use. The steering wheel feels cold and loose. I turn on the motor and it sounds strong, which is a surprise to me. I check the brakes by rolling the bus a few feet and stopping. The brakes are strong and so is the emergency hand brake, which is old fashioned and stands up from the floor to the seat. Well, I can’t complain to the dispatcher – the bus will do the job. So I roll out of the depot and toward the beginning of my route a few miles away.
This is the Bronx with many steep hills, and I am starting to sweat from fear that I can’t manage such a large piece of machinery, and what if I get lost somewhere in the Bronx. At my first stop I look at the faces of my passengers climbing aboard this old wreck of a bus. They trust me, so I can’t let them down. I manage to say hello and good morning to each of them. Many respond likewise, so I feel confidence coming over me. I can do this, nothing to it, just hang on to the wheel and don’t fall out of the seat.
I drive slowly because of the ice and snow on the road. If the bus slides on the ice – I don’t want to think of it. After a half hour the bus is full and passengers are even crowding me in the driver’s seat. I remember from riding the route in the training bus that a very steep and twisting hill is ahead of me. I see it now and the fear comes back. I want to be a passenger. Hey, does somebody know how to drive a bus, I feel like shouting to the passengers.
At the last stop before the “hill of death” no one can get on the bus; there is no more room. I move the bus away from the stop and pick up a little speed. The hell with the icy road – without some speed the bus will not start up that hill. Here we go folks, say you prayers, I say to myself. The wheels are starting to slide. I have to get more aggressive, so I push down on the gas for more speed and I hold onto the shaking wheel. This is it! Here we go up and up with no slipping back down the hill. The passengers all look calm, so I remain calm, too. But then they don’t know what is going on.
I have the bus under control and we are slowly but surely going to make it to the top. As the bus goes over the top I look down and see a very steep road and too much ice and snow. I don’t think the snow plows have been to this hill yet. I don’t want to be here – a nice sunny beach in Florida comes to mind.
Over the top and down we go, the bus sliding and picking up speed. I remember – don’t try to correct for the slide. Just turn into the slide until the bus corrects itself and pump the brake as fast as I can. Coming to the bottom and a sharp turn to the right I struggle with all my might to get the wheel to turn without toppling over the bus. We are going to make it, and the road is leveling out and flat. I haven’t lost control and, with great relief, I pull into the stop.
People get on and people get off. One guy says, “Man, I didn’t think you would be able to hold onto the bus. Thank you for a great ride.”
“You’re welcome,” says I, “and top of the morning to you.” In just a little while I will stop shaking.
Copyright © 2010 by Tom Kennedy