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Monday, August 16, 2010

A Peace of Luck (Short Story)

A Peace of Luck

     "Thank you for coming . . . to see me, Mr. Allen," Jeff Spietzel wheezed to me. The man, in his nineties, was confined to a wheel chair with a blanket over his lap. A tube ran up to his nose and around his head from a large, green tank of oxygen, complete with its own wheeled cart to move it around. The old man's didn't look ninety, though. His skin seemed bright, as were his eyes, and he had on a neat polo shirt. His beard and hair, all white, were trimmed. His hands trembled whenever he moved them, such as when he extended it to shake mine.
     I took his hand, and his strength surprised me even if it did continue to tremble. "Parkinson's," he wheezed, "and a lot of other things, so my doctors tell me. Please, sit down."
     I took the padded chair across from the old man. The room was pretty simple. A couple of more chairs completed the sitting furniture, and small tables next to each of the chairs rounded out the rest. Old quilts decorated the walls, giving the place a homey feel. A large window looked out over th backyard where some kids played in the afternoon drizzle. It rained in Belport almost as often as Seattle, so the rain was second nature. Besides, grade school kids never got tired of the rain. I had taken off my leather jacket and hat and left them on the coat tree upon entering.
     "My great grand-children," Jeff wheezed. "Quite a different world than what I remember."
     I nodded. With almost a century under his belt, he had seen a lot. More than I could even think of, though I'd wager I had seen some odder things.
     "You're a lucky guy. So, Mr. Spietzel, what can I do for you?"
     "I'm dying, Mr. Allen."
     "Not much I can do for that. Everybody dies."
     He wheezed a laugh, which required a long pull on his oxygen to recover. "No. That's not it at all. I accept that I'm dying, but I need something answered. After a long life, there's something I finally need to know, and I think you're the only one that can answer me. Have you ever seen anything like this before?" He pointed to a faded, metal four-leaf clover pin hanging on his shirt that looked as old as he.
     "Sorry, no. What is it?"
     His shoulder slumped at my answer. "I thought–thought it might be a good luck charm. I thought it was the reason I was still alive."
     "Why do you think that?"
     "Well, My father told me it was, and I thought it saved my life, too."
     "Tell me about it."
     "But surely you would recognize it if it had some sort of power. Your ad said that you dealt with the supernatural, and I assumed you would know."
     "I do deal with the supernatural, but there aren't books that catalog these things, despite what TV and movies say. So it doesn't mean anything that I don't know what your pin is. Tell me about it, and I might be able to tell you if it's on the level."
     He seemed relieved to hear this. "Should I start from the beginning?"
     "That's generally best. As far back as you know. Sometimes how these things came into being are important."
     "All the way back, then. I'll tell you the story my father told me. He told it to me often while growing up."
     I settled in, ready to hear the story.
     "My father was German, as you probably know from my last name, and living in Germany when the Great War broke out. Not the second war, but the first one. The actual Great War. My father was part of it, and he was stationed along the front. The fighting was fierce. He told me all about what happened. Soldiers died hung up on wire, or triggering mines, or shot of course. He told me of the cold and wet, and how the trenches would always be muddy, and inches of water down in the low parts. Now matter how they tried, they couldn't seem to get warm or stay dry. Many got trench foot, and lost toes or even their entire feet. Through it all they had to fight. Day and night they had to be ready for the order to charge over No Man's Land or how the enemy would do the same for a few feet of dirt.
     "It went on and on, until, one night, Christmas Eve. My father and his countrymen, missing home, began to sing." Jeff broke into verse, and he didn't wheeze at all. His voice rose to a great rich, baritone.

"O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum,
wie treu sind deine Blätter!
Du grünst nicht nur zur Sommerzeit,
Nein auch im Winter, wenn es schneit.
O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum,
wie treu sind deine Blätter!"

      He neared the end of the first verse, and then his voice began to falter, but he made it to the end of the verse. Not knowing German, I didn't finish up his rendition, but, softly, I began singing the second verse.

"O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree,
You fill all hearts with gaiety.
O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree,
You fill all hearts with gaiety.
On Christmas Day you stand so tall,
Affording joy to one and all.
O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree,
You fill all hearts with gaiety."

     Jeff smiled at me, and I could see tears filling his eyes. "Yes. Yes, that's the one, and that's exactly what happened. My father and the men with him, they sung in German, and the English sang back in their words. That–that was the beginning."
     "The Christmas Truce," I said.
     "You know of it?"
     "I know tidbits of things where history takes an odd turn. In the middle of the greatest conflict the world had ever known, opposing sides put down their weapons and celebrated Christmas."
     "Yes. That's it exactly." He coughed heavily, doubling over and clutching his side in pain. It went on long enough that I got out of my chair to go get someone, but he held up a hand, and the fit seemed to pass. "I'm all right, Mr. Allen. As all right as the dying can be. Let a dying man go out the way he wishes. I need to know."
     I nodded. "I need more to go off of."
     "Yes . . . yes. All through the night, they sang carols and told stories to one another, until a few brave men climbed out of the trenches, and went across No Man's Land, not to kill one another, but to shake hands."
     I couldn't help but smile at that. The image was too good not to.
     "They made a feast on Christmas morning, everyone bringing out the food they had, and pooling it together. Many had treats sent from home just for Christmas, and all together it made for quite a meal. There was one man on the British side, an Irish man, Liam Mallory, who befriended my father. They traded stories back and forth all Christmas day, and even exchanged gifts. All of the soldiers exchanged gifts, but there was one gift at the end of the day that he gave to my father. He had a tin, the tin that he contributed to the meal, of smoked kippers. The army tins were plain, but this he had gotten from his family, and it was decorated with a leprechaun and a four leaf clover. Liam cut the clover out of the tin, put in a couple of holes, and used a sewing needle to make it into a pin." Jeff caressed the pin reverently.
     "That is the story of where it came from, Mr. Allen. Can you tell me about the pin?" The anxiousness came through clearly in that wheeze.
     "Not yet. I need a little more information. Why do you think it might have power?"
     "My father. I guess I need to go back some more. The truce didn't last. A few days of playing ball and telling stories, and then the fighting came back again. A lot of men were transferred out to different places, to fight the French. Isn't that funny? My father told me that at several places along the trenches the truce broke out, but only between the Germans and the British. The French kept on fighting.
     "My father was one of those transferred. He volunteered. He couldn't bear the thought of storming the trench of men he had shared Christmas with, and had exchanged gifts with. For every day of the war, he wore the pin Liam had given him. He never took it off. He even found a piece of cord to hang it around his neck when he bathed."
     "My father continued to fight, but his heart wasn't in it. He wanted to return home, and he no longer saw the other side as the enemy. The war wasn't the idea of the people fighting it; they were just people like him, and that made it tougher to kill people. My father tried not to kill anyone, and even gave help to the wounded.
     "More than once he should have died. Once the enemy came upon him, and the man's gun jammed. That happened another time, and one of my father's friends promptly killed the man, and declared my father to be lucky. This trend of luck continued. A machine gunner didn't see him despite my father being twelve feet away while he tended a wounded man. The gunner kept strafing targets, but did not fire in the direction of my father. My father attributed it all to this pin." Jeff reached a shaking hand up to caress the pin again.
     "After the war, my father had enough of Germany. He thought that they had been wrong to be fighting, and he did not want any part of that. He decided to emigrate to America, and he wrote Liam to persuade him to do the same. Unfortunately," heavy emotion thickened his words, "Liam had not survived the Great War, and his family bitterly resented my father and all Germans. Liam had been married, and had a son when he died. My father felt guilty about that, and promised to make it up to Liam's family, somehow.
     My father emigrated, and moved to America along with so many others. My father was one who came through Ellis Island." Jeff's voice took on a note of pride. "He met a girl in New York, a Polish woman, and married. Not long after they had me, the first generation of American born.
     "My father worked hard, and helped build the city with its skyscrapers. We never had much money, but my father would send a small amount of his pay every week in a letter to Liam's family, to help them. I remember walking with him from the bank to the post office every Monday. After every jaunt to the post office, he would by me a pastry and ruffle my hair with his calloused hand." Shaking fingers caressed the side of his scalp.
     I rubbed a finger on my chin, cataloging what he told me. I had some ideas, and certainly his idea that the pin affected luck had some merit, but I thought it was something else. I needed a little more before I could say for sure.
     "I grew, as children do, and I still remember my father wearing the pin all the time until the second war. After Pearl Harbor, I got my draft notice. On the day I left home, he took off the pin, and put it on my shirt, and told me to wear it every day, that it had been lucky for him, and that it would be lucky for me.
     "I knew he believed, but I was skeptical, especially after I left. I didn't feel very lucky as I received my training and had KP almost every night. I was pretty bad as a soldier. I couldn't hit anything I aimed at, and I always seemed to leave myself exposed. The only thing I seemed to excel at was running and digging foxholes.
     "When shipped out, I paired up with a Texan, Alex Laredo, whom everyone just called Laredo. He seemed to do well at all the things I couldn't, and the same was true for him. We made a deal that I would do the running and digging while he did the shooting. We'd watch out for one another. Laredo liked to talk about how he would pick off armadillos on his father's ranch. 'I'd sit there on my horse' " he affected a Texas accent that forgot all about the wheezing. " 'and them doggies would just walk across the desert, and I'd take up aim, and jes pick that varmint off. Sometimes it'd spook a cow, but most of the time they'd just keep on a'chewin' ". He laughed, then, the wheeze coming back at the end.
     I smiled, readily picturing a Texan like that. Texans had a fondness for guns. I counted myself lucky that I haven't had to deal with a Texan in my career.
     "Laredo and I had a good arrangement that way. We deployed in Italy. Everyone always talks about France and Germany, but Italy was a hard nut to crack. Gerry was in really deep there, and we had some really tough scrapes, but I noticed something. I seemed to have a bit of luck just like my dad. Since I wasn't much of a shot, I became the radio man, and would carry a first aid kit. Kind of the corpsman for the unit. I was fast, too, and good at dodging around. Sometimes I'd be sent in to draw a little fire so Laredo could get a bead on a machine gun nest.
     "I had my own share of luck like my father. I was in a fox hole treating a couple of guys who had been hit by a machine gun when a German stick grenade landed in the middle of the hole. Without thinking I threw myself on it to protect my buddies.
     "After about five seconds I realized I was still alive, and I looked at my buddies, only moving my eyes and scared to breathe.
     " 'Is it a dud?' Benny asked. I began to move my arms, but then Anderson yelled out. 'Don't move, it might go off!' I froze. We all froze. We stayed like that for several minutes, only daring to breathe.
     " 'I need to piss,' Anderson said.
     " 'Need to? I already did!' Benny yelled.
     "I couldn't help it. I started laughing like crazy. I just kept laughing. Then the others did it, too. We laughed until another of the guys crawled over to see what was wrong with us. When we finally explained what happened, I rolled off the grenade, and passed it to him. He made a throw towards the enemy, and the thing exploded as soon as it landed.
     "Now I gotta ask you, Mr. Allen, knowing how well the Gerrys made things, what do you think were the odds of a dud that decided to explode afterward?"
     "Very slim," I agreed.
     "I've got more stories, Mr. Allen, all like that, but here's the thing, this string of luck didn't seem to work after the war. I've been wearing this thing ever since my dad gave it to me, and I've these illnesses. I'm about to die. Doctors and morticians are swarming about me even though everything is taken care of, so where's the luck in it?"
     I smiled to him. "Let me ask you, why do you think it's luck?"
     "I thought it'd be obvious. The four leaf clover, and it was given by an Irishman."
     "Yeah, I can see that, but it's wrong. See, luck would happen no matter what, but it didn't. More than that, a tin clover given by an Irishman is nothing. No, it's definitely not luck. I've got an idea, though, but it's a little out there."
     "Mr. Allen, quite a number of my family question my wearing this 'tin clover' as you called it, and think my stories are exaggerations. They were even more skeptical about my hiring you, but let an old man have his way. Now, tell me what it is."
     "Yeah, I get looked at sideways a lot. Now, the pin really does have a power, but it's not luck. It never was. What you have is something entirely different. See, the key goes back to your dad and Liam, and when. How much religion do you believe in?"
     "What? Well, I guess I've always kind of believed, moreso in recent years since my condition. I like to believe there's something more now."
     "And your dad?"
     "For as long as I can remember, we didn't go to church much, but we always went to services on Christmas. Christmas was really special to him. I always figured it was because of the story. Are you saying it's something else?"
     "In part. I think ever since that Christmas, he believed in the power of it. I won't go into too much about it because it's an odd concept, but belief has power, and your dad and Liam were present on a day unlike any other in history. On that day, war stopped. And the reason it stopped was because of Christmas. Everything that Christmas stands for was realized by those people. They set aside their differences, and they had a lot of them, sang some carols, shared a meal, and exchange gifts among not just perfect strangers, but enemies."
     "That makes a difference? I guess I just don't understand."
     "It's the difference. It used to be that people wouldn't even fight on Christmas. It was considered wrong to fight on Christmas because it was such a sacred day, and devoted to the ideas of peace. When you really start looking at it, what Christ taught, what Christ's birth represents, is all about peace. The pin is a symbol of that. A gift from a man who was once your father's enemy, and then came to realize that he was more like a brother. It's all about that peace.
     "All of the 'lucky' instances weren't luck at all. Your father and you were engaged in peaceful things. Even though you were deep in the middle of wars, you were doing peaceful things. Your father couldn't stomach the idea of fighting any more, and gave people aid. It probably went even farther in your case. You couldn't shoot things that you aimed at, and you did well at being a corpsman, and with the grenade, you tried to protect your buddies. Those were all peaceful actions, and so you were invoking the spirit of the Christmas Truce each time. That pin isn't luck, it's peaceful. Heck, maybe the spirit of Liam Mallory or your father is actually helping it along, but I know that the Christmas Truce is at work there.
     "See, just like on sacred or holy days like Christmas, All Hallow's Eve, or any number of others, little miracles are possible. The Christmas Truce wasn't a little miracle, it was a big full-scale one, and for lack of a better term, there's fallout. Things kind of are imbued with a power of the miracles that occur, and it persists. So long as you and yours keep upholding what the day was about, it'll keep working."
     I stood up, and put on my hat. "You've got your answer, Mr. Spietzel. I'm sure it wasn't what you were expecting, but there it is. Oh, and don't worry about my fee. You paid up just by telling the stories."
     I moved towards the door, but he let out a last gasp of "Wait! Wait, Mr. Allen. I have one more question." I stopped and looked at him. "What should I do with the pin?"
     "My advice? You've got a lot of children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I'm sure some of them are thinking of joining up. It's a popular thing to do nowadays. You take one of them aside, and tell them what the pin does, and give it to him, and have him pass it along to the next one that joins up, making sure that everyone who joins gets the pin if they need it. It seems like it only works in combat, so if someone is going in, he or she should have first call to it. It's worthless to just hold onto since it's not lucky, just peaceful."
     I turned again, opened the door, and walked out, almost running into a twenty-something young man who looked like he had played high school football. I excused myself as I slipped passed him, but Jeff called out to him from the room.
     "Robert! Robert come in here. I have something for you, and you have to make me a promise. . . ." the rest trailed out of hearing as I left the house.
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