This story was written for a creative project in my Astronomy 100 lecture, and was inspired mainly by a trip to Normandy this past summer with the WWII Museum. I presented a eulogy at the American cemetery for Theodore Gancarz, a soldier from Massachusetts in the 83rd Infantry, who came ashore on Omaha on June 21st and who died fighting in the hedgerows in early July of 1944. I named Szczepanski after him, but my character's fate is up to the reader. This trip left an indelible mark on me, and I hope some of what I learned and thought about when I was there came through in this story.
The shadows fall into place behind the trees and the boy's breathing slows. He lets his jaw go slack as his chest caves in and out, sparks dancing behind his eyes.
"PSST!" In his right ear Angelo is hissing, the sound getting louder as he moves closer. "Szczepanski!"
"Jesus Marchetti, whisper any louder and they'll hear you in Berlin."
"You got a light?"
He's too tired to bitch about everything in this godforsaken place being run through with mud and dirt, and ask where the hell Marchetti even got a cigarette. He's too tired for anything besides a simple answer.
"Damn. The only dry cigarette I got and no one's got a light."
"Is fire even a good idea?"
"Like you could see a cigarette burning through these goddamn hedgerows?"
He's got a point.
Szczepanski thinks back to when they were waiting offshore in their ships, restless and nervous. Sunset didn't come to Normandy until late in the evening, almost half past ten at night. Doc Hoffman had explained it to him; he'd been at college before the war, studying astronomy and physics, and left when the Japanese attacked. Normandy was at a higher latitude, he'd said, which meant that the sun hit the region at a different angle than it did somewhere lower. Like New York, where Szczepanski grew up, or San Francisco, where Hoffman was from. He'd explained to Szczepanski about the first wave of troops as well, that came ashore on D-Day, about how they'd had to postpone the invasion due to the weather. Eisenhower's team of astronomers and meteorologists had calculated that a full moon- crucial for the glider teams and the paratroopers- only coincided with the low tide the invasion needed once a month. Eisenhower had chosen June 5th, the day before the full moon at low tide, as the start of the invasion, but the weather had other plans. Hoffman had paused then, and Szczepanski had asked him whether he was jealous of Eisenhower's astronomers and meteorologists, if he wished he was one of them, safely back in England. Hoffman had shaken his head and nearly cracked a smile. No, my place is here. Plenty of "college boys," he said, using Szczepanski's words "are going off and fighting. Why should I be any different?"
They'd been fighting for barely a week, but looking at the faces of the men, it might as well have been years. Their baptism of fire had been more brutal than any of them had imagined. Hedgerows were murderous terrain, and the Germans had turned their entrenched positions into death traps. F Company had come ashore in late June, living in trenches and moving on their hands and knees as they fought. Each hedgerow was a separate battle, and all they'd known for days on end was the simple transfer of energy of their bodies moving up embankments and down again, and the recoil of their weapons.
The suspended half-slice of moon, brighter than Szczepanski can ever remember seeing back in the Bronx, casts its light over the rain-soaked fields and reflects off the metal of their guns in its own barbaric kind of beauty. It's dangerous, the moonlight. It means they must be even more careful. He glances over at Marchetti, whose eyes are set resolutely over the field in front of them. The profile of his face is illuminated by the moon's glow- his strong Roman nose, the circles under his eyes, his full mouth pressed into a hard line. It's Angelo's turn to keep watch now and Szczepanski's turn to sleep, but he doesn't plan on it. He's too keyed up to sleep, and too nervous to let Marchetti alone. His eyelids will grow heavy, his eye sockets will ache, but he will not sleep.
The moon is high in the sky now, its glow cast upon the field in front of their hedgerow, and Szczepanski looks up. He's never given much thought to the stars before, but he knows his girl Ruthie does. Before the war, back when they were fourteen, just kids, they'd sit up on the roof of her apartment building, and she'd point out the constellations she'd learned from her father's books. They always seemed far-fetched to Szczepanski- a bear, Ruthie? I don't see it. He'd understood the Big Dipper, and Orion's Belt, but beyond that he was lost. It didn't matter now anyway. They'd had to stop going up to the roof after the war started anyway, blackout drills and all that. It wasn't an official order, but her parents had gotten nervous. It was a bonus certainly that they hadn't even wanted her seeing him in the first place. He'd only been up on that rooftop to be with her, and now they hadn't seen each other in over a year. At least they were writing, even sporadically, and he knows he wants to marry her, someday. It seems dangerous even to hope.
Another thing Doc Hoffman told him on that ship was how elements- the stuff inside everyone- was all old, so old it was almost incomprehensible. The elements inside him and every other soldier on that ship had been created at the beginning of the universe. Szczepanski had cocked his head at Doc then, reciting some remembered line from his Polish-Catholic upbringing and lighting another cigarette, staring at the horizon. The thought has stayed with him though, even though Doc isn't here anymore. Shot through the head on Omaha nearly a week ago. All Szczepanski can remember from that day is the sound of men screaming, screaming out orders or screaming in pain, but all he could do was run on ahead in a desperate bid to get to farther up the beach, the noises whizzing past his ears.
He's trying to rein his mind back in now, away from flashbacks and thoughts of Ruthie and of home, and back to the new world now stretching before him, but he can't seem to manage it. It's a strange kind of comfort that the same moon shining over Ruthie on Arthur Avenue back in the Bronx is the same one shining over him in Carentan. The same moonlight that fell over his parents' village in Poland was the same that lit the face of the Statue of Liberty as their ship pulled into New York Harbor all those years ago. He knows now too that it's the same moon the Germans can see, but that idea is too close for comfort. What lets Ruthie know he's thinking of her, what showed his parents hope, is the same thing that could give away their maneuvers and get him killed. He thanks God or whatever's up there that they're staying put, at for a few hours.
Szczepanski knows what Hoffman would say about all this. He can still hear the man's voice, his barely-accented English, a knowing tone that still managed somehow to be vulnerable. Us? We're just men on the ground, Theo. The moon and stars don't care if we live or die. Why should they? They've been here millions of years, and will continue on for many more. Our job is our job, simple as that. We study the stars to know more about our universe, but what we really want to is to learn more about ourselves.
He wants to ask Hoffman if the universe has an answer for all this. Why he's thousands of miles away from home in this godforsaken place, fearing for his life every second. Why so many people have to sacrifice. Why all he wants is to see Ruthie's smile again, that sparkle in her eyes. He knows he can't ask anyone; all he can do is hope that he'll live to find the answer. That he'll live to sit with her again on the rooftop, looking at the stars, the sky hanging above them ancient and indifferent. It may be both those things, Hoffman would agree, but as he imagines putting his arm around her again, Theo knows it will be kinder too, somehow.