Tuesday, December 25, 2012

A Christmas Tree, A Carol, A Hand Grenade: A Midnight Clear by William Wharton

My Christmas gift to you is a pivotal scene from William Wharton's masterpiece of war literature, A Midnight Clear (1982).  Set in the Ardennes Forest on Christmas Eve 1944, Wharton's third novel (after Birdy and Dad)  is the story of Sergeant Will Knott (nicknamed "Wont") and five other GIs ordered to establish an observation post in an abandoned chateau close to the German lines.  They make contact with German soldiers, who turn out to be as eager as the Americans to end the war.  Here's what happens on that dark, snowy Christmas Eve as the GIs frantically radio each other after they spot a squad of German soldiers working on something in a clearing:

      “I don’t get it, Wont. What the devil’s happening around here anyway?”
      Mother usually keeps the vow even under stress. Except for Father himself, I guess he’s the only one who really does.
      “Take it easy, Mother. Let me talk to Gordon again.”
      “Wont, I just saw a light. Somebody struck a match right out in the open and didn’t even hide it.
      “Wait a minute! There’s another light, and another. What the hell? There’re at least six lights burning now. Jesus, there’s another. Wait, hold on, here’s Wilkins again.”
      I’m anxious now to talk with the lower post. This is beginning to sound serious. But I listen to Wilkins.
      “It’s a Christmas tree! Those Germans are standing out there in the snow in the middle of the road lighting candles on a Christmas tree. I can’t believe it; what’s this all about?”
      “Christmas, I think, Mother. Hang up; let me talk to Miller and Shutzer.”
      I ring the other post. It’s Shutzer.
      “Can you see it up there, Wont? It’s a fucking Christmas tree. These crazy Krauts have stuck a Christmas tree in the snow, smack in the middle of the road, and they’ve tied a bunch of candles to it. The candles are all lit and there are apples and potatoes hung on the branches. There are even stars cut out of cardboard.
      “Come on down! Wait a minute! Now one of them’s putting stuff on the snow next to the tree. It’s that noncom we were talking to yesterday. The rest of the Krauts are standing by the other side of the road with shit-eating smiles on their faces. My God, they’re a sad-sack-looking bunch; they make us look neat.
      “You’ve got to see this, Wont, or you’ll never believe it.”
      “We’ll be right down. Don’t take any chances. Don’t shoot us.”
      I hang up. Mundy’s standing with his boots on, finally. He slings his rifle. “What’s going on? What’s happening down there?” I realize Mundy’s the only one who doesn’t know what’s happening. You can’t hear the phone unless you have the receiver against your ear; it isn’t like the 506.
      “Our German buddies have brought us a Christmas tree, Father, and we’re all going out to sing carols and maybe celebrate midnight mass for you. Come on, let’s get going.”
      I swing a bandolier around my head and pick up my rifle. I consider stationing myself behind the fifty caliber in the jeep to keep everything in control, but it doesn’t seem right. I guess I’ll never make it as the big bad killer.
      I’m down with Stan and Bud before I realize Mundy isn’t with me. Maybe it’s just as well; we need somebody on the phone. Those guys up top will be cut off otherwise. I should’ve thought of it.
      They don’t challenge me when I come up, just turn their heads and motion me on. The light from the candles is strong enough so I can see them easily. I can also see the Germans lined beside the tree. We could probably all get courtmartialed for something like this, consorting with the enemy.

      Later, after the war, they used the term “fraternizing” to condemn any uncalled-for familiarity with the Germans. Most of it was with women and they threw the book at some soldiers for it. Fraternizing always seemed the wrong word; it didn’t have much to do with “brothering.” I’ve always felt consorting was more what was going on. We were sure consorting with the enemy that night.

      Miller, Shutzer and I walk to the edge of the bridge. We’re down in a gulley, so the base of the tree is at eye level. We have our rifles over our shoulders and I even forgot to bring a grenade.
      Then they do it. They begin; slowly, first, only one or two voices, then all together, they sing a Christmas carol. It’s in German but I know the song. They’re singing “O Tannenbaum”; it’s the same as “O Christmas Tree.” The Germans stop singing and it’s quiet; the candles keep burning. Then they start again. This time it’s “Adeste Fideles.” Miller leans close to me.
      “Those are Christmas presents under the tree. See? There’s a loaf of bread, a bottle of wine and what looks like one of Corrollo’s sausages.”
      When they finish singing this time, the noncom steps into the center of the road beside the tree. He picks up the wine and bread, holding them out toward us. I don’t know what to do. I can’t get myself to vault up and stand there on the road with everybody watching me take presents from a German. He’s there alone, arms spread, looking into the darkness, searching for us.
      Just then, Father Mundy comes loping down the road, singing “Adeste Fideles” at the top of his lungs. He has things in his hands and other stuff tucked under his arm. He forgot his rifle. He goes straight to the German and hands him our last bottle of wine; at the same time, he takes the loaf of bread. Then he gives him another bunch of little packages and takes their bottle. The German leans down and picks up his sausage from under the tree. He gives this to Mundy, too. All the time they’re chattering away at each other, smiling.
      Then, suddenly, the German reaches inside his uniform jacket and pulls out a Luger! I start trying to unsling my rifle but it’s too late. The German passes the Luger to Father, handle first, or, I mean, he tries to pass it. Mundy’s pushing it away! I pick up a loud “No, sir! ”
      Is the Kraut speaking English or has Mundy been holding out on us all this time and is fluent in German; maybe he speaks Yiddish, too, an Irish Jew infiltrating the Catholic church. No, that’s too much.
      Now Mundy unhooks one of the grenades from his field jacket pocket. Sometimes he even forgets to take them off when he sleeps; as I said, Mundy doesn’t care enough. He passes that Goddamned grenade to the German. The German turns around and hangs it on the Christmas tree. The branch bends to the ground. He and Mundy are laughing.
      The other Germans don’t move while all this is going on. Then they break out with “Silent Night” in German. Miller, Mundy and I sing in English.

1 comment:

  1. That's a great scene. Thanks for sharing and a Merry Christmas to you!