AT CHRISTMAS I exchange letters with the man who was my battalion commander in World War II. It is a pleasant custom and often produces news about old friends whom I have, in the curious usages of peace, lost track of. The Colonel’s last letter told of running into Henry Horsfall, our operations officer. Hank, the Colonel wrote, still maintained a profound disgust for all things military, with emphasis on the military mind.
The Colonel’s words conjured up memories of Horsfall’s unshakable calm, and of the Indiana drawl that seemed so well suited to his square and plump-cheeked face. Pausing over the letter, I remembered Horsfall moving — when movement could not be avoided — with vast deliberation, and Horsfall running — when enemy fire required it — with protest eloquent in every line of his pudgy, laboring haunches. Most vividly, I remembered Henry Horsfall seated, feet propped upon a table, chin sunk on his chest, dozing peacefully in countless command posts across France and Germany.
Time may have gilded the memory, but in my recollection of those distant days orders from higher headquarters were of all things the least likely to disturb Henry Horsfall’s naps. After taking a phone call from Regiment, he would as often as not only sigh and recompose himself for sleep. Questioned, he would mumble without opening his eyes, “It’s a pretty fair order — we’re doing it already” or, “Just more nonsense the Masterminds cooked up — they won’t be down to check.”
Some sixth sense, acquired during Depression years in the peacetime Army, guided him on these occasions and never failed. Interposed like a finemeshed screen between the frequent frenzies of higher brass and our battalion, this mysterious clairvoyance shielded us from many of the minor horrors of war. In our councils it gave Captain Horsfall, who by length of service should have been a lieutenant colonel, and by knowledge a lieutenant general, the rank and privileges of Elder Statesman.
And then, thinking of it as a sort of apotheosis of Hank Horsfall’s insight into the military mind, I remembered how he had once saved me a threeday pass to Paris.
It happened in March of ‘45, a few days after our battalion had moved into a sector of wooded hills near the Rhineland. We seldom saw the enemy in daylight, and even at night small-arms fire was seldom heard. Now and then a few rounds of mortar or artillery fire landed in the battalion area, but everyone was well dug in, and occasionally we heard enemy shells go fluttering and whispering high over our hill to land in the valley behind, a valley occupied by regimental headquarters. Such fire naturally produced, on our side of the hill, satisfaction and hope of a better world. A wrecked village in the area had given a good yield of potatoes and wine and some excellent cigars. After the bloody winter, this was a fine sector to be in.
Ruminating on these good things in the command post dugout one morning, Horsfall, his feet crossed upon a table lugged up from the village, summed up our situation: “Here we sit, defending our country with all the comforts of retired farmers.”
His square hand slowly lifted a cigar to his mouth, held it there for a well-savored inhalation, and then dropped nervelessly down upon his rounded thigh. Head wreathed in smoke, he sighed contentedly.
“The only cloud on the horizon,” he drawled, “is that yesterday they put us in a new corps. That means our general will try to impress the Corps Commander with our aggressiveness. Patrol activity will be stepped up.”
He sighed again, philosophically, and the spring sunshine streaming through the open entrance to the dugout turned his thoughts toward home. “Back in Indiana,” he said, “they’ll have the tractors out by now. Pretty soon they’ll be hearing whippoorwills.”
“Are you going to farm, Hank,” I asked, “when this thing’s over?”
His tone reproached me. “I was raised on a farm. I know all about it. Those whippoorwills sang my lullaby. Farming’s hard work.”
He had answered my question. Yet Horsfall’s detestation of military ways had long ago convinced me that as soon as he could manage it he would return to the Indiana farmland. Perhaps a country store would be the answer, a store where farmers liked to meet and talk.
BOOTS clumped in the dugout entrance, and the Colonel came in, a fresh uniform on his athletic figure, his boots and pistol holster polished for a visit to the rear.
“Conference at Division,” he told us. He appraised Horsfall’s lounging body. “While I’m gone, I don’t want this outfit drilled to death.”
“Sir,” Horsfall answered, “I’ll try to restrain myself.”
The Colonel turned to me. “Seems there’s a three-day pass to Paris due some Officer in this headquarters. Starting tomorrow. I gave the Adjutant your name.”
There was a reason for this unexpected windfall to rob me of speech.
The Colonel’s blue eyes sparkled. “No tellinghow far this nurse we’ve been hearing about is stationed from Paris. But I guess she can make a forced march if she has to.”
He disappeared into the outside sunshine.
“He said it starts tomorrow,” Horsfall drawled. “Relax.”
“Not me — maybe I can get the chaplain to send word to Ellen!”
Before I could reach the telephone, it buzzed, and a new replacement in my intelligence section answered it. Holding up the handset inquiringly, he said, “It’s Regiment — Colonel Cantwell. He wants the CO.”
“Temporarily that’s me,” Horsfall said, immovable in his chair.
“Take the telephone to the Captain,” said Sergeant Diamond, Horsfall’s operations sergeant.
For a minute or more Horsfall listened with obvious boredom to what were evidently detailed instructions from Colonel Cantwell, the regimental executive and no favorite with our battalion.
“Yes, sir,” Horsfall said at length. He handed the telephone to the waiting replacement and turned to us.
“General Trout, our assistant division commander — that poor old man — is in the area. He was just at Regiment, inspecting them, and I do believe he chewed them good and deep.” A slow smile creased his checks. “The picture comes clear. The Old Man’s gone to that conference at Division the Colonel went to, and friend Cantwell’s keeping store. Cantwell’s responsible for Regiment — and it looked like hell to Trout.”
“What’s it got to do with us?” I asked.
“Trout — that poor old one-star general — let it out he was going to inspect the battalions, too. Right this very now.” His smile broadened. “Oh, it’s a fine morning for Cantwell! Trout’s in a chewing mood: he’ll wrap the whole damn regiment up in one package and throw it at Cantwell’s head!”
Sergeant Diamond looked at the new man. “Who’s on the broom?”
“I am,” the new man said. “But check the symbols on the map, Sergeant. I might have drawn one wrong.”
“What’s Trout complaining about?” I asked.
Horsfall sighed. “Men getting sloppy, field jackets unbuttoned, not wearing helmets, truck like that. Cantwell gave me a long list. Patrols, too. Trout says our patrols aren’t going deep enough.”
This was my responsibility, and I bristled. “How deep does he want ‘em to go?”
“Berlin might satisfy.” Horsfall yawned. “Relax. Trout’s just out to impress the Corps Commander. This nonsense happens every time we change corps. Trout’s a Grade-A example of the military mind. He thinks the Corps Commander’s stupid enough to be impressed, and he thinks we’re stupid enough to take him seriously. You and I know how deep our patrols ought to go. So does the Colonel, Maybe even Trout does. The rest is eyewash.”
Violent sweeping of the dugout’s board floor had raised a cloud of dust, in which Horsfall sat immovable and relaxed. Diamond went to work with a dust rag, and I began tidying up the maps and papers on the table.
“Generals,” Horsfall said, “have spent their lives receiving loud and confident commands. Then turning around and passing ‘em down, louder if possible. Few of these commands make sense, so naturally generals reach the point where they think everyone else is crazy — us for obeying the commands and higher authority for issuing them in the first place. That’s the military mind, and Trout’s a blue-ribbon example.”
The bustle within the dugout continued around his unmoving form.
“You people,” he told us, “are wasting your strength. If this is the General’s day to chew, he’s going to chew. I knew a general in the CCC used to draw red circles around chewing days on his calendar, months ahead. When he got up in the morning and saw one of those red circles, it drove him berserk and kept him berserk till sundown and his first drink. That’s what generals are paid for.”
“We don’t want this outfit chewed,” I said. “Especially with Cantwell looking on.”
Horsfall shook his head. “You don’t want to let your feelings get involved where a general’s concerned. Take me — my feelings just can’t be reached by generals. Specially an old bust like Trout.” He added, reflectively, “Although, you take a general like Ben Lear — that’s different. Back before this war started and they gave stars to retired majors like Trout, I got chewed by General Ben Lear in person. In some ways that chewing remains my most stirring military experience. Ben Lear had a face like an angry Jersey bull and a voice like a fifty caliber machine gun. When the echoes died away that time I had a burning sensation all over, and felt like I really mattered. But that was Ben Lear. Not Trout.”
A MAN from the wire crew entered the dugout and saluted Horsfall smartly. Horsfall wearily returned the courtesy.
“I was just at Regiment, sir, with Sergeant Ford,” the man said. “He sent me to tell you —”
“That General Trout’s in the area?”
The man nodded.
“Thanks, Britten. Tell Sergeant Ford we’re holding our breath.”
As Britten left, the telephone buzzed. This time Diamond answered it and carried it to Horsfall.
After listening briefly, Horsfall said, “Thank you, Captain.”
“You’ll never guess this one,” he told us. “General Trout’s in the area.”
“Maybe I’d better warn the companies,” I said. “He might go down and bother them.”
“Relax. We’ll tell him the road’s under enemy observation. Which it is. I went down by jeep this morning and they shot at me.”
“He might walk down through the woods like everyone else.”
“Trout? With all that fat?” But Horsfall’s peculiar pride was rubbed. “I won’t have him shoving his greasy thumb into our business! Our companies get to enjoy this lull while it lasts!”
I sent the new man out to spread word of the General’s imminent arrival. Then I thought I could make my call to the chaplain. But the telephone buzzed again, and again was carried to Horsfall, still sitting with his feet crossed upon the table. This time the conversation was longer. When he hung up he was frowning.
“That was Cantwell again,” he said. “Trout’s already hit the Second Battalion — and he did go to one of their companies. He chewed everything in sight, and phoned Cantwell from their CP to say how bloody lousy they were. Cantwell’s blowing his top. Trout said he was going back to Regiment after seeing us — no doubt to have another bite off Cantwell.”
“Trout would pick today,” I muttered. “I’ve got things to do.”
Horsfall’s gaze at me was somber. “You know how Cantwell loves this battalion. He said we had more warning than the Second — if we don’t satisfy the General all our passes are canceled.”
“No,” I said, “no!” Then I began to swear.
Head tilted back, Horsfall slowly blew a cloud of smoke at the beams holding up the roof. “Let’s not be racing our motors,” he drawled. “In the first place it’s a tough war all over, and maybe, if I put my mind to it, I could figure something out.”
Before I could speak, he held up a hand. “Don’t say anything. I haven’t done it yet — and it would be partly just to show old Trout where he fits.”
Lowering his chin to his chest, he frowned at his outstretched legs. Soon he began to mumble, more to himself than anyone else, “It must be the new corps commander. It all adds up. He chewed Trout. Trout’s trying to shake off the sting by passing it along.”
His mumbling continued. “And Trout — that poor old man — has the military mind in double dose. A lifetime in the Army has convinced him everyone is crazy but him — and on top of that he hasn’t had a promotion for a long, long time. He knows the Army’s crazy for not giving him that second star years ago.”
He sighed and, expelling a cloud of smoke, settled still more comfortably into his chair. In a deep but tuneless baritone he began to chant, “Oh, the moon is fair tonight along the Wabash, From the fields there comes the smell of new-mown hay —”
“Hank!” I said. “We’ve got a problem!”
“IN the sycamores the whippoorwills are calling.” He scowled and mumbled, “That may not be right.” Then he looked mildly in my direction. “Someone could get out that manual on patrols the Masterminds sent down a few days ago. It’s around somewhere.”
Sergeant Diamond found the manual. Placing it on the table, he received an approving nod from Horsfall, who was concluding his song, “In my Indiana home so far away.”
“Have you got something?” I demanded.
The song ended, Horsfall nodded placidly. “It’ll work if I understand the shrunken brain of our assistant division commander.”
SUDDENLY, outside, there was the powerful snorting of a jeep and, as the jeep’s engine was switched off, an explosive “’Tench-hut!” Then a gruff “Carry on!” and the entrance to the dugout darkened.
Helmeted, his rotund body wrapped in a trench coat swollen by a wool shawl around his neck, the General strode into the dugout, his short legs stamping purposefully on the loose boards of the floor. For a walking staff he was carrying a thick branch torn — by the look of it, violently — from one of the beech trees on our hill.
Horsfall bawled, “ ‘Tench-hut!” but even those clipped syllables betrayed his Hoosier farmer drawl. He stood at attention, but his rounded stomach gave the front of his jacket an unmilitary curve. The odd thought occurred to me that allowing for the difference in age he and the General were built along the same lines.
Halting in front of Horsfall, the General banged the butt of his staff violently down upon the floor. His helmet was pulled low across his forehead, and in its shadow his eyes glared like those of an animal about to sortie from its burrow. His lips were pursed together and thrust belligerently outward above a bulldog jaw. He was breathing hard. He barked, “Your men inspected daily?”
“Every morning, sir,” Horsfall answered.
“Never, by Lucifer, know it from those men outside!”
Leveling his staff at Horsfall, the General bellowed, “Your men look like chimney sweeps!” His lips kneaded together wrathfully. “Your CP’s dirty as a hogpen! Your men are dirty! Mister, because the German’s lying low don’t mean you’re on a picnic. This is war!”
Horsfall squarely met the furious gaze. “Sir,” he said, “those men outside have been training. Sir, I’ve been instructing them in camouflage and concealment.”
The General’s voice was low and menacing. “Training — by Lucifer, you ought to train!” His voice rose in volume. “I carry every night’s patrol routes in my head. Spent forty years in the study of patrols, and —”
He paused to draw breath for what promised to be an all-inclusive condemnation, and Horsfall firmly interrupted.
“Then the General no doubt knows our fine record on patrols. When the Corps Commander happened to pass this way —”
“The Corps Commander!”
The General’s head and shoulders flinched perceptibly, and his eyes flashed toward the dugout entrance. Horsfall’s nostrils flared like a hunting hound’s.
“I don’t believe he’s in the area now, sir,” Horsfall said. “But he happened to hail me earlier today, on the road behind this hill. In fact, sir, he gave me a lift.”
“Gave you a lift,” the General said.
“Possibly, sir, he recognized me from the time many years ago when I served under him in the CCC. In the old Army, General.” Horsfall paused significantly. He went on, “The Corps Commander, sir, appeared gratified to hear that we’ve been following your teaching on patrols.”
“I happened to mention the helpful advice, sir, which you have so often given us.”
To my knowledge, this was the General’s first visit in months, but a situation was developing where fact seemed of small account.
There was a silence, during which Horsfall stood at stiff attention.
The General cleared his throat. “The Corps Commander,” he said. “So he knew you from the C’s.”
“Naturally I cannot swear to that, sir. Mainly we discussed patrols. I was anxious to find out if he knew whether you, sir, had had a hand in writing the manual.”
The General’s eyes enlarged. “What’d he say?”
“Sir, he didn’t know. I said we all thought it likely.”
The General lowered his gaze, and silently reflected. A covert but unmistakable smile appeared upon his lips; he had been chewed, perhaps savagely, but this morning on the road behind the hill he had made some points.
Horsfall said enthusiastically, “I thought I was right about that manual! Sir, I had a hunch!”
The General scowled. “Well, now, I can’t say I wrote the book personally . . .”
Horsfall appeared unable to believe this.
“But,” the General went on, “I had many a long talk with one of the authors. In my day I was a great tramper in the woods. Something of a hunter. Patrolling’s been my lifelong interest.”
Horsfall’s face shone with open admiration.
“If I may say so, sir,” Horsfall said, “with all due respect, I believe that officers with an enthusiasm for patrolling have at last been vindicated. This war has proved their wisdom.”
“By Lucifer, Captain, you’re right!”
“As an example, General, of our present training, there’s the matter of bird calls. We’re training our men to imitate bird calls. So patrols can communicate with each other, sir, without alerting the enemy.”
“Bird calls!” the General exclaimed.
It seemed that sheer artistic passion might be leading Horsfall to disaster, but he appeared sure of his ground.
“Indeed yes, sir,” he said. “I happened to mention bird calls to the Corps Commander as an example of your teaching on patrols.”
“My teaching!” the General roared. “Explain yourself, Captain!”
Horsfall seemed both hurt and eager. “Sir, the Corps Commander approved it highly! And of course we all thought, sir, it was you who had put it in the manual.”
“Are bird calls in the manual?”
“Indeed they are, sir.” Horsfall stepped to the table and picked up the manual. “Of course, sir, I thought you’d written the entire book.”
“Let me see that manual.”
Horsfall found the paragraph — one which he had read to me with vast enjoyment — and held the book open for the General to read.
“It seems to have been written, sir,” Horsfall murmured, “by a real woodsman.”
The General looked up from the manual. “And the Corps Commander — he approved the use of bird calls?”
“He approved it highly, sir.”
Lowering his head, the General again reflected. And, in the shadow cast by his helmet, a bitter twisting of his mouth — half grin, half snarl — testified that a conviction, doggedly held, was at last confirmed: the Corps Commander was an idiot.
I had begun to hope, but now the General started to peer about the dugout. Thinking that it was impossible to get a dugout really clean, I suddenly saw Horsfall’s half-smoked cigar lying on the table’s edge. In our division officers did not smoke while training men.
Something like mental telepathy must have gone to work, for as I looked helplessly at the cigar, Horsfall, although not taking his eyes from the General, began edging toward it.
Then the General swung round on Horsfall. “Captain,” he barked, “what bird calls do your men imitate?”
Touched but not quite grasped by Horsfall’s fingers, the cigar rolled off the table and fell to the floor, and Horsfall blurted, “Whippoorwills, sir.”
My heart sank.
“Whippoorwills!” the General shouted. “I haven’t heard any whippoorwills around here!”
Horsfall again was speaking smoothly. “In this country, sir, they appear to be a night bird. We hear them all over these hills at night.” He added, “We’re waiting to see if it’s a migration or if they’ve come to stay.”
“Whippoorwills,” the General said.
“Yes, sir. Whippoorwills.”
The General’s eyes narrowed. “Captain, let me hear a whippoorwill’s call!”
The General’s report to Cantwell, I thought, would place us lower than the low. I might as well forget about my pass.
“Sir?” Horsfall said.
“I said let me hear a whippoorwill’s call!”
For several seconds Horsfall, his expression unreadable, looked straight at the General, who looked straight back. Then, planting his legs apart and clasping both hands to his stomach, Horsfall drew in a deep breath. He raised his face toward the beams overhead, opened his mouth, and gave vent to a piercing, sustained, and weirdly realistic imitation of the bird in question.
“Whup — pur — will/” he cried, in a strange high scream. “Whup — pur — will! Whup — pur — will! Whup — pur — will!” Red-faced with effort, he drew breath, and earnestly continued, “Whup — pur — will! Whup — pur — will! Whup — pur — will!”
A shell exploded not far off, but was barely audible. My attention like that of everyone else was riveted to Horsfall’s demonstration, and as we watched and listened he began to flail his elbows back and forth like wings. For a moment, with his piercing cries resounding in the dugout, it seemed possible that his pudgy body would become airborne.
As the demonstration ended, the General drew himself up and took a final look around the dugout. He raised his beech staff and banged it down upon the floor.
“By Lucifer!” he shouted, “this is the first clean CP I’ve seen all day! Some dust here and there, but this is war! Glad to find one outfit on its toes. Sharp. What I call Army!” His jaw jutted forward and his eyes flashed at Horsfall. “See you keep up the good work, Captain!”
Horsfall shouted, too. “Yes, sir! Thank you, General!”
The General again banged his staff on the floor. He about-faced, marched toward the entrance, and his wide back disappeared up the shallow trench. Outside, as upon his arrival, there was a loud “ ‘Tench-hut!” and a gruff “Carry on!” and finally the snorting of his jeep.
WITHIN the dugout there was a complete silence. Across the table from Horsfall, Diamond stood with lowered gaze, as if grieving. He was slowly shaking his head. The new man was looking openmouthed at Horsfall.
Picking up his cigar from the floor, Horsfall relighted it and lowered himself into his chair. Sighing, he lifted up his legs and crossed his feet upon the table.
I found my voice. “Hank,” I said, offering my hand, “that was a work of art!”
Horsfall did not accept my hand. “The damned cigar,” he said, “It threw me off my stride. I had him until then.”
“You had him all the way!”
Horsfall slowly shook his head. “No, I lost him. And now I’m waiting for the kickback.” He added, without much interest, “You don’t have to worry about that pass, though. And he won’t bother the companies. He’ll tell Cantwell just what he told us.”
I struggled to comprehend. “You mean he knew you were lying?”
“It was those whippoorwills. I should have said robins or swallows, but I was thinking about the cigar, and he threw me a sneak question. When I said whippoorwills, he knew I was lying.”
“You mean he knew you were lying when he asked for the whippoorwill call?”
“Sure he knew. He knew I knew he knew, too.”
I remembered Horsfall’s enigmatic gaze at the General before giving the demonstration. But I began, “If he knew you were lying ...”
“He just wanted to see if I was game,” Horsfall said wearily. “You’ve got to have been in the Army a long time to understand a thing like this.” He added, mainly to himself, “That Trout’s a better man than I gave him credit for. Though not” — firmly — “in a class with Ben Lear.”
Still unconvinced, 1 said, “But he’ll give us an O.K. with Cantwell?”
“He’ll do that. But there’ll be a kickback. On me. Still, I guess I’ll relax till it comes.”
I called the chaplain, and my talk with him was not long over when the telephone sounded. The call was from the S-2 in the Second Battalion.
“General Trout just called from Regiment,” he said. “After being at your place.” He added, it seemed hopefully, “He chew you?”
“Chew the First Battalion? My friend, he was complimentary. Especially on patrols.”
“That’s what I’m calling about. The S-3 and me — we’ve got to take some instruction from your 3, Horsfall. That farmer.”
I said slowly, “Go on.”
The voice strengthened. “Whippoorwills! We have a direct order from the General to report to your area at dark. Horsfall’s going to demonstrate the whippoorwill call.”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “Horsfall received no such order.”
“Well, we did. And we’ll be there. And it better be good! Out.”
When I turned from the telephone Horsfall was looking at me.
“What order didn’t I receive?” he demanded.
I was relieved to hear the telephone buzz again. This time it was the S-3 of the Third Battalion. It seemed kindest to carry the handset to Horsfall.
He listened for a time, said dully, “At dark,” and hung up.
“Well,” he muttered, “it could be worse. Though not much.”
“You haven’t been ordered to go through with this,” I said.
He sighed. “Orders are for civilians. The General knows I know I’ve got to be there, and give them that crazy call.”
A few minutes later the Cannon Company phoned. Their exec was to attend.
Then Regimental Headquarters Company phoned.
Then an attached mortar company.
All morning, as General Trout moved about the area, the audience grew larger.
But I had my pass.
“You guessed it,” the Colonel’s letter concluded. “Whippoorwill Hank still hates the Army and still is in it. He’s now a major, running PX’s in Hawaii. But still reminds you of a Major General, Relaxed.”