The boy who Feared Thunder

The young boy sat idly on the backyard swing as the July sun moved lower and lower, seemingly hotter – closer – than it was earlier that day. The chains creaked and popped unevenly as he rocked back and forth – an imperfect assembly done by his father. Dinner would be soon. He wasn’t trying to move, rather, the earth was moving under him. His bare feet dangled, big toes lightly kissing the patch of dirt where he and his sister spent countless summers before kicking off and jumping, trying to reach the sky. 

He observed his own shadow growing and stretching out before him, the sun to his back, as if he was watching his future and how tall he would get in the coming years. A breeze curled under his bangs, dry with salt from where they were once dampened by sweat and play. He kept his eyes on his shadow – longer, longer, until it was nothing more than a black stain across the grass. He thought to himself that he would die someday, but that didn’t frighten him. His mother told him when his grandfather died, that it’s only natural, that it happens to everyone. The young boy asked where he would go – if he would come back again. She said she didn’t know. He didn’t know how to tell his mother that’s how it worked – that he recognized his grandfather in his dreams – that he was afraid of thunder for a reason. 

The summer of 1942 held a large amount of promise and fear for the American people. The United States was already at war with the Axis Powers following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of the previous year. Artie and Harold knew from a young age that they wanted to serve in the military, but the twins weren’t prepared for killing, enemies or otherwise. Being the youngest two in a family of nine children with German immigrant parents, the boys knew that they’d be men of military – at the very least to help support their parents. Their father was a milkman in New York City, trading in his horse-drawn cart and bottles for kegs once Prohibition ended and taking on the role of a brewer; He played guitar at bars and bus terminals for extra money at night. Their mother was a homemaker who made all of the children’s clothes and maintained a home of eight boys and one girl. 

Once the war began, Artie enlisted in the Navy, being a lover of boats and summers on the lake house. His twin chose the Army Air Corps, with his eyes fixed on his second love, the B-17 Flying Fortress. For the first time in their 22 years, the twins parted ways to serve what they both believed to be a higher purpose. Harold learned the ins and outs of repairing a plane engine. Artie mastered gunnery school and prepared to leave for the Pacific. The boys kept in touch through letters; Harold always so poignant and proper. Artie, the jokester of the two, scribbled his way along with quips and poor spelling. They always looked forward to knowing the other one was safe. As twins, they shared everything, including gut feelings – the letters helped. 

Artie sat staring out at the Pacific Ocean, a letter from Harold in his hand. He had just gotten married on leave and only a few days later was called off to England to fight with the 8th Air Force against the Germans. He was proud. He was scared. He had a feeling in the pit of his stomach. Artie didn’t know where to send a return letter, so he instead addressed a note to Harold’s new wife, congratulating the couple and requesting for a way to contact his brother in the future. Once he was finished, Artie returned to the humid, sticky reality that was the Pacific Islands, watching the sun blaze red-orange as it sunk over the horizon, turning the water to fire before him.  

At night he lay awake under the mosquito net, the lamplight moon projected shapes and shadows against the barrack wall. It reminded him of when he was a young boy and his father brought home a Magic Lantern. They turned on the lamp before bed and fell asleep to the images of lions and elephants against the ceiling, a whole world within their crowded Depression home. He missed those days and thought back to them as if they happened a lifetime before, as if they weren’t his to remember. He was worlds away, killing men, and for what? To stop more men from killing more men? 

On the night of November 13th, Artie was operating with a crew on PT-154 off the Shortland islands in the Pacific. It was a nighttime anti-barge mission. Their goal was to cut the fuel sources to the Japanese who occupied the island, eventually allowing Allied forces to take over Tonolei Harbor. No fuel. No planes. No ships. It seemed easy enough, almost childishly simple. The men moved silently with the assistance of PT-155. Artie held his breath as water lapped up against the sides of their boats. They crept along about a mile south of the main Shortland Island, guided only by beach silhouettes and the stars. 

The still, unmoving night was suddenly broken by blinding flashes that came from a mile north of the PT boats. Seconds later was the boom of the artillery the lights belonged to. From the shore, three enemy rounds were fired in succession and came screaming towards the men. The first round missed with a deafening roar as it taunted the crews, bobbling around, maneuvering through the black. The second round hit its mark, tearing through the port side of the Tulagi boat like thunder under Artie’s feet. Direct hit. The third round went unnoticed as he blew towards the sky in an explosion that turned his body around and over, landing on whatever broken part of the boat remained.

The men didn’t even have the time to return fire from their turrets as another shell pierced a readied torpedo. A large flash of fire followed as whatever was left of PT-154 was thrown about the black water, now littered with debris and bodies. Shouts from the shore echoed as the crew struggled to see who was alive, only to be met with blood and cries for help. Artie lay on the deck of the boat, calm and numb in a dream. Water sprayed over his body from the unrelenting rounds against the already-dead crew. He felt the world move below him, agitated water stirring around with the earth. Artie gazed up at the November sky, flecks of magical light dancing along the ceiling of the world. He thought of his brother Harold and closed his eyes. 

The young boy woke up, sweating from the memory. His night light projected images of lions against the ceiling. The dreams never felt the same as when they first happened, and as he got older, he remembered less and less. The sky wasn’t as bright this time, the stars blurred a little more. He sat up and walked to his window where the clouds threatened to wake the world with flashes of heat lightning and the roll of thunder. One, two, three… He counted the time between the crash and the spark, just like his mother taught him – just like his grandmother taught him. He remembered the bombs more than anything else. The last thing he heard in 1943. The young boy felt goosebumps on his arms wake him further. He turned around and jumped back into his bed, eyes fixed on the lions. Soon the storm would be directly overhead. Soon, the war would be back.

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