The weather was warm and the sun shined brightly down on the prison camp. It was Sunday, and the men were fed prunes that morning and Harold attended the small mass with the prison chaplain. He received communion and was on his way back to the barracks when some of the men stopped him.
“Hey, Red! We’re going to try for some softball today. Wanna join? We could always use an extra man.” His bunkmate waved him down and Harold decided it was a nice enough day to spend some hours out in the sun before writing a letter to Loretta.
“Well, alright,” he said. “I gotta tell you boys, though. We better win. It’s my girl’s birthday back home.” His teammate smiled.
“That’s just swell! We’ll be sure to win it for her.”
The men had a good game going, very evenly matched. They were back and forth, unable to score on each other but still having a great time nonetheless. Harold felt in himself a release of the prison – the fences and barbed wire a blur as he swung and struck out. He had energy. He didn’t know if it was the prunes he received for breakfast instead of hot water, or that it was Loretta’s birthday, but there was an infectiously happy energy among the two teams.
By the ninth inning the men were exhausted. The teams broke for a moment to recollect themselves and come up with a strategy.
“We gotta win this for Red’s gal,” one of the men was panting excitedly. It was nice for them to have a goal to work towards.
“Yeah, we have to give him something happy to write home about.”
“I always write home happy things to her. She doesn’t need to worry,” Harold reassured.
When the teams assumed their positions to finish the ninth inning up, a guard approached.
“Wrap it up and go back to your barracks.” He was holding a rifle across his chest. The men looked around, confused. It was only midday – not to mention Sunday – and they were entitled to their ninth inning of softball. One of the men approached the guard with his hands out.
“We’re allowed to finish our game here. We only have one inning left.” The guard, without speaking, raised his rifle and struck the prisoner in the side of the head with the butt of the gun. A couple of men in the crowd of softball players cried out in disbelief, while the others stood breathless in the dirt. The man fell to the ground, unconscious and bleeding. The guard returned his rifle to the front of his body and took a step back, facing the men, giving room for them to come in and collect their friend. Some of the prisoners were afraid to move, thinking it was another challenge for them to also be struck with the rifle – or worse – shot.
Harold hesitated for a moment with two other men, but decided to approach the player. His face was covered in dirt and his hands limp. His right arm lay loose across his stomach. They reached his side, and Harold crouched beside him.
“Can you move?” Harold now knelt in the dirt next to the prisoner. He lay on his side, breathing, thankfully; there had been enough death earlier in the year. There was a small pool of blood under his head where the guard connected with the butt of his gun. Dirt and sticky red caked the man’s forehead. Harold placed a gentle hand on the fallen prisoner, who winced under his palm.
“We have to get him over to the infirmary,” another prisoner suggested. Harold nodded and stepped aside while the prisoner who spoke up, along with the help of one of the medics, lifted the injured man to take him away and dress his wounds.
“We’re already prisoners! What gives you the right?” A disembodied voice protested from the small crowd that gathered.
“Stay in line, and it won’t happen,” the guard replied. He was sickeningly overconfident with his gun in his hand. He gave a cool, dismissive glance over the malnourished faces, turned on his heels, and returned to his post.
As soon as it began, the situation diffused. With no one left to confront, the men dispersed. Harold brushed the dirt off his knees and looked down at his palm, then further past it to the blood on the ground. How much longer, he thought. The blood lay stagnant in the August heat, flecks of dust fallen from his pants swirled around on top of it. He returned to his bunk to write Loretta.
August 13, 1944
My Dearest Wife;
I want you to know, doll, that today my thoughts and heart went home to you. I hope you had a happy birthday, and I wish the future brings happier ones, with your truly to share in the honor of bringing pleasant times to you.
An exciting game of softball was played today that went into extra innings. Before game time, I informed the boys that it was your birthday and immediately they shouted, “We’ll win it for Reilly.” We did honey, we won it in the ninth inning by a score of 1 to 0. It seems now, that I’ve taken on a new name; the fellows call me Reilly. I like it doll, for every time I hear your name I think of you. That’s all for now sweets. Regards to all.
Your Ever-loving Husband,