Authors: Kathleen Benner Duble
he campground was a flurry of activity as officers and soldiers ran around preparing for the day’s training. Mules brayed loudly amid the confusion. Noah walked behind his uncle, trying to still the nervousness he felt.
Back at the barracks, his uncle ordered him to grab his skis and poles and put on his ski boots, a wool hat and gloves, and wool ski pants. Then they were out the door, into a jeep, and driving a few miles from camp until they stood at the bottom of another mountain where a rope with upside-down metal Ts scaled the side.
“What’s that?” Noah asked, looking at the strange contraption as he stepped out of the jeep.
“A T-bar,” James Shelley said. “The next step in your training.”
“Do they provide those in war?” Noah joked.
For the first time since he’d arrived, Noah was trying to be funny, but his uncle did not laugh. “No, but using a T-bar means
you’ll get back up the mountain faster, which means you’ll ski down a lot more times than you did yesterday.”
Noah felt his heart sink. More times than yesterday? Was it possible to be more exhausted than he had been last night?
The sound of skis on snow sounded behind them. A young man who looked to be in his mid to late twenties glided up beside them, his white parka, pants, boots, and skis contrasting starkly with his dark skin, dark hair, and dark, brooding eyes. He lowered the white scarf he had around his mouth and stared at Noah with disapproval.
“Daniel,” his uncle said, “this is my nephew, Noah Garrett. He ain’t much to look at and he’s got a long way to go physically, but he’ll listen to you and follow your instructions, won’t you, boy?”
Noah decided it was best not to challenge his uncle in front of others twice in one day. “Yes, sir.”
“I don’t like this, Shelley,” Daniel spoke up. “Taking time to train someone who has no skiing experience whatsoever isn’t a good thing for this division. We’re past that now. I should be out with the rest of you, getting my unit ready for combat.”
“He’s family, Daniel,” James Shelley said. “I thought you, of all people, would understand.”
Daniel Stultz turned and looked up at the mountainside. Finally, he nodded. “Fine, but he had better work his heart out. Otherwise it’s a waste of my day.”
“Wouldn’t expect anything less of him,” James Shelley said. He turned toward Noah. “You heard him, boy. Work your heart out today!”
Noah sighed. Did he have a choice?
James Shelley drove away, and Noah was left with Daniel Stultz, who promptly skied over and switched on a metal toggle near the closest T-bar. Immediately, an engine began to hum and the metal Ts started to move up the mountain.
“Hey, what’s powering that thing?” Noah asked, delighted and curious.
“A car engine,” Daniel responded. “Perhaps you’d rather work in the mechanical division of this unit? If so, we can leave off teaching you to ski, and I can get back to training for war.”
The man’s abruptness startled Noah. After all, he’d just asked a simple question. Noah shook his head, feeling as if he had been reprimanded as harshly as Wiley had been that morning.
“Let’s get to work, then,” Daniel said. “I’m going to show you how to rest against the metal Ts to let them pull you up the mountain. I’m only going to show you once, so you’d better pay attention.”
Noah put his skis on, then followed Daniel over to the T-bar, resentment building inside him. Who did this guy think he was?
Daniel stepped nearer the metal Ts that floated past. “When you think you’re ready, step into line with the Ts. When one comes near you, set yourself on it and lean back, but not too far back. Just rest easy and let it slide you up the mountain.”
Noah watched as Daniel stepped over and leaned back against the metal T that swung toward him. He watched the contraption pull Daniel up the slope a short distance. Then Daniel let go, stepped away, and skied back down to Noah. He made everything look simple. And Noah knew in that moment that Daniel
was one of those boys to whom everything came easily, someone who could perform every act of athleticism with grace.
“Now you try,” Daniel commanded.
Noah stepped up to the T-bar and waited for the next metal T to reach him. As he felt it hit him from behind, he sat down. Before he knew it, he was on the ground, flat on his back.
“Get up,” Daniel said, rolling his eyes. “Try again, and don’t lean so far back this time.”
Feeling humiliated, Noah got up and sidestepped back into line with the T-bar. For the second time, he stood until he felt the metal hit his behind, then he leaned as easily on it as he could. The T-bar began to pull him up the slope, and Noah shouted with excitement. Then suddenly his skis crossed over each other and tripped him up. His ankle turned slightly on him, and he let out a yelp of pain as he was thrown to the ground.
Daniel came sliding up the mountain and stepped out next to Noah. “Well, at least you’re up the mountain a bit, so you might as well try skiing down. And next time you use the tow, concentrate on keeping your skis straight.”
Noah pushed himself up off the ground, his ankle aching in protest. Without another word, he gently snowplowed his way down the short slope, the way his uncle had taught him yesterday.
Noah went over to the T-bar once more, determined to show Daniel that he, Noah Garrett, was a fast learner.
This time, he was successful. Triumph surged through him as he rode farther and farther up the mountain. Then, abruptly, he
was at the top. He saw the rope moving toward a pulley that flipped both it and the metal bars back down the mountain.
“What do I do?” Noah shouted out to Daniel. “What do I do now?”
There was no time. The end was there. Noah let go in a panic. Without the T pulling him forward and with his skis pointed directly up the mountain, Noah began to slide backward. He tried to turn his skis sideways to the mountain, but instead, they swung him around and threw him directly into the T-bar cable. Noah found himself on the ground once more.
Daniel came riding up the slope. “Move out of the way.”
Noah scooted his butt away from the towline, and Daniel swung himself casually off and sidestepped his way toward Noah.
“Get up,” he commanded. “Ski down, and try again.”
“You didn’t tell me what to do when I got to the end,” Noah said angrily. “Why didn’t you explain to me what to do?”
“Do you honestly think someone will be there to tell you what to do in the midst of a battle?” Daniel asked, his eyes snapping with a strange, barely controlled rage. “Use your brain, Garrett. You saw me step away from the T-bar earlier. You should have made a mental note of it. War is not for sissies. No one’s going to hold your hand over there. Get used to it!”
“I’m just learning!” Noah protested, bewildered at Daniel’s anger. “Don’t you think you could give me a little advice, at least on the first time?”
Daniel gave a short bark of a laugh. “Sure, Noah. How about this for advice? ‘We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then,
is not an act, but a habit.’ Aristotle. Does that explain anything to you?”
Noah said nothing, but he was seething inside.
Daniel crossed his arms across his chest. “So, now let’s start working on your skiing technique and see if we can’t bring you to excellence. You won’t be able to snowplow down mountains when we finally go into action. You’re too slow!”
Reluctantly, Noah stood up and headed back down the mountain, all the while listening to Daniel’s sharp voice instructing him how to parallel ski while barely concealing his disgust. Noah had no idea what this man’s problem was, but he knew one thing: Daniel Stultz definitely had one.
oah stumbled back to the barracks, his arms aching and his legs trembling with fatigue. He hurled his skis and poles into the corner and made his way to his bunk, throwing himself down on the bed and covering his eyes with one arm. What a disaster the day had been! He had gone up and down that stupid mountain at least a hundred times with only one quick break for some hot coffee that still had the grounds in it and a stone-cold sandwich on stale bread.
“Problem, Garrett?” Daniel had asked as he complacently swallowed part of his sandwich as if it were the best thing he had ever tasted. “Perhaps you think the army will be providing you with caviar and champagne during battle?”
“How about giving a guy a break?” Noah said.
“A break?” Daniel said, “In life, you need to make your own breaks, Garrett. You have to fight harder, study longer, and work
better than anyone else to get what you want. No one’s going to hand it to you.”
“You sure won’t,” Noah muttered as he swallowed the rest of the coffee, trying not to choke on the grounds. At least the coffee was hot.
The worst of it was that the food had been the
part of the day. Even as Noah began to grow weary, Daniel didn’t let up on him, making him practice parallel turning over and over and over.
“You think those Germans are going to give you time to rest in between attacks?” Daniel had asked, as Noah paused a moment before using the T-bar again.
“Probably more time than you have,” Noah said.
“Perhaps your uncle and the general would like to know your kindly opinion of our enemies,” Daniel said, his voice as cold as the air around them. “If you think for one moment that I’m tougher on you than the Germans will be, then you are dumber than you look. Of course, I probably shouldn’t worry. A lot of you guys just up and quit. You seem like a quitter to me, Garrett.”
Noah turned, his hands balled into fists. “Do you really think I care what
think of me?” he said through clenched teeth, feeling such anger, it almost shocked him.
Daniel was unfazed. “I’m not here for a popularity contest, Garrett. I am your supervisor, and as such, I will have your respect, whether you like me or not. In the meantime, get skiing. This conversation has wasted enough of my time already.”
Thinking back on what had happened today, Noah decided
Daniel Stultz was right about one thing. For once in his life, he
be a quitter, and that was fine by him. He’d wasted enough of his own time, too, with this foolish idea of learning to ski. It was time for action.
Just then, Wiley; Roger; the thin boy, Cam; and another boy with brown hair that drooped into his green eyes came through the door.
“Hey there, Noah,” Wiley called out. “Looks like Mr. Gloomy worked you over good today, eh?”
Noah sat up slowly, trying to ignore the pain shooting through his body. “That would be an understatement.”
The whole crowd laughed.
The boy with the green eyes held out his hand. “Bill Hanson.”
Noah shook his hand. “Noah Garrett.”
Cam and Roger introduced themselves, too.
“Don’t let Daniel Stultz get to you,” Bill said as he sat down to take off his ski boots. “He’s always angry and mean-spirited. He was born that way.”
“Yeah,” Roger said as he plopped down on his bunk. “That’s why we call him Mr. Gloomy — or my favorite, Dour Dan.”
The others laughed good-naturedly. Noah joined them. It felt good to know that the others didn’t like Daniel, either.
The boys peeled off their skiing clothes, washed up, and changed.
“Can’t you guys hurry up?” Cam complained. “I’m starving.”
“You’re always starving, Kramer,” Roger said to Cam. “It’s amazing they have any food left in the state of Colorado the way you eat.”
“You want to join us for dinner in the mess hall, Noah?” Wiley asked as he pulled on his jacket.
Noah nodded. It would be nice to be with people who weren’t barking orders at him all the time. “Sure. I’ll join you in just a few minutes. I’ve got to make a quick stop at the mail room first.”
Noah changed into clean clothes, too. His skiing outfit reeked of sweat and hard work.
He dug around in his rucksack to see how much money he had. It wasn’t much. It certainly wouldn’t get him all the way back to Texas, but there was enough there to make a start. If he knew he had a job waiting for him, he’d ride as far as he could and then hitchhike the rest of the way home.
He grabbed up a few pennies and hobbled back out into the cold, making his way across the camp and nodding to other soldiers who were heading in to dinner. He opened the door to the building his uncle had taken him to that first night.
Josh, the mail room clerk, looked up and grinned. “Hey there. Shelley’s nephew, right?”
“Well, boy, I hope you ain’t looking for anything just yet,” Josh said, “It usually takes the good old U.S. of A.’s mail system a few weeks to get letters to its new recruits.”
Noah shook his head. “Actually, I wanted to send off a letter myself.”
“No problem,” Josh said, “just give it to me, and I’ll put it in the post.”
“I need to write it first,” Noah said. “Do you happen to have paper and an envelope?”
“Sure do.” Josh reached under the counter and handed the items to Noah. He nodded his head toward a table and chairs. “You can sit over there if you want.”
Noah sat down and began his letter to Reverend Patterson, imploring the minister to try and find some place for Noah to work, some way to get him get out of this situation. The warmth of the mail office eased his tired muscles. As he wrote, he remembered clearly how it felt after a day working in the fields with his father: the strain of unhooking the plow, the warmth of the horse’s flanks as he led him to his stall, the cold of the water from the pump outside his house. He remembered standing there with his dad, letting the water run over both their heads and down their necks, feeling the chill as the wind blew across the land. He remembered looking up to see the red of the sun setting through a bank of rain clouds and smelling the first scent of warm pie coming from the kitchen. Noah was so wrapped up in the memory that he almost didn’t notice Josh near him. When he did, he quickly covered the letter.
Josh gave a bark of laughter. “Got a girl back home, boy?”
“No, sir,” Noah answered, trying not to scowl at the man’s nosiness.
“Must be someone important you’re writing to, to make you so cautious,” Josh said, grinning.
“It’s no one,” Noah said. “No one important.”
“Then why waste the three cents?” Josh asked.
“Don’t you have something else to do?” Noah snapped.
Josh held up his hands. “Whoa, sorry. Didn’t mean to rile you. Just making conversation, trying to get to know you a little, that’s all. Forget I asked.”
He turned and went back to the counter.
Noah sighed. He shouldn’t have bitten the man’s head off, but he didn’t want it getting back to his uncle that he’d written Reverend Patterson. He finished the letter, addressed it, and licked the envelope shut. Reluctantly, he carried it over to Josh.
“I’m sorry,” Noah said as he handed him the letter. “I’m just tired tonight.”
Josh nodded. “Sure. I understand.”
He glanced down at the address. “Hey, your uncle just telegraphed this guy yesterday. Nothing’s wrong, is it?”
Noah grimaced. There was no way of getting around it now. His uncle would know about the letter. He’d have to think up some excuse for writing Reverend Patterson.
“No,” Noah said as he paid Josh the three cents for a stamp, “he’s just a friend.”
Noah headed back outside. He was no longer hungry. The memory of home and the time with his parents hung like an icy blanket over him. He wanted his parents to be there with him again. He wanted to be home instead of at this military base, training for a war with scowling, shouting men who were on a mission he didn’t believe in and had no intention of becoming a part of.
But Noah knew this was his reality, at least for the time being. And the thought exhausted him.
He made his way back to his barracks. The idea of dinner with Wiley and the others, in spite of their kindness, was too much to bear. He just couldn’t sit there tonight and laugh and joke. There was nothing funny about the way he was feeling.
He opened the door to find Skeeter sitting on his bunk. “I was waiting for you,” Skeeter told him. “Your uncle is on night maneuvers. I told him I’d watch out for you.”
“I can look after myself,” Noah said tightly, thinking about the fact that his uncle had thought it funny that he was to go through this ordeal.
“There’s a Ping-Pong championship in the mess hall after dinner,” Skeeter said. “What do you say we grab some chow and go watch?”
“I’m not hungry,” Noah said, sitting down next to Skeeter. “And I’m too sore to watch a dumb old game.”
“Tough going today?” Skeeter asked.
Skeeter stared out at the rows of bunks for a minute or two. “You know, before Camp Hale was built, we were stationed at Fort Lewis near Mount Rainier. My first days with the outfit were awful. I remember sitting there after hours of training wondering what the heck I had gotten myself into.”
Noah didn’t respond. Sure, he hated the training, but worse, he hated the loss of all he had known. He thought about telling Skeeter that was the real problem, but he just didn’t have the heart to tonight.
Skeeter gave a little laugh and went on in spite of Noah’s lack of response. “So there I was, a former
captain at Harvard, so
confident and full of myself. I had been so sure I was going to show those boys of the 86th a thing or two. I got to Fort Lewis and remember looking up at Mount Rainier and thinking, ‘You’re mine!’ I was determined to climb that mountain faster and better than anyone ever had before. And then some Finnish resistance fighters arrived to train us and the guys from Norway who’d been battling those Germans showed up to teach us a thing or two. And I suddenly learned just how sadly lacking I was.”
never told anyone
had any skills at all,” Noah said bitterly.
“I didn’t mean that, Noah,” Skeeter said. “I know you didn’t sign up for this. I know this isn’t what you wanted. I know what’s making you hurt right now, and it isn’t the soreness.”
Noah looked at Skeeter.
“It’s the homesickness, kid,” Skeeter said, “For me, too, that was the
thing of all. There I was, literally beating my body into submission, trying through hard work and exhaustion to forget all that sadness over my parents and sister being gone. But every morning when I woke, the first thing I thought about was home. I longed for the smell of an Ohio spring. I longed for the sound of my parents’ soft voices coming in through the screen door from our front porch on a summer’s evening. I longed for just one more …” Skeeter’s voice grew raspy, and he had to stop to swallow. “… one more day with them … just one.”
Noah looked away, his own throat tight. Skeeter did understand.
“That longing, Noah, it won’t ever go away,” Skeeter said, standing. “It’ll lessen somewhat, and you’ll learn to live with it. But it’s a part of who you are now.” He paused. “And I learned one other thing those early days training with these guys at Mount Rainier.”
Noah looked up.
“You can’t run from the human race, son. Eventually, you’ve got to give up trying to escape and join in again.” Skeeter walked to the front of the barracks and opened the door. “So, what do you say? Shall we give it a go?”
Noah bit his lip. Maybe Skeeter was right. He couldn’t just keep sulking day in and day out. He had to start somewhere. He stood.
Together, Skeeter and he walked in silence across the camp. And when Skeeter opened the door to the mess hall, Wiley looked up and broke into a wide grin.
“Hey!” he called. “What took you so dang long? Thought you’d
get here. Come on now. Grab some food. And we’re taking bets on the game. You want to place a wager?”
The others, too, looked up at him expectantly.
“Go on, boy,” Skeeter said. “Take the first step.”
“Skeeter?” Noah asked, pausing for a moment. “Did you ever get to the top of Mount Rainier?”
“I did, boy,” Skeeter assured him. “I surely did.”