remember everything like that, you
could go on until you remember what
was there before you were in the world.”
In the dawn of my seventh decade, I contemplate seven wooden soldiers that have traveled with me from a time before I remember. They are not warriors but a marching band of Napoleon’s Grande Armée. No one to ask now if they were first a gift for me or for my father when he was a boy, but they were shiny and new when I first became aware of them as my toys. Carved and painted meticulously by hand, each figure wears a tri-cornered black hat topped with white feathers sprouting in a tapered plume. Ample epaulets decorate shoulders. A white bandolier drapes over the left clavicle, crosses down and over in front, tucks behind the back on the right, and rejoins itself on top again. Red piping adorns the hem of the black longcoat and seams of the pants.
Like myself, my musicians have declined physically. The cymbal player has suffered most. A small fissure spreads through his neck, paint fades on his face and plume, and the bottom half of one cymbal is missing. The head of the cornet lists to the side, connected by a metallic spine holding him together. His paint, like that of the tuba player, is almost completely faded. The oboe, fife, and clarinet, however, endured only minor blows and chips, and the drummer’s instrument merely lacks a full covering of white paint.
As a child, I conceived of soldiers and war as glamorous. I pushed mine around the floor to lead attacks and parades. At rest, they stood arrayed on a bureau of my bedroom. In high school and college, they graduated to my desk. After I had been drafted into the army while a war I opposed raged in Vietnam, they remained forgotten in a box for twenty years, until revived to march once more on a small wooden display above our kitchen counter. I review them now as they prepare to step forward to the notes of a military symphony of my imagining.
In 1812, Napoleon’s Grande Armée, with its core French troops and numerous allies, swept in a long march ever deeper into Russia, winning most engagements. Bloodied but still victorious at the Battle of Smolensk, Napoleon’s artillery destroyed the town and killed almost the entire civilian population. His forces marched on to Moscow, but the Russians stripped and burned the city in a strategic withdrawal. The brutal cold and enemy harassment devastated the exhausted army. A month later, with winter approaching and no viable route to achieving victory, Napoleon ordered The Great Retreat. In the end, with two-thirds of the army dead, missing, or captured, the once jaunty notes of the marching band subsided to a dismal whimper.
They stand motionless, my musician-soldiers, alert for the order to march. The drummer holds sticks mid-beat in anticipation of delivering the rat-a-tat to advance; the cymbal player pauses before percussing his plates; and the lips of the clarinet musician do not yet touch his woodwind. The fife and oboe, and brass section of tuba and cornet, however, press their mouths to their instruments, prepared to sound the call to battle. At their signal, soldiers ranged in columns behind them will file toward death or glory, a road many had marched before and multitudes would follow, including the boys with whom I mastered the lethal machinery of the US infantry: the M-16 rifle, .45-caliber semi-automatic pistol, M-60 and .50 caliber machine guns, Claymore mines, M-67 hand grenade, and M-79 Grenade Launcher
The Long March of the Band
As they arrived without histories when first presented to me as a child, I invented a backstory of what transpired for each of my musicians in the retreat from Russia. They also possessed no leader. To remedy that omission, I invented as well a Drum Major to conduct them as they marched.
His cockaded hat dripping with gold braid, Drum Major served through revolutions, under kings, and more grandly still, under the Little General himself. Only he was allowed to wear a sword and hold the highest non-officer rank. His mustache, which, unlike the officers, he waxed, turned down at his lips in a regal sneer. It remained more black than gray. A tall man, he stood straight, towering above his musician troops.
At the Battle of Boradino, Drum Major raised and lowered his baton to command, “Forward, march.” He refused to bow before the first withering volley of cannon and continued erect until cut down by errant shrapnel. In his unbending courage, he was like many who led my own young comrades into battle to fight and die; also to kill other boys like themselves in the steam and the heat of far away jungle.
Blood seeped through the black field jacket of the Drum Major, in mimicry of the resplendent red hem adorning his coattails. His silver-mounted staff lay unnoticed in the mud as he pondered the evanescence of fame and the meanness of fate. He expired with a sigh that sounded like a question mark. In the chaos, no other conductor was appointed. By necessity, the band played without him as they marched, then limped, and finally dragged home.
His instrument wrapped over his shoulder, Tuba desired only to lay his heavy burden down. The metallic gloss of his brass dulled in response to constant worry. In dreams, he smelled the richness of recently tilled fields and felt enveloped again in the innocence of his youth. As he marched, he muttered, “I will not think of the past or what I have suffered today, but only of a tomorrow that will be better.” But there was no tomorrow. One morning, he failed to wake. Festering wounds on his feet, bound in dirty rags, spread poison throughout his body.
A heavy man, Oboe loved to play practical jokes. He hid the drummer’s sticks and dipped the mouthpieces of the wind instruments in olive oil. The others forgave him because he meant no real harm and was always ready with a kind word or offer to help. He played in front of Tuba and became hard of hearing. One morning, Oboe failed to register the footfall of an approaching Russian soldier, who cut him down with a saber as he wrestled into his pants.
Cornet, an older and silent man from Brittany, was a shepherd before assigned to his instrument. He dreamed of once again tending his sheep from the sunshine of coastal fields to the highlands of the Black Mountains above Gourin; but soldiers, both then and now, live on substance, not fantasy. On the long retreat, Coronet withered. His instrument, long curled into his hands, slowly slipped from his grasp. Reduced to eating the grass that once fattened his flock, he slumped to the ground without a sound.
Cymbal also had dreams and a mother who loved him; but this made no difference. A simple boy, kind and childish, he was deemed unfit for anything more difficult than striking one brass plate against another. Moments before the desperate Battle of Maloyaroslavets, no one heard him mutter: “I want simply to live; to cause no harm to anyone.” A bullet struck him two inches below the jaunty brim of his hat. The band had energy only to dig a shallow grave and prayed this would protect his body from the circling black vultures. In the end, his medals and campaign sash alone returned home to his family.
Four died on their way home for reasons mundane and martial: Tuba of sepsis, Oboe from lack of caution, Cornet of hunger, and Cymbal from a rifle ball. Causes, in many ways, similar to those that felled the young men I knew: jungle rot, youthful folly, despair, and gunfire. Three of the musicians survived, in varying degrees, to return.
Clarinet strode with his comrades across the Luzha River, wearing his mother’s cross against his chest and dreaming of glory. She had not wanted him to enlist, but he said, “Maman, I am seventeen and the Emperor calls.” He was her first born. She ached to keep him beside her. She relented because the family had too little to feed the six younger children. During the fighting, the colonel, with the band arranged behind him, peered through the smoke of combat to determine which side was winning. A .69-caliber ball hurtled from an enemy smoothbore musket, and the head of the young and innocent Cymbal exploded. Clarinet never forgot holding his comrade’s ravaged body. After he returned to the family farm south of Lyon, he never again dared leave his village.
Once a soldier I knew lay wounded close to the Cambodian border, in Ia Drang, a valley deep in the Central Highlands. A North Vietnamese Army regular used his body as prop for his machine gun. Both boys trembled so violently that the enemy never detected my friend still lived. My friend did recover from physical wounds and, over time, psychological scars; but he died almost forty years later from cancer he attributed to Agent Orange.
His face bleak from fatigue and the horror of what he saw, Drum nevertheless maintained a steady pace to the beat of the band’s martial notes. He arrived home diminished but alive. Dragging body and instrument back, he repeated, like a prayer, a phrase overheard from an officer who rode beside the band on his dying horse: “I will take this step, then another, until I reach home.”
Once returned to Toulouse, his beautiful rose city, never talked about his experience. He lived on a small army pension, as well as from a stipend from cleaning the local parish church. Often, he wished he had died with his best friend Oboe.
Fife, however, still believed in the grandeur of war. He returned at last to Cahors, a village along the Lot River, famed for its wines. In his old age, he whiled away his afternoons at the Café Insurrection. He drank Kir in the afternoon, remembering departed comrades and thrilling to his own tales; but at night, he grew moody and savored only the earthy taste and deep purple of Bordeaux’s royal grapes. Saluting a drunken veteran with one leg sitting opposite him, he murmured, “Ah, but for that horrible winter.” The head of the one-legged man slumped to the table and his eyes closed. Fife downed his glass and that of his companion.
The members of my marching band as I have envisaged them and the soldiers I have known had commonplace motives to carry them through what they experienced: to defend their brothers, to eat and drink, to return home, to make love once more to those left behind. In infantry training, I learned to reply to the shouted question “what is the spirit of the bayonet:” To Kill, Drill Sergeant, To Kill. The nihilism of this call and response haunts me still. Like Fife, some ex-soldiers reconstruct history to transmute defeat into victory, but most veterans are more akin to Clarinet and Drum, unable to repress trauma with any imagined achievements of the wars in which they fought. And the dead are always like Tuba, Oboe, Cornet and Cymbal: dead too young.
Michael Royce’s published fiction and creative non-fiction have appeared in Bartleby Snopes, Euphony, MacGuffin, PANK, Prime Number, and other on-line and print journals and anthologies. His series, collectively called “Mississippi Freedom Summer in Eight Vignettes,” published in the “Best of the Net 2011” by Fringe/Sundress Publications.