This is what they did to while away the hours that hot and empty summer of 1864. They dug a gopher hole two hundred and fifty yards long, ten feet wide and high enough for the tallest man to walk through without dipping his head. They dumped the hard displaced Virginia clay in the swamps that spread like festering sores behind them.
When the tunnel was long enough, they stood back from it and gave it the admiration reserved usually for the most beautiful of women. This lasted perhaps half an hour if that long. Then they grew bored once again. The Private, whose blue pants and white shirt were the color of the earth from so much digging, wondered what the blasted thing was for. He asked but nobody seemed to know.
Sure they had dug it and they had welcomed the reprieve from camp boredom such work had given them. But now that the task was finished, they were filled with curiosity. What use did the higher ups, those who had ordered it dug in the first place, have for a tunnel that burrowed directly toward and beneath the enemy fortifications? Maybe the tunnel served no purpose. Maybe the digging of it was the only use it had.
Then, again, nobody knew. The train that pulled in from Maryland had a load that needed hauling, the higher ups told them. So, they left their digging and hiked the mile or so to the depot, hundreds of them, triple file and swearing at the heat and the biting mosquitoes. At the waiting train, each was given a wooden barrel that weighed fifty pounds or more, all barrels the same, and told to tote the things back to the tunnel.
What's in these casks, they wanted to know. And the higher ups said it didn't matter, did it, since they had to be toted anyway. But, the higher ups said with more sincerity in their tone than usual, Whatever you do, don't none of you drop your load. Else you'll know it from here to yesterday and back.
Men, hundreds of them who had once been soldiers when the war had given them something to do besides sit around and wait and dig holes in the ground, were transformed into pack mules, at least for this trip to the depot and back.
Stack them barrels atop each other, they were told, down as deep in the hole as you can go. The men like ants worked well into the cool of the night, and when they were finished, they looked with pride on what they had done. But what they had done nobody had any idea. Dug a hole in the earth, filled in a swamp with dirt, packed maybe three hundred barrels of unknown substance as tight as they could get them in the far end of the hole. This man's army done gone all queer, somebody whispered in the Private's ear, and both of them had laughed as if it was some sort of joke.
Now we'll see something, said one of the higher ups, a Colonel who wiped at the cold sweat running through the dirt on his brow. We'll all of us see something like we never seen before.
Though nobody told them what for sure they had dug the hole for, the men understood or so it seemed and the boredom they called waiting turned into an exciting time. Gonna be something, that's for damn sure, on this they all agreed.
A couple of men, who hauled artillery from battlefield to battlefield in the days when battlefields were still a possibility, took a long spool of rope that looked an awful lot like fuse into the hole, and when they came out an hour or so later, the spool was empty and they held the tail end of the rope in their hands. Ready when you are, they said to the Colonel who nodded that he understood. The men could tell, the artillery fellows were eager to put a match to the rope they held.
But the Colonel had to wait for someone even more higher up than him to give the go ahead to striking the match. So there they stood, for the better part of a week, waiting, waiting with excitement inching toward mania with each passing day.
Finally the orders came down. Number one, get the men on their toes and ready to move forward and deliver the enemy one final fatal blow. Number two, don't let anybody stand too near one end of the tunnel or the other. Number three, hold off on the match until the higher ups get there themselves. This was going to be an event none of them wanted to miss. They were on their way. Don't get antsy. Patience is a virtue.
So many blue-garbed men gathered in one place for so long attracted the enemy's attention. Several in their gray rags glared at them from atop their earthworks which had proven time and time again to be untakeable by assault. Too much abatis. Too much open ground. Too many torpedoes buried in the open field. Too many rifles with fine honing pointed over the top of the earthworks for them to do much more than stare at the enemy's handiwork. But now, the gathering around one spot and especially with so much brass on display, attracted too much attention. And the Colonel sitting astride his brown mare with sweat darkening her hide and the back of his collar, said to twelve or so sharpshooters with old fashioned buffalo guns in their arms, Take out the sumbitches. And the rattatat of musket fire sent most of the men looking for a place to hide.
The higher ups, two Major Generals, three Brigadiers, two dozen Colonels, and a whole train load of majors, captains, and lieutenants, arrived in time for the thickest exchange of small arm fire any of them had witnessed in over a month. The fun of war had returned, and all of them seemed to welcome it. Whatever the ruckus was about, it wasn't boring any longer.
The sun had just ducked out of sight beyond the trees in the West. Perfect time to do the thing.
The top Major General, the highest up of the higher ups, a squat little man who needed a shave, nodded his approval. Good thinking, he remarked, engaging the enemy and getting them clustered like that. The Colonel nodded the compliment aside, Just doing his duty as he saw fit, he said.
Okay, the top Major General said, looking first at the mouth of the tunnel and then at the enemy's earthworks two hundred and fifty yards away. Okay, let's do her. And he took cover behind a copse of scrub oak trees along with the rest of the higher ups. The Colonel turned to the artillery man who still stood there, fuse in hand, and gave him the nod everybody had been waiting so long to see.
The match was lit.
The fuse took on its own life.
The hiss of the burning fuse disappeared down the long dark hole in the earth.
Sort of like flushing out rats, mused the Private who watched all this with recognition in his eye. Pour some kerosene down a rat hole then hit it with a match. Gets them every time. Then you stand on the ready for the rats, usually with fur all ablaze, to come pouring out of the hole, and you pop them off with your musket until there's no ammunition left. That's when you use your hoe or garden rake or anything that's at hand, anything for swinging and crushing blows.
It seemed to the Private that the fuse was taking an awful long time to flush their rats. You don't suppose the damn things gone out, do you?
The Major General must have had the same thought. His head appeared from behind the stand of scrub oak. He gestured to the Colonel, any time now. Sun'll be gone in a few minutes and they won't be able to see a damned thing. Already the edge of night was turning the woods behind the men into a series of scattered camp fires. And over there behind the enemy line the small arms fire had stopped, the enemy going to their supper more than likely. But then, as the higher ups had informed them earlier, Don't get antsy. It's on its way. Patience is a virtue.
The Private thought the world was coming to an end. The earth leapt like a wounded animal, first this way, then that, before it became still again. The fireball that burst from the bowels of mother earth was like the sun rising all over again, throwing a strange white light into the early evening twilight and packing the heat of a thousand cannon spending fire without pause for days on end. A shower of earth and wood and burning air fell all over and around them. The Private slapped at flakes of something that burned as it tried to ignite his blue tunic. Whatever it was that flamed carried with it a rancid smell; then he realized it was probably a fragment of the enemy or the enemy's supper. The copse of wood where the Major General hid caught fire and the bevy of higher ups doused the blaze with water and earth. Then the wind came, swirling in this direction and that, bringing more dust and fumes to where they stood. As quick as it came, the wind was gone, leaving a hush over the scene.
And then all of them turned to the tunnel and where it had led. There, where the enemy earthworks had been only a moment before, was a crater fifty feet deep, maybe more, two hundred feet wide, a massive gaping hole in the middle of the enemy fortifications, illuminated by fires of all sizes. And in the crater, there was no life. None at all. No sound. Nothing.
All of them, the men, the Colonel, the higher ups, and especially the Private gazed at the sight with silent and prayerful awe. "My God," the Private whispered, "what on earth have we done?"
A strange sort of twilight hung over the field giving the trees, the men, the higher ups, the crater a gray and ghostly pallor. It was a bit scary, standing in total silence, waiting for the order to charge, an order that did not come. Instead, the higher ups resolutely stood there, too, in awe like everybody else.
Where's the damn enemy, everybody wanted to know. It was the quiet of death like a battlefield three days after the armies have both withdrawn.
You don't reckon we done killed them all, somebody whispered to nobody in particular.
The Colonel from underneath a magnolia tree, having been tossed to the ground by his terrified mare, pointed to the Private with his sticky cigar and said, You–good soldier, go see what it is we did to them poor folk, and be quick about it. The cigar was now pointing toward the crater where a dark and heavy haze filled the hole.
The Private took a deep breath. His body hadn't quit shaking from the power of the detonation, and now it was his job to go check the thing out? By myself? he asked, a near plea in his voice.
Do you see me pointing at anybody else? the Colonel said. And don't dawdle.
The Private strode toward the low hanging haze and the raw scar in the earth's crust. The further he went into the crater, the quieter it became. He noticed through the thin soles of his worn and laceless boots that he was stepping on more than earth. There were pieces of clothing, fragments of skin, slabs of flesh, and several coconuts lying around. Coconuts? He picked the fruit from the ground. Where in heaven's name had the enemy come to get their hands on coconuts? But wait. Coconuts don't have eyes–and when smashed like this one was they don't bleed. He dropped the thing and lost his dinner in the freshly turned earth, then straightened himself and moved deeper into the dark, low-hanging cloud of smoke and mist.
He could hear the earth crunching under his boots, like he was walking on brittle gravel or maybe broken glass. He could smell death around him, the ugly smell of animal fat being fried in an ought tub with no grease to lessen the searing. And heat, as if the furnace of hell had found a vent in the middle of the crater.
He stepped through the cloud of smoke and felt something enormously strange. All around him, the world was different, and the land, and the ruins of a city that he could see all about him. He felt the hot mid-day sun. He felt a surge of heat through his body as if he might give way to exhaustion. But he had no time for that. He had to seek out the enemy, ascertain his condition, and quickly report to his Colonel who was probably even now beginning to lose patience. Remember, he wanted to tell his Colonel: Patience is a Virtue.
Strange. The crater had become the entire landscape. He turned in a circle. Everywhere, as far as he could see, was rubble. Smoke rose here and there from fires that still burned. From them came the acrid stench of death. There a collapsed building that had burned to ash, leaving only the melted remains of roofing tiles. Strangest looking tiles the Private had ever seen. They were smooth and thick and heavy. He lifted several of the tiles from the heap and revealed the charred remains of a human hand beneath.
Something moved. He whirled, his Springfield rifle raised to mid chest. There stood a strange little man whose clothes were in tatters; his chest and arms had been burned severely; it appeared that skin from his arms draped over his finger tips. The man was small and stocky. The hair on his head had been singed away. His eyes were almond shaped with heavy drooping lids. His skin was dark and where unburned smooth and hairless. He wore a sandal with elevations underneath on his right foot, his left dragging along shoeless. The man pointed a shaky finger at the Private and muttered something in a language the Private had not heard before.
What do you want? the Private asked. He got no answer as the man continued his muttering.
Here, the Private said, offering a drink from his canteen.
The man ignored his offer and moved on.
The Private noticed a burned out streetcar. Streetcar. How did he know it was a streetcar? He had never seen a streetcar before. But not only did he know its name, he also knew its function–a horseless stagecoach powered by electricity. Electricity. . . carried over copper wires that are suspended from poles with crossbeams. Like those over there, he said to absolutely no one.
He stepped into the streetcar. The smell overwhelmed him. There, stacked on top of each other, like charcoal in a brazier, were at least a dozen human bodies, perhaps more, all shapes, all ages. People. Like himself. Who had died instantly when the bomb exploded. Which bomb? Their bomb? The tunnel bomb? If he had had anything left in his stomach, he would have upchucked yet again. Indeed he did, causing his throat to ache from the trauma of dry heaves.
Outside the silence of the landscape was broken by the wailing of a small infant, no more than two years old. It lay beside a heap of ashes that vaguely resembled a human being. The child's mother, perhaps? Impossible to tell. He reached a hand toward the baby, but it slapped him away and wailed even louder. Hey, buddy, he whispered, it's gonna be all right. Sure thing.
He found a river flowing out of a mountain in the distance. He could smell the stench of decayed flesh rising from the river bed. Somehow the water in the river had drained away, leaving it a third of its original size. And depositing in the mud hundreds upon hundreds of bodies, human and animal, bloating in the sun. He looked up. Better than looking down. Strange. No buzzards. Back home a dead squirrel attracts twenty or more buzzards that circle above the carrion before swooping in for a free meal. Here, no vultures. Could the bomb have killed the buzzards as well?
To his right, rescue workers were clearing away rubble, pulling more charred bodies from underneath collapsed houses and stacking them in a horse-less cart. What's going on around here? the Private asked. Where am I? Why are so many people dead? And dying?
The leader of the team turned an angry and scarred face toward him and spat, the cool spray catching him in the left eye and running down the bridge of his nose. He wiped his face clean. He had met the enemy and his enemy was burned to near non-recognition. Should he report this to his Colonel? Instead he moved on.
He found a half burned banner with strange picture-like markings on it, markings made with black paint. An obvious piece of writing, but it was writing he couldn't read.
He heard a noise over his head. He looked up, squinting into the sun. High above the mountains to the west he saw a buzzard. No, wait. No buzzard. A small flying machine which for no explainable reason whatsoever he knew to be an airplane. An airplane? Flown by the enemy, perhaps? He hoped it would land; somehow or other he knew the pilot could explain in his language everything he was seeing. He felt desperate. He needed to know so he could report back to his Colonel. The enemy is defeated, this much he knew, but how and why? And which enemy? These people he saw here were not the enemy behind the earthworks. These people were of a different sort altogether.
He found a building made of concrete. Only half of it had been destroyed by the explosion. The other half was a field hospital. Doctors worked rapidly, treating hundreds upon hundreds of victims, most of them silently waiting, others moaning from an indescribable pain, others not moving or moaning or breathing.
The Head Doctor–he had to be the Head Doctor since he was the only one wearing a white smock–stopped what he was doing and stared at the Private. This man had blondish hair and round inquisitive eyes. He didn't look at all like the injured and dead and dying all around him. And he spoke in a language the Private could understand. Who are you? he called from his work station.
I'm a private in the Union army, the Private called back. Do you know where I am–sir? He felt a surge of adrenaline that seemed to urge his arms and legs away from the chaos of the field hospital. Did he really want to know where he was? He was in the crater, that's where he was, and he couldn't find his way out. Which he had to do, soon. He had to report all he was seeing to his Colonel. He felt the urge to share all this, to make his Colonel understand that what had been done here should never be done again, not anywhere.
You don't know where you are? the Doctor said with a sadistic laugh that bounced like an echo off the faces of the multitude of injured. You're here, soldier. That's where you are. You're here. Hiroshima. What’s left of it. What more do you need to know.
I need to know the condition of the enemy–sir, the Private said. I'm searching for the enemy, sir, and I need to know the enemy's condition so I can report back to my commanding officer.
There is no enemy, you foolish little man, the Doctor said. And again the Doctor laughed. And laughed. And laughed. A laugh filled with the pain of knowing far more than it was safe to know.
The Private turned on his heel and marched with determination into the hovering cloud of smoke and mist that had risen behind him. It was so thick he could not see his hand held in front of his face. But he could feel the strange things happening to him as he walked. The hot sun turned to a chilly twilight breeze sending shivers of cold across his sweat-soaked brow, back, and chest. He rushed out of the cloud and stopped. Under his feet was the disturbed earth of the crater. He could see the enemy earthworks with stunned riflemen beginning to gather, and across the open field he saw his Colonel urging him forward, saying something like, Don't stop, you fool idjit! Run.
The word Run echoed across the crater as it was picked up and repeated by the thousand men waiting for his report. Run, they screamed. Don't look back, just run, you damn sumbitch!
He didn't need to look back. He knew what was there. The enemy. With muskets. Loaded. And cocked. And aimed. . . He ran as fast as the broken field would allow. He didn't hear the rifle's report. But he felt the bullet enter his back just below his right shoulder, spinning him around in a full circle. Still he staggered on as twenty or more of his comrades raced into the crater to give help him. They grabbed him as the second minnie ball shattered his left knee and he crumbled into their grasp, being dragged like a fallen kite, crashing and breaking into a hundred little pieces.
The mad dash of his comrades into the crater was the impetus the army had been waiting for. They charged, all of them, hundreds and hundreds of blue coats, entering the crater and hurling themselves into a barrage of lead like none they had seen before. And men fell like saplings in a tornado, ripped open and torn apart by an enfilade of enemy fire that spoke more of desperation than of anything else.
The engagement lasted less than ten minutes as darkness came on quickly and forced the men to retreat, bloodied but not broken, to the safety of their lines. They brought their dead and wounded with them, leaving them stretched out under the trees for either the medic or the coroner to do his thing.
The Colonel leaned over the Private's tattered body and whispered, Tell me, son, about the enemy. What did you see over there?
The Private hissed the only word he knew to describe what he had experienced. Hell, he said. And laughed.
The Private could hear the Doctor's laughter coming out of his throat. He tried to stop it but he didn't know how. There is no enemy, you foolish little man, he wanted to say, but the laugh prevented it.
Across the way now that dark had settled, the Colonel could hear the enemy scurrying about like ants, repairing the crater to keep their defenses intact.
The Private's strange and inexplicable laughter stopped as suddenly as it had begun.
The Colonel leaned over the young man's body and closed its eyes. "Hell," he repeated, not knowing what the word meant.