To Helen Bach
By Jeffrey Bishop
For this Valentine’s Day, a reminder that true love endures. Even to hell … and back.
Tell Time: 8 minutes
Scare Rating: 2/5 Ghosts
War had been declared, and most of Johnny Bach’s friends had enlisted or been called up. Johnny wanted to go and do his part, too, but there was something he had to do first. He had to marry Helen, the girl who had been his sweetheart almost from the day they met in home room in the ninth grade.
The wedding was set for a warm day in the spring, and family and friends came from all over the state to help the couple celebrate. With festive flowers festooning the church highlighting the fresh ardour of the newly married couple, it was the most wonderful wedding anyone could recall, and everyone could see that Johnny and Helen had a love that was made to last.
After a quick honeymoon at a cottage at the beach, Johnny settled his wife in a small house on a country road outside of town, then boarded a train headed south — headed for basic training and then the front lines as an infantryman. The Bach’s idyllic married life seemed to end just as it was beginning, but Johnny promised Helen he’d write as often as he could, and return to her as soon as the war allowed.
In his notes home, Johnny always addressed his bride by her full name; he had not yet been married long enough for the thrill to have passed of seeing his sweetheart’s name paired with his own. And although basic training and life in the war were difficult experiences to bear alone, he left out all the hard and painful parts out of his notes home and played up the positive aspects:
To Helen Bach,
Basic training is fine! It is very much like summer camp, although we hike a good deal more here than we did back home. Here we call hikes “marching,” and I’m afraid the scenery here isn’t nearly as pretty here as it is in the dells of our lands.
I’ve made two great friends — Ralph Johnson and Joe Murphy — and I hope you get to meet them one day. I have been named Dorm Chief, which gives me some extra privileges, in exchange for extra responsibilities. We ship out for the war in a week; I will write again when I can.
With you in love, forever.
Time seemed to pass as an eternity for the young lovers, as each endured the separation alone from the other. However, the pace of Johnny’s new life, apart from his bride now, was like a blur to him — almost like the way that they say a man’s entire life flashes before his eyes as he dies. Perhaps the bizarre sensation of time’s passing in this way was just Johnny’s perspective.
it wasn’t long — real or perceived — before Johny found himself at his new home, amidst the hellish landscape of war. The conditions were horrible. Johnny had arrived as summer was winding down, and every rain that the troops endured seemed colder and wetter than the one before. It rained a lot that fall, and it seemed as though the air was never still. Through it fell down the raindrops, criss-crossed and interwoven by bullets and shells whizzing side-long as dirt, shrapnel and flak exploded around them during the almost daily battles the men endured.
To Helen Bach,
We are having a grand time here. Ralph and Joe are with me in the same Company. There’s always a lot going on here. We have full days, which means we sleep fairly soundly, despite the conditions. We are doing well in the war and advancing on the enemy day by day.
With you in love, forever.
While Johnny’s notes were filled with cheer and optimism, his friends saw how the experiences of war — and perhaps also of distance from his beloved — were taking their toll on the young man. Though duty to country compelled him to enlist, and he knew he needed to be there to protect freedoms, Johnny never developed a taste for war, as so many of the other men seemed to have done, if only as a coping mechanism. Indeed, the longer he was there, the more it seemed to Ralph and to Joe that he was slipping away; as if he were going to another, more pleasant place, to escape the hellish horrors of the war. Defying description, they ascribed to him the attribute of appearing “thinner,” “translucent” or “hollow.”
The smells of war were the worst part to Johnny. There were always open slit latrines nearby — a convenience, but a distasteful one. Gunpowder, diesel exhaust and oil and other elements of modern warfare choked them. Even the food — wormy tins of ham and rancid beef — had little appeal to the nose. And then, of course, there was the smell of death.
Corpses of fallen comrades — many of them fast but dear friends — lay in puddles of blood and mud at the bottom of trenches. The bodies swelled with putrid gases that seeped out of the carcasses to hang low in the air with the living, as if to remind them of how close they were to death and to hell. There they lay, sometimes for more than a day, until there was a sufficient lull in the battle that they could be pulled out and taken to the field morgue.
To Helen Bach,
A rare treat today … liberty passes while we stop over in a Bavarian hamlet. Rations are lean for all, but the treats I indulged in today were both free and priceless: I found a small bakery and stood outside of it for at least half the day, breathing in the warm, yeasty, fresh aromas of the baking breads. I feel a little more alive for it. Soon, it will be your breads that I smell, baking in our kitchen!
With you in love, forever.
It was late winter, and ice fell heavily on the dirty, slushy snow that covered the ground. Company C returned to the work of war, and the men were digging a new foxhole. Taking a breather, Ralph leaned on his shovel and surveyed the scene before him. He got a good look at Johnny, then called Joe over and gestured toward their friend.
“Look at him, Joe,” said Ralph. “He’s a wreck. He’s here, digging like everyone else. But it’s like he’s not here at all. Look how pale he is! You can almost see through him. He hardly talks anymore. In fact, if not for all those letters he sends home to his bride, I’d have thought that shell shock had struck him dumb.”
Joe agreed — he’d noticed the same things. “When we finish here, let’s get him to the infirmary and get him some help,” said Joe.
But they wouldn’t get that chance. As the men picked up their shovels to get back to work, bullets and shells from across enemy lines started flying through the air. Ralph and Joe dived into their trench head-first. They scrambled to their feet with weapons ready, but each first looked over to their friend, only to witness multiple rounds pass through Johnny’s chest. He fell forward, almost with a roll, and landed with a thud at the bottom of his foxhole.
Ralph and Joe rushed to their friend’s side. Clutching his chest, they found Johnny was yet alive. ” … to hell and back,” they heard him say, with gasping breaths and a beatific look on his face. “I’m going home,” he added as he breathed his last breath.
Ralph and Joe were attired in their Class A dress uniforms. They exited the dark green staff car and slowly walked up the gravel drive to the house, dreading the chore: telling Johnny’s bride of his death.
As they mounted the first step, the door opened, and a tall, attractive young lady with wavy brown hair stepped onto the porch to meet them. She seemed filled with life; when Ralph and Joe noticed this, it deepened the dread that the two felt from their task.
“Mrs. Bach, we regret to inform …” Ralph started to say. But the rest of his words were caught in his throat. Because as he’d started speaking, another figure came out of the house to stand beside Mrs. Bach. The figure — a tall, handsome young man — wore casual clothes befitting a rural Saturday morning. Incredibly, both soldiers clearly recognized the man. They recognized, standing before them, their friend Johnny Bach, reunited with his bride and standing before them.
“It’s so good to see you two again, Ralph and Joe! So good to see you back from the war and safe!” said Johnny to the men. “We’d been to Hell, hadn’t we boys? But now we’re all back again — safe and well!”
“To Hell and back … ” muttered Ralph to himself, with a dawning realization. ” … To Helen Bach.”
“These are your friends from the war, Johnny? So nice to meet you both!” said Helen. “Won’t you set down on the porch with us and have some lemonade?” she asked them, looking up at her husband with love and pride.
Dazed beyond their own comprehension, the two soldiers simply turned and walked back to their staff car. They quickly got in the vehicle and drove away from their lost — now found — friend.
“Helen Bach, my love,” said Johnny to his wife, with a peck on her forehead.
As the car went over the hill and away, the reunited couple went back inside their quaint country home, where they enjoyed the rest of their day, and their lives, together.