Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Guest Writer: Bill Lapham

The Churn

                    My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
                    To children ardent for some desperate glory, 
                    The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est 
                    Pro patria mori.
                    - Wilred Owen   Dulce et Decorm est, Pro patria mori

It’s not the sons of the wealthy who smear their boots with the mud of Flanders' Fields. The poor, the wretched of the Earth, American immigrants who came from near here, have come back to fill these trenches. Some know English; the others only know enough to follow orders, or the soldier in front of him. A fine young American soldier peeks over the top, stupidly, and wonders, why are there so many poppies in bloom?
Flanders is flat: Great Plains flat, but lower, muddier. The weather blows in from the North Sea in great sodden clouds turning rich topsoil into a quagmire. The rain this day included artillery shells that churned the ground into a rolling sea of boot-suck mud. The blood, bones and viscera of thousands upon thousands of worn out soldiers mix in the slop. Bomb craters fill with crimson slurry from the imagination of medieval madmen who roamed these fields in the Dark Ages. Poppies only bloom in churned up mud.
The fine young American soldier gazes upon this gruesome scene while he waits with shredded nerves for the attack whistle to blow. He has been at the front for what, an hour, a day? He couldn't tell anymore. His company shipped in to reinforce besieged French and British battalions. It took months of demanding physical training and exhausting troop movements by train and ship and train again to get here. He had never seen so many fine young men gathered in one spot. But with the morning’s first blast and scream, he felt a strange tug in his chest, a yearning to be a baby again suckling at his mother's breast. He wanted to be home, on the family farm, playing with his brothers, helping his dad, anything but standing in this shit pissing his pants.
He was the son of a poor Alabama share-cropper. Who else would march so brazenly into a recruiter's office and volunteer for a piece of immortal glory? Never thought twice about the cost of immortal glory? He hadn’t thought about that deeply when he entered the recruiter’s office. All he thought about then was coming home with medals for gallantry and valor. He didn’t know that he might not be afforded an opportunity to exhibit either, or if called upon, whether he could muster the courage at all. 
I shouldn't be here, he thought. This isn't right. Earth is not supposed to be like this. Where is the warm sunshine, the rows of crops, the trees? Where the hell am I?
Someone yelled, Incoming!
He dove into the mud and buried his face in somebody’s dismembered arm. His nose searched frantically for any small pocket of air as he dug deeper into the mud. The stench took him back to days spent slaughtering hogs in the sweltering southern sun. Y'all pay 'tention to that knife, boy, his father would warn, cut yer fingers clean off.
He vomited without warning but didn’t dare lift his head. Where the hell am I? And how the hell do I get out of here?
He heard machines. Flying machines. Trucks. Machine guns. Those new fangled tanks. And bombs. Big bombs, little bombs. And bullets cracking inches from his ear. A cacophony of sound. The earth shook his intestines, rattled his skeleton. He tried to get lower. All anyone would see of him, if they were crazy enough to walk upright, was his iconic doughboy helmet. Shaking.
How did all these machines get here? Who makes these things? Do they know what they do to our bodies? My rifle looks the same as his; the parts are interchangeable. Hundreds of automated machines manufactured millions of identical bullets and olive-green uniforms and boots and helmets and guns. One airplane looks like any other; all the trucks look like they rolled off the same assembly line. Hell, they look like they were still on the assembly line. The rhythm of the machine guns beat the same tune at the same pitch. Whoever is selling this stuff, he thought, is making big money...sick bastards. How many shareholders profit from this blood? Where do they enjoy their retirement years? Not likely to be the same place I’ll spend mine!
What did I do to deserve this? What sin is still unforgiven? Why are all the goddamn guns shooting at me? Isn't there anybody else out here? God, get me out of here! The questions ran like those ticker tapes he saw at the bank. The thought of running away raged in him, but he didn't dare lift himself up, not even a little bit. The mud was his friend. And there was no place safe to run to anyway. The whole world was exploding!
He prayed. God, why have you forsaken me? Everything the fine young American soldier from Alabama had been taught about God was getting churned in his head like the ground around him. His minister said God was all knowing, all powerful, everywhere, a good and loving God who forgives the most heinous sins. If that was true, then why was this happening? Under his helmet, he doubted God existed, but he knew for sure Satan was here, and he brought Hell with him.
The earth heaved the fine young American soldier into the air with a ferocious roar and a bright flash of heat and light. He screamed. Every bone in his body seemed to crack in mid-air. Every patch of skin, flaming. When he crashed back to the ground he was on his back at the bottom of a new crater. Smoking. His eyes were open, his jaw, unhinged. Breathing. The rain mixed with the blood in his mouth. He gagged. Stone silence. Eardrums gone; inner ear bones, mangled. His scalp burnt black. Helmet, not sure where his helmet was, or his rifle, or his boots, for that matter. He thought, even the insects are gone. 
He tried to take inventory of his body parts but he couldn't get beyond his thoughts. Around the edge of the crater he could make out two fuzzy forms looking down at him. Silhouettes. Their mouths were moving like they were saying something but he couldn't read their lips. They were reaching for him, and he tried reaching for them, but, commanding his arms to move and moving them were disengaged functions. He thought he was asking for help but he couldn't form a sound, couldn’t force air through the right cords. All he could do was think, and what he thought was where the hell am I?
The next shell's blast filled his crater with tons of mud, and left a smoking new crater next to it, destined to become someone else’s grave tomorrow.
War grinds everything into the ground. Everlasting lines of machines, bombs, bullets, fresh freckled faces from home, all fodder for the cannon, churned, mixed into a recipe from hell. New poor kids replace dead poor kids; no rich kids here. Smith and Jones are here, though, or were before they were ground into hamburger. They were friends from the rural parts back home but war does not care about that; it is remorseless. Sorry, y’all, nothing personal you understand.
The sun set over the carnage, and night fell. Cannon flashes cracked the darkness like lightning. On it went throughout the night until tomorrow came. At sunrise, all new poor soldiers, seeking their own immortal glory, filled the trenches worn poor soldiers filled the day before.
And one fine young American soldier peeked over the top, stupidly, and wondered, why are there so many poppies in bloom?

© Bill Lapham 2010

Bill Lapham is a semi-professional student and retired U.S. Navy submarine veteran. He attends grad school at the University of Michigan – Flint, and he’s been published at Six Sentences and the U.S. Army NCO Journal.


  1. I could fill a legal pad with thoughts on this and copy/paste the phrases I love as examples of why this is so good. I think this is of a piece with the Six he wrote the other day about a vet on the streets... Writing about soldiers in the trenches or after they return from war is, to me, the ultimate form of antiwar literature.

  2. This serves a Higher Purpose, definitively destroys any notion of Hollywood romanticism of combat, and exalts the virtue of those who serve and have served, sometimes to come home and be spat upon, or rise for the anthem next to someone refusing to take his hat off, or unwilling to pledge allegiance. This captures the whole piece, "Under his helmet, he doubted God existed, but he knew for sure Satan was here, and he brought Hell with him." If literature had a chest upon which to pin it, I'd affix the Navy Cross to this, for heroic 'duty' above and beyond the call. I salute you.

  3. This is outstanding Bill- you had me in the trench, squirming in the mud, a lump in my throat- tremendous

  4. Bill, I stand and clap to your magnificent story. At first I placed all the men in my family over the years that served our country. Then I was lost in your story. At the end, I sobbed out loud. This is the best thing I've seen you write.

  5. You've taken a subject the world tries to keep impersonal and made it very personal. Not only did the reader identify with the soldier/human in the trench, the reader BECAME the soldier/human in the trench. My chest hurts from reading this sad beauty. You are an amazing writer, Bill, and your words bring these soldiers home to us. I can't praise this enough.

  6. Thank you for your kind remarks everybody. You do much to bolster my confidence for writing. See you around the campus!

  7. and what a perfect title too Bill, the multi levels of churn of the mud, and the churn of the soldiers surrendered up to the machine of war.

  8. You've said it so well Bill. It's too bad that politicians create wars...

    Very vivid and tight.

  9. Such an arresting piece. The description and reflection are so visceral.
    Adam B

  10. I never thought about the mud so much, and the boys who must have been buried alive. Your title was excellent. The soldiers gor churned, and so did your readers. Well written and moving, Bill.

  11. I so heartily agree with all the superlatives expressed in the comments above. Moving, visceral, vivid, and tight, and so forth. Bill Lapham, you, who claim to be relatively new at writing, could easily pass for an old hand at the craft. Here, you've given us a dramatic tale that shows off some of your finest writing, but I've read humorous pieces by you, and wonder if there is anything you can't do well. What diversity! And all of it top notch. This particular piece, however, will long remain a favorite.


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