Claustrophobia. That’s a hell of a thing to be discharged for. I’d fight it, if I didn’t know that the first time I get in a tight space I’d pop my cork again. I don’t know how I’m going to get back to the US. The thought of being wedged into a birth on a ship brings out the sweats.
I know you want to help. Hey, if you can fix me, I… well, I’m not exactly anxious to go back into combat, right? But the job’s not done over there and I want to be there when it is. Do my part, like it says on the posters. So maybe telling the whole thing to a head-shrinker will help me get it off my back.
Heh. Off my back. Jesus, there’s the phrase.
There’s so many freak accidents in a war. We weren’t supposed to gab about rumours, but everyone does, so we hear about it all. Guys that lost an eye when their own bullet ricocheted right back at them on the range. So many variations of some joker dying of saying, “Hey, watch this!” I guess I’m just another one, even though I did everything right, just the way we were trained. Up until it went wrong, I might as well have been in the film they showed us, Crack That Tank
We heard the tank coming, of course. They’re not sneaky. So we all hunkered down, scraped out our foxholes, and waited. Just like the training. Keep your head down, wait for the tank to go past. If you’re close to it, deal with it. If you’re not, do something about the infantry that’s supporting it. It would have been easier if our bazooka hadn’t got wrecked, but we’d been in the shit long enough by then, we knew what to do.
I should have moved when I saw how wet the bottom of the foxhole was. Not full of water, but soggy. But that tank was coming, and what I thought right then was it was a choice between a damp shirt and getting shot up. So I lay there and soaked it up.
I remember my first thought when I saw it coming. Oh, fuck, a Tiger. I mean, any time we saw an enemy tank, all they guys said that, but this time it was the real thing. They’re not as big as you think, you know, but when you’re lying on the ground and one’s trundling toward you, it’s like watching a house with a grudge. And it was coming right at me.
The training says stay put, but everything in you is shouting to get the hell out of the way, right back to the lizard in the back of your head that spends most of its time making you think about food and sex. I mean, back in basic, they actually drove a tank over us, just to show us that we wouldn’t get squished if we stayed put, and we all joked about it afterward, but this was the real thing. If the driver of that Tiger saw me, he’d make a point of driving onto me.
Even if he didn’t, as the tank got closer, I could see it wasn’t lined up just right. I wanted to be right in the middle, between the driver’s port on the one side and the machine gun on the other. I was right in front of the driver, and I thought the tank was moving at an angle. I got a clear picture in my head of that tread dipping right into my hole and squeezing me out.
I must have started to move, because I heard someone behind me say, “Stay put!” He sort of hissed it, like he was trying to yell and whisper at the same time, but I heard him over the tank. “Stay put! You’re good!”
So I put my head down, and I prayed. And then I started to curse whoever said that, because damned if the inside of the tread wasn’t coming right down beside my foxhole. Not in it, sure, but I had to slide over so it didn’t come down on my shoulder. The side of the hole squeezed in, and even over the engine I could hear the water gushing out of it, feel it running onto me.
And then the bastard stopped, right there. I guess someone in the unit stuck his head up, because the tank’s machine gun opened up. You ever hear one of those German MGs? It’s like a giant hawking up a greenie. Then they fired the big gun, and my ears went numb and there was this little tap on the top of my helmet. That was when the real trouble started, you know. The shock of that recoil gave the Tiger a push, just enough to get it set good and proper in the mud.
I saw some tankers once, checking the ground ahead of the tank, one guy up on the other’s shoulders, piggy-back. The guy on the bottom said, “If I sink, it sinks.” That came back to me, right then. Wish I’d remembered it when I dug the hole.
It was really loud under there for a while. The Tiger tried to run forward, then backward, and all that happened was the track beside me slithered past, digging a little deeper, putting more mud back into my hole. That’s when I started to think I was going to die in there. But it stopped, and then the noise changed to a lot of shooting. The tank’s guns all going off, our guys shooting at it, the bullets hitting the sides of the tank. That’s part of the training, too. Even if all you’ve got is a Tommy gun, hose down the viewports, crack the prisms, fucking blind them.
You know how they talk about the tide of battle? I could hear it out there. The tank stopped shooting, but there were still infantry from both sides trading fire, and I could tell when one side got the upper hand, then the other, and then the whole fight moved… well, somewhere else. It got quiet. And then I heard the argument.
The tank crew were shouting about something, and I could hear them pretty clearly. The engine was off by that time. Hell, I could even see a little bit of light getting in between the wheels right next to me. Why do those Tigers have all those goddamn wheels? I might have seen something if they didn’t have all those damned wheels.
I might have seen something.
Anyway, I don’t know what the guys in the tank were saying, but they seemed pretty heated about it. Probably something like, “Hans, you moron, you got the tank stuck!” After a while, they quieted down, and I heard the hatches open. They were ditching the tank. God help me, I almost shouted then. Like, these guys that were going to blow me up an hour ago were going to dig me out from under their tank. I knew, in the front of my mind, that the only thing they’d do was shoot me or stick a grenade under there with me, but I still had to bite my tongue. Literally. Maybe I wanted them to kill me, because I’d been under than thing long enough then that it felt like forever, and I couldn’t take it any more.
That was after… what? Two hours, tops.
I heard them jump down, but I couldn’t hear them leave. They just bugged out. When I realized they were gone, I cried. Yeah, I admit it. Anyone would. I was all alone down there. My whole world was a mud pit the exact size of my body, my sky was made of steel and I could bang my head on it. Anyone would cry. You can’t tell me…
No, you wouldn’t. I know. I know. Sorry.
When I was all cried out, I started thinking about how I might get free. That’s funny, huh? Didn’t think about it until then. I guess it’s because when the fire-fight was happening, I knew I was pretty safe down there, and by the time it was over I was too busy feeling sorry for myself. And it turned out it didn’t matter a damn anyway. I couldn’t go right, because that’s where the tracks were. The Tiger had settled more at the back than the front, so going forward wasn’t going to get me anywhere. I couldn’t dig my way out with my feet. I sort of wriggled around until I could scrabble at the left side of my hole, and I got about three inches of dirt shifted before I hit a big goddamn rock. I mean, huge. It was like being next to a stone coffin.
That was the way I was thinking. It seemed apt.
That’s how I spent the rest of the day. Think up a way out. Try it. Get nowhere. Cry some more. Start again. I did, at least, figure out how to get at my canteen, so I could afford to cry. There were little breaks in the action when I tried to decide if the water was getting any deeper or the tank was getting lower, too. I don’t think either of those things were happening. Most of the time, I could make myself believe it.
Eventually the light coming in started to fade. Night. I checked my watch, just to be sure that’s what was happening, just to make sure I wasn’t going blind because that would make the whole thing even worse so why not go blind, right? I wasn’t going blind. But it turned out I hadn’t wound my watch, either. Big bright radium numbers on the dial, nice shiny green hands, and they had stopped at a quarter to four.
Sorry. It was a long night. I couldn’t keep track of how long, of course, but that’s only part of it. I couldn’t sleep because of how crushed up I was. If I stopped moving for more than a few minutes, just little wiggles but still moving, I’d start losing circulation. I drifted off for a little while, and then spent a while screaming and trying to get my right hand to work again.
It was so damn quiet under there, too. I mean, I had a damn Tiger on top of me, that muffled things anyway, and then it was night time in a forest, after a battle had chased off most of the birds and beasts that might have made some noise. So it was quiet, and it was dark, and all I could feel was the same wet muck I’d been in all day. So it would make sense if my mind made up some stuff to fill in, right? Like having a nightmare, even if you’re not asleep. Right?
Sure. Damn right.
Anyway, the sun came up and a little while later I heard voices. And I had to try not to start screaming for help, because maybe it was Germans. I had almost decided that it didn’t matter if it was Germans when I heard one of them clear enough to understand. “Why didn’t the crew blow it up when they left?”
Can you imagine what that felt like? The relief? You bet I started screaming then. Screamed my damn head off. It turned out to be some Canadian engineers, sent to see if it was safe to retrieve the Tiger, because the battle was pretty much over and there wasn’t any risk of it pushing back to where I was. They were pretty surprised to find me down there, since from outside it didn’t look like there was enough room for me. You know that rock? The one I was cussing because it was part of the trap I was in? Turned out to have saved my life. The tank was high-centered on it; that’s why it couldn’t get any traction, but also why it hadn’t just mashed me into the mud. How’s that for luck?
Anyway, they dug me out. It only took a little bit of work from the front of the tank and I could wiggle out. The lieutenant with them gave me some brandy, and the rest of them shared their food. I didn’t know whether I was laughing or crying for about an hour. I just sat there propped up against a tree, looking at how far away everything was. It was like I’d come to a whole new world. Then they put me in a jeep and sent me to an aid station to get checked out, and that’s when the problems began.
I got nervous in the tent. Getting a ride back to my unit, I couldn’t sit in the cab of the truck. I can’t sleep in a sleeping bag. It wasn’t a big thing, to start off. I mean, when I told people what happened, they all understood why a tight space might be a problem, but then Sarge says, “Go check that house for Germans,” and I stumble right back out of that fucking little kitchen, trembling so hard I could hardly hold onto my rifle. And here I am, talking to you.
Yes. That’s all. Just a night under a tank. Isn’t that enough? You want me to make something up? Like, oh, jeez, doc, it was just like when Dad locked me in the root cellar to punish me as a kid? Oh, hey, I see the ghosts of all my buddies that got killed around me that day and they all call me a coward for hiding under there? Because if you like, I can make up some bullshit like that.
But it’s not true. None of that happened. I just spent about a full day under a tank. A long, quiet night, with nothing to think about except how that was probably going to be how the rest of my life went. I didn’t see anything else. There was nothing to see down there.
Other senses? Well, damn it, Doc, it smelled like the dirt under a tank. Tanks stink. It felt like dirt. Wet dirt. Except for what felt like steel. Or my lucky rock. That’s about it.
I already told you what I heard. Nothing. It was quiet.
Okay, so maybe I said something else to Lieutenant McQuarrie. He was busy getting me drunk. I might have said anything. Besides, what’s the big deal? So I maybe heard a dog sniffing around outside the tank. Why not? It makes sense, after a battle, a dog looking for food. I wouldn’t doubt it. Just a stray dog, trying to find the man it can smell, snuffling around and scratching at the steel and giggling. When it couldn’t get at anything interesting it left, there’s nothing in that.
I didn’t say that. Dogs don’t giggle, Doc. That’s crazy talk.
Doc… the walls are sort of closing in on me here. Can I please go out for a few minutes?
“Tiger on My Back” ©2019 Dirck de Lint.