Years ago, during my first attempt at college, I was sitting in the library one snowy Friday, killing time before my next class. (For those of you interested in dates, it was 1977.) Being a history nerd I made a bee-line for the U.S. history shelf, where I quickly found a book to my liking. Flopping down in one of the library's comfy chairs I settled in to pass the next hour.
(No, I didn't steal the library's book...I ran out and bought my own copy.)
I had read other accounts of the Battle of the Bulge before, I had even spoken with several men who fought in the Bulge, but there was something about Toland's account that held my attention firmly. Half an hour into my reading I had an apostrophy, or is that an epihany? All humor aside, I had come to one of the photo sections. Scanning pictures I locked on the image of a bearded dogface, staring blankly at God knows what. Just then I looked down and read the caption and almost screamed. It read: "A 35th Division infantryman, Sergeant Joseph Holmes (Cumberland, MD.), battle-worn from the savage struggle near Bastogne in the early days of 1945."
I gasped when I read the name of my hometown. It can't be, I told myself as I read it again. Sure enough, there it was, good ol' Cumber-bumber-land. At that point I hurried to the desk to check out the book, then hustled over to the Humanities building for my next class. But something strange happened as I was walking through the lobby...I passed the payphone. It was one of those things that makes you go, hmmmm....
Grabbing the phone book I flipped to 'H' and started scanning. As I looked I kept telling myself that it couldn't be. After all it had been more than thirty years. But lady luck was riding with me, I guess, because there he was, Holmes, J. Dropping a dime in the phone I dialed the number, all the time wondering what I would say.
To make a long story short his widow answered the phone. She was pleasant and very polite, and she perked up when I told her why I was calling. Half an hour later I was sitting at her kitchen table while she showed me post cards, photos and other memorabilia that he'd sent home. Somewhere in the middle of the conversation I inquired about her husband and she told me that he died from cancer several years earlier. Going back to the postcards, she told me a few stories, most of which are lost to time, but I remember something about him spending a night in the cellar of a bombed out building wither several of his buddies drinking cognac.
Next, she moved on to the Battle of the Bulge and the photo that had led me to her in the first place. She related a story he'd told her regarding the picture. He said that, at the time...early January, 1945...he was suffering from trenchfoot and exposure. He also told her that it wasn't until sometime, much later, that he realized that someone had even taken his picture. After that, I thanked her for her time and went on my way.
Walking out of her home, my mind swirled. There were other questions I should have asked, and I kick myself today for not turning around and going back. But I had a feeling that it was time to go, a feeling that she'd revealed as much as she cared to. She was probably lying on her bed looking at his picture and having a good cry as I drove off, for all I knew. I hope that wasn't the case.
Needless to say I skipped class that day (it wasn't the only time) I also blew off a lunch date with a very young, and very gullable Goody Two Shoes.
It took me years to locate and secure a copy of that photo, but I finally did. Anyway, here he is, Sergeant Joseph Holmes from my hometown...at a time when everything we held dear was on the line and courage wasn't in short supply.
And when he gets to Heaven, to St. Peter he will tell. "Another Dogface reporting, Sir. I've served my time in hell."