One Silent Moment

Novel Excerpts by Ted Olson

One Silent Moment
Synopsis

One Silent Moment is Alan Rockwell Porter’s final confession. During an artillery barrage on the Western Front in the summer of 1918, Alan spares the life of a German corporal. But decades later, as Germany methodically executes its Lebensraum and Europe descends toward another world war, Alan becomes convinced the soldier he faced in France is now the Nazi Fuhrer. When the world learns the full extent of the Nazi persecution of Europe’s Jews, Alan is devastated. His world is upended. He begins a redemptive journey that will take him to a hospital room and a widow’s flat in Munich and a synagogue in Salt Lake City, where he is devastated again by Ruth Wainkranc, a survivor of the Krakow Ghetto.

I found Dad’s typewritten manuscript in his filing cabinet three days after his funeral. It lay flat and about an inch thick in a 9x12 envelope. The flap had been sealed, the metal clasp spread open. It was in a drawer that also contained insurance documents, the title to his car, and his honorable discharge certificate. The envelope had my name on it, written in copperplate pencil.

Dad had never said anything about writing an autobiography. And I’m not sure the manuscript counts, but it comes close. It’s surprising in many places. Some of it seems fantastic. As for his part in World War I, I’m still chasing down some details, but there seems to be precious little information about the artillery regiments in which he served. As I write this, America is still smarting from Vietnam. Who’s thinking much about a war fifty-nine years ago?

I’ve asked a long-time friend, Dr. Brent Noonan, professor of European History at Utah State University, to look into some of Dad’s claims. Brent served in the army, doing two tours with military intelligence in Saigon, then taught at West Point for five or six years before returning to his hometown. He still has a few friends at the academy. I’m hoping he can shed some light on a few things. If so, I’ll include his findings before this thing goes to press.

This manuscript answers some bitter questions I’ve had over the years. I finally feel my Dad’s firm hand over mine as it removes my axe from the grindstone. He wanted it published, or I’m assuming that. There were no instructions in the envelope. But knowing him as I do, I think he wanted to be held accountable. Did he want forgiveness? Absolutely. If not from the world, at least from me. If his story turns out to be true, no one can blame him for waiting so long to write it down. No one would want the notoriety it would bring. I could have burned the manuscript—envelope and all. But I’ve chosen to make it public.

Reuben A. Porter

Logan, Utah

March 25, 1977

One

I’ve killed that corporal a thousand times in my dreams. But then I wake up. I’m no longer in the sweltering French countryside, but in a bed, the weight of the rifle no longer in my hands. My breathing is just as heavy. But instead of thundering artillery and rifle fire, there’s only the muted ticking of the grandfather clock down the hall.

And until just seven years ago, Ruth would be lying next to me, on her side, snoring softly. But she’s gone, and in the three or four times I’ve awakened from that dream since her death, another aspect of that whole scene remains with me: I’m alone.

I’m pushing eighty, but I probably won’t see it. Writing that sentence seems like some kind of surrender. And for a moment I loathe this typewriter. With each tap of a key, everything seems permanent.

For weeks now, I’ve been tired. Much more than usual. After dealing with some wrenching back pain, an incessant, burning thirst, and too much time spent peeing, I figured something was wrong. So I visited my physician and told him about it. I stepped on the scale nearly naked, and he said I’d lost fifteen pounds. At first, we thought it was diabetes. That seemed logical, given my age. But he ordered all kinds of tests, and the girls in the hospital lab drew a lot of blood. The tests results spurred a biopsy, and that small core from my pancreas spoke volumes, all condensed in my physician’s hopeless look and his soft voice.

Nine months, he said. Maybe a year. They are always trying to offer hope. I’ve beat the odds a few times in my life. Right now, that’s about the only hope I have. But my skin is starting to turn yellow.

So I figured it’s time to come clean. I need to get all this down on paper now. I’ve got a pretty good memory, but who knows, really, how much time I have or where my mind will go? They say the short-term memory goes first. Already I’m finding stuff lying around the house—reading glasses, bank receipts, medicine bottles, old newspapers, mail from the Veterans Administration. Oddly enough, things that happened decades ago remain engraved. So I’m putting them down now. It’s unfortunate, cutting the road toward my grave this way.

Some people’s lives are filled with bright anecdotes of their success in business, education, art, or science. Or they focus on life with family. Scattered in next to their accounts of hardship and loss, those glowing nuggets become even more lustrous. Thinking about it that way, I’ve been panning for those stories most of my life. All I would need, it seemed, were few luminous bits to pay the debt to my conscience. But I’ve learned it’s not necessarily about blame. It’s all about owning up to your decisions and the results your choices create.

At the beginning of it all, I had no choice. I was drafted. I was twenty-two. I’d finished two years at the Utah State Agricultural College, just a half mile up the hill from my house. I was planning on becoming a teacher. We lived on the west side of Logan, in a bungalow, trailing a half-acre behind it. We kept a couple of cows, a horse, and some chickens. Once my father brought home a pig. My younger brother Walter and I fed it, mucked it, and it smiled at us. Father told us not to get attached to it. “Easter’s just eight months away.” He nodded at the mud-covered pig. “You know what that means.”

Six years my junior, Walter would have been a better soldier than me. He was street smart and intuitive, the older brother I had always wanted to be. By the time he was seventeen he had ridden a boxcar to Pocatello and back, surviving on six dollars and his wits. His unannounced jaunt nearly caused Mother to wring the skin from her knuckles.

We lived among the Mormons. You might say we were surrounded. There were the Olsens to the east of us. Allreds to the west. Across the street were the Stewarts, Johnsons, and Wilsons. Next to the Wilsons were the McMahons—they were Catholic. We were Presbyterian. Father really liked the Mormons. Hardworking folk. Always ready to help you out, he said. But he and Mr. McMahon took a secret pleasure in being the only holdouts on the street.

He worked at a cheese factory even farther west in Logan. His coworkers there were Mormons, too. They always invited our family to picnics and dances. At Christmastime, Mrs. Johnson or Mrs. Olsen would drop by with a few loaves of bread, a basket of oatmeal cookies. During the summer they would bring a burlap bag of tomatoes, corn, and zucchini. They were good people, but even as a youngster I thought they just smiled too much.

As a young man living in Salt Lake City, Father had listened to some stories told by a Mormon by the name of Orrin Porter Rockwell—a man with a colorful history. He was said to be the self-appointed bodyguard to church founder Joseph Smith. People said he handled a rifle and pistol with the ease other men handled a fork or spoon. Upon finally meeting the man, Father announced, “We have the same name. My last name is Porter. I’m Samuel Porter.” According to Father, the old man squeezed his hand firmly, smiled through his cascading, white beard and said, “That so?”

When I came into this world in December of 1895, apparently my father was still impressed. He gave me the name Alan Rockwell Porter. It flows off the tongue like a landslide. When I signed up for the draft and gave my name to the officer at the desk, he looked up and laughed. He was probably a Mormon. “Blame my father,” I said.

My friends and I talked about the Great War. For the first few years we thought it was Europe’s problem, that it would end soon. Some of the fellows thought we should stay out of it, but signing up for the draft drove the war into our heads. George Allred was brutally pragmatic.

“Look, somebody’s gotta stop them,” George said. “President Wilson’s already decided that. They’re sinking our ships, and they’ve been trying to make a deal with Mexico, get them to fight us. Who’s going to stop them, our fathers? Our younger brothers? We’re the ones who are going to have to put an end to it.” Looking back over the years, to me it seems a bit naïve. But at the time we were feeling our intellectual oats. We believed our thoughts were new because it seemed there had never been such a threatening war. I remember a few of the guys nodding their heads. I was one of them. We trusted our government.

Remembering life before the war is like taking a break from a long, arduous job. These past few minutes of writing have called up pleasant memories of my friends and family. I have a few sepia photographs of that area in west Logan. They’re mounted in an album, on a shelf, in a closet. People always say you shouldn’t live in the past. That’s wise. But if I could have a past that didn’t include that war, I would happily ignore the counsel and live in it—wrap it around me like a blanket.

In April of 1918, about eighty people from Cache county—including George Allred, Matthew Wilson, and me—joined a few hundred other fellows from around Utah and traveled by train from Salt Lake City to Camp Lewis, near Tacoma, Washington. I’d been on a train a few times before, but I’d never left Utah. My gut ached as the Wasatch mountains slipped away behind us. By the time we reached Idaho the sun had spread into an orange-and-yellow bar of molten steel. An hour later we traveled through darkness that was lit briefly by the engine’s light. Sage brush and rocks came to life for a moment, then disappeared into black. I sat next to Matthew Wilson. During the first hours of the journey, we talked, mostly about what we saw passing us outside. Occasionally, we stared out the window silently. I didn’t want to talk about home, and I don’t think he did either. Soon after night settled the lights inside the train went out. Minutes later he was asleep, his face pressed against the window.

“So what do you think of all this?” The voice came softly from the seat across the aisle. In the darkness there were only a few curves of a face. A fellow’s nose, his chin. I hadn’t looked across the aisle much since we left. But now I thought I saw spectacles.

“Of what?”

He laughed. “Of what? Of us going to war, that’s what.”

“I’ve been told I’m needed. So I’m going,” I said.

“You’re a good boy.”

“You?” I asked.

“It’s somebody else’s war. But I guess it doesn’t matter what I think.” He coughed, and a white handkerchief came from nowhere, moved up and around his face, then disappeared. “Ever since I got my draft notice I’ve been trying to prepare myself. Mentally, you know?”

I am a good boy?

“Because, the way I see it,” he said, “at some point, I’ve gotta kill someone. That’s what soldiers do, isn’t it? Could be a few days after we get there, could be a few weeks or a few months. But when the time comes, I just don’t want to freeze up, you know?”

“Kill or be killed.” It was all I could say. I was still smarting from his earlier comment. But occasionally, that conversation has come back to me over the years. When I think of it now, it sounds like a warning.

The next morning I awoke to an aching back and a full bladder. The guy across the aisle had spectacles, but they were in his hand. He slept with his head back on the seat, his mouth open. The whole car reeked of rancid breath and some fresh flatulence. I had to wait in line to use the toilet, and by the time I finished everyone was awake. Someone came through the car and handed out boxes with cornbread, an orange, a chunk of salted beef, and an empty paper cup. Another fellow walked through with a jug of water. Cups went up like popcorn. The guy with the glasses across from me held his cup out and said, “Where’s the coffee?”

“There’s a war on, pal.” The man with the jug filled his cup and nodded to the food box. “You got an orange in there.”

The trip took nearly two full days. We arrived at American Lake mid-morning and were hauled into Camp Lewis by bus. I was starving. Two days of things like cornbread and rye sandwiches at lunch left you dreaming of home cooking. The meager boxed breakfast every morning barely filled me, and as we passed through Camp Lewis’s large wrought-iron gate, then moved onto a large parade ground, I thought this was a lousy way to start things off.

There were already a hundred or so young men standing around with duffels and suitcases. Several men in uniform pushed, prodded, yelled, and pointed until everyone clambered out of the vehicles and drifted into the group. Matthew Wilson and I moved with the mass toward the front. We looked for George, but it seemed he’d arrived on a different bus and was somewhere else in that sea of men. The cool air tasted like a penny. It first touched my face as I stepped off the bus, and I came to life again. But my hunger still raged.

A man in a uniform with a tie, a hat, and a chest bearing a few colorful ribbons walked up to a podium and blew a whistle. The crowd went quiet, and the man clasped his hands behind his back. He looked back and forth across the mass of us with a tight smile and drill-bit eyes. “Good morning, men,” he shouted. “Welcome to Camp Lewis and the 91st Division of the United States National Army!”

The philosophical fellow who sat across the aisle from me on the train—he appeared out of nowhere, stood next to me and leaned in. “What’s a division?”

The man on the podium introduced himself as Colonel Davison. He said a few cursory words about the camp. He gave us a brief history of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, then wove all their exploration and hardship into a metaphor of bravery. “In the coming months, nothing short of such raw courage will be expected of you,” he said.

That morning they processed us into the Depot Brigade, the ad hoc horde designed to organize and orient new draftees and recruits. It was a lot like herding cattle. They marched us into a broad and lengthy tent, lit by rows of electric lights. We removed our shirts and dropped our trousers, then lined up before a team of physicians who measured, poked, and tapped their way through a rudimentary examination. Then we were fed and sent to a temporary barracks. After a few days of observation, they told us, we would be assigned to an infantry, machine-gun, or artillery regiment.

I’ll never know how they decided who went where. I suspect each regiment needed a certain number of men—some here, some there. I was assigned to artillery—the 348th Field Artillery Regiment (Battery B), 166th Field Artillery Brigade, 91st Division. Matthew Wilson went to a machine-gun battalion, and George Allred became an infantryman. But it seems hard to believe that those assignments, which would become such turning points in our lives, were simply random. Perhaps no one sensed it at the time—how indiscriminate it was. It was all new to us, and we did what we were told.

We spent a few weeks at Camp Lewis marching beneath overcast skies and sleeping on mattresses of damp straw. Taps every night and reveille every morning. Roll call. Tepid oatmeal and coffee in the mornings; boxed sandwiches and an apple at lunch; greasy beef stew and hard rolls at dinnertime. That’s what I remember. But at least it was food. Following breakfast there were calisthenics and running. There were more physicals, inoculations, and haircuts. We learned to attack with wooden bayonets. We learned all about the Enfield rifle: how to carry it, how to load it, how to fire it, how to take it apart, clean it, and put it back together again. Those first weeks we spent a lot of time shooting. Officers walked back and forth and watched while we lay prone and fired at targets thirty yards away. At the range I earned some respectable scores.

The remainder of my training was a combination of classroom lectures and field work. We learned how high-explosive shells could pulverize a bunker; how a well-timed shrapnel shell could decimate a whole platoon. We talked of topography, trajectory, and tangent, of angles of site and angles of impact—a lot of theoretical stuff that seemed to actually make sense when we finally fired live rounds out of a 4.7-inch howitzer.

We stuffed our ears with bits of cotton. But whenever the instructor fired that thing, the shock hit us, and we loved it. We loved being slapped by the air, the sharp, percussive blast. The gun’s recoil and backward roll. It all hinted at sex. It was even mildly arousing, if you let your mind go that route. For a bunch of young men with swarming hormones, it didn’t take much. At night, after lights out, sometimes, in the barracks there was a tense silence giving way only to squeaking bunks.

About the Author

Ted Olson

Website

Ted Olson is a 2019 MFA graduate of the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University where he was the recipient of the Linda Bierds and Carol Houck Smith Graduate Scholarship. After working 31 years as a copywriter in Salt Lake City, he’s pursuing his passion for fiction and creative non-fiction.