The First Waltz


Have you ever had that feeling in the pit of your stomach, that indicates your either afraid or that something bad is about to happen? Its never nice I know but perhaps an essential human emotion to show us that we are still alive and have feelings

So I guess that I need to ask myself “am i alive, do I have feelings” last year I would have said no to both questions, but now I know not only am I alive but I have incredible feelings for a wonderful woman. So how did this metamorphosis happen? How did a good for nothing drifter and troublemaker get to change and turn his life around, to be honest I cannot pin-point the exact moment, but I do thank God every day that it did.

The war years had taken their toll on me, as it had on so many young men of my generation. Perhaps being part of an elite unit added to the pressures, we probably saw more combat than I care to remember, I had on many occasions killed, it was a case of kill or be killed, initially it had worried me, my faith was under attack, “had it not been drummed in to me at church Thou shalt not kill” yet here I was taking the lives of men who my country regarded as the enemy. After a while the killing no longer bothered me, it was part of the job that Uncle Sam was paying me to do. Daily life was a grind, nerves strung tight from being so close to death every day and while small cracks in my armour had started to show it was not until the woods of Bastogne, that my humanity and will to live cracked.

We had been sent there to stop a last gasp effort by Hitler’s elite SS to break through to the Normandy beach heads and by doing so split the allied forces in two, enabling Hitler and his cronies to prolong the war. The 101st Airborne had parachuted in to occupied France on D day and had spent almost every day since fighting our way through Europe with almost every day seeing us come under fire or having to fight from street to street in a occupied village or town, its hard to believe that more men did not crack under the intense pressure. Perhaps it goes to show that a human being can be conditioned to endure most things. For me it was the desire to stay alive and get home to see my fiancĂ© Jenny. I kept a photo of her in my helmet and every morning I would do two things, one was to thank God that I was still alive and the second was to kiss the photo of Jenny, this ritual seemed to give me strength to get through another day.

The top brass in their wisdom had sent us to defend the woods near Bastogne without winter clothing without enough ammunition and in an infantry role. How in hells name did they expect us to hold off over four thousand crack SS troops and a SS Panzer division and survive? The first day of shelling we lost twenty men, one of them my good friend Tommy, he was literally blown to pieces in front of me, perhaps it was at that moment I lost it, “don’t judge me and call me a coward, its easy if you have never endured being under artillery fire in the most trying circumstances or seen your friend vaporised in front of your eyes. As I sit here writing this down I can smell the fear that permeated from the men, not the fear of dying, we where prepared to give our lives in the defence of Democracy, it was the fear was of having a limb or limbs blown off and going home less of a man than when you left. Apart from the constant shelling it was cold, like nothing I had ever experienced, it was like being immersed in a bath of ice water for hours on end, your fingers and toes where constantly numb and many men got frostbite

Christmas eve and Christmas day of 1944 the men tried to cheer each other up, but what was there to be thankful for, we where cold, dying and very very hungry, home seemed forever away and I am not ashamed to say I cried in my foxhole just thinking about my family and Jenny singing around a brightly decorated Christmas tree, singing carols. Where they thinking of me, could they even comprehend the hell I was experiencing. The Germans where held in those woods and the 101st fought and killed the Germans for another four months. When we reached the Rhine river we received news from up high that the “Bastards of Bastogne” where going home.

“Home” the mere word conjured up thoughts of my folks, home cooked food and Jenny. After I had been demobbed, I headed straight home all I wanted to do was to see Jenny, hold her in my arms and smell the sandalwood soap that she always used. I knocked on the door and Jenny’s mom opened, she gave me a big hug and started to cry, “why is she crying” I thought, then she told me: Jenny had been killed in a car crash the day we had been sent to Bastogne, they had sent me a letter, but in those woods the only messages we received where from the Germans.

I did not even cry, I turned round and left, the next few years where a blur of motorbikes, odd jobs, excessive drinking and bar fights. Like many men my age who no longer felt they fitted in to a civilised society or had nothing left to live for, I became involved with the motorcycle culture, not the straight laced American Motorcycle association but with the boys that chopped and bobbed their bikes, we rode around in groups, “some called us gangs”, we wore leather jackets (mainly 2nd world war surplus), drank a lot and generally caused mayhem in many a straight laced conservative town. It was perhaps at Hollister in 1947 that the 1 percenters as we became known had there “finest hour ”An AMA sanctioned track meet and get together at Hollister in California attracted more people than they expected and many camped where they found a spot, the trouble started on Saturday night when thousands of people, “mostly the one percenters” where not allowed in to the clubhouse to attend the dance and awards ceremony. We took over the bars in the town and behaved like hooligans, I had a photos taken sitting on my chopper with a pile of beer bottles surrounding the bike (this photo as well as many other where staged by the press) and this is how we gave bikers a bad name. I believe the wild bunch with Marlon Brando made in 1953 depicted this event and is today considered a classic amongst bikers

From the highlight of Hollister my life just got worse, I travelled from city to city town to town, by jumping on box cars and spent hours drinking and fighting other men who had decided to become hobo’s, I slept under bridges, in tunnels or if I was lucky in homeless shelters. It was at a homeless shelter in Chicago that like an angel sent from God she came in to my life. Her name was Sarah and she was helping in the soup kitchen, I don’t know why she spoke to me but will be forever grateful that she did. I was sitting by myself as was the norm and she came over to me, Sarah told me that I had the saddest eyes she had ever seen and perhaps it was time, because I poured out my heart to her, what I had gone through in the war and what I had done after I heard that my first true love Jenny had died, at times I sobbed like a baby and Sarah listened, when she felt it was necessary she spoke comforting words, a day became a week a week became a month, we spent every day together just talking and enjoying each others company. I started to clean up my act, I stopped drinking and got a part time job, it did not pay much but there were prospects for promotion, I moved out of the shelter in to a small boarding house, life was looking up.

I plucked up the courage and asked Sarah if I could meet her parents, she agreed and I asked her fathers permission to take Sarah to a dance that was going to be held at the local country club, to his credit he gave his permission and Sarah agreed to accompany me. I will never forget how beautiful she looked as I collected her from her parent’s house or how proud I felt as all eyes focused on us as we walked in to the ball room. “Shall we dance” I asked extending my right hand that Sarah took and I led her on to the dance floor. I know it may sound silly but all those years of anguish and hate seemed to dissolve as we danced around the dance floor in a slow swirling circular motion. It was our first waltz and after nearly fifty years of marriage I still think back to our first dance and how lucky I am to have a woman LIKE SARAH LOVE ME.

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