by Leland Woodson
I live in the small village of Fleurier in the west of the country surrounded by farms. It is a quiet place of solitude. I speak little French, but my daily practice sessions in the village in the various shops have helped me become somewhat fluent. I can go to the cheese shop or the butcher and easily communicate what I want to buy. I walk into the village centre daily to buy my groceries. First I go to the cheese shop where the elderly woman proprietor smiles and say,s “Bonjour Monsieur, voulez-vous le même montant de gruyère?” “Would you like the same amount of gruyere cheese?”
I always nod and say “Oui!” I, of course, do the same at the butcher shop when asked if I want a kilogram of beef. Folks are always friendly, but all my conversations are of this non-personal type. No real encounter with people. Living in Switzerland has this advantage, in that no one seems to be interested in the Vietnam War.
I am often up during the night having awoken from a dream, sometimes a nightmare about my time in Vietnam years ago. On those occasions I walk into the town centre just to help me stay awake and avoid the nightmare returning. I never encounter anyone on these walks. The village is buttoned up to say the very least, but one time, in the early morning hours, I had encountered a red fox just meandering down the Grand Rue (Main St.) as if on his way along his usual path.
I moved to Switzerland from the US a year ago. You have to live in the country for ten years before you can apply for citizenship. Even then, the community that you live in is able to vote in the annual election as to whether you ought to be allowed to become a citizen. That is rather interesting if you ask me.
I have taken a small apartment in a building a few short blocks off the main street with three stories and two apartments on each level. The apartment is on the first floor, but it was up some sixteen or so steps to the front entrance. The entire building was built of blocks of stone. I remember being impressed by the fact that the openings for the windows had two-foot thick walls due to the size of the stones used in the building’s construction. The building was over a hundred years old but seemed almost modern inside, with the Scandinavian style furnishings. There were many such buildings in the village. They had been there a very long time.
The small village of some three thousand has one street, the ‘Grand-Rue,’ you know ‘Main Street,’ and numerous side streets going off from there into the farmland that surrounds the village. The river Areuse runs along side the village and has a small branch called the Buttes, which goes off to the nearby village of Butte. The Buttes cuts off a small portion of the village where the round-about marks the beginning of the Grand-Rue. The locals could be found fishing in Le Buttes nearly every day through the summer. The sound of cattle and their bells could sometimes be heard in the middle of the village at night when a farmer would move his cattle from one pasture to another.
It is January now in the tiny village in Switzerland, in the northwest part of the country, where the people speak French. On this particular evening, I am dressed in my winter hiking gear in order to head up the mountain with a group from the local hiking club.
We will be on snowshoes once we clear the village and jump off into one of the farmers’ snow-covered fields.
I glance in the direction of the western skyline, the sunlight beams across the surface of the snow on the low distant horizon, spreading and elongating the shadows of the trees. Barbed wire fence rows sparkle with the ever-changing light as the sun sinks more quickly now and the temperatures drops still more. No wind has hit us yet and we start to move. Our slogging pace begins to pick up a rhythm of crunching sound. Crunch, crunch, the sound of our tiny steps, in unison from time to time, in the solitude of the approaching night, all in unison, rather like soldiers marching.
The line of snowshoes plods onward and upward as we begin to climb towards the summit. We step over several stone walls that mark off the limits of various fields for the farmer, they are easy to get over as they are low now because of the drifting snow. We continue our journey. The trees appear on every side now as we go deeper into the edge of the treeline. Huge branches reach down, sometimes finding the snow-covered fields as they droop from the weight of the snow. They look like giant vanilla ice cream cones turned upside down. Nightfall descends upon us and the cold winter temperatures and a little wind begin to toughen the skin on our faces.
The quiet of the hour and the fast approaching darkness helps us keep our pace. One step at a time. Crunching our way headlong into what is clearly wilderness as the farmer’s fences and the stone hedge rows are now far behind us. My mind wanders. I begin to ruminate about a story my father told me long ago about the Winter War of ’39. I think about those Russian soldiers there on a cold night such as this, only in Finland, during that war.
I think about how, on the one hand they were surrounded with the beauty of the snow and the majestic snow laden trees all around them and then without warning, an explosion, a minefield and out of the forest, rapidly moving shapes of shadowy white figures, bursts of flame in the night, no time to focus, just drop onto the smooth crunchy snow, face down, or trip over your own ski tips and fall. No ice cream now, no slivers of gold slicing thru the branches of the trees lighting the path, just spots of red snow here and there, death everywhere.
I know very well that this isn’t Finland and that the war was long ago. But still, the terrain is similar, and the cold and the snow seem to be the same. And I can’t help but think about how many Russian soldiers died in an environment like this. I picture the fast-moving Finnish ski units suddenly bursting forth from the tree line, firing their Suomi KP-31 automatic submachine guns, loaded from a round canister of 71 bullets and with firepower that had a defeating effect on the Russians. The Finnish skiers would swiftly hurl themselves across the line of almost motionless, frozen soldiers, most of whom could barely use snowshoes or skis, stunned as they plodded in the snow, rifles slung over their shoulders, frozen gloved fingers, fumbling with their weapons.
Whooshing and sharp cracking sounds come from the white-clad shadowy figures and from the trees all about, the sounds, the thudding and thumping, were all that was noticeable for each man. The chests and sleeves of olive drab uniforms suddenly run red as one after another slump forward or are suddenly flung backwards or to the side in the final throws of the death that had descended out of the lonely quiet of the night. No chance, not even a flicker of hope. They cock their rifles, those few remaining, but for what reason? The quick moving whooshing sound was gone into the distant treeline below as it swallowed the white deliverers of death. As suddenly as they had come, they were gone. The night was colder now, and the white snow painted red here and there. It was quiet.
What would they think? What would they say? “Are there more?” “Ah, fuck, get up!” “Mother!” “Oh, God, it hurts!” Would they scream? Cry? It is too cold to do either; if you’re lucky, you just die.
What the hell happened anyway to cause men to do this to one another? Even with this kind of beauty, man’s inhumanity to man persists. God damn them anyway. And the survivors—what did they say? Could they talk about what they’d seen? I couldn’t.
In the past, when I would talk to people, before I came to Fleurier, they sometimes would ask me questions about my time in Vietnam. Even simple questions like, “What was it like for you when you returned home?” If I tried to answer their questions, I would always stop talking, turn away, hoping no one would notice my eyes tearing up and hoping against all hope that a tear would not run down my face. My voice would stop and I would be choked up. I would think about the faces of young men there in the jungle or along the perimeter of the base camp so long ago.
Often I tried to share my story, but I always failed to do so. What blocked the simple telling of a story was a puzzle. I just couldn’t do it. Whenever I tried, I would suddenly feel like I was there, briefly, in those moments long ago. Then my mind would fast forward, as I always thought that it just didn’t seem fair, that I had survived and so many others had not. I had gone on to live out my life, but their lives had been cut short. My memories seem as vivid today as they were a decade ago.
“Walk on!” I say to myself out loud. I shake my head. Then shake it once more, the imaginary cries of the Russian dead, the real cries of Vietnam, fade. The blood-flecked snow is replaced by the blues, yellows, reds and every other shade of athletic clothing as the snowshoers continue to climb in a now long strung out line. They walk on, oblivious to what happened somewhere, once upon a time, in a field like the one we move so deftly across.