Carry On, Soldier
fiction by Dianne C. Stewart

William dressed for his first day as principal of Spring Pond School, his attire carefully chosen to impress teachers and intimidate students. The crisp white shirt had extra starch in its detachable collar and cuffs, and he had brushed every speck from his two-button, square cut suit. Kid leather shoes bought in Paris on his way home to the States gleamed from a buffing with turpentine and wax polish. With his suspender backs clipped precisely two inches from center point and his straw boater hat sporting a new navy serge band, he checked his reflection in the washstand mirror and stood a little straighter. 

When the draft interrupted his college studies, he’d landed with his fellow infantrymen in the port of Saint-Nazaire after six months of stateside training. He was in the best physical condition of his life, part of a wave of green doughboys with excellent skills in marching, but no experience with the weapons that could keep them alive in France. A few miles from the fighting, he dug trenches and learned to use a gas mask while artillerymen studied the French field guns, instructed by war-weary British officers.                                                                                 

William practiced grenade-throwing after hours and cleaned his Enfield rifle until he could do it faster than anyone else. When he heard that the infantry would soon need to support the artillery in handling larger weapons, he gave up the rest of his free time to watch mortar drills. Not everyone shared his dedication. A comrade blew up his own face with a gun he’d neglected to clean. Seeing what was left of the man planted in William what he suspected would be a life-long inability to suffer fools gladly.

Foolish soldiers tended to go home in boxes or become part of the cloud of decay that inhabited everyone’s clothing and skin, re-forming in the taste and feel of the smoke they all coughed out and tried to blink from their eyeballs. Greenhorn principals in this county didn’t last long, either, or so he’d heard. He would be an exception.                                                         
He’d made the first of three promises to himself in France: To return home alive. If that came to pass, he could keep the second and third ones, which were to finish his education and never, ever to leave the land of his birth again.                                               
William had prepared himself for this day as methodically as for anything he’d faced as a soldier. He’d finished his degree, acquired extra certifications, and studied school systems in three states, applying only where there appeared to be opportunities for promotions. He’d settled on one near his hometown, not for sentimental reasons, but because the superintendent was about the right age to keep working for another fifteen years. William intended to have his job eventually, after a tenure at the local high school, the largest in that part of the state. But first, he had to make a name for himself at Spring Pond.                                                                         

The war had taught him to blend with the landscape or stand out, as the need arose. After laying barbed wire in the newly-dug trenches, he’d spent three miserable months of endless days and nights waiting, looking at muddy sandbags and patches of sky choked with smoke, the agonizing boredom mixed with brief periods of terror. Eager to get out of the trenches, he spread the word about his skills in engine repair and speaking passable high school French, combined with the directional instincts of a homing pigeon. He served the rest of the war driving officers around in a British D-type Vauxhall automobile, ready to give his life to protect them from the enemy, and the days had been bearable from then on. He straightened his perfectly straight tie and reminded himself that the students were not the enemy.                                                                           
Eager to reclaim everything the war had hijacked when it barged into his life, he had come home and drained his savings to fulfill the promise of finishing his degree. He hoped to inspire students to value their own futures while he turned this system into the best one in the South. But he also needed a paycheck soon, so success was critical, beginning today.                                    
He opened the window and poured gray water from the china basin onto the grass below.  The boarding house where he rented this room was comfortable and inexpensive, and if he stayed here and saved half his salary each month, he might be able to put something down on a little house next year, then find someone to court and marry. All part of the plan. 

During his interview, the superintendent had signaled William a warning, disguised as an order to be firm with the fifth-grade boys, most of whom were old enough to shave. He explained that the school was licensed to extend through the twelfth grade, though other than a handful of junior high girls, there were no scholars beyond the sixth. And with that, the man had asked, “Any questions?” and slapped his desk with both palms, signaling the end of the interview.

For a moment, William had considered inquiring about those boys, who were said to have tied the last principal to a tree in the woods and left him there, to be found by a very surprised teacher the next morning. He’d stifled a grin at hearing the story in the barbershop, almost sympathizing with the boys, whose idea of a good time was probably wrestling half-grown bull calves on their farms rather than learning to read or do sums. But the fewer questions he asked at the interview, the less he would be grilled about how he planned to handle challenges. He hadn’t mentioned his medals in wrestling at the Inter-Allied Games of 1919 or playing in a rugby match against France the day after the Treaty of Versailles was signed, the competition uncomfortably resembling trench warfare without weapons. One lesson he had learned from observing the officers was not losing the power of your advantages by letting the other side know what they are. And if the fifth-grade boys weren’t the enemy, they were certainly the other side. He checked his pocket watch, a graduation gift from his father, and saw that it was time to leave.

Moving along the path through a stand of pine trees that gave way to oak and cedar, William inhaled the scents and felt his pulse pounding in his ears. . . . Though he’d never been troubled by shell shock or nightmares, he almost believed that if he blinked now, he’d be back in in the forests of northeastern France. 

The town, also named Spring Pond, was small for a county seat, and the residential streets led quickly to the courthouse square, then to a road cutting through fields of newly-planted corn. He could have continued this way and arrived at the school’s front entrance, but instead chose the route through the woods where his hapless predecessor had been found and where he suspected a welcome committee might wait for him this morning. It was the scene of their last success and a logical place to test their new administrator. More than merely ready, William found himself looking forward to it. He needed to establish his position, but there was also a part of him that missed the exhilaration of combat, the surviving of an encounter. 

Moving along the path through a stand of pine trees that gave way to oak and cedar, William inhaled the scents and felt his pulse pounding in his ears. His next reaction was immediate: Two steps and stop, then three and stop, then five and pause, listening. Though he’d never been troubled by shell shock or nightmares, he almost believed that if he blinked now, he’d be back in in the forests of northeastern France.                                                                 

His feet moved at half pace, heel to toe. When he’d walked the route yesterday, he’d had no problems. But now, along with the trees, he could smell outdoor cooking fires and open latrines, the air overlaid with cordite and decay. A glimpse of a distant farmhouse made him realize that the smells were just bacon and chimney smoke, with a faint underlayment of odor from an outhouse. The past was over, he reminded himself, and this was now.                                                          

He continued soundlessly, as squirrels scuttered up the newly-leaved trees and a rattlesnake uncoiled and slithered onto a rock. A fox crossed the path a dozen feet ahead of him and turned to stare. Thinking about the incident with the last principal now, William was less amused. The man could have died.                                                                                                 

Instead of punishing the boys, the superintendent had dismissed the principal for having poor administrative skills, and William wondered how this solution would play out in the long term. He had observed that soldiers would follow a leader they trusted and respected into anything, even certain death, and he reasoned that no one would follow either of those men anywhere for anything. He could do better, and he was eager to begin.                                 

Clearing the next rise, he sensed them before he made out their shapes, and he willed his heartbeat to slow. There were half a dozen older boys, a couple of them nearly six feet tall, smoking rolled cigarettes and loitering just far enough away from the school to be out of the teachers’ view. Their narrowed eyes suggested they were considering their chances.

At two hundred feet, he drew near enough for an expert to throw a grenade with deadly accuracy. Two hundred feet was close in a French forest. Here, it gave him breathing room and time to pace himself.                                                                          

They were looking him up and down. Maybe it was the suit. Instead of formidable, did it make him look dandified? No matter. Let them underestimate him. He moved on at a little less than marching pace, cutting the distance in half.                    
Images flashed in William’s mind, memories of things he’d needed to do that he wished he could forget. He reminded himself that his purpose today was simply to set the tone for the rest of the school year, not kill or be killed.                                
At about thirty feet, the boys began to nudge each other and when he saw he had everyone’s attention, William stopped and removed his hat, setting it down carefully at the foot of a hackberry tree. He shrugged out of his wool suitcoat, folded it with military precision, and hung it over a branch. The collar, cuffs, and necktie came next, each removed at the same rate of speed and laid over the coat. The suspenders could become a noose if the encounter took a bad turn, so off they came. He eyed the boys, still clustered together, and decided that he had time to strip out of his shirt, ensuring a better appearance for the rest of the day.

As a soldier and a wrestler, he could feel when it was time to make the next move. The boys’ smirks had given way to frowns. His quarry was nearing the end of their collective ability to focus. The tallest one took a long drag on his cigarette, threw it down, and ground it out with his bare foot. The other five extinguished theirs by spitting on the lighted ends and shoving the stubs into their pockets. They shifted into a tight formation, never taking their eyes off him. William took a few determined strides, sped to a full-on run, and goat-leaped into the pack.

Hand-to-hand combat had taught him how to kill, and wrestling had taught him how to disable and restrain. He could do the last two quickly or prolong a match for dramatic effect, usually without causing injury. It was important for the rest of the student body to think he beat the stuffing out of the boys, but he didn’t actually want to injure them. If they were a little sore the next day and there were a few black eyes, that would do.

Six takedowns took less than sixty seconds, and the boys were on the ground in a variety of positions: on their buttocks, all fours, or lying flat. William reached out a hand to the tallest one and pulled him up, then did the same with two more, not hesitating to turn his back on any of them. The rest regained their feet on their own. He was breathing regularly. They were all panting, and the looks on their faces were close to worship.

“Boys,” he lied, “that took a lot out of me. I’ll be obliged if you stay after school a while and help me clean the floors and wash the chalkboards.”  He smoothed his hair and returned to the tree for his clothes, putting them back on at the same calm, measured pace he’d used to remove them. He was pleased to see that they waited for him.                                                    

They continued toward the school, William asking their names and making a polite comment about each one. A boy named Silas ran ahead, saying over his shoulder, “I’ll tell the teachers you’re here, Sir.”                                                                                                    
“Bring clean rags back with you,” William called out, and pointed to a pump in the yard. “Wash your hands and faces, then come inside,” he told the others. He turned and walked toward the school, reasonably confident that they would do the right thing. Silas burst through the front door. Following him, three teachers hurried to the steps, and one of them was young and pretty. 

A clear vision of what he’d crossed an ocean to fight for brought a smile to William’s face: Miscreant boys, freckle-faced little girls, and the responsible young women tasked with educating them. Boys who could pretend to be tough without enduring soul-breaking terrors in the night. Girls who could giggle at the secrets they shared. Teachers who wouldn’t have to carry on through horrors they’d never imagined.                                                                   

It was going to be a good day. 

Dianne C. Stewart grew up in East Tennessee hearing family stories about the “Old Days” in Appalachia. A long-time teacher and history nerd, she transports readers into the past in her three time-travel novels, Quimbaya; Longitude: Zero Degrees; and Season of the Cold Moon (Beanpole Publishing Company). She now lives in Virginia, where she can be seen exploring backroads and stopping to read historical markers. 

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