You really get to know a guy when you spend a month with him, living in a hole in the ground.
Howard Stein and I were in the first squad of the first platoon of C/394. Our 99th Infantry Division was thinly spread on the outskirts of the Ardennes Forest near the Belgian-German border. It was there we became foxhole buddies.
With the small spades we carried in our backpacks, we hacked away at the frozen, snow-sprinkled earth to dig a foxhole that would double as fighting station and living quarters. Tree branches would form a roof to keep the snow out and – we hoped – give us some protection from shrapnel.
That was the day we received battlefield promotions.
“How many of you guys ain’t PFCs yet?” the platoon sergeant asked. Howard and I were among those who raised their hands. The sergeant took our names. We were now privates first class and our pay went up $5 a month.
It was a quiet period. We went on occasional patrols, probing German positions, but our casualties were few and the main hazard was weather-caused trench foot, where toes and feet lose circulation.
At night, one of us had to be awake at all times while the other napped, resting his back against the wall of the foxhole. But in the early evening, with a blackout strictly enforced, there was nothing to do but talk. And talk we did - about anything and everything. Howard had been a student at Swarthmore and I had attended New York’s City College. We both came from immigrant Jewish families.
The war became very real for us at dawn on Dec. 16, 1944, when a fierce artillery bombardment and the rumble of tanks signaled the start of the Battle of the Bulge, the last great offensive by the Germans. Our thinly spread division was a prime target.
We lost some good friends that day and in the days that followed. Howard and I quickly learned how chance determines who will live and who will die.
I don’t think either of us will ever forget climbing out of our foxhole during a lull in the artillery barrage to find – less than two feet away – a huge unexploded shell, much bigger than the usual German artillery weapon.
There were other close calls as the remnants of our company moved through enemy-held territory but our luck held out. So many, though, were not so lucky.
After Howard was evacuated with trench foot and I was detailed to regiment headquarters, we lost touch until …
Well, it’s another story, but I’ll try to keep it short.
It was some 30 years after I had last seen Howard. I was living in the Washington, D.C., area with my family and my son was considering college options. One of our reference books reproduced the front pages of various college newspapers, including the Yale Daily News.
Chance again, but a happy chance. There was a head picture of a man identified as Professional Howard Stein and yes, he had the same sort of impish smile.
“Is this my old foxhole buddy?” I wrote, hoping the Yale University address would be sufficient. Jackpot!
So we visited back and forth. I had the pleasure of meeting Marianne. And I tell astonished friends that one of the most erudite people I know still uses a typewriter to communicate and we correspond by snail mail.
Well, someone has to give the postal service a reason to stay in business.
So, birthday greetings to my foxhole buddy of old, and a sense of awe that we are both around to celebrate the occasion.
I’ll drink to that.