He says he hears it. His ear is pressed against the cold, smooth metal of the rail. I reach into my pocket, pull out the scope and place it next to the M1 Garand on the sleeper ties in front of me. I see the back of his head as he holds his breath. His hair seems dull, no longer the jet black of his youth. Several gray strands poke out from the mass of black. He sticks his hand in the air, pointing his finger.
“Wait,” he says. “Wait. There.” He lifts his head off the track.
I kneel in blue utility pants, and I listen with eyes closed because this sometimes helps.
I’ve been here many times before. As a boy, placing pennies on the track, hiding in the brush as the train sweeps past, his hand gripping the back of my shirt as I laugh and launch myself forward, the suction pulling me in, my face inches from the fury. Later, in my teens, feeling the M1’s wood giving warmth back, like two people holding hands. Looking down the sights under cover of the Ghillie suit, through the blur of the massive train’s wheels at the soup can on the other side because he had said all the movement and violence of steel on steel was how it had been. You must shoot through it, he had said, as he rested one hand on my back, the other on my chest, feeling the rhythm of my breathing.
We cross the culvert and move to the edge of the brush on the other side. We find our spots, two ancient depressions in the detritus under a canopy of new growth, and we lie in them as we always have. He pulls out his binoculars. They hang around his neck now as they do in every picture in the box in the closet of our house. He hands them to me and I look down the track.
“About a mile,” I say.
“Ok. Check your mark now.” He moves behind me and reaches into my pocket for the glass. I can’t see him but I know he’s looking through the scope at the soup can on the other side.
“Three clicks,” I say.
“Three,” he says. “Yes, three’s about right.”
I adjust the elevation dial by three clicks. The dial is warm with the heat of my fingers. And I think this is how it must have felt when he made the same adjustments in Bastogne under heavy mortar fire, the dial hot to the touch no matter how cold the day or night.
I hear the train and I know we’re thinking about the same things. I imagine the height of the freight undercarriage and the radius of the wheels. I think of the distance between them. How far ahead of the opening I must aim in order to clear the wheels. Which cars to avoid. How far behind the diesel I must start. What the chemical and fuel cars look like.
He taps me on the shoulder and hands me the scope, then takes the binoculars from me. “Here,” he says. “Today’s the day.”
Today is always the day. He has been saying this since the day he first let me hold the M1, five years after he had returned. I would hit the mark through the train, he would say, and that day had come a year ago. At 400 yards through the train, looking through the scope, I had made calculations of trajectory based on bullet drop, windage, and the caliber of the round.
He had left in 1942 a late-riser but had come back getting up at three every morning. There were things to do, he would say to me and my mother. They wouldn’t do themselves. And on mornings such as these he was here setting up his son’s classroom, passing on the only knowledge he had and that he thought worth passing along. It didn’t come in words, though words were useful for such things as pass the butter and where’s my wallet. The only knowledge of any importance came from experience and betrayed any attempt to transmit it through words.
He did, in fact, speak of the war and there were stories if only to satisfy the curiosity of those who hadn’t been there. The stories of Baker Company were never hidden from his children in any deliberate sense. There was no hush or mindful silence in the spots where one might expect a narrative. He was matter-of-fact about the characters he served with and of the missions he went on, and neither relished in nor underplayed the drama of the details. But there was always a sense that these were not the whole story. And the story, the real story, was something less of characters, drills, formations and strategies. Less about anything of prescribed, scripted war, and more of something else entirely. I felt it whenever we went shooting, like he was living it. And when he looked down the sights he shifted his manner of speaking, his voice more monotone, his words, measured, monosyllabic, like they were expensive. And the longer he looked at his mark – a soup can, a sign, a block of wood – the more his breathing seemed to grow shallow. He didn’t smile when he shot but I knew within that moment he knew some measure of satisfaction.
As he looks through his binoculars down the line, I take the M1 and rest it on its now unfolded bipod stand, then disengage the safety.
“Here. Get ready,” he says quietly and he looks down at my setup. “Forget the glass. Sights only.”
I remove the scope then press myself hard against the ground and spread my legs further apart. I line up the rear and front sights with the mark, which is 200 yards distant across the tracks. I can’t quite resolve the fine details but I know it’s just a soup can, as it almost always is. It’s preserved after each outing for posterity. Riddled with holes from past triumphs, then retrieved and stored with the M1 like a troubled couple, temporarily reconciled if only to share the matrimonial bed. His own bed lies empty after he awakes: his wife, my mother, having left on a cold winter morning not unlike the present one for reasons I can only guess. I have only the one story, his, and I suppose that is how it will remain.
I have never made the mark from so far away using iron sights alone.
“I want to use the scope,” I say but I make no move toward that end.
“Just relax. Trust the sights. Breathe.”
The train arrives and fills us with its noise and smell and punches us with a sudden, massive displacement of air. I feel it as the Ghillie suit lifts off my back in the suction that follows, only to be held down by my own body’s weight. There are no words, now, not just because none would be heard, but also because taking the shot is all that is left.