This story comes out on Veteran’s Day. We want to thank all those brave men and women who have served our great country over all the decades. You are true heroes!
Mae Gieseke leaned her full weight against the pitchfork handle, bending it down toward the ground, its tines firmly imbedded in stable straw. It stubbornly fought her, the pieces of straw sealed together with dried manure and urine. Finally, a section peeled away. Mae lifted the pitchfork and flung the rotten bedding into the wheelbarrow by her side. Her eyes stung, filling with water. Sheep manure had nearly as many fumes as her dad’s Model T – especially piled up after all this time. She blinked the moisture from her eyes and jabbed the pitchfork back in again.
Mae had been cleaning this barn since she was a little girl, carrying fresh water from the well to the chicken coop since she was barely taller than the bucket. Back then, barn cleaning had been a regular routine. But now the chores were piling up and cleaning her parent’s barn kept getting pushed further down the list of priorities. Mae had meant to do it over the weekend, but instead she’d ended up with an extra shift at Coast to Coast, the local hardware store in New Ulm, Minnesota.
She took the shift assuming she could fit the barn cleaning in during the week, but other things kept popping up. It wasn’t all work. On Wednesday, Mae went to the drive-in with a group of friends from church, one of whom was home on furlough. Mae was a hard worker; a typical farm kid. The first time she did something for leisure in the middle of the week, it felt frivolous. While others were serving their duties during the war, Mae was a woman on the home front continuing the farm in her brothers’ absence. They were all overseas.
You see, not only was she living with the fact that half her family had left, she had to deal with her true love being gone as well. Mae was only 18 and had met Alton through church. He was quite a bit older, but she didn’t like those immature boys. She planned on marrying Alton when he got back—so she waited.
Mae struggled against the pitchfork again. The hay was like cement. She grabbed a spade from the wall and started stabbing a section from above, beating the ground like a mad woman. As her arms swung, she cried out – as if verbalizing her frustration would increase her strength. It only made a small difference in the hay but did wonders for her emotions. Barn cleaning was good for the soul.
Alton had been overseas for years and had yet to get a furlough. She threw the spade to the side and grabbed the pitchfork again. Normally, she never let herself worry about Alton until three weeks passed without a letter. But the three week mark was nearly here.
Alton Mattson stepped off the Edwin Abbey with a somber demeanor. The air felt like church, holiness and respect blanketing the entire coastline. He and his fellow Army engineers marched higher up Utah Beach, out of the waist-level water and onto white sand. The smell was awful – no amount of salty ocean wind could cover up the former battlefield. Broken down jeeps and tanks lay across the ground. As the Army marched higher, Alton looked at his feet. It had been over a month since the famous battle, yet the water that soaked up through the sand and filled their footprints still had traces of pink.
No one spoke, but in the distance one of the men taking apart a jeep waved at them. It was an eerie welcome.
At the crest of the hill, they came upon the gravesite. Large swaths of dirt ran in parallel strips – dozens of them, with rows of rifles or crude sticks poking up from the ground as temporary headstones. Helmets were draped over several of the rifle stocks, tilted forward as if to watch over the soldier who had once depended on their protection.
Alton knew it would be hard. The dizziness was no surprise. He looked at the white faces of the men next to him and knew his own probably matched. His emotions were more complex than theirs, though.
For as long as he lived, Alton would never forget that day last month, when the officer approached him as he stood waiting in line to board the ship to Normandy.
“This is your lucky day, son,” the officer said as Alton followed him back to their tents.
A repair was needed on one of their trucks. As a mechanic who was also the manager of his truck division, it was Alton’s responsibility to stay back and fix it.
What were the odds?
Standing here now at the gravesite, Alton felt like he was staring at his alternate fate, the physical representation of just how close he got this time.
As the Advance Section, Communications Zone (ADSEC) division, Alton and his colleagues were here to take over command from the First Army as they moved deeper into France. Alton would help repair and build roads and keep the Army vehicles running. Other members of the unit set up hospitals, blood banks and communication centers. As the rest of the Army continued ahead of them, the ADSEC division followed behind, always ready with any logistical items the advancing Army might need.
They were always on the move, never in one spot for very long. But Alton knew this would be a tough location. Part of him felt the responsibility to stay as long as possible, as if helping in the aftermath was his duty after being so lucky. The other part of him prayed they’d move on as fast as possible, so he could shake the feeling of his own ghost hovering just over his shoulder.
A letter from Sarah…
This story is about my grandparents. I just want to be clear with you that not all parts are factual, but they are a good representation of what many men and women went through during World War II. When these men came home (turning into men from boys), they didn’t like to talk about what happened. So it’s really hard to get details from their children and widows. But we all recall memories and have little bits and pieces through saved letters and newspaper clippings. This story could have been about many young couples during that era. Alton had to leave his love at home. He would write her letters giving little details to what he was doing, but more about day to day life in England.
My grandparents were my mentors and my best memories involve them. My grandpa was a hardworking farmer with a gentle soul. He was a full-blooded Norwegian who married a German. That didn’t go over smoothly since it was one year after the war ended with Germany. My grandma was just as hard working as my grandpa. While she was a housewife on the farm, she’d cook for large groups of men during threshing season, WHILE pregnant and a little girl by her side.
During my childhood I would spend my entire summer there or stay for weeks at a time. It was so much better than city life. My cousin, Matt, and I would play in the woods all day, ride the lawnmowers through the yard, pick raspberries and peas from the garden, and just be kids. My grandpa taught us woodworking and grandma taught me how to bake. Her house was always immaculate and looked like it should be in New York, not some Minnesota farm. Our best memories were our fishing trips. We’d dig for worms next to the shop and drive to a lake an hour away. We’d come back late at night after a good day of catching sunnies and crappies, and a stop at Whiskey River in Saint Peter for dinner.
I’m lucky to still have my grandma with us. She is 95 and looks like she’s 75. She’s a tough German with a good wit. I’m happy to share her genes. =)