War Story

Historical investigation led me to the name Darren Fosh.  Online searching and a complete lack of privacy in the modern world led me to his phone number and address.  Remarkably, he didn't live very far from me.  I called, hesitantly, and we spoke.  I introduced myself gently, explained my intentions.  Darren listened.  He understood, he said, but he'd like a little while to consider my request, it had been an awfully long time since those days.  He said I could call back in a week after he had thought about it, and when I did, he said ok, he'd be willing to meet me.

Darren is old, just turned one hundred and two.  His face is deep-lined, his out-of-control eyebrows spider-web up to his creased forehead that is partially covered in thin silver hair.  His eyes are still bright blue, his smile is hesitant.  He speaks through an artificial voice box located in front of his throat thanks to a decades-ago surgery.  The sound is tinny and mechanical and unsettling and contradicts the friendliness that understandably needed a bit of time to develop.

You can see Darren, the visitor coordinator of his long-term care facility told me, but be sensitive.  If he starts to nod off, if he gets a bit confused, well then it may be smart to cut the visit short, tell him thanks, and try again later.  And absolutely reach out for assistance if you have any concerns.  I said of course, thank you so much.  Then I signed a form and followed the coordinator to Darren's small room.  He was in bed, propped up on cushions, half-covered with a blanket.  A glass of water was on the nearby table and a small plastic chair was in the corner near the window.

"Darren," the coordinator began, "this is your visitor.  Remember you talked to a man on the phone who wanted to meet you?"

"I remember," Darren answered with his machine-voice.

"This is Mr. Kroft.  He's going to visit with you for a little while, ok?"  I extended my arm and we shook hands.  His grip was surprisingly strong and his hands were large.  "I'm going to go now," the coordinator continued, "but you call if you need anything, ok Darren?"

"Ok".  Machine voice.  The coordinator left the room.

I sat down on the little chair.  "First of all, thank you so much for meeting me, Mr. Fosh.  I'm honoured that you were open to my request."

"Don't be so formal," he monotoned.  "Darren is fine."

"Thank you.   And I'm Craig.  It's a pleasure to meet you."  He nodded, looked away briefly, then looked back.  "I must say," I continued, "you look great for one hundred and two.  I've never met anyone your age before.  It's incredible."

"It's a big number," he replied.

"It certainly is," I agreed.

He changed the subject.  "You want to talk about the war."  He was immediately terse.

"Yes, that's right," I answered.  "Specifically my grandfather in the war.  I've been studying my family history over the past few months and I've come across some information about my grandfather, details that no one in the family knew.  We knew he had fought in Europe and died there, but that was about all until I started investigating and I saw your name linked with his in a military record.  When we first spoke on the phone, I mentioned that I believe you and he fought together in France.  His name was Cameron Kroft."

"Yes I remember," Darren said.  "He was a fine soldier.  Very strong and brave."

"And he died in France, is that right?"

"Yes."  Getting perceptibly more emotional, Darren's mechanical voice sounded uneven, like its circuit was shorting out.  "First he got injured.  Late in 1943."  Deep breath.  "Spent time in a British hospital.  But he came back before D-day, joined our unit again, parachuted into France a few weeks before Normandy."  Deeper breath.  "We were special forces, you see, so we were there early to work behind enemy lines."

"That's incredible."

He continued choppily, budgeting his oxygen, like it was a limited fuel source for his mechanical voice.  "Those were tough times.  For a few days we actually hid in an abandoned farmhouse.  We buried ourselves in hay so we wouldn't be found.  No food, no water except what was in our canteens.  We waited until we knew the enemy had passed.  Cameron never showed fear.  He was a real man."

"And what about your missions?  What kinds of things did you do?"

Darren hesitated and breathed then answered.  "Mostly sabotage.  Disrupting enemy supply lines, bombing railway tracks and bridges.  Sometimes intelligence work."

"Do you know what happened that made him go to the hospital in Britain?"

"Shrapnel.  We were behind enemy lines and got caught in a bombing raid.  It was our bombs.  Cost him an eye."

"He lost an eye?"

"Yes.  Shrapnel hit his face.  Cut it to shreds and destroyed his eye.  He never complained."

I sat silently for a moment processing the detail.  We were both re-grouping.

"And then he went back," I continued.

"He wanted to.  He was a proud soldier and he believed in the cause.  And he was good and his superiors wanted him to go back."  Deep breath, even deeper than before.

"And then he was killed shortly after that, is that right?"

Darren nodded and his mouth moved to speak but the mechanical voice didn't sound.  He moved his mouth again.  His breath quickened and his body began to shake slightly.  I stood up and ran to the doorway.

"Can we have assistance, please," I yelled down the hall to no one in particular.  A nurse appeared, came to the room.  She placed a small pink tablet in Darren's mouth and gave him some water from a paper cup.  In less than a minute, he had settled.  The nurse reclined the bed and Darren closed his eyes and breathed evenly and was calm and silent.

"Sometimes he gets a bit anxious" she explained.  "I think it's best if you go."

"Yes, of course,"  I replied.  I left the room and walked down the hallway to the exit, acknowledging the volunteer coordinator on my way out.

For the next few days, my motivations were in conflict.  As much as I wanted to visit Darren again and resume our conversation, it was obvious that the discussion had upset him.  If my actions had caused him trauma and anxiety, well that was despicable.  He's one hundred and two and a veteran, I thought, he deserves all the peace in the world.  I may not hear from him again and that would be completely understandable.  He has no obligation to talk to me.

I was pleased when my phone rang and I answered and heard the voice of the volunteer coordinator who advised me that Darren did indeed want to continue our conversation.  He just had a bit of an episode last time, that's all, but he thinks he's ready to try again.  Tomorrow afternoon would be great, if I was available.  I said thank you, I will make myself available.

Darren seemed pleased to see me, although I thought I noticed a slight tremor when I shook his hand.  "Hello, Craig," he greeted me, tinny-voiced.

"Thank you for agreeing to see me again, Darren.  I know that last time was a bit of a struggle."

"This time," pause with somewhat laboured breath, "will be a struggle too."

"We don't have to do this if it's too hard.  The last thing I want to..."

"Yes.  We.  Do."  He was emphatic in spirit if not volume of voice.  I sat down on the little chair.  "I have," pause, "to tell you something."  He breathed in and out, laboured still. 

"Ok," I said.  "Take your time."  It was sad to see him struggle but I allowed him his moment and respected his decision to continue despite the challenge.

"I have to tell you something," he began again.  "It will be," breathe, "difficult for you.  To hear."  His mechanical voice wavered, short-circuiting again.  "When your grandfather died.  I killed him.  I," pause, "let it happen."

I stared, shocked, wrestling with immediate rising sadness and confusion and irrational anger.  "What?  How?"

Darren became stronger in voice.  His determination to continue, to not waver, was astounding and a bit disturbing at the same time.  Short bursts of words were the best he could do.  "We were a team of five.  We were laying explosives.  Around an enemy safe house.  At night.  In the dark in the middle of the night.  We had all finished our tasks.  Had retreated back to the edge of the woods.  Except your grandfather.  He wasn't quite done.  Almost done."  Very tinny hesitating voice.  "An enemy soldier.  Came out the front door.  To urinate I guess.  Your grandfather was close by.  The soldier saw him.  Pointed his gun.  Took him inside.  We heard voices.  Yelling.  Then one gun shot.  We retreated.  Deeper into the woods.  Our explosives were timed.  We heard the house blow up.  Later that night.  No one survived.  We knew because we went back.  The next day.  To retrieve your grandfather.  He had," pause, long pause, "a bullet wound.  In the side of his head."

I looked at Darren but he didn't look at me.  He breathed, that was all.

"We hiked.  With his body for two days.  Until we got to a safe house of our own.  He's buried in a military cemetery.  In France.  He was a hero."

I shook my head in awe and confusion.  After a very long and uncomfortable silence, I steadied my voice.  "I don't understand," I said.  "You didn't kill him, the enemy did.  He was a casualty of war.  Why do you feel..."

"I saw the soldier open the door.  I was close enough.  Could have shot him before he took your grandfather inside.  But, if I did, the rest of the soldiers.  They would have heard.  Come out.  Hunted us down.  Maybe killed us all.  And when the house blew up, it would have been empty.  We would have failed.  At our mission.  I made the decision.  To do nothing.  To let your grandfather take the fall.  For the rest of us and for the mission.  I decided.  One death was better than five deaths.  Is it?  Is one life less important?  Than five lives?  Is it just about numbers?  I decided it was.  Then.  I sacrificed him.  Not sure if it was my right.  Ethics.  Never told this story.  Before."

"This is..." I stammered.  "I don't know what to say."

"I know," Darren said.  "It's.  Overwhelming.  To me too.  For all these years."

"It will take some time to process this," I told him.  "But I'm honoured that you chose to confess it to me.  I hope you feel unburdened?"

His mechanical voice said, "I do.  Thank you.  But can you go now?  I'm very tired."

I stood up.  "Of course."  I walked the few steps over to his bed and placed my hand lightly on his shoulder.  "Thank you, sir,"  I said.  He smiled and closed his eyes and did not see me leave.  On my way out, I told the volunteer coordinator that Darren was resting peacefully.  We had a most interesting conversation, I said.

Darren passed away a couple days ago.  The coordinator at the long-term care home called me, thought I might want to know.  Thanks so much, I said, it was an honour to spend time with him, even if it was really only for a few hours.  I hope he died peacefully.  He did, the coordinator said, in his sleep.  His final day was most calm and anxiety-free and he seemed completely at ease.  And we mailed you a package.  Darren said he wanted you to have something.

The package arrived today, a large brown envelope, addressed to me in a black-inked handwriting that was a bit choppy and inconsistent.  Choppy like Darren's mechanical voice, I thought.  Inside was a black and white photograph dated November 1943.  Two young men in military uniform, looking regal, smiling and proud, ready for duty.



Chris Klassen lives and writes in Toronto, Canada.  After graduating from the University of Toronto and living for a year in France and England, he returned home and worked the majority of his career in print media.  He is now living a semi-retired life.  His stories have been published in numerous journals including Across the Margin, Fleas on the Dog, Vagabond City, Dark Winter, Ghost City Review, The Raven Review, The Coachella Review, Sortes, and Toasted Cheese, among others. Chris recommends Haven on the Queensway, a non-profit food and clothing bank.


Edited for Unlikely by Jonathan Penton, Editor-in-Chief
Last revised on Wednesday, May 17, 2023 - 20:06