Christian Short Stories

The Cross
By Web Ruble

Web Ruble writes: I am a retired newspaper reporter of some 40 years, and a couple of those years I was religion writer at The Oregonian, Oregon's largest daily. Now I am a novelist and short story writer. My wife Norma and I live in Fairview, OR but split our time between there and Tucson, AZ where we are now until about April 15. We are lay leaders and deacons at Smith Memorial Presbyterian Church in Fairview, OR (near Portland). We also are volunteers on Thursdays about nine months out of the year in a soup kitchen in Gresham, OR.

What I saw - an almost unbelievable vision that gave me eternal hope -- came at a most unexpected moment.

War's carnage was bogged in a quagmire. Nevertheless, the Russians had been on-coming for days. We Germans continued to beat them back, but we were too worn to restart our offensive. Now they (counter-attacking Bolsheviks) were exhausted as well.

Squalls of rain soaked bone marrows. Cold. Trench-foot misery. Mud choked every organ, including our craw and gizzard. Everything was earth-caked and dripping. We were told that this purgatory was typical of March in the Kursk stretch south of Moscow.

We failed to take Moscow the previous winter (1940-41). A year later, we were still near Moscow. Army Group South, to the south of us on our endless front, was pushing for the Caucuses and the oil fields of Baku. I thought we should concentrate on Moscow, or get out. Some had even said we first had to eliminate the Soviet stronghold at Stalingrad on the Volga. Huh? Why? If we took Moscow . . .

The Soviet Union -- Russia and the Ukraine -- extends forever across the endless steppe, and has millions, including tribes of crazed Asiatics to throw at us. As far as I am concerned we should never have ripped into this vastness so impossibly far from home. And I think that when the noble, maltreated Slav overwhelms me, he'll have no mercy. Adolph Hitler, our Gen. Fedor "der Sterber" von Bock, and other generals are fruitier than peach orchard bores.

Bock, after all, has said the greatest honor that could befall a German soldier, is to die on the battlefield for the Fatherland. That sure sounds encouraging. We're doomed. And given the atrocities -- Bock has never protested severe treatment of civilians by the Schutzstafel (SS) -- God most certainly will treat us harshly when we die.

The above constituted my gloomy thoughts on the evening of March 6, 1942, as I gazed through the semi-darkness. In blinks, I tried to penetrate the depressing fog that seemed to be drifting toward us from Soviet bunkers.

Personal thoughts of that moment linger to this day:

The Bolsheviks, too, are giving up what I am sure is another planned maniacal counterattack. That's why I am surprised. Coming at us at sort of an angle through the vague silver mist is what appears to be a man carrying something. He is between the lines, of course -- in no man's land, What he's carrying is hard to make out, but it appears to be a huge white cross.

Huh? A cross?

Bolsheviks, professed non-believers. Cross?

Heinrich's squad -- including sniper Friedrich Helsmann -- see "it", too. And they are about to open fire, as our soldiers are expected to do when anything moves on the Soviet side. Moreover, Helsmann announced that he already has the man and "the cross" in his crosshairs.

"Halt! Nicht!" I, Kurt Braunschweiger, a 45-year-old sergeant in the Wehrmacht, have enough authority to stop what would be the senseless shooting of that strange apparition -- doubtless an isolated, delirious Russian. What would be the purpose of that?

"Let's capture him," I said. "Eh? Maybe he can tell us what's happening. Besides, I am most curious -- is that really a cross? Ohhhh, yes, I can already tell. 'Tis a cross! What the . . .?"

Like a toppled beaker of hot-Steinhaeger, a round of scorching metal -- a flaming-Vodka early-evening toast from the Soviets -- arrived from artillery dug in somewhere out in the Steppe. The ground jumped, heaved and otherwise crumbled beneath us. Our emplacement began to shatter. It was followed by screaming noise -- Katyushka rockets? -- that turned our ears to jelly and the night sky into fireworks vistas.

This convulsion continued for a half hour. Cpl. Friederich Feyer, as tough a trooper as any in my platoon, was blown to bits -- clutching his Luger. That was tough on us emotionally. Good ol' humorous Feyer had been with us in the Second Army since we left Poland. His bent for comedy had kept us going. I was devastated. Please, God, receive our comrade Feyer and help us end this senseless carnage.

Then I thought -- What happened to our weird, on-coming cross bearer?

I looked out on the churned mud flat and could see nothing. An officer passed down what was left of our trench. He let me borrow his field glasses. First myself -- and then he -- searched the field but we could see nothing. The cross bearer had vanished. No surprise. He no doubt was blown-away, victim of the same Soviet artillery barrage. Or perhaps he had been shot by one of his own disgusted Bolsheviks some 500 yards away. Who knew?

A strange quiet settled over the fog now melting into black shadows. The sky was as dark gray as the Don. We could hear no voices except for the several nerve-mauling cries of wounded out there somewhere.

After moments of hesitation to build courage, medics crawled out of our shell-warped bulwark to search for our maimed and dying. This bandage-and-plasma crew, of course, hoped to retrieve shattered souls. However, we all had doubts that it would be successful. Not only would it have difficulty finding and extracting the wounded but it'd face its own annihilation.

Time for patrols. My captain volunteered our platoon. We, too, would be at risk. But I was happy with it. I simply had to solve the mystery of "the cross."

Over the slippery trench lip we scrambled with only rifles and side arms. We'd probe to see exactly where was the enemy. And the three or four of us would try to find the cross bearer.

Fifteen minutes went by while we wallowed, slipped and slid in the ankle-top muck. We came to the knoll where I determined the cross bearer had been. Nothing. We pushed on. Within a few yards, however, we found him in a crater. Or it was someone who looked as if it could've been him. His body was shattered and partly scorched, but his head was attached.

He was dead on his back staring up. Lying within a few feet of him were some white-gray boards.

I noted that he was older -- perhaps in his 50s. He was wearing no chevrons of rank. I could find no officer insignia, either. Was he really a soldier? I quickly reached into his tunic pockets and found a small metal case. It was a mini-icon, showing Jesus and the Madonna. No other identification.

"Ahh . . . no doubt a retread from Czarist times," I said.

I explained to Bauer, Kutz, Harr, Dietrich and the others how in the First War the soldiers of Holy Russia would haul out their religious icons at night. Sometimes they'd sing, especially at Christmas time. We Germans -- I was a young private then -- used to crawl closer, sit, listen and enjoy the music. Then we'd go back to shooting at the entrenched Slavs at dawn.

"You haven't lived until you've met those old good Russian boys in Czarist trenches," I said. "They were wonderful Christian men caught up in the same conflagration we were. Now, it's different. . . . on both sides."

Moments later we heard firing of weapons -- ours and theirs -- and an aftomat-armed Soviet patrol was arriving in that muddy void called no-man's land. We exchanged fire and departed. Rapidly.

Bauer and Dietrich were hit. We had to abandon Bauer, as he was killed instantly. We were able to pull back Dietrich, but he died on the way. Believable sadness crept over us.

Nevertheless, I was somewhat buoyed.

Later, thinking of the cross bearer, I mused, There's hope yet. If there are more Christians on either side of this line, the world has a chance. If enough of us survive, we'll become Christian soldiers, and we'll march across this war-ravaged planet to save it.

And we'll welcome the new Jerusalem.

(© 2010 Web Ruble – All rights reserved. Written material may not be duplicated without permission.)

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