A tall, well-dressed Italian man with a well-trimmed beard was sitting at a table having his morning coffee when the paper landed on the table next to his. He noticed the headline and grabbed the paper.
He read holding the coffee cup in his hand, and when he was done, he dropped the coffee cup and stood so abruptly his chair skidded out behind him and the table slid forward three feet. He turned and began to walk, then trot, then run down the street. Passersby on the sidewalk gawked as the tall man in the Caraceni suit and Bruno Magli shoes tore past them at full tilt, his jacket flying behind him, his arms pumping, running down the crowded tiny streets as fast as he could go, as if by running he could leave it all behind, which was of course impossible.
On December 12, 1944, Sam Train became invisible for the first time. He remembered it exactly.
He was standing on the bank of the Cinquale Canal, just north of Forte dei Marmi, in Italy. It was dawn. The order was to go. One hundred and twenty black soldiers from the Ninety-second Division bunched behind five tanks and watched them roll toward the water, then clumsily waded in behind them, rifles held high. On the other side, just beyond the river plains and mostly hidden in the heavy mountain forest of the Apuane Alps, five companies of Field-Marshal Albert Kesselring's 148th Brigade Division, seasoned, hardened German troops, watched and waited. They sat silently. Hardened, seasoned, exhausted, they sat burrowed into the sides of the heavily wooded mountain, peering into their scopes, watching every move. They'd been there on the Gothic line six months, a thick line of defense that stretched across the Italian peninsula, from La Spezia all the way to the Adriatic Sea, planting mines, building concrete bunkers, laying booby traps and tripwires. Exhausted, starving, knowing the war was lost, most wanted to run but could not. There were reports that many were found dead, chained to their machine guns. The orders were straight from the Fuhrer himself. Any man who deserted, any man who gave an inch would be shot without ceremony or trial. Their orders were to stand firm. There was no backing away.
Train watched as the first of the tanks hit a mine on the other side of the beach and the Germans opened up with everything mortars, .88's, and machine-gun fire. He heard a frightened voice behind him screaming, "Kill me now! Kill me now!" and he wondered who it was. The smell of cordite and gunpowder drifted into his lungs. He felt his heart seize and stop. Then he heard someone yell, "Go, soldier!" and felt a shove, and he ran, splashing, to his own death.
He had no choice. He didn't want to run. He didn't trust his commander. The man was from the South. Train had never seen him before that morning. He was a replacement for the old captain, who'd transferred out two days before whose name Train couldn't remember either. The men were strangers to him, but they were white, so they had to be right, or maybe not, but Train was from North Carolina and he didn't know how to stand up to white people like the coloreds from the North did. Train didn't trust them. They brought trouble with their high falutin' ways and long words and college degrees, always making the captain what was his name? mad. He remembered the first colored soldier he'd ever seen, back home in Highpoint, North Carolina, just before he was drafted. It was his first-ever bus ride in the city, and the man had spoiled it. The soldier got on the bus wearing a crisp army uniform with lieutenant's bars and a shoulder patch with a black buffalo on it. He took a seat down front. The bus driver said, "Move to the back, boy." The Negro opened his mouth, outraged, and said, "Fuck you." The driver slammed on the brakes and got up. Before the Yankee could move, there was a chorus of hissing and cursing from the rear of the bus. It was the other blacks next to Train. "Cut it out," one hissed. "You makin it bad for the rest of us." "Whyn't you go home, you mooley bastard," shouted another. Train, stunned, tried to look away, the slight bit of shame that washed over him replaced by relief as the Yankee soldier glared at the blacks next to him, flung open the rear door of the bus, and stomped out, huffing and muttering at them in furious disgust. The bus roared away, blowing black diesel fumes in his face.
Reprinted from Miracle at St. Anna by James McBride by permission of Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 2002, James McBride. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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