And now Train was following one of those light-skinned, know-it-all Northern Negroes into the drink, a lieutenant from Harlem named Huggs. He called himself "A Howard University guy, ASTP," which Train guessed had something to do with reading but wasn't sure since he couldn't read himself. It was something he had a mind to learn one day because he would like to read the Bible and know his verses better. He even tried to think about his Bible verses as he drove his legs into the water and the din around him grew louder, but he couldn't remember a single verse so he began singing "Nearer My God to Thee," and as he sang the metal shrapnel and bullets began to ping off the tanks around him and he could hear their treads snapping as they hit mines that blew up. He waded slowly up to his hips in the clear canal and suddenly felt quiet and peaceful, and then --just like that -- he was invisible. He could see better, hear better, smell better. Everything in the world became clear, every truth clairvoyant, every lie a blasphemy, all of nature became alive to him. At 6'6", two hundred seventy-five pounds, all muscle, with a soft-spoken charm, tender brown eyes, and deep chocolate skin that covered an innocent round face, Sam Train was everything the army wanted in a Negro. He was big. He was kind. He followed orders. He could shoot a rifle. And most of all, he was dumb. The other men laughed at him and called him "sniper bait" and "Diesel" because of his size. They placed bets on whether he could pull a two-ton truck or not, but he never minded them, only smiled. He knew he wasn't smart. He had prayed to become smart, and suddenly here he was: smart, and invisible. Two for one.
He stopped completely still in the water as the sounds of death and machine-gun fire seemed to die all around him, as if someone had turned down the volume and replaced it with the peaceful crowing of a rooster that he could hear all by itself as if it were singing solo. Standing in the water as men rushed past him, falling, screaming, weeping, he gazed upward at the mountain before him and marveled at the lovely olive trees that lay in the groves above the German batteries, which he could see as clear as day. He saw the bobbing green of the Germans helmets as they raced from one smoking artillery cannon to another. The helmets blended perfectly with the shorn leaves and rocks and ridges of the mountains behind them. He marveled at the sun peeking over the ridge as if for the first time. Everything seemed perfect. When Train saw the smarty-dog Huggs from New York spin back toward him with his face shot off, then flop into the water like a rag doll, he felt no fear. He was happy, because he was invisible. Nothing could touch him. Nothing could happen to him. He decided it had to be the statue head.
He'd found it in Florence the first day he'd arrived, next to a river where the Germans had destroyed a bridge. Everybody in the army wanted souvenirs, but for some reason nobody was interested in it. There must have been four companies that marched past that marble head, but no one grabbed it, maybe because of the weight. But Sam Train had carried a forty-six-pound radio in training camp for six months and that had never bothered him. He picked it up because he wanted it as a gift for his grandmother. He kept it in a net bag laced to his hip, and before the day was over three guys had offered him ten dollars for it. "Naw," he said, "I'm keeping it." That night he changed his mind and decided to test the market. He wanted to see if the Italians would buy it because he'd heard they would pay twenty dollars for a carton of cigarettes. Before digging his foxhole outside Florence, he walked into town to look for an Italian, but he couldn't find a soul. The streets were empty, barren, save for an occasional rat that leaped out of the wreckage and quickly disappeared into the rubble again. Finally, Train found an old woman wandering down a deserted street. She was the first Italian he had ever met. She was ragged and filthy, with her head wrapped in a scarf and her feet swathed in rubber inner tubes worn like sandals, even though it was winter. He held the statue head out as he approached. He offered it to her for fifty dollars. She smiled a toothless grin and said, "Me half-American, too." Train didn't understand. He dropped the offer to twenty-five. She turned around and staggered away as if drunk. He stood, blinking in misunderstanding. Halfway up the block she straddled the curb, spread her legs, held her dress out, squatted, and pissed, steam coming from the piss as it hit the ground. He was glad he didn't sell it to her. It would have been a waste.
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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