by Joe Eliseon
My grandfather served in the Italian army during the Great War. He fought in those very costly mountain campaigns between the Italians and the Austrians in the Dolomites.
One night, he was driving a truck loaded with high explosives down the mountainside. His commander had considered the task too dangerous to risk more than one man, so my grandfather rode alone. The road was treacherous, barely wider than the truck, bounded on one side by the wall of the mountain and on the other by a sheer drop into the darkness. To make matters worse, the Austrians were shelling the Italian positions. In order not to attract their fire, my grandfather drove without lights.
He felt his way down the road, driving blind, death his cargo, death to his side, death in the artillery shells bursting around him. Sweat beaded on his forehead as he struggled to remember each turn in the road, each curve, each dip. An artillery shell exploded behind him, shaking the truck. Then another, closer. The explosions followed him down the mountain, slowly gaining on him, each one stronger than the last.
Suddenly, he felt a crash against the hood of the truck. The thought flashed through his mind that he was a dead man. But nothing happened. Nothing exploded.
He wondered what had happened, but there was nothing he could do but go on in the pitch darkness. As he came down into the lower reaches of the mountain, he could still hear the shelling, but the explosions had grown weaker. Now they were mere thuds in the distance. He was still alive. Puzzled, but alive.
He drove on. Finally, he made it to the bottom of the mountain. He stopped in a wooded area that screened the truck from the Austrian gunners’ sights. Feeling safe, he switched on the lights.
There in the windshield, not two feet in front of him, was a man’s face, on the head a soldier’s cap, mouth agape, eyes wide in horror. My grandfather froze. For a moment, the two men stared at each other through the windshield. Then, without a word, the man on the hood jumped off and ran into the woods, out of the range of the headlights’ beams.
Collecting himself, my grandfather got out of the cab and walked around to the front of the truck. By the light of his headlights, he could see metal wrapped around his front bumper. He pried it loose. It was the twisted remains of a bicycle.
Evidently, an Italian bicycle messenger had been riding up the mountain and collided with my grandfather’s truck. Too scared to make a noise, the poor man had clung to the hood ornament and ridden the truck all the way back down the mountain.
Somewhere out there, I fancy another grandfather has told another grandson this same story, but from a different point of view. God be with him.
(c) 2016 by the Author. All rights reserved.