Writing is undoubtedly one of the strangest occupations you can have. Sometimes it seems an impossible thing to do, while other times it seems as natural as breathing or swinging your arms when you walk. And sometimes, you start out with a plan to write a specific story; a solid plan, with an intriguing outline and an oath-sworn schedule to follow, and then some other story horns its way in and demands to be told first. This is one of those times.
I had decided to get away from it all, leave Manhattan behind and escape to a cabin in the Smoky Mountains a fellow writer had recommended. Even though my GPS failed me miserably, I actually found the place without too much trouble. And although the little town the cabin overlooked was locked up for the night, I munched on a sandwich I had wisely purchased earlier in the day, then crawled into one of the most comfortable beds I’d ever come across and slept the sleep of the righteous. The following morning, however, I discovered a major problem: no coffee. This would simply not do, so I showered, dressed, and headed down the hill to score some Colombian.
I had never been to a Country Store before. Sure, there are places that are made to look like a country store, with faux antique pictures on the wall and various simulacra that appear to have been rescued from a barn or attic in Nebraska but were probably manufactured two years ago in China. But this place was the real deal, and I found the coffee beans in a hopper against the back wall, right beside an assortment of wicked-looking machetes. I actually bought one a few days later, and I have it still today. I don’t know why I bought the machete, but I’m proud of it, nonetheless.
When I set my basket of groceries down on the worn counter beside an ancient cash register, the act seemed to set off a series of sounds: wood chair creaking dangerously, various grunts, snorts and throat-clearings, the jingle of a key ring with way too many keys on it, and quite possibly a fart. I’m not sure about that last thing, because there was some shoe-scuffing going on too. But it had to be said. The man that had produced all those noises finally emerged from the room behind the counter, the first thing I noticed was a deep scar running from just below his left eye and ending at the side of his mouth. It had the unsettling effect of appearing to be a continuation of his mouth, and you could also imagine teeth running all the way up, too. Spooky I‘d say, if I were only allowed one word to describe it. But like many things in this world, the truth ends up making your first impression seem childish and unlearned in retrospect.
“Won’t be able to do much with them coffee beans until they get ground up.”
“That’s not an untrue statement.”
“Let me guess, you’re that writer fella staying up in 103.”
“Guilty as charged. Travis Phillips.”
“Huh. I had a cousin named Travis. He’s dead now.”
“Don’t worry about it. I never was that fond of him anyway.”
“So…okay, I can’t remember if the cabin has a coffee grinder…”
“Are you sure?”
“Considering that I built the damn thing with my own hands before you were born, and been keepin’ it up ever since, I’m about as sure as you can get. I’m your landlord.”
“Ah! You must be Cecil.”
“Guilty as charged. Do you play chess?”
I thought I did, but Cecil soon disabused me of that notion. Here’s a little piece of advice: when you come across somebody who has a lot of time on his hands, and he invites you to take part in his favorite game or sport, be prepared for a thrashing. I must admit, I’m not a very gregarious person, and I’ve dodged more than one encounter with an acquaintance simply because I’d rather not be drawn into any commitments for lunches or dinner parties or anything that may upset my schedule, even when I don’t even have a schedule.
So my first inclination when the chess challenge with an octogenarian came up was to wave my novel outline like a flag and retreat to the sanctity of my own company. But what works in New York doesn’t necessarily work in the mountains of North Carolina, and there was something about this old man that made my muse stir from her slumber, and I’ve learned the hard way that ignoring her can make the words dry up like a shallow well in a parched desert. So when Cecil announced he was about to brew a fresh pot of coffee, and would I prefer to set up the table on the porch in front of the store, I decided my novel could wait for an hour or two.
The first few times he beat me before I even knew I was in trouble. Then I started to get a feel for they way he played, but that only slightly delayed the inevitable. The old man deployed his knights vigorously, to the point where I spent most of my time either fruitlessly trying to capture them or avoid them at all costs. It was maddening. Even more distracting, one of the knights was shorter than the other, taken from a different set as a replacement, and it was always a close witness to my king’s death. When I mentioned the same to Cecil, he gave me a long appraising look before replying.
“I’ve had that piece for a long time. Sixty some-odd years now.”
“So, it’s not a replacement, the rest of the pieces are.”
“Kind of a strange thing to hold onto for so long.”
“It belonged to a friend of mine. He’s the one who taught me how to play. He loved the game so much he took his marble chess set with him to France during the War, which is where I learned to play.”
“Wow. Doesn’t seem like you’d have much time for chess in the middle of that.”
“It was a long war.” The old man sighed, looked at me again, and then continued.
“Percy was a black man, what we used to call ‘colored’ back in them days. We came from the same hometown in the Eastern part of the state. We knew who each other was, because we had worked the same tobacco fields. But we didn’t really know each other ‘til France. One day a fella I knew in supply told me there was colored truck driver from Kinston askin’ about me, so I tracked Percy down at the motor pool and traded some stories about home, about people we both knew. It was nice. I was at a bad place at that time, beginning to think the war would never end and, even if it did, there’d be nothing for me back home. That’s when Percy pulled out his chess set and started to school me.”
“The military was segregated back then, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah, but we both worked for Patton. We moved around a lot, but Percy and I got together and played chess several times over about a three month period. I got some looks from a few of the guys, but nobody ever said anything. Too worried about staying alive, I guess. But anyway, after the Bulge, things got even crazier than they had been. More often than not, we were behind enemy lines, gettin’ shot at from every which direction. Sometimes I wished I was ridin’ in a tank, with all that metal to protect me. And then we’d come across one that had been hit, and the wishing stopped. You better hope you never see nothin’ like that, son."
“I hope nobody does.”
“Anyway, it was about that time that I heard about what happened to Percy. They was runnin’ some supplies up to an armored unit and got caught in a counter-attack. The ones that survived, including my friend Percy, were lined up next to a ditch and shot dead by a Waffen SS unit. All because of the color of their skin. It had been a really long day, and I’d seen more than a few men die, so the news about Percy didn’t really hit me at the moment. I just filed him away with all the others.
"Two days later, we had to root out some Germans that were holed up in a farmhouse. After a few mortars and a grenade launcher softened them up, I went through the front door. The first thing I noticed was that there black knight laying on the floor, and three bloody and dusty SS soldiers sitting with their hands raised in surrender. Something in my head snapped. I picked up the chess piece, put it in my pocket, and then pulled the trigger three times. My Lieutenant rushed in a few seconds later, looked around, and then just nodded and walked off. I knew he wouldn’t say anything. But later on that same day is when I got this pretty little scar on my face, courtesy of an IG 37 round.”
“Okay, there’s one thing I don’t understand. You mentioned earlier that your friend had a chess set made of marble. But unless I’m mistaken, that piece is some kind of metal.”
“You’re pretty sharp, I’ll give you that. See, that’s the other part of the story, the part I’ve never told anybody else about. After my Lieutenant walked out, I reached back into my pocket to make sure I still had that black knight. But when I looked at it again, it was different. And them Germans weren’t Waffen SS, they were just regular Wehrmacht. Just grunts, like me, who liked to play chess. I can’t explain it, but I know what I saw. I’m not the type to hallucinate, even when exhausted and scared to death. Something strange happened to me that day and, over the years, I’ve come to believe that it may have been some kind of test. But I’ll go to my grave wondering if I passed or failed.”
This is entirely a work of fiction. Any resemblance to people living or deceased is purely coincidental. That said, many African-American soldiers have served and died for our country, often while enduring being treated as a second-class citizen. We are forever in their debt.