"Kent, you're on the human interest piece," the cigar had puffed at him. "Oldest veteran in Metropolis just hit a hundred. Bring me back a thousand words, we have space to fill on page three, and I'll by Great Caesar's Ghost I'll be damned if I fill it up with kittens in trees again..."
Three hours later, the reporter walked softly through the halls of the Rock Memorial Veteran's Hospital. He didn't like these places. The smell of death and industrial antiseptics clung to everything like a fine layer of dander. He could hear the heart beats falter, the organs fail, the breaths sputter and stop. The worst part was, there was nothing he could do about it.
The halls were clean, clear, and wide: pastel hues with wood and plastic rails, big enough to admit two hospital beds abreast, floors a harmless off-beige, walls hung with pictures of the people and machines of war: planes, tanks, black-and-white shots of smiling young men in their uniforms on the front. Old men sat in their wheelchairs, or shuffled down halls in their walkers. Kent stopped at the room the nurse had directed him to, knocked quietly at the open door.
"Mr. Shapiro? I'm Clark Kent from the Daily Planet..."
The room was dark, and the old man sat in an overstuffed easy chair, a little tray on wheels at his side. A blanket covered his bony lap, and a striped tiger cat lay on it, playing with his beard, which reached down almost to his waist.
"Kent? Kent! Right. Come on in, Smallville."
The Kansan gave a double-take. "What did you call me?"
"Smallville." The old man wheezed. "Sorry, force of habit. He was one us, you know. In Easy Company, during the war." The old man pointed to a faded company photograph on the opposite wall. Names had been written over or beneath each man with a pen - "Four Eyes," "Lonesome," "Farmer Boy,"...and a bespectacled young man with a familiar grin had "Smallville" written next to it. The reporter raised a hand to caress the dirty glass.
"My father served in Easy Company during the war." Kent said. "Johnathan Kent."
"Be damned." The old man gave a gap-faced grin, dentures slipping a little. "Smallville's boy. Went home and married Martha did he? Good for him, good for him." He harrumphed, which turned into a cough. Kent turned around to the old man. A blink peered through wasted muscle and liver-spotted skin. The lungs looked dark and ragged, the heart thumped irregularly. "They called me Wildman. It was Rock's idea."
"Rock?" He blinked, looking at the man again, focusing on just the surface of things.
"Rock. Our topkick. He liked to give folks nicknames. It was part of the way of war...did your father ever talk about it?"
"Pa didn't talk much about the war, Mr. Shapiro," the reporter surprised himself, lapsing back into Kansas dialect. "A few stories here and there. About Sgt. Rock, not much about the others. Said he didn't do much during the war - nothing to brag about."
The old man leaned back, stroking his cat. "Rock knew that a man's actions in war, were different from what a man had to do at home. The nicknames, it was a way to get people used to being someone else. Your father, I think, washed the blood and mud from his face and went home. Left Smallville somewhere behind him in France or Belgium. He'd served his purpose, then." He seemed lost in reverie for a moment, and Kent remembered his purpose, took out his notepad, pencil, and a pocket recorder.
"Nothing to brag about, is that what you said?" The old man started up again, killing the first question on the reporter's lips. "Not all courage is rewarded with a chestful of medals. Your pa should have told you that, if nothing else, I remember..."
The snow was six inches deep on the frozen ground, the men moving through the trees, feet frozen. An advance, in this weather. Somewhere out there, just as cold and lonely: the enemy. Starving wolves, cut off from the rest of their unit, and Easy Co. was sent ahead, to sweep them up maybe turn the flank.
From the trees, a rat-a-tat-tat of a machine gun. Snow kicked up in little puffs as the burst swept through; three men went down, far to his right. The sharp pangs of return fire, rifle cracks echoing off the trees, causing a light powder to fall. Smallville had hit the ground as soon as the first shots rang out, face first into the snow, not even daring to let his teeth chatter as the ice crept up along his neckline. All around him, helmets buried behind fallen trees, snow drifts, men lying prone, not sure where to point their rifles.
Then he was on the move, crawling forward, looking for shelter, looking for anything. Lead flew over him, knocking chips off trees. He kept going forward, forward. There was a spot up there - a red spot in the snow, where no bullets were falling. Smallville made for it. Then he heard them - prayers. Not in English, but he knew a prayer when he heard it. Ahead, to his left. He raised his rifle in front of him, eased into a crouch. Crept forward. The fire had mostly gone off, there was shouting to his right, Rock yelling orders, cries for the medic...
It wasn't shelter. It was just some branches bent down to make a kind of tent against the tree. Three Germans were huddled there, bandaged and bloody. One had a crucifix. Another had a potato masher. Kent had his rifle. They stood there, staring at each other...
"...now another man, in that situation, he might have fired. He would have been right to do so. Cornered wolves, hurt bad, but still dangerous. Smallville though, he laid his rifle down. In full view, you understand? He didn't speak any German, but he motioned for them to come out. Now if he'd have shot them, well that would have been war. If he'd have taken them prisoner at gunpoint, he might have been in for a bronze star, something like that. But he didn't do that. He set his rifle down. Your father showed more guts then than many men I've known. Those Krauts were in a frozen hell you or I can't imagine, and he showed them a bit of humanity...and they responded to it."
The old man smiled that gapped-tooth smile. "Rock gave him hell about it, of course. Not for want of respect for his kindness, you understand, but that kind of behavior could get a man killed in war. Still. Your father is a braver man than I ever was. Takes a brave man not to kill."