TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — Fiction And Real Life In The Battle Of The Bulge

In my novel, “Every Common Sight, the battlefield experiences of my character, Wendell Smith, are based on the real-life horrors of World War II veterans I interviewed in the 1990s. The following is one example of how heartbreaking truth morphed into fiction.

I’ll never forget the sight of Earl Crumby — a small, wiry fellow with thick black hair and glasses — or the way he wept and trembled as we talked in his Texas living room.

His wife, Doris, had died seven years before, ending a long and happy marriage, but on that day in 1997, Earl’s tears weren’t for her. He had earned a Purple Heart when he took a piece of shrapnel in the Battle of the Bulge. He wept instead for soldiers who fought and died all around him.

“As dearly as I loved that woman — I wouldn’t have taken a million dollars for her — her death didn’t affect me all that much, not near as much as it does to sit down here and talk to you about seeing those young boys during the war get butchered,” Earl said.

He told me about a sergeant named Newby, an older man, and a calming presence in the chaos of war.

“He was like a father to me. He was my squad sergeant and he got hit,” Earl said as he again started to cry. “I have a real hard time with this. …  He was a real good friend and he was laying there in the snow. There were men all around, but he called for me.”


mad1Earl sat quietly for several seconds, trying to gather his emotions.

“He wore a money belt,” he said finally. “We all knew he had this money belt. … I will always believe he called for me because he trusted me and he begged me to take that money belt off of him and bring it back to his wife.

“I’ve always had guilt feelings because I didn’t do that,” Earl said. “I didn’t have no need for that damned old money belt. He had a big hole in his chest. That bullet had run down him. I tried to tell him, `You’re going to be all right, Sgt. Newby,’ But he said, `No. I’m not going to make it, and they’ll steal this off my body.’ He was begging me to help him. …  I just can’t help but feel I let him down.”

* * *

In the novel, it is the fall of 1945. Wendell and his future wife, the teacher named Selma, have had their first romantic evening, sharing a meal in her Fort Worth, Texas, apartment. Wendell had been exhausted and falls asleep on Selma’s sofa. She tells the story.

He asked for some water, but when I returned from the kitchen with a glass, he was fast asleep. I covered him with a blanket and kissed his forehead.

Lying in my own bed a few minutes later I began to hear his snoring. My bedroom window was open because the night was warm and a breeze puffed my curtains. I wanted no part of sleep. I wanted Wendell next to me.

When I heard a strange whimper I hurried into the living room and found him upright, quivering, the blanket lying in a ball on the floor. I sat next to him and put my hands around his arm.

“Wendell, what’s wrong?’’ I asked.

“I’m awfully sorry, Sergeant,’’ he said.

The teapot whistled. I brought two steaming cups to the kitchen table, where Wendell was slumped in a chair. Every light in the apartment was burning, as if I thought brightness might dispel whatever nightmare Wendell had just endured.

“Drink this,” I said.

He just stared.

“Wendell, please,’’ I said.

“I need to be getting home,” he said. “You have school.’’

“Don’t be silly.”

He patted his pockets.

“Where are my keys?” he asked, looking terrified. “There they are.”


mad2He started for the kitchen, where he had spotted his keys on the counter. I pressed him back in his chair.

“Tell me about your dream,’’ I said.

“What dream?’’ he asked.

“There was a sergeant,’’ I said. “You said, ‘I’m sorry, Sergeant.’’’

“I need to be going.’’

“When I was a little girl, my mother always made me tell her when something was bothering me, no matter what it was. She said it would make me feel better, and it always did. One of her favorite sayings was, ‘Anything mentionable is manageable.’ What was his name, this sergeant?’’

“Newby,’’ Wendell said softly.


“I never even knew his first name,’’ Wendell said. “He was a fine man, though, Newby was.’’

“I bet.’’

“He took shrapnel in the leg a few days after D-Day, and they shipped him back to a hospital in England. He was assigned to train us after he got out. We looked up to him, though he probably wasn’t more than 25. And he had seen combat, knew what it was like.’’

Wendell straightened and took a sip of tea.

“One day at our camp in England, I saw a wallet on the ground outside the mess tent. It had about 50 bucks in it, and a few pictures, but no ID. I took it to Newby. He put a notice on the company bulletin board saying that the wallet had been found, and that the owner had me to thank for its return.

“That’s the only reason I can figure that he called for me. We had been up there about a week and were taking a hell of a pounding from the German artillery. Newby’s foxhole took a direct hit. The guy in the hole with him had his head blown clear off. Medics dragged Newby out and started to work on him. Parts of the shell had gone in his belly and out the back, and his insides were lying open. I heard him yelling my name.

“I ran over and he motioned for me to come close. I knelt down in the snow and put my ear by his mouth. ‘Wendell,’ he whispered. “There’s a big favor I’ve got to ask of you.’ ‘Anything, Sergeant,’ I said.

“He said, ‘There’s cash in my money belt. Make sure it gets back to my wife and kids.’

“I said, ‘You take it to them yourself. You’re gonna be fine.’”

“‘Please. For my wife and kids.’ Then he died. I never took that belt to his family. I stood up and went back to my foxhole, more concerned with how cold I was. Just now I understood how much I let Newby down. I saw his face in that dream just now, and all that blood in the snow and the stench of his insides. The last human he saw … I don’t feel that good.’’

I knelt next to him on the floor and leaned my elbows on his knees. My words were paltry, meaningless.

“He would have understood,” I said.

Wendell stood.

“Thanks for supper,’’ he said.

He limped out the door, closing it softly behind him. I was still on my knees next to his empty chair when I heard the engine of his pickup roar to life outside and rumble off down the street.

2 thoughts on “TIM MADIGAN: Anything Mentionable — Fiction And Real Life In The Battle Of The Bulge”

  • Mary Ann April 14, 2015 at 3:18 pm

    Where do I find your book. My dad was in Battle of the Bulge during WWII.

    1. Jeff Tiedeman April 14, 2015 at 3:49 pm

      Available online only. Here’s the best place http://amzn.to/1E9WLYT but also available through Barnesandnoble.com


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