Every year, he said, you'd get a couple of tossers who thought they knew better. It was a pain in the arse having to dig their bodies out of the mud, and it'd take him and his friends a lot of time and the risk of significant harm to do so. Some they didn't get back, he said, because they'd got bored halfway across and stood up, sinking too quickly to be helped and were too far out to help.
It struck me as odd that he thought these stories were funny. Obviously, as I got older, I realized that the moisture in his eyes wasn't just from cigarette smoke. Still, why laugh at the horrors you've inflicted on others, or seen others endure? I can't imagine the things he'd seen though - all of the above plus suicide bombers running at a bunker, with full clips of ammo being emptied into them in an effort to stop them in their drug-fuelled tracks. Strong images, an endless supply of them. As I can't imagine it, as I don't ever want to know for myself, I accepted - eventually - that he knew best how to deal with his memories. He had to, in his own way. Laughing was fine for him, so how could I tell him I knew better when, clearly, I didn't.
I think that's a conclusion that I've only come to in the past couple of years, though, as I've dealt with his death. I wasn't there as he died, alone, in his house. His wife had passed away two years earlier, and he was literally waiting for his own life to end so that he could be back with her. They'd had a lot of problems, but they'd also had a lot of years. They were connected, had history. When she died, he wrote a very simple message on her flowers that haunts me even now: "I'll see you soon." I can't comprehend the emptiness in his life during that time, or the nightmares he must have had to wake up from without her there to comfort him. That kind of loneliness just scares the crap out of me. I still wonder if he laughed after she left.
These are all thoughts that come together after I sit down to discuss Call Of Duty 2 with a work colleague, Dan. We realize that we've been playing at being in World War 2 for longer than the real thing went on. Dan says that the game's all a bit stressful, and not an altogether enjoyable experience. I detail how I can only play it in 20 minute bursts, my nerves collapsing in on themselves as explosions and screams sound around me.
We both have tales, though. Dan talks about his time in Russia, and the desperate defense he mounted against the German forces as he fought to hold a strategically important train depot. With endless waves of Nazis running at him, he was reduced to hiding in a corner, shooting man after man in the face. Eventually, he took the last man down and was ordered to secure the area. His response was to quit out of the game, a defiant stand against the fact that it was always he who had to secure the bloody area. Surely it was someone else's turn?
I recall another moment on the continent. In our attempts to secure a village, my unit had become pinned down in a barn. I was doing my best to hold off the forces using a recently vacated German machine gun nest, with the rest of the guys leaning out of various windows throwing grenades as far as they could. A Tiger Tank came out of the early morning mist and started opening fire on us. I had no idea what was going on, my only instinct being to keep my finger on the trigger, to spray and pray while the building seemed to collapse around me. After a last minute fly-by from some angels on a bombing run, we were safe and I pulled back from the nest. Looking around, half my unit was mangled under rubble, and huge gaping holes in the barn wall showed just how powerful that tank had been. It had been a close call; I'd almost needed to quick load.