One Spring Day by Hilliard Edgar Bernstein

December 13, 2019

ALB 1937Pursuit of Reason, Philadelphia: Adelante Press, 1971, pp. 21-31

The early morning weather was fine, just fine; warm and sunny, with a very slight breeze from the South. I could smell Africa, over six hundred kilometers away and four thousand feet below me. The month was April. Blue swallows flitted greetings to Spring.

I sat on a bench by the door of the cookhouse, resting in the beautiful sun, feeling the lice crawling out of the seams of my trousers and shirt. Springtime invited all of nature’s creatures to renewed activity after the hard cold of the past winter.

My good friend, Gabio, the Chief Cook, had filled my goatskin with rotgut cognac and I was having a good time of it, squirting a fiery stream into my mouth every few minutes. I leaned my back against the wall and stretched out my legs, completely relaxed. My two rifles, leaning on the edge of the bench within easy reach. The small ax lay on the bench by my side, unsheathed. Gabio stood in the doorway filling me in on the latest dope from the strange world outside.

All parties and persons going up the highway from Albacete to our Estado Mayor, or to Madrid, stopped at our cookhouse for a bit of food and wine for themselves or water for their vehicles. Naturally they talked with Gabio, especially after he has slipped them a few shots of cognac and told them how brave they were to be hanging around so close to the firing line.

Gabio was talking, but I only half listened. I wasn’t there for talk, but to scrounge all the cognac I could for my Section, which had been out all night knocking off Moro nightsnipers. Those bastards were good at catching you in the moonlight.  Their favorite hiding place, a good size olive tree. Well anyway, the Section had me sniper hunting most of the night. We’d gotten a fair bag, and needed a few drinks to celebrate the fact that not one of us had been scratched; a most unusual happening.

So there I was, sitting in the sun, feeling good. Gabio talked on as he handed me a large, clay jug full of rotten cognac supplied by the Albacete Intendencia.

“I tell you, compañero, we are having a big shots up today. That bastard Stamion, our big Commissar from Albacete, called the Estado Mayor last night. Mr. Ernest Hemingway, the wonderful writer, Martha Gellhorn a female magazine scribbler, and Sidney Franklin, the bull-fighter from Brooklyn are coming up. They want to visit the front. Oh, boy, what shit.”

“Who the hell cares, Gabio. They won’t bother us. Our big Hungarian General will walk them around a few tanks, let them watch a field gun fire and then take them to dinner up at the castle.”

Our lazy, half-hearted conversation was terminated by three automobiles pulling in through the archway of the patio, and swinging around to stop in front of the cookhouse where I sat talking with Gabio. Neither Gabio nor I moved because we recognized the official visitor’s specials, an old Rolls and two fairly new Russian command cars. Gabio leaned against the door frame and I slouched back on my bench, drawing my ration of cognac closer. You could never tell about visitors. They might want a drink.

I watched the nice, clean people climb out of the cars, hoping that the sneer and contempt I was trying to convey showed plainly on my face. Gabio merely spat toward the group, and looked up at the Mountains. Members of the medical and kitchen details came out of the buildings around the patio for a quick look and then went back to their work. Visitors were not worth wasting time on.

There were three uniformed drivers, and a fourth uniformed character I knew well, Commissar Stamion, dressed to the hilt in a Colonel’s outfit, with the political commissar armband around his left arm; a red band with S.R.I. in golden letters stenciled there on. Stamion walked over to me, hating to do it, but finding it necessary since I was the only officer present. He was followed by a big man with a heavy mustache and several days growth of beard on his face. I knew him from magazine and news photos. He was Ernest Hemingway, one of the new wave of writers becoming well known at this particular period in history. But I wasn’t much interested in Hemingway. There was an attractive young woman approaching with him.

So this was Martha Gellhorn. Well, all I could think of at the time was, she really looked good in a pair of tight khaki trousers and a short sleeved white shirt neatly filled in the right places. I took another quick shot of cognac and jumped to my feet. This was something. That gal had a wiggle and I liked it; in fact, I loved it. There was this other guy following Gellhorn, but him, I didn’t notice. The bullfighter I guess.

Stamion, a rat I had already decided to kill at my first opportunity, spoiled my day. He marched right up to me, looked me up and down and audibly sniffed. Then he honked something in French. I knew pretty well what he was saying. So did Gabio, for he reached behind him and produced a meat cleaver. I picked up my axe, I carried in place of a sheath-knife. The Commissar held his right hand rigidly near his holstered pistol. He knew what a fool he appeared, and he knew his life depended on how tight Gabio and I might be. He turned away slowly and began to curse the drivers for stopping.

The three visitors, seeing the by-play and very likely understanding French, stopped until Stamion turned to the drivers. Gellhorn and Franklin remained where they were. Hemingway came on, yelling:

“Hey, hombre, what you drinking? Anis, Cognac?”

“Cognac, Señor,” answered Gabio.

I was still too shook-up to pay any attention. Gabio handed Hemingway a tin cup half-ful of the rotgut. I squirted another shot from my goatskin. Hemingway, apparently an old hand at drinking, downed his cupful and handed it to Gabio for a refill.

Stamion called Hemingway in English. The cars were leaving for the Estado Mayor. Was he coming?

The author told the Commissar to go ahead; he would follow later in the truck from our supply detail. The cars pulled out leaving Hemingway with us. He downed his second cup of cognac and handed it over for another refill. I squirted the goatskin, and Gabio drank from a jug of wine he always kept handy.

“Names amigos, names. Call me Ernesto.”

“I am called Hilio,” I told him. “This spic from Brooklyn is Gabio.”

The other members of the cook-house detail and the infirmary medics gathered and were introduced, each introduction accompanied with a toast to the Republic, the Battalion and to each other.

“Un hombre macho, tu,” shouted Gabio to Ernesto. “You damned billy-goat. You could drink acid.”

“What the hell do you think this stuff is,” roared Hemingway.

“I knew you were a hard likker man,” I told him. “You had all the signs of a bad hangover when you got here.”

“God damn that crap! You feed me any more of this poison and a hangover will be a pleasure. Now, where do we go from here?”

“Well, I tell you amigo, You do what you please. Me, I’ve got to get these liquid supplies back to my Section in a hurry. Those ornery bastards will be coming after me if I don’t.”

“Who are you? What do you do? Aren’t you with the Lincoln Battalion?”

“Well, not exactly. I got a special Section of nightfighters. The Commie Commissars sort of divorced us from the Battalion, and hope to get us killed off quickly. There’s been some rough stuff between us and them.”

“That’s what I want to know. How about taking me up to your Section. And don’t forget the cognac.”

“You got any American cigarettes?”

“Got a whole carton here in this haversack.”

“Okay, Ernesto, let’s go up the trail.”

I slung a rifle over my left shoulder, picked up the jug of cognac with my left hand, sheathed my axe, hung my goatbag around my neck, and picked up my other rifle with my right hand.

With the writer following, I started through the patio entrance yelling back to Gabio and the other men stationed there:

“Salud, Comradas, hasta la vista.”

The cookhouse gang responded with a loud: “Salud, Camarada Hilio; buen suerte, buen suerte”

I led Hemingway to the left of the entrance alongside the one exposed wall of the patio to the rear of the buildings, and up a well-worn path. This trail wound upward for about two kilometers, through a small patches of stunted conifers and olive groves; always olive groves in this area wherever one would grow. As we drew near the firing line trees became scarce, having been shot down or cut down for use by the troops.

The Jarama front at this time was comparatively quiet, and each Section, Company and Battalion had dug into the rocky Soil. There were dugouts, huts, hutches of stone covered with branches from olive trees as camouflage. But quiet though the front was , there was always some action; raids, sniping, night patrols for prisoners or to kill moonlighting snipers. The enemy artillery, composed of German troops shelled up with precisely timed regularity. They also had dug-in tanks for light shelling, and their mortars were a terror to us. We had very few weapons to retaliate in kind.

My Section was well protected from the usual accidents caused by stray bullets and shells, and only a few ricochets came our way. We had taken refuge in a natural cave on the backward slope of the mountain away from the firing line. The actual battle line was on top of the plateau above us, and at points, we were just a few hundred yards away from the fascists.

The German crews of the enemy tanks had our trail zeroed in at several places. How, I never knew; but they could drop shells from the tank guns smack on the patch. These gunners were very methodical and usually fired several salvos at the same times each day. They seemed to know when our food details were on the trail, about seven in the morning and four in the afternoon.

By the time Hemmingway and I had gotten well up the trail I knew it was about time for the four o’clock express. I also knew the exact spot on which the shells would land: a curve in the trail leading off to the left marked by a large block of stone projecting from the hillside.

“Let’s cut off the trail here,” I said to my guest. “That curve up ahead is due for some high explosives.”

“What kind? Mines?” asked the author.

He was quite calm and self-possessed. I could see that, though this man was neatly laundered and pressed, he was no stranger to war. I told him what to expect. This aroused his curiosity and he insisted we take shelter close enough for him to photograph the shell explosions. The barrage landed on schedule and Hemingway exposed himself needlessly to snap a dozen pictures as the shells exploded.

“That’s it,” I said. “Let’s go.”

“Hell, hombre, let’s have a drink first. This climbing is thirsty work.”

We paused long enough to squirt more raw cognac down our throats and then moved on. Bearing around the curve, I led the way, off the main trail along a barely discernable path which angled steeply upward for several hundred feet. This brought us to a large rock overhang bulging from the mountainside. Due to the darkness under the overhanging rock one could not estimate the depth of the space beneath.

“Que pasa?”

The voice came from within the dark recess. Hemingway halted, but as I kept walking, he followed me.

“Viva EL POUM!” I shouted in answer.

This was one of my daily challenges and counter signs used by my Section. The counters to the challenge were especially designed to infuriate any Stalinist within earshot.

EL POUM stood for El Partido Obreros Unidad Marxistas, deadly enemies of the Stalanists in Spain, particularly in Cataloñia. Some of our other counter signs were:

“Viva FAI”

“Viva Trotsky” (This was a real rouser).

“Viva Norman Thomas”

When we felt especially unfriendly to our Stalinist allies we used:

“Abajo Old Joe Stalin”

“Abajo Communismo”

“Albacete Commissars, Los Asesinos”

I was explaining this procedure to Hemingway as we walked under the shadow of the overhang. He seemed to appreciate the dangerous humor of our taunts and thought some of them amusing.

My odd-ball Section consisted of three twelve-man squads. They were all outspoken anti-Stalinists and all had suffered in various ways from the killers and spies maintained in the International Brigades by the Albacete Communist Commissars. Among my men were Cubans, Mexicans, French-Canadians, and Australian, several Italians, a Hawaiian, and a number of USA citizens, ranging from brown skinned “Negroes” to pink skinned “Whites”. Their politics were mixed, but we were united in bitter opposition to the murderous Stalinists.

Our visitor was impressed by the size of the cave we lived in and puzzled by the well-fortified condition of its entrance. We had a machine-gun set up and a captured German mortar in place, pointing down the mountain.

“You expecting this sector to be over-run?” Ernesto asked.

“The hell with that,” yelled my next in Command, a Norse by the name of Andy Andersen. “Pass the jug.”

I handed Andy the jug and motioned for Hemingway to sit with me on a pile of blankets by the small fire we kept burning in the cave. My goatskin passed between us several time.

“I tell you, Compañero. We don’t worry about the fascists,” I explained. “Any attack coming from below will be led from Albacete on orders from Andre Marty the French Commie boss. We fought them once before in February. My Section sent a whole damned Battalion of them running back to base. But that’s enough of that. What’s going on outside? Will the so-called democracies watch fascism win?”

“Yeh, you tell us, newspaperman,” broke in José LaGuerra, our Mexican dandy. “Why we get no help? We fight the fascists. The Commies try to kill us, and nobody care. Why?”

I tried to straighten the guys out about Hemingway, explaining that he wrote books and stories and was not a newspaperman. To my troops, writers were supposed to fight first, then write about it later. They lost interest in the author, and returned to their regular daily exercise, drinking cognac, arguing politics, playing dominoes, or sleeping. But always, the men on watch were alert, peering, watching, sniffing the breeze from the downhill slope, sweeping the area below with binoculars (which we had stolen from the Brigade Headquarters), and waiting for our most hated enemy, the Moscow stooges.

After a few minutes, Ernesto, proving himself a good domino player, was accepted as a friend. He joined in some of the talk, answered questions about other fronts he had covered, and frankly told us that there was little chance of help from the so-called democracies. He was also the first person to tell us that Spain had to pay Moscow in gold for every bit of military help we got. This added to our monumental hatred for all things Communist. During this time we managed to consume most of the cognac and to smoke the greater part of Hemingway’s cigarettes.

The supper detail had come up the trail and while we ate, we gave Hemingway messages to forward to friends and relatives in the States and other countries. He agreed to do his best to get the messages through. Then came the time for our visitor’s departure. He was going down with the cookhouse detail at dark. We had to get ready to creep over the top of the mountain, across the plateau and into the enemies’ lines for our night’s work.

We joined Ernesto in a last slug of cognac and he went off shouting:

“Viva La Republica. Viva el ejercito del pueblo. Salud, salud.”

Shouting, and lurching from side to side like a great bear, he followed the detail down the trail, out of sight. We never saw him again, and a short while later forgot him completely as we bellycrawled across our own frontline emplacements, moving toward the fascist lines.

Years later I read “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and a couple of short stories Ernest Hemingway wrote about the Spanish Civil War. He surprised me by his ability to get to the heart of that tragedy, and tell it as it was.