You can learn the most interesting things riding on a train. The train I'd chosen was crowded and the closest seat open was next to three people in military uniform -- two men and a woman -- so I sat down with them.
They barely noticed me. They were intent on their conversation; it was about war. War in extraordinary detail -- story after story of narrow escapes, and excruciating days and a fog of war that made me wonder how the three of them had lived through it. I was riveted.
"We could hear the bullets coming from the plane," the woman said, leaning forward to repeat the sound that they all knew too well. "Pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop."
She was a combat nurse; her uniform was full of medals. Her name, I later learned, was Vera Hay.
The two other soldiers nodded as she described that day. Enemy aircraft had strafed the ground all around her position, but it stopped shooting just as it was drawing near the hospital. Hay had been helping patients in the combat field hospital and, inexplicably, the enemy bomber paused in its shooting just long enough to spare the hospital and, consequently, Hay. The plane resumed shooting within seconds after the hospital was out of its sights.
"And that was that," she said.
Her fellow soldiers on the train didn't say anything, just looked out the window for a bit, and nodded. It was simply understood -- for some reason, it wasn't Hay's day to die. They had all had days just like that, days when suddenly death seemed certain. And then, just as suddenly, it didn't. It was simply part of living in war.
Oliver Fox, the soldier sitting across from me, had been in all kinds of combat. Listening, I learned that the battles still bothered him. The intensity. Death. He had a gentle personality; he was sweet and funny. War had been hard on him.
George Batts, sitting across from Hay, had seen the most. He had enlisted as a teenager, sent right to combat. Hay and Fox were quiet as Batts recounted the day he watched helplessly as two of his comrades fell to their death -- trying to leap onto a landing craft in high seas while under vicious gunfire.
Batts, looking at Hay, made a swiping motion with one hand against the other; this, it said silently, was what the ship had done to those two soldiers.
"War," he said, shaking his head and staring out the window again. "War."
Hay looked out, as well. There was nothing to say that could erase the pain of that day. It was silent for a very long moment, and then the conversation jumped back to the subject of day-to-day of living in combat -- the sorrows, the triumphs.
I never said a word. If they noticed me listening, they didn't show it. Back and forth their conversation went, pulling from the memory bank of war: terrifying nights, uncertain days, fear, loneliness, hunger and deep, desperate sorrow. And friendship, humor, small joys and miracles of every possible size tucked in the middle of chaos.
Over the course of an hour, my respect for these three grew so much that I couldn't keep quiet.
"Excuse me," I said to Hay.
She turned, startled. They had forgotten I was there.
"Could you tell me," I persisted. "Could you tell me what was it like? The battle you were in?"