El Alamein, Egypt, October 29, 1942
Bolté’s toes were cold. It was strange, even humorous, if you could focus long enough to think about it—to be worried by cold toes in a place that had so effectively refined and deepened his understanding of hot. When the troop ship Duchess of Atholl had turned north, two months ago, and entered the Red Sea, the heat had closed around them like a sweaty palm—4,000 of His Majesty’s soldiers packed into a space designed for 800, so that at night the intrepid ones arranged themselves like spokes on a wheel, heads by the stairwells, hoping to catch a breath of air as yet unpoisoned by their own male stink. The Riflemen coped in their usual way. Creatures of damp and dusk and shade, English men and never more self-consciously nor proudly so, they joked in that sarcastic, self-effacing way that Bolté and his American compatriots had at first found so disarming. “Get closer to the fire,” they enjoined gleefully. “Nice cool day, Joe, ought to be hot pretty soon.” They relished the irony inherent in the otherwise disheartening fact that the cold shower water was at long last nice and warm.
After disembarking in Suez and through the weeks of waiting and preparation that followed, Bolté felt the dry, dusty heat of the Egyptian desert bore in at every pore. Surprisingly, it even invaded up through the soles of his feet, something that never happened at home in New England no matter how oppressive the weather. But oh how it sharpened the joy of an afternoon plunge in the Med, his comrades whooping and diving beside him in the spangled surf—a soldier’s reward after days filled with marching and training, poor food, and tedium, to mention only the most clichéd of a soldier’s challenges and deprivations. Who could have imagined such contrasts of feeling existed, back when he had been simply a Dartmouth man, his worries as insubstantial, it now seemed, as air—essay deadlines, honor societies, whether his latest piece for The Dartmouth would run on page one or page two?
Then had come the heat of battle—a jolt as intense and electric and uncontrolled as he had learned to imagine it, and far more so. He had been scorched very badly, that much was clear. Not literally—if he were going to die, it would be from the flesh wound in his leg, not burns—but nevertheless, effectively. For three days now in the Casualty Clearing Station just behind the Alamein lines, the kind, patient Kiwi doctor had been waiting, hoping, for blood circulation to return to his right lower leg. The piece of metal that had harmed him—a fragment of 88 mm high-explosive antitank shell—was remarkably small, considering how effectively it had demolished the big artery in his thigh—so small that he would lose track of it when, a few days later, it would work its way out of the shambles.
From the cold in his toes and the numb ache that seemed to creep toward his heart, Bolté guessed that circulation was not returning, and he later would contend that he was glad to see them all go—foot, ankle, and calf in addition to toes—on account of the trouble they’d given him, the “guillotine amputation” a tactical maneuver to stop gangrene’s advance. Shortly thereafter, an ambulance carried him to a British military hospital in Cairo, where he joined a big ward full of other soldiers also damaged by metal of many and various deadly forms, as well as by flame.
They led a nightmare life there—“in death’s dream kingdom”; T.S. Eliot’s line rang over and over in Bolté’s head. “Hollow Men” indeed. The restless, damaged soldiers lay in rows, narrow iron beds like life rafts, all adrift on the same dark morphine sea, each exhausted man, maimed man, moaning or mumbling man struggling in his delirium to ride the sudden, heaving swells of time and chance and physical pain and make sense of what had happened to strand him there. Bolté found himself again and again returned to the company of the cockney rifleman Nobby Clark as he had looked in the hellish light of a brewed-up tank that burned all night in the minefields of Kidney Ridge, Nobby’s leg sheared off clean above the knee by the shell that had penetrated the back of No. 1 section’s three-tonner. A few nights later a stranger mounted two machine guns on Bolté’s bed and ordered him to advance around the ward tank-hunting. This shook him so that in the morning he told the doctor about it. “Everybody has it that way at first,” the doctor said, then handed over the first of the antinightmare pills.
When the nightmares stopped, Bolté thought hard about the chain of events that had brought him there. As the days progressed, his sense of time unhinged by morphine, the effort to remember became his weapon of choice against the inhuman weight of pain that lived in what remained of his leg and, despite the guillotine, moved up.