"Where's the rest of the band?" seemed to be the question on every man's lips.
It was the morning and the troop train had made a brief stop at an unknown station. As Sol and his fellow musicians detrained and went to stretch their legs and seek out their friends from the other cars, they discovered the other half of the band was nowhere to be found.
They asked around, but everyone manning the train was French and had no grasp of English at all. Sol, with his very limited knowledge of the native language, did his best to find out what had happened, but the little French he knew was not enough to extract an answer.
Eventually, a whistle blew and Sol and his friends clambered back aboard the train, much more confused than when they had stepped off.
As the train continued into the last leg of its journey, the men on board told themselves that their friends would be waiting for them at the next station.
As the train pulled in, it was a great relief to see American soldiers mingled amongst the French, though they knew it could not be their regiment as all of the men were white. Even so, they detrained again, and since most of the group were Puerto Rican and had only a basic grasp of English, Sol and Noble Sissle took it upon themselves to ask around and find out what was going on. They split apart and Sol picked out a lone soldier smoking a cigarette and approached.
"Excuse me, sir," Sol said. "I'm with the 15th Infantry out of New York. We just arrived, but we've lost contact with the rest of our regiment. Have you seen them by any chance?"
The man frowned as he exhaled a long ribbon of smoke. "The 15th? You mean the all-black regiment out of New York?"
Sol nodded with relief. "That's us! So you've seen the others?"
The man shook his head. "Sorry, I've heard of you but you're the first black soldier I seen. We're from New York, too; 27th Division. You can ask around, but if any of your friends had passed by, I think I'd have noticed."
Disheartened, Sol thanked him and went in search of someone else to ask, but Sissle got to him first. He looked suddenly quite ill.
"They're not here," he told Sol. "Our trains must've got split up during the night. We should have gone to a place called Connantre."
"Then where are we?" Sol asked.
"Somewhere called Châlons. The train we got on was meant for soldiers going to the front."
Sol suddenly understood why Sissle didn't look well. "The front? You mean we're—"
Their conversation was obliterated by a high-pitched wail that cut through the air followed by an almighty explosion. While Sol and Sissle instinctively crouched and covered their heads, most of the Puerto Rican bandmembers dived dramatically to the floor and crawled for cover.
When some the French soldiers started to laugh, Sol straightened up and realised his hands were shaking. The soldiers at Aix had done a good job of describing the music of shellfire, but they had left out the fear that overcame you the first time you were exposed to it.
"We need to get back to the regiment," Sissle said, looking as nervous as Sol felt.
"Good idea," Sol said.
YOU ARE READING
Manhattan, 1929. The City is on its knees following a devastating crash in the stock market. Thanks to the Prohibition, criminals are making a killing off illegal bars while thousands of honest labourers can't find a single day's work. And in the Bo...