He moved along, penguin gait, and paid close attention to the next salvo. A cook in white kitchen ducks served the potatoes from a rectangular aluminum vat. Reloaded, the cook cocked his serving spoon as though it were a cleaver and with might enough to have collapsed a steer, swung. The neck of the spoon struck the distal edge of the vat: bok! The receptacle and its coagulated contents resonated flatly. Instantaneously came the splat! The helping of potatoes transformed from a lopsided spheroid in the recess of the spoon into a convoluted weal at the plane of the tray.
Asa's last mathematics course had involved just such exercises as this: inverse problems, the professor's field of research. Asa could almost hear instruction in Belgian-accented French: Remembering the hypersurface above the tray, and using the facts available to you, calculate the mean radius of curvature of the original bolus. Goose pimples erupted all over Asa arms and legs as he realized he was taking this game very seriously. What approach? Tensors or analytical continuation? Butter pecan or maple walnut?
Asa stepped forward for his own helping. When it materialized, he observed something else, and his heart began to hammer on the inner surface of his sternum. The problem was actually richer than mathematics. Metaphysics and epistemology had come alive on that tray! And also in his consciousness. He was philosophizing in earnest. In transit, the potatoes became totally invisible. Totally so! Yet his perception tried to grasp a continuous scene. Which he could plainly see, it was not. The habits of everyday cognition were trying to ignore the noumenon between the cause on the cook's spoon and the effect on the steel tray. To see is to be deceived, he mused, and he smiled with his eyelids. His senses had not been able to pull off their tricks. He felt the joy, here, of knowing that reason still meant more to him than desire. His soul still hungered for a nutrient of pure truth. Holding back his tray and miming 'No thank you' to the forlorn KP serving gravy, Asa continued his observation.
The potato cook's momentum was in perfect synchrony with the arrival of the next man, a short paratrooper with hair like copper wire and a uniform as flawless as a cosine wave. The cook executed his delivery.
The paratrooper stopped, delaying the line behind him. He inspected the front of his uniform and then directed his stare at the potato cook. "Hey there, asshole brain," the paratrooper rasped two octaves below what Asa would have predicted from the man's physical mass. It was the rumble of volcanoes. The KPs and other cooks stopped serving. Ordinarily such a delay would have detonated a nugatory chorus of curses and complaints; it was the custom. Instead, a hush spread up and down the stalled line. A boy had teased the beast, ha! ha! But instead of remaining secure, the cage door had inexplicably sprung wide open. Now the growl signified something: Potato cook's immortal soul lie along the azimuth of perdition. The cook knew it. His fellow cooks knew it. The miserable KPs knew it. The chow line knew it. The mice, ants and cockroaches knew it. Even Asa knew it.
A be- khakied mess sergeant had been leaning, blear- eyed against the jamb of a wide passageway between the kitchen and the serving line, smoking a cigarette and sipping ostensibly coffee. He quickly straightened up, set his coffee mug on the lid of an ice chest, cupped his cigarette and came forward between the potatoes and the gravy. Not looking at the paratrooper, nor at anyone in particular, the mess sergeant bellowed: "What in jesusfuck is fuckin' holdin' up this motherfuckin' line? Move yo fuckin' nassholes OUT!" Unmarked -- and uncontested -- the paratrooper withdrew into his private purgatory. The chow line swagged again.
Asa tried to watch the potato station as he continued, accepting a solicitously offered extra ear of corn. But the trembling potato cook totally altered his delivery style thereby nullifying the mashed potato paradigm. No matter. The specter of violence had dispersed the initial promise. The philosopher quickly sank into the limbo of the past few years.
The heavyset meat cook Asa now faced was a man in his late thirties, no doubt known among his immediate comrades as "Pop." Pop smiled broadly at Asa, dug his 4- inch fork tines into a hillock of thinly sliced, well roasted beef, hoisted the juicy equivalence of two men's rations, and sang "Enough soldier?"
"Yes, thank you," Asa answered and returned the smile. Except for "here" or at muster, these were the only words he could recall having spoken to anyone in over a month.
Pop repeated the cheerful interrogatory for the paratrooper who also used 'thank you' but did not smile.
At the end of the line, Asa tucked an extra half- pint bottle of milk under his arm, stepped off to one side and looked around for an empty seat. The large consolidated mess hall was crowded with men in a spectrum of uniforms varying from Arctic to tropical, dress to work. They conversed with the unrestrictedness of soldiers under minimal discipline, yet with the guardedness of strangers long conditioned to a fact of a transient's life: evil can bump good at the splat of potatoes.
Asa found a vacancy across from a T3 who wore the red and white octagonal patch of the Eighth Army. The T3 spoke, gesturing as he chewed, at the regimental insignia on Asa's shoulder strap. He'd been in military government down in Kobe, he said, and had once hand- carried a document to the Chinese Embassy. En route he'd passed Asa's regimental headquarters -- "That Jap marine barracks. Ropunji, wasn't it? " -- where he'd made the mistake of scrounging chow. "God that was awful food!" Say, this wasn't half bad for a consolidated mess, was it, a 7th Armored Division tech sergeant next to the T3 announced as he forked the frosted paper from a slab of Neapolitan ice cream. It was his one and only trip to Tokyo, the T3 said, to his genuine regret. For he'd acquired a "real taste for the culture"; in fact, as soon as he finished his master's, he'd be on his way back, in a civilian capacity, if he could swing it. The armored sergeant left, and a medic PFC scooted along the bench to fill the vacated place. The medic said he couldn't help overhearing what "you fellas was talkin' about," pointing to his wine and purple IX Corps patch and declaring that he was "homesicker'n shit for my moose." The medic "pret'near re- upped, too byfuckin'god." He'd worked in the pro station in Sapporo.
The T3 from Kobe heard that Hokkaido was very cold. He wasn't "just a-birdturdin'" the medic advised. He glanced around and then leaned over the table to say, in a subdued voice, that the cold was only the half of it, especially after the airborne replaced the Seventh. Luckily, he had his little moose, because those airborne (changing to a whisper) "bastards" tore the fucking town apart every weekend. "Beat the dogdirt out of everybody: gooks, GIs, each other, everybody; wouldn't even let you go to the dance halls or take a piss in the EM club or nothin'. Only had three of the sombitches in the first fuckin' place."
"Three what?" the T3 asked.
"Dance fuckin' halls. And if that wasn't bad enough, the fuckin' MPs run all the pom- pom girls out of town." Where did they go? the T3 inquired. "Beats the shit out of me." But how was you going to teach people democracy and shit when you pull stuff like that? "Just wasn't right, is all." The T3 nodded agreement. "You get that silver star in the Philippines," the medic pointed at Asa's ribbons. Asa ignored the question.
The man next to Asa gestured for a light from the medic's partially smoked cigarette. The medic obliged. "Kobe, eh?" the medic said, extinguishing his own cigarette in his string beans. "I always heard Kobe Base was absolutely lousy with niggers." The T3 did not respond. Someone wanted to know where a guy could get a clean piece of ass in town; by the way, the same man asked, what was the score on getting a place for the wife and kids to stay at while the husbands was getting processed out? Someone else volunteered that you had to be a first three grader to bring your old lady on the post. That was one crock of goddamn shit, someone else added. Was it okay to go back for seconds on the ice cream?
On the way out, Asa waited to sort his refuse appropriately into cans marked 'Paper'; 'Corn Cobs'; 'Coffee Grounds'; 'Wet'... A KP at the end of the line took the cups and received and stacked the emptied trays . Like all other KPs here, he wore the unmistakable habit of the recent inductee: brand new but nevertheless kitchen- filthy fatigue clothes. Unaccustomed to involuntary servitude, unapprised that he would not be a second set of fatigues for several weeks hence, the KP worked inefficiently and carelessly, failing to conserve his energy and neglecting to protect his person from the slop of the world. In his expectations, Mom would come along and do that. This man seemed even more distressed than his contemporaries. As he received a tray, he seemed to search the presenter's face for eye contact and to plead for reassurance that the human kindness he had always taken as a given until so recently would momentarily be put restored. It's all a big joke, right. Please, please kind stranger, help, help, help me.
A very tall air corps master sergeant just in front of Asa, seemed to be watching the KP. When the KP reached for the sergeant's tray, he held it back momentarily and said softly, "Just don't think too much about it, lad." The KP immediately lolled his head and began to sob. The cook supervising the exit lanes immediately strode over, put his face close to the KP's and yelled, "You want a kickiny ass, shitball?" The master sergeant pushed himself between the cook and the KP and asked the cook if he'd like to step outside and see just how high up his leg really could kick. The cook smiled, playfully punched the KP's shoulder. "I was only kiddin' Sarge, for chrisake. This here's my azehole drinkin' buddy, ain't you soldier?"
In the vestibule, Asa paused to pluck a corn kernel from the sleeve of his Ike jacket. Then he pushed through the asthmatic screen door and out into the midday sun.
He started up the macadam company street toward the barracks. But, glancing at the sun and realizing that afternoon muster was more than an hour away, he veered, quickened his pace and cut across a combination softball diamond/drill field to catch the bus for the main post.
A chaplain with jump boots and glider wings waited at the bus stop. "Good afternoon son," he said, smartly returning Asa's salute. When the bus arrived, the chaplain insisted Asa board first. The driver, a T5 with acne on the back of his neck, greeted the chaplain, "Hello Father Bob." Father Bob sat immediately behind the driver's seat, and the two began a discussion about the Brooklyn Dodgers. No other passengers were aboard the bus, which pulled out with Asa galloping to the rear.
At the Reception Center, the bus yielded to a ragged formation of men in civilian clothes. "The Lord be with the republic now," Father Bob declared. The bus driver shook his head, apparently in agreement. At the Main PX, Father Bob bounced off, waving good- byes, presumably to Asa as well as the driver. Asa walked forward, shielding his eyes against the windshield glare, to ask if the bus stopped at the post library. "Practically deliver you to the stacks," the driver smiled and said.
In the library, a wac buck sergeant in a tight skirt was on duty at the circulation desk, and a Finance Department major in horn rimmed glasses browsed in the political science section. Otherwise, and except for Asa, the library was empty.
Asa found a book on Spinoza by Joseph Ratner that had been published while he was away. "I'm really sorry, soldier," the wac said. Only permanent cadre could check out books. Her lipstick matched her nail polish, and both had been applied with great precision. Her perfume suggested heather. She had a lightly dimpled chin. When she smiled and thanked him after he insisted she not get up, that he would return Spinoza to the shelf himself, her lower lip assumed the textural attributes of a rose petal. Asa felt his ears become inflamed.
He went to the magazine rack and selected a back issue of Time. As he eased down on the couch serving the rack, the leatherette upholstery hissed at him like an annoyed badger. He read about a coal mine strike, then turned to a feature on nuclear fission, which contained several technical misconceptions, and he started a special background report on the war crimes. But part way through the article, he stopped reading.
On the way out, the wac smiled at him again. She did, indeed, grace whatever she put on her person, he concluded. As she up looked at him, lips slightly parted, eyebrows asymmetrically arched, he wanted very much to ask if he could buy her a glass of beer. But within his brain, the words were forming in Japanese. And he merely smiled back.
Outside, he confirmed his wristwatch with a glance at the sun. Then he set out on foot in the direction of the Separation Center.
Asa stared at the Journal page, blank except for the day's date at the top. His name had not been on the afternoon processing roster. After the formation fell out, he'd gone to the barracks, fished the Journal from his duffel bag, sprawled on the bunk and attempted a written reconstruction of the mashed potato paradigm. But the words had not flowed. And he'd come to the service club in hopes that friendlier surroundings would uncongeal his mind. He found a vacant writing desk in the mezzanine and sat or a few minutes, aware of polished pine; of soft though unfamiliar music from a juke box; of clicking billiard balls; of subdued but young, cheerful voices occasionally punctuated by random trains of playful laughter. And very much aware of the honey- haired USO hostess downstairs at the information desk. If he could think of an appropriate simile for her visible features, he'd immediately write it onto this blank page. Perhaps then he would regain his vocabulary and again be able to dig for remnants of his misplaced soul. But the word block remained granite solid. And he recapped his fountain pen and returned it to his shirt pocket.
The thick ledger still contained many unused pages despite the fact that it was the very same one he'd packed brand new when he reported for induction. As a boy, he would have used up those pages in three months, and at the university in three weeks. He turned to the first page and began reading.
The narrative opened with his plans for a master's thesis, the rough draft of which he'd fully expected to complete during basic training. Interspersed among his scholarly intentions were first impressions of army life.
"I propose to show that Gödel's incompleteness theorem and Brouwer's fixed- point theorem are variants of the same abstract principle and, thereby, demonstrate that logic and topology belong to a unified system, that the fundamental features of both, when considered together, yield a method of scientific as well as philosophical value...
"The soil here is actually red... The aroma of local pines differs slightly from my own woods. But the nose knows how to savor a new variation on an old delight...
"Everyone in my 4th platoon has a name beginning with W through Z. If Xenophan is also in training at this post, he is a member of a 4th platoon....
"I require a model for my theory, an analog with which to illustrate the system's general meaning...
"The platoon Sgt. casts a suspicious eye on what I write. Perhaps he takes mathematical logic to be a code of espionage and believes I am here to spy on the secrets of American infantry basic training...
"I'd never held, let alone discharged a firearm of any sort. Carrying my M1 virtually night and day, minutely absorbing every instruction about its form and function, I'd begun to regard the weapon as a supernumerary appendage. But this morning when I fired my rifle for the very first time, I was utterly stunned, physically, emotionally, spiritually. In the immediately ensuing instant after the violent kick -- lip numb from the recoil of my own fist, eyes blurred in gun oil vapor, nostrils full of brimstone from the breech, ears deaf to the outside world, yet ringing at the highest audible frequencies -- I feared my suddenly evaporated confidence had only been bravado. I wondered if the M1 would become a persisting symbol of my soldierly ineptitude. Unlike Socrates, no Xenophan would ever hail my prowess, I thought as I beheld the Maggie's drawers mischievously oscillating above the target pit. I had totally missed the mark, and perhaps even the rifle range itself. But I wiped my glasses on the tail of my fatigue blouse, tightened my sling until the butt plate rested snugly against my shoulder, and formed the 'perfect sight picture' we had been meticulously taught to see. Careful to squeeze my entire hand, and thus avoid jerking the trigger, I took and held a breath and fired again. When the marked target reappeared above the pit, I saw that my round had penetrated the 3- ring. My sights required adjustments for windage and for less- than- true alignment. While at it, I employed a little elementary calculus on the parameters. The next round was a bull's- eye, and my fourth, after backing down one compensatory click, was in the V- ring; i. e., the inner zone of the bull's- eye...
"A little neats- foot oil for a supple sling is part of the skilled rifleman's lore...The man in the next bunk, a poker player named 'Pop Tarrence' says that the sitting position reminds him of Lon Chaney, Senior. I can only assume that Mr. Chaney, whoever he is, suffers chronic leg cramp...When used according to instruction, the M1 rifle misses virtually nothing visible within a range of three hundred yards. It is an awesome responsibility to carry on a shoulder...I am truly impressed with the destructive capabilities of the Browning Automatic Rifle or BAR..I made expert rifleman today; in truth, mathematics made it...
"I cannot keep away from Spinoza these days; it is as though he is reincarnated in my most important reflections. But it is Hegel who has advanced my research, and from whose system my own is beginning to take definite shape. If we let an unprovable domain contain at least one fixed point; and let the domain come into existence by the marriage of an Hegelian thesis and antithesis; i. e., let the system represent a synthesis, then the fixed point -- which is common to both thesis and antithesis -- permits the entire system to be defined, both before and after the synthesis has actually occurred. Yet (and I find this utterly ironical) this is true if and only if one first postulates free will -- indeterminism-- at the core of the system. I may be able to illustrate my theory with a chemical reaction; or perhaps an example from biology (viz., embryonic development)...
"Trainees are obliged to depart from the day room at 2100 hrs. Bed check is a half hour later. Then only one lawful place exits for the writing of my thesis: the toilet seat...
"A linguist would find unmined treasures among the usages of soldiers. I wonder if the NCOs of Sparta's army attained the art forms of profanity evinced by our first sergeant? A 'chewing out' is so totally disproportionate to any infraction that, clearly, we are all playing our roles in an opera bouffa. Not all my comrades appreciate the humor. I fear that the same is also true of some of our cadremen...I have not personally been mistreated. Or perhaps I am simply too detached to know if, when or whether genuine abuse is actually directed toward me. However, among us are men who seem to draw cruelty to themselves as feces attracts flies. Heretofore, my understanding of tyranny was strictly academic. But I am slowly becoming aware of a viciousness unleashed in some men by power over others.
"My thesis creeps along very slowly, now. It is not for lack of time, although I could use three undistracted weeks at the beach. Intuitively, I apprehend the critical axis in my theory; but, like a greased rod, it slides from my grip the moment I invoke serious thinking...The word 'mercy' keeps popping into my head and uncoupling my trains of thought. 'Mercy,' resurfacing, unheralded, right in the middle of things, diffuses my concentration, extinguishes my newly formed ideas; or else disperses my concepts into fragments, after which I scramble, hopelessly, like a boy after a tipped- over canful of marbles. Mercy! It is in short ration among soldiers. But when one does witness it, isolated, anomalous in this harsh context, it is as water on a desert; and as beautiful as it is precious.
"Among the majority of my platoon, amity began to emerge as the men learned each other's names, as they worked and played together, exchanged ideas and possessions, accepted mutual dependency. But among my comrades are personalities I'd not known existed: men who, too early, knew the sting of the whip, the tromp of the boot, the blow of the club; men for whom childhood was not a time of love and nurture, but an interval of physical vulnerability; men for whom life has held little prize or possession, aspiration or opportunity, affection or joy; for whom the friendly gesture has been a lure into a trap, and a cause for suspicion. How have I, Asa Zook, learned of such things? From the very lips of these men. Why do they seek me out? Why do they trust me? Perhaps they read my thoughts. Are our bodies joined by the same head?
"We arrived here on a troop train, and, as is true of hogs en route to market, saw very little of the communities through which we rode. Last weekend, we received our first passes. I have met Jim Crow in the flesh. It occurred to me as I observed the live institution that, North or South, the American army is as totally segregated as the waiting room of any Southern bus terminal. How could I have been so numb to reality until now? Summed across the citizenry, my erstwhile insensitivity becomes a major contributor to injustice among our peoples...
"I have also personally discovered another institution, one with the germ of my salvation: prostitution. We are issued materials and equipment as prophylactics against other germs...
"I have temporarily set aside my thesis and am reading novels; and, yes, an occasional poem..."
Now the entry dates begin to show wide gaps. "For my birthday, Raymond sent me a circular slide rule which fits into my shirt pocket and which I employed with great effectiveness on the 60 mm mortar range today...After I wrote to him of my impressions of Walt Whitman, Grampa sent me T. S. Eliot's new book, Four Quartets, a powerful little volume made to be carried in fatigue pants pockets...I bundled my unfinished thesis home for safekeeping."
Asa vividly recalled his leave after basic training. But the Journal contained no entries until, "We are aboard a recently launched ship, the U.S.S Haverford Victory...I had gone topside for a good look at the splendid Bay. Golden Gate Bridge was still in plain view behind us when, already on the deck, were half- digested random splotches, the augury of what was soon to come. Having lived by the sea, and considered myself one of its children, I did not expect to share the fate. But by the time we crawled topside for the next morning's roll call, my suppositions had turned out to have utterly failed the pragmatist's test of truth: it hadn't worked. A pandemic of vertigo and nausea has swept the ship and afflicted every soldier and many a sailor aboard. Valor, I am certain, does not explain the Charge of the Light Brigade, but instead the prospect of escaping from the seaborne soldier's one unendurable plight: seasickness! I would gladly have attacked the muzzle of a roaring cannon to have felt firm earth beneath my feet...
"A few among us have recovered see to life's essential chores; e. g., carrying food and canteens of water to comrades too ill to stir. If we suffer thus, I pondered as I washed the face of one desperate soldier, what must life have been in the hold of a slave ship? Why cannot men extrapolate from their own horrible experiences to the dire miseries of others?
"A flight of stairs (a ladder in the parlance of sailors) passes close to my bunk; its handrails and steps are often made treacherously slick by various fluids. One afternoon, three seasick men on a detail from the compartment below were hoisting up the ladder a garbage can containing perhaps twenty gallons of orange vomit. One man pushed from below while the others two pulled the handles from above. The sea was deceptively moderate, and the ship listed ever so slowly -- but listed, inexorably! Evidently unwise to the harmonic nature of the sea, the men of the vomit detail had not synchronized their ascent to the motion of the ship. The ladder began counter- tilting as the men were halfway between decks. The sloshing contents of the can splashed over the sides, some into the face of the man on the bottom. He released his hold. The weight per man suddenly exceeded the grip of his comrades, who were already desperately struggling to maintain balance while holding onto the slippery handles. The can slid from their grip, drove the bottom man on the down the steps, onto deck and upended, contents and all, on his head and shoulders. Already bleating like an terrified lamb, he now became hysterical and had to be restrained from jumping overboard. When he is old and learns of such plights endured by others, will he laugh or cry?
"A chaplain insists on delivering sermons over the squawky public address system. All I can make out is 'mercy.' Is he offering or requesting it?
"An entrepreneur in the bunk across from mine, an artillery corporal, had the foresight to bring aboard several boxes of Hershey bars. Those of our comrades too ill to abide the pungency of the galley have been paying this corporal five dollars each for a nickel Hershey bar -- those who have the five dollars.
"Among the first to habituate to the sea, inscrutably, were the gamblers, among them the be- chocolated corporal of artillery and my basic training comrade, Pop Tarrence. When, during a poker game, his money ran out, the corporal sought to ante with chocolate. 'How much is a Hershey bar worth?' he asked across the olive drab blanket on the deck. His adversary, Pop Tarrence, looked at the corporal for a long moment and then drawled: 'Five cents!'; . A cheer rang out in the hold. Can justice beget mercy?
"I've heard our ship called a cattle boat. But livestock could never survive these conditions. We are adaptable creatures, soldiers -- and rats.
"Sky and sea form a mobile continuum: Brillouin's tensor capacity and tensor density, join into a universe that could belong to anyone.
"This morning, the amplitude of some waves exceeded the apparent height of the ship's bridge. We had no Newtonian right to survive...
"The sea has been calm for several days now, and I have spent entire nights above deck observing constellations that were once only names in textbooks. Southern Nights present an astronomical feast."
After disembarking: "The embryonic community aboard ship, , born of old acquaintances, work details, crap games and shared misery, vanished as the army shuffled us with the living cargo of other vessels and dispersed us throughout the 'repple depple' as we call the replacement depot. We became an admixture of newcomers, men from hospitals or stockades and troops from disbanded service units. The heterogeneity suggests to the few veterans among us that a large campaign is in the offing.
"Barely had we learned to recognize each others faces when the army scrambled us again. Before we could pause to appreciate this tropical paradise, we were re-aggregated with still other strangers and herded aboard an unseaworthy craft called an LST. Disembarking again, we were routed piecemeal via foot, truck or Higgins boat to regiments.
"Sensibly (which is anomalous for the army), the new among us were sent to a training detachment where we machine- gunned floating coconuts, strung barbed wire, ran down the ramps of landing craft, threw dud grenades at the benign jungle and learned where not to dig foxholes. But not a moment after social cohesiveness began to work, we where parceled out individually, first to a company, then a platoon and finally a squad where, strangers among strangers, we were received at best with indifference, at worst as the enemy.
"My company -- troop it is actually called -- came overseas as a unit. Although it has seen combat, its casualties have been light. My squad, intact except for the slain man I replaced, is a well established family. Of course, they deeply resent me, the uninvited outsider tragedy has forced upon them. I am a persisting, negative symbol of their lost brother.
"For weeks, my various aliases included 'Hey-you' and 'Shithead.' When we embarked, I became 'Newguy.' On the landing beach, the squad leader, Sgt. Robinson Duhurst, promoted me to 'Mack.' Following a brief but brisk skirmish, I finally regained my surname, which I might already have forgotten except for mail call...
"Filipinos have joined our troop as scouts. A man named Alberto Sugurom accompanies our squad and shares the point with me. He grew up in the country we traversing but before the war ran a ferry service among the central and southern islands. As a result, he is fluent in the commonest Philippine languages. His English is excellent but, he claims, very rusty. He has been teaching me Tagalog and Bisayan in the event we find girls. Alberto laughed mightily when I told him my full name; for in one dialect it carries prurient connotations. But I should never venture to those islands, he warns. 'Why?' Because I would be cooked and eaten.
"I have said more in Tagalog these past few days than in English during my entire time in the army...
"Alberto has just been awarded a silver star for his exploits as a guerrilla during the Japanese occupation of Leyte.
"Our Filipino scouts have been taken from us and I have, as the geneticist says, reverted to type....
"I had fired my rifle many times during these past days; but any injuries sustained therefrom were accidents. An hour ago, this circumstance changed. Our squad was on a patrol, crossing a waist- high crop of cane, when we came under light machine fire from a cultivated grove six hundred yards to the front, just beyond efficient rifle range. Sgt. Duhurst signaled forward the assistant squad leader and the BARman. In a short while, he called me back from my position. He ordered me to take the BAR. I traded weapons with the BARman and exchanged my clips for his magazines. 'Fill two motherfucking magazines with fucking tracer ammo, Zook' Sgt. Duhurst ordered. He collected our grenades and stuffed them into his pockets. Follow him, he signaled me. He and I crawled forward some three hundred yards and took cover in a shallow ditch behind the stump of a large mahogany tree. Did I have a fix on the gun? When I said I did not, Sgt. Duhurst jumped from the ditch and immediately drew fire. I gasped. But I did spot the flash. I fired two short- round bursts and adjusted the bipod and sights from the trajectory of the tracers. Sgt. Duhurst then handed me his helmet. 'Don't lose the fucker on me,' he said. Before I could protest, he added, 'Cover my immortal ass, Zook,' and was off into the cane field.
"I worked the presumptive target area with two- and three- round bursts. The machine gun answered, and I made compensatory adjustments in my fire pattern. Then the gun stopped, but restarted in just enough time to have been re-manned. It ceased entirely after my next volley. I continued firing, but retarded the frequency in order to conserve ammunition. Duhurst suddenly popped up from concealment less than ten yards from the gun position, threw a grenade and vanished. In seconds, he reappeared at another location, threw two more grenades and was gone again. Our assistant squad leader then brought the rifle team forward to within one hundred yards of the grove, formed a skirmish line, and a fusillade opened up. My ammunition depleted, I crawled in search of the assistant BARman. 'Boy is Corporal Cummings ever pissed at your ass, Zook,' he said, but nevertheless traded his full magazines for my empty ones.
"In moments, Sgt. Duhurst stood and signaled the entire squad to rush the grove. We arrived to find two dead Japanese infantrymen and a ruined heavy machine gun. The bodies lay unburied less than 20 yards from where I write these words. Although the evidence is circumstantial, I am sure beyond a reasonable doubt that I killed both men.
"Great prestige accrues to the BARman of a squad, and Robby Duhurst insisted I continue to carry the weapon. Pointing out the hierarchical struggle that would ensue therefrom -- and its untoward effects upon squad morale -- I argued that the BAR rightfully belong to Cpl. Cummings. 'Yeah Ace, we know,' Robby replied, adding that I was, 'just too fucking lazy to carry the extra weight.' I returned Cpl. Cummings' prize to him. In truth, I prefer not to be encumbered by its potential lethality.
"I am thrilled to have the confidence and respect of Robby Duhurst. He is a soldier by instinct, which I am certainly not. He solves in a flash dilemmas I'd spend a week unraveling. He seems totally without personal fear, but cautious to the snap of a twig about our welfare. A professional, he belonged to this very troop when the war broke out. However, by his own account, he was doing six- and- two- thirds in the post stockade until the day before the regiment shipped out. Strangely, when we are in the field, Robby often reminds me of my father. But only in the field.
"Thirst is my chronic malady...Nothing but a New Testament to read...My cries for water have piqued the gods into sending us a typhoon."
Asa came across an unfinished letter to Raymond: "Forgive this stationery. But I owe you several letters, and my journal is the only available source of dry paper here. You inquired about the cavalry. It is only a name, although my division retains the administrative structure of cavalry. Beyond this, and a host of romantic usages, we are infantrymen. Our companies are called troops and battalions, squadrons. While the indirect mode of address of an army private is generally 'soldier,' in the cavalry we are summoned as 'trooper' which, I believe is also true among airborne units, doubtless from 'paratrooper.' My regiment was first organized in 1868 at--"
The letter stopped amid- sentence. Asa closed his eyes and let his memory replay what happened next. His unit had suddenly been ordered out of corps reserve to support an inadvertently exposed flank of another division's artillery. When Asa's regiment arrived, the artillerymen were already digging foxholes and preparing to fight, using their carbines. A cheer went up from their ranks, and Robby Duhurst called out to them, "The cav is here. You chickenshits can go back to mamma's titty, now."
The cavalry assumed the half- dug positions and the artillerymen fell back to their gun emplacements. A section from the heavy weapons troop set up a water- cooled thirty caliber machine gun to the left of Asa's platoon, and two 81 millimeter mortar crews dug in to their rear. The troop's supply sergeant and a detail of cooks arrived with bails of concertina wire. "Glad to see your lousy asses doing something besides fuck the dog, " Robby called to them and laughed. Word spread up and down the line that the Japanese would launch a banzai attack.
"Horsecock," Duhurst advise: "The gooks will feed us a couple three platoons and try to sucker us into counter- attacking the hills where they're as thick as buffalo shit." The ploy wouldn't work, he predicted.
Darkness came, but no attack. A new man, Ernesto Perez from East Los Angeles shared Asa's foxhole. They conversed in Spanish until "Shut the fuck up for chrizake, Ace," Robby called out. Asa and Ernesto then took two- hour turns sleeping in the mud. At precisely 2356 hours [Asa could see the after- image of his wrist watch. His immediate reaction now was to marvel at how instantaneously his cognition had translated the dial's face into the verbal language of military time.] the entire sector lit up as white phosphorous shells exploded at tree top level, the concussion arriving long moments after the flash. His vision recovered in a moment. In the blue penumbra of the rapidly changing light were Robinson Duhurst's sacrificial Japanese platoons, their images jerking as though transmitted by a fitfully cranked nickelodeon. Without hesitation or instruction, the entire line commenced firing. More white phosphorous, followed by flares from the heavy weapons sections. Then came sequential explosions from the artillery batteries behind them, 105s in near- flat trajectory and in such rapid succession that the sum of their reports mimicked machine gun fire. "Down!" Duhurst's shrill voice penetrated the din. In moments friendly shrapnel landed around their foxholes. Someone in a nearby hole screamed out and then wailed like a severely beaten child. Next came the delivery of the 155s: high angle destruction not only of the field of fire but also the tree line, the apparent source of the Japanese infantry.
A flare went up from the heavy machine gun position supporting Asa's platoon. And then: three- round burst! three- round bursts! No unbroken, barrel- warping discharges; this gunner was a master of his trade. Four Japanese infantrymen had actually reached the concertina wire at the edge of the perimeter. They were already dead. But the heavy thirty sought to kill them again.
"Cease motherfuckin' fire you dumb assholes, and don't waste no more fuckin' ammo!" Duhurst bellowed out, presumably to his own squad. But the entire platoon, and eventually the troop, obeyed the command. Similar foci of silence developed and spread all along the sector. Except for a random rifle crack, a calm settled up and down the line. Even the artillery paused for a breath. And for a moment, it was simply night.
Then another assault began, but concentrated on positions to the far right. Asa had not heard enemy voices during the first wave. But now he was surprised that he could actually hear the shouting of the Japanese infantrymen -- "Hun-zai, hun-zai!" [which he surmised was banzai!banzai!] -- between explosions and during the brief interval while they still lived. The second attack was over as quickly as the first. Night resumed to be broken now and then by a lone rifle and the methodical, concussive battering of the hills by the authoritative 155s.
At daybreak, Asa slipped the Journal from inside his shirt, unwrapped the oilcloth, found the unfinished letter to Raymond and placed asterisks next to 'trooper.' A few days later, after his squadron had returned to bivouac, he wrote this: "A connection exists, in principle, between their banzai and our valor. Willfully, they die to attain in death a meaning that living somehow failed to provide. On our part, we seek to alleviate the mediocrity of reality with a glory that never actually existed. At the base lies the very same faculty of imagination we draw upon for creativity. What makes for art or music also furnishes the abstractions that can propel good men to volunteer as instruments of evil. What blesses our species can also damn us. What can generate life- enriching ideas may also produce myths in the name of which we kill and offer ourselves to be killed. The two are joined by the same head!
"I have devoted myself to romantic myth for some time now. After all, I told myself, Socrates had been a citizen of Athens and a soldier in its defense. My firm decision to enlist came right in the midst of a seminar on Plato. I'd been asked to present the dialog, 'Cratylus' because of my knowledge of Greek etymology. How honored and thrilled I was to be asked. For I worshipped the professor almost as much as I love Socrates. He interrupted my presentation to amplify on a point with an anecdote about his own unsuccessful attempts during the last war to join up as an aviator. The recruiting officer had rejected him, he said, because a philosopher would have to ponder the implications of nosing his airplane into a dive. But, our professor went on, the infantry turned out to be much less discriminating. His only sight of an airplane had been from a doughboy's earth- bound perspective. I cannot recall the relationship of his story to Plato, nor indeed if a valid one existed. But if my professor had been a soldier, I thought, I must be one too.
"My fallacies did not escape my father. Yes, he would continue to love me. He doubted that he could stop even if he wanted to, he said. No, he would not shun me. He couldn't do that either. But I was wrong, 'Plain wrong.' And no fancy words or complicated reasons were about to change his mind on that. Period! Had I ever wondered why his people wore those ridiculous chin whiskers? They were to emphasize the absence of hair on the upper lip. The fashion started at the time military men began sporting fine mustaches. The clean upper lip was a shunning of what armies exist for. 'Which is to kill.'
"'Duty?' he reacted to my pleadings. A living creature has a duty to life. A human being has a duty to promote life. And the only way he, Elwood Zook knew how you went about that was through love: love whose true measure was 'he who is not your brethren.' And when you got all the fancy talk out of the way, armies exist because of what love is not: hate.
"'I do not hate the enemy,' I protested. 'I decry his institutions.' My father's great hands sounded like sandpaper as he rubbed them together. Maybe my acts would be more forgivable if I did hate, he said. He saw no way that I could live through a war and not discover what he only wished he knew the words to explain. I then asked if he'd stand by and allow someone to hurt Raymond or me. He said he would not, nor anyone he loved. He could not, he confessed. But that was like a bitch defending her pups, something he couldn't control any more than he could turn off his need to drink water. But he rejected my attempts to draw a parallel to the defense of one's nation.
"'Nation? What is that?' he asked. [I've since come to conclude that it is 'trooper and banzai.'] Before I left, I asked if I might kiss him good- bye. He said, yes. And for the first time in my life, I saw my father, Elwood Zook cry.
"Oh! but the intellectual has his replete bag of self- deceptive tricks, his abstract polemics, clip clichés, his safe- havens against fallacious arguments, his dodges around the facts to avoid the plain man's truth. Of course, I operated from a 'much wider perspective' than did my father. He could not see the 'problem as a whole.' Indeed, even as I reflected then, I knew that my love for him turned around his simple purity. And his purity demanded the absence of the worldly sophistication I'd been chasing at the university. I wouldn't have had him otherwise, not even then, not even to dispel our disagreement. Nevertheless, I left my home, and his ways, and scampered off after my war, my glory, my romance."
Tears flowed down his cheeks Asa. He must have let out a sob, too, for a soldier at the desk in front of him glanced around. Asa returned his attention to the Journal.
A brief note interdicted the long hiatus among the entries, a caption under an unknown flower he'd pressed between the pages but which was no longer there: "From Samar for later classification." Now the passages became cryptic, and Asa's memory and cognition balked when he tried to recollect events in the gaps.
"Enemy: sailors with rifles. Inexperienced at infantry warfare, condemned and outnumbered, they are naive rats left to defend against hunt- wise ferrets...Manila is naked little girls with dirty legs. No, they do not carry rubber dolls, but the bodies of baby brothers. Manila: Imperial Japanese Marines, piled grotesquely high atop the residue of their own sins. Manila is rape. Manila is the robin- sin of the vengeful God's personal pimp."
After Hiroshima: "What can remain sacred after this. Pure science has stumbled over itself in haste to whore for evil...
"I see much of Tokyo from the roof of this barracks. The city's grace does not square with Manila. Nor San Francisco's with Nagasaki. We are all afflicted with a common disease: romanticism...
"The old- timers have rotated home on points or have been promoted to positions of greater responsibility. Without horses in the cavalry, Robby has volunteered for the airborne.
"My platoon guards Meiji Shrine by night. The daytime is our own, and we pull one week of duty and are compensated with two weeks off. I have been traveling this splendid land at every opportunity. Last week, I went to Hokkaido to visit Robby. He is in the stockade at Camp Siedenberg.
"For a while now, I have been able to put to constructive use my long nights on guard duty at a gate just outside the shrine. I read undisturbed during the entire shift, thanks primarily to Enright, the man with whom I alternate on the post: 'Another dingbat,' I overheard the platoon Sgt. say about him. Rumors existed about an alleged M1- wielding strangler lurking the post to which I'd been assigned and for which Enright had volunteered. Outside the gate is a sentinel shack meant to be occupied during the day by a Japanese policeman; but not during the night by the sentry, who, by special order, is obliged to walk the post. But there is a desk within the shack, illuminated by a dangling naked electric light bulb. Enright and I find the shack ideal for reading, which his practical insight into human nature has made possible for both of us without the fear of summary courts- martial and the attending loss of rotation points for going home.
"ENRIGHT:My first night out, luckily, I goes into the shrine to take a piss. I'm standing there in the bushes shaking my cock when I hear jeep tires. Then the jeep stops and two pairs of feet hit the gravel. I fixed bayonet and crouched low and waited. 'Cuz I knew who the chickenshit motherfuckers was. The dumb bastards started whispering as they passed my position. I let them go another twenty yards and then popped out behind them. 'Halt Strangler or I'll blast your motherfucking ass off,' I shouted. 'It's us! It's us!' screams the sergeant of the guard, 'Jesus Christ don't shoot, don't shoot.' I'm sure the fucking officer of the day shit his pants. You could smell it. 'And who the fuck is us?' I says. 'Keep your hands raised, turn around and advance and be recognized or I start blasting.' I hadn't said that shit since basic training. The officer of the day shines his flashlight on his face. 'Holy Mother of Jesus, lieutenant,' I says, 'you guys almost got yourselves killed.'"I postulate that I am the other dingbat. Our respective reputations, the rumor about the Strangler and Enright's countermeasure no doubt explain why our post is now approached with headlights glaring and much advanced warning. While I am amused (for I shall never again load a rifle), I am also saddened that deceit and deception must exist among men who only a short time ago depended upon each other's veracity for their very lives...
"I employ spoken English so seldom nowadays that I wonder if I will be able to converse at home. But I have been learning Japanese at a rapid rate. It is a language, I find, most illustrative of Dr. Dicampo's thesis concerning emphasis and inflection, a tongue that cannot truly be learned from a book, but only in the commerce of direct interchange. And I have discovered among the Japanese something I was becoming vaguely aware of in the Philippines: I freely and easily converse with persons in other than my native tongue.
"I also prefer Japanese customs to [here he had scratched out 'my own'] that of the Americans. Perhaps it is because I am always conscious of being a stranger to the Japanese, and for the need of a deliberate effort when communicating with them. But a gentleness exists among these people, a manner I find irresistible."
Now Asa read slowly, trying to recall the particular scene: "I stood, brushed moist crumbs of earth from my bare knees and offered my hand. She took it, and I realized that she trembled. 'You nice GI,' her voice wavered. 'Why do you say this?' I haltingly asked in her language. 'You no hit,' she replied in mine. I paid her in yen. She thanked me in English. We said good- bye. I cannot shake from my mind the specter of violence hovering above this sacred rite. How can it be?"
Under his breath, now, holding the Journal in both hands, he answered the question aloud: "How, Asa Zook could you not already have known?" He shifted to a whisper: "A chunk of something is missing from my soul. A void exists, a blank, a missing domain, an absent dimension. I am utterly blind to what others see with total clarity. I am numb to what even a fool senses automatically. I am uncomprehending of that which a whole world knows perfectly well. I am a freak, out of phase, out of place, out of tune with my time and space and circumstance. Should I have lived at all?"
Asa closed the Journal. He peered down at the honey- hair USO hostess still on duty at the desk. He could love her. No! He did love her. And he wanted to hold her body close to his and tell her so. I should march right down and ask her if she'll have a glass of beer with me. She'd say, I'm really sorry, soldier. But we aren't allowed to date you fellas. Anyhow, I don't drink beer. Whereupon, her kissy lips would curl into an angel's smile. And she would coo something to the effect that she was simply dying for a Tom Collins and just couldn't wait until seven thirty when she'd be at the Vanadium Room sipping one. Asa reopened the Journal and wrote: "But what step would one take next?"
Copyright, 1996 by Paul Pietsch, all rights reserved. May be copied for personal, educational or other non-commercial "fair-use" purposes, as defined by U.S. copyright law.
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