A Short Story
They’ve got the whole regiment lined up at the Port of Tacoma, 22 July, 1950. Fifteen hundred men shouldering weapons and duffels, numbers chalked on their helmets, shuffling toward the General Darby. Hesh looks up in awe: the troopship is a horizontal skyscraper, the hull flaring upward to lifeboats, smokestacks, gangways strung like umbilical cords to the pier. He can’t get over the size of the ship, thinking, I’m going to Korea in this fucking thing. A guy says, “Where’s the band?”
Hesh says, “Where’s the what?”
“There’s supposed to be an Army band when you ship out.”
“A little. You don’t like music?”
Hesh shrugs, watching a crane heft an artillery piece slantwise. The fact is he has a secret passion for race music, but he has other concerns. Last month North Korea invaded the South and his regiment is shipping out early, Hesh having barely fired his M1. The few times he did fire he missed the target. Once he hit another guy’s target. A couple days later they heard about the invasion, the Soviet-made tanks plowing through Task Force Smith, the American prisoners. The Commies bound their wrists with barbed wire and shot them in the head. So Hesh cares less about the send-off than he does about fucking up and getting killed, not necessarily in that order.
Nearer the gangway there’s a Salvation Army table stacked with Bibles, an old fart in a doughboy hat asking, “What’s your religious persuasion soldier?”
The old fart hands over a pocket-sized Hebrew Bible. It’s a nice gesture, but he can’t resist the wisecrack: “You got any Zane Gray?”
“Why, no, soldier. Just Bibles.”
“He’s kidding you, Pops,” the music lover says.
Now a sergeant, cheeks glowing with perspiration, matches Hesh’s helmet number against the smeared pages of his clipboard. Up the jittering planks to the deck, where a petty officer directs them to the hatches—“Watch your head, boys”—his Navy blues with sweat stains like Rorschach blots. The men step down the ladders, griping, weighted by gear, into the cutting smell of fresh paint. On C-deck Hesh finds his compartment with its columns of bunks. The music lover heaves his gear onto a top bunk. He’s slim, tall, wolf-like, thick black hair. His name tag says Martinelli.
“Take a high rack,” he says. “In case fellas get seasick. They call it throwing up, but it goes down.”
“Thanks. I’m Herschel.”
“Nick. Where you from?”
“Queens. New York City.”
“Shut the fuck up, I’m from Williamsburg. You’re a Jew, right? You hear the one about the Jew and the Italian on death row? Warden says to the Italian, What’s your last meal? The Italian says, I want spaghetti in clam sauce, veal scaloppini, a gallon of Chianti, tiramisu. Warden says okay. Italian guy has his meal, it’s fucken delicious, gets electrocuted. Bzzzt. Warden says to the Jew, So what’s your last meal? The Jew says, I’ll have strawberries. Hold on a sec.”
There’s a big mook with swollen weightlifter arms eyeing the top racks.
Nick says, “Can I help you?”
“Sure. One a you chowderheads is moving his gear.”
“I said move your fucken gear.”
Nick says, “Fuck you.”
The big guy says, “Fuck me?”
“That’s right, fuck you.”
In the low hum of the blowers the air is charged. Two dozen pairs of eyes waiting, expecting Nick to get creamed. Hesh himself wondering if the top rack is worth a beating. Instead Nick leans in, whispers to the big man, who angles back, eyelids fluttering. Doesn’t look back as he hustles away with his gear. The whole business ending with the collective unspoken acknowledgment that clearly this slim Italian is not to be fucked with.
Nick turns back to Hesh, pleasant as you like.
“I’ll have strawberries, he says.”
Hesh says, “Strawberries.”
“That’s what the Jew wants for his last meal, strawberries. Warden says, You can’t have strawberries for your last meal, they’re not in season. Jewish guy says, Fine, so I’ll wait.”
The order comes over the squawk box, Everybody on deck.
“Good,” Nick says. “I can’t fucken breathe in here.”
Topside the soldiers disperse among the cranes, cables, scaffolds, ladders, the incomprehensible apparatus of a ship. The deck is painted red. The merchant marines in t-shirts and dungarees work the winches and ropes, soldiers at the railings squinting across the bay at the white angled peak of Mount Rainier. At 1500 hours the ship’s whistle blasts and the men flinch and then laugh to alleviate their embarrassment. They cheer as a bullheaded tug at the stern nudges the ship from the pier.
Nick says, “What are they so happy about?”
Hesh says, “Maybe they think that’s what you do on a boat.”
A skinny kid with an overlarge head and a Clark Gable mustache has been lurking. He says, “Excuse me fellas, it’s not a boat. In the Navy they call it a ship.”
Nick says, “Who asked you?”
The tug nudges the General Darby into the bay, its engines vibrating underfoot like his stepmother’s belted slimming machine. For a sendoff two fireboats spray arcing water from their nozzles, rainbows glowing through luminous streams. Whoops and shouting: Let’s kill some fucken commies. Just like in Basic, they’re scared and pretending not to be. Him too on both accounts, but it’s not like pretending makes him feel better. Because men are dying over there, and unless he can find some angle or miracle, one of them might be him.
Two months ago when Hesh got his draft notice his father said, Hey, I’ll send a salami to my boy in the Army (which by the way he never did). They went to Goochie’s supposedly for celebratory beers. Instead the old man talked bullshit with his cronies while Hesh sat there like a schmuck, wishing he had a newspaper. Hours later after putting his sloppy-drunk father to bed he told his stepmother the news. She nodded and returned to her book. Hesh’s half-brother said, so I get my own room now? His real mother might have wished him luck but Hesh didn’t have her address. Last he heard she’d moved to the Grand Concourse and shacked up with a Negro.
Hesh’s family lived above his dad’s sign-making shop a half-block off Queens Plaza, the trains screeching by every three minutes. He’d finished high school and he knew they were waiting for him to leave. So he saved, washed dishes at the diner, ran errands for the Italians, that kind of thing. In the neighborhood they talked about the draft like it was a setback, a time-freeze. For Hesh it made things easier. Now he could get the fuck out of the house. The possibility of combat never occurred to him. World War II had ended five years ago, no way we’d get another one so quickly.
Hesh had been raised on war pictures where the motley squad learns that friendship and patriotism transcend all ethnic divisions. But in Fort Pendleton he was surrounded by the most ignorant sons of bitches he’d ever seen. Most had never seen a Jew before. One draftee from St. Louis had asked in complete sincerity, How come you don’t have horns?
But he got through it. He endured the punishing hikes through aromatic forests, his uniform streaked with sweatsalt. He endured the tormenting boredom of disassembling and reassembling his M1, his fingers stinking of Cosmoline. He was short, which he could do nothing about, but the fat melted off, and he was smart. He aced the general classification test, the administrative test, the radio code test, the language aptitude test, the driver aptitude test, the clerical test. A dealer bought some mules for $1,200. He sold them for $1,500, making $50 on each mule. How many mules were there? The gentiles were stymied by that one, something about the dollar sign making them forget it’s only math. Anyway he believed himself the perfect candidate for company clerk, or sign painter, which was the family business. Honestly, he didn’t give a shit as long as it kept him from the line.
Because they used live ammo on the infiltration course, belt-fed M60s hammering as you crawled beneath the tracers through slick mud, artillery rounds exploding in flanking pits. One guy panicked and got up to run and his legs exploded into chopmeat. He fell screaming five yards from Hesh, his stumps trailing scarlet filaments. Hesh trembled, the mud sucking at his belly: If this is the simulation, fuck the real thing.
Within 14 days following the alert, 28 tons of rations, 265 tons of ammunition, 40 tons of gasoline and 20 tons of mess operating supplies have been drawn, packed and loaded. 4091 individuals were completely equipped for combat. Equipment and supplies were transported on five vessels. The voyage to Pusan, Korea was uneventful. The crews and Navy complements on board did their utmost to provide for the comfort and well being of the officers and men.
John H. Chiles
Lt Col, Infantry
It’s a hundred degrees in the compartment, the men stripped to the waist, Hesh’s nasal passages burning from human sweat and cleaning fluid. If he stands in one place too long he leaves sweaty bootprints. He keeps bumping into things because it’s subway rush-hour crowded, bags and gear seriously impeding freedom of movement. Helmets and rifles dangle from the bunks. One good thing: it’s quiet, only the hum of the blowers, restrained chatter. Even the dice games are subdued.
At night Nick enjoys the sleep of the just, the planes of his face outlined in the dim red light. Hesh lies sweating his nose four inches from rivets, the air meaty with farts and halitosis. At any given moment there is at least one guy beating off. Hesh holds his pocket Bible to his chest, thinking, Please God, I don’t want to kill nobody. More importantly I don’t want to get killed.
Hesh is 19 years old, 20 in November. He knows things about himself. He knows he’s not handsome, but when he gets a girl talking, he has a shot. He knows that he’s good at turning a buck. He knows there’s a lot he doesn’t know, because at the end of every day in the service he feels like he failed an exam nobody told him he was taking.
For instance: In the morning the duty officer catches Hesh dozing and sends him to the weather deck to chip paint. It’s a shitty job, even worse than KP. So next morning when reveille sounds he’s up instantly. When he hears the duty officer coming—“All right, you, you and you”—Hesh gets terribly interested in his Bible. Nobody bothers a guy reading the Bible, even if he’s a Jew, and Nick is fully absorbed in cleaning his boots. The men who don’t know how to fake it, like the little round-headed guy with the Clark Gable mustache, Metzger his name is, those guys are nabbed for duty.
“Aw nuts,” Metzger says. “Yesterday I did KP.”
“Well now you’re gonna swab the toilets.”
“It’s called the head, sergeant.”
“Thanks for the clarification, Admiral Dipshit.”
While the berths are inspected, the men ascend into the revelation of sharp clean salt odors, the sky and ocean. Hesh finds it disorienting to be in so much openness. And yet you can’t go a fucking inch without tripping over some guy stretched out with a book or magazine. In his own pocket he has the Bible and a Western novel he got from the ship’s library, but he’s too restless to read. He smokes, watching the albatrosses with their wingtips skimming the wavelets. Other seabirds feast on the fish churned up the frothing wake. This amazes him, the unceasing quest for meat.
Nick says, “Let’s find a card game.”
“Nah. Gambling is for suckers.”
“You calling me a sucker?”
“Look, there’s two kinds of gamblers. Suckers and sharks. You’re a shark, Nick. I’m neither.”
Nick claps him on the shoulder. “Smell you later.”
Hesh flicks his cigarette into the water, pleased with how he handled his volatile new buddy. But he wants a break from the men on all sides, sprawled on the deck, perched on chests and bulkheads. He has a hunch about the lifeboats. He leans over a railing to lift a canvas cover and sees two guys wrestling beneath the slats. No, not wrestling—embracing. Kissing. Christ. Their eyes affix on Hesh in silent pleading terror. He replaces the canvas. You were supposed to harbor a morbid distrust for queers. In high school it was the worst thing you could call somebody. But Hesh could never get exercised about it, maybe due to his uncle in Greenwich Village.
The bell is ringing for breakfast. Except the line is so long he wonders if he’ll miss lunch. They funnel through the machine shop where the diesel fumes are nauseating, the merchant marines at their lathes and presses ignoring the dogfaces. Closer to the mess hall—Metzger reminding everyone within earshot it’s called a galley—the men curse the a-holes with clipboards who jump the line. Hesh is hungry too, but he notes that even among enlisted men there is a pecking order, and maybe an angle.
When they finally get in there’s a big metal cauldron for hard-boiled eggs you pull out with a dipper. The eggs are either barely cooked, little salmonella bombs, or shriveled black ovoids. The cookies cut gristly slices from an eighteen-inch Spam cube the color of Pepto-Bismol. Actually the coffee is pretty good. The Filipino cooks bring out tin pitchers flavored with salt and chicory. You eat standing up at high tables with a kind of lipped edge to keep the trays from sliding. The utensils are thick metal spoons stamped USN, and some instinct, the same one that inspired Hesh to stash four pints of whiskey in his away bag, impels him to slide a half-dozen into his pocket.
After the coffee Hesh needs the shitter. He lines up for a toilet seat bolted above an open trough, alert as he lowers his pants. The wise guys light a wad of toilet paper and let the flow carry the flaming ball down the trough singeing the row of asses. Somebody tried it on Nick and lost an eyetooth.
His business done, he finds Nick in his rack.
Nick looks up from his paperback, Dykes on Bikes.
“Like you said, Herschel. I’m a shark.”
It is crystal clear that they are buddies. There was like destiny or inevitability about it. Okay, Nick is touchy. But he’s one of those guys who would crawl through broken glass for you. And Hesh would never say this to anybody, but until Nick showed up he hadn’t realized how lonely he was in the Army.
Meanwhile Metzger is down the aisle pretending to read Collier’s. He glances up at Hesh and Nick like a ten-year-old desperate to be invited to the party.
Nick says, “He can’t actually think that mustache looks good.”
Hesh says, “I feel bad for him. He just needs a friend.”
“Sure,” says Nick. “But why’s it gotta be me?”
Evening chow is shit on a shingle, bringing back memories of P.S. 115. Then a movie in the rec room, a hotbox about forty feet square. Hesh is hoping for a John Wayne picture, Nick wants Jerry Lewis. Instead it’s a training film, The Clean Girl. Corporal Johnny meets Ann, a brunette with big eyes and a rosebud mouth. They’re a few drinks in when she says, You always get what you want soldier? Cause you haven’t once asked me what I want.
“Okay,” Johnny slurs. “Waddayoo want?”
Nick calls out, “She wants you to eat her box!”
“I wanna dance,” Ann says.
Nick had a point: the camera dollies back from the hotel room door providing the strong suggestion of additional needs. But the clean girl isn’t clean. Johnny gets the clap and a lecture from the doc in that smooth know-it-all voice: Most of you men have sense enough to let the women that look like tarts alone. But it’s the clean kids that worry us. Now see what happens if this goes untreated.
“Oh no,” the men moan at the sight of a glistening penile sore. “Ah jeez,” they cry at a noseless syphilitic face, a knobby gonorrheaic elbow joint.
When the lights go up the chaplain appears, a bland round-faced man, maybe thirty.
“Remember boys, he says. “KYPIYP. Keep your pecker in your pants.”
Hesh raises his hand. “With respect sir. You ever heard of rubbers?”
ADVICE!!! Do you feel woozy?? Does your head spin and your body perspire? Any idea what this is? You should, cause you’re seasick! Not being an old salt, I could not tell you the best cure for it. I understand that fresh air, on deck of course, and lots of walking will help more than anything else to give you sea-legs. It will take lots of effort and fortitude, but it can be done. Try it!
The Darby Dispatch, 27 July 1950
It’s colder. Ice chunks float in the blue waters. You don’t go topside without your field jacket. Hesh, smoking at the guardrail, figures they’re near the Aleutians. He remembers the location from geography class. How pleasing it was to learn the word archipelago. Which is interesting information but useless. Okay, I know where I am, just about. So fucking what?
It’s getting easier to move around, to make your way through hatches and such without slipping. Below decks though it remains hot as shit, the lower you get the hotter the shit. Meaning that the officers are sitting pretty, the NCOs are fine, and the enlisted men can go fuck themselves. They fill their idle sweaty hours with dice games and rumors. According to one rumor the enlisted men are calm because there’s goof pills in the chow. More disturbing rumors circulate about the North Koreans, that they shoot medics and chaplains, that they cut off a GI’s dick and stuffed it in his mouth.
Hesh tries not to dwell. He’s in his rack reading the ship’s newspaper, studying a cartoon of two broads getting dressed. One is in her slip with stocking tops showing. It ain’t puppy love, she says. Puppy love is when you fall for a guy making less than sixty bucks a week. The drawing makes him heavy with need, and the message is disheartening. Hesh is an E-1 earning one-sixty-nine a month, half going to his family.
Nick is in his rack with a paperback, Sex Cabin. He has the book open on his chest while he stares at the ceiling. He says, philosophically, “Did you ever wish you was a dyke?”
Hesh has his eyes on the cleft of a cartoon ass. “No, but I could see why a girl could like girls, if that makes sense.”
“It does.” Nick picks up his book, puts it down. “You know with the A-bomb, Harry could end it.”
“Nick. Russia’s got the bomb.”
“So the North Koreans are commies and the Russians are commies. We drop the bomb on Korea, Russia drops the bomb on us.”
“Get the fuck outta here,” says Nick, meaning, discussion over.
Hesh wonders if the whole journey will be like this, reading, bullshitting, smoking, waiting for chow, until they disembark into a shitstorm of bullets. He wonders if his whole life will be like this, unexpected tests of endurance. When he imagines life after the Army, he pictures a fat wallet, top-shelf booze, girls with slim waists and plump tits. But there’s a Grand Canyon between him and those desires, and he has no idea how to cross it.
Nearing the end of the first week on board the boredom is broken up by lectures and drills that merely create a new kind of tedium. In the rec room an officer never seen before or since provides a droning lesson on ammunition, how it is delivered and apportioned, and the life-and-death importance of fire discipline. Hesh tugs at his own leg hairs to stay awake, a trick he learned from Tuffy Zwieback in middle school. He doesn’t want to miss a morsel of information that will keep him intact and alive, and after all this is a free lesson in supply chains, which he’ll need for business. If he doesn’t choke on his own dick in Korea.
When the alarm sounds for the boat drill you grab a life vest—they call it a Mae West because when inflated they look like tits—and you head for your compartment’s evacuation station. For most it is chaos, men bouncing off each other like the Three Stooges. But not Hesh’s compartment. He says, “We’re lifeboat number four, I know where that is.” Nick yells, “Everybody follow Marx here.” They assemble in orderly rows to the great pleasure of the NCO assigned to the station, a lanky Southerner with thick Army-issue glasses.
“How did you know where to go, Private?”
“Just keeping my eyes open, Sergeant.”
Hesh sees no reason to share that the lifeboat is where he saw the fairies swapping spit. He has a hunch that the Sergeant would not be so laissez-faire about it, and anyway it feels good to impress somebody for once.
But as they wait for the all-clear it occurs to Hesh that they’ve been at sea for days and if there had been a real fire most of the enlisted men, what with starting so far below decks and not knowing where to assemble, would have burned or drowned. How come nobody thought to do the boat drill earlier in the trip? He’s noticed that NCOs are generally on the ball, even the sadists. But some officers are plain stupid. It frightens him to consider that some may also be incompetent.
This suspicion is reinforced the next morning when a lieutenant takes men in groups of ten to the fantail for target practice. They get three rounds each, which even Hesh knows is not nearly enough, and moreover pointless given that in the rush to ship out there wasn’t time to zero their weapons. The lieutenant tosses clay targets into the air that spin intact into the drink.
After stowing the weapons, the men line up for lunch, waiting ninety minutes in an airless low-ceilinged passageway with zero forward movement. There is movement of other kinds, a sharp irregular rising and dipping. Hesh’s calves ache from the effort of staying upright, and he is tired, and he needs a shower, but every time he tries, they’re padlocked. Yesterday he buttonholed a passing merchant marine to ask the story, and the asshole says, “Do I look like a newspaper, dogface?”
Meanwhile Metzger is not shutting the fuck up, this time about the International Date Line. “I’m a shellback,” he says. “Me and my brother Auggie. They did the ceremony when we went to Japan with my dad. He was posted there after the War. Japan, oh boy. That place was flattened. Anyway when you cross the Date Line there’s a ceremony and they make you walk over eggshells and then you’re a shellback too.”
Nick says, “Why eggshells?”
“They tell you it’s broken glass. It’s funny.”
Hesh says, “What’s funny about broken glass?”
Metzger says, patiently, “It’s funny because it’s not broken glass.”
Hesh realizes if he doesn’t do something, he’ll throttle Metzger.
“Save my place,” he says.
He can’t find what he needs at the PX. At the library there’s one on the corporal’s desk.
“How much for that clipboard?”
The corporal has a head kind of pinched in the middle like a peanut. He says, “I can’t sell you Army property.”
“What about for a pint of Crown Royal?”
“Now you’re talking.”
Hesh pulls a couple of typewritten pages from the wastepaper basket and slides them under the clip. He puts a pencil behind his ear and returns to the chow line, moving more slowly with the boat having added a side-to-side motion to the rising and dipping. His buddies have shuffled toward the oily reek of the machine shop.
“Follow me,” Hesh says. “If anybody asks, we’re on urgent business.”
Minutes later they’re eating.
Nick says with admiration, “Hesh, you’re a fucken evil genius.”
Hesh blushes with pride, feeling like Columbus on the edge of the New World, a continent of goldbricking opening to him.
Metzger swallows his Spam. “Yeah, but what’s the urgent business?”
Before Hesh can formulate a wiseass response, the ship shudders, tipping, and they hear the resonant slap of a wave against the hull as if against their own eardrums. Trays leap over the table edges and clatter to the floor. The ship rights herself with violence. Metzger holds up one finger and says, “Wait.” He looks down and sprays pink chunks.
They help Metzger back to his rack. Nick is fit as a fiddle, and Hesh is fine really—until the next meal. They call it the captain’s dinner, a greasy oversized turkey leg supposedly in celebration of the meridian. The tilting has intensified, waves slamming the hull. A violent diagonal drop. Hesh’s tray slides away and slides back coated with another guy’s puke. He claps his hand over his own mouth and falls toward the trash can with vomit bursting through his fingers.
“Thar she blows,” Nick says.
Within hours the ship is a floating factory of puke. There is puke pooled in the scuttlebutt when Hesh tries to rinse his mouth. When he drags himself to the head, there is puke in the trough, and when he washes his face at the sink puke clogs the drains. The shower stalls are finally open but painted with puke. It is worse in the compartments, where the acidic smell fills the space like poison gas. The NCOs bring in barrels that within hours are half-full of vile fluids. Men sit with their backs against bulkheads heaving into their helmet liners. Hesh is in his rack retching up strings of foul mucus.
A man has a fit, screaming, “I’ll fucking kill you,” as he is wrestled down the shifting passageway by MPs, his face scarlet and smeared. Hesh thinks maybe it’s the guy who tried to take Nick’s rack.
Another man thuds to the deck.
“Jesus fuck. I think broke my arm.”
“Go to sick bay,” somebody says.
“I think I broke my leg too.”
Hesh would help but his own innards are gripped by a vicious fist. He clutches the Hebrew Bible to his chest as the ship follows a monstrous pattern: a slow steady rise like the Cyclone mounting, on the crest for a terrifying second of suspension, then a helpless plummet that surely will end in death until the hull hits the water in a massive thud. Repeat. Hesh almost cries out in terror when the pattern adds a high grinding roar followed by an insane malevolent shuddering. Maybe he did cry out because Metzger says, “It’s okay Marx. That’s just the screws coming out of the water. It’s normal.”
Normal? Nothing about this is fucking normal. The vomit sloshes over the barrel’s edge to the floor to mix with the seawater sluicing through the vents, creating a shallow tide of puke synchronized to the tilting of the ship. The nausea painful beyond imagining. Hesh asking himself what if he died here, if his father would bother with shiva. If his mother, whom he hasn’t seen in six years, would come to the funeral. If his half-brother would even notice.
Nick appears with a bandanna tied over his mouth. He’s got crackers and metal cup of water. “Listen, the swabbies say it’s a typhoon. It’s gonna be rough but we’ll make it.”
Among the moaning and sobs, Hesh hears a squelching and the stench takes on a sharper gradation. Christ, somebody is shitting himself. Hesh grips the bedframe, swimming in nausea, his own asshole desperately clenched. He remains this way for—an hour? A day?—until they are ordered topside in shifts. Nick pretty much pulls Hesh the whole way up by his collar: “Christ pal you smell worse than the Gowanus.” The sky is a bruised dome above a shifting mountain chain of water. Hesh hangs on to a pipe riveted to a bulkhead as the ship plunges into a white-veined valley. Rain pelts his face. A captain with a megaphone stands between two merchant marines wielding brass nozzles. It is astonishing that there are men capable of doing their duty. The captain shouts, “Drop your drawers.”
Three hundred men fumble at their buttons. To balance they clutch at piping, bolts, whatever will prevent them from tumbling into a bulkhead or guardrail. The red deck is smeared with rivulets of puke, dots and dashes of fecal Morse Code. Hesh is crapping, eyes leaking with shame and relief. Something bounces off his forehead. A roll of toilet paper. A merchant marine is throwing toilet paper rolls like Charlie Connerly. The merchant marines with hoses spray the men with seawater, the streams pushing the filth and soiled paper overboard. As the ship drops into a trough, Hesh clings to a pipe while Metzger pratfalls to the deck. Nick is visible with one arm wrapped around a railing, the other hand wiping at tears. Hesh believes they’re tears of sympathy until he understands that Nick is laughing at Metzger, at the whole tableau, like it’s the funniest fucking thing he’s ever seen.
He helps Hesh, dripping and shivering, back to his rack. Then Metzger.
Reveille crackling on the squawk box. GIs, griping, pull on their boots. Hesh in his rack turns to Nick: “What day is it?”
“It’s Sunday, soldier.”
“We’re over the Date Line. We lost a day.”
“So no shellback ceremony. You sad, Metzger?”
“I just thought it’d be nice for you guys.”
Hesh descends weakly grasping Nick’s shoulder, dresses, everything suddenly big on him. He taps one pocket to make sure he’s got his Bible.
Metzger is like their act of charity. They don’t seek his opinion on anything but they don’t ignore him. He follows them to chow fairly glowing at being included. The clipboard gag works again but they needn’t have bothered with so many still recovering from seasickness. Hesh himself feels like a rung-out shmata but he could eat. He has a slice of spongy bread, a little coffee.
Metzger with his apple-shaped head and pencil mustache. He says, “Who’s coming to chapel with me?”
Nick is salting his powdered eggs. “Not me. And he’s a Jew.”
Metzger says, “No kidding? I always wanted to know. What do you Jewish fellas do on Christmas?”
“We eat Chinese food.”
Metzger is thinking.
Nick says, “He’s trying to remember if there’s anything in the Old Testament about chop suey.”
“Can I ask you one more question?”
“What do Jews do on Easter?”
“Oh I know,” Nick says. “They hide.”
Topside it’s sunburn hot. Flying fish skitter on their tailfins, torque upward to graceful soaring arc and plunge. Some bird with a freakish black wingspan snaps a flying fish mid-leap in its slim beak. A lesson in the way of the world, as if he needs one.
They are in the Eastern Hemisphere. The fact of it is hard to assimilate. But as the seas quieted the men have returned to themselves, or a version of themselves, and the duty officers restored order to the violated compartments. Yesterday the men were directed to bundle their filth-encrusted uniforms into netting bags that were lowered to the water while they waited weak and listless in their skivvies. The uniforms came up stiff with salt but clean. Hesh himself feels mostly like a person again although he is aware of his own aching abdominals. He winces recalling the force of the puking. He remembers how Nick brought water, saltines.
“Hey thanks,” Hesh says.
“For you know. Being a pal.”
Nick with his eyes on his Tijuana Bible: Popeye getting sucked off by Olive Oyl. Well blow me down, Popeye says.
Hesh lights a smoke. It makes him dizzy so he flicks it overboard. The thing that needs making sense of is not the seasickness. What do you expect in a typhoon? No, the thing that needs making sense of is how so few people actually gave a shit. Okay, Hesh is used to people not giving a shit about him, but this was on a cosmic scale. What do you do against the indifference of the Army, the sky, the sea?
Hesh looks at Nick concentrating on his meat comics. Here’s a guy who doesn’t even try to make sense of anything, which definitely makes him a happier person.
That evening at dusk porpoises trail the ship. In darkness, the sky has a striking depth of stars and on the water bioluminescent creatures glow neon blue. (A prayer recalled from Hebrew school: thank you Lord for enabling us to reach this occasion.) In the morning, when the men are assemble for inspection there is a tinge of soil in the air, gulls circling. After so many anguished moments of boredom and illness the hours are accelerating: the next day they’re back on C-deck polishing rifles and boots, checking their gear. A sergeant comes around, the lanky southerner.
“Listen boys. Tomorrow you take your pack and your weapon. You leave your barracks bags. You’ll get a chit, but rest assured you will never see them again. If you got civvies make a pile for refugees.” He points at Hesh. “Tomorrow you’re with me.”
“You heard me.”
Nick looks at Hesh, eyebrows raised to ask, What was that about?
Hesh shrugs, conveying, Beats me.
Metzger messaging with puppy dog eyes: Whatever happens fellas take me with you.
With an unlit cigar between his teeth Anderson climbs the ladder to the NCO quarters on B-deck. (He knows that the gruff cigar-chomping sergeant is a cliché, but certain clichés are worth preserving.) He first noticed the Jew private with the ironic name of Marx at a lifeboat drill, the only enlisted man without his thumb in his ass. Later he saw Marx using a clipboard to cut the chow line, the clever SOB. Then when the overeager second looey had the men shooting at clay pigeons, something about Marx’s face indicated that he was wised-up about the stupidity of it. Through hard experience Sergeant Anderson has learned that you can’t predict how men will behave under fire. But he knows that life is better with a man like Marx in your unit, an intelligent scrounger who follows orders.
It is morning again, and Hesh is anxious in the moist compartment, laden with helmet, rifle, and pack made heavier by pilfered spoons and smuggled booze. Ordered topside, they climb through the hatch gulping the fresh air with gratitude. Fishing vessels float in the sun among coins of light like a picture out of an Oriental history book. The sharp mountainous outline of the mainland ahead, portside an island of jutting rock with one wrecked powderblackened structure at its apex. Hesh gawking, tensing to conceal his fear. Nick silent and supine on a pile of Mae Wests, his face closed, concentrating on some inward question.
At noon the cooks thrust sandwiches through the portholes as the General Darby steams toward a burnt matchstick city with greasy black smoke billowing from multiple conflagrations. In the port there is an American destroyer, Royal Navy craft, a French ship. A half-dozen brick-like landing craft, their lifted ramps like an underbite, approaching the troopship.
Sergeant Anderson pushes through the helmeted crowd, half a head taller than anybody. He has that quiet authority that makes you want to do things for him, in this case make space at the rail. Or not pester him with questions, such as, Sarge, what the fuck you want from me? There’s music on the squawk box: If I Knew You Were Comin’ I’d’ve Baked a Cake.
Hesh says, “Hey Nick you got music. Jesus, what’s that smell?”
A stench on the wind, like bitter exploded ordnance mixed with eyewatering filth.
“That’s shit,” Sergeant Anderson says. “They use they own shit for fertilizer.”
Metzger says, “Their own shit? That’s…that’s uncivilized.”
“Nah,” says Anderson. “They just poor.”
Hesh’s eyes burn, and that sandwich isn’t sitting well, and he flinches at the sudden blast of two Corsairs with Navy markings screaming overhead, their gull wing silhouettes disappearing over mainland ridges. Go get em, some asshole shouts. Another asshole singing howdyadoo howdyadoo howdyadoo. Nick’s face blank, Metzger on the verge of tears. Only the sergeant seems calm, sparking a cigar with his Zippo. As for Hesh, his stomach twitches and flutters, and he’s thinking that this troopship, for all its boredom and discomfort, was actually a respite, and that something unimaginably terrible awaits him in Korea.
“Troopship” was originally published in the print-only Spring/Summer 2020 issue of Newtown Literary.
Photo: Hanson A. Williams
©2020 Gordon Haber