Fryeís morale rose and fell with changes in the outlook of the peace negotiations. Quite a few of the young men were like tható happy and gay if the "news" was good, morose and sullen when it was bad. The enemy used the impatience of youth for their own ends.
Tsai, the "congenial little chinaman," often read the "news" to the prisoners. Sergeant Wolfe thought of Tsai as the "congenial chinaman" because so many of the prisoners were taken in by the little fellowís friendly approach. Tsai spoke English quite well, had a keen, perceptive mind, and usually a ready answer. When- ever he entered the compound he was surrounded by prisoners asking questions, pouring out their troubles, even seeking conso- lation from him, as though the little chinaman were their father confessor. And, of course, Tsai took full advantage of them. On one occasion he entertained a prisoner for several hours, serving wine and talking. The American returned quite elated, partly by the wine, but also by what he termed "a pleasant evening, chatting with Tsai." Others in the group were not so pleased. They wondered what subjects Tsai had chatted about with the wine-soaked prisoner.
The "news" Tsai brought of the peace talks was usually at least a couple of months old. There was a reason for this, the little china- man explained: "We donít give news right away because if good news everybody have high hope. Maybe later bad news and everybody sad. We do not want you be unhappy."
Now that seemed quite considerate of the prisonersí morale; and it wasbut not for the prisonersí benefit. There were several reasons for the delay in giving news to the prisoners. For one thing, it required some time to twist facts around to indicate that the United Nations, America, and South Korea, in particular, were holding up the negotiations instead of the communists. For an- other, in their concern for the prisonersí morale, the communists had hit upon a shrewd strategy: lift morale with good news, then drop it with the bad. Disappointed minds were much more sus- ceptible to propaganda.
A young fellow like Frye, lacking education and experience, might not see through the subtle tactics; but others, older ones who should have had the knowledge required, often were too concerned with their own petty selves to look beneath the surface of the communist "news." Such a one was Seakle, a milquetoast sort of fellowa tailor-made example substantiating the commu- nist assertion that "Americans are soft, weak, lazy and selfish!"
"I see no reason in the world," Seakle complained, "why we should insist on this Ďvoluntary repatriation."
"There could be lots of reasons," Emmett said.
"Like what?" Seakle asked. "Name one."
"Like trying to make sure all of us get repatriated."
"Thatís not what theyíre arguing about," Seakle said. "Theyíre arguing so some of the communist prisoners we hold wonít have to come back to this side."
"Well, it all ties together," Emmett said. "Plus the fact we have no way of knowing whatís actually being discussed. We can be sure the chinks arenít giving us the straight word on whatís going on."
"Well, the news looks pretty straight to me," Seakle returned. "What reason could there be for them not to give us the straight news about that?"
"Since when does a communist need any reason for lying?" asked Emmett in disgust, as much for Seakle as for the communists.
The communists made a great play when the peace talks were discontinued. In the many pages of "news" that Tsai read off was included the classic statement: "The UNís unilateral decision to break off negotiations for peaceful settlement of the Korean War has proven conclusively to all the peace-loving peoples of the world that the UN is the aggressor in Korea and was never sincere in trying to negotiate an armistice!"
"We havenít a chance," Seakle whined, "with the peace talks broken off."
"I figure we got a better chance now than while they were on," Pete commented.
"Yeahvery funny," Seakle said cynically. "Very funny."
"Not funny at all," Pete said. "I mean it. I figure the fact theyíve broken off negotiations could mean the US is tired of fooling around and decided to go ahead and win the war."
"Hmph!" Seakle snorted. "A war with China could drag on for years, like the Hundred Yearsí War. That wouldnít bother China theyíre accustomed to war. Probably thatís what they want. Theyíve had war going on somewhere in China for centuries. Itís very few times they havenít had a war of some sort going on in China."
"Well," Emmett chuckled, "at least theyíve stopped fighting once in a while. They never have stopped talking."
"I still think there was some chance as long as the talks were on," Seakle persisted. "But I donít have any hopes now of it ending so it will do us any good. What hurts most is being sold down the river by your own country for a bunch of gooks."
"What do you mean by that?"
"The only point they were arguing on was exchange of prisoners. Everything else was settled."
"How do you know thatís the only point?"
"And you figure it isnít at all likely the chinks are giving us bum dope, hmm?í
"Well, of course they could be," Seakle admitted. "But from what we know that was the only point."
"Even if it is," Emmett said, "how do you figure weíve been sold down the river?"
"Because," Seakle replied, "theyíre only arguing to keep a few chinks down there that our side has captured."
"Quite a few thousand," Emmett corrected.
"I donít care if itís a million," Seakle declared, "I donít think itís right even if there was only one American prisoner."
"Especially if that one happened to be you," Pete jibed. He was disturbed at the effect of Seakleís gripes on other prisoners.
"Then, as I get it," Emmett interjected to prevent an issue, "you feel our negotiator should give in on any point remaining, just so you could go home."
"Why not?" Seakle asked. "This is a useless war anyway. Always has been. I donít care if they give them the whole Korean penin- sula; it isnít worth much anyway. I think the main reason it wasnít settled long ago is just pig-headedness on the part of our negoti- ators. We talk about the orientals and their Ďface-saving.í Our people are just as bad. Look at the way Admiral Joy was always walking out on the meetings. Maybe you figure you have to stick up for him because youíre Navy, but it looks to me like Joy could sit at a table for a few hours, if we can sit here on a dirt floor all day. Iíd be happy to trade places with him. Let him sit here on the floor. Iíd sit at the conference table."
"For Godís sake, man!" Emmett reasoned, "canít you even consider the problem of trying to talk with one of these bastards over a conference table? All the propaganda and stuff heíd have to sit through if he didnít walk out? All in the world you have to do is remember what youíve gone through with an interrogator or one of these commie politicos."
"He wouldnít know about that," Pete said. "The sun-uva-bitch never put up enough resistance to find out how an interrogator works. As for politicos, apparently he didnít need any indoctrina- tion."
Seakle was indignant. "Iíll have you know I followed the instructions Iíd been given in dealing with the interrogators," he said. "And if youíre accusiní me of being a collaborator And I donít like your language either; youíd best remember youíre speaking to an officer."
"Thanks for telliní me," Pete said. "Thereís certainly no other way I could tell."
The discussion ended on that note. As Seakle walked away, Pete said to Emmett, "And for a cowardly, sniveliní bastard like that, Uncle Sam pays over five hundred dollars a month."
Emmett neither agreed or disagreed. Nor did he seem concerned that Pete had technically violated certain military regulations in his demeanor toward Seakle. Even if by the book Pete had gone considerably further, perhaps one could overlook it, when he was so right in other ways.
Certainly Pete was justified in resenting Seakle. Hearing an officer griping, as Seakle did, only added to the confusion and indecision of a fellow like Frye. And Frye had problems enough as it was. His hopes hit a high peak at the tiniest bit of good news, and the bad news plummeted him to the depths of despair.
Because there were many like him, the more level heads, even when careful analysis of the news given them showed good cause for hope, found it necessary to suppress nearly all sign of elation in themselves. For the welfare of all, it was necessary to moderate the exuberance stimulated by Tsaiís "good news."
When Tsai told them the peace talks had been resumed, the problem of Frye became acute. The news was well over a month old, but that didnít dampen his enthusiasm. Tsai had painted a pretty picture of the "just and reasonable proposal" put forth by the communists. Sergeant Wolfe could envision all the strings that would be attached to the communist offer. Actually, it was encouraging news, but even so there could be plenty of pitfalls.
Frye and some of his buddies danced with joy. They slapped each other on the back and shouted, "Itís over! Itís over! Weíre going home!"
Sergeant Wolfe moved over casually. He waited an opportunity to enter the conversation without appearing too obvious. Frye gave him the chance.
"Hey, Sarge," Frye called. "Waddaya think? Wonít be long now, huh?"
"Yeah," the Sergeant said with a smile. "Looks like there might be a fair chance of them getting something done this time. It isnít likely General Clark would agree to resume the talks with these sneaky bastards unless he figured there was some chance of success." Wolfe placed his arm across Fryeís shoulders as he continued. "But I donít think weíd better count on going home right away. Even if things went smooth, it could take a couple of months or more for all the arrangements."
Frye was still dancing a little. "Thatís just it, Sarge," he said. "Itís been more than a month already, so it should be any day now!"
The smile left the Sergeantís face. "The fact that the news is old could mean something else, too. Remember lots of times theyíve brought us good news, a couple of months old. Then later we found there wasnít much to it. Weíll make it out, fella, donít worry. But itíll take a while yet."
The effect was good, it appeared. Frye calmed down and became a little serious, though still with a sparkle. "I guess youíre right," he said, smiling up at the Sergeant. "But it still looks pretty good, huh?"
The Sergeant smiled in return. It did look pretty good.
"How come heís so damn right?" Hack demanded.
The Sergeant wasnít surprised at the outburst. Hack resented Wolfe for several reasons, especially when Frye asked the Sergeant questions. Now, as the attention of the group was focused on them, Hack saw his chance to make a show. He knew Wolfe would not be involved in an argument when the enemy might be observing. Here was an excellent opportunity to prove to his clique that he wasnít afraid to argue with the Sergeant.
When Wolfe looked his way, Hack said, "I think you guys donít want the war to end, or somethiní."
"What guys?" the Sergeant asked.
"You aní Emmett aní Peteguys like that. Everí time we get some good news, you guys try to kill it. Kill-joysI guess thatís what you are. I think you just donít like to see other guys happy."
"You donít seem to think very well, Hack," the Sergeant told him. "Yeah? Well, what is it then? Whatís the reason for all this gloom stuff everí time?" Hack asked.
"If youíd really think, youíd be able to figure it out."
With Hack glaring and trying to think of some way to continue, the Sergeant turned and walked away. Further discussion would be pointless, and dangerous if the chinamen saw it.
Later that day the Sergeant chanced to find Hack alone in the hut. Wolfe stopped him when he started to leave. "Iíd like a word with you, if you can spare a minute or two."
Hack was uncomfortable; but it was better to talk with the Sergeant now. At a later time there might be others around, which could prove embarrassing. "Whatís it about?" he said apprehensively. "That argument we had this morning?"
"Well," said the Sergeant, "I didnít consider that an argument, exactly. I was just wondering if you figured out an answer to the question you asked me."
"Naw. Why should I?"
"Well, you acted as though you were really concerned about it. Apparently you werenít, so I guess then you only asked it to start an argument. Tryiní to make a big showis that it?"
"Whaddaya mean?" Hack asked evasively.
"Oh, I donít think I have to draw you a picture of that," the Sergeant said, smiling. "But I did think for a while you really were interested. Since youíre not"
"Well," Hack hedged. "I would like to know why you aní Emmett are always talkiní against any good news." Hack was feeling a little more at ease.
"Okay," the Sergeant said, "but first let me ask you a question."
"Yeah?" Hack was apprehensive again.
"How would you feel after the news we got today, if they told us tomorrow the peace talks had broken off again?"
"What makes you think thatíll happen?" Hack asked.
"Didnít say I thought it would; just asked how you would feel if it did."
Hack thought a while, then said, "It wouldnít be the first time Ií been disappointed."
"I know it," the Sergeant said, "and it really wouldnít bother you very much, would it?"
"Never has before. Why should it now?"
"How about Fryethink it would bother him?"
There was another pause for thought. Then: "Yeah, I sípose so. He takes things pretty hard sometimes."
"Remember a couple of weeks ago when he was so sick?" the Sergeant asked.
"Sure! I ought to, I helped take care of Ďim."
"Any idea why he got so sick?"
"Hell, everybody gets sick sometimes. Iíve seen you pretty sick too, Sarge."
"I mean why he got so sick when he did," the Sergeant explained. "Why at that particular time?"
"Who can tell when a guyís gonna get sick?"
"I can tell when Frye is."
"Hunh?" Hack said with disbelief. "How?"
"Yeah? Whenís he gonna get sick again, then?"
"Tomorrow, if the damn chinks come up with more bad news."
Hack frowned. "That did happen just before he got sick last time, didnít it?" he recalled. "Could somethiní like that make a guy get sick?"
"Sure could," the Sergeant told him. "Especially a fellow like Frye. Now do you see why Iím such a damn kill-joy?"
"Tí keep him from gettiní hopes too high?"
"Himand some others."
"Yeah, I guess I see what you mean. Did I foul things up buttiní in like I did?"
"You sure as hell didnít help any," the Sergeant told him. "However, youíre in a position to do him a lot of good, if you want to."
"Me?" Hack seemed surprised. "How?"
"Just remember how he is and keep him from getting his hopes too high. The higher they get, the worse it is when the bottom drops out."
"Yeah, I can see how that works." Hack thought for a moment. "I could try. Be kinda hard though, when my own hopes are so high, too."
"Itíll help keep your own from getting out of hand," the Sergeant told him. "Thatís all I had in mind."
"Guess Iíll go then, Sarge. The guys are waitiní for me to play cards." Hack moved toward the door, then turned and said: "Iím glad you explained that to me. I didnít realize. Thanks."
"Thatís okay," the Sergeant said. He busied himself with some of his belongings. Hack turned back at the door. "Sarge?"
Wolfe looked up from his bundle. "Yeah?"
"What do you really think, Sarge?" Hack was serious.
"About the peace talks?"
"Oh, I got hopes too," the Sergeant said, with an inward smile.
"Okay, Sarge!" With a big grin, Hack turned and went out the door.
"But keep it under your hat!" the Sergeant called after him. "I donít want to lose my reputation!"
Bad news came the next day, and Tsai was on hand to tell them. "Despite the just and honorable proposals for settlement made by the communist side, the UN and Syngman Rhee have refused to accept the benevolent offer and once more the hopes of all the peoples of the world for peace have been smashed by the capitalist warmongers!"
And, of course, Frye got sick again. Fact was, they nearly lost him. That they didnít was another thing he had to be thankful for. Sergeant Wolfe did have the gratification of seeing a slight change in Hackís general attitude, though the trouble-making fellow still had a long way to go to become a good soldier. Whether or not he would ever be one, depended on many things.
Sergeant Wolfe and Hack were not, and likely never would be, friends. There were too many differences. Hackís resentment of the Sergeant was ever present, even when he sought the older manís advice. Hack wanted to be a leader; certain undeveloped abilities within him demanded it. But certain inadequacies, some of them his own fault, prevented his receiving the kind of respect he sought from the members of his clique. Whenever he was reminded of the respect given Sergeant Wolfe, Hackís resentment grew.
Because he understood Hack, the Sergeant felt no personal animosity toward him. Even when Wolfe had had to handle the younger fellow a bit rough, once in stopping a fight, he had done it without malice. And, of course, the fact that the Sergeant could best him physically, as well as in other ways, didnít lessen Hackís resentment.
The Sergeant could remember his own younger days, and how he had sometimes resented older heads who drove and harassed him. But he knew he wouldnít have the self-confidence he possessed now if they hadnít done just that. Given opportunity, he could make a good soldier out of Hackwith the corporal hating his guts all the while. You didnít have to like a fellow personally to do that with him; you only had to see something in him that made it worth the effort. Yes, you could do that with a young fellowif the doting mamas and their congressmen would let you.
© 2002, 2003 by Lynn Waterman; used by permission of the author, Duane Thorin.