Officers and Men
SURVIVAL OF THE FIT
"—When you reach your homes, you must all work for peace!"
The closing line of the "Work for Peace" lecture brought Ser- geant Wolfe back to the circumstances of the moment. Strange it was, how you could completely ignore the repetitious nonsense of these communist lectures and still be brought back to reality by the ending. Out of long practice, the mind learned how to stay closed to the interminable propaganda and still remain alert for any important announcements between spiels.
At that moment, however, there was no announcement. The chinamen were conferring among themselves. A murmur of voices rose as the prisoners began conversing in low tones. Frye, still bubbling, was now sharing his enthusiasm with Lieutenant Shiller, seated beside him. Both were laughing, but it was hard to tell whether Shiller was laughing with Frye or at him. For such was Shiller’s naturean assumed superiority, a quick and well-trained mindeducation and intellect grossly wasted. He appeared con- descending toward Frye, yet in a sense the opposite was true. Of late, neither Frye nor anybody else had much to do with Shiller. Many disliked the lieutenant intensely, and with good reason.
Though the Sergeant knew the young man didn’t like the lieu- tenant personally, it didn’t seem out of the way for Frye to talk with Shiller. Perhaps in no other place could such a degree of social adaptability be attained as in the prison camp. In the face of the common enemy, bitter personal antagonism could be set aside in favor of the mutual interest—survival. That was one of the reasons Shiller was so disliked—his selfishness in the matter of survival. Another reason sat on the other side of Frye—in the person of Junior.
Junior was sitting quietly, which was unusual for him, staring at the ground before him. He was in one of his many moods, which rarely included quietness. It wasn’t just because he was young that the others called him "Junior." Sometimes he acted even younger than he was; and this caused the trouble. Junior had been terribly ill just after he was captured. That may have been the cause of his condition now. It made things more difficult for the others; but few, if any, blamed him. But he was a problem: The trouble began almost from the time they reached the camp on the Yalu
"Junior!" It was Gus calling him.
"What?" the youngster answered.
"Whose shirt you got on?"
"My own. Why?"
"No, you haven’t; you’re wearing mine."
"Huh? No, I’m not."
"Let’s have a look."
"It’s mine," Junior insisted. "How could you tell anyway? Everyone’s is the same."
"Mine’s marked. Take a look at the collar, and you’ll see."
"Somebody’s got mine then," Junior complained. "Who’s got my shirt?" he yelled.
"Never mind that," Gus said. "Just give with the shirt."
"I’m sorry, Gus," Junior said. "I musta picked up the wrong one by mistake."
"You sure did, Junior; it was a mistake to take mine."
"Well, it was a mistake. I didn’t do it on purpose. Your stuff is right next to mine. It’s easy to make a mistake like that."
"Nuts, kid. You took it off the line and left your dirty one in place of it. That’s how I knew you had it."
So Junior was caught in the act again. Often he got something by "mistake" or "borrowed" without the owner’s permission—not maliciously, but childishly. With someone like Gus, who wouldn’t think of hurting the kid, it wasn’t so bad. Some of the others were not so considerate. Junior had been slapped around a couple of times for helping himself to someone else’s tobacco. Though you couldn’t entirely blame the other fellow, still it was a bad thing to have happen.
There were other difficulties, too. Like the story-telling. They often told stories to entertain themselves. Junior had trouble with words and remembering their proper sequence, but there were those who found it amusing to get him to try to tell a story just so they could laugh at his blunders.
"How about you telling a story tonight, Junior?" Seakle would say.
"Aw, I can’t tell stories good."
"Sure you can. How about it fellows? Want a story from Junior?"
Several of Seakle’s kind would agree.
So Junior would start talking, and at first he would think they were laughing at humor in his story. Then somebody would laugh at the wrong time, and he’d get suspicious.
"I ain’t gonna tell the story if guys are gonna laugh at me."
Seakle would encourage him. "They aren’t laughing at you, Junior. It’s the story."
So Junior would continue, until it became obvious they were laughing at him. Then sometimes he’d throw a fit of temper, or else break down and cry.
The fun ended, Seakle and his friends would seek other enter- tainment. At other times they didn’t want him around at all.
"Things wouldn’t be so bad if we had this kind of chow more often," someone said, on one of the rare occasions when there was a bit of fatty pork in the soup.
"According to the Daily Worker we’re gettin’ four ounces of meat per man per day," Seakle remarked.
"Damn Daily Workercommies in the States," Junior grumbled. Seakle had been kidding with him before mealtime, and the youngster had seated himself beside his "friend."
"We do good to get that much in a month," somebody else remarked.
"I don’t think we get even that," Seakle commented.
"Don’t get four ounces a month, let alone a day," Junior added.
"Still, better than none at all," Bowmar remarked, remembering leaner days at the slave camp.
"Not much better," said Seakle, who had no such memories. The rice ration, at least, had been adequate since he was captured.
"Not much better," Junior echoed.
"If there was only a little lean meat, instead of just fat," Seakle went on complaining.
"Always fat," said Junior.
"Fat’s the best for us when there’s so little," Shiller said. "More nutrition than in the lean."
"That may be," Seakle replied. "But I just plain don’t like fat pork—not even bacon."
"Me neither," Junior said. "I don’t like fat pork. Mom never useta fix me bacon ‘cause—"
"Goddam it, Junior!" Seakle shouted. "Will you quit repeating everything I say? Who the hell asked you to sit over here anyway? Get over by your own place to eat. I don’t want you spilling stuff all over my place."
"I didn’t spill any."
"Go on! Get t’hell away from me!"
Junior was hurt. Only a few minutes before, Seakle had been joking with him. Never knowing where he stood with others was a tough problem for him. His insecurity could very well be dan- gerous, both to himself and others.
Pete, Bowmar, and Sergeant Wolfe discussed the problem the following day.
"He doesn’t stand a chance of snapping out of it with everybody yelling at him and bossing him around the way they do," Bowmar said.
"And some that are tryin’ to tell him what to do, aren’t doing any better themselves," Pete added.
"He was crying half the night last night, after the deal Seakle pulled on him." The medic slept next to Junior.
"That goddam Seakle!" Pete cursed. "You’d at least think an officer would have more sense than that. I’d like to take the sun- uva-bitch out and beat hell outta him."
"That’d get you a lot of trouble when we get back on the other side, though," Bowmar said.
"I’d take my chances on that if I could just figure a way to keep the chinks from finding out," Pete replied.
"Even if you could do it, Seakle might tell the chinks himself," the Sergeant interjected. The other two nodded agreement.
"Speaking of that," Bowmar said, "one of the chinks was talking to Junior yesterday morning at exercise time."
"Yeah, I saw that," Pete said. "Did he say anything to you about it?"
"He said they just asked him how he was getting along with the rest of the group," Bowmar replied. "He claims he just told them ‘okay."
"They just might start pumpin’ him," the Sergeant mused. "The damn chinks know the kid’s got troubles."
"I don’t think he’d tell ‘em anything," Pete said.
"Neither do I," the Sergeant agreed, "unless they trick somethin’ out of him or get to him just after these jokers here have got him all upset."
"Damn ‘em," Pete swore, "and damn Seakle, and damn that Shiller, too! He’s smart enough to know better, but won’t do any- thing to help. Fact is, I think he’s worse than the others."
"Well, I dunno," Bowmar said. "Shiller kids Junior a little, but doesn’t laugh at him like the others, or pull stuff like Seakle does. In fact I see him talkin’ real friendly with Junior lately."
"He’s a helluva lot smarter than Seakle," Pete reminded them, "and does things so it’s harder to pin him down."
"He eggs the others on in makin’ fun of him, then sympathizes with the kid," the Sergeant noted. "I think Shiller’s got somethin’ up his sleeve, but I’m damned if I can figure what it is."
"Could be," Pete agreed. "Maybe he figures the kid’ll die this winter, so he’ll befriend him now and lay claim to the belongings, like with that poor devil down at P’yang."
All three of the men sat with their thoughts for a time. Two things were especially important. First, they had to keep others from jumping on Junior and keep him from giving the others reason for doing so. Second, they had to help the youngster resist the pressure when the enemy pumped him for information about the rest of the group.
Pete did what he could on the latter problem. "How’s to give me the dope on what the chinks had to say to you the other day?" he asked Junior, when he got the chance.
"Sure, Pete." Junior was glad to have somebody to talk with him seriously. He respected Pete because Pete didn’t make fun of him. "Like I told Bowmar, they asked me how I got along with the rest of you guys."
"I got a feeling they may start working on you pretty hard for a while now, Kid. You know how they do, work on one guy a while, then another."
"Yeah," Junior agreed. "I’ been thinkin’ that myself." It was a boon to his poor ego to have even the enemy take him seriously. That was another danger.
"They’re tricky bastards, aren’t they?" Pete said, encouraging Junior to talk.
"You can say that again. Damn tricky bastards."
"Y’know," Pete said meditatively, "the best thing I’ve found when they get to askin’ me too many questions is just to clam up. Maybe I’m dumb, or somethin’, but if I let ‘em get me talkin’ I ‘most always seem to let somethin’ slip. How about you, Junior, how do you work it?"
"That’s me tooclam up!"
"Did they ask you about the time you and Hack had the fight? They’ been askin’ me how the fellas get along."
"Yeah, they asked me. I told ‘em we were just play fightin’, an’ then I got a little mad ‘cause he hit me too hard."
"Did they believe you?"
"I guess so, the dumb clucks. They didn’t ask no more about it." Pete brought the discussion to a careful ending. "We’ve sure gotta watch it close. Those bastards are always watchin’ for signs of trouble between prisoners."
"Goddam chinks! Goddam commies!"
"They want us to fight among ourselves—work one of us against the other. What do you think, Junior?"
"We gotta stick together. We’re all in it together."
"Even if we don’t like a guy" Pete prompted.
"Even if you don’t like a guy, gotta stick together. The damn commies"
"You know, Junior," Pete said softly, "your mom’s gonna be awful proud when she learns how you stood up to these commie bastards."
Junior was quiet. He felt a surge of pride because Pete had shown confidence in him. He felt homesick, too, but it wasn’t so bad when he could go to Pete to talk and be treated like a man.
After their talk, Pete wasn’t much worried about Junior spilling anything to the chinks. It turned out he was right. Not that the commies didn’t work on the kid; they didand hard. First they plied him with favors. Every day Junior was called away to head- quarters for an hour or more. Returning, he’d have a few bits of sugar candy or peanuts or "tailormades." He’d make a big show, coming in, putting on airs with a cigarette, holding and flicking it daintily.
"Butts on that!" someone would shout.
"Got any more?" Seakle would ask, very friendly now.
"C’mon divvy up," Hack would say.
"You fellas do your own collaboratin’ if you want tailormade fags," Junior would answer and laugh. He’d heard someone else make that remark once and thought it very funny.
In little huddles, some started conjecturing that maybe Junior was collaborating. Most conceded that if he let out any information it was because he didn’t know any better, but it didn’t matter how the enemy found things out. Then one day Hack and Seakle asked him about it. Before long there was a crowd of half a dozen around, all giving Junior advice.
Junior was badly disturbed by the sudden concentration. There’d been not only advice, but threats as well. Hack had said, "You tell ‘em one word about me an’ I’ll break your damn neck!"
"Lay off him!" Pete shouted into the circle. The others turned to look.
"What’s eatin’ you?" Seakle asked.
"I just say lay off Junior, that’s all. All of you!"
"What the hell?" Seakle returned. "We’re just tryin’ to help him and protect our own"
"You ain’t helpin’ a damn bit," Pete said bitterly. "Any of you."
"By god, I don’t want the stupid, crazy punk tellin’ ‘em things about me!" Hack shouted.
Bowmar caught Junior, held him, and talked to soothe him. The youngster was trembling with anger at Hack’s remark. He couldn’t have done much to vent his rage. Hack was much the stronger.
"You dumb sun-uva-bitch!" Pete grabbed Hack by the shirt as he cursed him. "If you ever say a thing like that to him again I’ll personally beat hell out of you! There isn’t a man here you’ve got the right to call ‘stupid’ or ‘punk’ except yourself!" Hack knew this was no idle threat. He said nothing and made no move to resist.
"You his father or somethin’?" Seakle sneered.
Pete looked at Seakle for a moment. Then in a quieter voice he said, "If I were to choose a son, I’d damn sure take him in prefer- ence to any of your crowd. I’ve got as much cause to worry as anybody, if Junior talks. I’ll trust him not to give the chinks what they’re after. That’s more than I can say for you, Loo-tennant!"
Off to the side, somewhat calmed by Bowmar, Junior was talking with Shiller.
"Sure you’re right, Junior," Shiller said soothingly.
"But just forget it now. No use worrying about it."
"But he the same as called me a collaborator," Junior said.
"Well, just forget it. You know he’s not so bright, and an old sorehead to boot. C’mon, tell your old uncle what happened today with the chinks."
He quieted the youngster and got his mind off the argument with Hack. As Junior began telling what happened, Shiller appeared to be listening intently. When the youngster paused for a moment, the lieutenant brought out tobacco and paper.
"What happened next?" Shiller asked. "You keep talkin’; I’ll roll us a couple of cigarettes. Unless"as though the thought had just occurred to him"you happen to have a couple of tailormades left."
"Yeah, I have. Wait a minute." Junior reached in his pocket and looking down sawtwo cigarettes. Holding them in his hand, the youngster paused for a moment, then shrugged his shoulders and handed one to Shiller.
"Thank you, Junior ol’ boy. Your ol’ uncle doesn’t forget favors y’know." Shiller struck a match, lighted Junior’s cigarette, and then his own. They talked idly as they smoked. Junior wanted to continue his story; it felt good to tell it.
"Hey! I almost forgot" Shiller got up as he spoke. "I’ll have to ask you to excuse me now, gotta scrub some clothes. Want to see you later though, boy, and hear the rest of your story."
"Okay, ‘Unc." The thought of calling Shiller "uncle" appealed to Junior and canceled out the disappointment he felt at ending of the discussion. He savored the thought: "Ol’ Unc’, good ol’ Uncle Shill’."
Afterwards, Junior sought out Peters. It was routine to report to Pete after a session with the chinks. While they talked over together what had happened at headquarters that day, Pete brought out his tobacco.
"Wait a minute, Pete, I brou" Junior’s hand went to his pocket before he remembered he didn’t have any more cigarettes. He’d intended the one he gave Shiller to be for Pete. "Oh, no, I forgot. I don’t either have one for you. I’m sorry, Pete."
"That’s okay," Pete said, as he went on with his rolling. He chuckled, "What’s the matter, Kid? Did you run out of secrets?"
"Yeah." Junior laughed. "I ran out of secrets and couldn’t get any more cigarettes. Can’t get ‘seegarettes’ without ‘see-crets’!"
They talked on. After a time, Pete brought out his tobacco again.
"Pete?" Junior sounded worried.
"I did have a tailormade for you, Pete, but I gave it away."
"Doesn’t matter, Kid," Pete said as he licked the paper. Idly he asked, "Who’d you give it to? If I’m not bein’ too nosey?"
"I gave it to Shto ‘Unc’!" Junior chuckled, thinking of the nickname Shiller had created.
"Now, who in the hell is ‘Unc’?"
"Shiller," Junior explained. "Ol’ Uncle Shill’."
"Oh." Pete’s gentleness belied his concern. Now it did matter who got the cigarette. He listened meditatively as Junior related the way he came to call Shiller "Unc." Pete pondered the matter, wondering what sort of plan Shiller was working on. One thing sureit was something for the benefit of Shiller.
The next day, Junior was taken to headquarters again, right after breakfast. At lunch time he didn’t return. One of the chinks came and took Junior’s bowl and cup. It didn’t look good at all.
Just before supper, he reappeared. There was no jauntiness this time. His shoulders were slumped, and he wasn’t waving any tailormades. He ignored the questions and remarks of the few who noticed him return and went directly to Pete. Seeing the youngster was troubled, Pete put an arm across his shoulders and led him aside. They sat down in the corner on the straw mat, Junior’s back to the room. Pete sat close, talking softly.
Shiller didn’t see Junior come in, but he did notice him sitting with Pete. The lieutenant got up and with elaborate casualness moved toward the corner. Pete only had time to look up, when Shiller spoke. "Well, Junior, when did you—" He stopped short as he caught a glimpse of Junior’s red-rimmed eyes, when the youngster looked up at him. Junior dropped his face back down into his hands. His thin, slumped shoulders jerked with the effort he made to stop his silent sobbing. Shiller caught Pete’s glare. It is doubtful if he read all that was contained therein, but he mumbled an apology for intruding and moved hastily away. Shiller had come over for his tailormades.
But there were more important things for Pete to think about at the moment. Gently, he encouraged Junior to come out with it. There hadn’t been any cigarettes this time, nor anything else nice. When the Chinese started to pump Junior, he told them he wouldn’t talk, so they decided to use pressure. They didn’t beat himnothing so simple as that. They put him in a room by himself for a couple of hours. At lunch time they took his food to him. They let him eat alone. Then they came back and told him it would be that way from now on, if he didn’t answer their questions about everyone in the group, and do whatever else they told him.
Junior couldn’t remember much of what happened after that. He thought maybe he cursed them, but he didn’t know for sure. He couldn’t even remember just how he got back to the group, whether one of the chinamen had brought him, or whether they’d just let him come back alone. Nothing was clear until he found himself sitting in this corner with Pete, crying.
Pete thought he knew what happened. When the chinks came back after leaving him alone through lunch, they had expected to find a weak, dispirited animal ready to crawl at their command. Instead, at their first words, Junior flew into a rage. He blew up in arguments with the other prisoners; why not with the chinks? Possibly he beat at them with his fists, but Junior couldn’t hurt anyone. There wasn’t any sign of injury on him, but it would have been easy for them to restrain the poor little guy, weak as he was.
"I’m sorry, Pete," Junior sobbed. "I can’t keep from cryin’."
"Let it go, kid. Let it go."
"The guys’ll think I’m a baby."
"First one says anything gets his teeth knocked in."
"Am I a baby for cryin’, Pete?"
"You’re a man, son. Ain’t nobody can be more of a man than you’ been today!"
© 2002, 2003 by Lynn Waterman; used by permission of the author, Duane Thorin.