HERITAGE

That was the story Junior told Bowmar. The facts were laid before the Major. At first the Major attempted to settle the issue simply by talking with Shiller. Seakle, joining the discussion, sided with Shiller.

"A guy has a right to do whatever he wants with his share of the food," Seakle asserted. "Even if he wants to throw it away."

"Now you know that isnít right," the Major told him. "We canít waste food, or deprive one for the benefit of another. Have you people completely forgotten weíre military men?"

"Itís different here," Seakle said. "Weíre prisoners. Here itís a matter of survival—survival of the fittest."

"Itís not different," the Majorís voice was grim. "Except to make it even more important that we maintain discipline now that weíre prisoners. If itís a matter of survival of the fittest, as you say, how about the fellow over there? The one with an arm and some of his toes gone? Perhaps you figure he isnít quite as fit as you. Maybe youíd like to have his share of the meat?"

"If he wanted to trade it off, I canít see where thereíd be anything wrong in it," Seakle said in reply.

"Well, I can," the Major said. "No man in his right mind would be trading off something that important to him. Junior doesnít realize the importance of those few pieces of fat pork. I donít like the idea of having to pull rank in a situation like this, but—"

"Well, if you are going to pull rank," Shiller said, "why donít you do it with the Chinese? Go to them and demand better food for everybody."

"You know damn well what would happen if he did that," Pete said. Pete had come up to the discussion when he saw Seakle entering into it. "Iíve known you quite a while as a prisoner, Mr. Shiller. Youíre the most selfish man Iíve met in my whole life!"

Shiller didnít answer Pete directly, but fell back on a dodge common to his type. "Major, I donít think an enlisted man should be in on this discussion."

"Obviously you donít think an enlisted man should have a right to anything," Pete said angrily before the Major could answer. "Not even to his own food, if you can gyp him out of it."

"Thatís what weíre arguing for," Seakle interjected. "That any- body has a right to do what he wants with his food."

"Even throw it away, huh?" Pete snorted. "So it doesnít do anyone any good."

"That was only a figure of speech," Seakle argued. As usual, Shiller had someone speaking his words for him. Seakle, without being aware of it, often served Shiller in such manner. It was a credit to Shillerís shrewdness.

"Thatís what itís all about," Seakle continued. "Give everybody his rights, aní keep other people from trying to dictate Juniorís affairs. Heís got rights too."

"So people like you two can take advantage of his condition and cheat him out of things he needs most," Pete said hotly to Seakle. Then to Shiller—"Shiller, you rotten, no good—!"

"Hold it!" the Major commanded. He stopped Pete to keep him from saying something in anger that would give the two officers grounds for further complaint. Seakle and Shiller would be quick to seize any opportunity to change the subject, but Pete had served a good purpose in bringing things out in the open, where the Major could deal with them.

"All right," the Major said after some reflection. "Iíd hoped I wouldnít have to assert my rank so openly. I donít relish the thought of going back to solitary, which Iím sure I will if the chinks suspect what Iím going to do.

"Pete," he continued, "take a check outside to see if any of the Chinese are snooping around. Give me a sign if itís clear and keep watch while I make a short announcement."

"Yes, sir." Pete moved away to comply. The Major turned away from Seakle and Shiller and waited for Peteís signal. Then he quietly called for the attention of the other prisoners. "I want to make a brief announcement," he told them. "I find it necessary in the interests of order and discipline to assert my authority as senior officer of this group. Because the enemy is alert to any signs of organization amongst ourselves, they must not learn of this. I would ask everybody to keep in mind their continued obligation to service and country.

"Specific orders regarding matters involving the group or indi- viduals will be given only when it seems absolutely necessary in the best interests of the group as a whole. Orders or instructions emanating from me as the senior officer will be given either by announcement such as this, or through men designated by me. I will consult whomever I feel is most competent on a matter, regardless of rank. Anyone not understanding an instruction, or disagreeing can discuss it first with the designated man in his squad. Then if he is not satisfied, he is free to bring the matter to me. Let me remind you once more, every precaution must be taken to prevent the enemy learning of these arrangements.

"Right now, I have one order to issue," the Major concluded. "There will be no trading of foodóthose items which it is necessary to ration out. If anyone doesnít want his share for any reason, it will be left in the bucket to be divided among those who do."

"Does that mean we canít trade our sugar for tobacco and things like that?" someone asked.

"Iím speaking only of the food that comes from the kitchen at meal time," the Major replied. "The sugar and tobacco rations are personal issue. Any more questions will have to be handled in the manner I just described. I donít want to hold the floor any longer than absolutely necessary. Peters and Bowmar are hereby desig- nated as the men to handle this matter in their respective squads. Iím sure they can handle most of your questions."

So it was done. Constant watch was necessary to keep such things from the snooping chinamen. Beyond maximum care in that regard, the Major could only hope there was no "rat" among the prisoners. As it turned out, that was too much to hope for. Later on, one of the prisoners who declared he "didnít have to take orders from nobody" threatened the security of the group. The Major tried to set him right, and the fellow ratted. The Major went back to solitary, where he stayed until the war was over. But the system and the spirit of what he stood for remained in enough of the prisoners to keep it going.

Hack, Frye, and a couple others were disturbed by the Majorís order. They took it as a personal affront to themselves, because they had been in the habit of exchanging food sometimes within their own small group. Hack told the others he was certain the order was directed at them "just because some of the others were jealous of our gang." Seeing the small group of enlisted men griping among themselves, Shiller edged over near them.

"Heís got authority as senior officer," Hack was saying, "but I donít see where that gives him the right—" Hack noticed the lieutenant beside him. "How about that, Shiller? Has the Major got the right to say what a guy does with his chow?"

"Well," Shiller said carefully, "he has the right to give orders, of course, because he has the rank. It does seem to me he might be overstepping his authority a bit here, however." The lieutenant paused for a moment, then went on to say: "I suppose he feels heís doing the right thing. But you must consider that heís not really a military man. Heís a reserve."

Shiller left it hanging there. Since he was himself a "regular," a career man, he implied that he was better qualified than the Major in such matters. Shiller drifted away.

"By god, I donít think we have to stand for it!" Hack said. "Even if he has the rank, when it comes right down to it, heís a civilian, not a military man. Probably ainít been in the service much longer than most of us. He ainít really no more qualified to make decisions on this stuff than we are. Itís a cinch he hasnít been a prisoner as long as I have. I think those meetinís and votiní on things, like the chinks said, are a good deal for this kinda stuff. Everybody oughta have equal—"

"I donít know," Frye was dubious, "heís a major."

"Hell, you heard what Shiller said! Maybe Shillerís only lieutenant, but heís a career officer—been to school and studied stuff like this, besides beiní actually in the service. Betcha he knows more about regulations and stuff than that majoríll ever know."

"What can we do, anyhow?" Frye asked. "Itís an order, aní heís got the right to give it. We canít go squawking to the chinks about it."

"Times like this makes a guy feel like it," Hack said.

"Letís ask Pete about it," Frye suggested.

"Why ask him? Heíll just go along with what the Major said."

"If he does, heíll tell us why." Frye started over to see Pete. Hack followed, though he preferred not to ask Peters. Hack knew from experience that Pete was very apt to show them where their thinking was wrong, and he didnít want to be shown. Frye asked Pete. Pete tried to explain, but immediately encountered opposition from Hack.

"Just beiní heís a major donít mean nothiní," Hack said after some argument. Heís been a civilian ever since the last war and just called back in for this one. He ainít no military man, really. Thereís guys here know more about a lot of military stuff than he doesó some of the regular officers and guys like you, Pete, and Sergeant Wolfe—fellas that have been in a long time."

"Part of what makes a good senior officer is being able to pick out whoís best qualified to advise on details he doesnít know so much about. The Major knows that; thatís why he said heíd consult whoever he felt was qualified, regardless of rank."

"Sure, but take a guy like Shiller—" Hack began.

"What about Shiller?" Pete was aroused.

"Well, heís a career officer. He knows about—"

"Has he been talkiní to you guys?" Pete demanded with fire in his eyes.

Hack didnít answer. He didnít want to reveal where heíd got the idea about the Major being unqualified.

Frye spoke up. "Yeah, he was talkiní to us jusí a while ago. He didnít say nothiní against the Major; only that heís a reserve an—

"That rotten sun-uva-bitch!" Pete exploded. "Itís on accounta him—" He paused, reflecting for a moment. "Donít you guys know why the Major put out that order about no swappiní of food?"

"Well," Frye replied, "we figured maybe somebody saw us swappiní among ourselves and squawked about it, so the Major put out the order."

"For chrisí sake," Pete told him. "That ainít it at all. Itís on account of that damn Shiller horse-tradiní Junior out of his meat."

"Itís a fellaís own business if he wants to swap," Hack interjected.

"Not with Junior, it isnít," Pete said. "Not when he trades off stuff that might make the difference between life and death for him. You guys know his condition, how his mind is confused at times."

"He was gettiní somethiní in trade," Hack persisted. "Tobacco ainít gonna keep him alive," Pete said. "Use your head a little bit."

"Thatís still no reason everyone has to suffer," Hack insisted. "No cause for an order affectiní us."

"Ainít nobody sufferiní from that order except a dirty rat thatís williní to kill somebody else to save his own rotten skin. Aní you canít have rules for just some," Pete reminded him. "The army donít work that way, and canít work that way. If you guys want to be sore at somebody for this, Shillerís your boy. Heís the cause of the whole thing, aní now the smart bastardís got you guys doiní his bitchiní for Ďim. How goddam thick can you be?"

"Iíll be damned," Frye said.

"The sneaky bastard," said one of the others.

Hack said nothing. Heíd known that, at least partially, all along. Slyly heíd been getting somewhat the better of the other members of his clique in their food-swapping arrangement. He had real reason to feel that perhaps the order was directed at him, too.

Shiller hadnít done so well after that. More people made it clear to him by action, if not words, that they werenít particularly anxious to associate with him. His veneer of self-esteem and air of superiority were not always enough to hold up his spirits. He found life with his inferiors less and less bearable.

Some time after, Shiller heard that another prisoner had been propositioned by the enemy to "work for peace." "Working for peace," the enemyís term, might mean most anything in the enemyís interest. Of course, they also used the term when they set someone to slave labor. But in this case they wanted some sort of voluntary endeavor. It may have been writing articles for the camp propaganda sheet, or for communist publications elsewhere. One thing was certain—it was for something of benefit to the communists.

There were to be rewards, of course—usually better food, tailor- made cigarettes, and other luxuries. Earlier in the war many volunteers were acquired through such inducement. But living conditions had improved. Armistice negotiations had been resumed, and the enemy was providing much better food for prisoners in general.

But Shiller was interested. He questioned the other prisoner about the proposition. Shiller wanted to know if the Chinese had said whether or not the work was somewhere away from the camp.

"I wasnít interested enough to ask," the other said wonderingly. "Why?"

"Iíd just like to know," Shiller told him. "If itís away from the camp, I wouldnít mind going."

"Are you kiddiní?"

"No," Shiller said. "You make out all right if youíre off somewhere by yourself. You get better food, and more freedom. If they ask you about it again, howís to find out and let me know, will you?"

The other prisoner turned away without answering.

 

Recalling all this, Sergeant Wolfe glanced again at Shiller seated beside him: "Blame the faults, not the actors of them"—a noble thought, but a bit difficult for mortal man. Still, whether one could find it in his heart to be forgiving of Shiller, the idea had at least an academic appeal. He found himself wondering if this was an exceptional case of little importance or if Shiller had given way to a common but normally unnoticed fault in character, brought into view by the extenuating circumstance of prison life.

Shiller had professed deep religious belief. He knew the rituals of his faith well. He came from a good family. His father, success- ful in his own right, could provide well for his family. There was financial security and opportunity for education for Shiller.

Maybe he had too much of all these things, too easily. As a child, Shiller shared the prestige and privilege of his fatherís success. Fatherís influence had paved the way for a commission in the service. Eating the fruits of his fatherís effort, perhaps Shiller came to accept them as a birthright, and never felt the need or desire to prove himself worthy of them. Finding everything provided, he never knew the greater pleasure of working toward a goal and achieving it by his own labor.

How many men have said as they looked down at a newborn son: "Iím going to give him all the things I didnít have as a boy"? And how many times, when by fruit of labor they were able to do just that, have these same fathers failed to provide those intangible qualities and opportunities for development that had brought about success in themselves?

There is a spectre that haunts every heirdom. In the passing of lineage down through the years, one small slip can ruin the heritage of centuries. No matter how great the family name and tradition, let one father neglect to instill in his children the desire to prove their worth, and the house his sires built may crumble into nothingness.

If it werenít for despising him so much, Sergeant Wolfe might have felt sorry for Shiller. His father had given him everything, it seemed—except the chance to be a man.






© 2002, 2003 by Lynn Waterman; used by permission of the author, Duane Thorin.