FIGHTINí MAN

The mere fact a fellow was still alive was not proof he had withstood the test of survival. Some just hadnít been put to it. Had the hostilities lasted another winter there were many who wouldnít have survived. The food situation improved tremendously in the last several months, when the commies figured it was going to end. If something had happened contrary to their expectations, you could bet theyíd have found some excuse for cutting down on the prisonersí diet again. If that had happened, a lot of finicky, picayunish characters would have gone under. People like Seakle, for instance.

If the commies sought "example" to substantiate their propa- ganda describing Americans as soft, cowardly weaklings, that one was made to order for them. Heíd been part of a plane crew on a night mission. Having bailed out, he came down in darkness, undetected by the enemy. He knew fairly well where he was and hadnít more than twenty-five or thirty miles to go to reach the coast and a good chance for safety. It wasnít much farther to the lines, if he preferred to try it that way. But he didnít even try to evade capture—simply bundled himself in his parachute until daylight, then walked to the nearest settlement to surrender.

There were generally no extensive labor details for the prisoners from the middle of 1952 on. But there were routine assignments of duties, such as carrying of water and sanitation chores, rotated. among the prisoners. Not much of a one for physical exertion, Seakle found ways of "hiring" more industrious persons to fulfill such duties for him. Sometimes he paid with commodities at hand; at other times, with IOUís payable after repatriation. Some people made similar arrangements because they were busy with truly important matters. But the likes of Seakle—and he wasnít an isolated case—did so because they were lazy. Other than that, sometimes it was because they considered it beneath them to assist in menial tasks.

Seakleís attitude toward the food and the men who worked to prepare it was typical of the man. Once in a while he remembered to speak a good word to or about the cooks, if their efforts particularly pleased him. He didnít have to "remember" to complain, however—"bitching" was part of his nature.

"I donít see why," he complained, "they canít at least get this stuff clean before they put it in the soup." Others seated near him looked up. He was indicating a cube of fat pork that had a bristle projecting from it. Emmett was seated beside him.

"Whatís the trouble?" Emmett asked.

"Look at that piece of pork," Seakle pointed.

"ĎWell?"

"Well, do you think itís right?"

"Itís just as big as the one I got," Emmett said. He knew well enough Seakle wasnít talling about its size.

"I mean that bristle in it."

"Looks like a pretty good one," Emmett said, "but I donít know offhand what a fellow could use it for."

Somebody snickered.

"I donít think itís a joking matter," Seakle complained. "Itís revolting to have something like that in your food. Hard enough to keep an appetite for this slop we get anyway."

Emmett was irritated. Like most of the others, he appreciated the efforts of the men working in the kitchen and the handicaps they were under. He wanted to suggest that if Seakle would get off his butt once in a while he wouldnít find it so difficult keeping an appetite. He contained his irritation and said, "If that spoils your appetite, you must not be very hungry."

"Iím just not in the habit of eating filth," Seakle said. Then somewhat sneeringly, "Here, since you donít seem to mind, help yourself." He pushed his bowl toward the other.

Emmett ignored the implication, but graciously accepted the proffered pork cube. "Why thank you! If youíre sure you donít want it."

"I wouldnít touch it."

Emmett reached and daintily pinched the bristle, lifting the fatty cube thereby from Seakleís bowl. Just as he moved it over his own, the meat dropped off the bristle. Seakle looked as if heíd like to have it back. Emmett had some difficulty keeping a straight face. He reached up with his other hand, grasped the other end of the bristle and flexed it.

"Hm-m," he mused. "Not quite stiff enough for a tooth pick."

Somebody laughed.

"I donít think itís a laughing matter," Seakle said bitterly. Prob- ably he wanted to leave, but it would have meant loss of face for him to do so. "Maybe the rest of you are accustomed to living like pigs, but Iím not. I was brought up in a clean home and ate clean food."

"One moment, Mr. Seakle," Emmett cautioned quietly, "thereís a good chance the rest of us came from just as clean homes as you." The look in his eyes said a great deal more. He thought about the fact that until he started "hiring" a couple of enterprising men to do his laundry, Seakle had been one of the crummiest of the prisoners in his personal hygiene. He changed clothes only when he bathed, which was seldom, and rinsed his clothes without scrubbing on those rare occasions.

Seakle realized he had made an offensive implication.

"I apologize," he said. "I had no business making a remark like that. But I still think something could be done about the way they handle the food."

"Just what do you recommend?" There was sarcasm in Emmettís tone.

"Well after all, it looks like they could at least clean all the hair off when they butcher the hog."

"I donít see you volunteering to help with the butchering," someone interjected.

"Butchering hogs doesnít happen to be one of my accomplishments," Seakle returned haughtily.

"Work of any kind doesnít seem to be one of your accomplish- ments," the other rejoined. "Youíd starve to death in a grocery store if you didnít have someone to open cans for you."

Seakle was offended, but still contained. "I donít recall anyone inviting you into this conversation," he said to the speaker.

"I invited myself," said the other, "which makes it my prerogative to invite myself out as well. That Iíll do when Iím finished. People like you have a helluva lot of criticism to offer on things you donít know a damn thing about. I wouldnít really want you to try to help with the chow, even if you had the gumption. I doubt if any of usíd survive such an ordeal. But, by god, you could get off your dead butt and take a look once at what those men have to work with. Stupid as you are, you might realize a little something."

Seakle tried to interrupt, "Youíd better keep in mind that weíre both officers, and there are enlisted—"

"Aw, cut it, Seakle! The only time you remember youíre sup- posed to be an officer is at a time like this. ĎOfficers shouldnít argue in front of enlisted men,í you say. Well, thatís right, but neither should they gripe the way you do. Itís a personal affront to a respectable officer to have you call yourself one. We can be damn thankful the men here are broadminded enough to differentiate. Now, if you donít mind, I will invite myself out. I can stand this chow weíre getting, the way itís prepared or a helluva lot worse, but I canít stomach a spineless, griping specimen like you!" The other turned and walked away.

"What the hellís wrong with him?" Seakle asked, trying to cover his embarrassment. "He doesnít work in the kitchen."

"Well," Emmett said, pleased at Seakleís discomfiture, "have you ever taken a look at what they have to work with over there?"

"Sure, I know itís no modern kitchen. It wasnít the cooking we were talking about, it was the hair left on the meat. I canít see any reason why that wasnít taken off when they butchered. It certainly came off easy enough when you picked it up."

"Well of course it would after it was cooked," Emmett frowned at the otherís stupidity. "Itís considerably different before. Have you ever watched them butcher? See what they have to do, and what they work with?"

"No," Seakle said frankly, "I canít stand to watch an animal being slaughtered."

Emmett was speechless for a moment. It was hardly credible that this was an officer in a military service to whom others pre- sumably should look for leadership and example. Aloud he said, "Excuse me, please," and got up to go. "Thereís a limit to what my stomach can take, too."

Though he tried to conceal it, Seakle was disturbed by the low opinions others had of him. He could truthfully tell himself there were others as "lily-livered," but that didnít raise his standing any. He decided next time they butchered, he would observe the process.

Butchering day was an occasion in more ways than one. For one thing, it meant there would be meat. That was good, for sure. Also, it afforded a break from the monotony and routine. It was doubtful if the bystanders who came to observe the hog-killing derived pleasure from watching the creatures die. They watched because it was more interesting than anything else going on at the moment.

To the two butchers, it was not an unpleasant task. It was good to have something useful to do. It didnít happen frequently enough to become boring. Certainly it would have been better to have some means of stunning the animal, but lacking it, the only course was for one to hold the beast down while the other plunged a long blade quick and deep into the neck to sever an artery.

The hogs were kept in a pen in the compound, fed left-over rice and scraps. They were ugly, sway-backed, pot-bellied creatures, with beady eyes and vicious sharp tusks. They ripped and scarred each other with those tusks and looked eager to do likewise to anyone who chanced by their pen. They were hardly animals to which the prisoners could become sentimentally attached.

They had names for the hogs, however. They held court, con- victing and sentencing each well in advance of the "execution." They got the names of prominent U. S. communists from the Peopleís World and Daily Worker. "Vince" Hallinan, the commu- nist partyís presidential candidate, was convicted and sentenced to death for "failing to win the election and end the war by dis- mantling the pentagon and shipping it to Moscow." With the commie papers demanding clemency for the traitors Rosenberg and denouncing Eisenhower and the Department of Justice for "persecuting" such "true patriots," the prisoners named two more hogs. When the Peopleís World headlined "Save the Rosenbergs," they showed the papers to the hogs and said, "Youíre gonna fry!"

So there was always a question on butchering day: "Who gets it this time?" With some there seemed to be an undertone of senti- ment, no matter "who" it was. It wasnít in favor of clemency.

The time that Seakle decided to watch turned out to be eventful. When the butchers went to the pen to get the hog, one of the Chinese flunkies decided to help. Because of the wicked tusks, the Americans usually put a rope on an animalís hind leg from outside the pen, before opening the gate. The chinaman, making a show of courage, entered the pen and tried to "shoo" the hog over to one side. The hog didnít "shoo" very well, but swung on the chinaman and ripped the leg of his trousers as he climbed the side of the pen. The chink remained atop the fence while the prisoners proceeded with the project. They dragged the animal squealing from the pen, then herded it, grunting less protestingly, to the slaughtering place. Bystanders began to gather as the beast was readied for slaughter.

One of the butchers held firmly to the rope while the others moved cautiously forward to grasp the hog by an ear and a leg and wrestle it to the ground. The animal was covered with slimy mud from the pen. It was something of a messy task. While one held the animal down, the other moved to its head. With a short length of rope the jaws were tied closed and the ear-piercing squeals stopped.

"Thereís still time for a full confession—" one of the bystanders said to the hog.

"No clemency!" someone else called. "Heís squealed his last!"

The butcher holding the hog down released the ear and took hold of the short length of rope. He pulled on it, stretching the animalís neck taut at the throat. The one about to perform the "execution" rinsed his hands. He picked up the long knife, tested the point and turned to the hog.

Seakle was standing well back as all this took place. He moved a little closer when the squealing stopped. The butchers had heard about his discussion with Emmett, so the one who held the hog was watching Seakleís reactions. With the animal lying quietly, the "executioner" felt for the proper spot to thrust. With a quick motion, the knife plunged in and a twist opened the artery. The blade was withdrawn and blood spurted with the pumping of the animalís heart. The "executioner" picked up a small bucket beside him and held it to catch the red liquid.

"How did he take it?" the one asked the holder—meaning Seakle.

"Turned his head away when he saw you start," the other replied.

"Figured he would."

As the flow decreased, the beast began to struggle in death throes. Suddenly the holderís grip on the muddy foreleg slipped. The foot came forward and caught the bail of the bucket. The power of the leg flung the bucket from the other manís hand, and the contents splattered several of the onlookers.

The butchers laughed for a moment at the varied reactions of those so splattered. Then feigning seriousness, the one who held the hog said: "Whatís the matter with you? Whatíd you do that for? You did that deliberately so those guys would get splattered."

"Me?" said the other, "Whatís the matter with you? Too weak to hold onto a dead hogís leg?"

"It slipped. Why didnít you pull the bucket away?"

"My gosh, I thought we wanted Ďim to kick the bucket!"

They were still chiding each other about which was responsible for loss of the blood, when Seakle came mincing up to look at the animal, which was now quite dead.

"What did you want the blood for anyway?" Seakle asked.

"To put in the soup," one of them answered.

"In the soup?óYouíre kiddiní, arenít you?"

"No, Iím not kiddiní. Itís good in soup and has a lot of nutriment."

Seakle was horrified at the thought. "In that case Iím glad it was spilled. Iíd never eat the stuff."

The butchers looked at each other. "It might interest you to know," one of them said, "that youíve had it twice already. You even remarked that the soup was exceptionally good on one of those occasions."

"I didnít know there was blood in it, or I wouldnít have eaten any. Iím gonna see about that—" And he set off to find the senior officer to demand that the blood not be utilized as food.

"There," said one of the butchers, "goes a fine example of red-blooded American fightiní man!"

"Heíll have some great tales to tell when he gets home," the other said, "about how he was starved."

"If he gets home—he couldnít make another winter."

"Well, I guess weíd better get on with it. If the bristles wonít scrape off weíll have to pull Ďem with our teeth. Wouldnít want one of our Ďfightiní mení to starve to death on account of a hog bristle."






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