Loud talking from the back of the truck attracted Sergeant Wolfe’s attention. The speaker was Jowal, who was now in conversation with Merke. The "fly boy," perhaps not wishing to get involved with the disreputable "progressive," wasn’t saying much. Jowal had twisted around to his left to talk with Merke, and his eyes kept fficking toward Lettle. Lettle seemed unaware of all this, as he sat looking past Bowmar at what little he could see of the scenery in front of the truck. Possibly, Jowal had started the con- versation with Merke to let himself keep an eye on Lettle. The loudness of his voice may well have been due to uneasiness.
Jowal had been wary back in the tent camp, too, and with good reason. Likely the fellow would never know that had it not been for one of the men in this truck, anotherthe one he was now watchingwould have killed him several nights ago. How long, the Sergeant wondered, must Jowal continue watching over his shoulder? Here he was today, riding out to freedom; but would he ever be free?
Wolfe wondered too if those such as Lettle who today sought personal vengeance on the fellow would ever come to realize the greater punishment the traitor was suffering now. Well, let Jowal suffer the worst, he deserved it.
The Sergeant’s first knowledge of Corporal Jowal was at Kangge, a temporary terminal for several of the marches, after the communists had finally decided to establish a prison camp. The marches had been rigorous, to say the least. Atrocity? Quite so; but should you expect less from the communists? Not when such means served their aims!
On the other hand you had to consider that for a time there wasn’t much of any place for the communists to keep prisoners. Maybe as many would have died huddled someplace trying to keep warm without shelter as did on the marches. When they walked, they kept warm. It was during the stops men froze. But men can’t walk forever.
Often they stopped at villages for rest and slept in whatever shelters remained standing. They couldn’t very well stay more than a few hours because that was where the villagers slept, too. Sometimes men who were weak and sick were left behind. Sometimes laggards were shot. Sometimes men asked to be shot. Communist soldiers were obliging in that respect; you shouldn’t ask to be shot unless you meant it. Undoubtedly some who asked did mean it, because they didn’t feel like going on. That made it a bit more difficult to place the blame for their death precisely. Brutal? Atrocious? Inhuman? Was it more so than any other part of war?
A new group stumbling into Kangge would be barely situated in their crude quarters before they had occasion to meet Jowal. He was half of a reception committeethe other half being a china- man. Sometimes the chinaman talked a little, but usually very little. It was much more effective for Jowal to give the welcome speech. It was a short speech:
"Well, fellas, you can relax now; you’ve made it. The Chinese are settin’ up a prison camp here, an’ you don’t have to hike no more. You won’t have to do no work either, except maybe go up in the hills for wood once in a while. You’re gonna get food and medicine for them that gets sick. They got some stuff now for games and athletics, an’ they’re gonna get more, an’ you’ll have plenty time. They got a library with a lotta good books and stuff for us to read. We get to write letters an’ receive mail if our side will send it through.
"There’s a few things they expect from us, like roll calls an’ such, an’ they like to have you call ‘em ‘comrade.’ But they’re good guys an’ treat you okay. An’ one more thingever’body’s the same here all prisoners. don't no one have t' take any from no officers or anything like that. Anybody tries pullin’ rank, the Chinese’ll take care of ‘em."
Short and ill-spoken though it was, Jowal’s welcoming speech provided the newcomers a clear picture of the situation. Unfor- tunately there were other Americansbesides Jowal who seemed to go for that arrangement.
Perhaps Jowal would have been satisfied with his simple throne content with undeserved power over other Americans, many of them his senior; but the enemy was not. There were other things they wanted from him besides the relaying of orders and keeping the prisoners in line. With communist help, Jowal could send messages to people everywhere, telling about the benevolence of the communists and how they were misunderstood by the rest of the world. They found out that Jowal could draw cartoons too—pictures of an evil-looking Uncle Sam with a money bag in one hand, a pistol in the other, and blood on both. Jowal learned soon, if he didn’t know at first, that he couldn’t be just a little bit of a collaborator.
Possibly as he progressed from flunky, to cartoonist, to outright betrayer of fellow-man, Jowall realized what his fate would be when his usefulness to the enemy ended. The communists have no pension plan for their stooges. No matter how long the servant had served, when his usefulness ended, so did the gratuities. But having committed himself, Jowal apparently could only play out the string and hope for a break toward the end of the line. Something of a break came.
By the time Jowal’s usefulness ended, the enemy had started the fattening-up process for the exchange. The communists seemed to have a fair idea of when the war was going to end. Since a live prisoner was a valuable commodity in the final stages of negotia- tions, the chinks were interested in keeping even a discarded stooge alive. So Jowal was shuttled off with a small assorted group of overflow prisoners and didn’t fare so badly. Of course he wasn’t received with open arms by those others, since his reputation preceded him. But by then he was quite accustomed to a certain degree of loneliness and had already acquired the habit of watching over his shoulder.
Jowal might well have considered staying with the communists, the same as those twenty-one others. The fact that he decided not to only showed he was a bit smarter than they were. Back in the States it would be futile to deny all of his guilt; but with a good lawyer he could beat some of the more serious charges, either on technicality or for lack of evidence. What if he did have to spend a few years in prison? The worst American prison would be better than the one he was just leaving, despite the preferential treatment he’d received. And it didn’t take a mental giant to figure out that a few years in an American prison were far more desirable than a sentence for life under communism. On the other side of the line, he would be safe from his former prison-mates as long as he was in custody. By the time he got out, they might have cooled off a bit. Maybe some or all of them would be settled with families by then and wouldn’t risk revenge against him. When you added it up, Jowal had made a wise choice. Now, for him, it was just a matter of watching over his shoulder until he could get the protection of officials on the other side. Still, would he ever be free?
So that was Jowal, mused the Sergeant. Jowal was neither the product of the slums nor the degenerate of a family rich beyond its capacity for responsibility. Many factors may have combined to make parasites of his type.
The trend toward urbanization, forming the populace into a teeming, jostling mass and denying children sufficient room to grow and mature. The pseudo-prosperity of World War II, with most of the able men in the armed forces; and teen-agers, like Jowal then, lured from school by lucrative jobs for anyone in long trousers. Negligent parents too greedy for black market luxuries bought by the high wages of cost-plus contracts to bother with raising their children. Social reforms and welfare agencies appear- ing to eliminate the need for such people to concern themselves with saving and planning for themselves. Those same people too busy enjoying and too fearful of losing these "benefits" and "welfares" to see how easily they might become enslaved to them. All those things and more combined to produce the element of modern American society represented by Jowal.
Jowal was a traitor, but the nature of his treason might be misconstrued. For he was called "progressive," and the citizenry of America might interpret that to mean he was now a communist, that he had come to believe in the Marxist ideology. That simply was not so. The fact that he was returning to face almost certain prison sentence revealed that Jowal was well aware of the falsity of the communist utopia. While he was a prisoner of war the fellow had become "progressively" a more complete stooge of the enemy. Why? Partly because he’d been reared as a stoogethe very nature of his up-bringing had taught him to cater to whatever hand ladled out the welfare.
But no matter what factors may have shaped his personality in that respect, Jowal knew right from wrong. He was himself responsible for his deliberate wrongs to fellow prisoners. And it was for those that Lettle hated him so.
Bitter as he was, however, Lettle wasn’t likely to try to gain vengeance during this truck ride to freedom. He was smaller than Jowal, for one thing, though that might not keep him from trying. The greater deterrent at the moment, if one was needed, was the presence of Captain Ghant and the memory of an incident that happened back in the tent camp.
There had been three main sections in the tent camp—one for officers, one for enlisted, and another for "incorrigibles." Captain Ghant was an incorrigible by the enemy’s definition, as was Lettle, and almost anyone else who had been in solitary confinement after the end of the fighting.
Lettle and several others who had earlier been in a different camp with Jowal shared a tent in the incorrigible section. They had many things in commonamong them hatred for Jowal and desire for vengeance. Mostly they were young men, of limited education, but whatever they may have lacked in that respect, they made up for in spirit. With spirit alone, so it seemed, they’d held out against the communists when better-educated men failed, and in spite of Jowal and others as bad or worse. They held out in the only way they knewbelligerently; defiantly. They’d suffered physically; morally they were probably stronger than ever. They blamed Jowal for the deaths of some of their fellows, and for some of their own sufferings. They were probably right.
The largest section, where Jowal stayed, was located on a low ridge where the prisoners spent much of the time sitting, talking, or just looking around at the barren hills. Lettle’s tent was about a hundred yards from the ridge. There was a small gully in between.
It all started as a shouted conversation between a man in Lettle’s group and a friend on the ridge. After an exchange of greetings, the question came across the gully: "Where’s Jowal?"
"He’s here! What happened to Pinky and Jake?"
"They fell off the train on the way down!" Much laughter. Somebody had pushed a couple of "progressives" off the train a few hours north of Pyongyang. No one seemed to know if the two were killed, nor particularly care.
"Tell Jowal we’ been thinkin’ about him!"
"He can hear you himself! He’s sittin’ right here!" The friend pointed at Jowal as he shouted.
"What’s the matter with him? Doesn’t he wanta talk to us?"
Jowal wasn’t the type to leave such a challenge unanswered. He got up to shout back that he wasn’t afraid to talk to anyone. He included several obscenities in his statement.
From the other side, one voice: "Why don’t you stay here with your friends, Jowal?" Another voice: "They’ll only hang you when you get home!" A third: "Unless we get you first!"
"Let’s let a court-martial decide that—hunh?" Jowal shouted in anger, but the "hunh" seemed something like a plea.
Back through the dead noontime air came an invitation: "Come on over, Jowal! We’ll have a party; we found a rope!"
"Go to hell!" Jowal yelled. Sitting down again, he said more softly for the benefit of those around him, "The suns-uv-bitches wouldn’t any one of ‘em talk to me like that alone." Several men glanced at him, but none took up the conversation. At the moment, even if a fellow was of the same cut, he hardly wanted to be associated with Jowal.
Captain Ghant had been an interested observer of the long- range conversation. He liked what he saw of Lettle’s group. He knew that these men had been put to the acid test and stood it well. They were a rough-looking lot. Jowal’s invectives hadn’t bothered them a bit because the words were part of their own normal vocabulary. They were men from the other side of the tracks, from the alleys and the slums; but they were men, and solid Americans. Perhaps they wouldn’t fit well in certain areas of society, nor would they particularly want to. They might be uncomfortable at a formal dinner or even in a dignified night club; but give them a smoky beer joint, with furnishings they could afford to pay for, and they’d have an hilarious time. They’d exchange jokes, often more vulgar than humorous, shout obscenities, bloody noses, and carry each other home. Next day they’d get together in a communal hangover and laugh at their own stupidity.
So some people might look down their not-necessarily-clean noses at them and call them rabble. But those same people would be wrong. Rabble is composed of those simpering, fawning specimens of humanity who attach themselves to whatever or whoever seems to serve their selfish interests best. Rough, Lettle’s men might be; but it was a dependable roughness. They were not rabble.
When the shouted conversation ended, and Lettle and his friends had retired to their tent, Ghant strolled over. The captain had been in a compound with a close "friend" of Jowal’s for a time. Reaching the tent, he stuck in his head.
"May I come in?" he asked.
As a man, the occupants rose to a position of attention.. "Yes sir!" one of them said sharply.
Ghant found himself momentarily at a loss. The familiarity of the compounds, plus the communists’ habitual refusal to recognize rank among the prisoners had made him unaccustomed to routine military formalities.
"As you were," he said, when he had overcome his surprise. "If I’m not interrupting anything, I’d like to compare notes on a few people."
"Sure, Captain," several of the men said in unison. They waited for him to continue.
Despite the respectful formalities being afforded Ghant by these men, as they talked they were not ill at ease in his presence. For an hour or so they discussed various people they knew in common. The men were curious about Ghant, too.
"What did they have you in ‘sol’ for, Captain?" someone asked.
"They want a confession from you, sir?"
"Yeah. Any of you hit on that?" Ghant asked. "No, that’s right. You told me you’re all ground pounders."
"Well, they didn’t ask us for confessions, Captain," the man an- swered. "They just wanted us to write letters sayin’ we thought it was wrong and inhuman and stuff like that. Nobody did it though."
"I gathered that." The captain smiled. Courage was such a matter of fact quality with these men that they hardly knew they had it.
Lettle spoke up. "Captain, I’d like to ask you a question."
"Sure, go ahead."
"Well, I feel like a fool for askin’, sir; but we all been wonderin’ Is it true?"
"Is what true?" Ghant was puzzled.
"This germ-war business. Did we really use germ bombs and stuff, like they claim?"
"God be praised," the captain thought, "for making men like these!" He recalled how close he’d come himself to "confessing" what he knew was false. These men hadn’t even known whether their resistance was well-founded.
"No," he assured them. "It’s a big liethe same as the rest of this commie stuff." Ghant was pleased at the look of relief on their faces.
When Ghant got up to take his leave, the others arose also. It was not fawning, but sincere respect. When he later came to understand fully why they acted like that toward him, the captain felt both honored and humbled. Their attitude toward him was one of the many proofs of their own integrity. For months, in accordance with the communist strategy, they had been denied the guidance of reliable officers. The only American officers these men had seen were men like Bender on his lecture tour of the camps—simpering like a "wino" at a revival meeting, confessing all manner of misdeeds, as though the more he confessed the greater would be his reward. Such examples on uncertain and immature minds, had the effect the enemy sought. On these men it did not.
Along with an uncompromising code and a mature sense of re- sponsibility, they were yet aware of their own shortcomings. In Captain Ghant they recognized the qualities of courage and integ- rity they themselves possessed, and in addition the many things they lacked. They did not require leadership for inspiration or direction of purpose; both of these they had. What they needed was the tempering judgment of a trained and experienced man who could see the reliability and strength beneath their coarseness, and understand the internal forces which undeterred might goad them to rash action.
On the day following the heckling of Jowal and discussion in the tent, Lettle approached Ghant with a problem. Breakfast had just ended, and the captain was seated on ground outside his own tent, basking in the morning sun. He was leaning back against a pole, eyes closed to the brightness.
"Excuse me, Captain"
When the officer opened his eyes, Lettle saluted. "I’d like to ask you something, sir."
Blinking, the captain returned the salute. He experienced that same peculiar feeling again. Then he patted the ground beside him. "Have a seat," he said.
"Thank you, sir." Lettle sat down.
"What’s on your mind?"
Though he probably had practiced it beforehand, when the moment came, Lettle had trouble with his words. Finally be said: "You know how us fellas feel about Jowal, Captain?"
"Well, sir, we think we got a way figured to get the sun-uva-bitch excuse me sirto give ‘im what’s comin’ to ‘im. We was gonna just go ahead, but after talkin’ with you yesterday we figured it wouldn’t be right to do it without your permissionyou bein’ senior officer here, an’ all, sir."
"Oh? Yes." This was another surprisesomething else a fellow could become unaccustomed tomaking decisions for others. Lettle was right; it was proper. "Do you mind telling me something of the plan?" Ghant asked.
"No, sir, not at all" And Lettle proceeded to outline it. They had checked the movements of the guards at night. Jowal’s tent had been spotted, and they knew where he slept in it. Lettle talked for some time, answering the captain’s questions freely.
"I’ll have to think on it for a while," Ghant told him. "Will it be okay if I let you know right after lunch?"
"Yes, sir. That’d be fine." Lettle arose, saluted again, and left.
There was a heavy load on the captain’s shoulders the rest of the morning. Ghant felt, as the men did, that the plan would workas far as getting to Jowal and killing him was concerned. With the perseverance they had already demonstrated, and their intense hatred for Jowal as incentive, a hundred yards or so of ground to crawl across and a couple of unalert sentries weren’t likely to pre- vent one or more of them from reaching Jowal and killing him.
Having suffered himself and seen others suffer even more at the hands of men like Jowal, it wasn’t in the captain’s heart to feel benevolent toward the "pro." Physical hurt makes urgent demand for physical revenge. A mind full of memories of misery and pain finds it difficult to envision and be satisfied with more subtle vengeanceto leave the guilty person to the nagging tortures of time and conscience.
Had Lettle been asking his advice simply as another man, Ghant might well have said, "Hell, yes! Can I go along?" Yet on their own initiative the men placed him in a position where his answer ought not to be based on personal feelings, but on his duty as an officer, according to rule and regulation. Even so, the captain’s own emotions might have still led him to say, "Hell, yes!"
Ghant considered, then, that one of these men, successful in the mission, might one day find himself stricken with remorse for his act There was danger, too, of a slip, of a chance discovery. One of these good men might be hurt or killed by a sentry. Jowal wasn’t worth the risk of the lives of such men at such a time. Even with the mission successful and no casualties suffered, the enemy might avail themselves of the opportunity to charge one of them with murder. Evidence or proof would be no problem. In their courts the communists needed neither.
That afternoon the captain gave the first order he’d had occasion to give in many months.
It was obeyed as soldiers obey a respected senior.
© 2002, 2003 by Lynn Waterman; used by permission of the author, Duane Thorin.