Wendon awakened when a flunky brought the rice and soup for breakfast. The prisoner rubbed his face with a forearm and brushed away the little black rolls of dead skin that collected. He looked at his hands, palm and back, noting the accumulated grime in the pores and lines. He rubbed his hands on each other, and then on his trouser legs, but could see no difference. The dirt was too deeply imbedded. He contemplated spitting on his hands to moisten and remove some of the dirt, but decided against it. Somehow that seemed as bad as leaving them dirty.
He ate all of his rice that morning. It was the first time he had really felt hungry for it. Besides, if he was going to have enough strength to fulfill his vow when the opportunity came, he must eat whatever food he got. There wasn’t any change in his sentiments after the night’s rest. They were modified a bit perhaps; he wouldn’t just try to kill the first interrogator as he came in the door; he would wait until they started pressing him again. He recognized that he should have a plan of some sort. No sense in merely committing suicide or leaving himself available for torture. There might be a slim chance of escape. At least a fellow had to try for that.
Breakfast finished, Wendon sat thinking about such things. Several preposterous plans entered his mind and were discarded. Later his plan became more realistic. He felt he was making progress, when the door opened.
The chinaman who entered was one Wendon had not seen before. He was of small, slight build, and more neatly dressed than the usual. The fellow wore rimless glasses that gave him a studious appearancelike a college professor, the prisoner thought.
"Good morning," the chinaman said cheerily in impeccable English. "You are Lieutenant Colonel Wendon, is that correct?"
"I am Comrade Wang." He extended his hand toward the prisoner. "I am happy to meet you."
Wendon ignored the proffered hand and made no reply. He studied the other wonderingly and sullenly. The thoughts of his vow to himself the night before were still with him.
Wang gave no sign of offense as he withdrew his hand. "Oh, I am sorry," he said. "Please forgive me. I neglected to think that this would not be such a pleasant meeting for you as it is for myself. Please let me explain."
"Let him explain!" Wendon thought to himself. "What the hell can I do to prevent it?" He said nothing.
Wang looked about the room for a place to sit down, noting the crude wooden table, but no chairs. "Excuse me a moment," he said and went to the door. He called to the guard, gave some instructions, and closed the door again.
"Now I will try to explain to you why I was so inconsiderate in my greeting. You see I am not a military man; I am a professor. Perhaps I should say I am a student, although I am considered a professor and work as such at the University in Shanghai. Still, I know that I am not so intelligent that I should be called professor. That is the reason I am so happy to have this chance to meet you, because I think from you I can learn much."
There was a knock on the door, and the flunky entered with two crude chairs, and at Wang’s instruction, a chair was placed on either side of the table. Acknowledging Wang’s "sheh-sheh" "thanks"the flunky left.
"Would you join me at the table?" Wang invited. "Of course, you need not if you prefer."
"Thank you," Wendon replied. He sat down. The prisoner was completely baffled by the situation. He couldn’t find even a wild guess logical enough to explain this fellow’s "angle." Seated at the table, Wendon rested his elbows on it and picked at the dirt under his nails.
"You have had your breakfast?" Wang asked as though to make certain.
"Is there anything you wish to do before we begin our discus- sion?"
Wendon looked at the chinaman wonderingly. Wang seemed quite sincere. "I would like to wash," he said simply.
"Wash? By all means please do. I didn’t realize you hadn’t yet washed following your meal." Wendon was almost staring, as he watched the chinaman’s face.
"I haven’t washed for two weeks," he said. "I haven’t been permitted to. Where do I wash? Or perhaps I am still not permitted?"
"This I do not understand," Wang said with disarming concern, "that you have not been permitted to wash. Maybe there is some- thing I have not been told. Perhaps I should explain myself a bit more, Colonel. You see, I have only this morning arrived from Shanghai." Wendon failed to note that Wang was quite neat and fresh for one who had just completed a long journey. "But I shall see immediately if it will be permissible for you to wash. Perhaps you would like a complete bath?"
"Yes," said Wendon, wondering. "I would."
"I shall see if the commander, or whatever he is called—I know nothing of the military, you see. I will ask if itwill be permitted for you to have a bath. Excuse me, please."
"By all means," the colonel said to himself. He wondered if Wang was really as naive as he appeared. Wellthinking of a few professional men he had knowncertainly there were some who were quite oblivious to anything but their chosen fields of endeavor. Perhaps this very studious appearing fellow was like that. Well, he’d withhold any conclusions until he found out if he got a bath or not.
Wang returned after only a few minutes, a big smile of success on his face. "I am pleased to tell you that you are permitted a bath, and also to wash before and after meals. The camp commander has explained to me something of why you were not permitted before"the smile faded, was replaced by a puzzled expression, then brightened again"but that can wait until you have had your bath. We will have much time to discuss many things."
The flunky brought a small towel and some crude kind of soap. The towel was to be the prisoner’s to keep, and the soap as well. Wendon wondered what the Chinese words printed on the towel meant. The red star on it was self-explanatory. Wang led him down to the stream, to a knee-deep, brush-shrouded pool. The prisoner failed to notice that the chinaman seemed quite well acquainted with the area for one who had "only this morning arrived from Shanghai." After escorting him to the bathing spot, Wang went back toward the house. The bushes provided reasonable privacy. A guard remained close at hand, but discreetly so. The enemy guards evidenced good discipline, the colonel noted, quite good. Perhaps they were selected for this duty.
As he bathed, Wendon thought of Wang’s remark, "We will have much time to discuss many things." What things, he wondered, and how much time? Well, if he was being permitted to bathe and wash, perhaps there would be other privileges as well. Certainly, then, he wouldn’t mind spending some time with Wang, if the chinaman didn’t interrogate him. He’d have to watch closely; this friendly, studious fellow might be just a very shrewd interrogator, planning to draw him into general conversation and drift off onto military matters. An elementary trick for them to be trying on an experienced military man, but then they might.
Wendon washed his underwear and was wishing he had clean clothing to put on, when Wang returned. The chinaman called politely before appearing around the bushes.
"Here are some clean clothing for you." He placed the folded garments on a rock. "These also arrived this morning on the same supply truck in which I rode. When you have dressed you may come back to the room. I will take your other clothing with me."
"I could wash the others," Wendon suggested.
"That will not be necessary," Wang told him. "You have another complete set of the new ones. These you had can be discarded. They are badly worn and may have lice. I will see you at the room."
Good enough, Wendon thought, as long as he had some clothes. There were lice in the old ones, and he’d worn them so long they would have been difficult to scrub clean. Still, he wondered what the deal might be. They had told him he couldn’t expect anything at all of the lenient treatment" if he didn’t answer their questions. Now suddenly he seemed to be getting the "works" of fine treatment. Well, maybe it had all been bluff. He guessed that if he were an interrogator that’s the way he’d do; threaten and bluff to try to break the prisoner down, but if it didn’t work In that case, there’d be nothing else to do, would there? He decided that they had finally given up trying to break him.
Yet there was the puzzle of what Wang wanted to discuss. Well, he’d find out about that soon enough; right now he might as well enjoy the bath. It certainly was refreshing to get that accumulation of dirt scrubbed off. Wendon rubbed himself pink with the wet towel, then wrung it out to dry himself as best he could.
The new cotton clothing felt good as he put it on. A comical pair of undershorts with a drawstring at the waist and no fly. A shirt that seemed about half-way between being an undershirt and a dress one. Trousers and jacket of blue lightweight cotton material, and a cap to match. He carried the cap in his hand as he walked back up to the house. He wished he had a comb and a razor, but discarded the wish as expecting too much in one day.
Back in the room, Wang was waiting for him. The door was open, admitting light and fresh air. The chinaman sat with elbows on the table, reading a book. He closed it as Wendon entered, but not before the prisoner had a glimpse of the pages. Wendon had the impression the book was in the Russian language. This must be something of a studious fellow, for certain, and apparently a linguist as well.
"Well," Wang smiled. "You look much refreshed from your bath."
"I feel much better," Wendon replied. "I was filthy—so long without one." He sat down in the other chair.
"Yes, of course," the smile faded to a somewhat pitying look. "I believe it is what one would call ‘fortunes of war.’ The camp commander has explained to me that such measures are quite usual for military persons, of any nations, in attempting to get information from prisoners. It is difficult for meit seems inhuman and brutal; but then wars are inhuman and brutal. Of course, being a military man yourself, you no doubt understand these things far better than I."
Wendon found himself nodding agreement and was displeased with himself. Apparently they had despaired of interrogating him further, however, and that was a pleasant thought. He felt a bit proud that he’d held out as he did. Remembering how he felt those last hours, Wendon shuddered as he thought of the action he had contemplated, how close he had been to doing something that would most likely have cost his life. "Fortunes of war" was right, he decidedquite right.
"If you are ready," Wang said after a time, "I should like to discuss some things with you now."
"What do you wish to discuss?" Wendon had a twinge of sus- picion.
"As I told you, I am a professor at Shanghai University, a very junior professor, I must admit. Some time ago I requested permis- sion to come here to interview some American prisoners. My thoughts were that with such interviews I might come to under- stand something of the way Americans feel about the subjects which I study and teach. Perhaps I could learn something of how Americans feel toward the peoples of New China, and even such discussion might help both sides to understand each other better. In a small way, of course, since I am only one person in hundreds of millions, and you are the same. Because I feel certain that the peoples of your country are as desirous of peace as are my own people, any small bit which might be accomplished would be of benefit to all."
This fellow seemed quite sincere, Wendon thought; or were the things he was saying just a little too humanitarian?
"My primary reason, however," Wang continued, "is much more selfish. It is my hope that in this manner I will gain knowledge that will make me a better professor and better paid. My superiors were gracious enough to grant my request. Unfortunately for me, I must finance the trip myself. However, I had good fortune in traveling, obtaining many rides by what you call ‘hitch-hiking.’ It is all very good experience for me."
This young fellow, Wendon thought, was something like a nephew of his ownenthusiastic and eager to learn, finding inter- esting experience in commonplace things. Yes, Wang might very well be as sincere as he sounded.
"I hope you will forgive my exuberance, Colonel. I realize this is not nearly so happy a circumstance for you as it it for me. It is your bad fortune which is my good fortune. I had not dared hope to be able to interview a person of your rank and intellect."
Well, Wendon thought, it certainly could be—an enthusiastic young man seeking ways to gather experience and broaden his views and knowledge, hoping by such means to advance more rapidly in his chosen profession. It very well could be.
"What is your major?" Wendon asked. "Or I should say, what are you a professor of?"
"My interest is mostly in philosophy and related subjects. Of course," Wang smiled, "most any subject is somewhat related to philosophy. One of the things I should like to discuss with you is religion; if you don’t mind."
"Religion?" Wendon was somewhat surprised. "But I thought— it has always been my impression" He was fumbling for the words to say he thought religion was a taboo subject in communist countries.
"That communism did not recognize religion?" Wang finished it for him with an understanding smile. The smile faded to sadness as he continued, "That is one of the false rumors some people have spread about communism. I can tell you it simply is not true. It is true that many persons who once believed in some kind of religion, on being given the chance to study and learn have come to see through the old superstitions and adopt the more realistic attitude toward life. Communists recognize there are some good things about many of the religions only we feel it is better to be realistic. The government of the New China does not denounce religion or suppress it, but only gives people the opportunity to learn more realistically."
Wendon glanced at Wang, skeptically.
"Only," the chinaman went on, "if someone attempts to under- mine our social order or land-reform movement from under a pretext of religion, is action taken which some might call anti- religious. But it is really not that at all, you see. Any government must suppress subversion, no matter from where it operates. Is that not so?"
Wendon found himself nodding in agreement again, and cursed himself under his breath. What this fellow was saying wasn’t right. A few of the excerpts from the spiel might be true in themselves, but not in relation to the whole subject. Communism, he knew was against religion. Still, how did he know? Other than what little he read or heard here and there, he didn’t know anything about communism. Certainly, he had never studied it much. Like many others, he had considered it either too preposterous or too vile to bother studying.
"What are your beliefs then?" Wendon asked him. "You say your interest is in philosophy. What philosophy? What are the guiding principles of it?" He felt relieved, especially after the interrogations, to talk with this pleasant fellow. Religion and philosophy seemed to be safe enough subjects to discuss.
"Man’s responsibility to society," Wang answered, "to his fellow-man."
The discussion went on from there. They talked until lunch time. Wang left then, saying he would return after lunch and a short nap. He must "rest a bit from the trip," he explained.
Wendon decided to lie down after eating. He didn’t sleep, but lay awake, thinking. Wang wasn’t selling him anything, or even trying to. The chinaman wasn’t even making an attempt to disprove religion; the conversation was just an exchange of philosophies. Surely, there was no harm in discussing such subjects, and with his experience he could hold up against such an adversary as Wang. In a way it was a challenge, an interesting challenge. Maybe he could disturb some of this young professor’s convictions. Certainly, Wendon thought, Wang could never disturb him.
When Wang returned, the discussion was resumed in the same vein. Wendon felt he was learning a great deal talking with the young chinaman. He was getting an insight into the thought processes of a young educated Chinese communist. Someday that might all come in very handy. The afternoon passed quickly, with the talk congenial. At supper time, Wang got up to leave.
"It has been very nice talking with you today," the chinaman said. "I feel I have learned a great deal from you. Even though I do not agree with all your views, I must admit you have many fine points in your philosophy. I have already benefited from your wisdom. Even if I had to leave tomorrow, my trip here from Shanghai would have been well worth my while just for today’s conversation. But I expect I shall not have to leave for several days. If you have no objections, I should like to visit you again tomorrow."
"Fine," Wendon said. "I shall be glad to see you again." He meant it. The day had passed faster and more pleasantly than any since his capture. Wang was an interesting talker. Thinking about it after supper, Wendon experienced another twinge of suspicion that Wang might be subtly trying to disprove religion to him. He laughed it off, thinking there was more chance of his changing the chinaman’s beliefs. He recalled that he’d forced Wang to make several concessions in the discussion that day.
The following day, Wang broached the subject of economics. It started out as a discussion of living costs and the like. Wang mentioned how frugal he’d been in order to make the trip from Shanghai, and Wendon described travel in America, deriving enjoyment out of the expressions, varying from disbelief to utter amazement, on the chinaman’s face.
Somehow, the discussion moved on to economics of a national and international level. Wendon was reluctant to discuss such matters because of a lack of knowledge, admitted only to himself; but he found that the other was apparently even less informed. Wang admitted he found formal study of the subject dull, though it was "interesting to discuss it in this manner." Wendon filled in his own sketchy knowledge with a great deal of conjecture and imagination. When Wang mentioned that the United States had a large national debt, the prisoner knocked about a thousand dollars per capita off and explained that except for the expenses of World War II there would have been none at all.
A couple of times Wendon felt perhaps he shouldn’t be doing as he was, but time went faster with the conversation. Even if he was making up a lot of hokum, it was a relief to his mind to let his imagination run free. Besides, he couldn’t help feeling that he was disturbing Wang’s beliefs at times. If he could do that, even a little bit, why not? There wasn’t any danger of this young fellow’s converting Lieutenant Colonel Wendoncollege professor or not.
Thinking about it that night, Wendon hoped Wang would be back again next day, as he had said he might. Eventually it might become boring, but until it did it was far better talking with Wang than just twiddling one’s thumbs. Of course, he’d much prefer to be with other American prisoners, but it was best not to think about that.
Wang did come back the next day. Somehow what started out as a comparison of educational institutions—Shanghai University and American collegesended up as a discussion of politics and elections.
"What changes do you expect with Eisenhower as President of your country?" Wang asked.
"Changes? What kind of changes do you mean?"
"Such as foreign policythe attitude of America toward the New China, for example."
"Oh, there is usually not much change in foreign policy with a change of administration," Wendon passed the question off. "No great changes."
"Do you think it is a good thing to have a military man as President of your country?" Wang asked.
"Doesn’t matter what a man’s profession might have been, if he’s a good man."
"And you think Eisenhower is a good man?"
"Certainly." Even if he hadn’t, he would have said he did.
"But are you not afraid a military man might lead your country into war?"
"We’re already in a war!" Wendon snapped the answer back fast, taking delight in the fact that Wang was disturbed by it.
"Of course," Wang recovered. "I meant into a larger war. The Chinese peoples, like myself, fear that Eisenhower might extend the war. Ever since the Korean war began, the Chinese peoples have been afraid that"
"America did not start the Korean war, nor will it be our fault if it is extended, either!" There was considerable vexation and bitterness in Wendon’s tone.
"Perhaps it would be better if we do not talk about such things," Wang soothed. "It is better if we talk of things not connected with the military and wars. Do you agree?"
"Yes," the prisoner agreed, "that would probably be best."
"May I ask you then, are you a Republican or a Democrat?"
"Neither one," Wendon replied, expecting the answer to puzzle the chinaman. It did, or at least appeared to.
"What are your political affiliations then? You are not a member of the U. S. Progressive party?"
"I have no political affiliations."
"You do not vote?"
"Sure, but I vote for a candidate, not for a party. Many Americans are like that. We are independent voters. It is a very good system. Americans vote for whomever they please; they have a choice." He meant it as a jibe, but it had no noticeable effect.
"But you have nothing to say then about who will be on the ballot for you to choose from."
"Sure we do; we have our primary election for that."
"But you have nothing to say in that, if you are not a member of one party or the other," Wang persisted.
"Yes, we do," Wendon told him. "In the primary, an independent voter registers for which ever party suits him the best."
"Then you believe that in your system the people themselves really select the candidates for office and elect them?"
"Of course they do. That’s the reason ours is a good system. It is much better than yours." Again he hoped to disturb Wang.
"I think perhaps you do not know our system. You know only what you have heard," the chinaman replied. "If America’s is such a good system, how is it that so often one hears of scandals involving officials of your government? One hears of graft and profiteering, embezzlement of public funds and such things. Or do you deny that such things happen?"
"Of course such things happen," Wendon admitted. "In any large organization, any society, communist or non-communist, one can find cases of persons usurping power or authority. The difference in my government and yours is that in America we have a way of getting rid of them" He left the remainder unsaid for greater emphasis.
There was a flash of resentment in Wang’s eyes, quickly concealed. "You have a very shrewd mind," the chinaman said finally, after studying the prisoner for a while. Then: "It is nearly time for your supper. I shall leave now. I may have to start my return trip to China tomorrow. If so, I shall come to tell you goodbye."
After supper, Wendon reviewed the happenings of the past three days. There was that small suspicion again that maybe Wang wasn’t exactly as he represented himself. Could be that he was one of the fellows they used in the indoctrination stuff that was reported going on in the camps? Yes, Wang could have been feeling him out to see what his views were. Well, if that were the case, he’d certainly shown the chinaman he wasn’t a likely subject for indoctrination to communism. Wendon smiled to himself thinking about that last jibe he’d put in, comparing governments and elections. He certainly had put the chinaman on the ropes with that one. It was doing all right when you could get the best of one of the enemy in such a circumstance as this. Wendon figured he had the right to be proud of himself. With that pleasant thought, he drifted off to sleep.
© 2002, 2003 by Lynn Waterman; used by permission of the author, Duane Thorin.