DECISION

Wendon didnít pay particular attention when his visitor entered the room the following morning. He thought it was Wang again. He looked up in surprise when the visitor spoke, however. The voice was entirely different.

"Wendon?" the visitor said questioningly.

"Yes." What the hell did they ask like that for? They knew well enough who was in this room before they came in. He noted that the newcomer wore glasses also, but they were ugly round horn-rims with thick lenses. The eyes behind the spectacles, magnified as they were, had a look the prisoner didnít like.

"Comrade Wang asked me to give you message," the newcomer said. "He regrets that it was necessary for him to leave during the night in order to have a ride back to China. So he could not come to tell you goodbye as was his desire."

"Oh? Well, thank you." Wendon didnít feel particularly disap- pointed that Wang hadnít come back. Their parting of the evening before had been on a much less pleasant note than previous days. Perhaps, Wendon thought, Wang had avoided coming back because he had been so disturbed yesterday. It was nice to think that such might be the case; that even as a prisoner a fellow could scare one of the enemy away from further verbal conflict.

"Yes, Comrade Wang has returned to China on the same truck in which I came here yesterday."

Wendon looked up at the other curiously, wondering what was coming next.

"You see," the chinaman continued, "Comrade Wang and I are colleagues. We are both on the faculty at Shanghai University. It was pleasant to see him again, and quite a surprise to him when he returned to his room last evening. He was not expecting me, as I left Shanghai several days after he did. But then you are not interested in my personal life; I shall not bore you with such details."

Another professor, Wendon thought, and wondered if this one would want to have a discussion with him, too. Well, heíd handled Wang all right, he could handle this one as readily.

"But I am happy to meet you," the other continued. "Comrade Wang told me so much about you. Would you object to discussing with me as you did with my colleague?"

"Iím not in much of a position to object to anything at the moment," Wendon replied. He smiled as he said it, actually finding himself a bit amused by the exchange.

The chinaman smiled in return. "It is good to see that you have kept a sense of humor in your situation. Many persons might not do that. But still, I do not wish to force my company on you."

"Itís quite all right," Wendon replied. "I have no objection to talking with you, as long as our conversation is limited to the same things Wang and I talked about."

"Ah, wonderful!" The eyes seemed less vicious now. "If I speak of things you wish not to discuss, it is only necessary for you to say so. Is that a fair arrangement with you?"

"Quite fair," the prisoner replied.

"You are a Christian?"

"Yes."

There followed a discussion in which the chinaman asked to know Wendonís faith, and then discussed some of the formalities of it. Apparently, Wendon thought, these people study religion in considerable detail. It seemed a bit strange to him that they would, since communists were anti-religious.

"It puzzles me," the chinaman said finally, "about you Ameri- cans. You have good schools and universities—better, I must admit, than ours in many respects. Yet with all your knowledge of science and technology you still have medieval philosophies."

"What do you mean?" Wendon asked.

"You still hang onto the superstitions you call religion."

"Apparently you donít know as much about religion as I thought you did," Wendon said. "Religion is anything but superstition. That is one of the things that our religion has always worked to eliminate."

"Not to eliminate"—the other retortedó"simply to replace one set of superstitions with another, to exchange old wivesí tales for fairy tales."

"You are mistaken." Wendon was a bit aroused. "Religion is a faith in something good; something all people who believe can share and in so doing be at peace with one another. You do understand religion because you do not believe in it, because you are not permitted to believe in it!" He was getting a little emotional.

"You are the one mistaken!" the chinamanís eyes took on the vicious look again. "It is because I understand that I do not believe! If you were able to understand that, yourself, then you would understand other things. That is why your wall street bosses want you to continue to believe in your religion. Some of them even pretend to believe in it themselves in order to keep such poor fools as you under their thumbs. If you could ever see through your stupid religions, get rid of the old superstitions, then you could also see through the wall street bosses and get rid of them!"

Wendon was somewhat taken aback at the otherís outburst. This was quite different from the congenial discussion with Wang. The only things he could think of to say in return he felt he had best not say. Suddenly he remembered that he was a prisoner very much at the mercy of his captors.

"But of course," the chinaman continued, "you do not think of yourself as a tool of wall street. No doubt they pay you enough that you do not think about such things. What is your salary?"

"Probably considerably more than yours," Wendon answered.

"I have no doubt of that, but it does you no good now. Maybe you have enough money that you could buy your way out of an American prison, but it is not enough here, we are not interested in your dollars. Money cannot buy your freedom and neither can your God get you out of here. So what good are either your money or your religion?"

Again Wendon found himself unable to answer without risk of unduly antagonizing one who had captorís power over him. For that matter, neither could he think of a particularly good answer.

"Well, anyhow," the chinaman said, "I can now see how easily you could be fooled by the warmongers of wall street. When you believe the old superstitions of religion you are likely to believe anything. No doubt you are paid well enough that you can afford a few luxuries unknown to most of your countrymen, and because of that you consider yourself to be one of the all-powerful moneyed class in your country.

"Apparently you are too stupid to realize that it is by such means persons like you are kept under control; kept from realizing you are being used. By letting you think you are one of them, the moneyed class in your country uses your body and your brains to line their own pockets. What they pay you, to you might be a great deal; but to them it is nothing because they deal in billions. And of what they give you, most of it is taken back one way or another. While they fill your pocket at the top, they have cut a hole in the bottom. Each year you are more and more in debt. Tell me, if you know, what is your share of Americaís national debt?"

"The per capita indebtedness?" Wendon remembered what he had told Wang. The two chinamen might have talked it over. "Oh, about six hundred dollars. But that is only because of the big war."

"Do not try to tell me such lies as you have told Comrade Wang. Perhaps he believed your lies, but he is ignorant of economics and trusted you. He should have known better than to trust someone like you. He should have known you are one of the more intelligent tools of wall street. Your lies are not repeated innocently; they are deliberate." There was a pause while the chinaman glared at the prisoner. "Now tell me the truth! How much is the national debt for each person in your so rich America? See how it feels to say the truth once!"

Wendon didnít want to answer, yet somehow found himself doing so. "Well, I donít know exactly; I donít consider it important. Perhaps it is more than I estimated; I donít know."

"Perhaps you are telling the truth when you say you donít know. Yes, I think that is the truth; perhaps the first truth you have spoken for a long time. Well, that is to be expected. You Americans think you are so very smart; but you are really quite stupid. Too stupid to notice that while wall street is putting money in one of your pockets, it is taking it out of the other. Well, then, since you do not know, I will tell you what your share of your wealthy countryís indebtedness isóone thousand six hundred and fifty-three dollars! And each year it becomes more. Why? Do you know why?"

Wendon remembered suddenly the agreement before the dis- cussion started. The chinaman had said if he didnít want to talk about something, he had only to say so. "That is a subject I have no desire to discuss," he said. "Iíll frankly admit Iím not up to the minute on national finances, but neither am I worried about my country going bankrupt. But since I know so little about it, and since you quite obviously have been reading a World Almanac recently, there is certainly no point in discussing the subject further."

"Ah, yes," the chinaman sneered. "Now that you discover you are talking with someone who knows something about these things, you have no desire to discuss. Well, suppose you just listen, then. I can tell you a great deal more about your countryís economics that you probably donít know, or else are ashamed to admit."

Wendon saw no way to stop the tirade.

"Your countryís so-called prosperity," the enemy continued, "is entirely dependent on war! It is the munitions makers and the wolves of wall street who create wars in order that they can exploit the resources of the world; to make guns and bullets instead of things for people to enjoy peacefully! What is the largest item on your countryís national budget, Wendon? Do you know that much?"

The prisoner said nothing.

"Then I will tell you. It is military! Over sixty billion dollars for waging war against the peace-loving peoples of the world! All going to line the pockets—!"

"Our defense budget is high," Wendon interrupted, "because of just such things as this war here; defending small countries against attacks by the communists!"

"The UN is the aggressor in Korea!" the chinaman shouted. "If you were not so blind you would see through the tricks of wall street! No doubt you believe what you say about it, because you know only what you are told. Even though you are a lieutenant colonel, you are told only what your bosses want you to know. Open your eyes, Wendon! Would a poor country like North Korea be attacking the United States of America? How could such a small country attack such a large one? And still you say the Peopleís Republic of Korea is the aggressor!" The chinaman spat.

"No, I donít say North Korea is the aggressor!" Wendon shouted back. "North Korea was only the place and the instrument of aggression. It is communism that is the aggressor; Russia and her satellite—Red China!"

The chinaman flushed at that. It was a dangerous thing to antagonize him, perhaps, but Wendon was so pent up he either didnít think or didnít care. It took only a moment or two for the chinaman to regain his composure.

"Russia and China?" he sneered. "Now you try to say that we are the aggressors. How preposterous! The Chinese Peopleís Volunteers did not enter this war until months after it began; not until their own lands were directly threatened. And still all Chinese in this war are volunteers. They are not sent by the government of the New China. They come here as peace-loving citizens of the world to stop American aggression. And Russia; how could such a thing be? Russia is a member of the United Nations, a better member than most since she will have none of this UN aggression. Maybe I have been wrong about you. Maybe you are not just a tool of wall street after all. Maybe you are yourself one of the warmongers, since you can make up such lies yourself! Still it would be indeed strange then for you to come where there is danger. Or did you come to get your soldiers to use more bombs and bullets so you could make more money?"

The tirade went on. Whenever Wendon spoke in answer or to make a statement, his words were twisted and flung back at him. When the prisoner remained silent, the bespectacled chinaman berated him for not answering.

After supper, when heíd hoped for respite, Wendon had another visitor. This one took up the same themes, as though he knew all that had transpired before. Sometime during the night a third one came, and at breakfast time a fourth. The prisoner was not even allowed to eat alone that day, or in many of those to follow. He slept for a while the second night, having no idea how long.

The pattern of visits became confused. None of the enemy gave their names, and Wendon didnít think up any for them. There was a dumpy sort of fellow with a self-satisfied smirk who had the annoying habit of jingling something in his pocket almost con- stantly. A tall, arrogant one, better groomed than the others, spoke very natural English. Then there was the hunchback—he seemed the shrewdest of them all, and his threats, though subtle, seemed more sincere than those of the others.

Wendon battled them all, shouting back at times, at times patiently explaining and arguing. He learned to remain silent through most of the propaganda spiels, but he couldnít quite ignore them. He tried to find answers to all their charges and accusations. When the enemy didnít seem to understand his statements, Wendon would rephrase them, trying to prove his point. A staff officer knew how to do that, he did it in his everyday work; one had to discuss, debate, and argue to arrive at understanding. But here the opposition couldnít seem to understand simple logic. Sometimes Wendon thought the enemy just ignored his statements, but then they would recall something he had said hours or days before to "prove" that he had now contradicted himself. He couldnít remember sometimes if he had said the things they said he had or not.

Sometimes they let him sleep. He dropped into a senseless stupor of fatigue the moment they told him to go to bed. But he never seemed to sleep very long. Usually somebody wakened him; it seemed only minutes later. Other times he wakened by himself. Always some of the enemy were there.

Never did he have a chance to collect his thoughts. On the rare occasions when he was permitted to wash or bathe, someone was nearby to talk with him. Not always was it argument, but always talk; never a chance to be alone.

"Why did you come to Korea?"

"This is a war. I am a military man. I carry out my orders."

"Only because you were sent then. You blindly follow orders of those who pay you. No personal reason; only follow orders. What a fool! Why did you fly your plane over North Korea?"

"I am a pilot."

"So! What was your mission?"

"That is a military question. I will not answer."

"Was it a bombing mission?"

The prisoner remained silent.

"You do not deny; so then it was a bombing mission."

"No it wasnít!"

"Ah, so a reconnaissance mission, then."

"Something like that."

"To find places to drop bacteria bombs!"

"Thatís a lie!"

"Then prove it! What was your mission? Tell us what your mis- sion was so we know it is not to find places for dropping germ bombs!"

Wendon realized he had talked more than he should, had been drawn into a trap. He kept silent.

"Who are you protecting, Wendon? Who is worth all this? The capitalists who pay you? The warmongers who caused this war? Your superiors who sent you to Korea and now sit comfortably in their swivel chairs? The ones who assigned you this criminal mission? Are any of them worth all this? Would any of them do it for you?"

Even though he didnít try to answer these questions for the enemy, Wendon sought answers for himself. Why did he come to Korea? Why did he make the unessential flight on which he was shot down? Why was he here? And now that he was, was anything or anybody worth all this?

But he couldnít find the answers. They wouldnít leave him alone so he could think. If only theyíd let him think. He became so confused that he lost all track of time and the sequence of events. He tried making a calendar on a scrap of paper, but the hunchback saw it and took it away. His food came regularly, but he didnít feel hungry. A few spoonfuls of rice and a little of the potato soup, and his appetite was gone. While accusing him, they showed him papers they said was some other pilotís confession. They forced him to read it aloud. They insisted he knew about such things, that he was one of the top men of "bacteriological warfare." That was why he had flown over North Korea—to look for places to drop "germ bombs." They wanted him to "confess"; to write a deposition like the one they showed him.

The enemy spoke of "lenient treatment" for those who qualified as "ordinary" prisoners of war by "cooperating." Wendon remem- bered asking why there were no Red Cross parcels or representatives.

"The so-called International Red Cross is a nest of capitalist spies," the hunchback said. "And besides, prisoners who qualify for our lenient policy receive all things they need. There is no need for Red Cross parcels. You say you do not believe this. Well, you can see for yourself."

Wendon looked at the hunchback wonderingly.

"Yes," the chinarnan said in reply to the prisonerís unspoken question, "you may learn for yourself about our lenient policy. You have only to qualify yourself as an ordinary prisoner; pick up the pencil and write!"

"Write what?"

"Confess to your crimes! It is because you are a war criminal you are not qualified for the lenient policy."

"You know I have committed no crimes!"

"The use of germ war is criminal. You are guilty of a crime. You do not deserve leniency; but because we are communists we will be lenient if you confess. This is because we know some superior has ordered you."

"Thatís all rot and you know it!"

"In the superstition you call religion you confess to your God to be forgiven. It is the same here, only you confess to us and we forgive you. And we do more than your God; we show our forgiveness with things you can see and feel and taste!"

"You—you heathens! You havenít the right to even speak of God!"

"Very well. Confess to your God, then. Ask his forgiveness. Ask him for better food, for a bath, for others to talk with. See if your God has a lenient policy like ours. Pray, fool! Get down on your knees and pray! Ask your Almighty God to strike us dead! I will leave you to pray and confess to your God; to seek his help. I will leave the pencil and paper, too, in case you decide to clear your conscience with us. Confess to your God and confess to us. See which is better! And if you get tired of praying, perhaps you can think and find answers to our questions. Even if you donít tell us, maybe you should have answers for yourself."

So they left him. And Wendon did pray: "Help me, dear God. Deliver me from this awful torment!" He found himself at loss for other words or thoughts of prayer. Would not that be enough? Had he not placed himself in the hands of God?

Also, Wendon searched for answers. Why had he come to Korea? Orders? Well, yes; but he didnít really have to come; this was a small war, everybody didnít have to get in it. However, a combat assignment helped on promotions, especially when a fellow was at the level where competition began and a few points could make such a big difference. That was no reason he could mention to the enemy, though. He didnít even like to admit it to himself.

Why was he here, a prisoner? Wendon cursed himself time and again for the foolish whim that caused him to take a flight over enemy territory. It wasnít part of his job. When it came to that, he had had more of an obligation not to risk capture. Should he tell the enemy it was just a whim? Why tell them anything? It would do no good. If only he could find an answer for himself—ó

So there he was, alone to think, just as he had once wanted. Very much alone. The coolie who brought his food didnít say anything, not even in Chinese. Wendon was allowed out to the latrine, and at times to sit outside his room. Sometimes he caught glimpses of other prisoners across the valley beyond the stream. Once he saw six or seven men playing with a volley ball. Another time they were bathing at the stream.

Why? Why should he suffer so when others didnít? Those others must have collaborated to enjoy such privileges. The enemy called it "qualifying for the lenient policy." Wendon convinced him- self those others were doing the enemyís bidding. He might never learn that among the group he saw was a man named Kert; that every man there had been pressed for a "confession" before Wendon was even captured, and not a one of them had broken.

So Wendon asked himself: "Who is worth all this?" Would anyone endure as much for him? He thought of his last tour of duty in Washington, of the people he knew there who pulled strings and shuffled papers for years so they could stay in the States. There were people who did all manner of things to keep from coming to Korea, just as before that they had done the same things to keep from going to any of the hot spots of World War II. Wendon also remembered some who came to Washington from the battles of World War II and left again, readily and willingly, to come to Korea; but then he went back to thinking about the string- pullers. He decided that although he knew some who might resist, he knew others who he was certain would not.

So the days and weeks went by, and still he got no answers that would satisfy himself. Now, he kept a record of the days, since no one came around to take away his calendar. But though he knew how long heíd been left alone, he didnít know what day it was because he didnít know which day to start with. Heíd lost track when the hunchback took the first calendar.

On the fifty-fourth day of solitude, the chinaman with the glasses returned.

"How are you these days, Colonel Wendon?"

"As if you cared," the prisoner said bitterly.

"It is yourself who does not seem to care. We would like to be lenient with you, but you do not permit us. And it is not our fault you are here; we did not tell you to come to Korea."

The prisoner lapsed into silence, morose and bitter.

"Well, you have had much time to consider," the chinaman said. "Did you find answers to all the questions? Do you decide a reason why you are here?"

Wendon maintained his sullen silence.

Perhaps it was something in the prisonerís eyes or manner which prompted the chinaman to say, "Ah-h, I see you have not. What a pity! It must be terrible to be here this way without a reason, to suffer so without a cause."

And it was.

Wendon searched his mind again for a reason, as he had those countless days and nights before. And now, plagued as he was by the unanswered questions, the enemy harassed him again. But the pressure from without seemed less now than that from within himself. When the enemy was absent, there was still no respite. The questions whirled madly through his head, night and day. Only now and then did the immediate words of the enemy pene- trate the tornado of his confused thoughts. Occasionally he might hear them say such things as "If only you do as we ask!" "Otherwise you stay here and rot!"

How long it went on, Wendon didnít really know. For hours on end he sat at the table, head in hands, with the pencil and paper by his elbow. Lower and lower he sank, until his face was buried in his arms, now folded on the table.

Time died. It may have been minutes, or days, or years until that moment when Wendon raised his head only enough to reach for the pencil and paper.






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