.7.Brother, Neighbor, and Enemy
BY THE RIVERSIDE
THE TRUCK SLOWED as the driver applied brakes, and the Sergeant looked out to determine the reason. In the road ahead the preceding truck was stalled, with the hood up and the Chinese driver peering in at the engine. Two prisoners had got out and were also looking under the hood. Another Chinese motioned the following truck on its way. As they passed, Tsai stuck his head out the back to speak in Chinese with his counterpart in the other truck, but the otherís reply was drowned out by Ghant as he called to the Americans in the stalled vehicle.
"Sorry fellas, you almost made it!"
"Aw go to hell!" someone shouted back, not at all unhappily.
"If we canít make it from here we donít deserve to go home!" another shouted.
Friendly jibes continued until the distance was too great.
"My god," Ghant said, not to Tsai but for his hearing, "you canít even trust a communist truck!"
"Other truck come soon," Tsai said, seriously. "Is only small trouble."
Ghant, turning his head to conceal his silent laughter from Tsai, winked at Sergeant Wolfe, and the Sergeant lifted an eyebrow in reply.
The close friendship of these two was hardly revealed in their brief exchange of glances. Had they been seated together in the truck, no doubt they would have been engrossed in conversation, for there were many things each had in mind to discuss with the other. But there would be opportunity to talk on the other side of the line. Theirs was not the kind of friendship that required conversation to keep it alive. When it came to that, it seemed to the Sergeant, the people who were most interesting to talk with were those with whom one could also enjoy silence.
The captain and the Sergeant had first met during another truck ride, many months ago. They hadnít become acquainted during that ride, because theyíd occupied separate corners of the truck then, too. And since on that northward trip there had been twenty-seven prisoners in a truck the same size as this one, which was full with twelve, people in opposite corners couldnít communicate very readily.
There was an impressive reception for that group of prisoners when they reached Pyoktong. First a welcoming speech, not very long, which made only passing mention of the "lenient policy." More impressive was the meal which followed the speech.
The prisoners were instructed to divide themselves into groups of four, about the courtyard of the prison camp headquarters. No sooner had they complied than half-a-dozen excited young Chinese appeared with buckets and bowls. The bowls were given to the prisoners to keep as their own. The buckets, two for each group, contained rice and a good-looking soup of potatoes and greens. The bearers of the food set the buckets down by the separate groups and scurried away. Moments later, as the prisoners delved eagerly into the buckets, the flunkies returned with pans containingwonder of wondersscrambled eggs! The reception was well planned, and no complaints were heard about that meal. Surrounded by beaming and smiling Chinese, the prisoners ate and laughed at their own eagerness over the food.
There was the rasping sound of a public address system warming up, then musica husky baritone, singing, "Olí Man River." It wasnít until the second record was played that many of the pris- oners realized the music was something other than entertainment. The next song was "Down by the Riverside, Ainít Gonna Study War No Morel" The prisoners laughed about that; then, it seemed such a juvenile propaganda device. But in the ensuing months, some of them came to despise the songs. They heard them over again and again.
After the meal, the prisoners were called by name and further separated. It was at this time that Captain Ghant and Sergeant Wolfe found themselves, not in opposite corners, but the sole occupants of a rather large, bright room in one of the headquarters buildings. As often happens with military men, they analyzed each other in the first few minutes, found mutual respect, and were shortly engaged in congenial conversation about their circumstance, although with a certain wariness, perhaps partially due to recent experiences with other American prisoners.
There were windows with glass panes on either side of the room; no furniture, but a raised podium for sleeping. A single light bulb of clear glass illumined the room after sundown. The two prisoners admired their spacious accommodations, the unusual convenience of electricity, and wondered how long it was going to last. Together they scrutinized the room carefully, wondering if there might be other electrical devices beside the one light. They kept their conversation guarded and soft, even after they felt reasonably sure there were no hidden microphones.
The captain and the Sergeant were seated on the podium chat- ting together, when someone approached the open door. A girl appeared outside in the light of the doorway, holding something on a paper supported by both hands. She stopped and stepped back from the light for a moment. Probably she thought the prisoners could not see her as she balanced the paper on one hand, took something from it with the other, and placed the something in her pocket. Then with both hands as before she proceeded into the room.
"I am Mei Shi," she announced. "I have brought something for you."
In the paper cradled in her upturned palms were four small pieces of sugar candy. The prisoners were happy to accept them. It was the first sugar they had seen in months. Both men placed the candies in their bowls and set the bowls on the sleeping podium. Later they wondered together how many pieces they would have had if Mei Shi hadnít stopped for that brief moment outside the door.
"Why do you not eat your candy?" Mei Shi asked.
The Sergeant noted the twinkle in the captainís eyes as Ghant answered, "It would not be polite to eat in front of a guest without inviting the guest to join."
"Ohyes," said Mei Shi. Probably she had no idea what the prisoner had said.
Moments later a second woman appeared. "I am Comrade Ling," she said, much more formally than Mei Shi had addressed them. After determining their names, she asked, "How do you like your room?"
"Is this where we are going to stay?" Ghant asked in return.
"For a few days," Ling replied. "Then you will go to compound where there are others. That will be better for you than here be- cause there is more to do."
"We donít need anything to do for a while," the Sergeant said. "Weíve been with the Koreans. It is good to sit and rest."
"Ah, yes, of course," Ling sounded sympathetic. "But you have no worry that you be forced to work by CPV. You have been told of our lenient policy toward prisoners." She seemed undisturbed by Wolfeís jibe.
"Will we go to the compound here?" the Sergeant asked, indi- cating the one nearby.
"I do not know," Ling replied. Her manner indicated that if she did, she would not tell unless instructed to do so.
"Now you fill out registration cards," Ling said. "We will help you."
Ling helped Ghant with his registration, and the Sergeant had Mei Shiís questionable assistance. There was no insistence from the women when the two prisoners refused to answer certain questions on the form.
"You lucky dog, you got the best lookiní one," the Sergeant said after the women were gone.
"Sure, thatís because Iím so damn good lookiní myself."
"Like hell! Itís because sheís a virtuous thing and knows sheís safe with you Ďcause youíre an officer and a gentleman."
"Hmph! Thatís a crock She just knows a good thing when she sees it and pulled her seniority on the other one to get me. You just donít have the old sex appeal, Sarge."
"Oh, I dunno. Maybe you didnít notice how that sweet young cutie of mine was acting. She was so fidgety she could hardly talkin English."
The captain became a bit serious. "Sarge, I donít mind telliní you I was shook when that gal first came in here. I couldnít figure what the hell was cominí off. Frankly, I still canít."
"Well, if itís the Ďtemptation of the fleshí routine, seems like they should be wearing slinky dresses instead of those dungarees," the Sergeant mused.
The drab army dungarees certainly didnít do anything for whatever physical charms the two women possessed. On the other hand, maybe that was the strategy. Slinky dresses would leave little to the imagination. If, as very well could be, these two didnít possess much, what better technique than to present only a feminine face and voice, and a touch of perfume, leaving the rest to imagination? Whether it was the intent or not, the shapeless coveralls did let the imagination work. The two Americans continued to discuss the matter for some time, lightly, but with an undercurrent of serious concern.
Ling, they agreed, was definitely the Mata Hari. Under the drab dungarees must be the slender willowy body which was the epitome of Chinese feminine beauty. She said she was twenty-five years old. She spoke English well. They were at a loss as to how to classify Mei Shi. She was quite short, no more than four and a half feet. She had a round face, with somewhat broad features, neither pretty nor ugly. Apparently younger than Ling, Mei Shi didnít tell her age. Her knowledge of the English language seemed quite limited.
In serious vein, the prisoners found themselves in agreement on what seemed a vital point. With the communist ability to distort any word or act, theirs was an extremely precarious situation. It might be a deliberate trap. The fact that Ling returned to turn out the light and tell them it was time for bed didnít help to put their minds at ease.
When the woman was gone again, the prisoners slipped out of their ragged, cast-off North Korean army jackets and trousers and covered themselves with them. They talked a while longer, before drifting into silence and private meditation. It was pleasant to be able to stretch out or turn over without disturbing the other fellow. Having a belly full of food was a tremendous feeling, too. That feeling helped one understand how easily some of the illiterate masses of the Orient could be duped into endorsing communism merely by a full meal or two followed up with promises, however empty, of more meals to come. The Sergeant hoped that wasnít the way it was to be with thema couple of full meals so theyíd know the feeling again, then back to meager rations like those of the past several months.
Ghant broke the silence. "Boy, that candy sure tasted good." Each of them had eaten one of his candies earlier, deciding to save the remaining piece for breakfast.
"Sure did," the Sergeant agreed.
"Letís eat our other pieces now," the captain suggested enthusiastically.
"Nope, not me. Gonna save mine for breakfast."
"Aw, what the hell! Theyíll probably give us some more tomorrow."
"If they do, Iíll eat two pieces then. Iím not counting on it."
"Sure, theyíll give us more tomorrow. You know they will. You heard what they said; they got a Ďlenient policy." Chant laughed at his own sarcasm.
Recalling the earlier incident, the Sergeant argued back: "Maybe Mei Shi will keep all the next ration for herself."
"The thieviní little bitch!" Chant swore lightly.
"Watch out how you talk about my girl! You donít hear me insultiní thatuhlady friend of yours."
"ĎScuse me all tí hell! I musta lost mí head."
"Better you should lose it. Besides, Mei Shi is just gettiní all sweetened up for me."
"Sure! On my candy!" Chant tried to sound indignant. "How about it? We gonna eat the other pieces tonight?"
"You go ahead, spendthrift. Iím saviní mine."
"All right. But youíre a sucker for saviní it. What if a rat gets it during the night?"
"Yeah," said the Sergeant, "a big two-legged rat!"
"Whaddaya mean? You know I wouldnít do a thing like that." There was a fumbling sound. "Where the hellís my bowl? Oh, here it is."
The Sergeant heard a slight smacking sound from the other for a time. Then: "Damn! This sure is good."
"Sounds like it," the Sergeant said.
"Tastes like it, too." That smacking noise again.
"Oh, all right, you bastard. Iíll eat mine now too, just to keep you company." There was a fumbling on the Sergeantís side of the room, followed by the same kind of smacking noises.
Breakfast the following morning was plain rice and a very weak soup of greens. When they had finished, Chant said, "Guess maybe we should have saved our candy like you said, Sarge."
"Itís all your fault," the Sergeant accused.
"You didnít have to eat yours just because I ate mine.*
"Oh, sure, Iím supposed to lie over there and listen to you munching away and not get hungry myself."
"Yeah, I suppose it is my fault. Should I apologize?"
"Naw, I guess not." The Sergeant removed his candy from the pocket where he had concealed it that morning, and touched it to his tongue.
"Thought you ate yours last night," Ghant said.
"You thought wrong. You are a Ďwrong thinker.í"
"I heard you smacking your lips."
"I was thinkiní about Mei Shi."
"Arenít you gonna let me have just a little taste?"
"Hah!" the Sergeant snorted.
"Okay, tightwad, Iíll have to eat my own then." So saying, Chant took his candy from a pocket and put it in his mouth, mumbling something about a "wise bastard that tried to trick me into eating it last night so I wouldnít have any left for breakfast."
Ling and Mei Shi came in shortly.
"Come," Mel Shi said, "you and I will go to the park." She took hold of the Sergeantís hand as he got up from the edge of the podium. As he left, the Sergeant looked at Chant. In the brief glance that passed between them, each said to the other, "Be careful, and good luck!"
As Mei Shi and the Sergeant walked, the girl kept up something of a conversation about the weather and the scenery. Well, it was nice weather. The air was much clearer and fresher than it had been in Píyang. The Yalu River and the mountains were almost picturesquewould have been under different circumstances. What was most enjoyable was the fact that the belly was full of rice again. The Sergeant didnít find any particular reason to dis- agree with Mei Shiís conversation at the moment.
The path leading to the park from the building was narrow and rocky. Mei Shi lead the way, still holding the Sergeantís left hand, moving slowly and looking back. She admonished him to be careful and not stumble on the rocks. There was justification for her con- cern; the shoes on the Sergeantís feet were old, made of canvas, and had been designed for the short broad feet of a North Korean soldier. The toes had now been cut out to accommodate size-ten feet. Rags tied around the insteps kept the soles from falling off.
The "park" was a tree against the base of a steep slope, about forty yards from the room. Under the tree was a small, rough-hewn wooden table and two similarly constructed chairs. The prisoner and the Chinese girl sat down, facing each other across the table. Mei Shi still held to the Sergeantís fingers after they were seated. After a couple of attempts to draw his hand away, the Sergeant decided he had best await developments, but he felt uncomfortable and very uneasy.
For a time they talked casually. Mei Shi did most of the talking, assuring the prisoner of pleasantries to come, now that he was in the hands of the "Chinese Peopleís Volunteers." She asked a few questions about when and where heíd been captured, but all in a conversational tone. Not that the tone made it any less necessary to be on guard, the Sergeant thought, but it did make it easier to avoid unpleasantness. To test the young womanís command of English, the Sergeant occasionally used words he thought she might not understand. A couple of times, Mei Shi wrote down a word, excused herself, and left to find its meaning. As she took her leave, she cautioned the prisoner to remain seated so a guard would not think he was trying to escape. Her absence provided an excellent opportunity to study the surroundings and contemplate on the possibilities of just such an enterprise.
The first time Mei Shi returned, the Sergeant had his arms still on the table, and the girl took hold of his hand again. The next time, he kept his hand out of her reach, finding humor in the thought that he was "playing hard to get." He figured Ghant would get a kick out of that when they compared their experiences that night.
Suddenly Mei Shi asked, "What are your thoughts about germ warfare?"
This must be the pitch, the Sergeant decided. Quietly he answered, "Itís a lot of hooey."
"What does that meanhooey?"
"It means it is propaganda; it is not true."
"You do not believe it?" Mei Shi sat back in her chair abruptly, appearing astonished. Both the action and the way she spoke the question seemed practiced. It was unlikely that she was as surprised as she would have him think The Sergeant wondered if at this point she would have flung his hand away, had she still been holding it. He felt that had been the plan.
"No," he answered softly.
"But it is true!"
The Sergeant decided to try a question of his own: "How do you know it is true?"
The Sergeant said nothing more. With the communists, things "had" to be true if they said it. They felt no other evidence was necessary.
"Would you believe is true if you see proof?" the girl asked.
"What kind of proof?"
"Pictures! I can show you! We have pictures to prove!"
"False pictures are easy to make."
"But these are true! I have seen!" As certain as he was that her initial display of surprise was pretense, the Sergeant was equally certain the girl believed the lie of germ warfare. She was becoming unduly excited. This, the prisoner realized, was the time to clam up.
The girl launched into a communist spiel. "The American ag- gressors have been using germ warfarebombing peaceful villages and townsschoolhouseskilling innocent women and children. Germsand dirty bugs" As the tirade progressed, her face became first pink, then livid. She stumbled over the English words as her passion increased. Had they not been well memorized from the propaganda line, she would have lost them completely. Some of the words were obviously not a part of her present English vocabulary. As her fury increased, she blurted out Chinese phrases along with English, perhaps adding her own emphasis to the memorized spiel.
Fury it was. The redness of her face was no pretense, effected by the interrogatorís trick of holding the breath. This was vile, passionate anger and hatred, born of implicit belief in a tremendous lie. Multiply this one young communist subject by untold millions, the Sergeant thought, and you had one of the reasons why even a false confession could constitute betrayal of the cause of freedom.
© 2002, 2003 by Lynn Waterman; used by permission of the author, Duane Thorin.