"IF"

There was not time in the brief period they were together in Pyoktong for Captain Ghant and Sergeant Wolfe to become close friends. Even so, their natural compatibility was a blessing, for their ribbing of each other when they were left alone served to relieve the tension both of them felt after the sessions with their female interrogators. But after two days of subtle questioning by the women, obviously instructed by a superior the prisoners never saw, Ghant and Wolfe were removed from the room and sent separate ways.

The Sergeant went with a small group to a remote area where a new prison camp was being started. Ghant was isolated for further interrogation, his whereabouts unknown to other prisoners for several months. Late in the summer Sergeant Wolfe discovered trace of him in the vermin-infested kitchen of an old Korean house. The rest of the house was used as storage for supplies. The kitchen served as a punishment cell. Sergeant Wolfe, placed there following a short-lived escape venture, discovered a calendar scratched in the hard clay under the trash. Scrawled at the bottom of the calendar were two words: "interrogation" and "Ghant."

When Sergeant Wolfeís isolation ended in the fall, he rejoined his former group, now somewhat expanded by additional prisoners. Ghant was among them. In the less restricted circumstance of the compound, the two men discovered they had several common interests they hadnít gotten around to discussing in Pyoktong. Foremost of these, of course, was the desire to escape, a subject which occupied a predominant part of their thoughts and discussions. The Sergeantís recapture had come about through chance discovery by a Korean woman while he was resting in some brush. Perhaps two compatible men working together—one watching for the other when rest became necessary—would have better chance of success.

Though most of a manís consideration had to be given to prob- lems of the present and immediate future, it was pleasant now and again to project oneself into that nebulous future when a man would be free again. But it was dangerous for him to do that alone. Daydreams could become an opiate and an obsession, dragging him into a degenerating sequence of apathy, self-pity, and oblivion. It was much better if there was someone with whom to share the dream. Two together could keep each other from drifting too far from reality.

A "futuristic" interest the two men had in common was boats and fishing. Often they talked of them.

"A twenty-five Ďfooter," the Sergeant might say, "with a stove and reefer and a couple of bunks."

"And a low, broad stern," the Captain added, "decked over for handling nets."

"If we go through Japan on the way back, maybe we could buy some nets there—a lot cheaper than back in the States."

"Wonder if theyíd have shrimp trawls, or if they use the same kind we do."

"I donít know," the Sergeant began, "but when we get to Tokyo—"

"You mean, ĎIFí!" the Captain interrupted.

They looked at each other seriously for a moment. "Kill-joy!" the Sergeant said. They both laughed.

That "IF" was an important part of their companionship. They often said it to each other when they talked of things "after." Thus they kept themselves reminded that the future was still uncertain. Whenever their spirits seemed dangerously high, or dreams too much of an object within themselves, one would say to the other— "IF!"

Part of a manís resistance when he was first captured was the feeling he had no future. Figuring he was going to die anyway, when the enemy either got what they wanted or decided further interrogation was futile, a fellow acquired a "tí hell with it" attitude, once he got over feeling sorry for himself. It was then, too, that he quit worrying about dying and concentrated on figuring a way out of his predicament. Knowing the enemy wasnít concerned about his welfare except as it might serve their interests, a fellow became more alert for the ways and means of survival and escape. Whenever the prisoner adopted such a philosophy, the enemy could get nothing from him. However, for the prisoner to convince the enemy that he did feel that way was not an easy matter. And even after the enemy were convinced that their immediate efforts were thwarted, by no means were they finished trying. They simply adopted another strategy.

First, they took off the pressureólet the guy out of "sol" to comparative freedom with a small group or in a compound. Great effort was made by the enemy to assure the prisoner that all was now well. It was only necessary now that the prisoner be patient and look after his health so that when the war ended he could return to his loved ones. Time should be spent, the enemy suggested, in dreaming and planning for the future, at home.

Hope is one of the motivations of man. Without it, he may suffer despair. But with too much hoping, dreams become a preoccupation which renders the dreamer oblivious to other matters. Having been for a long time in solitary with little or no dream for the future, a man released to the relative freedom of the compound might grasp at hope like the drowning man clutching a straw. Then the enemy would try again. And if the dreams had become a manís prime object, quite likely the enemy could succeed; for then they would say, "Your dreams will come true only if you do as we say."

So it was the enemyís "ifís" that made necessary the big "IF" which Captain Ghant and Sergeant Wolfe kept in all their thoughts and plans for the future. They learned to keep it with them even when alone. There came a time when the Sergeant needed that

"IF."

 

Wolfe was at work repairing the fire-box under the rice pot when Tsai came looking for him.

"Come with me," the little chinaman ordered.

"I have to get this fixed, Tsai, we need it."

"Someone else can fix. You must come. You get all your things to leave compound."

The Sergeant swore to himself. Interrogation again! Damn! Over a year heíd been a prisoner and still more interrogation. Wouldnít they ever leave a fellow alone?

Tsai followed and stood by as the Sergeant rolled his bedding. Emmett was there, and the little chinaman engaged the lieutenant in conversation, quite obviously to keep the two prisoners from talking to each other. He was successful in that, but it didnít matter. These prisoners were prepared for the unexpected. Emmett distracted Tsai enough that the Sergeant could discard a few small items from his belongings that it was important for him not to carry to interrogation.

Wolfe followed Tsai out of the compound and was led to a Ko- rean house in the village. In the end room, Tsai motioned for the prisoner to place his bedroll on the floor to one side. The other side of the room had a crude platform-bunk. A small table was placed between the bunk and the space allotted for the prisonerís bed. The Sergeant dropped his bedroll down and sat on it.

Another chinaman appeared shortly, carrying an armload of papers and personal equipment. He was small, about the same height as Tsai, but thinner. He was of quite neat appearance, wore rimless glasses, and had quick nervous movements. This must be Ing—"Ting-a-ling Ing," as Emmett had called him.

Tsai left, closing the door behind him. Ing arranged his belong- ings on the bunk and the table, then seated himself on the bunk. Silence prevailed for several minutes. The Sergeant glanced at the enemy once to ascertain that the fellow was studying him, then sat physically relaxed, concentrating on his own thoughts: Control! One must have absolute self-control!

"Would you like a cigarette?"

The prisoner glanced up at the proffered pack and momentarily into the otherís eyes. "No, thank you," he said quietly and looked away again to study the pattern of the straw mat in front of his feet. He could sense the intensity of the interrogatorís appraisal of him, as the chinaman withdrew the cigarette and lighted it for himself.

"How is your health?" Ing asked.

"About as good as can be expected with the food and the circumstances."

"You donít feel well?"

"I donít consider myself in good health."

Ing changed the subject and, as time went by, changed it again and again. Casual, meaningless conversation. Keep the answers brief, the Sergeant remembered—simple, soft and meaningless. The chinaman lighted a second cigarette from the first one. Emmett had said Ing was a chain-smoker.

Perhaps Ing noted the prisonerís interest as he lighted the second cigarette. "Do you receive a ration of tobacco when you are in the compound?" he asked.

"Yes." Simple answers. Why bother to add that he gave it away or swapped it for something he had a use for?

Back to casual questions, and some not so casual. Ing asked about things that happened before the Sergeant was captured.

"Thatís a long time ago," the Sergeant replied. "I canít remember."

"You must try to remember," Ing said. "Always when I ask a question you reply immediately and say you canít remember. You do not show good faith, because you make no attempt to remember. I know it has been a long time, but maybe you can remember if you think a while."

The prisoner looked up at the interrogator, wondering at the prolonged monologue. This was Ingís first deviation from simple conversational questioning, the first indication of "lecturing" to the prisoner, so common with the other interrogators heíd had to do with before.

"Will you try to remember?" Ing asked as their eyes met, "To show good faith?"

The prisoner held the enemyís gaze as he pondered the question. "Okay," he said after a time. Ing lowered his eyes.

Subsequently after each question, the Sergeant delayed what seemed an appropriate time before answering. Although the an- swers were the same as he would have given immediately, still Ing seemed better satisfied.

The change in Ingís tactics was strangely gradual. After days passed with no results from coaxing and appealing to the prisoner to "demonstrate good faith," the interrogator began to include subtly implied threats. Later, the threats were direct, sometimes angry, other times not.

"You must consider your position," Ing warned, "and realize we can do as we wish with you. Even if the war ends we do not have to let you go home."

"It would be a violation of the agreement to keep me," the Sergeant commented.

"But who would know?" Ing asked with a chuckle. "Your country does not know you are alive."

"Then you did not report me as a prisoner! Is that true?"

Ing tapped his cigarette gently, took a deliberate slow drag, and smiled self-assuredly through the smoke as he exhaled. "Has anyone ever said you were reported?" he asked.

"Yes."

The smile faded. There was a momentary pause in the casual tapping of the cigarette. The Sergeant wondered whether the pause denoted surprise or disbelief.

"Who told you this? When?" Ing asked.

"When our pictures were taken. We were told it was for identification to accompany our names on the POW list to be exchanged at the peace conference."

Their eyes locked. Neither showed any expression, but the tension mounted between them. The Sergeant sensed that for the moment he had Ing on the defensive. The enemyís control was good, but not perfect; Ing was no longer tapping his cigarette with the end of his finger as usual. He was snapping it quickly, almost viciously, with his nail instead. The chinamanís eyes dropped first.

"Perhaps that is true," Ing replied finally. "Only the list was not exchanged, because your side refused to meet and negotiate."

Heís good, the Sergeant thought to himself, but the cigarette gives him away. Took him a while to come up with that last answer, too.

"But anyway, in your case it is different than that," Ing continued. "We know for certain that your country and your family believe you to be dead. Do you not think it best to learn to cooperate? In case you must live the rest of your life with us?"

This was something new, this "knowing for certain" that his family considered him dead. Wolfe remembered a new prisoner who had said heíd read something in a magazine about the Sergeantís old outfit. Heíd recalled the names of some of the men easily enough—men who were involved in the fracas when the Sergeant got captured. Well, if Wolfeís name was in it, and likely it was, whatever was said about him the chinamen certainly knew by now. The communists seemed to have every major American magazine just about as soon as the subscribers in the States, and you could bet they read it more thoroughly.

But wouldnít this new fellow have mentioned it if the article had said Sergeant Wolfe was dead? Of course, he wouldnít. You just didnít tell a guy things like that in a prisoner of war camp; he had enough worries as it was.

"So now what do you think?" Ing asked.

"It makes no difference," the Sergeant replied. But he was glad the chinaman didnít press the issue further at the moment.

Is there no end to it? he wondered. These many months and here again the same pressure, even more; the same point of decision all over again that heíd faced in those first few days after capture. Well, one could only wait and see. If it did end and they didnít repatriate him—To hell with that! There were more important things to concentrate on. He looked at Ing as the chinaman lit another cigarette. Noting the glance, Ing exhaled and spoke.

"Why do you not accept cigarettes from me?"

The Sergeant averted his face quickly to conceal from Ing the slight smile he couldnít hold back. It hadnít occurred to him that his refusal bothered the interrogator. Looking back at the chinaman, still smiling slightly, the prisoner said, "Thatís an easy one; I donít smoke."

The air of tension vanished. Ing smiled in return, perhaps at himself. He had interpreted the prisonerís refusal of cigarettes as defiance. The humor of the situation prevailed for several minutes, with no conversation. It was hardly the atmosphere for further interrogation. The chinaman politely excused himself and left the room. The Sergeant wondered whether Ing shared the joke on himself with his comrades.

In the days that followed, when the ordeal of interrogation was resumed, the Sergeant watched the interrogatorís cigarette for indications of the enemyís mood. Slight though it was, the only accurate sign of emotion the interrogator displayed was in the way he handled his cigarette. Eventually Ing noticed the prisonerís continued interest in his smoking and wondered at it. In the midst of one rather tense session, the interrogator interjected: "Why do you not smoke?"

What the hell difference did that make? Then it dawned—this fellow was self-conscious about his smoking. The habit had Ing more than Ing had the habit. For a minute or more the prisoner pondered how he might use his discovery. He glanced up at Ing, then away, as he said, with a slight shrug and quite truthfully, "Oh, I just never cared to."

He could sense the chinamanís suspicious gaze without looking at him. Ing didnít believe the answer. If you didnít look them in the eye when you answered, they seemed to think you were either lying or concealing something. Ing changed the subject.

The following day, after an hour or so of conversation and questions, Ing said suddenly and forcefully, "Why do you not smoke?"

The Sergeant feigned surprise, concealing the excitement within him. "Why," he said innocently, "I told you yesterday, I just never cared to."

"But that is not your real reason!" Ing fixed the prisonerís eyes with what was intended to be a shrewd, perceptive stare. "You must tell me your real reason!"

The prisoner pulled his eyes away from those of the enemy and pretended to consider his reply. He concentrated on subduing his own eagerness in order to answer without showing emotion. "All right," he said finally, as though in decision; then raising his eyes again, to look squarely at the interrogator, "Because itís a sign of weakness."

Ingís face became livid. Despite the impact of the statement on his ego, he did not speak. Nor did he move—except to look down at his cigarette and snap it violently with his finger. As soon as the chinamanís eyes dropped, the Sergeant shifted his own to concentrate once again on the straw mat between his feet. The interrogator arose and left the room. Only then did the prisoner permit himself the reward of smiling at his own success. It was well over an hour before Ing returned.

For two more days the interrogation continued, but during that time there were many interruptions. Whenever the interrogator held a cigarette in his hand the Sergeant had only to look at it a moment, and Ing was forced to break off the session. His coaxing gave way to threats of punishmentósolitary imprisonment, exile, death. Wolfe was constantly reminded that his fate hinged on the whim of the captors. On the final day, Ing outlined the threats again. Then: "I leave you for a while to consider your circumstance and make your final decision."

When the chinaman was gone, the Sergeant thought. If they took him out of this camp area, maybe he should try to escape along the way. Definitely he should make an attempt if they took him across the Yalu. If Ing had him put in solitary, it might be more difficult to get away, then again it might be easier, but whichever way that was, in solitary heíd have to go it alone—couldnít go as heíd planned to, with Ghant. But there was the answer—Ghantís "IF" and his own. Thereíd always be some course to follow other than those the enemy offered, so long as a fellow didnít have any plans that couldnít be changed, so long as his planning included "IF."

Ing returned. "What is your decision?" he asked. "Do you still refuse to answer my questions?"

"Whatever you have in mind for me, you may as well get it started."

It was acceptance more than defiance. The interrogator studied the prisoner for a time, perhaps trying to determine if Wolfe had made a final decision or was still just staffing. ĎPack your things," the chinaman said at length. "You will move to other place." He left the room.

His belongings packed, the Sergeant waited and wondered. He had the odd thought that if Ing sent him to solitary or assigned him any other punishment, it would be with something of regret on the part of the interrogator. Dedicated as was their enmity, there had developed an air of mutual personal respect between captor and captive. It seemed strange, the Sergeant thought, that you could feel respect for a hated enemy and so utterly despise some of the weak characters who were supposed to be your friends.

Tsai appeared, with his usual bright smile. "Come," he said.

The Sergeant shouldered his bedroll as he stepped out of the room. "Where to this time, Tsai?"

Tsaiís laugh was light. "Oh, you go back to compound with others."

The prisoner made no comment.

"Are you happy to go back with others?" Tsai asked.

Sergeant Wolfe cast a sidelong glance at the little chinaman, and Tsaiís smile faded, as the two walked in silence to the com- pound. At the gate Tsai spoke briefly to the guard, then said to Wolfe, "You may return to your squad."

Perhaps Tsai didnít accompany the Sergeant farther because he wished to avoid the flurry of questions from those prisoners who would flock around him whenever he entered the compound. Quite possibly the "congenial little chinaman" found it a bit puzzling that some of the Americans were so talkative he had to avoid them, while from others he couldnít get even a hint of their thoughts.

 

Wolfe was glad to be back with the group for many reasons. Most important, he could resume his planning for escape with Captain Ghant. Fortunately, in their renewed scheming the two men still kept the "IF." Ghant needed that "IF" next, perhaps more than the Sergeant had. It was only a few nights later.

"Ghant!"

The captain was awakened by Tsaiís call and a light in his face.

"Huh?"

"Get up and pack your things," Tsai ordered. It was late, and most of the prisoners were asleep.

"Where to this time?" Ghant asked, not expecting an honest answer.

"I donít know." Tsai held the flashlight so Ghant could see to roll his bedding.

When he had finished, the captain straightened up with the bedroll under his arm. "Okay, Iím ready."

"You have everything?"

"I think so."

"Be sure."

"I canít think of anything else."

They left the building. Others watched as the tall American and the little chinaman passed out of the compound and turned in the direction of the village.

"Guess heís staying in the village," one of the watchers said. "They went that way."

Some ten or fifteen minutes later Tsai came back. Emmett was sitting up, smoking a cigarette. He had been awake when Ghant left.

"Emmett?" Tsai didnít flash his light directly into the prisonerís face.

"Yes."

"Can you show me Ghantís bowl and cup? He forgot."

"Oh, sure. Right beside mine." Emmett slipped on his shoes and went to the shelf where the bowls were kept. He handed the cup and bowl to Tsai.

"Thank you," Tsai said and departed.

"Sure," Emmett said softly as he returned to his bedding and sat down. He put out the cigarette but remained sitting and thinking for a long time.

Ghant was leaving the valley. If he werenít, he wouldnít have asked for the bowl until morning. When a fellow stayed in the valley there was fair chance he might be back after a week or so of interrogation. But when he left, he didnít return very soon, if at all. With all Ghant contributed to the morale and spirit of the group, it hurt to have him taken away.

Emmett looked down at Wolfe stretched out beside him. The Sergeant had slept through the mild disturbance of Ghantís departure. He was tired from the work heíd done that day. It seemed best to let him sleep now, Emmett decided, and learn of Ghantís absence in the morning. Tomorrow the Sergeant would find more work to do. It was better if a man kept busy.






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