ROOM SERVICE

Laughing Boy escorted Ghant to his new quarters. It was about a three-minute walk, but the turns they took made the captain believe they had followed a roundabout course, walking farther than necessary to reach the place.

Even Laughing Boy didnít find anything humorous in Ghantís new prison, a long-unused room on the end of a farm house—a lean-to added some time after the house was built. There was no mat on the floor. In fact, it wasnít even a floor. Most of the Korean floors were made of dirt, but they were made. This addition had been built directly over the hard-packed ground. The small room was littered with broken farm implements, corn cobs, and stalks of cane. Over all was a fine, powdery dust, sprinkled with rat droppings. Laughing Boyís flashlight sent a huge spider scurrying, leaving his unfinished web dangling in front of the doorway.

"Nice looking quarters," Ghant said.

The chinaman made no comment, but motioned with the light for the captain to enter. Ghant brushed down the shreds of spider web with his hand and entered. As he glanced about for the best place for his bedding, Laughing Boy turned off the light.

"How about holding the light so I can see where to put my stuff?" Ghant asked.

The light fficked back on. The prisoner selected a corner in the back of the room. It was as badly cluttered as the rest, but the ground beneath the debris appeared the smoothest in the place. Ghant started to move the litter.

"You find place you like?" the chinaman asked.

"Yeah, Iíll clear this."

The light flicked off.

"I need the light to clear a space," the prisoner complained.

"I cannot wait longer; you do without light."

"Iíll remember that, you bastard," Ghant murmured to himself, "if there ever comes a time."

Laughing Boy stood by the still-open door talking with the guard who had followed them. Ghant wondered momentarily what "privileges" he would have in his new residence. Since nothing was said, heíd have to wait and test the guard. Laughing Boy turned to close the door. "You will keep the door closed at all times," he said. Through a crack, Ghant saw the interrogator disappear down the path, and the guard take up an idle shuffling on the other side of the small yard.

The captain searched his pockets for a match. Finding one, he felt his way to a corner in the front of the small room. Lighting the match, he shielded it with his body to prevent the glow from reflecting on the paper-covered door. With the other hand, he swept up bits of cane leaf into a small pile and touched the match to one side. When the fire caught in a small flickering blaze, he strung out the pile to make a slow-burning "train." Making a shield for the faint light with pieces of litter, he set about clearing a space to put his bedding. Dust filled his nostrils as he kicked debris aside. He had cleared the space and had started to unroll the bedding when the little fire flared brighter as several scraps caught at once.

"Szu!" He heard the footsteps of the guard approach the door. Ghant put his foot on the fire quickly, just before the door opened. The guard flashed his light full in the prisonerís face, blinding him. Ghant turned his face away and indicated the half-laid bedding, part of which he still held in his hand. The light-beam moved to the corner and stayed there while the prisoner finished adjusting his belongings.

"Sheh-sheh," the captain said to express his gratitude.

"Uh!" Grunting affably in reply, the guard closed the door.

Ghant slept well that night, though he was awakened twice by rats. First, he felt one exploring about his feet. Next, one nibbled at his finger. He found another match then and lighted it under the blanket. The skin on his finger wasnít broken. Ghant rubbed it, covered up his head, and went back to sleep.

But on succeeding nights the rats didnít bother him so much as the chinamen. Day and night they came from then on—first one, then another—sometimes two or three at a time. They brought paper and pencils. Coaxing, suggesting, threatening.

"You have read how others have told their experiences; perhaps you would like to do same."

"It is good to get such things off your mind."

"It is no longer secret, so you do not protect information."

"Why do you let yourself be tormented for no reason?"

"You cannot expect treatment as regular prisoner of war unless you cooperate."

"Your country cares nothing about you now that you are prisoner!"

"If you hope to go home, you will do as we ask."

On and on, day and night. Sometimes Ghant answered them, mostly he did not. The first day he was allowed to go to the stream to wash his bowls after breakfast. While he was there, he caught a glimpse of two men held separately in houses on the other side of the stream. Ghant made no sign toward them. He only looked, but afterwards he was not permitted to go to the stream again. After meals, the chinamen took his bowls and washed them for him. He kidded himself by thinking that certain of the accommodations might not be so plush, but at least he was getting room service.

Left alone at times, the captain broke the monotony by more frequent trips to the latrine. From there he could see a cluster of buildings which he thought were the quarters of the chinamen who were working on him. But the guard must have reported that the latrine trips were too frequent. The following day he wasnít permitted to go so often. When he opened the door and put his head out, the guard challenged, "Szu!"

"So-byen," the prisoner called.

"Ma-o!" the guard shook his head vigorously.

"So-byen?" Ghant called again, thinking the guard may not have understood.

"Mao-la!" More shaking of the head. When Ghant didnít pull his head back in, the guard motioned for him to do so.

"The bastards," Ghant thought as he closed the door. "And I really have to go, this time."

Thinking perhaps he had been kept in only because there was someone else out in sight when heíd asked, the captain tried again later. The result was the same. When he closed the door this time, the guard came up and leaned a small log against it. Then, apparently for emphasis, the soldier picked up the top end of the log and slammed it against the door. For a moment, Ghant thought the wall would collapse. Dirt showered from the ceiling. There was a tear in the paper covering the door.

Ghant started to brush the dirt from his bedding. Then, feeling a more urgent need, he searched the rubble until he found a short stick. He went to the back corner of the room away from the bed and poked a hole in the back wall. It would serve for one purpose; he could only hope theyíd let him out for the other.

His new situation soon became as monotonous as the old, though it could hardly be called boring. The variety of visitors, accusations and suggestions, so constantly repeated, became monotony itself, and of course, fatiguing. The passage of time was indeterminate. Minutes, hours, days, or weeks—filled with fatigue, he could no longer distinguish one from the other. He found himself searching for ways to break the monotony. Even while the enemy raved and ranted at him, he put his mind to other things. He thought of the endless story about the ants: "another ant came by that way—" He substituted "communist" for "ant" and found a strange kind of humor and release in thinking that the comparison was far more than simply rhetorical.

With the chinamen, the whole matter was very serious. Even Laughing Boy no longer smiled. Ghant hadnít seen anyone smile since the last day heíd been with Rickey. He mentioned this to Specs, who was the grimmest of the lot. When the bespectacled chinaman upbraided him one evening for "lack of cooperation" and "stubbornness," Ghant told Specs that maybe he would feel differently if someone would act pleasantly toward him, instead of so viciously.

"I have never seen you smile," the prisoner complained. "Maybe I would be different if you were pleasant to me just once."

So the next morning Specs was back early, beaming and talking pleasantly about the weather and the prospects for the war to end. For a couple of hours they talked thus, after which the chinaman brought the conversation back to the business at hand.

"Well now"—his expression was still pleasantó"about the writing?"

The prisoner, smiling slightly, shook his head and very quietly said, "Iím sorry, no."

"You have deceived me!" Specs shouted. Ghant felt that the chinaman wasnít acting. It made the captain think of an eager swain rejected after showering the object of his affections with expensive gifts. Specs stormed out of the room and didnít return for several days.

Thus it was, for a time, that Ghant fought against the many and varied tactics of the enemy. Miserable though he was, now and again he found a little humor in some of the absurdities the tormentors employed in wearing him down. He made a conscious resistance, even in periods of great fatigue; though he didnít let himself be drawn into argument, Ghant thought of answers to the things the enemy said, keeping those answers mostly to himself. Several times he had the feeling he was paying too much attention to what the enemy said. He tried to detach his thoughts but was only partly successful.

But as time dragged by, his awareness of things about him faded. The walls of the room seemed to be closing in; closer and closer to himself, yet leaving his tormentors plenty of room. Once he thought of a small, helpless animal, cornered by a savage beast. He shuddered to rid himself of the thought, realizing the small animal was himself.

Then time was no more—just as months before during interro- gation, right after he was captured, there had been a feeling of timelessness. But he had no recollection of that previous experience; rather this seemed to be a continuation of it. The intervening months—the compound, the men heíd known—for the moment all that was forgotten. For the moment? Or for an age?

Some consciousness of things about him returned one day; and he became aware of the stench of his own body. His outer garments, now stiff with the residue of dried perspiration, had been shed sometime before; he knew not when. He sat now, clad only in sweat-rotted shorts, rubbing at the dirt on his body, the grime which seemed to increase the feeling of oppression and the summer heat by holding the perspiration in. Thus occupied, he became also vaguely aware of one of the chinamen talking to him.

"What the hell, Captain! Use your head a little. Are you afraid youíll be court-martialed when you get home if you do what we ask?"

,Ghant looked abstractly at the enemy. Seated on a wooden box before him was Frisco talking, but he did not understand the words.

Frisco tapped the pamphlet bearing Wendonís name. "If anyone gets rapped for it, itís going to be him, a lieutenant colonel, not a captain. They hafta gig him before they can touch you, and youíll have an out even then; youíre just following the example of a superior."

Still there was no response from the prisoner.

"Why not, Captain? What reason? Give me just one good reason why not."

Perhaps it was the insistent tone that penetrated to the fogged mind. "Why not what?"

"Why not do as we ask? Why not write a confession as we ask?"

"Because itís a lie. A dirty rotten lie. Nothing but lies." The answer may have been only an automatic response to a question which had been asked countless times before.

"So itís not true. You know it, and I know it. We both know it isnít true. But that doesnít matter. It is what we want, and all we want from you. If we get what we want, you get what you want. If not—"

"What I want?" Hazily, "What do I get that I want?"

"To go home; when the war ends you can go home."

"Home?" A pause. "Go home?"

"Yes, as soon as the war is over." Frisco apparently didnít realize that even the mention of home didnít register with the prisoner. Ghantís awareness slipped backwards, and he sat rubbing his grimy body, oblivious to Friscoís continued prattle.

The chinaman talked on, suggesting that Ghant could simply copy Wendonís confession, changing a few details, or that he, Frisco, would write it for him. But the prisoner comprehended none of this. He sensed only a tremendous pressure within himself. He felt as though his body was filled with vile poisons that couldnít get out because of the dirt on his skin. The skin over his ribs became raw as he sought desperately to remove the grime and let the poisons out. Only one thing Frisco had said remained with him at the moment, "if we get what we want, you get what you want—what you want—what you want—"

"How about a bath?" Ghantís voice came suddenly out of the fog.

"A bath?" Frisco was surprised at the suddenness of the question, and also puzzled because it was completely irrelevant to what he had been saying to the prisoner a moment before. He had been following the idea of trying to convince Ghant there was no important reason for him not to write a "confession" and was expecting, if anything, a repetition of the previous refusals. Still, the chinamanís keen mind told him there might be a lead here. After all, that was the reason they deprived prisoners of such things; it was the reason for everything the communists did—to get something they wanted.

"Yeah, a bath," the captain repeated. "Wash up. I need a bath. Thatís what I want; a bath."

"You can wash all you want, after you do what we want."

"I want to wash now."

"You do what we want first."

"Do what?"

"Write your confession."

"I told you I canít do that. I want a bath."

"Just copy this." Frisco shoved Wendonís "confession" toward him. "Then you can have your bath."

"I want a bath now. I canít do anything till Iíve washed myself. Gotta get this stuff off so I can breathe."

"All right, just one paragraph." Frisco got up from the box and quickly placed it in front of Ghant. He put the phony confession and some blank paper on the box. Ghant made no resistance as the chinaman pressed a pencil into his hand but sat looking blankly at the things before him.

The chinaman leaned over the prisonerís shoulder, talking en- couragingly, as to a small child, to get him started. Ghant copied a few words, then stopped, shaking his head.

"Go on, go on." Frisco placed his arm gently across the pris- onerís back. When Ghant resumed writing, the chinaman moved quietly away toward the door, still watching. The prisoner looked up after a few moments. "I will be back in a little while," the china- man said softly. "If you have finished one paragraph when I return, then you may have your bath."

When the door had closed, Ghant returned his gaze to the box before him. For a time he stared unseeing, unthinking. The ob- sessed desire to somehow cleanse his body crowded out all else. Then Friscoís parting words came back, "—one paragraph, then you may have a bath—"

Ghant copied the first paragraph of Wendonís paper, changing only a few words. Finished with that, he studied what he had written at some length. Then with his hand flat on the paper he had written, he rested his head on his forearm. Suddenly, convulsively, his hand clenched, crumpling the paper within it. In the same motion he rose up, flinging the crumpled paper away.

For a time, then, he sat with his elbows on the box and his head between his hands. The passion of the moment before subsided and the pressures of the "poisons" returned. His skin seemed to crawl; he felt slimy. He was an ugly, slimy reptile. He had to cleanse himself; he must have a bath. "—One paragraph, and a bath—" It was the only way. He picked up the pencil and a new sheet of paper. Slowly, laboriously, pausing often for long periods to think, he drew out the words in printed form:

"Now that I have become acquainted with the facts about the Korean War, my conscience directs that I admit to all the peace-loving peoples of the world about my terrible mistake and crime. As a pilot of a U. S. plane I flew on missions over peaceful towns of North Korea to drop bombs containing deadly bacteria. When my plane was shot down and I was captured, I expected to be killed. But instead I was treated with kindness by the very people I had tried to kill with the deadly germs. And also I have been treated very kindly by the Chinese Peopleís Volunteers. It is for these reasons I must now let the world know of the horrible crime I was ordered by my government to commit."

Ghant read over what he had written, then, leaning on the box, he dropped his head on his arms. He had no idea how long he had labored, or how long he waited after he finished. Terribly tired, he wanted to sleep, but couldnít. Even so, he didnít hear the footsteps outside when Frisco returned. With the opening of the door, Ghant looked up listlessly at the chinaman; but only for a moment before he dropped his eyes again.

"How did it go?" Frisco seemed casual.

Ghant removed his arms from the box, revealing the papers, without answering.

The chinaman reached for the paper. "May I read it?"

"Itís yours," Ghant said, without looking at him. It wasnít meant to be sarcasm; not meant for much of anything. The chinaman took no notice of what the prisoner had said.

"A bit crude," Frisco said after a time. "But itíll do for a start. Are you ready to bathe? Thereís time before supper."

The bath wasnít nearly so refreshing as heíd expected. Scrub as he might, he could not seem to feel clean. Frisco went for the rice and soup, while the prisoner bathed under the watchful eye of the guard. His appetite wasnít good at supper. Not that there was anything appetizing about the meal; it was neither better nor worse than the ones before.

Bim came for the food pan and to wash the bowls after supper. Except for that, Ghant was left alone. Since he had started to write, why should they bother him, except to check his progress occasionally? Bim was, of course, interested in what was already written. When the chinaman came back from washing the bowls, Ghant was sitting smoking a cigarette. The paper and pencil were on the box, untouched.

"You are not writing?" Bim asked.

Ghant said nothing, only shook his head.

"Why do you not write more?"

"Tomorrow."

"Why not tonight?"

"Too late—getting dark."

"You want candle? Maybe you feel like writing later. Maybe you think better what to write at night."

"No. Tomorrow."

Bim left. When he had gone, Ghant cursed himself for a fool. He should have accepted the offer of a candle. It would have been a handy thing to have. At any other time he would have thought of that. Back in the compound heíd always been alert to such things. In giving in to the enemy on this one matter, was he un- consciously giving up in other ways as well? Right then, he couldnít decide why heíd been so stupid. Later, looking back on it, he would know full well he had been just plain giving up.

Nobody came to the room that night, as they had done before. But tired as he was, Ghant couldnít sleep. Thoughts of what he had written kept running through his mind, along with the prob- lem of having to write more. He found himself trying to rephrase what was already written, because it didnít sound right. He couldnít at the moment figure out that the reason it didnít sound right was because it was a lie. No matter how he reworded it, it would never sound right. He forced his thoughts away, thinking of home and of going home. With that he dozed, but as soon as he did, the "confession" came into his dreams and awakened him.

Maybe if he went outside, if the guard would let him, the night air— He didnít need to go to the latrine, but that was a good excuse. He sat up, slipped on his shoes, and felt the way to the door in the darkness. Pushing the door open he called, "Weih!"

"Zuma?" The guardís flashlight illumined the area around the door.

"So-byen?"

"Ahh." The tone, not the word, indicated it was all right for him to come out and go.

The night air was some better than in the room, but it still seemed oppressive, though it shouldnít have. The sky was clear, but there was no moon. Though he didnít hurry, Ghant didnít find reason to prolong the time out of the room. Being outside wasnít as refreshing as heíd hoped. It was somewhat disappointing, much like the bath had been.

Returning to the room, he lay down again. It was no better than before. Those past nights, when theyíd bothered him at all hours, heíd longed to be left alone so he could sleep; and in brief moments, then, when they left him alone, he had slept. Sometimes, then, he could even rest while the enemy harassed him, until they noticed he was asleep sitting up and wakened him. Now he was just as tired, maybe more so, and with nobody bothering him he couldnít sleep. He tossed and turned fitfully until daybreak. Grey light seeped through the paper on the door from the brightening morning outside. He did lose consciousness a while then, but in a stupor of fatigue, rather than true sleep. He was aroused by Friscoís arrival with the rice and soup for breakfast.

"Did you sleep well?" It was meant as a cheery greeting.

"No"

"But why? There was nobody to bother you last night."

Ghant looked at his food listlessly. He didnít answer.

"Well," said the chinaman with some concern, "perhaps you had too much on your mind last night. Thereís still quite a bit for you to write. If you can finish today, youíll be able to sleep tonight."

Specs came by after breakfast, just as the prisoner finished eating. The chinaman took the bowls to the stream to wash them and returned to find Ghant seated by the box. The prisoner had the pencil in his hand but wasnít writing. He was looking at what he had written the day before but not thinking particularly about anything. Everything seemed to be going in circles.

Specs was curious and kept glancing at the paper, wanting to read it. "You cannot think of more to write?" he asked finally.

Ghant looked up and shook his head.

"Perhaps I can help. Let me read what you have."

The captain lifted his hands from the paper. The chinaman picked it up, read it, and reread it. As he put the paper back on the box, he caught the prisonerís eye.

"You do well," he said. "Write more same way will be all right."

Ghant found himself fascinated by the look on the chinamanís face. It wasnít the expression, for it was the usual emotionless mask. Perhaps it was the eyes. Quite apart from their distortion by the thick lenses, there seemed to be something different about the eyes.

Each man seemed trying to perceive the otherís thoughts as they looked at each other. It wasnít one of the "staring down" contests. Ghantís face was expressionless, too. Fatigue might have made it difficult for him to register emotion had he wanted to. Perhaps he didnít even feel any emotion, he was that tired. But for the moment his mind seemed to work better, with something to concentrate on besides the mad whirl going on inside. The captain saw in those weird-looking eyes a combination of smug satisfaction and scorn. He saw disgust, distaste, despisal, and perhaps hatred in them; but be saw not the slightest trace of sympathy, compassion, or respect.

The chinaman didnít do as well in trying to fathom the prisonerís thoughts. Specís eyes dropped first. He touched the paper with a finger.

"You want someone to help you write?"

"No," Ghant said quietly, dropping his head and eyes down again.

"I leave you alone then, to think and write." Specs departed.

What he had seen in the enemyís eyes stuck in the captainís mind. For a time he thought about it. He didnít like it. He picked up the paper and read what heíd written, several times again. It seemed as though it wasnít himself reading it, but others whom he knew. Once it was his mother, and once his wife. Another time it was his brother. Closer to the present, it was some of the men in the compound where heíd been—Emmett and Sergeant Wolfe— men he knew had confidence in him. He thought of how all those people would feel about what be had written.

He picked up the paper and looked at it once more. Calmly and deliberately he tore it to shreds.






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