The truck swung around abruptly and came to a stop. There was not much in the way of installation here. As the truck made the turn, the occupants got a glimpse of a couple of tents, with the sides rolled up, and a helicopter parked beyond, ready no doubt for quick transfer of any critically ill cases. There was also an unpretentious but extremely important archway on which was painted the words, "Welcome, Gate to Freedom." The Sergeant found himseff feeling glad that all this was so simple and matter of fact. The simplicity here seemed somehow to accentuate the superfluity of the show staged on the other side by the communists.
Impressive too, in its casual orderliness, was the reception committee, if you should call it that. Neat without flashiness, a squad of well-selected young men were on hand to escort the returning prisoners individually the few steps from the truck to the gate. The men in the reception squad were uniform in size, as well as in the precise neatness of their dungarees. They gave the impression of strength and solidness without being overbearing about it. For some reason, the Sergeant had been worried that someone might decide to stage a Hollywood-premier type of show. He was pleased to see it wasnít that way at all. "An orchid," he thought, "to the planners of this reception."
As he noted the huskiness of the young men standing by as escorts, the Sergeant was suddenly aware of the thinness of most of the prisoners in the truck, including himself. Until now he hadnít really considered that. No doubt that was because almost everybody looked the same in that respect up in the camps; you became accustomed to the "lean" look. Many had been much thinner at one time than they were now; when the communists started feeding the prisoners better in the last few months, it had seemed to the Americans themselves that they were growing fat. It was going to take a lot of steak and eggs to put the meat back on their bones. Well, that was a pleasant thoughtthe skinnier a guy was, the more pleasure he had in store gaining it back.
Tsai stepped down from the truck quickly, when it came to a stop, and with an air of importance met the American receiving officer. He was a captain, dressed as neatly as the squad of escorts. He took the paper which listed the names of the Americans in the truck without seeming to notice the little chinaman who handed it to him. Had Tsai not moved aside, the American officer might literally have walked over him on the way to the tailgate. Very well done.
Without delay, the captain began to call out names. As each prisoner stepped down from the truck one of the escorts grasped his right hand and with an arm about the repatriateís waist escorted him to the archway. It was only a few steps from the truck to the gate, but the purpose of the escort was obvious. Some of them needed a helping hand.
Sergeant Wolfe leaned forward to watch the others leave.
"Emmett!" The captainís voice was crisp, yet gentle, as he called the name. There seemed to be a slight question in the tone.
"Here, sir!" The Navy lieutenant wasnít the kind to check date of rank to determine whether or not heíd use respectful terms in addressing someone else. His fastidious efforts at neatness in his prison garb looked shoddy now beside the escort. Too bad the lieutenant was a reserve; the service needed men like that. Well, they were needed other places, too; and you could count on him to serve well, wherever he might be. Emmett returned the greeting of his escort warmly.
"Hyah!" Merke answered loudly. He appeared to be talking con- stantly all the way to the gate. Heíd make certain everybody knew he was a "hero." Ten years from now heíd still be making certain. Well, let him. It would probably be his only claim to fame. Strange how so many thought being a prisoner of war made them heroes; and that the world owed them a living from then on.
God grant the youngster the wisdom to match his courage; he had proved his worthiness. Could the escort sense the moral strength in that small, physically weakened soldier? "An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth." Who could blame him for feeling as he did about Jowal right now?
The lanky youngster stubbed his toe getting out of the truck. It probably hurt through the canvas shoe, but he didnít seem to notice. The escort wouldnít have to force a welcoming smile in the face of that freckle-faced grin. "The quality of mercy"
"Here, sir." The answer was weak, and no wonder. Possibly the receiving officer recognized the name. Bender was "famous," if you could call such notoriety fame. Perhaps the escort didnít know or notice the kind of fellow he was helping. At any rate, he did his job well and supported Bender along the way.
"Here, sir!" The answer was quick, in keeping with the trend of Jowalís actions of late. It was not likely the receiving officer recognized Jowalís name, although it was well known among the prisoners. It may have been imagination, but the Sergeant thought he saw Jowal shudder at his escortís touch. It may have been the first time in many months that an American hand had clasped his. Maybe it would not have been so warm and sincere, had the escort known the nature of the fellow he was receiving. How long, the Sergeant wondered, would Jowal go on as he had back in the tent camp, without sleep, watching over his shoulder, jumping at a sudden sound or touch? "Cowards die many times"
"Here, sir." The big man seemed to unwind from the truck. After the handclasp with his escort, the captain drew his own hand away and clapped it across the young manís back to squeeze the far shoulder. One almost wondered who was helping whom as they proceeded to the gate. "The valiant but once!"
"Hyeh." Was the tone really condescending, or did it just seem that way? Nothing much would come of Shillerís deeds, the Sergeant guessed. Shiller had been shrewd enough to cover his tracks well. But few, if any, are entirely without conscience. Despite Shillerís ability to worm his way into the society of others, Wolfe wondered if Shiller wasnít often quite uncomfortable within himself. "Blame the faults, not the actor"if you could.
"Here, sir!" The young man was already moving before his name was called, just as he had so often jumped the gun at the least indication of good news in the camp. Impatient, needful youth. Tears came, and he needed his escortís support as he stumbled to the gate.
"Here, sir." The Sergeant had been a bit worried that Kert might not be altogether aware of what was happening, but it appeared that he was. His escort may not even have noted anything unusual about his ward in the short walk to the gate. In the few days Kert had been with others, the lieutenantís mind seemed to be strengthening rapidly. Wolfe felt that surely it would recover completely in a month or so. The power that resisted those months of torment must still be there to help. And added to that, there was the greater Power. Kert would be all right.
"Wendon! Lieutenant Colonel Wendon!" Something in the receiving officerís tone and his inclusion of the title in repeating the call indicated that he recognized this name. As Wendon stepped down, the captain added, "Welcome back, sir." It was formality, but without apparent prejudice.
"Thank you," the colonel replied weakly. There was no conversation with his escort; Wendonís dejection had drawn him too deeply into his shell.
It would have ended on a better note, thought the Sergeant, if Kert had been the last one outómore reassuring to himself. But then there was no justification for too much reassurance; it was better to face reality. The fact that there were men of character, like Kert, Bowmar, Emmett, Ghant, and others who had stood the test, didnít mean that all was well in the bastions of liberty. It only meant that all was not hopelessly lost.
Considering the confusion and controversy already apparent, no doubt there would be a great variety of analyses of what went on in the communist prisoner-of-war camps. Psychologists, sociologists, theologists, politicians, and high brassall manner of experts airing their views. Well, that was right enough, providing they knew what they were talking about and looked it in the face. Too often, though, it seemed there were many self-styled authorities who drew conclusions first, then looked for facts to substantiate their theories.
The mere fact that a fellow sat out the war in a prison camp hardly made him an expert either; and the record would show that many of these prisoners hadnít been very objective. Still, if he made use of it, a man could learn much as a prisoner. Maybe, even, some things a fellow could understand as well or better if he wasnít an expert at all, but just someone who took note of things around him. Perhaps even an old sergeant who sat as he did between the rank and file, acting something like a filter, screening the orders coming down from above and the gripes coming up from below. In such a spot, a man picked up considerable from those about him, and came to know a little of the sentiments and emotions of men under pressure, in their struggles with each other and themselves.
It might be a long time before the experts could arrive at any positive conclusions, and even then the analysis might be incomplete. Meanwhile, though he didnít claim to have all the answers, nor even to know all of the questions, Sergeant Wolfe knew for certain how things looked from where he sat.
Individually, things looked bright at the moment to most of the men who took this ride to Panmunjom. But in a larger sense, many things could certainly be made to look much better. When the Sergeant considered the men he had known in the camps and thought of them as something of a cross-section of all the prisoners
"Wolfe!" the receiving officer called.
And in turn thought of all the returning prisoners, plus the few who decided to stay, as a cross-section of America
"Sergeant Wolfe?" Two heads peered over the tailgatethe receiving officer and the escort.
"Welcome home, Sergeant," the officer said.
"Thank you, Captain."
As he looked toward the officer in answering, the Sergeant caught a last glimpse of Tsai in the background. The little chinaman, watching intently, lowered his eyes when he caught the Sergeantís glance.
"How goes it, Sarge?" the escort asked. As their hands met, so did their eyes.
"Okay, Corporal." Both the hand and the eyes of the escort seemed strong.
As they walked toward the gate, the escortís left arm encircled the Sergeantís thin waist. "Weíre glad to have you back," the corporal said. It was a stock phrase, but spoken with sincerity. The men for this job had indeed been well chosen.
They talked casually as they proceeded to the arch. Reaching it, the corporal pressed his left hand lightly against the Sergeantís back and released the grip with the right as though to hand him through.
"Take it easy now, Sarge," he said.
But Sergeant Wolfe held to the otherís hand for a moment, and the two faced each other squarely. He saw this one young man as a symbol of youth, of the nationperhaps of the world. Thinking of the young men and their need for so many things their elders often failed to provide, he wondered if there were enough others to see their need to make up the deficit. Surely, he hoped, enough wisdom remained, obscured though it sometimes was by the greed of materialism, to provide those things. For without inspiration and guidance to bring about the growth of full moral stature within, the fine, strong, physical body of youth could be nothing but a hollow shell. What matter, then, who won the battle for the minds of men, if the spirit and soul had been already lost?
With a meaning intended for all so needful, the Sergeant said to the corporal, "Good luck, son."
Turning then, Wolfe faced the archway. Beyond it he saw a long table in the tent he was to pass through. Several men standing beside the table caused him to think, strangely, of medics lined up to give inoculations. Well, that was one of the less pleasant things in the offing on the other side of the arch.
With a small smile, at thoughts intended only for himself, the Sergeant stepped through
© 2002, 2003 by Lynn Waterman; used by permission of the author, Duane Thorin.