Another major activity which began in April of 1953 was the "Podo Olympics." It was announced by our captors with a great deal of enthusiasm that there would be competition amongst the prisoners in a wide variety of games and athletic contests. Reception of this idea by the "podo's" was not quite so great, even though prizes would be awarded to the winners. It increased a bit amongst the prisoners when it was learned that they could choose for themselves what manner of contests would be held.
So there would be volley ball and basketball for the active types, and tournaments of bridge, chess and checkers for the sedentary. A pair of boxing gloves was at hand, but the only ones foolish enough to indulge seriously with those were Watash and the Little Lieutenant. And no one else was interested enough to even decide which one of them might be the winner.
The checker tournament was set up by "Tanker" Witt, who arranged a schedule for all the other entries to compete for the privilege of losing to himself in the finals. Being from the Ozarks where that is a serious, "money" game, he knew for certain no one else could beat him. He lost the contest, however, two out of three games, to a fellow who hadn't played the game since childhood. That was not because the other fellow, namely myself, was a better player, but because Tanker was a bit careless in the first game and I got lucky in the third.
Sergeant Arnold got a share in the prize for distracting Tanker a bit during the first game. Tanker took the second one in a manner which showed he was really "championship class" in the game. Then at the very start of the third came a flashback recollection of a long forgotten, series of moves which devastated Tanker's side of the board in an instant. Tanker conceded the game and cried "Don't move another checker!" We retraced the series of moves, then, and he happily congratulated me as "champion." He was glad to have lost this one, where the prize was a few pieces of hard candy, because he'd learned a move which could win him some bucks in the Ozarks.
In the bridge tournament, one of the winning team was our leading whimperer and complainer, Lt. "CJ". His prize for that was a little, blown-glass "peace" dove, which he at once affixed to his cap front as an appropriate symbol of his sentiments. He seemed a bit upset when Sgt Arnold looked closely at it one day and proclaimed that it wasn't really a dove, but a white-washed stool pigeon.
"CJ's" dovish cap adornment inspired me to make a different kind for myself which, unexpectedly, served useful purposes both immediate and long range. Toothpaste was then being provided to us, in the old type of lead-foil tubes. One of these was melted and poured into a mold carved in clay to produce a small anchor such as adorns some naval uniforms. Twisted copper wire brought it even closer, lacking only the "USN" of the cap device for a Chief Petty Officer.
Affixed to my cap, that little handmade anchor brought the pleasure of many compliments from other of the prisoners, especially other Navy men and Marines. But the greater pleasure was from Tsai's reaction.
"Where did you get that?" he demanded, pointing at the device when first he spotted it.
Sensing his troubled concern, it was impossible to resist making the most of it. "It's part of my Navy uniform," I replied with something of a shrug.
"But you did not have it before!" His excitement over the discovery was very evident.
"Of course I did," was the rejoinder, innocently expressed, to aggravate his concern.
"I have not seen it before!" he complained.
"You just didn't notice," I said. "It is a small thing, of course. But you should notice more closely be more observant."
The little fellow studied me for a while, then said, "You have not worn it before. I would have noticed. Where have you kept it hidden?"
"Why would I hide something like this, Tsai?" A tinge of puzzled exasperation was now added to the innocent expression. "It is only a little uniform insignia. Many others have such things, sergeant's chevrons, officer collar bars. They have been allowed to keep their uniform insignia, why ... ?"
"Oh yes," he said, "I know it is part of your Navy uniform. And I do not mean to take away from you. I only wonder why I have not seen it before."
A wordless shrug seemed the best response to that. Tsai turned and walked away then. A slight shaking of his head at himself as he did so indicated that he was quite some troubled about the matter. As soon as he was gone from the compound the appropriate people were advised to spread the word that a thorough shakedown was likely in the next day or so. Anyone with contraband in their belongings should therefore put it elsewhere for a time.
The shakedown was conducted next morning. We were held at assembly for a somewhat extended period, listening to the usual political oratory. Chung served as interpreter on this occasion. Tsai went with other searchers into the mud hut; first in and last out. It was easy to figure on whose belongings he would concentrate his efforts.
The resultant inconvenience to the prisoner assembly was actually a necessary thing. There was more reason than mere amusement for not telling Tsai where and how the innocent little anchor was actually acquired. To have told him that I made it would have brought much closer observation of my activities around the kitchen and the cooking fires. And there were other things being made there which would not have been regarded as "innocent."
A few months later, after the ceasefire and supposed ending of hostilities, that little anchor would serve a much greater purpose. It would be lost, a casualty of sorts, to the enemy's continued hostile actions. But the losing of it would enable the saving of something far more important.
Volleyball and basketball were already the main exercising activities. The "Olympics" contests simply meant that someone would get a few little goodies as the prize for winning. These were set up on a squad vs squad basis, and did in fact generate a bit more of enthusiasm for the games; including "cheering" sections of squad members who weren't playing. Volleyball, of course, is something of anyone-can-play sport. Basketball requires knowledge of a few rules and is the more interesting if at least some of the players have developed a few of its skills. There probably were not five men in any one of the squads who had appreciable knowledge or experience in the game.
There were but two such in our squad; myself and young Rambo. There was no problem getting three more to move the ball around the court with us. But in order to win in that game it is necessary frequently to put the darn thing through the hoop. Rambo and myself were the only ones with experience in that. Myself, who had been something of a crack shot from most anywhere back in high school days, couldn't hit but one of four or five now. The lanky lad from Tennessee was no better from court, but was very good on lay-ups.
Having decided that we could, and should, win the basketball tournament, Rambo and I set to practicing a maneuver (which I subsequently learned is called "alley-oop") to take advantage of his skills in lay-ups. Largely in result of that, we won the "Olympic" basketball championship in the "big" compound at Camp 2 Annex. Which turned out to have several benefits other than the pleasure and the prize.
As Rambo and I practiced one day, we noticed John Shaw, by himself, watching us; perhaps a bit longingly. To my invitation that he join us, he said he didn't really know anything about the game. Assured that made no difference, he joined us and learned a few of the basics. That evening, instead of talking with the little lieutenant who lay on the other side of him, Shaw talked basketball with Rambo. The next day, yet another of the little lieutenant's young enlisted "buddies" came along with Shaw. Both shared fully in the subsequent string of victories which brought us the "Olympic" title.
From his looks when those two had first joined with us Little Lieutenant wasn't at all pleased about it. Probably he felt his; influence upon them was already slipping after the dining hall incident, and they were now moving another step away. He tried to regain his previous status with them during the "awards ceremony" when we received the "Olympic" prize.
The "awards ceremony" was in the mud hut a week or so after the tournament. It was evening, nearing bedtime, so all members of the mud hut squad were on hand. I was myself already reclining in my bunk space when the prize arrived, borne by the "high point" star of our team, Rambo, accompanied by the other three members.
"Hey, Chief!" Rambo called as they entered the hut, "We just got our prize for winning basketball! But now we gotta figure out some way to divide it up!"
"What is it?" I asked, feeling no reason to arise to this particular occasion from my comfortable recline.
He displayed the booty as he arrived alongside and said, "This bag of candy and these four little glass pigs."
"That's easy enough," I said. "Just split the candy five ways and you guys each take one of the pigs."
"That don't seem right, Chief," Shaw said. "There should'a been five things besides the candy for five players. Maybe we oughta draw straws or something for who gets one of the pigs."
"No need for that, John," I said. "I've pulled the tusks from one of the pigs I butchered. That'll be good enough souvenir for me. You guys each have one of the pigs. Maybe 'JW' should have the biggest one for scoring the most points. Just split the candy five ways and make damn sure I get my full share."
It was evident in their faces that those little glass baubles would be cherished mementos to those four young men. Which made that a pleasurable awards ceremony indeed, to that point. But then the little lieutenant pushed himself into the scene and said:
"Hey! That ain't right at all! That prize is for everybody in the squad! It should be divided up for everybody!"
Not since that first affront at the little schoolhouse had the fellow said much of anything directly to me. Now in his eagerness to show off again, he might just be foolish enough to do or say something which would justify myself doing what I should have done back then. Obviously he was referring only to the candy, as something which should be shared by everyone. But in order to needle him a bit, I said:
"Oh, really? My, my. We are so fortunate to have You to set us straight on how things like this should be handled. And I suppose, little bigmouth, that you can tell us how to divide those four little glass pigs equally for everyone in the squad."
So intent was he in his challenging of myself that he seemed not to notice the laughter of the on-lookers. "Well I wasn't talking about them," he said. "That's okay the way you divided them up. But the candy . That's what I'm talking about. That should be shared by everybody. That's the way...."
"That's the way it is under the 'hungachi' policy right, 'comrade'?" was my response by way of interruption. "Now I'm going to tell you something, 'loo-tenant.' You've just confirmed something I've long suspected about you. The enemy didn't have to sell you on that 'everybody same-same' business after you got here. You'd bought that part of the 'commie' line before you ever left home. And I'll tell you something more . This prize this candy will be divided up among the five of us who won it. That's the good old American way. Whoever earns it, gets it. If any of them want to share their part of the winnings with someone that's their business. Hell! I might even give you some of mine after I get it, just to stop your damn' whimperin' You poor little crybaby!"
Exactly what the little lieutenant said to me in reaction, is not remembered. I listened only for him to say something personally abusive and vile enough to justify, my next action in the minds of the onlookers. Then I interrupted by saying as I started to rise:
"Okay, you little punk I guess I'll just have to do it."
The little lieutenant was out the door by the time I'd reached a sitting position on the edge of the sleeping platform. Which served to the further amusement of most of the onlookers, and the enlightenment, if any still was needed, of his former young enlisted "buddies."
It also made even more pleasurable the awards ceremony for the 1953 Basketball Champions of the Camp 2 Annex Podo Olympics. I asked Rambo to give me a piece of our candy and stretched back out in my sleeping space to enjoy it.
Bunnies, Pigeon, and Dove
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©2002, 2003 by Lynn Waterman; used by permission of the author, Duane Thorin.