"Hey Chief!" Sergeant Arnold yelled into the mud hut, "Better get over to the kitchen! Your buddy's back!"

"Who's that?"

"Happy!" The sergeant was unusually excited. "Happy's back! But no more coolie! He's an engineer now. He's checking the walls of the kitchen to see how much mud it will take to fix 'em. Andy says that's where he's been — at school learning to be an engineer ......

"He wouldn't have to go to school to learn that kind of engineering," I injected. "He already knew that."

".... And he's got an assistant," Arnold continued, "to make notes of what he says is needed."

"He'd have to have," I commented, "'cause he can't write."

Happy's real name was Liu. A mature, Chinese coolie; he had been assigned as something of an orderly for our small group when we first arrived at the Chinese POW camp near the Yalu River. He would bring our buckets of soup and rice from the then remote kitchen and other things as ordered by one or another of the camp administrators.

We called him "Happy" because he never smiled. Placid solemnity concealed whatever of thought or emotion dwelt behind his ever observant eyes and obscured for most, perhaps even of his own countrymen, the fundamental wisdoms inherited from his coolie ancestors.

He had disappeared immediately following my short-lived escape venture the previous summer. We had suspected he was sent away for "attitude adjustment" because of his open display of personal regard and concern for me when I was recaptured. That suspicion was now confirmed. Arnold and I both knew the real reason for his return to this camp was to check his attitude, now, toward the American prisoners generally and myself in particular.

"Since I'm the main question in his test," I said to Arnold, "I reckon it's best for him to get it over with as soon as we can. Does it look like there's anyone else watching him besides his 'assistant?'"

"Didn't see any others," the sergeant replied.

"What about Andy?" ["Andy" was the name we had given to the Chinese officer who issued supplies to our kitchen.]

"Don't think so," Arnold replied. "Not sure he even realizes what's going on there. Besides, he left the kitchen same time I did and I think left the compound."

"I'll be right over, then," I told him. "Best that you get on back there before I come."

When I first came within sight of them, Happy and his monitor "assistant" were standing in the narrow space between the kitchen building and the small storage shed close beside it. As Happy pointed at the kitchen wall and spoke the other fellow wrote something on his note board. Arnold was watching from the kitchen door beyond them. He would have signaled to me if there was anyone else watching for Happy's reaction to my appearance.

The two turned toward me, starting to proceed further along the kitchen wall. But when Happy saw me he stopped and stood fast, looking at me. His face was expressionless as usual but his concern was evident. The other fellow, after a quick look at Happy and then at myself, looked down at his note pad. But his eyes were flicking back and forth between us.

Only a few steps separated us. I continued walking apace. Looking directly at Happy, I blinked my eyes hard and then rubbed the right one with the thumb edge of my hand in manner of salute which his companion could not be certain was anything but rubbing sleep from my eyes. A faked cough into my left hand enabled a similarly camouflaged nod to my coolie friend. A squeezing blink of his own eyes and quick, slight nod was all the response which Happy could safely make.

Yet one more small expression of sentiment remained possible because of the narrow space between the kitchen and supply shed. Two quick light taps on Happy's arm as I passed close beside him could not be seen by his Party hack "assistant". But I had no doubt my wise friend would understand their meaning. A few more steps took me past Arnold and into the kitchen. From its interior darkness I could see without being seen.

By that time Happy was again pointing at a place on the kitchen wall which needed repair. Shortly they moved on and out of my view. That would be the last I would see of my magnificent Chinese coolie friend. Sgt. Arnold, still in the doorway, watched silently as I stood for a time remembering just what manner of friend he was:

Happy spent most of daylight hours close at hand with our small group from the start. We at first suspected it was to observe and report on our conversations and actions. But it was soon clear that he understood none of our language. He simply preferred to spend his idle time in our vicinity; mostly sitting quietly somewhat apart.

He had soon found that I could interpret better than any others the things he sometimes sought to convey by gestures. So well were we able thus to communicate that Arnold had asked early on if I could understand some Chinese. "Not the language," I had told him. "But having spent a couple of years in China I guess maybe I understand some of how he thinks and feels."

And apparently Happy felt somewhat the same toward me. Often I would notice that he seemed to be observing and even studying me somewhat more than any others. Then there was a somewhat amusing incident which gave us a secret to share:

He had one day demonstrated his ability to push up from a prone position and then rise to erect with two men sitting interlocked across his shoulders. It is a feat which appears to require exceptional physical strength but in fact is as much a matter of "know-how;" the application of fundamental mechanical principles. After others of the group had tried and failed I proceeded to do it. Happy's eyes gleamed approval, and probably appreciation that I shared his knowledge. My wordless acknowledgment of his approval was intended to assure him I would not tell the others how it was done.

Almost certainly Happy was the only Chinese in the camp who even suspected that I was planning an escape. More than merely suspecting, he probably expected it. He had often watched from a respectful distance while I was making equipment for that venture — pouches for rice, a braided rope, a blade sharpened from a piece of shrapnel with which I made a pair of moccasins and some thongs from leather scraps. The camp administrators, especially the political officer, had interpreted those same activities as just little things I found to do while waiting patiently for the war to end. Perhaps Happy could see through my pretense of placidity and patience because it so much resembled his own.

Whether he had anticipated my escape venture or not, he openly displayed pleasure when the absence of myself and two others was discovered and reported by the sentry. He had rushed up to Arnold with a big smile, talking excitedly in Chinese but ending with an understandable "Chief-oo putchoo-ee;" illustrated by gesture signifying up and away over the ridge. His pleasure was also evident, according to Arnold, when the search party returned later that day having failed to find us. And he evidently made no effort to conceal those sentiments from any of his countrymen.

Happy was with the search party which finally caught us two days later after some citizens reported having seen one of my companions. His actions in my behalf after recapture could not but bring some manner of punishment upon himself. And it seems certain he was aware that such would be the result. During the first pause in the hike back to camp as the troops drank from their canteens he had argued vehemently but unsuccessfully with the officer of the guard that we should be given water also. Then noting that the bonds on my wrists were cutting off circulation he demanded that they be loosened. When the officer refused to agree, to that Happy untied them himself, after which one of the soldiers retied them less tightly.

That night he figured a way to let me know he was being sent away from the camp even though it was impossible for him then to communicate with me directly. He had sat for a while with the two young men who had gone with me, silently of course, and left a bit of tobacco for them when he departed. Those two could not understand why he did so. But he no doubt expected they would eventually tell me about it, knowing that I would understand his reason.

An illiterate coolie was my friend Liu, therefore looked upon as an inferior being by many of his own countrymen, and also by many of mine. But by the true measures of manhood and humanness he would stand head and shoulders above all of those. As complete and true a friend as ever one might find; who apparently regarded myself very much the same.

What a helluva way this had been for such good friends to have to say goodbye!

Sgt. Arnold had remained silent for however long I thus had reminisced. When I looked at him he spoke:

"You okay, Chief?"

"Yeah. — Did that little bastard that's with him look back at me after I passed them?"

"He sure did," Arnold replied. "Back and forth, trying to watch both of you at the same time. And he looked as though he couldn't figure out what the hell was going on."

"What did Happy do?"

"Beautiful!" The sergeant described, "He took a couple of steps ahead while the guy was lookin' back at you, then called back for the fellow to come on, as though he was irritated at him. He handled it beautifully! You both did!"

"Thanks, Bill," was all else I felt like saying at the time.

Little Switch


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