By A.H. Watson
The redolent scent of warm Madeleine's, fresh from Cook's oven; the soft bittersweet chocolate dipped liberally upon one end of the buttery short breads?a lick ? then another in an effort to make the sense of comfort and complete satisfaction.
I think about Proust too much these days
In fact, I think about the past quite often these days; mainly because there is so much more of it. Similar to yours most likely, the thoughts run from bittersweet memory of self-serving acts to the book sized Thesaurus - about love.
Old wars, old loves, old failures are clearer to me than acts of yesterday. It is good to measure one's life? to sift, to tape, then weigh against the cost. The cost of friendships, of marriage, of hidden shoals formed - that your own issue have yet to cross.
Can you believe that it has only been recently that I saw for myself the so-called "sexual sites" that are available from my old Iron Pig.
I am no "goody two shoes," it is simple fact, I did not know? either the closeness of the trash out there?or the utter depravity, of it all.
It is not sex - it is sickness. Those that treat the simple act of loving, caring sex in such a manner are, indeed, far past the pleasure, the sweetness, the ability to change the very nature of man, that intercourse with a woman can offer.
But I promised to tell you a secret story about Kudzu. These are the highlights only ? tell no one!
Due to my birthday - not my desire - I missed all the major wars this country fought. In 1958 I was at Fort Benning, Ga. struggling to become a gentleman.
Scattered throughout the base, at the time, were Regular Army personnel that had served in our Second World War. Many had been on the front lines, "shot at and missed," as they would say, but in return had shot and hit many an enemy.
I learned many things in those long ago days; but the three things that stuck with me the longest were:
Most death in the war is impersonal. Brought from the sky in the form of bombs or artillery shells, the foot soldier kills few, and sees those he kills ? rarely. The battle moves swiftly and allows little time for sight-seeing or reflection.But when you do see closely - or must occupy the same ground the enemy just held ? it stays with you unto death.
During that time I must have listened to a hundred stories of individual death. Sufficient time had passed that the tellers felt sadness for both friends and enemy.
They seemed to equate those deaths with the senseless lack of resolve the end of battle brings. Yet, in the telling, you can watch them physically, as well as mentally, return to that time... to that event. You could watch a hand grow tense as the other reached for the pull ring of a long ago thrown grenade. You could watch the flinch or hear a low moan or curse.
Many would have become so much a part of their recitation that a waved hand or a dropped pen would not stay the warrior's mind until the full event had run its reel. The reels that still brings sleepless nights and small blank holes in the waking day.
Without exception - all would have broken a heavy sweat and moved in and out of a ten mile stare during the telling. Again, with few exceptions, each would apologize for having bored or having shown too much emotion.
But, that is the kind of men and the generation from which they came.
The second major thing I still remember from my Army time - haunts me, perhaps nearly as much, as combat affected those the gods chose to face it.
No matter the naysayers about the..."paper plastered...uncaring...unimaginative... bureaucratic... stupid Army." I shall always have a warm spot for, and knowledge of the inherent goodness of man. Especially when he wishes to defeat the evils of mass stupidity. It is at those times man shows his very best and gives a glimmer of hope for better tomorrows.
Bear with me for a short trip into history that most of you know but many of the younger may never have addressed, in the "new liberal history of America."
The Philippine Islands at the time of World War II were a protectorate of the USA. In so many words this meant you can have a Army and a democratic Government ? but we (USA) will make the important decisions, for if we leave now, some other nation will just take our place and not wish you to EVER be free.
To improve their lot, many Filipino children became soldiers. Others, sometimes families, became naval stewards. I dare say every flagship carried, for the most part, Filipino stewards and cooks.
At the start of the war, right after Pearl Harbor, America was unable to hold the Philippines. The reasons are numerous, but do not reflect on the effort or heroics of both America and Filipino troops. The loss led to the Bataan Death March...where some 70,000 Filipino and 10,000 American troops started and after horrible crimes against all (but especially against the locals) some 50,000 in total made it to the prison camp across the Island.
Even, as these troops trapped on a small peninsula were forced to surrender, many others escaped to the hills and became a fighting force that kept thousands of Nippon troops tied up for the entire war.... When caught, the Filipino's were taken home; their families were made to watch as they were beheaded or used for bayonet practice. At times the whole family was slaughtered.
Five years of war, in the mountains of the island chain or at sea in service to the Navy, brought the American officers and the Filipino soldier closer together.... Having ones life in the hands of another does that to people. Countless island people were tortured in attempts to gain information about the Americans still fighting in the jungles of the Philippines. To a man they gave their life without giving up American troops or plans.
In the rush, at the end of the war, there was little need felt in Washington to take proper care of the islanders that were maimed and broken in the gorilla fighting against Japan.
Congress felt that the lives we lost defending the people of the Pacific was sufficient to the need. But to have lived upon and with these fine people for years and have seen the depth of their sacrifice to the cause of freedom, many in the Army and Navy felt different. To that end a massive effort took place. While some actions were legal, many stood foursquare against the code of Military Law... if not Justice.
After finishing OCS at Ft. Benning, I somehow managed to get hit by a tank personnel carrier driven by a good old boy from Tennessee.
It seems the night before he had seen a war movie in which a German Mark Vl tiger tank ran over a couple of trees and a hedge row. The next day he was to try it with his (actually YOUR) personnel carrier. Weighing-in at about one sixth of a Tiger, the boy bounced off the pine tree to the left; where I was speaking on the outside phone to the tank leader.
By my second week in the base Hospital I had noticed three things. All my nurses were officers. Seems in the Army, at the time, anyone that looks up your ass had to be an officer. Second, there was a officers bar underground by tunnel fifty feet from hospital property. It is unnerving to see a surgeon come in OR greens pull down his mask take two Jim Beams neat, and head back to an afternoon of toil in a hot OR.
Third, across the grounds about 50 yards was another building. It had been built during the war as needed hospital space. Now, though I could see patients in the same blue garb as mine, standing at the window from time to time smoking - the front door and lobby were always vacant ...nothing ...nobody.
When I asked around about the people on the top floor of the old temporary building that said "Closed" on the annex window; all I got was a run around ? nurses - ward help ? even the Interns that came to check me out said," they knew nothing about it"..."had nothing to do with hospital'..."not in their dept"....."had no IDEA" .."in fact , had never thought about it...or it was probably some TDY (temporary duty people) personnel," etc....
Most individuals find it curious when strange events take place. Yet, those in the place to know ? admit nothing. For me it meant to don the blue bathrobe, that matched the jammies, and a trip back down the tunnel - to the bar that didn't exist.
Late that afternoon, at that smoky little den, I found a nurse that looked as though she could have been at - and survived, "Little Big Horn." She had been stationed in Manila at the time of the attack. She had come out on a PT Boat sent to bring out General MacArthur, his family and staff - along with a few nurses and doctors wedged in the few spaces remaining.
This tough old broad, and I say that with both love and admiration, had seen the world - and the war - from the bottom up. She was afraid of no generals or their threats.
As she said, "I knew most of those stuffed shirts when they wore a yellow bar and would come sniffing around the Nurses BOQ every time they had spent their monthly pay in town on 'Flipo hookers' and bad rum. Shit, the war would have ended a year faster - if some of them had flunked swimming in college."
With one leg stretched out to a chair across from her, and her body tilted back on two legs, Rose had eyed me over the rim of a whiskey sour glass brimmed with good scotch. Deftly, for age and size, her tongue quickly dispatched a small drop of scotch as it made a run for cover down the side of glass.
"Got'cha! See that little devil trying to hide?" Then pausing, Rose stared through me as she said, "What the hell, all this secret shit is getting old. If the brass in Washington gets froggy ? tell 'em who they will have to take testimony from."
With that - she downed the scotch?looked over her shoulder, whistled to the Warrant officer running the bar, and yelled: "This sweet boy is trying to work his way into my heart. He has offered to purchase another dram of your best for this old broad."
"Honey you should have been in Manila?I would have drunk you under the table, then squeezed all the love juices from your skinny frame." With that she shook her head ? smiled?. and patted my hand.
"What can I tell you?. you don't know, or have guessed by now?"
Briefly this is the story she told me that day long, long, ago.
During the war many loyal Filipino guerilla or soldier on the Bataan Death March had displayed belief in America far beyond the call of duty. Fact is - duty could never have asked for the sacrifice these people made ? it would be illegal.
She told me of many shot or bayoneted on the march and the few who somehow lived and made it to the guerrilla army or to some hidden spot and lived out the war ?maimed and broken.
As no formal arrangements had, or could be made, to attend to all the people broken by war, there was a growing attempt to get those that were in the worst shape to America. This was especially true of those that were very sick or had no one left to turn to in the islands.
At every level, men and women in our Armed Forces turned their head from required paper work, permission slips, etc. They lied ? they misstated numbers, made up travel orders, changed payroll addresses when necessary, and eventually gathered some 57 of these honored brothers across from me in the old Hospital building.They did this at a time you could not move a pencil ten feet without orders cut in 7 parts?not in this man's Army!
The event encompassed Generals, Privates, Majors (they run the Army), Nurses , all ranks of Navy and at least one member of the General Staff. To be caught could cost any involved?. their position ? their pension ? and even jail time for those found financially responsible.
The few times there was objection at a point in the ever changing needs, or someone threatened to spill the beans; that person would receive a call asking him if he "Liked his home in the Army" or would prefer to be managing the Bearing Sea Unit Accounting Office for the remainder of his tour? Some never received another promotion and soon found themselves doing TV repair in their home town.
The morning after meeting with Rose in the bar at the hospital, she sent a note asking me to meet her in the tunnel. Can you imagine the angst it would cause the, "Stop! You Seem To Be Having Fun ? crowd" knowing there was a bar in the hospital?and they allowed SMOKING! We have lost so much more that just liberty in the name of chasing the elusive nature of so called?. equality and health.
It was a bright fall morning: one that made you understand why a dog, at times ,wished to wag its tail and roll in the grass. Little did I know it was the first of a long uphill battle for me to truly understand the value of life and how lucky mother's little boy had been ? not to have been forced to find out by other means.
There were only about forty of the Filipino troops at the hospital that morning. Rose introduced me to each with a description as to where he had been during the fight for the islands.
They could have all been brothers: similar size, weight and coloring. Some seemed shockingly maimed at that moment, but funny, in a couple of days you no longer noticed. When I arrived some were playing cards, some smoking, their knees drawn up and their arms around them as one sees so often in National Geographic or the old LIFE magazine. Each of them staring off - into the past most likely - but for a few?. maybe the future.
Addressing me with her hand on a Filipino's shoulder, "Lt. Watson, this is Sun Lee?. the others call him, Sigman Ree."
Facing me, in one of the two stuffed chairs in the entire room of some 10,000 sq. feet, sat a rail thin man about 35 years of age. If you remember the fancy mask that women wear to a costume ball for a moment, you would think Mr. Ree had black bayonet marks pointing at each other across his entire face.
As the growing realization swept over you that your first impression was correct, no amount of Government sponsored love for Japan - would ever remove your hate ? not in this life time. Ree had been blinded with heated knives in front of his entire village for not giving up a downed flyer that eventually returned to his aircraft carrier, to fight again.
As we left his company, he held out an arm to be hugged. Rose was quick to tell me that it had become a "conditioned reflex" as so many asked to hug him upon leaving. She also told me a little quirk about Orientals that showed me just how far Americans were behind when it came to civility in some things.
She told me everyone up-stairs saved that chair for Ree each day. That the lamp next to the chair contained two bulbs; in the morning they turned on one bulb, in the afternoon both, in the early evening back to one bulb and at 10 P.M. they turned off both.
That way: Sigman knew approximately what time it was during the day (along with the background TV noise, he had whispered to me). At each meal someone appeared and walked with him to the meal, never touching, only to engage him in conversation about news of the day.
Another introduction had been to an Officer left to die - on the trail - in the rain - with all his toes, fingers - and his tongue removed.
I won't go on.
Each of these people had suffered grievous harm?Yet, only one or two seemed beyond the help of the staff or their fellow soldiers.
To see these men you would have had no doubt about victory over Japan. Japan offered nothing but sacrifice?and that - in the long run - is simply not enough for which to die.
In 1958, not only was the military not willing to claim its central decency; A understanding of fairness and loyalty that resided in the Corps - far above the "nags of military code." It was also unwilling to admit its unfailing stupidity in covering over a path sometimes poorly chosen.
End Part1- To be continued
©2008 A.H. Watson, all rights reserved.