Schmidt sets a slow, deliberate pace away from the Negro Kitchen. “Hey, don’t worry,” he says to me. “It’s your first day. We all make mistakes when we’re tired.” He sounds congenial, but his eyes whip me with repulsion. “You must be color blind. That can be a real problem in the army. Something you’ll need to change.”
Grub for white officers is on the bottom floor of a wooden, two-story tea house. The upper level sits on stilts with peeling plank boards and shuttered windows, while the bottom floor is wide open. I grab some food, and look in the opposite direction for a place to sit, hoping Schmidt will find someone else to terrorize.
“Attention!” A soldier in a crisp, clean uniform stands at the entrance to the mess hall at full salute. A General and Colonel enter the building.
Chairs tip over and tin cups drop to the floor as everyone pushes themselves to standing.
The joking banter silences.
“I don’t give a damn if the Brits think building this road is a laborious task, unlikely to be finished until the need for it has passed. We know how to win wars. And flying the HUMP just isn’t enough. Who do they think we are—one of their bloody colonies?” The grizzled General, sporting a razor-edged crew-cut and biting down on a long, black cigarette holder, barks at the younger, pipe-smoking Colonel. Both are absorbed in their heated conversation and walk past the soldiers as though they’re ghosts. They go to a corner table. Coolies rush plates and bowls spilling over with curried rice to them. “At ease, men,” the older general says as an afterthought. “We’re fighting a war. So dispense with all the jumping up and down business.”
Chairs scrape the floor and the conversation volume goes up as the men sit down to finish their meals.
I find an empty seat at a table with a couple of soldiers. “This spot looks like it’s reserved for greenhorns,” I say as I sit down, then nod my head in the direction of the two officers. “Who are the bigwigs?”
A polished-looking soldier leans over and whispers, “The grey-haired guy is the one and only ‘Vinegar Joe’ Stilwell. Merrill’s the Colonel. You won’t have any problems around here if you do what they tell you. Stilwell’s the kind of guy who’ll join you at the end of a day with his bottle for a few drinks and a story or two, then, in the morning, ask pigs to fly.”
“Yeah,” a buzz-cut redhead, chewing with his mouth wide open, agrees. “Ever since the Japs humiliated Stilwell by booting him out of Burma in ’42, he’s been looking for revenge. So the Bible according to Stilwell has us winning this war through Burma with guts and determination. I’m voting on it being someone else’s guts, not mine.” He wriggles his eyebrows up and down, so I can’t tell if he’s joking or hiding behind his clown act.
“If they just used fighter planes to protect the boys flying supplies over the HUMP, then we wouldn’t need to rebuild Marco Polo’s trade route to China. But I’d never say that to Vinegar Joe,” the first solider says.
An image of the mud-caked Negro crew comes to mind. Always one to take the side of the underdog, I suggest, “Isn’t it murder if we send unarmed road workers up against Japanese troops in Burma? The only sure thing to come from constructing that road is a lot of dead men. Somebody should do something about that.”
I’m met with silence. Then the redhead reaches out with a rough handshake. “Bernard Roman. Call me anything but Bernie, and I’ll ignore you. I’m the guy who keeps the rigs running. Bribes of cigarettes and booze are always welcome.” He jerks a thumb towards the first soldier. “Charles Olfson—one of our best radio operators. We call him Charming Charles.
You’ll see why when we’re around the ladies.”
Olfson takes the jibe in stride, then adds his own editorial. “He’s called Hot-Blooded Bernie—because of his hair, not the dames. Or, call him Stubby if you want to make him mad.” Charles points to where Bernie once had a finger. “He says it was the carburetor’s fault. By the way, rumor has it you’re Harry Flynn, the rookie in our barracks. Welcome to the other side of the world.”
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