“No. I don’t understand. You got a road to build, but you’re playing cards.” Colonel Merrill clenches the stem of his pipe between his teeth as he talks. Rainwater drips from his razor-edged crew cut down to his glasses.
Earl slaps a fan of five cards down on the table and stands up abruptly, tipping his chair over. The other men at the table, including myself, do nothing.
“Sir,” he starts with a contained southern drawl. “Have you been given a full tour of this here construction site, including what we call the graveyard?” Placing a hand on his hip and throwing his muscled shoulders back, Earl looks at the Colonel as though the word insubordination is not in his dictionary. “I think you’d get an understanding of what’d happen if we fired up our equipment in this here rain.”
Leaning forward, Merrill folds his arms across his chest and waits, eyebrows furrowed. “Now, don’t go blaming me an’ the rest of these men because the road ain’t done.” Earl’s voice drowns out the rain. “But since you is an officer of far-reaching reputation, maybe you can tell us whether someone up high thinks we can fix these here trucks with duct tape an’ run them off rainwater, because that’s all we got.”
Merrill shakes his head, unwilling to surrender. “Maybe you should show me that cemetery you’re talking about,” he offers with a sweeping gesture towards the entrance of the basha.
Earl pulls on his cap and leads the Colonel from the mess hall, shadowed by a thick- skinned, pock-marked, teenage Kachin scout. Earl’s not taking this heat alone. I push myself around the table and out the door. The others at the table watch in silence.
I chase after them, splashing in the potholes. My boot gets stuck in the clay, locking me in place until I wrench it free. The others walk further away, through the muck of the thirty-foot- wide, recently-cut road, unfazed by the dense rain.
To their right, the trees have been cleared, and a storm-capped Himalayan chain rises as a sentinel in the distance. They stomp towards the canyon that separates us from the mountains.
Slipping in the slimy clay from the unfinished road, they finally stop at the edge of the gorge. Merrill looks down over the rim at the sediment-laden river. The rushing river below and the pounding rain has silenced everything else. They don’t even notice me when I finally catch up to them.
In the narrowest section of the path, Earl stops and shouts, pointing at a junkyard of abandoned equipment. “This here we call the cemetery.” Rolled dump trucks, mud-caked yellow power shovels, and an assortment of other trucks lay strewn along the banks, submerged in the reddish mud that was once a part of the road bed.
“Now, I ain’t never been accused of being any more than a smart ass,” Earl grins, “but we boys in the south know that if you pull down them trees and clear the weeds, that dirt ain’t got nothing to stick to if it done rain.”
We march further along the road to where the thick jungle meets the open road cut. At the edge, Earl’s dozer sits, waiting to smash through the unexplored vegetation. A rock outcrop blocks further movement on the rig’s left, and, about fifteen feet to the right, a steep drop-off is hidden by hundred-foot-tall hardwood trees. Their wet canopies blend in with the bamboo shrubs along the perimeter, forming a green wall. Slash marks blazed in the tree trunks and survey sticks hidden in the undergrowth trace an outline or mark the spot where the future road is to be built.
Merrill examines its precarious alignment. Bending over, he fingers the thin film of soil that will be the road’s only support. He looks to the right; the defiant jungle towers over a sliding slope. To the left, bedrock refuses to budge. “It’s a landslide ready to drop.” He turns to look us in the eyes, then says, “This is shoddy work.”
The distrust in Earl’s face turns into outright disregard for authority. He marches over to his bulldozer, swings up—rain trickling off his cap and into his collar—then calls back, “You want to see how easy it is to follow orders from someone sitting at a nice, dry desk who ain’t got any idea what problems we got? You wondered why I ain’t workin’ on the chain gang today.
Well, you got it now. Follow that trace. I’m not the one who marked it, but I’ve been told to track it.” He rams the switch up and the engine growls to a start, then snorts as he lifts the blade, slipping, wobbling, but eventually inching forward along the marked trail.
The bulldozer grazes a shale rock ledge on Earl’s left. The equipment tilts to the right, where a stand of supple, slimy, bamboo shoots reaching fifty feet are flattened by its massive metal blade. The green mat forms a wet, unsupported base. The big rig lurches, shakes, then pitches towards what we now see is a fissure in the trace—an earthquake fault line ready to split the road open under the dozer.
Slowly at first, crumbling mud clods separate along the trace. Each lump tumbles down the gorge, dodging trunks and vines. The rift grows, and the lithe bamboo stems cannot buttress the swelling avalanche of mud or the big rig. Earl, in a rage and unaware that the ground beneath him is flowing downhill, forces the coughing machine forward, smashing a tunnel opening in the jungle, and destroying the virgin forest.
Doubt paralyzes the three of us watching the bulldozer sputter and lean towards the incline. I recover and dash towards the slide, screaming “Earl, get off the motherfuckin’ machine!”
Merrill chases behind me. “What’s that man thinking? Is he blind?” he yells.
Along the side of the road lies a fallen tree covered by a thick rug of vines. “Grab the other end of the trunk,” I shout to the Kachin. “The best we can do is wedge that log downhill and prop up the dozer to keep it from sliding any further.”
The wiry, muscled youth pulls at creeping vegetation to free the tree pole. Finally, the wood, freshly felled and heavy, releases. Merrill and the Kachin ranger follow my example and encircle the log with their arms, their faces red as we lift it. We haul the log towards the rig, our vision obscured by the rain.
The bulldozer teeters to the right. Earl turns off the machine and heaves himself out of the cab towards a rock on the uphill side. It’s then he realizes the danger. Guilty fear clouds his face and renders him immobile. “Harry, what should I do?”
Merrill shouts to him, “Bounce the machine towards the outcropping. Jump up and down and use your weight to tilt the rig upright.”
Earl nods numbly, then throws his whole body into propelling the equipment away from the drop-off.
Clutching the log like we’re ready to ram a wall, the rest of us reach a point where the ground starts to slip away under us. We stop, unable to move any further. Without hesitation, Merrill commands, “One, two, three, heave!”
As the log flies through the air, its bulky, wet weight propels it forward.
We turn to see the dozer lean towards the ravine. Drenched in sweat and water, Earl bounces up and down on the cab’s foothold until a loud crash grabs our attention. We look back to see the front tip of the log we had just thrown gouge deep into the down-slope mud. Oozing clay cements the log in place against a giant Halong tree.
Angling deep into the uphill ground, the dozer finds a shaky equilibrium. From the corner of my eye, I see Earl lose his balance, fall against the rock ledge, and smash his head. His limp body slips out of sight beneath the dozer. Then the underbelly of the rig—and Earl—slide towards the gully until the log wedged in the bamboo thicket arrests its advance downhill.
The young Kachin runs around the bulldozer to find Earl. He holds up a hand to stop us before we try to dig Earl out so we don’t trap him further. Wordlessly, he grabs my arm and drags me to help roll a huge rock under the engine. We fix it in place, stabilizing the metal hulk. The muscular native and I pull a dazed Earl free. Then the tribesman slides his shoulder under a half-conscious Earl and drags him to dry cover.
Out of breath, I’m barely able to hold up my own weight. I’m sick of this: the road, the rain, the deaths. The washouts where I placed dynamite are nothing more than obnoxious bug bites compared to this. I’ve been wasting my time; not even Mother Nature can stop Stilwell. I slump to the ground and let my head drop, close to vomiting with exertion. I hate this feeling of defeat.
My head is level with the underside of the dozer, where the rusted bolts on the tracks have popped. “This shit’s as easy to snap as a toothpick,” I sneer. Then I remember Schmidt saying the equipment rusts from humidity. Turning my attention back to the belly of the dozer, I wonder how easy it would be to sabotage all these construction rigs until there’s none left.
Dynamite may not be the most effective way to derail Stilwell’s Road.
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