I feel someone behind me. It’s Doc Winnie. His eyes are not twinkling. “Sammy boy, you’ve got a simple case of typhus and malaria, and all the blood you’ve decorated your cot with is from amoebic dysentery. Time to go home.”
Sam nods, knowing his tour of duty is up. Still, he’s not ready to say goodbye to the Marauders and asks, “Harry, how’s Pfeifer doing?”
“He’s here?” I ask, the surprise in my voice revealing a sudden fear twisting my stomach. “That way,” Sammy answers, jerking his head to point me to the far end of cots. “Thanks, buddy.” I lay a hand on Sam’s shoulder. “You gave it more than your all.”
As I’m leaving, the soldier in the litter next to Sam asks, “Sammy, can I have your Tommy?”
I zigzag in the direction of Pfeifer’s cot, thinking that’s the nicest thing anyone could have said to Sam. He was so proud of his gun.
I pass by a soldier, his hand constantly wiping his shiny, domed head. I don’t recognize him. Then, his goading voice asks, “Too good for old friends?” I twist to find Pfeifer.
“Did you go on some kind of a diet?” I tease as I crouch next to him. “You’re skinnier than any skeleton I’ve ever seen.” I want the joking to help him, but realize it’s more for me.
Rather than answer, he gazes straight ahead and doesn’t look at me. His eyes are unblinking, unwilling to miss anything, yet seeming to see nothing. “Why are you in the hospital?” I ask, expecting the usual, typhus, malaria, dysentery or wound.
“Not sure,” he answers absentmindedly while stroking his bald skull.
I have no idea what to say if he doesn’t know why he’s in the hospital. He’s not the kind of guy to fake it so he can go AWOL. Then I notice he’s vigorously fingering something tiny in his other hand. He finally glances at me, follows the direction of my eyes, and gives me a familiar, snide Pfeifer smile. “You got your Buddha, Harry. I got my bullet.”
I carefully open his hand. There, lying in his palm, is a single, 45 mm bullet—not gold, not shiny, but deadly. Without saying a word, my eyes ask him to explain more.
Pfeifer starts to tremble, and I take his hand in mine. “Harry, it was hell out there; worse than Maggot Hill. We thought we had ’em licked. Forced them to run like rabbits up the hill, even with all their artillery.” If the enemy was on top of the hill, that meant the K Force was in a hole—a slaughterhouse.
“We outlasted them. We had to. We had no ammo.” He looks to me for confirmation. “Remember those Banzais on Maggot Hill? I used to love ’em. Those bastards ran up that hill screaming with raised bayonets. Then we’d let loose with our Tommies. It was suicide.” Pfeifer swallows, his eyes frightened by what only he can see, and whispers, “We had no ammo at Charpate, Harry. Only our knives. Do you know what it’s like to be so close that you can smell the stink of a man’s breath right before you kill him? ” He starts to shudder uncontrollably. I hold his hand with the bullet tighter.
“It wasn’t until I went to load my chamber for the last time that I thought, there’s a bullet out there today with my name on it. Then I remembered you, Harry, and your damn Buddha. So I pulled out my last shell. That’s how this bullet became my Buddha. And look, I’m alive.” Pfeifer breathes deeply and reaches up to stroke his head. That’s when I see the blood dripping from his hand. He’s rubbed his scalp through his skin to bone. The cot under his head is soaked in red. I feel sick at the sight of his exposed, raw skull. Pfeifer’s inability to admit what he’s doing to himself terrifies me.
“It’s shell shock, Harry,” Doc whispers. I wonder how long Doc’s been standing next to me. He patiently waits for my nod of understanding. Pfeifer’s oozing wound has knocked out the last bit of strength within me.
Winnie leans over to check Pfeifer’s pulse. Patting him gently on the shoulder, Doc says, “Hell, Pfeifer, today’s your day. I’m giving you the last ticket on that plane to Ledo.” Compassionately, he claps me on the back and quietly says, “Spreading democracy is hell, ain’t it?”
Doc turns to continue his rounds. Lying on a litter next to Pfeifer is a green soldier, just off the plane this morning. His uniform is still creased, and he smells like the breakfast they serve in Ledo. He’s got a gunshot wound in his upper thigh that’s bleeding pretty badly. With a withering smile, Doc pulls out a scalpel and forceps. “This is going to hurt you more than me,” he says. Two Burmese nurses assist by throwing the entirety of their body weight on the man. Without any painkiller or antiseptic, Winnie digs in. “I save my morphine for our boys coming back from a real battle.”
The man screams, “What the fuck…what the hell do you think you’re doing? Get me in an operating room.” He shrieks, then finally bawls.
Holding up the bullet he has just yanked out of the soldier’s leg, Doc tells him, “This ain’t no Nip pellet.” He tosses it to the solider. “Keep it as a souvenir from the war. Someday, one of your grandkids will ask why it’s American made.”
It’s hard to stomach soldiers who self-inflict wounds so they can go home when others, like Pfeifer, move beyond what they don’t want to do. They march. They kill. And some die.
“You know, I think about Collin a lot,” Pfeifer confides, his faraway eyes seeing the kid. “Why that hour, that minute? If he’d waited one day, maybe things would have worked out for him.”
“I feel responsible for what happened to Collin,” I answer. “I know I’m just a supply officer, but he was a friend.” Had we been in the States, we probably wouldn’t have crossed paths, yet, because of this war, he’ll be in my life forever.
“Harry, you don’t give yourself enough credit,” Pfeifer scolds, sounding stronger. His eyes are focused, and, although there’s a nervous tremor in his hands, he’s clasping them together rather than raking the back of his head. “You make your own decisions and stick with them. Other men see that and respect you. You’re not your parents’ trophy or God’s puppet. And you don’t fight because you want to, but because you have to.”
The rain outside builds to a shower, and I hear the plane’s engine rev up for departure.
The damn journalists’ nagging voices approach me. I wish I could say, “There’s your plane; hop on and leave me alone.” Christ, I feel helpless. The minutes slip away as they load Sam and others onto the plane.
Seeing the injured being carried away, Pfeifer reaches with his hand to soothe his nerves.
I grab his fingers before he can cause more damage.
“They say you once had hair.” I feel the body snatchers getting closer and know our time is running out. “Stop using that hand comb with all those calluses, and you’ll get a thatch like mine.” My voice cracks, and I hold both of his hands in mine.
The litter bearers hover over Pfeifer, waiting for a green light from the Doc. Finally, Winnie rushes up to us and says, “This guy is A-O.K. to go.” Doc raises his eyebrows, ready to tell a joke, as usual. “Treat him as if he was family; that is, if you like your family.”
As four men lift Pfeifer from his cot to the litter, the journalists see the bloody damage. I clutch his hands as we hustle around the whirling blades, knowing that once he’s on the plane, he’ll have to settle his own devils. Then I let go. I don’t know if it’s the flash from the cameras or the blur from my tears, but I can’t see him any more. Doc grabs me by the shoulders and holds me back as the body snatchers hoist this last patient, the man who saved my life, onto the plane to India. I feel the rain wash the blood from my hands, but not the memories—never those.
I try to come to grips with the absurdity of the day, but my thoughts are warped and slanted. As clouds on the western horizon swallow the plane, I ask, “What day is it today?”
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