“Give me a Goddamn D-7,” demands a mud-caked equipment driver from the 45th as he bursts into the supply hut. “That puny D-4 I was driving just rolled down a two-hundred-foot drop-off. One of you trying to kill me? We got the enemy picking us off in the field, those blood sucking leeches and mud-floods. Hell, I’m lucky I’m alive. So do me a favor—buy me some time to die and get me a motherfucking D-7.”
It’s past midnight. The day’s inventory count is logged in and coolies wearing baggy dhoti and loose-fitting tunics are loading the stock onto elephants to be transported to the construction site about seventy-five miles northeast of the base. I’ve been in Ledo four months, and only seventy-nine road miles out of one thousand have been built.
“Boy, calm down,” a supply officer drawls. “You think I got a D-7 I’m hiding from you?” The man turns in circles, faking an inspection of the inventory piles.
The sallow-faced equipment driver, fueled with anger, slouches, resigned to being demeaned like so many of the colored soldiers stationed at Ledo. But something is burning in his belly; he cocks his head one last time and spits out, “Get me a D-7, or this road will never get built.” Then he stomps out of the supply office.
“Was that a threat?” The officer laughs. “I sure hope it’s the first and last time I see that boy, for both our sakes.”
With my back to the supply officers, I ignore their harassment and continue to direct the coolies, who patiently wait outside the basha walls. There are too many fronts to fight around here. It seems one war should be enough.
When the others aren’t looking, I whisper to the lead coolie, “Is there room for me to hitch a ride?”
The man’s dark face is barely visible in the shadows cast by the flickering light bulbs in the supply hut. “Sahib, where you go?” he asks in a sing-song voice.
“I want to see the front—where they’re breaking ground for the road,” I say as quietly as I can without raising suspicion. “If we get there in five hours, I can be back in time for tomorrow’s shift.” I listen to the mercurial laughter in the hut over the D-7.
“Sahib, it is cold at the pass, and the rivers have begun to swell from the early monsoon rain. We may not be back in time. It is much nicer here with your sturdy huts and hot food.”
I want to puke at the prospect of being trapped in Ledo as the war marches along the road into Burma. I know I’m taking a chance by going to the front without orders, but I’m ready to accept the punishment if it means I can see more than warehouses, barracks, and a typewriter. “I have a warm hat and jacket. I’m ready. When do we leave?”
“This gaja’s shipment may depart.” The coolie pats the elephant on the rump, then shrugs his shoulders. “I will tell the others you will replace one mahout tonight. You may go now.”
I hear the other SOS men closing down for the night. In a hushed voice I say, “Give me five minutes before you leave.” Then I make a scene of getting ready to hit the sack, but slip away at the last minute.
Swaying atop a male elephant makes it hard to concentrate on anything but its pungent stench. There is nothing but the black night to draw my attention away. I bob at the nape of the giant mammal’s neck, while the goods stored in netting across its back shuffle in sync with each large stride. I stare into the impenetrable forest, hearing more than seeing; coarse foliage rustles.
Unsettling screeches from night birds and muffled animal grunts catch my attention, but neither the elephants nor the coolies take note.
I wind the rope from the elephant’s nape around my hand, then nod off, periodically blinking my eyes open to soft murmurs from the Indian mahouts coaxing their elephants to move forward: “Aye ah ha ha.” Rising and falling in and out of sleep, I finally awake in a fit. The air has cooled as we climb from four hundred to four thousand feet. Feeling the nip from the night wind, I pull on my hat and thick jacket, hoping we’ll see a snowy pass.
Settling into the gaja’s rhythm again and listening to the coolies’ mesmerizing whispers, my mind wanders. Although there has been little talk of fighting, the war is taking its toll. I laugh to myself at memories of my early, innocent days in Ledo. My grin turns grave, and the price of war sobers me up. I think back to that first night trip into Ledo, returning to the barracks at the early hour of dawn.
That morning, lost in my own self-pity, I had assumed I was alone until Reginald sprinted up to my side. After guessing my night had been passion-filled without fireworks, he said, “Harry, don’t get me wrong. I’m like any other red-blooded man. A woman of charm can make me feel like Tarzan. But I got a girl back home. And I do believe the most romantic thing about a relationship is friendship.” We had walked most of the way back to the base in silence.
If it wasn’t for the days when the road crews from the 45th and the 823rd came into town,
I’d have gone crazy and hung myself with one of those light bulb lines from the thatched roof to get some amusement. Sure, I’m entertained by Charles’s radio stories about espionage on the European front and Bernie’s disparaging sidebars as he reads letters from back home ‘If my family didn’t argue, we wouldn’t have anything to talk about,” he’d say,’ but Reginald, Earl and Lester are the natural storytellers. One time, Reginald brought back a shrunken head from a Naga tribesman.
“I went to pee and get a little bit of an unscheduled R&R, you know what I mean?” he asked in his storyteller’s voice. “But when I looked up, this butt-naked man—well, except for a cloth wrapped around his cock—was staring at me. He had a string of what I thought were beads around his neck, bracelets on his arms, and a bone tied in his hair. But believe me, that man’s masculinity was not in question. Did I mention his legs and arms were tattooed, he had boar tusks in his ears, and he held one of those crescent blades long enough to slice me into bacon?
He looked like a sumo wrestler with muscles; woulda made Superman think twice.”
Reginald made eye contact with everyone to check that we were all listening. Then his voice geared up for more of the story.
“Now, I wasn’t in the most negotiating of positions, so I decided to be polite and demonstrate my good manners. Still, I had this feeling talking to him in English wouldn’t buy me my way back to my dump truck. I was secretly hoping the crew chief would be pissing mad and come looking for me—I’d’ve rather dealt with him. As my luck would have it, there was a mud slide, and they had to stop work. So no one even knew I was gone.” Reginald threw his arms in the air as though he was begging for the sweet Lord’s intervention.
“I opened my hands for the naked wrestler to see I didn’t have a knife or one of their— daos, you know, those hatchet machete things. But he just kept staring at me. So I checked my pockets, thinking maybe I got a rupee or two to buy me my freedom, but all I found were chili peppers. Every time I go to Ledo, I stock up on peppers. The food here ain’t fit to feed a pig, but at least the peppers make it not taste like crap.”
Earl twirled his finger for Reginald to speed up the story.
“You should have seen that tribesman’s eyes light up, so I gave him a couple of peppers. Like I said, the food here is Godawful, and I was not ready to deprive myself of my only luxury. Then he grabbed me by the arm like he was marching me to the firing squad. He dragged me to his village, bobbing along in a dog trot.” Reginald mimicked a loping canine and giggled at his imitation, while flashing a smile as wide as his face.
“Get to the point,” Earl pestered.
“Let me paint you a picture of this Naga village,” he waved his arm as though, by magic, an invisible movie screen would appear. “We stumbled through that jungle, tripping over knee- high roots and splashing into puddles swarming with insects, me praying there’s got to be somebody on my heels ready to save me. But oh no, it was just me and this ugly midget—a mighty muscular one, all painted up like he was going to some fancy Halloween party. You can not,” he said, “You can not imagine how a man will react when he’s dragged into a Naga village.”
Earl became very serious. His eyes lit up with questions, especially since we knew the Naga were headhunters.
“This one was fenced with sharp bamboo sticks topped with decorations. It wasn’t no Christmas tree lights sprucing up that fence, but heads: shriveled ones, new ones still a little bloody, young and old faces of both men and women. Hell, I messed in my pants right then and there and prayed my fastest prayer, not knowing how much time I had left.
Women with black teeth and naked children snuck out of their huts, blinking at the sunlight like vampires, wondering whether to cook me medium or well-done. But instead of killing me, the decorated wrestler offered to trade me one of his shrunken heads stuck on the bamboo fence for my peppers. They were going to let me live.” Reginald got down on his knees and kissed the ground in front of him.
“They think the heads protect them against their enemies, the Sing Pho.” He got up off his knees to regain his storytelling pose, “The Sing Pho are the tribe letting us build the road on their land. I’d say the heads scare the shit out of ’em. And there just ain’t anybody else out there to fight, except the Nips.” Then he slapped his thigh. “Ooh wee, do they hate the Japs!”
Now, this Naga wrestler wanted all my peppers. I thought long and hard, until he pulled out his dao. So I decided I’d take a couple of heads for my peppers, and we’d call it even.”
Reginald could tell a tale like a preacher; every yarn was like opening up a new present; it’s why he always had a captive audience. Then there are fools like me, who got suckered into picking up the pepper deal with the Naga midget that Reginald started. Each month I make the delivery before they can think about using my head as an ornament on their fence post. But rather than trading peppers for heads, I give the Naga a bag of chilies to stop building their camouflaged pits with poisoned poles on the bottom and to stay away from the construction work. We both think it’s a good deal.
Thinking back at how easy it had been to get a blazing smile from Reginald, I let my consciousness fall into that border zone between sleep and reality.
Who knows how much time passed when suddenly the elephant high-steps one leg after the other over a fallen log. I grab the gaja’s flabby, wrinkled skin, my upper body rolling off to one side, until the multi-ton monster drops back to an even step. Awkwardly, I pull myself back up on the nape of the five-ton giant. My heart’s beating all the way to my palms. I remind myself to pay attention if I don’t want to be smashed into an elephant pie. But once we’re back to a gentle rocking rhythm, I close my eyes and remember the day Earl came rushing into my basha.
A couple of the other guys had complained. “Hey, no niggers in here.”
In my heart, I knew something was beyond wrong. “Fellas, I’ve got it handled,” I said to calm down my bunk mates, then pulled Earl towards my cot.
“It’s Reginald,” he said as I threw on my pants and slipped into my shoes. We rushed out of the basha. “Those Japanese left booby traps in the road, and it blew him to pieces.”
I stopped. My heart thudded like a baseball bat. This was one of Earl’s jokes, I hoped, but usually Reginald told the jokes. I didn’t trust myself to breathe my next words. “He’s dead?”
Tears rolled down Earl’s mud-crusted face. “I don’t know, Harry.”
Although he said nothing else, I heard fear in his voice for the first time ever. That was also the first time I felt the pain of war.
We rushed to the infirmary basha. Reginald wasn’t the only one waiting on a stretcher. “Get out of the way or help,” one of the doctors yelled as he pushed past me. “We got a live one over here; get him into surgery.” Men and women in white shirts rushed anxiously in crazy circles.
They don’t know what to do, I thought. This isn’t a practice drill; it’s the real thing. It’s not just bug bites and dysentery.
Reginald lay on a cloth litter with its sides wrapped around two bamboo poles. I grabbed a medic by the collar and forced him over to my friend.
“Hey, Doc.” Reginald gave a weak laugh. “They told me back home when I came over here, ‘Don’t you let those Japs kick your ass, boy.’” He grit his teeth as a shudder wracked his body.
Blood dripped under Reginald’s stretcher as they lifted him to a table.
“Well, I kept my promise. They done not kick my ass.” Reginald’s face softened with sadness. “They done blow it off.” His eyes willed Death to reconsider playing his losing card.
I didn’t realize I’d dozed off until the elephant’s rocking stops. I open my eyes. The chill from the wind that’s lashing over the unprotected peak has frozen the tears on my face.
We crest the Pangsau Pass at sunrise, where the colorless, foggy switchbacks are transformed into a pink-fringed horizon. A grove of rustling, lacy pine trees ridge the summit. I shiver, cold and sad. Thick, grey clouds cling to the spine of the snow-capped Himalayas.
Scattered streams groove the thickly forested hillside, then gather at the base of the mountains where a tumbling, gushing river runs.
At the summit, the blustering cold whips through my hair and chews my face. Ahead, a recently posted sign reads: “Welcome to Burma. This way to Tokyo.” We’re almost to the construction front and halfway to Tagap Hill.
Before I look around for Earl and Lester, I need to understand what compelled me to make this trip. Through my windswept tears, all I see is Reginald’s trademark smile. He believed that life was too beautiful to let bullies like Schmidt or Stilwell’s Road bring him down. With his death, I truly know: “One man can make a difference.”
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