A sturdy desk with an Underwood typewriter waits patiently for me. After three hours of work in this roasting temperature, I need a break. So I slump in the hard wooden chair, stretch my legs out in front of me, and let my head drop back. A single, naked light bulb hangs from the center of the ceiling. My tired eyes close, refusing to let me be the creased-to-perfection soldier. I wait for anything that could remotely be considered a breeze to relieve the heat in this sweltering, military supply office.
The mud-plastered, bamboo walls of this hut they call a basha let the midday heat seep through, and, like a bubble, trap the scorching air in the room. My flesh feels like an added layer of clothing. It’s so hot that even the katydids take a nap.
Since early this afternoon I typed pages and pages of requisitions: Spam for the Americans, rice and taro root for the Chinese, and curried lentils for the local Indians. The hay on the list could be for a horse or a mule, but it ends up being for the elephants every time. The other Service of Supplies—or SOS—men received an emergency shipment late last night, so they’ll start their shift after dinner. That means I’m alone with nothing to keep me awake but the sorry-looking Underwood. Dying of boredom seems to be the biggest danger in Ledo, India. My mind wanders back home.
“No End in Sight for Marines at Guadalcanal” had been the headline that day in September when I received my official letter. Rain pounded on the metal roof of Tillie’s Diner, where I waited in the back booth for Ruthie to get off work. Like usual, my knees bounced with nervous energy.
Ruthie works in an ammunition factory where they recycle scrap metal to make bullets for the boys overseas. A blue cotton blouse, dungarees, and bandanna have replaced the pink, well-fitted suit she wore when I first saw her. Even so, all I see is my Ruthie: a princess dressed as a factory worker.
“It’s so cold, I wouldn’t be surprised if this rain turns to snow!” she shivers as she slips into the other side of the booth and pulls off her rain bonnet. Then she stops abruptly. “What is it?” she asks.
My rigid posture and clasped hands resting heavy on the table must have alarmed her. “I got my orders today. I’m shipping off in three days,” I say, staring at the rivulets of water coursing down the blurred window pane.
She puts her hand over mine and says, “We knew that was going to happen.” Then she leans closer and demands, “There’s something you’re not telling me.”
“It’s not about me,” I say, and pause to study the checkered table cloth, then momentarily let myself become distracted by a rip in the booth’s leather upholstery. “Joseph Graf was killed,” I finally tell her. “And he didn’t even have to go; he volunteered.” I chuckle humorlessly at the horrible reality. “We always called him helium hand. Damn him. No one was supposed to die.”
She holds my hands for a few moments, then asks, “What will you do when your life is on the line?”
It’s not as if I hadn’t already asked myself that question. I pull one hand away and fumble in my pocket for a smoke, but pull out an empty pack. Squashing it, then tossing it on the table, I say, “I’d either want to cry or wake up from a bad dream.” I wrap both my hands around hers.
Then I whisper, “I feel like a coward because I want to live.”
Instead of scowling in disappointment, she smiles. “Sounds smart to me.” She caresses my cheek with the back of her hand, then says, “Do me a favor; don’t come home to me in a box.”
My mind snaps back to the present and thoughts of my gut-wrenching sea voyage across two oceans to Bombay, followed by a hemorrhoid-jarring land journey of two thousand miles. Early this morning, I arrived in the town of Ledo in the state of Assam. Where in the hell is Assam? I wondered.
“Northern India—somewhere between Delhi and Burma,” a returning soldier had told me on the train as we bumped along on a narrow-gauge rail. Outside, terraced fields of rice stretched to the horizon. “Assam has nothing but abandoned tea plantations. They call it the chicken neck of India; it’s beyond the boondocks. You‘ve heard of head hunters?”
“That’s the Naga tribe,” he continued. “So, you must be going to headquarters in Ledo. It’s where the railroad stops. It’s nothing but a squalid bazaar town with trash in the gutter and bone-thin mutts wandering the streets.”
But it’s also the China-Burma-India (CBI) Northern Command Center, and the base for my first army assignment. The Underwood stares up at me from the desk, looking as forlorn as I feel. Behind me, the bamboo door on the basha slaps closed.
“The chow they serve up here sucks,” offers the Captain as he saunters over to my desk. I saw him on the train from Delhi this morning. He drops a thick manila envelope on my desk with the word ‘Requisitions’ and the date stamped in bold letters on the front. “But the mess hall is a helluva lot better than sitting in this sauna.” He looks at me like I’m half nuts. “You can stay here and die from a heat stroke or tempt the fate of your bowels by trying curried egg-foo-yung or some other local delicacy. I suggest you get something to eat.”
I jump to attention. “Yes, sir!” I salute.
“Schmidt.” He offers me a handshake. “Captain Peter Schmidt.” He looks at the pile of requisitions I completed and the taller one yet to be started. “Forget the formality. Just remember, the reason you’re here is because supplies save lives. So don’t plan on impressing anybody with spit and polish, unless it produces results.” He grins, then adds, “And you’ve got to have a pulse ticking to do that. So go eat, Lieutenant.”
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish