I expect to be blinded by the tropical sun as I push out of the basha, but a searing orange sunset is melting into evening. Still, it feels like I’m breathing baked vapor. I feel too stupid to ask for directions to the mess hall, so without a guide or crowd to follow, I’m lost. I wander around row upon row of barracks, but everything looks the same.
I track loud talk floating around the corners, which bursts into raucous laughter as I get closer. It feels good to be walking, even if I am trapped in this rectangular maze of identical, tin- roofed huts. The fourth bend of dirt paths opens into a clearing, where a string of Negro soldiers slowly inch towards a basha emanating a vague, unidentifiable odor. I’m just a country boy, so I was never around Negroes much back home. I feel a little out of place.
With my hands stuck deep in my pockets, I walk towards the men. The joking stops as soon as they see me, and it’s as though I am taking my last steps towards the guillotine. “Hi, fellas.” I try to sound friendly, but my voice cracks. “Where can a new guy find a meal around here?”
The men look at each other oddly, as if I had just challenged them to a fight. There’s no invitation in their eyes and no answer to my question—just dark, suspicious glares.
“My mistake.” I attempt an apologetic wave, then turn to go. “Could be I’m going crazy with this heat, but I thought I smelled chicken.” My stomach is so jumpy that anything I eat would most likely bounce right back out. And if I was hot before, I’m sizzling now. “Sorry if I barged in on you guys.”
I walk away. Any direction will do. Then I hear a deep bass voice call after me: “It’s pork chops and grits.”
I stop and look back cautiously. Their tightly coiled fists persuade me to be on my best behavior.
“There’s a heap load of food.” The deep voice comes from a tall, skinny black man with skin like sun-beaten leather and a wide, mostly toothless grin. “But if you ask me, it’s chops and shit. They plum forgot about the pork.”
I pull my shoulders back, brace my heels, and keep my fists ready in my pockets before I answer. “Yeah, it’s probably not like home-cooking. But it wouldn’t make sense for Uncle Sam to starve anyone.”
The weathered man shakes his head in contempt, then gripes, “White men always have an answer.” No one moves. “Like you said, got to feed an animal to get him off his ass.”
There are more than a dozen of them, and they all look like the boxer, Joe Louis. “Aren’t you getting paid to be here?” I ask, sounding cockier than I feel.
“Not as much as you,” he answers.
“But I’m an officer.” I know I can play this card only once, but feel I’ve walked into something beyond me and need a way out. “I think you’d best show me some respect.”
“No disrespect intended, sir. But we ain’t on duty. We’re just minding our own business, waiting to be fed, like a pack of dogs.” He laughs like it’s a joke, but it’s clear he doesn’t think it’s funny.
“Do I need permission to walk around these barracks?” I haven’t done anything wrong, and it seems like they have it in for me just because I’m white.
“You ain’t got no business coming around here to eat.” I can see the mental boxing gloves being pulled off and the men positioning themselves to watch a fight.
“You got a better suggestion?” I ask, palming the sweat off my face as the sour taste of acid rises from my stomach.
Like the eerie stillness before a storm hits, there’s just silence. As I wonder whether he’ll throw a breath-sucking gut punch or KO to my head, I instead see the men look at me like I’m wacko. One second, they’re ready to kick my ass; the next, they act like I’m mentally unbalanced.
“Lordy, this kitchen serves only us folk,” the lanky black man confesses. I shrug. “I don’t think I’m hungry anymore.”
“I ain’t never hungry for this food,” he grouses.
The men shake their heads in solidarity, complain about the gristle and watered-down slop, then josh each other. They pretend to ignore me, like I’m a mutt waiting for scraps.
“Guess we weren’t none too friendly, you being a stranger and all.” His smile now seems genuine. “This shit may not be poison, but it sure tastes like it.” Their grumbling escalates into lucid descriptions of rotting garbage, vile enough to make any man gag.
Thinking it’s better to make a strong first showing than be remembered as a coward in the months to come, I decide to brave the group and move to join them. I pull out my cigarettes—an international equalizer—take out one, stick it in the side of my mouth, and offer the pack around until they’re gone. With the smell of sweat heavy from a hard day’s work and mud caked on everything—boots, army-brown pants, and even their arms—the men from the 823rd Regiment don’t have to tell anyone they’ve been assigned to slave labor.
“What happens around here at night?” I ask.
The smiling soldier’s expression turns grave. I should know I’m in trouble when he raises his eyebrows and warily lights his cigarette before drawling, “You’all come in on today’s train?”
I rock back on my heels and take a long drag on my smoke, stalling for time to think, then say, “I must look like the kid who ran the touchdown to the wrong goal post.” I hear polite chuckling. Fortunately, nobody tries to make me feel like the knock-kneed klutz who always has the ball stolen from him. “Yup, I’m new in town, if that’s what you want to call this place.”
The soldier nudges the next one in line to get his attention, “Why, Earl, wasn’t it just last weekend we decided to call in on the Taj Mahal?”
Earl considers the question for a moment, rubbing his chin. “You’re dang right on that one, Reginald,” he answers with a reserve saved for swearing on the Bible. “And what about those snake charmers in Calcutta? They had mighty fine looking vipers coming out of those straw baskets.” Earl imitates a chicken jerking its neck at feeding time.
Reginald places his hand on Earl’s shoulder and interrupts: “And what about the yogis, practically butt naked on the steps of the Ganges River? They’ve sure got balls. Shit, the snakes had more to show than those diaper-wrapped skeletons. Should’ve been ashamed of themselves.”
Reginald takes the first bold step and moves to shake my hand. It takes every ounce of courage I have not to flinch and trust that I’m not getting set up for a side punch. He guides me away from the others and, in barely a whisper, asks, “Would you like me to get you a ticket to the Taj Mahal for this weekend at my special rates?” The sincerity in his voice is as smooth as Jack Daniel’s.
“That sounds swell,” I splutter, loud enough for everyone to hear, even though I have this feeling like I’m about to get swindled. “I…well, hell, I just don’t think I’ll get leave any time soon. Can I take a rain check?”
Reginald backs away and doubles over. A burst of laughter catches fire and spreads through the ranks. Some of the men, with tears in their eyes, almost choke. They carry on, slapping each other on the back, as though I don’t understand English. I feel riled at being the butt of their joke, but, really, I want to kick myself for being stupid enough to be set up.
“A rain check?” Reginald wheezes, then wraps his arms around his sides and takes in a deep breath to regain some composure. “If you haven’t noticed, this town ain’t no desert.” He giggles in a way that only a man confident that he won’t be teased for being silly can. “Shucks, a rain check’s what you’ll get every day up here. As a matter of fact, during the monsoon, you’ll be checkin’ for a foot a day.”
Earl, a man of imposing muscles, grabs my hand with a lock-breaking grip. Lester, whose surly look first sent my mind spiraling into red alert, surprises me with rowdy laughter like you’d hear from the boys back home after a long day during harvest season.
Overhead, monkeys throw hollowed fruits at us and screech for attention. The banana palms hesitantly begin to waver with the evening breeze, still not ready to release the energy- zapping heat of the day.
Then a hand digs into my shoulder to spin me around. “What the hell? Did you get lost, boy? Or do your tastes lean towards southern well-done?” I twist to see Captain Schmidt, his lip quivering with disgust. He grabs my collar, then propels me out of line. I trip, but quickly catch my balance.
“When I’m hungry, I follow my nose,” I say, and shake myself away from his control, wondering who the hell this guy thinks he is and not wanting someone to make my decisions for me.
“Ah, I guess you Yankee boys can’t tell a dining room from a pig trough,” Schmidt digs, looking at Lester with a dare in his eyes that shows he doesn’t expect to be challenged.
Schmidt adds, in a voice loud enough for all to hear, while jabbing a pointed finger at me: “And you probably think darky means a farm hand after a day of burning a field. Let me suggest that you will be judged by the company you keep around here. Our mess hall is over there.” He flicks a condescending farewell wave to the colored soldiers.
I do my best to keep my emotions off my face, but the mere fact that it’s devoid of any reaction should be telling. This guy must have his conscience up his asshole. I brush imaginary dust off my pant legs, then, as though Schmidt just arrived and nothing has happened, I say,
“They’re serving pork chops and grits here tonight. Thought a farm boy like me should give it a try.”
“Like I said, boy”—here, he shoves the palm of his hand against my shoulder. I resist, but he doesn’t relent. Then, in a low, cutting voice, he says, “I suggest you do as I say…”
Schmidt’s back is to the Negroes, who say nothing, but pack together to form a barrier several men deep. Moments earlier, Lester’s hearty, contagious laugh had disarmed me. Now, he’s seething as if in a poisoned trance. Earl holds him with an arresting grip.
Schmidt spins me around and pushes me forward.
I look back, torn between what I want to do and what I’ve been ordered to do. The sign on the aging basha reads: Negro Kitchen. The monkeys still bounce up and down on the branches, screaming frantically, but the chain of black soldiers are deaf to it and instead concentrate on Schmidt, a bigger lurking threat.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish