Bamboo-and-rope cots line the walls of our barracks, a tin-roofed basha. Our gear and personal belongings, including photos and letters from families, get stashed under our beds. We bathe in open-air showers with water that tastes like sweet rain on humid days, but the relief lasts only as long as it takes to put on a shirt. The latrine system makes for a neverending job of shoveling crap out of a ditch. Everyone sees the cruel signs of dysentery and thanks the coolies on shit duty with cigarettes and gum.
It’s dark outside, the work day is over, and there’s nowhere to go. So why is the guy next to me shaving? Shaving without a mirror make men who’ve never gone to battle look like they should be getting a purple heart after a few minutes with a razor. Watching the blood dribble from his cheek reminds me of one time when my old man raced out of the lavatory, wearing his best trousers and shined shoes; blood dripping from his neck and soaking his white undershirt.
“Let me help you, dear.” Ma limped over with a wet dish towel. “And where will you be going this time of night, all decked out?”
He let her fuss about him until the bleeding stopped, then pulled on a freshly starched shirt. “You’re always on me to be getting a job, woman,” he said. “So don’t be standing in my way when I’m looking to make some money.” He slicked back his black hair; his deceitful eyes, an innocent shade of baby blue, already showed the signs of drink.
“Ah, but you’re a fine-looking man.” She admired her husband, holding his arm as long as he’d allow. “I wish ye luck.” But her voice dropped with the last word, knowing, as I knew, it wasn’t a job he’d be searching for. Soon he’d be back, owing money rather than earning it.
To change my thoughts, I ask others in the barracks, “What movie are they showing tonight?”
There’s a movie every night in the mess hall, usually a rerun so old that the film splinters, and, when the frames blank out, gurgles and cackles from night birds fill in the gaps. Unless it is a popular rerun, the men kill the night’s boredom by trying their luck in a poker game in one of the barracks.
“Why would you care?” Bernie asks as he sits down on his bed, crosses his arms, then plants his feet flat on the floor, his face as red as his hair. “You’ll be gone.”
Charles shrugs his shoulders in response to Bernie’s sullen mood, but keeps moving towards the door. “No one’s stopping you from going,” he tells Bernie. “Harry’s been pushing requisitions for almost a whole month and hasn’t seen any of the sweet little temptations in Ledo. Why be in the army if you can’t live it up? We’ll be back before dawn. See you then.”
I follow Charles out of the basha. The GIs on base don’t have curfews, but the town of Ledo is off-limits. I light up a smoke, like any other night, to relieve the tension. “What’s up with Bernie?” I ask as the two of us hit the dirt path. “He doesn’t strike me as a goody-two- shoes.”
Charles waves away my cigarette offer. “Bernie got caught sneaking out to Ledo once.
Hell if I know how he did that. Must’ve been talking more than watching.”
Charles indicates a move to the left, so we turn away from the front gate, and then he says, “Someone may be on the lookout for roaming GIs. No sense in announcing our plans.” We walk away from the light of the barracks towards the blackness of the headquarters buildings. “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” Charles laughs. “The muckety-mucks have their own private gate up here. I learned about it when a radio operator read me the riot act for almost blowing a secret delivery. As if, by intuition, I was supposed to know the gate existed.” He rolls his eyes.
I hear a rock skip across the gravel path up ahead. I try to stop Charles, but he nonchalantly shakes free from my hold. “We haven’t done anything wrong…yet.” We continue walking.
More gravel grinds, but this time it comes from behind us. Charles pushes me to the right at the next corner. Our pace increases to a fast clip. Our breathing becomes heavy. “Turn left next corner,” Charles hisses.
The huffing behind us gets louder. We increase our stride. Then a flashlight, dead ahead, blinds us from where we were about to turn. We freeze.
“Identify yourself,” a gruff voice orders.
We block the beam of light with our arms. Brilliant, I think. First time out, and we get caught like we’re leaving a trail of beer bottles.
Charles’s strong radio voice answers, “Olfson and Flynn.”
The shaft of light illuminates us up and down for confirmation.
“And you?” I ask, thinking it only fair that the bully at the other end of the beam identify himself.
He circles the flashlight like a car making a U turn and ignores my question. “Authorized personnel only. Turn around.” Then the floodlight is redirected at us so we feel like prisoners under interrogation.
I recognize the nasal voice—the one I always hear accompanying a whiny complaint— and dish out a harsh laugh, “Schmidt. Buddy.”
“This area is no more off-limits than the crapper,” I continue. “Are you trying to hide something from us, buddy?” My first days of intimidation by Schmidt have grown into revulsion over how he treats others, and he knows it. “Now, turn that damn thing off if you don’t want to find it shining up your ass.”
“There’s no reason for you to be here.” Schmidt regains his confidence, but redirects the floodlight.
“Looking for someone to torment?” I shoot back, remembering Lester’s black eye from when Schmidt “accidentally” tripped him, belittled him with, “If you’re not careful, you’re going to get hurt, boy,” then kneed him.
I can tell that Charles doesn’t want to battle with Schmidt. His placating voice interrupts: “There’s no reason why we can’t be here, Schmidt. It’s Pete, right? So go have a nice walk, and we’ll do the same.” We make the turn we had intended, leaving Schmidt alone with his flashlight marking the spot as he receded towards the barracks.
Now, cold with sweat from an anger I hadn’t felt until I saw Schmidt, I apologize to Charles, “I guess we can’t choose which roadblocks stand in our way. But that guy’s rubbed me wrong from day one.”
“Schmidt!” Charles huffs in disgust. “It’s because of jerks like him that we’re at war in the first place.”
We approach the south exit and catch a glimpse of the guard at the VIP gate dozing off. I watch the sentry’s head slowly drop, then jerk awake. Poor guy – it’s a boring job. A radio transmission slaps him alert, and, just our luck, the night’s stars are as bright as a torch.
“Now or never!” Charles pulls me towards our escape route.
With our backs flattened against the concrete wall, we inch along the face to the gate. Threatened by the surveillance beacon surrounding the guard shack, I suck in my gut to make myself small and avoid its circle. I feel my heart beating against my chest like a trapped, coiled spring.
At that moment, I realize I really don’t want to go into town. What has Ledo got that’s worth this trouble? An image of flat-footed Bernie back at the basha comes to mind. Beer and a poker game sound pretty good right now. But it’s too late.
The guard puts down the radio receiver and stands up. He makes a three-hundred-sixty- degree inspection, then halts. His posture says he registered a sound, and he pauses, looking in our direction.
I force my breathing to be shallow, almost noiseless. Focused on a distraction in the distance, the guard is about to leave his shack when the radio squawks. He shakes his head and goes back to the transmission. We run like hell across the grass field.
Barely able to catch our breath, we almost pass out when we finally stumble onto the unlit road. My stomach and chest ache. Ahead, the road blends into a ditch, where the jungle canopy encroaches onto the thick brush border. I trip several times in washouts along the path, and the pungent smell of jasmine flowers is sickening. We put some distance between us and the base. The only things we can hear are the crickets chirping and banana palms flapping.
“Schmidt’s worse than a spy.” I whisper. “He actually has authority to breathe down my neck.” We continue down the road. Then I hear the huff huff huff of panting closing in from behind. “Hell, I think someone’s on our tail.”
Charles grows rigid. We listen to soft thumping in the dirt grow closer. Who’d be dim- witted enough to make so much noise if they’re following us? The thudding gets louder. It sounds like he’s sprinting along the edge of the road. Then I realize he’s going to run right into me.
As this thought strikes me, a knee jams into my thigh. The runner topples over me, knocking me flat on my butt. Sounds of breaking branches come from Charles ripping into the bushes. I push myself up, then crash into the tangle of vegetation. With each snapping twig, I flinch, expecting the hiss of a viper.
“God damn son-of-a-bitch!” the runner explodes.
Charles and I stop. I feel blood trickling down my face from the sharp stems. “Where the hell are you guys?” Bernie shouts into the darkness, pulling himself up.
Charles extracts himself from the noose of branches and, with long strides, moves in on Bernie. “You little shithead.” He bops Bernie on the back of his skull. “How would you prefer to die: snakes or Schmidt?”
“Hell, they cancelled the poker game tonight. What was I supposed to do?” Bernie whimpers, rubbing his crew cut where Charles whacked him.
“Sometimes you act like you’re the same age as your shoe size, Bernie.” Charles doesn’t wait, but shoves off along the perfumed road. Bernie scratches his chin, giving Charles’s words some thought, then kicks up a wad of dirt as he races to catch up.
Leaves rustle along the side of the road. Bats swoop in and out of towering trees, snatching insects midair. An expansive sky, filled with stars, lights our path. We continue our walk to town in silence. The evening has all those earmarks of becoming a memory. As soon as we reach the village, we give each other space and follow different passageways in the market- lined streets.
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