Life went back to normal—if that’s what you want to call it—after the slide. It’s a war zone around here, but we’ve only battled the weather.
The sky is thick with rain clouds, making the jungle smell like an old, musty cellar.
Construction has come to a halt except for a last-ditch effort to save what’s already built. Most of the road crew was sent back to base camp knowing the monsoon season will win. Earl and I are on clean up duty.
“Well if it ain’t my man,” he shouts, as he slides out of his bulldozer. “What gifts of glad tidings is Harry boy bringing me today?”
“Not what you’re expecting,” I answer. “There’s to be a little VIP visit from Colonel Merrill. You know the name?”
“Yessiree, do I know that name,” Earl answers. “They say he’s Mr. slick-as-ice. You don’t get to be a colonel at his age with just luck.”
This visit from Merrill is about as welcome as a hangover. Last night I inventoried my stash of explosives and ammo. I was tired, so I just threw a tarp over the boxes instead of packaging them. Now I have to worry about Merrill snooping around. We talk on our way to the mess hall.
“Now don’t go bullshitting me that someone like Merrill is here because he cares,” Earl gripes.
“Probably wants to know why Stilwell’s Road’s not done. Rumor has it we’ll be gearing up to push the road to Hukawng Valley by January.”
“Hell,” Earl punches a fist into thin air. “I hope that man’s as smart as they say he is. We’re moving mountains out here. In the states it’d be like building a dirt wall ten feet high, from Frisco to New York. Someone plumb forgot his brains if he thinks we’ll be that far by January.”
Monkeys in the overhanging branches howl and screech nervously, tossing their stinky durian fruit onto our path. “Some day I’m going to get my hands on one of those pesky critters.” Earl watches them swing away in search of cover as the sky opens in a thick downpour. We stop talking and hurry to the mess hall basha.
Dodging the rain water dripping down from the poorly thatched roof, we slide into a corner table. Earl props his elbows on the table and clenches his hands together, looking weary.
“Lester Jones done get hauled back to base camp by the porters yesterday. He got the fever real bad. It was mighty painful watching him drag himself out of bed each day. He’d just take his time, real slow, like he was letting the day move him along. Then one day, he dropped to the ground; his eyes went swimming in the back of his head. He was so hot with fever it done steal the cold out my hand.”
Earl sighs, resignation plastered all over his face. “Harry, I been thinking. You did such a fine job writing that letter for Reginald’s family. Well, I may be asking you for another favor soon.” He waits, then adds, “I’m going to do everything it takes to get this road built for men like Reginald, and I pray the Lord spares Lester.”
Outside, the warm monsoon rains pour down like it’s been building up for weeks. Inside, I’m torn. Earl’s dedication to building Stilwell’s Road is as great as my determination to destroy it. How many men will die if it is built? How many will be saved when I blow it up? I feel so lonely; I can’t talk to anyone about my plans, so I think about the young prostitute in Ledo.
“I am loyal to no one but myself. It is the only way to survive,” she had said.
The rain slows, but the steaming humidity it leaves behind is so thick, you practically need an oxygen tank to get enough air. With rain fifteen hours a day, the men have little to do except wait as the days and the nights blur together. It’s mind-numbing persecution with no end.
Lt. Lin scurries in to the mess hall, and I wave him over to our table. We reached a tenuous truce after we learned we had a lot in common. It’s as though I’m looking at a different man, although nothing has changed about him since that day several weeks ago.
“I not take their religion,” he had told me that morning, about the evangelists in southern China who schooled him before he became a soldier. “But I learn from missionaries so I may eat.” Lin took off his flat Chinese uniform cap and shook the rain off it. I’m always surprised at how young he looks when his thick mop of black hair is let free. “Their teachings most useful. I learn English so I make officer in army.”
“I thought you went to a fancy school in Shanghai,” I said, pulling out a chair in the supply hut and offering Lin a smoke.
“Thank you. Most high praise.” Lin nodded slightly to my compliment, but declined the cigarette. “I from family of farmers and soldiers. Father leave I only eleven. Fight Japanese with Mao Tse-tung in China north. I not want to be soldier. I not want my son be father for family like me. So I not go when Japanese invade south.”
I had leaned back in my chair and whistled in admiration. “And you didn’t get into trouble for not joining the military?”
“I only simple farmer from south.” Lin explained that Japan first invaded northern China for iron to make machinery. “Sell to United States. Give Japan much power. But when Wall Market fall, no money. No need machines in America. No work for Japan.”
My heart felt vacant, remembering that time. I added, “We called it the Great Depression.”
“Then America get mad at Japan. No send food to Japan. So Japan send soldiers to steal China food.” Lin’s lip narrowed in anger, reliving a private pain. “Before Great Wall fall, my father go north, fight war for others. Never see again. Then Japanese come south for rice. Japanese take all I have. Find mother, find sister, find child, no head. Find wife,” he turned away from me, “no clothes. I left with nothing but hate. So I become soldier.”
I told Lin things I never told others. “The drought came right after the stock market crashed. I was on my Uncle Eddie’s farm, digging row upon row of ditches to catch rain for the corn. But it never came, and the dirt blew away. That’s when my father gave up. He drank himself into a hole, hiding like a rat.” I swallowed the bile in my throat, remembering the terror in Ma’s face as she wondered how she would support us. “One good thing came out of the Depression,” I grinned. “Everyone wanted to read about everyone else’s suffering. Newspapers sold like water in a desert. We moved from the farm to the city, where I hawked papers at the corner delis and Ma washed floors. We learned how to survive.”
Lin tilted his head back, surprised. “You man of family at young age, too?”
“Yes.” I stood up, feeling a little uncomfortable with these memories and ready to end the conversation. “And you were a farm boy, too.”
We tried to cover old wounds from childhood with a few moments of silence. “I think we more alike than different,” Lin answered. “Now I older,” he continued. “I wonder if father bad or like young man, follow dreams. I often see same look in men from Chinese 10th.”
Surprised at having shared my thoughts with Lin, I remember putting on my cap to leave the supply hut and brave the rain. I told Lin things I hadn’t even told Ruthie. Now, there was so much I couldn’t tell her.
Lin joins me and Earl at the corner table, where the three of us sit in comfortable silence.
There’ll be an afternoon game of cards, later. Before Merrill comes.
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