Earlier in the week, when the 10th arrived, I stared at them, not sure if I should trust my eyes. I’d never seen a more sorry-looking unit. Some wore remnants of uniforms with no country insignia. Others looked like they were plucked straight from the rice paddies and would feel more at home harnessing a water buffalo than carrying a rifle. Surprisingly, only every third Chinese soldier carried a weapon.
Chiang Kai-shek, Generalissimo, had sent them to protect the advancing road crews. But shortly after they arrived, they were diverted to construction work where they clear mud slides, knock out four-wheel-drive trails, and build temporary log bridges. They do as commanded without question, but boy, can they eat! Their gaunt bodies can put on an extra twenty pounds in a month. No one, except me, begrudges them a single crumb. Only I find the road a threat, and recognize that without the Chinese helping out, the road effort would be at a stalemate.
Leaning against a pole supporting the tin awning we call the fleet garage, I watch in wide-eyed amazement as the Chinese soldiers load field supplies into overflowing bamboo baskets balanced on bians or shoulder poles. They’re moving to the construction front, and I’ll be following them shortly. Bernie, busy in his element, slides under the bellies of trucks perched on well-used hoists, then sticks his neck deep under the hood to check greasy casings, oblivious to anything else. The hand with the stubby finger grabs the fender, and he pulls himself out.
“If my Uncle Eddie could find anyone who’d work like these Chinese, I’d be out of a job during the harvest season,” I tell Bernie, who now leans over the hood, and, having just released a clamp without being electrocuted, raises a questioning eyebrow without answering. He drops the cables to grab a different hand tool and ignores me.
At the mention of the farm, I reminisce about the harvest moon rising early in the evening and the taste of salty beer at the end of the day. It brings back good and bad memories.
Uncle Eddie, my ma’s brother, who now owns the family farm, was more like a father to me than my old man. Every time I’d leave the city to help out during harvest, I’d try to imagine my Uncle Eddie, Ma, and old man growing up in that Podunk town, the place where I was born. My ma and old man met because he was pals with Uncle Eddie, but how could they’ve ever been buddies? They had nothing in common. I guess my uncle, a take-charge kind of guy, made my old man look good by telling him what to do and letting others think he had his act together.
And my old man, good-looking and full of stories, just reeled in the women, which is why the other guys liked having him around. Unfortunately, Ma was one of the fish he caught. She was a plain farm girl and he was filled with dreams. When she got pregnant, her older-brother, Uncle Eddie, saw only one solution.
I turn my attention back to Bernie as he swipes the sweat that’s beaded up on his forehead. Finally, he answers, “The Chinese aren’t the only ones who work hard.” He sticks his head back under the hood of the next Jeep, twirls the wrench like it’s a baton, then pulls out and slams down the hood. Eventually, he grabs a rag and tries to scrape off the black smears that cover his hands. He takes his time examining his nails for remnant smudges before he hesitantly asks, “Harry, is it true what I heard?”
The procession of Chinese soldiers continues to march by, bians sagging across their shoulders. “Could be,” I answer without really hearing him, still thinking about the farm. I watch the 10th as they passively set pace along the newly built portion of road towards the construction front. I’m not sure if I admire their blind dedication or feel sorry for them.
It poured rain only a couple hours earlier, and the paths around the barracks are like pig sties. Bernie and I walk over to the water spigot to wash off the clammy sweat from the smothering humidity. I replay Bernie’s question in my mind a second time. “What are you talking about? Is what true?” I ask.
“You leaving,” Bernie turns the faucet off and shakes the water from his soaked crew cut, but doesn’t look at me.
My transfer orders arrived only the night before. Schmidt told me if someone was trying to sabotage the supply system, he needed help out on the front to track the arrivals and find out where they were going. So I’m his man. This is also my chance to transport the ammo supply I’ve built up to blow the road to smithereens before we lose any more men on the “road to nowhere.” Bernie and Charles are my closest buddies in Ledo. Not telling them when I got my orders is probably my way of not admitting our differences.
“Yeah,” I answer, hoping someday he’ll understand that a man’s got to be true to his beliefs, or he’s no man at all.
When I loaded the supply truck the night before, I was scared shitless. Labeled as cleaning supplies, my ammo went unnoticed. The boxes were plausible, though; they will sanitize the road.
Bernie gives me “Do I even know you?” kind of look. “What’s come over you, Harry?
Whose side are you on, anyway?” Bernie’s not one to be fooled. He may not have the brains of a surgeon, but he’s been on the street and can read people. It’s a skill he had to learn if he wanted to survive back home. I should know; we’re a lot alike that way.
“The right side,” I say, and hope it’s true.
Bernie slaps me on the back, purposely leaving a permanent black handprint on my shirt. “Then this is it, Harry,” he says. “Charles is on radio duty. He says to wish you good luck and keep him informed. Not sure what he thinks you’re going to tell him when you can’t even say goodbye.” We shake hands, then he walks away.
Doing the right thing doesn’t always feel good.
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