Christmas is no exception to the daily construction routine. Work is non-stop, come rain, shine, or Jesus. The guys roll out of their cots to the same smelly, humid heat, unconsciously scratching legs, arms, anywhere that got a bite in the night. But not me. Early this morning, I caught a truck into town. Seagrave needs help at his Christmas shindig in Ledo.
When I walk into the supply hut, Schmidt’s already barking orders like a rabid dog. I can’t help but think of him as Satan’s offspring, with thin skin stretched taut across his skull; pinched features; and colorless, greased-back hair.
I move out to the parade ground and start opening boxes. “Christ, there must be a dozen bottles of beer here for every enlisted man. And donuts?” I tell the helpers where to stack the cases of the booze. “Is that barbecue I smell?” Suddenly, I’m starved.
Schmidt can’t stay away from me, and I feel him staring down my back. “Flynn, quit goofing off.” I want to bash in his teeth.
Without a second thought, I toss him the package I’m holding. “Empty handed?” I ask. “I know you like to keep busy.”
He catches the box and winces as the cardboard slices his fingers and draws blood. “Try that again, and I’ll let slip where some skeletons are buried,” he snarls.
“I’m glad you brought that up,” I say while directing the coolies. Schmidt stands idle. “You sent me to the construction front to watch for hijacked ammunition. None showed up. And you never asked me a thing about it when I returned. Sure seems like you just wanted me out of your hair. Makes a fella wonder.”
A triumphant smile lights up his face. “Flynn, don’t ask questions.” “I just don’t like being set up. Would you?” I ask.
His confidence falters for a moment, but just as quickly he dismisses my threat with another smile and patronizing sigh. “You don’t have anything on me. Besides, I’ve been reassigned to Dinjan, so if there’s any dirty laundry here, it’s all yours.” Smug as usual, he strolls away to inspect the other men.
Dinjan is base camp for the boys flying the HUMP. As soon as I can, I need to find out if Charles knows about Schmidt’s transfer. He hears all the gossip.
Up front, by the mechanic’s shop, Bernie ratchets a bolt into the makeshift stage he and his crew are rigging for the Christmas show. Nearby, Charles unwinds a lasso of microphone wires roped around his arm for the sound system. Red and green streamers hang limply from bamboo poles. I can’t ask about Schmidt with everyone around, so I slip away to my barracks. Sitting on my cot is a letter from Ruthie. When I open it, a newspaper clipping slips out.
At work they asked a couple of us girls to dress up like Santa’s helpers so they could include the photos from our company’s newspaper in the GI magazines. If only there was more we could do for our fighting boys overseas. I hope this gets to you before Christmas.
Every day I wonder when I’ll see you again and hope you think about me. Whatever happens between us, don’t give up on happiness, or you’ll give up on life.
I look at Ruthie in a short Santa’s skirt and red, tailored jacket fringed in white fur. On bent knee, she’s handing out a wrapped present from under the Christmas tree. I wish she could jump in that box and get shipped to me, and I bet a lot of the other guys who see her photo will think the same.
While the others eat, I lay on my bed. I’m not hungry any more.
After dinner, the microphone system on the concrete slab buzzes. The real party’s ready to begin. I find Earl, Charles, and Bernie by the stage wearing dumb grins on their faces, compliments of the beer.
A big band ensemble, tuxes and all, is spread out on Bernie’s platform. The trombone kicks off “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like my Sister Kate.” Earl grabs the hand of a reluctant but curious Maran Lu, and pulls her out on the concrete slab where, hours earlier, batteries and engines sat.
“I not dance with longyi – no move knees,” Maran Lu complains. The tinsel interwoven in her braid sparkles like her cat-like eyes.
“Well, baby, roll’er on up that skirt so I can show you how we do it.” Earl teases with his broad, promising smile.
Following Earl’s lead, other soldiers coax the remaining Burmese nurses to dance. They tiptoe onto the dance floor like delicate flowers. Within minutes, their thick, black braids unwind to the rhythm of the jitterbug as they dance with soldiers whose faces they’ll never remember.
Ties are loosened, then wrapped around the girls’ longyi, cinching bodies together, belly to belly.
American nurses, whose only curves have been dangling intravenous tubes in the past, sport body-hugging tops that swell and ripple in the right places. Like caged animals, everyone’s wiggling, bumping, and writhing: nurse with soldier and soldier with soldier.
Of course, charming Charles found himself a girl, but Bernie and I stand like wallflowers on the side. The parade ground spills over with happy drunks.
“I never went to bed with an ugly woman,” one soldier says to another. His dance partner responds, “But I bet you woke up with more than one.” Beer spills down their chins as they laugh.
Merrill’s voice behind me breaks through the music. “We lost a couple of our Chinese scouts the other day.” I glance back to see Merrill, Stilwell, and Seagrave standing together a few feet away, cupping glasses of something stronger than beer.
“Good.” From the corner of my eye, I see the eagle profile of Stilwell. “I’m sick of pointing out their poor performance to Chiang Kai-shek, that peanut sized twerp.”
What a caring guy, I think as I watch him sip from his glass.
“Did you hear what Churchill’s been saying lately?” Stilwell’s voice carries despite the officers huddling together. “‘You can count on the Americans to do the right thing after they’ve tried everything else.’ Now, doesn’t that sound like typical Limey crap?”
“What has Mountbatten said about Galahad?” It’s Merrill’s voice.
“He’s a dumb bunny like the rest,” Stilwell grunts. “Mountbattten wants to welsh on the 14th British artillery he’d promised me. He’s nothing but a double-crossing bastard. But I don’t give a damn. Wingate’s playing it straight and has three Chindit brigades ready to back me up at Myitkyina.” I see the smoke rising from his cigarette as Stilwell pauses.
Two soldiers, leaning against each other for support, stagger in front of me. “Remind me to kill you tomorrow for letting me make a pass at that dame.”
His buddy answers, “That was no dame. Next time look for the tits.” “Remind me anyway,” the first soldier says.
The dark night and loud music hide me as the officers continue to argue.
“Joe, won’t our guys need support from an artillery battalion? Rifles are no match for tanks and mortar.” Merrill’s voice sounds more defiant than questioning.
“Merrill’s right,” Seagrave’s gravelly voice interrupts before Stilwell can answer. “Central Burma’s swamped with the enemy. You’ve marched through that elephant grass and know the Japanese could be waiting beyond any blade. Our boys don’t know the jungle like they do.”
“I know. It’s a cockeyed setup but it’s all I’ve got to push that damn road through for the Peanut,” the General says. “Besides, the Chinese X Force training outside of Bombay will soon be ready, and the Generalissimo has agreed to give me fifty-thousand more of his Y Force.”
“You think marching the Y Force from China is going to get you anything more than fifty-thousand hungry stomachs to feed? And they won’t fight unless we’re already winning. They’re not like the Japanese…they don’t attack; they only know how to defend themselves.” Seagrave’s not intimidated by Stilwell’s bullying.
“What do you want me to do? Sit around and go crazy until the Brits decide to join the war?” Stilwell snaps, then stomps away.
Unexpectedly, one of the American nurses, a sassy-looking redhead, grabs my hand and drags me onto the concrete slab. This girl looks like she’s ready for trouble, and after a few beers, I’m ready to dish it out. At first, I think her seductive, smoky eyes and the unfastened top button of her satin blouse are saying something to me. Then I realize I’m only her prop. Still, I don’t mind. With legs like that, someone’s got to know the jitterbug throws so the other guys can get a thrill. “Doll, let’s boogie?” I see I have a live one on my hands.
I whisper in her ear, “You know, I think you’re the most beautiful woman in the world.” A soothing, deep-throated laugh escapes. “Really?” she asks.
“No, but I don’t mind lying if it gets me somewhere,” I say with a straight face. Bernie, wearing a red sock on his head and beard made of palm leaves, shouts, “Hey,
Harry, where’d you find Rita Hayworth?” When he wriggles his eyebrows like Groucho Marx, I can understand why women go the opposite direction. Suddenly, the beer bottle in Bernie’s hand shatters when a couple of soused privates smash him and his bottle against a wall.
It doesn’t take a genius to see Bernie’s short fuse is about to explode into flying fists. I elbow my way through the crowd and hand him over to Rita Hayworth’s double to rescue him from a black eye. The two look at each other, surprised but not disappointed.
I slip away to a corner by the shop, hidden by a clump of bushes. I lean against the wall and light up a smoke. The funk from Ruthie’s letter still eats at me.
The band starts up another tune but quickly peters out, one instrument at a time, as Stilwell takes center stage. “Testing one, two, three.” All eyes are on the General. Offstage, Merrill and Seagrave wait.
“I hope you’re having a good time. Merry Christmas.” The men give Stilwell a whooping cheer as his eyes skim over the crowd. “It’s a helluva job, fighting a war, but I want to let you know, I’m proud of you. Not being with your families has got to be tough. I know it is for me.” The crowd goes silent. “The life of a soldier isn’t an easy one. But there are kids back home saying a prayer for you. Remember, you’re here for them.” Stilwell salutes us. Before he leaves the stage, he adds, “Now, here’s the Colonel you can thank for tonight’s booze.”
A pack of soldiers push a hesitant Pick towards the stage. We can also thank him for getting the road to Shingbwiyang’s doorstep so rapidly. Hell, I should hate him, but I kind of like the guy.
Colonel Pick motions for quiet.
“It is indeed a privilege and pleasure to officially recognize your hard work. You battled flash floods that rose three feet in fifteen minutes. You worked sixteen-hour days without relief and slept without cover. You deserve the highest commendation. One-third of the Chinese road to freedom has been built. With such dedication, I have confidence the Ledo-Kunming Road will lead the CBI Theatre to victory.”
“Hell, we’re only one-third of the way?” A voice on the other side of the bushes startles me. It’s the QUARTERBACK. “Am I the only one pushing to get this war over?”
“Joe, you’ve got a great plan, but I don’t see how you’re going to get Galahad, the Chindits, and the X Force to Myitkyina by next Spring. So there’s no reason to sit on the road so hard.” The younger Merrill humors his boss. “If Operation END RUN doesn’t go like clockwork, the monsoon will kill the road and a lot of men.”
“But the Japs will never expect us right before the monsoon. That’s why it’s the perfect time!” Stilwell explodes.
Merrill presses the General further. “Wingate’s guys and Galahad have had guerrilla training. But you can’t send the X Force out yet; they just arrived in India. Besides, they’re a bunch of punks still in training pants, probably no more than fifteen years old. ”
The General juts his chin out in defiance. “Christ, if that’s the answer you’re going to give me, then good night!” Stilwell barks. “You sound like you got your dink cut off.”
No one talks, but I see smoke, like war signals, rise from the famous cigarette holder and pipe. The music winds down, and men are being hauled back to their barracks.
Merrill takes in a big breath, releasing it like he’s trying to blow out a campfire. In the faint night light, his graying temples show his age. “It’s your call.”
“Glad you see it my way.” Stilwell sounds satisfied. “Hey, your parties are getting better, Seagrave.” Their voices fade as they walk away.
“Kee-rist,” I mutter. My back slides down the wall until my butt hits the ground, and I slump over my knees. “Galahad’s a suicide mission. That heartless son-of-a-bitch is desperate.”
Clicking heels stop in front of me. I lift my head to see red fingernails on an outstretched hand. My eyes inch up the sleek, shapely legs. It’s the redhead, short a couple more buttons.
“Thanks for the hand.” I grasp her soft, delicate fingers. But she doesn’t pull me up.
“It looks so—lonely down there.” She unbuttons a couple more buttons, exposing more than cleavage. “I thought you may need some holiday cheer.”
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