Reluctantly, I return to the 14th Evacuation Hospital, this time to patch up the hole in my hip from the grenade blast on the road front. When I enter the hospital, I think of Lester, who, in a malaria-induced delirium, picked phantom bugs off his skin with ferocious intensity until blood trickled down his arms, determined to “kill the bastards.” Instead, they got Lester first.
Stitching me up, the doctor says my wounds will mend and instructs me to put on some weight. I may be getting lean from the long work hours, but I’m not complaining after what some of these guys have been through. And so, as much as I want to run out of the place, I drop in on Alabama Earl.
He’s sitting upright in bed, looking off into another space, another time. His once- muscled body looks soft and vulnerable, and his will to live seems uncertain. Next to him, in the bed where Lester died, a soldier lays motionless. His entire head and most of his body are bandaged. I’m nauseated by the smells of thickened blood, anesthetics, and diarrhea. Pointing to the end of the hospital bed, I break Earl’s trance and ask, “Are you saving this spot for Maran Lu, or can an injured buddy take a seat?”
Earl shakes the cobwebs out of his head. “That girl is goin’ be the death of me. I’ve been waiting for her all morning, and all I get is, ‘You not sick. I busy.’” A broad smile lights up Earl’s face. “I sure am going to miss my little honey when they send me back to the road front, but I’m willing to make that sacrifice.”
Earl watches the men around him suck in air, and his body sags again. “That tuberculosis is like puncturing a man’s lungs with a meat cleaver. And these poor boys with malaria get plumb wore down fighting off demons more real than life.”
I ease myself down on the corner of Earl’s bed. “I wanted to stop by and give you this before I head back to road headquarters tomorrow.” I pull a sheath of paper from my pocket and hand it to Earl. “It’s the letter for Lester’s family.”
“Read it to me, my good man. You do a fine job of writing pretty words.”
I hesitate, wondering whether a hospital full of dying men is the best place for this. But then I recognize the message is for them, too.
We are so sorry for your loss. Life does not come to us tied up in a bow, but it is a gift just the same. Lester gave his life so that we may live. What greater honor can a man give?
“Praise the Lord.” Earl bows his head and remains silent for a few moments. When he looks up, he uses the back of his hand to wipe away a trace of tears.
“I bet that someday, Stilwell’s road will be constructed,” I say. “But we’ll all be dead by then. I’d rather get a purple heart fighting a real war than get paid to be brainless.”
“Harry, we’ve had this conversation before.” Earl’s voice is adamant. “And I never want to hear it again.” Without skipping a beat, he adds, “I see my little Angel of Mercy coming to my side.” He waves the petite Burmese nurse over to him. “Maran Lu, Maran Lu, stuck in the jungle, pretty little thing like you. What’ll I do when I leave my Maran Lu?” he sings, then reaches out as though he’s going to pinch her behind.
“You have claws like crab and brains like one, too.” Maran Lu raps the side of Earl’s head like she’s knocking on a door. “No, I wrong…you have less.” Then she offers him her warm smile of support. “Why you still here? Road work started. You big man on road job.”
From behind the parachute partition separating the surgery room from the hospital ward, Dr. Seagrave calls out to his assistants, “Another meat wagon. Prepare for surgery.”
I’m always surprised at his callousness. But a clean, sterile word like ambulance is inadequate for a war. The graying surgeon pushes aside the partition and ambles over to Earl’s bed. While he keeps watch for the incoming wounded, his shoulders slouch and eyeglasses slide down to the tip of his nose. Oblivious to the unflicked cigarette ash hanging precariously from the butt in his mouth, he asks Earl, “What the hell you still doing here?”
Earl splutters, “My good doctor, say the word and I’ll be out of here faster than a fox on a chase.”
Seagrave flicks the cigarette ashes into his hand, then answers, “Earl, you know I like you, and you’re my best baritone singer, but I need that bed. I’m not discharging you so you can go home. You’re going back to where we need you: on top of that bulldozer.”
“Well, you’re the man.” Earl swings his good leg and drags his bad one to the side of the bed. “Where are my clothes, Maran Lu?” he asks, then winks at the little nurse, who is adjusting bandages on the patient in the next bed.
“She isn’t your Goddamn mother,” the doctor grumbles. “Find them yourself. She’s got real work to do.”
A growing sound of men arguing at the hospital entrance grabs our attention. Medics carrying blood-dripping stretchers jockey to get through the door. Frantically, they bump into wash basins and chairs as they stumble towards the surgery wards.
“What the hell?” Seagrave throws the cigarette butt on the floor. Hurrying to the surgery room, he shouts, “Hang some lamplights in the corner to keep the bugs from falling on the operating table. We need hot water. These instruments are coated with blood…Jesus Christ.” The only other sound is mumblings from medical assistants rushing behind the hushed curtain.
Maran Lu shadows the doctor, and Earl withdraws back into his bed. I’m pushed aside, as inconsequential as Seagrave’s smashed cigarette.
The man on the first stretcher has two legs blown off at the thigh and ulcerating burns all over his torso. His scream is continuous and shrill, as though he’s giving all his energy for one last plea. I can’t speak Chinese, so I can only guess he’s begging: “My legs, my legs. Give me back my legs.”
The left half of the next patient’s skull is blown off. The beating gray and white mass of his brain lays exposed. Lifeless arms flop over both sides of the stretcher. He can’t be more than fifteen years old. I close my eyes, but can’t erase the sight.
Shrapnel slit the next patient’s stomach wide open; organs are pushed back inside by a Kachin attendant as they rush towards the operating room.
I need to get out. As I stumble towards the entrance, I bump into a Chinese officer, dazed and unaware of anything around him but his men. Without his cap, the officer’s thick, black mop is wild and unruly. Lt. Lin, his uniform shredded and stained, stands rigid, mechanically supervising the treatment of his brigade.
Mistrusting my own eyes, I mumble, “Lt. Lin?” I squeeze my eyes closed and will my gut to be calm at the sight of more butchered bodies. “These are your men?”
The medical ward whirls as men caked in mud and drying blood cry, scream, and whimper. A rushing medical staffer whips past the billowing parachute walls. Stretchers bunch up, filling every aisle to the operating rooms.
Lin hyperventilates. His clammy skin and darting eyes worry me. He strokes the cheek of a young soldier lying in a litter, ignoring the blood dripping from the boy’s nose, ears, and mouth. I am frightened by his blank expression and his rapid, incoherent barking of orders to the stretcher bearers. I pull him to sit down.
Lin sinks onto the edge of a bed and lets his head drop into his hands. I wait, desperately wishing I could leave, but feeling compelled to stay. I’d want someone to do the same for me. If only he could cry to release the stress. But Lin refuses to break and slowly lifts himself up, respectful of his men.
“Lt. Flynn,” Lin says, weakly, barely acknowledging me. “Japanese hold hill in Hukawng Valley. My men ambushed.” His look says he’s seeing the battle again. “For your road, American road, Stilwell Road.” There’s bitterness in his voice and resignation in his eyes.
“Chinese not afraid to die. But no honor in dying poorly fought battle. We have too much ammunition from your General Stilwell.” Lin looks down, struggling with the guilt that overpowers his quivering face. “Unfortunately, we not learn how to use American weapons in time to live. So many die.” Lin is obedient to Chiang Kai-shek, who is a man in search of power and willing to expend any life to reach that goal. The Chinese lieutenant straightens, suddenly proud. “But now Japanese know we worthy enemy.”
Abruptly, he stops talking and looks out the door to see how many more of his men have come to die. “I must leave. Do my duty,” the slight, Chinese officer says as he straightens his hair, puts on his cap, adjusts his torn jacket, and disappears into an increasing horde of Chinese soldiers.
I feel despondent at the thought of all my friends, batty with red, white, and blue Stilwell fever. Charles and Bernie talk about me when they think I’m not around, and Earl is obsessed with righting Reginald’s and Lester’s deaths by finishing the road. What is the point of dying to build a road that won’t be done in time? “Damn it!” I curse under my breath. “They may not care if they die, but no one’s going to cheat me out of my life.”
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