We laboriously retrace our steps to a bivouac along a quick-running tributary of the Tanai River. I listen to it gurgle over rocks and watch the sun dance on the water where it peeks through the fluttering leaves. If we weren’t at war, I’d say this is idyllic, but it’s impossible to shut out the reality around me. Already a dozen men have been hauled out with shattered nerves. Fortunately only eight have been killed. But our numbers continue to drop from malaria, typhus, and the Japanese. Disease is the biggest threat to our strength. We started with twenty-seven- hundred men. Only twenty-five-hundred remain.
We’ll camp out here for a couple days, so far out in the boondocks I doubt anyone could find us even if they tried. And after two-hundred-sixty miles of bushwhacking, I’d say we deserve a break. There’s not a plane in the sky, a single engine sound, or even a baby crying out in this wilderness. It’s only us and the wind.
I haven’t eaten a full meal in a week or bathed in two. I stink, but we all do. So I strip down to swim. Swollen, black ticks speckle my body. I’ll have to burn out their heads before the sores turn into ulcers. My uniform is shredded, and my boots are holier than heaven. Hopefully they’ll send fatigues with the food and ammo in tomorrow’s drop.
After I wash my clothes, there’s nothing left except bare threads. I lay them out to dry and find a place to relax. I doze off, thinking of Ruthie. She hasn’t written to me since I got her Christmas photo, and I haven’t sent her a response. The deeper I get into Burma, the more distant she becomes in my life. My eyes are heavy, and even the pebbles under my back feel good.
Our long-range radio buzzes distantly as I drift in and out of sleep. “The Japanese in Northern Burma received a solid body blow this week from Galahad,” Radio station KQKY out of Perth Australia announces. “Once again, General Frank Merrill’s Yanks are heroes. Sergeant Oliver Pung climbed up a tree to a perch fifty feet off the ground and kept his unit posted on Japanese activity via walkie talkie. Merrill’s Marauders killed eight hundred desperate Japanese. We’re proud of those boys.”
A blanket of near-naked GI Joes lay sunning along the rocky bank in the late afternoon rays. In a lazy, contented voice, our best shot in the outfit apologizes. “I guess me and my Betsy must’ve gotten nervous. I thought we took out more than that.”
The news turns to music. It’s the first I’ve heard in over a month.
Next to me, Pfeifer burns away his own ticks with a red hot knife. He releases the parasites’ burrowed heads and bloated bodies from his skin, then flicks them onto a nearby rock and squishes them. Blood runs down the rock. “So, Harry, what’s for dinner tomorrow night?” he jokes, knowing damn well I have no control over what actually makes it on the plane.
“You name it,” I answer, feeling the warm sun bake the aches out of my muscles. “And did you remind them about our Christmas packages?” Now his tone is serious.
I push up to lean on my elbows and tilt my head to keep the sun from blinding me. “I told them we’re all starting to doubt Santa.”
“I’ve doubted Santa since I was in kindergarten. I never got a thing I wanted. Neither did anyone else in my family. Our problem was if we wanted to know what anyone wanted, we’d have to talk to each other,” Pfeifer flicks another bloated tick onto a nearby rock.
“In our house, Christmas was a battle ground; when family gets together, you always have to take sides.” I lay back down. “So, if you didn’t talk to each other, who’d you talk to?”
“Come on, you had to say, ‘Who left the empty bottle of milk in the ice-box?’” “Actually, no. We were very polite to each other. “
“Those must’ve been some Christmases.”
“At least there wasn’t any fighting. That wasn’t allowed either.” “Yeah, but we had fun.”
“We didn’t. Breakfast at 6 a.m., dinner at 6 p.m., and lights out at 10 p.m.” Pfeifer torches the little buggers on the rock for more revenge. “Kind of like under the Stilwell regime— do as I say, not as I do,” he mutters under his breath.
“You’re preaching to the choir on that one,” I agree. The relief of having another person to talk to gives me more of a kick than a shot of Jack Daniel’s, though I wouldn’t turn down the latter if it was offered.
With one smooth motion, Pfeifer wipes his sweaty, bald head. His glasses slip down his nose as he concentrates on each black bubble. Watching him remove the ulcerating bodies before they attract flies should prompt me to sit up and pull out my Zippo, but I just close my eyes and enjoy the moment.
Thinking back to Stilwell’s conversations with Merrill, I want to test the waters with Pfeifer, but I’m still not ready to lay it out on the table. I hedge around it. “He treats us like we’re pawns in a chess game. No, actually, the Chinese are the pawns. Still, we get our share of his dirty work.”
Pfeifer puts his knife down momentarily, as though he’s imagining the chess board. “And Stilwell’s the king.”
“Ah.” Without opening my eyes, I point my finger at Pfeifer. “That’s the problem. There are too many kings in the game: FDR, Churchill, and Chiang Kai-shek.”
“So, who’s the boss?” Pfeifer puts away his knife and stands to stretch.
“That’s it: none of them. They’re fighting among themselves instead of together against the Japanese. ‘Who gets Hong Kong?’ ‘Give me the Philippines.’ ‘I want supplies to win our civil war.’ And we’re just chips in their game.”
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