the-south-asian.com AUGUST 2002
August 2002 Contents
at Every Alien Door'
'KNOCK AT EVERY ALIEN DOOR'
THE FOOL OF GOD
He came from somewhere in the hills of Kentucky or Tennessee. I donít remember exactly. What I do remember was his name -- Jackson Ludlow Tifton, otherwise known as Preacher to his comrades-in-arms.
When I first saw him he was a medical technician who had been transferred to our base hospital in Dacca. At the time about which I write the Japanese were making some advance in Burma, and had managed an air raid as far as the Hooghly river at Calcutta, where they crippled a bridge and a couple of ships. But the British held through those dark days, and with the help of the Americans finally drove the enemy back. The full- scale allied assault on Rangoon had begun.
I suppose none of us knew the Preacher very well, now that I look back upon those days. Maybe thatís why I am writing about him after all these years, trying to bring him out of that shadow of my mind where he had been so long, haunting me at times as if asking me to tell his tale. To tell the truth about him, for only when I have done that will he be silent.
My first encounter with the Preacher was on a spring day when I was sent to pick him up at the train station in Dacca. Since I didnít know what to expect, it turned out to be no problem when the only American soldier I saw standing on the platform, looking around with a lost expression, was a tall, gangly man whose rustic, red-haired appearance reminded me of some farmers I had seen in the South. He stood erect, his duffel bag at his feet and, most surprising to me carried a Bible in his left hand. I had never even seen Chaplains, except for services, have Bibles with them.
I approached him. "Jackson Tifton?"
He snapped to attention and gave me a salute. "Yes, sir."
"Please, no sirs." I dutifully returned his salute and introduced myself. " Iíve come to take you to the base."
"Thank you, sir." He grinned apologetically.
I led him to the jeep, parked only a short distance away, and instructed him to throw his gear in the back. He climbed in beside me, holding the Bible carefully on his lap. We took off toward the base.
I remember trying to engage him in that accepted code of tension relief, small talk, with him one of the hardest things Iíve undertaken. His replies to my questions were polite but laconic, as if conversation at that level was of no importance whatsoever. To my question as to why he was sent to us from the General Hospital in Calcutta, he replied simply: "t go where the Lord tells me to go." And when he opened the Bible on his lap, I took that as a cue that he would rather talk to God than to me. An unarguable choice.
When we reached the base I took Tifton to his quarters and told him to report to Captain Jaffee for his duty roster as soon as he was settled in. I left him busy at the neat ritual of placing his items of personal care on the narrow shelf allotted to him, along with the picture of a ruddy faced girl with flaxen hair. The Bible he placed beneath his pillow.
I didnít see Private Tifton after that until a few weeks later when I went on some matter to Ward Six, the special ward that had been set up for some of the wounded from the airfield that had been hit north of our base. It was there I chanced on a conversation concerning the unusual private.
"Where in the hell is that bedpan bastard?" I heard Sgt. Jellick say as he dangled his hairy legs from the side of the bed. His blunt, hirsute fingers scooped up his hand of solitaire from the sheet and tossed the cards on his bedside table.
" Last I heard, he was translating the Bible into hillbilly language." That was Wallenski, the boy from the Bronx, and three beds up and across the aisle from Sgt.Jellick. They were fast friends, and if the conversation ever lagged, you could count on them to liven it up. Wallenski especially was a talker, full of quips and for the most part a real comedian to the man. His comedy had considerable range as I remember, from the more subtle all the way to the practical joke, the particular favorite of his friend, Jellick.
Wallenski was busily occupied balancing a bedpan between his feet while sat on the side of his bed and used it as an ashtray.
Murphy, a husky, freckled-faced boy in the next bed, followed with patient scrutiny this feat until the bedpan slipped from Wallenskiís feet and clattered to the floor, sloshing out a murky mixture of water and ashes. Wallenski deftly maneuvered it back under the bed with his toe.
"What the hell, Wallenski," Murphy shouted, sitting up in bed. "Look at the lousy mess you made."
"Now donít get your ass in a whirl, Corporal." Wallenski drew up his legs and flopped back on the bed." Preacheríll take care of the bedpan department."
" You get a real kick outa that, donít you," Murphy said. Seeing that poor guy clean up after you really gives you a charge, don't it, Wallenski?"
Wallenski gave a little nonchalant thrust of his hand.
Murphy kicked off the covers and jerked himself to a sitting position with surprising swiftness for a man with an arm in a cast. " You just askin to have the liviní hell knocked outa you once and for all, Wallenski." His bare feet slid threateningly to the floor.
" Knock it off, Murphy," Jed Brady commanded from the bed next to Wallenski. He threw down his comic book and glared at them." You guys both got diarrhea of the mouth."
Murphy hesitated. He had no real intention of hitting Wallenski, and even less of tangling with Brady. Everybody knew Brady had been a fighter of some sorts in civilian life, and that his only fight now was with the bottle. He was at the top of Preacherís salvation and prayer campaign, but nobody, not even Wallenski, kidded Jed Brady. Drunk or sober, he was a tough one to cross. So Murphy pretended to ignore him and took up his quarrel with Wallenski. " You get your kicks outa riding someone, donít you, Wallenski? Why you gotta pick on that poor country bumpkin? He ainít done nothing to you."
Wallenski sighed heavily, his dark face showing both contempt and amusement." You know what, Murphy?" he searched the freckled face mercilessly with his stare." You give me a pain in the ass."
" You Ďre the one that posted the order of promotion for Preacher, ainít you? " Murphy pressed on. A damn dirty, Wallenski. No call for doing that to him."
Wallenskiís dark eyes flashed as he propped up on one elbow. "Tell me, Murphy, whatís with you and Preacher. You two got something going?"
Murphy ignored the remark and fisted his pillow roughly as he flopped on his back. "The poor guyís probably already bought corporal stripes and written his wife about getting promoted. I hope you get your ass canned this time."
Wallenski grinned, showing relish for this sort of protest. " You gonna turn me in, Murphy?"
"You just do that, old buddy."
" Now you know old Murphy wonít do nothing like that, Wally" Jellickís voice rose suddenly from its silence across the aisle. "Heís just getting bushed in this lousy hole like the rest of us. He needs a little entertainment like everybody else, donít you Murphy?"
Murphy lighted a cigarette and stared up at the curling smoke as if he hadnít heard a word. He recognized the language of conspiracy between the pair; it meant simply that they stood together as always against anybody who was foolish enough to challenge them.
Wallenski took up Jellickís laughter and pretty soon there was sporadic laughter in the ward.
"What about it," Wallenski said when the laughter had died. " You think Preacherís got sense enough to get the point of a yellow ribbon?"
"Give him a white feather." somebody said.
"He sure as hell wouldnít get the point of that,"
Wallenski objected. " You gotta remember old Preacherís right outa Tobacco Road country. Probably got his first pair of shoes in the Army."
That brought another laugh from some of the men. Wallenskiís magic was beginning to work; they were responding now, as if they were suddenly emerging from a heavy lethargy in anticipation of some great event. Some of them had been in this section of India well over a year with little or no break in duty, and had earned the dubious distinction of being bushed. Any change in routine was for them a welcome event. They looked to Wallenski, the self-appointed committee-of-one, to provide -- in the absence of the Red Cross and Special Service shows -- their main diversions. For this reason, he was given a kind of tacit gratitude and they generally went along with his pranks. And Wallenski, sure of his audience , had pulled off some rather risky escapades for them; like the time Miss Jensenís brassiere , the most commodious of the three nurses , turned up in the officerís lounge next to the head of a Bengal tiger. That, I learned later, had almost been Wallenskiís waterloo. But the men, even under the direct threats of punishments, refused to reveal the culprit. The end result was that no punishment was meted out and Nurse Jensen was quietly transferred to the General Hospital in Calcutta.
" Now remember, " I heard Wallenski say from his yoga position on the bed, " when he comes in, its not ĎPreacher.í itís Corporal.í " He looked across the aisle and grinned at Sgt.Jellick. You got the chevrons and the ribbon, Buz?"
Jellick flicked a salute. "Ready"
At that point Murphy, his face a ruddy scowl, swung his feet of the bed into his flats with a flapping - scrapping noise made his way quickly out of the ward.
Walenskiís eyes followed him with a mixture of amusement and fear. " Hey, Murphy," he yelled, " gonna brown -nose the lieutenant? Well, do a good job, old buddy."
Wallenskiís burst of laughter had about it a tone of uncertainty, as if he were unsure whether Murphy would play the informer or not.
" Donít worry about old Murphy," Sgt.Jellick laughed. " All his guts is in his mouth."
Looking back at that time long ago, I remember wanting to join Murphy in his walkout protest, but somehow I didnít I stayed, feeling a little guilty and a little expectant like the rest.
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