the-south-asian.com AUGUST 2002
August 2002 Contents
at Every Alien Door'
'KNOCK AT EVERY ALIEN DOOR'
THE FOOL OF GOD
Preacher stood in his aisle, his gaunt face full of bafflement for a moment. Then he grinned at this spectacle of rigid attention. Okeh, fellows, " he ventured humorously " At ease men. Sorry Iím a little late."
Nobody obeyed, and Wallenski walked jauntily up the aisle, clicked his slippered heels, and saluted Preacher smartly. " Corporal Tifton, the men of Ward Six want to congratulate you on your promotion."
A faint blush showed thorough Preacherís leathery complexion. CíMon, Wallenski stop kiddingí. Iím just a private. Watcha tryin Ď to do --"
" Do you mean, Corporal Tifton, " Wallenski said crisply, "that you donít read the bulletin board ?"
Preacher looked completely puzzled now. Sometimes I read --"
"Everyman here wishes to congratulate you, Corporal." With military precision Wallenski took from his pajama pocket a folded piece of onionskin paper and with one quick snap shook it open. " Here, read it -- Jackson L." -- and here he sang out with all the euphonious comedy he could evoke the name "Ludlow--Tifton"
Preacher took the official looking notice and read it carefully, glancing doubtfully at Wallenski only once before his natural trust showed through. His eyes lighted up. " Well, Iím mighty pleased to know that."
At that moment I remember thinking I would never forget the grinning face that had greeted me on the day I met him. And to this day when my memory stirs him up I can still see his face better than any other.
I watched the men suddenly break ranks and gather around Preacher, with Wallenski and Jellick in the center.
" You really got something to write home about now, Preacher," somebody said. " This oughta rate about a twenty five page letter to the wife.
" What about it Preacher," another said, " is your wife still true to you after all this time? Donít you ever wonder if sheís getting some of that civilian stuff?"
"Hell, man, " someone else said," if she reads Preacherís letters she donít have time for none of that. Right Preacher?"
Preacher went along good humoredly wit the laughter, as he always did when they kidded- him about spending all his time writing to his wife and reading the Bible. He seemed to lack the capacity to get angry, and this was certain proof to some of the men that he was little more than a moron. They were aware that even Wallenski -- that arch Tantalus -- had not been able to spark the flint of his rage.
" Hold it men," Wallenski shouted, lifting his hands.
"Donít crowd the Corporal. We gotta make a presentation now. This is a very important ceremony."
Sgt. Jellick, his broad, hairy chest showing through his open pajama top, stepped up to Preacher. " A Corporal ainít a corporal without his stripes, so weíd like to show our appreciation by giving you these." And very unceremoniously he pinned the chevrons on to either arm of the starchy whites with huge safety pins. When that brought a few bravos from the men, he pressed on in his role as mock officer. " And for being the best goddammn conscientious objector weíve ever seen, we want to give you this ribbon." He jabbed the wire of the ribbon, crudely made of toilet tissue and painted yellow, into the shirtfront of the whites. Then he tapped preacherís chest roughly with his knuckles and stood back as if to admire his handiwork. " You canít say you never was decorated, soldier. They donít hand out medals every day for carrying bedpans."
In the silence that followed, taut with the expectancy and punctuated with a few awkward snickers, I thought surely the flint had been sparked this time. There was a flickering instant in which I thought I saw the red of righteous rage stain those gaunt cheeks. But I know now that I saw only the color of my own rage, for Preacherís grin gradually reappeared and the men one after the other turned from it as if it were the most hideous thing they had ever seen. He was left standing there between Wallenski and Jellick. He shifted the tray of thermometers awkwardly under his arm. " Guess I oughta get on with my work now, fellows. If you Ďll let me by -- ".
It was Jellickís rage that exploded like a bomb. " Iíll turn your other cheek, you goddamn yellow bastard! " His fist crashed against the Preacherís jaw, catapulting the lankybody backwards several feet before it struck the foot of a bed and crumpled to the floor.
Wallenski hung on to the raging Jellick as if reining in a wild a horse. " Damn it, Buz. What the hell! Now take it easy, Buz " This over and over as he tried to pinion the bulging arms of his raging friend. Now, Buz, you gotta take it easy. Donít let that hick get to you. Címon, settle down now."
Some of the men quickly gathered around Preacher while Brady went about methodically gathering up the pieces of broken thermometers scattered over the floor. " Heí out cold," somebody said. Better call the Doc."
Wallenski, visibly frightened at this turn of events, had the sullen Jellick at his bed, talking and gesticulating like some lawyer with a desperate client. The rest was silence, a painful silence of waiting and uncertainty that hung like a threatening cloud over the ward.
After that I saw Preacher only infrequently in his work around the hospital. Jellickís reprimand was some sort of psychiatric evaluation, but beyond that I never learned what happened to him. The betting odds among the men I remember were that he would get off clear because of his good record in Burma. And also because Preacher suffered no serious injury.
One night I had been over to the British detachment a mile or so away to visit an English friend. On my back, just outside the gate of our base, I saw two figures huddled in the chilly night beside the road. In the dim moonlight I thought it was merely two Indians indulging in the native lavatory practices of the land. But as I drew closer I saw one of the squatting figures was Preacher, sitting on his heels as adroitly as the rag-wrapped Indian next to him. He held an open Bible in his hand as he talked in lowered tones to the attentive Indian, who scooped food into his mouth with his fingers from a plate before him on the ground, obviously placed there by the good private.
When Preacher saw me he grinned and stood up. Though the night was very cool, he was dressed only in an undershirt and Khakis, and the flesh of his bony arms showed signs of the cold. I remember wanting to say somehow that I was sorry about what happened in the ward, but all I said was " Arenít you pretty cold out here this time of night?"
He shook his head " Just speaking the word of the Lord to my friend here." He looked down affectionately at the squatting Indian whose black fingers raked hungrily over the plate for the last morsels of food. It occurred to me that this was the same man I had often seen near the gate, stoned on opium or bhang, eager for baksheesh.
" I hear youíre being transferred." I felt awkward as I held out my hand to him. " Just wanted to say good-bye and wish you the best of luck."
He took my hand " I go where the Lord wants me," he said with a smile. " Iíll pray for you, friend."
And I Ďm sure he did, just as he did for all his enemies. As I walked away, I turned to see him squat again beside the Indian and open the Bible. He talked fervidly while the Indian picked his teeth and blood -red betel nut juice on the ground.
Two days later Preacher was sent to a field hospital near the Burmese border.
As I made my way to the recreation hut to hear Tokyo Roseís nightly preachment, I passed the officers quarters which, judging from the sounds pouring forth into the night, was having its own kind of entertainment. Through the light-filled door a couple, not too steady on their feet, suddenly burst forth into the outside darkness. Only when they were upon me did I recognize the hulking form of Captain Thomas B/ (the B converted by some to Buck for Buck Rogers) Burley, his arm draped around Lt. Clariss T. Wells a pretty blond nurse whose slender figure was dwarfed by his own.
" Címon now Bucky, youíre drunk, " she pleaded, as she tried to pull him along. " You need to sleep it off."
" I am not drunk, Issy Iím in love." His slobbery kiss, aimed at her mouth, landed on her cheek when she turned her head. " Letís go back in and dance, Issy "
I quickly moved beside the captain, and he put his arm around my shoulder. "Hílo, good buddy," he said, turning his attention to me. " When you gonna fly with me to Kunmig. Tell Jafee I said to give you permission and weíll be China bound."
" Iíll speak to him," I said appeasingly, remembering the only time I had made that fight with him.
Between nurse Wells and me, the Captain moved along peaceably until he suddenly halted and glared at me. " You know that little Warrant Officer-- whatís-his-name?"
"Hazlitt?" I asked.
"Yeh, thatís him. Thatís the bastard.í His voice grew almost to a shout." Iím gonna whip his ass. Take me to him and Iíll give him an ass whipping he wonít ever forget. Iíll show that little--"
"Now Bucky, you promised -- " Anger was in nurse Wellís voice as she stared at him. " You promised you wouldnít start that again. You stop it or Iím leaving this instant."
For a moment I didnít know what to expect, caught between the Captainís growing belligerence about a subject I didnít understand and his obvious affection for nurse Wells.
The contretemps was resolved when the bellicose giant showed the first signs of melting under the angry glare of Lt. Clarissa Wells. " Youíre right, Issy, I promised--" Lifting her in his embrace, this time his kiss found her lips.
" Címon now Bucky," she said, pushing against his embrace. " Thatís enough. Youíve got o get some sleep. Donít make me beg you .--"
Slowly the subdued captain released her from his embrace, and between the two of us he was willingly led to quarters. I removed one boot while she removed the other as the captain flopped on the bed, already on the edge of sleep. She took a blanket from the foot of the bed and covered him.
Certain that he had surrendered to sleep. Lt. Wells and I walked out into the moonlit night.
" Whatís this thing about Warrant Officer Hazlitt." I ventured.
" Oh, " she sighed. " Itís a long story, and Iím too tired to tell it. You know Bucky. When he gets hold of something, he never lets go. Everything with him is bigger-than-life. Heís really sweet, but he just wears me out."
Yes, I did know Capt. "Bucky" Burley, in a way; the same way most knew him, as the hero pilot of the base who had flown in more missions " over the hump" than anybody else, or so the legend that had grown up around him decreed.
Everybody seemed to know and like Capt. Buck. Burley.
" Goodnight, " Lt. Wells said, "and thanks for helping me ground him."
"Good night"", I said, as she walked away.
I headed to my quarters, thinking that it was too late now to catch the latest episode of Tokyo Rose at the recreation hut.
But I still couldnít shake from my thoughts the unexplained anger of Capt.Burley against warrant officer Hazlitt, a man who had been very kind to me, once giving me an expensive tin of pipe tobacco.
Little did I realize that I would soon know the answer to my question?
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