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A Memoir of Blindness and Vision
By John Howard Griffin, Robert Bonazzi
Wings PressCopyright © 2010 Robert Bonazzi
All rights reserved.
By 1945, we had lost so many men and had been bombed so often that we had long ago learned to refuse any thoughts about death. Death did not exist for us except as a cold fact to be recognized and quickly dismissed. We had long ceased to mourn the deaths of our companions. In life, a warm and often devoted friendship existed between us. In death, nothing. They were there at the table one day, and then we saw them no more and that was all.
Most of us in the 424th Bomb Squadron's radar section were in our third year overseas. Although our unit had been bombed often, this was the first time we were under a black alert. Now we were threatened with invasion from the enemy. We stood, perhaps a dozen of us, in the radar tent on Morotai Island and drew straws. Pops Fendler drew first, and then Mills. Each got a long straw. I was third in line and got the short one. Corporal Fred Kaplan cast me a glance of sympathy, tossed the remaining straws into the coral dust at our feet, and cursed.
The section captain told me I would go on duty at six this evening.
"Do you know what to do?" he asked. "Not entirely."
He glanced up at the tent roof where rot holes let in thin rays of sunlight. "Intelligence has intercepted the Jap's orders. They're supposed to take the airstrip, kill the tower operators and then proceed here to the radar tent, kill whoever is on duty and take all our technical data before it can be destroyed. You'll have your gasoline ready to burn the place up. And you'll have the jeep outside to make a run for it. If they follow orders, they'll hit the tower first and you'll have some warning."
I wondered. The Japanese would surely not be so stupid as to attack the tower first and give me warning. They would undoubtedly strike both places at the same time.
"I'll be in touch with you by phone from headquarters," the captain said. "Don't set off the gasoline unless you actually see one of them or unless I tell you to."
"Couldn't I just grenade the place?"
"No, the papers might not be destroyed. You pour gasoline over the files and see that they get burned."
The others waited, silent. Finally Kaplan asked the question. "Is there any law against telling us what's going on?"
"Two Japanese suicide units landed on our side of the bay last night. We expect an invasion — sometime tonight probably."
"Well, what the hell's everybody leaving for?" Kaplan asked. "It looks like they ought to be sending in more men instead of taking them out."
"We expect a massive bombardment to soften us up before the ground troops come in," said the captain. "Headquarters has ordered evacuation of all dispensable planes and personnel."
"Are they going to evacuate any of us?" Kaplan asked.
"Have you had instructions to pack?"
The captain shrugged and turned away. Pops Fendler honked the jeep horn and called us to go to lunch. Six of us piled into the jeep while the others took the pick-up. We drove down the airstrip under a glaring sun, past open bunkers where B-24s made ready to take off. Palms with fronds whitened by coral dust from propeller backwash flashed by.
We entered the jungle on a ten mile road that had been cut from the airfield to the camp. After rain, it was a slush, but today we bounded over the sun-baked mud, deeply rutted. At regular take-off intervals, the B-24s rumbled over us, so near they almost touched the treetops. As each appeared, Kaplan, in the back seat raised his arms and implored: "Wait — take me with you."
The camp area had been evacuated when we reached our tents. Morotai had quickly become a ghost island. Rumors spread that the Japanese had massed a force of 47,000 men across the bay, while our total remaining American and Australian forces were about one-tenth of that.
In the mess hall, the rows of empty tables and the lack of noise emphasized our isolation. We sat in small groups. From the open sides of the large, tin-roofed shed, we looked across the gray-green waters of Morotai Bay to the motionless jungles of the opposite shore which was held by the Japanese.
Someone turned the kitchen radio up to full volume and shouted for us to listen. Tokyo Rose's familiar voice floated through the shed, its sensuality amplified by a squawking harshness. "I really feel sad about all my boyfriends on Morotai. I like you boys. You know that. I'm thinking about you today while you eat that tasteless dehydrated food. I could just cry when I think this is going to be your last meal on earth. Even a condemned convict gets a tasty last meal. But boys, try not to be bitter. I know it's hard. After all, you're out here eating this trash while back home your family and friends are probably enjoying some fresh corn on the cob, dripping with real butter, and maybe a bottle of ice cold beer. Wouldn't a nice can of iced cold beer taste good right now?"
Kaplan's sentimental black eyes filled with tears. Midday heat pressed like fever against our cheeks. We felt the desperation of sweats in our hair, on our eyelids and dribbling down our buttocks. Our dehydrated potatoes and embalmed meat repelled us. Rose's other silliness made no impression on us, but our bellies made us painfully vulnerable to her description of food and drink. Nothing could have awakened a deeper ache than the mention of cold beer.
"I hope you boys have a mail call today," she went on. "For most of you, it'll be the last time you hear from your wives and sweethearts. I wonder how many of them have dates with stateside soldiers tonight? After all, it's part of their duty to keep up those boys' morale. But it does seem a shame in a way. Here you are out fighting for them and —"
"Bitch ... bitch!" Mills shouted, struggling to his feet and glaring at us. He repeated the word "bitch" furiously as he turned and ran out.
Kaplan picked up Mills' mess kit, dumped its contents into a garbage drum and dipped it in a barrel of boiling water.
Then Pops Fendler joined Kaplan and me in the walk toward our tent.
"I can't figure that little Mills out," Fendler said expansively. "God, I hate to see a man that's got no guts. What the hell's eating him? He hasn't even had a bath in a week."
"He's just had it, that's all. All he can take," Kaplan said.
"He's so scared that wife of his is screwing around," Fendler snorted.
Kaplan looked at the older man's thick features with contempt.
We climbed the hill to our tent. Inside, Kaplan and I hung our mess kits on the tent's center pole and sat down on our cots.
Fendler undressed and tied a towel around his thick waist. He flexed his shoulders in a gesture retained from youthful days as a professional boxer. The whiteness of his well-preserved body contrasted to the tan of his pugged and aged face. Gray body hair on his chest and belly matted in his sweat.
Mills stuck his head through the tent opening. "How about a game?"
"Sure. Come on in," I said, astonished by his cheerfulness.
"You must have had a letter from your wife, kid," Fendler said as Mills entered carrying his cribbage board.
"You bet," Mills answered. He slapped the older man's bare shoulders and then rubbed Fendler's sweat from his palms against his tee shirt.
Fendler's eyes closed in irritation at the familiarity. He walked to the door on wood-soled shower shoes.
"Where you going, Buddy?" Mills asked.
"Now where would I be going dressed like this?" Fendler said in a supercilious tone he often affected. He clumped out and we heard him mutter, "What a crazy goddamn question. Christ."
Mills straddled my cot and faced me across the cribbage board.
"What's he so pissed of about?" he asked.
I watched him scratch an inflamed mosquito welt at the neckline of his soiled tee shirt. Ammonia odors of old sweat and fresh urine emanated from him. His khaki pants bore the almost-dry pattern where he had wet himself in anguish. His gaze fixed on my face, questioningly. Mills apparently had not realized. I hastily looked beside my cot for the deck of limp blue Bicycle cards.
While Mills dealt the cards on my green wool army blanket, I stared out the tent door. Coral shimmered blindingly under the sun. When I looked back to the tent's interior, a black-light aureole surrounded all objects. Silence deepened by the wash of the surf hung over the camp.
Mills soon had a large lead but he was tensing. "I hope you make it all right tonight and they don't get to the radar tent," he said. Muscles twitched in his cheeks and ragged fingernails dug into the mosquito welt.
Kaplan looked up from the letter he was writing. I saw concern in his black eyes. We had both seen men break under the strain and we did not want it to happen to Mills.
Lavender soap fragrance entered the tent with Fendler. "Just heard Tokyo at the H.Q. shack," he laughed. "You kids better start saying your prayers. It looks like the real thing, this time. Better go write that pretty wife of yours a letter, kid," he said to Mills.
"Why don't you shut up?" Kaplan said.
"What's the matter, buddy, you getting nervous?" Fendler teased.
Mills dragged himself from the cot. "I guess I'd better go."
"Okay," I said. "See you later. They won't hit the camp. It's the runway they're after."
"Ha! It's the whole stinking island," Fendler snorted. Then he noticed the stain on Mills' trousers. "Well, for godsakes...."
Mills walked hurriedly away. Fendler shook his head slowly. "Did you see his pants? I believe that poor cluck's so scared he's pissed in his pants."
"No, one of those damned Jarvis tubes backed up on him," Kaplan said, inventing the excuse to silence Fendler; referring to a type of urinal made of a pipe inserted in the ground with a funnel at the upper end. These hygienic contrivances, technically dubbed Jarvis Pee Tubes, were invented by our Major Jarvis and constituted his greatest fame in the Pacific area. When heavily used, they overflowed back on the user. This imperfection had never been corrected despite the major's dedicated attempts to improve his product.
Kaplan returned to his letter while I stretched out on my cot and lighted a cigarette. If Fendler felt nervous, he did not show it. He was whistling softly to himself while clouding the tent with lavender talc that he loudly patted with a huge puff under his arms, over his chest and between his legs. We welcomed it after the stench of Mills had left.
The sky clouded over. I walked through the floating white talc to the door and looked out. Beyond the white reefs a colorless ocean stretched to the horizon. The coral no longer glared.
"Well," Fendler said, "I guess I'd better go buck up the kids."
I turned to see him dressed in fresh khakis, his gray hair carefully combed into deep waves from a center part. "See you later," he said, edging past me. I watched him walk away. He assumed his "tiger walk" — smooth and somewhat crouched, again a carryover from his fighting days, whistling and snapping the fingers of both hands.
"What's going to happen if Mills blows tonight?" Kaplan asked. Though he spoke quietly, his voice carried clear in the silence. I realized planes no longer flew overhead. The evacuation had been completed.
"God knows," I said. "He ought to be in a hospital right now."
A streak of lightning flashed down from low clouds into the ocean. Two giant white cockatoos flew out from the top of a tall tree and circled against the black sky before settling again into the branches.
"I guess I'd better go take a shower," I said. I stepped back into the tent's gloom to undress.
"Yeah, it looks like a storm," Kaplan said. Then, brightening, "God Griff, I hope it does come." He lifted his skinny arms heavenward and in a mock Rabbinical tone cried: "Oh God, send us torrents of rain and wind and thunder and lightning and inundate this island, Oh God —"
"What the hell's eating you?" I interrupted.
"Man, I want it to rain and storm so the enemy calls off his nasty, nasty plans."
"Well, then don't let me interrupt you," I laughed.
Not a leaf stirred in the trees when I walked down the hill to the open air showers at the water's edge. The few men left in camp showed no interest in the threat of invasion. As I passed their tents, I saw that some were writing letters, others were cleaning carbines, but most lay listlessly on their cots.
I reached the showers. The floor was a platform of perforated metal runway strips built over the reef at the bay's edge. Square metal drums on overhead struts fed water to the shower heads. Looking out over the gray expanse of bay, I felt alone in a world where all was silence, all was peace, and I took a long time bathing. My home, my family, my past hung remote in memory. I concentrated on my family in Texas and our home. Was the living room here or there? What kind of furniture did we have? Evoked scenes came to mind — faded, static, like old photographs.
The years in the tropics had dimmed everything. Was there really such a thing as an easy chair? Did men still shave with hot water and enclose their bathing within the privacy of bathroom walls? What was the taste of fresh milk or eggs? How did it feel to wear a suit, to experience winter, to live where women could be seen in homes or streets. All of that floated unreal and mysterious. The reality lay here in a world of jungles, tents, khakis, jeeps, carbines and planes.
I stood alone under the cold shower water. The jungle and the ocean stretched serenely about me. I felt content. I sensed the solitude of the deserted island, the potency of a quiet sea and motionless trees and overcast sky — the passionate calm of nature trembling at the edge of violence, holding back, hushed.
I dried with the towel, wrapped it around my waist and walked to the mess hall for a thermos of coffee. The mess sergeant filled it, remarking how dead everything was in camp. Above the wash of the surf, I heard soft music from his radio in the kitchen as Jo Stafford sang "I'll Walk Alone" for the seven millionth time.
"I understand you drew the short straw for tonight," the sergeant said. "I sure hope you don't win any medals out there."
When I arrived at the tent, Fendler was seated on his cot drinking Dewars' Scotch from the bottle. He stared at me, his face slack and covered with sweat-filled wrinkles that glistened in the sallow light.
"Where's Kap?" I asked.
"Over at the chapel. All of them's gone over." I took my helmet to use as a bowl and went outside to shave. Fendler followed me.
"What's going on?" I asked.
"Having some sort of special service — a little last-minute plea to God, I guess. Sonsabitches," he sighed.
"When did they call this festival?"
"That Australian chaplain made the rounds a while ago and invited everyone."
I filled my helmet with water from a canvas bag that hung from a nearby tree.
Thunder crackled directly overhead. A deep greenish gloom settled over the area, giving the sand beneath our feet the look of snow. Men's voices drifted to us from the thatch-roofed chapel some distance away. "Onward Christian soldiers," they sang, "marching as to war...."
Fendler swigged at his bottle again. "God damn," he said softly. "There ain't nothing creepier than hymns to me. Don't they sound pitiful singing like that?" His washed-out blue eyes struggled to focus. "Do you believe in God, Griff?"
"You're damn right," I said. "Especially tonight."
"You hypocrite bastard," he laughed. "No, I do too, only hell ..."
"Why don't you go to the festival then?"
"I'll tell you the truth. You put Jesus over there by that tree," he pointed drunkenly. "And you put a good -looking woman, or hell even a lousy-looking one, or some booze or a steak by that other tree ... and you know which way you'd go, and I'd go, and all of them over there singing sweet songs to Jesus would go? Ain't a one of us wouldn't leave Jesus standing by His tree and go for that other. But you let a little danger come and they go flying right into the Savior's arms and acting, by God, like that's where they wanted to be all the time. Well, I'll tell you, when the day comes that I voluntarily go over to that Jesus tree, that's the day when I won't feel like an ass-head for going to church."
Sweat poured from his face. Trees rose like towering spectres in the somber light, dwarfing us in our isolation.
"Do you want a snort, Griff? God, that damned pitiful singing!"
"Better not. If anything happened out there tonight and they smelled whiskey on me, I'd never get off the work pile."
"I guess so at that." He lowered his gray eyebrows in a frown of concentration. "You got it once before, didn't you? Were you boozing that night you got your ass smashed on Los Negros?"
"No, but I might've been better off if I had been." Like many others, I had caught some shrapnel during one of the Japanese air raids.
Excerpted from Scattered Shadows by John Howard Griffin, Robert Bonazzi. Copyright © 2010 Robert Bonazzi. Excerpted by permission of Wings Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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