Sample pages from Memoirs of a Bangkok WarriorCurtain Calls
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INSPECTIONS were, for those forced to participate in them, absurd, excruciating, a waste of time, and a pain in the ass. For those who gave them, however, they provided a weekly dose of power, where none was desirable, a sense of purpose, where none was evident, and a renewal of martial spirit where none was needed. But to the Thais in the neighborhood, our weekly inspections were looked forward to as a combination circus-carnival, a westernized (but equally stylized) Khon dance-drama, and, as we all stood rigidly at attention in the Bangkok heat and humidity – proof that foreigners were totally, indisputably mad.
Children and adults from all over the northern section of Bangkok – fruit and vegetable vendors, bargirls, samlor drivers, laborers, students and housewives – would jostle for position on chairs and boxes just outside the fence eating, depending on the season, papaya, longan, durian, bananas, jackfruit, guava, mangosteens, rambutan, mangoes, beetles fried in oil, and, in the dark shade of palm trees, watch the dramatis personae with dark, damp circles under their Khaki armpits torture themselves.
At the conclusion of each inspection when we were “dismissed!” a great roar of approval and sustained applause would go up from the audience as is natural for any successful performance which has had a run of several years. No Broadway smash hit ever received more enthusiastic acclaim or more loyal support. Other occasions which were cause for noisy approbation among the appreciative audience were the vociferous and lengthy tirades of Bumbles as he chewed out a G.I. for an infraction of the rules, and (always sure to bring the house down) a G.I. fainting from the heat.
The spectacle of an imported, non-profit, show business extravaganza, in which among the performers’ repertoires were such wondrous and risorial acts as swooning, bellowing and marching, was one that tore the elderly from their sick-beds, the young from their playgrounds, and the middle-aged from their shop counters.
The Show of the Week that I most remember was at the end of October – supposedly part of the cool season. Just as Blinky and Bumbles began their walk in front of the first of four rows, Freeman ran up and jumped in line.
“Where you been?” Bumbles shouted.
“No excuse, Sergeant!”
“That’s no excuse!”
Bumbles walked to a Jewish G.I., new to the unit. “Is that mustache on your ID card, soldier?”
As Bumbles passed down the rows of sweat-filled uniforms stuck fast to overheated bodies, it was clear that, as always, Jewish soldiers stood the greatest chance of having their names entered in the Discrepancy Book. Not that Bumbles was anti-Semitic. Indeed, it was difficult to pass normal value judgements on the beliefs and actions of someone like Bumbles. Nor did he dislike Jews because of their longer noses, or doctored penises, or sense of togetherness, or fatter bank accounts, or whatever it is that insures that a certain percentage of good Christians will always dislike Jews. He did not even bear Jews a grudge for killing Christ, for, as Bumbles once pointed out to a bespectacled and bemused Jewish assistant C.Q., “He would have been dead by now, anyway, so don’t sweat it. Just carry on with your work as if nothing happened.”
It was when Bumbles learned from a Master Sergeant on R&R from Vietnam that a Jew by the name of Arnold Rothstein had once fixed the World Series that he began inspecting soldiers with Jewish names – or those he believed to be Jewish names – a bit closer. How could any red-blooded, baseball-loving American forgive them for that? Unfortunately, precisionist that he was in military matters, Bumbles had almost no ability to distinguish a Jewish name from a non-Jewish name, and was usually in error at least fifty percent of the time. Still, a .500 batting average is nothing to be laughed at in any league.
Bumbles was quick to point out that some very fine Jewish officers – and even enlisted men – had been rubbished in Vietnam (presumably by the enemy). And when once asked what he thought of the Nazi’s killing six million Jews at one go, he replied with genuine anger and deep-felt outrage that “communist bastards are all alike and that just proves the domino theory.”
On another occasion, in a boisterous Sukhumvit Road bar, to an audience of perplexed bargirls and other NCOs, Bumbles expounded at length to say that Christ had “fought the wrong war with the wrong people in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Apparently, now, in Vietnam, was the proper time and place for Christ to make his stand not “fucking around with some candy-ass Roman stupeedos baring their knees for all to see,” and Bumbles confided that he “wouldn’t be at all surprised if the Almighty didn’t correct his first mistake in the very near future and send another one or maybe even the same one to do it right this time.” Although Bumbles did express the hope that at his next coming Jesus might exhibit a bit more military bearing, or at least show up with a regulation military haircut. In Bumbles’s words, “each and every one of you swinging richards can be goddamn sure that no dickhead gook is gonna’ nail Him to no fucking cross while I’m around.” Which was the clearest statement I’d ever heard as to why Americans were in Vietnam.
Blinky closely inspected Freeman’s brass. “What’s your third General order, Specialist Freeman?”
I heard Taylor whisper to Patterson. “Oh, Christ! He’s asking Orders, Code of Conduct and Chain of Command!”
“I’m not sure of the third one, Sir,” Freeman said.
“Are you sure of any of them, Specialist?”
Freeman was suitably repentant. “No, Sir.”
Blinky grimaced, stared and cleared his throat the way big league pitchers do when they’ve got a full count on a batter who keeps hitting foul balls no matter what the pitch. “You men may be finance clerks,” Blinky said for the hundredth time, “but you’re soldiers first and clerks second!” Scattered applause from the audience. He moved on down the second row as Bumbles glared at Freeman and wrote something down in the sweat-stained Discrepancy Book. Blinky stopped in front of Patterson. “Soldier, your shoes look like they’ve been shined with a Hershey bar and a wire brush. It is your responsibility that you look like a soldier, not your houseboy’s! There’s no rule that says-“
Suddenly Taylor started shouting. “Don’t anybody move!”
All heads turned to face him with Bumbles peering over Blinky’s shoulder. Taylor was stooping over, staring intently at the ground. A G.I. near him started to move. Taylor bellowed in an even louder voice: “Don’t move, goddamnit!”
We had all heard rumors of activity on the part of Vietcong sympathizers in our area of Bangkok; in fact we had quite happily embellished and spread them ourselves; but had someone managed to plant land mines inside the court itself? No one moved an inch.
“Wait a minute, here it is!” Taylor reached down and retrieved something invisible from the ground. “Goddamn piece of junk!” Taylor spat on the space between his fingers, rubbed his contact lens on his sleeve, replaced the lens in his eye, and snapped back to a position of attention. Other G.I.s also returned to positions of attention.
Blinky looked at Bumbles who began thumbing through his book of army regulations to see what had been written on how to punish G.I.s who lost contact lenses during inspections. Blinky continued on down the row trying to recover the momentum while Bumbles fingered his discrepancy notebook and gave Taylor a you-think-you’re-smart-losing-a-lens-in-formation look. Moderate applause from the audience.
As Blinky walked between the first and second row, every now and then he leaned forward to tap the shoulder of a man in the front row and mumble the word, “haircut.” Bumbles would then make a note in his Discrepancy Book. As Blinky and Bumbles passed down the row behind Freeman and continued on, Taylor leaned forward and tapped Freeman’s shoulder. He spoke in a low, military voice, perfectly imitating Blinky: “Haircut.”
Freeman spoke loudly but without turning around. “Haircut! I just got one this morning, Sir!”
By the time Blinky and Bumbles turned, Taylor had already resumed his position of attention. They moved around Freeman’s row and stood in front of him. Blinky waited a few moments before speaking, his nasute, perspiring face only inches in front of Freeman’s rigid form. “Freeman, I don’t know what your problem is but I intend to find out. You’ve got grass-cutting detail out by the front gate for two weeks. And I don’t give a damn if the grass needs cutting or not. Is that clear?”
At the conclusion of that particular inspection, just as we were being dismissed, Patterson staggered forward with one hand on his forehead and the other thrust forward, as a man might totter blindly when he has soap in his eyes, or upon learning that the bargirl he was mad about, the one he had bought countless drinks for, was actually living with a guy in the air force, and then, with unrehearsed histrionics, promptly passed out from the heat; or rather, from the effect the heat had on thirteen cans of Singhai beer consumed on an empty stomach and no sleep. This unprecedented combination of simultaneous dismissal and collapse, which would be told and retold by generations of families inside squatter huts, canal-side houses-on-stilts, and dingy dockside bars, brought about such a tremendous outpour of zealous, near-hysterical acclaim, that, after carrying the fallen warrior into the shade and air-conditioned coolness of Club Victory, several of us propped the weak but partly conscious star of the show between us, and took him back out into the heat to acknowledge his acclaim.
This process was continued for no fewer than three curtain calls and was carried out amid showers of exotic fruit slices, seed and skins, and even strands of flowers which left dozens of children’s and adults’ sticky fingers to land near our feet.
In the tradition of the theater, we waved, bowed, and modestly shared our glory with one another. And as wave after wave of applause rose to feverish pitch and even beyond, it was clear that, although the final chapter of American military involvement in Asia had yet to be written, there would never be another performance quite like the one we had just given.
Copyright Dean Barrett 2010
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