August 15, 2009 by David Gillaspie
A stained floor inside a government Quonset hut soaked up quiet tears while a woman hung laundry on an inside line. The muted sound of splintering wood joined her sobs as her toddler teethed on crib rails. An infant in a nearby basinet watched the rails grow thinner each day.
Wool blankets draped across a tight rope made a wall in the middle of the Quonset room. The other side was quiet. It was always quiet.
Once the toddler’s jaws tired of gnawing he used his forehead to hammer to freedom. After the first crash against the headboard the woman dropped the wet clothes and crumpled onto the pile.
The thumping sound from the crib grew louder but she didn’t move. The baby in the bassinette watched.
Diane cried for her husband, a Marine husband just back from Korea. She cried for Jake, the man she knew, not the man he’d become. He stayed out drinking with his buddies when he got off duty. At night he ripped through dreams of Chinese human waves.
He got up each morning refreshed. Diane grew more exhausted than ever. Jake’s fellow Drill Instructor, Corporal Larry Wright, lived alone on the opposite end of their Quonset hut. He too went drinking when he got off duty every day.
Jake’s screaming did one of two things. Larry started screaming, or he woke up. If he started screaming, Diane got a stereo version. If he woke up he’d come through the blanket wall and sit with Diane and smoke cigarettes until things calmed down.
The two men had patrolled Korean ridges when Chinese machine gunners chopped Jake’s platoon to pieces. Larry moved up with another squad to find Jake under fire and dragging wounded men to safety. He took three bullets, but twelve Marines lived because of him.
Jake took another bullet on his thirteenth trip. When Larry crawled out to get him Chinese gunners trained on him and stitched his legs. Jake gathered the last energy in his body and pulled him away from the ambush before passing out. While they recovered in Japan Jake had a bedside ceremony for a Silver Star and a Purple Heart. Larry said he deserved half of the star.
One morning the Shore Patrol shook Larry awake. His legs itched where the bullets had been. Jake was gone. AWOL, they said.
Called him a coward, called him yellow. Said they’d find him and make an example of what happens when soft Marines bug out.
After they left, Larry let his head sink back and jammed his hands under the pillow. Something scratched him. He found it and held a Silver Star in front of his face.
Word of mouth got back to the ward on Jake. Instead of finding an absent without leave deserter in time of war, the Shore Patrol traced him back to Korea with what was left of his outfit. They dropped all charges, and pulled his name from Medal of Honor consideration.
Then it was over.
Larry sat with Diane drinking coffee and smoking on her side of the Quonset hut. Jake thrashed the blankets and sheets of the bed across from them. He flailed his arms and legs, running in place and screaming.
“Down, get down. Here they come. The bugler, kill the bugler. Shoot the horn. Ammo boxes open. K-bars ready. It’s a big one. Fire. Fire. Fire.”
His face tightened and froze to the murderous task, his breathing ragged, sweat steaming down his neck.
“Pick it up. Butt stroke. They die first. Slash. Club.”
He snapped up to a sitting stance, fighting off the tangled sheets.
“Marine. Take a hundred. Take another. They pay. You fight. Swing on them. Take them down. Let’s go.”
Then it was over.
Larry finished his coffee and slipped between the blankets separating the room. Diane found a towel on the clothes line to lie on the wet sheets.
Jake got up and dressed the next morning. He was a regulation vision of starched uniforms and spit shined boots. Diane pretended to sleep.
She watched the precise way he dressed, closing her eyes if he looked her way.
Diane spent the day with the kids. She did housework and laundry. Took the children in for check-ups. The youngest didn’t make any sounds. The oldest chewed his crib and slammed his head. A base doctor said her youngest son showed distinct signs of dwarfism. He said pay no attention to the older son.
She explained this to Jake one night. He listened but he was drunk.
“He chews his crib because he’s got wood in his blood. Everyone in my family are loggers. He’ll chew until he can handle an ax. And the little one’s a midget? Doctor said that? Did you tell him your mother’s six feet tall? He’ll be biggest kid in his class. He’ll tear up the football field like his old man. Let him play with my trophies so he’ll get the right idea. Dwarf, huh? A dwarf? Write this down, the kid will be six foot three and weigh two forty. A man among men is what he’ll be. Count on it.”
Diane watched Jake lie down and sleep. Later that night Larry started screaming on his own.