I could picture what it would be like if we met again all these years later. It might go down like this: After 670 miles of a pretty cross country haul, I’d see the meeting-place pub we’d picked sitting brown and ugly like a hovel at the side of the road, a meeting place for the century, out there in some square, hard country setting. And I’d brace myself for comrades, the long stretch between get-togethers, wondering what the hard stuff would do to me this time. Undoubtedly it would leave tracks again.
I closed my eyes, wondering all over again. I hoped Balbo would be in there and Diaz. I hoped Archie’d be in there, red in the face, after his fifth visit, his third wife, his second hospital stay, counting his visits, keeping the tab at his elbow, paying it with no fanfare at all, sometimes embarrassed by his own quick acceptance of it, owing somebody, always owing somebody in this crazy life.
I saw him again on the ridgeline, forever on the ridgeline it seemed, my pal Archie, squad leader Archie, drinking buddy Archie, history and nostalgia-plagued Archie, black against the morning sun, staggering, falling backwards, his weapon emptying itself at the coming tide, his curses revolving over and over as he rolled down the hill, helmet loose and skittering on edge, canteen bouncing, weapon finally dragged useless and empty into the earth. “Tom, don’t let them bastards get me! Friggin’ hear me, Tom? Don’t let them get me!”
I had thrown the red panel on the ground when the first wing-swept Grumman came diving on the hill, dropping the napalm in an end-over-end tumble like a field goal try, an agonizing slow roll to its arc, waiting to see if it hit on this side or the other side of the hill. Even before the flames blew up the incendiary cloud, before the heat passed searingly over their heads, Archie had screamed again, not about the heat and fire, but about the small army of Chinese gathered on the other side, the lead charge then perched on the crest of the hill: “Don’t let them little bastards get me, Tom.”
Every day of my life, from that moment on, from the burst of the napalm, from the whine and roar of the next Grumman diving down on us like some clumsy bird diving on a seashore, from the repetition of small arms fire popping a Fourth of July morning, I heard Archie’s voice. It was part of his continual terror, the wakeful dream, the sudden silence in pre-dawn darkness: What would have happened if I hadn’t leaped to get Archie, hadn’t brought him back to the bunker, hadn’t hauled him inside just as the whole hill exploded under cannon fire, salvo after salvo after salvo? Two days under earth we were, four men who found a supply of air come tunneling under a small ledge, keeping us alive.
For two days we could hear Chinese spoken but feet away from us, it too coming with the air supply under the ledge. The napalm hit had cleared the peak of the hill, so we had immediate oxygen and enough of it coming through that small aperture. We had survived the close napalm and the creeping barrage and fusillade of our own artillery raking the length of the hill. A few timbers of the bunker roof held the Chinese People’s Army at little more than arm’s length. Under the weakest looking timber I had wedged my rifle. We had slept fitfully yet not daring to move, keeping our legs in place, our bowels inert, our voices down, whispers as bare as breath. When hunger came in its push, like the snake it was, as if it had burrowed down to get at us, we talked about favorite meals.
It came on me again, the breakfast we created for the Last Supper, lounging in the back of my head; not the way I remembered it, but the way it was: It was raining, it was 1951, it was Korea, and we lay barricaded behind dirt, loam, rock, shale, speckled hardpan, spent shrapnel, an unknown blood brown as a berry stain on a bleached wood. Stale powder smell was a laboratory smell circulating in the small hole of the mountain, the saucer of war left over, battle’s cup spilleth, the meat and meal of death taking up the air. We were wet, we were cold, we were hungry. Now and then, muffled by all of earth, Chinese came spoken as the enemy passed over or paused above the retreat.
Once vaguely I had thought of Sub Gum Harkew, quickly forgot Chinatown, brought rifles back, the probe of bayonets in Chinese hands, the thrust a search would bring, invasive, calculated, steel surgeons at work, dread doctors at awe. We waited, we hungered, we whispered, and silence, like fungus in a root
cellar, like onions in a poem I could vaguely remember, grew around us, sopping, thickening, becoming moldy and wet and ever damp, crypt stuff if there ever was, mad man’s mausoleum. It was a piece of an old barn I had known, probably still struggling to sit up on its haunches in Middleboro, Massachusetts,
horse leftovers, mule-stuff, leather traces, hay as old as Methuselah, fallen dust, mushrooms taking over corners.
Diaz’ beard then was a mold he could only feel. He had trouble feeling his own feet, legs locked in place, now and then thighs convulsed. Come outhouse ripe was his breath and he cursed without using words, magnificent curses that blew out from his soul.
Balbo, on his left, two days of blood on his forehead as hard as plaster cast, mumbled and hummed about steak, onions, breads his mother made atop her stove where the blue haze climbed on mountains.
Balbo brought Kentucky across the parallel, pulled it into that dim and dark retreat, as if it had seceded finally from the Union; Kentucky has odors that live forever; he whispered of turkey taken down, wild Indian corn, hickory up in smoke, ham air curling all the way down a valley’s run where the boar thought it was loose forever.
Darkness did food proper. It dissipated the edge of death, carried off wounds, lingered in the wet silence as if someone’d spilled next door’s olla podrida. The pot is the great custodian for nosy things after blood, after pain, after resurrection of hope, after palate memory, after taste finds one breathing air foul as rotting flesh. On the second day of mold, damp, other liqueurs, Chinese spoken atop rarely now, but distinctly, Diaz said we ought to speak more of urgent meals to make our mouths water, to salivate.
Balbo’s Kentucky came succulent, wet, leaves taking on mist, the mountains blue as far as you could see. He saw deep-set stains working his mother’s apron all to pieces as she delivered the turkey into meals that might last a week, a red jelly, steam-twisted green vegetables, corn like gold, bread thick as an anvil and justly memorable.
Diaz, though, went Mexican haywire; enchiladas wild with chili, an almost Cajun burn in his own mouth, the desert burning under a saucer sun. In the middle of Diaz’ meal I remembered a goat once over
buckets of coals in New Hampshire, on a farm cut into the side of another mountain, poets reading into and out of a night of loving and the disappearance of the whole goat.
Now Diaz’ face refused to come back to me, but mold of his beard. I knew his eyes were not blue, but could not pick out their color. His mouth, his mouth so close to me, was ripening yet. Back over the meals the stench came, live as an ache. Chinese lingered again, jabbered, passed on the way history eases itself forward, slipped away like rain or pain or a forgotten cloud when your back is turned.
Balbo, in the bowels of the Earth, said he hungered because of sausages, two-day beans, bread like bricks, his mother humming at the black stove, a mountain out the window looking down at her.
I whispered of Vermont morning mountain peaks sticking up through an ocean of cloth-clean clouds, dew-damp gracing every surface, as if lacquer’s sheen had been put in place to wait out the sun, and my brother Jim, early bird, dawn’s pot-rustler, spiller of coffee, drawing together pairs of eggs, near-burnt toast, noisy Canadian bacon slabs echoing from mountain top to mountain top.
I told Diaz and Balbo and Archie how my brother cooked, how he floats forever in the holiest waters of Lake Erie drumming up meals for me. Balbo hummed again, bled again, became desert hot, cooled, said his back hurt in a new setting. Wept. The mountain rocked. And Kentucky rocked. If those sounds were in the Sonora Desert would they have been heard? What was tamale? Chili? What was that dank smell, that small explosion, old wet barns, mildew in the mows, eggs gone over the edge, moist blankets holding night in their twill, those brothers, those comrades, my brother, that wetness, drivel of four bodies as if we had been canned forever. Sardines cooled and wet in the war.
I’d remember how it ended.
Silence. Wet silence. Hush.
Boots pounding. Beyond our barricade, above, a voice, an uncursed, non-Asiatic voice, “Jeezzus, Sarge!” A comrade passing overhead, the mountain repossessed.It was sweet as yams, maple syrup, the catch that’s caught up in Kentucky corn. Brought Mexico across the border. Made Vermont suddenly valid. Made morning’s meal, wet miracle, come in the latter part of that long ago day, that impermanent burial.
The others would all remember it, if any of them could come to this dark pub slabbed here in the middle of the earth.
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