The cold, not a storm loaded with snow, but the cold in burrowing waves, came sweeping down the valley just north of the Yalu River. Vatcher Sexton McKee, sergeant of infantry, as cold as he’d ever been in his life, could not hold the pencil in his hand. He’d already broken the lead point three times, but only worried about handling the rifle, managing the trigger when called upon, his latest letter home to be finished at an hour less demanding.
He’d written, “Dear Folks, The sun shining is a good sign for us …” the lie in place as usual, but the letter, like all of them he had written for the folks at home, sweet as syrup, would be loaded with key words that he’d decode later, positive of all the keys built in (the dotted letters, the Os filled in or circular portions of other letters of the alphabet, the Ts dotted or double-crossed, location names misspelled so they’d never check on them, the military unit numbers a jumble of math equations impossible to breakdown.
A laugh gurgled in his throat as he thought about the formula for the Solvay process, the test answer so elusive in his high school chemistry course. Of course, it came back now, clear as ever, when he had no need of it at, and never would have need for it, but the memory stung him blatantly for its uselessness, 2 NaCl + CaCO3 → Na2CO3 + CaCl2. The formula would be engrained for eternity.
And so came the home reception of his letters after simple and quick readings and grimaces of ignorance on their part, but, as requested, put into a box in the back hall or in the attic, or in a closet, to be held for him … for in the collection of letters would sit the heart of his novel to be beat into a life, to come together on the typewriter, to breathe on its own merits.
If his grandfather was still back there, the Yeats reader, the tobacco smell coming along with Yeats, he’d be sleeping with his letters, at his bosom, as his pillow for thought, his stretch of night, a coverlet for a child in a poem he’d forgotten right from the old man’s lips like they were Yeats’ lips. And he heard the old man say again and again, “Hear the music, Boy. Hear the music in the words.” Them he’d qualify it all by saying, “The words with handles, get them, Boy. The words with handles, they’ll do the deed.”
His grandfather’s rhythms lived; they were now his. He reached once more, the fingers moving, one on each hand, grasping a word with handles. Owning it.
There were times in the midst of a battle zone that he imagined the smash of his fingers down on the trusty old Smith-Corona, now locked away in the backroom closet, kept the blood circulating in his hands, in his fingers, making the final demand up along his biceps, the shoulders feeling it … imagined but so useful. Sometimes he’d remember a word or two, now and then its root looming into a sentence asking for completion, for housing in a paragraph, in a chapter, the full message of a word making its way down the long haul.
He dreamed sounds, expressions, the tattoos coming on wings.
Over the edge of the ridge, atop another blast of frigid air so heavy it slammed him aside the head with the punch of a fist, the enemy bugle calls came uphill again and promised they’d be coming back, waves of Chinese infantry as thick as the cold had come in its own crunch, onward, deliberately massed, fearsome waves of humanity with nothing to gain in the whole world of possibilities but another useless hilltop. “Hey, Sarge, ain’t we been here before?”
“Up ‘n’ at ‘em. They’re coming back,” he yelled. “Flex your fingers. Make sure they work. Fit the trigger. Get ready.” His look searched along the line of his squad, measuring his men, hoping for the best of them to step out again, as they had in the previous thrust. The new lieutenant’s body was in the bunker with a damned good chance of getting buried there if a shell hit it, or a flung grenade. The platoon leader’s dog tags were in one of his pockets where his fingers touched them, perhaps to be the last sign of him here on this earth. Who was waiting on him, what was waiting? He hadn’t gotten to know the man in the few short weeks he’d been here, only that he could stick his head up at the wrong time, see death coming straight at him.
Of course, it would be like that with some men. He tried to remember what he looked like, the new lieutenant, but nothing came except his stare directly at his own death. It was all uneven, no balance to it, this art of dying. The awareness had been the lieutenants from the first minute of combat. The others of the unit, the hep ones, the alert ones, knew how the lieutenant’s mind worked and had consigned him so quickly it might now have been forgotten.
Hell, now it did not count. Other considerations loomed.
The letters counted. Every damned letter in every damned letter. Every word. Every paragraph. Every suspicion. Every fear. They had been transcribed from so many angles he hoped he could find the level to finish them off the way they came at him when he had first thought about the book, that idea shaking him awake the first night he had slept in a bunker on a hill in North Korea, words beating at him, the tempo taken and accepted, the rhyme and reason and all the phonetics telling him where he was on the journey … though at the start, “You are on your way.”
He went back to the book without pages.
He came back from an odd paragraph. An awed paragraph, the kind that get so good they kill you when you lose them. And lost they are; perhaps to come back in a slow moment of life, his head on a soft pillow, time on his hands, death behaving itself.
Perhaps they’d go MIA. It happens.
A bugle sounded. He thought of a bugler, a trumpeter. He said the name “Al Hirt” not knowing if he could see the right spelling, but he could hear a song, the muted parts as well, the notes like letters in a paragraph, on the page … and he was tone deaf to begin with.
It was enlightening. It was a book.
He yelled, he thought as loud as the bugles, a sense of bravado riding him, finding the words, the words surfacing for the composer on simple demand, words to be used. “Hell’s coming up here for another look. Do the devil down, boys. Do the devil down.”
He eyed the movement downhill, at the edge of piled-up snow. “Do the devil down.” He kept saying it.
One more flash came into the back of his head before multiple bugle calls came anew, and odd drum beatings: the current letter for home, for the file he was building back there, was #153, and like the last 20 letters written, not yet in the hands of the mail service, but wedged into a deep pocket of his parka, bound as tightly as a secret. There had been little opportunity to send the letters on their way, and the business at hand, the war itself, throttled further chances of sending them on.
The beginning of his book was there in the letters, and the middle of it, and the end of it after the hills came into it, the high hills, the falls down, the climbs back, the names of characters, the constant name of his hero, Mack Tribbley, the 31st Infantry Regiment as an entity, heaven and hell and all else deadly.
Snow was a character, and the cold. Devils about.
Those thoughts rushed him back to the living fact: they came, rushing uphill. He was glad they were not Gurkhas he’d read about, but they were almost as good. The war was happening for them again. Battle, on the edge of consciousness, came renewed. Ground support from the rear roared overhead, dropped in square parameters, hit in the midst of the enemy, and then crawled along the edge of the hill, his hill, bumpy, banging, like the Dodgems at Revere Beach, hell on wheels for kids now conscripted for death and dying.
Overhead the artillery observer in a Piper Cub wagged the wings of his plane, and the onslaught from the rear continued, slamming like an old-time break-in of a bank vault.
The signal was irreverent. Down the line a captain of infantry fired his M-1, emptied it, at the plane loading up death for an erroneous target. Friendly fire, my ass, He’d say.
Came separation, noise, screaming, his ears pounded by blasts, concussion, and a sense of reeling, on a dance floor, on a skating surface, in a roller coaster like the Cyclone at Revere Beach with dives the way he had seen some Mustangs bite the dusty clouds and wing home in a scream. The headline gone over the hill. The tattoo of escape.
He woke up shaking, the noise a horrible roar inside his ears, banging on his eyes, rolling across the scalp.
“Remember this,” he thought he was screaming. “Remember this. Put it in the numbers, in the names. Save it all. This is it.”
He tried to stretch a hand, to search.
It could only be a chopper and as he tried to move, shift his weight, he felt the binds holding him in place. The fall out of the stretcher cradle might be hundreds of feet, straight down, back to the beginning. Back to the start of memory. He could not hear the roar of guns or cannons, or the bugle calls rising to chase him. Al Hirt’s sounds no longer downhill. Just before he had been shipped to Korea, he had heard him on the radio with Horace Heidt’s Orchestra and marked him, loving the sound of a contemporary musician probably only a few years older than he was. There was acceptance and grace in being tone deaf. He tried for a trade-off.
The binds prevented him for searching his parka for the packet of letters. The pocket felt empty against his side. The blackness ascended with the chopper’s lift. Air rushed someplace, going past, going fast, then faster.
He woke up far in the rear of the battle lines, far to the rear.
A nurse spoke to him; “You’re near the coast, in a hospital ship marked with 3 red Xes bigger than life. At the pier behind us, Japan sits with welcome arms in front of a new cortege of injured warriors. Your comrades are still coming aboard. There are a lot of them. It’s like a frigging parade.”
She was crying, but she was movie beautiful, like Vivien Leigh in the last film seen. Where was that? Camp Stoneman, on the other side? At the real beginning?
He could tell that the packet of letters was missing. “I had a bunch of letters, a bundle of them. Where are they?”
The nurse knew nothing of the letters, or the orderlies or the aides, or the tough-looking ward administrator, a blonde with dark eyes that seemed to be brooding, big lips, no breasts visible, arms that might lift kegs, but sadder than Christmas Past.
She said, “There was no packet of letters with you, or on your person anyplace, or in your gear, what little there was, when you came aboard. Other matters were more important to us.” It was almost apologetic when the administrator added, “There were others with you, from your squad. They have all moved on,” and she added, “one way or another.”
They had ganged up on him, the two of them.
He didn’t ask them to qualify the manner of separation.
Just one letter he had sent home he remembered, coming came back to him verbatim: Save all my letters and put them in a safe deposit vault in the bank. Keep them for me. They are important.
If only his grandfather …
In the hospital stateside, no visitors, he was morose. The letters hounded him, but there was salvation, he hoped. But he didn’t dare write and ask about them. There would come a letter of disaster, of no concern, of little care, so like the past being the past. The roots had no importance. Today counted, the morning. That was all.
It was morose.
When he got home, after the mini-celebration, he went looking around during the night …in the cellar, the attic, as many closets he could get into, the back hall leading to his room where there was no heat, where few would enter on cold weather or in the heat of summer.
He found no letters. Not a single one.
Finally, his live-in cousin said, “We thought they were just diversions for your mom so she wouldn’t get upset like she did about big brother Jack in WW II. They were such innocent letters, a lot of jumble and hieroglyphics in them, things we couldn’t read or make heads or tails of, and we thought sure you had lost part of your mind and we wanted to protect your mother. But they were thrown out by accident, I think, in a box that was in the hallway when we cleaned up the spare room for you, knowing you were coming home. I think one of the kids threw it out. I’m not sure.”
It was as severe as a wound, like shrapnel in its rampage, the unseen touch of it, ethereal but conclusive. What corpsman could heal this, what nurse? What ward companion looking for his own way home, saying what he felt but never what he might know? … “We’re not through with this yet. Parts will hang on; they have a grip you’ll find again.”
He walked out, left home. 20 years later they had not seen him, in New York City trying to recreate every word, every passage, finding some, but not all, finally finding one complete letter in his mind and blowing it apart so that it fell in place for him.
Once his mother said, on her dying bed, “I think he was angry with us for throwing out all those letters. He thought he was fooling me all the time, but I knew him better than he did himself, that’s why he left. I never told anybody, but that’s why he left. His life, since he found himself over there, was wrapped up in the book he was going to write. He used to talk about it in his sleep before he left, like he was dictating to a stenographer, or one of us if we could have sat still long enough, but none of us could.”
He died on a bench with a book on his chest in New York’s Central Park. His ID said his name was the same as the author’s name, Mack Tribbley, the book was Tigers in the Snow, and stuck in between pages was a review from the New York Times.
A patrolman found him and the book and his curiosity was aroused, the ID a phony at first look and an old one to boot, an old style ID, with no existent person with that name in any subsequent search of records, but Vatcher Sexton McKee, lost, missing for more than 20 years, was bold on the dog tag hung on his neck on a length of silver chain.
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