The Digital Adventures

Take China-CH15A

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Chapter 15A
. . . . .

The Marines in Tsingtao hated to see the summer season come to an end. The beaches during these summer months were as crowded as Coney Island, and there was just not one beach to choose from but dozens. The waterfront began at the harbor downtown and continued for twenty miles or more up the coast to the north. The entire coastline was indented with neat little coves, and each cove had fine bathing beaches. The one nearest town was the restricted officers’ beach, and one about seven or eight miles farther north was Long Beach. It was the biggest, and often referred to as “the enlisted men’s beach.” The beach was sealed off to the Chinese, but Marines could bring their dates there. Marine lifeguards patrolled the beach from atop tall stands set back from tide level; the Seabees had constructed Quonset huts to be used for storage. Staff Marine and Navy NCOs who were married and had dependents could use the officers’ beach. Their dependents were instructed to stay away from Long Beach, but that was where all the excitement and most fun was.

At Long Beach over weekends and holidays, two Ducks were stationed and positioned next to the lifeguard stands. Various Marine and Navy outfits had beach parties on weekends, with barbecues and tubs filled with cold beer. Aside from swimming, the guys played badminton and volleyball, and when they consumed enough beer, they usually turned to gridiron football, without the padding. The games could get pretty rough. They played wild and furiously while their Chinese dates looked on. Chinese girls seldom went into the water, unless the men dragged them down to the water and threw them into the surf. Then, there would follow a lot of shouting and cursing, and threats by the women that they were going home. Some of the taxi dancers and bar girls could curse like a Marine, and this was one reason dependents were advised to stay away. If a Marine did have a Chinese girl who liked to swim, then, he had a sweetheart. Sometimes White Russian women came to the beach, and they would not go into the water. They were mostly heavy set and bulky, and they looked more like Mae West than Lana Turner in their ill-fitting bathing suits. There were some very fine-looking Russian women, but these women you’d see at the officers’ beach.

During the week when the beach was practically empty, Chinese fishermen worked the waters off shore. Their method of netting fish was as ancient as China itself and interesting to watch. On one of those lazy afternoons when I didn’t have the duty, I checked out a Jeep from Motor Pool and took Stevenson and Little Lew out to Long Beach to watch the fishermen at their trade. We arrived just in time to catch the fishermen as they began laying out the net, but what we didn’t expect was to find a party of sailors from one of the US ships in port, whooping it up down the beach. They came in three Jeeps, about a dozen enlisted men and one chief, and had cases of beer stacked up about a yard high. They seemed to be more interested in their own activities and took little notice of the fishermen, which was well and good. Chinese fishermen didn’t like it when drunken Marines and sailors attempted to help them pull in their nets.

I parked on high ground and the three of us went down to watch the fishermen. The net they used was hundreds of yards long, and no more than six feet high. On the topside of the net were floats to keep the top at water level, and along the bottom were weights to hold the bottom down. The sampan set out from the beach with the net neatly stowed aboard, and with one end of the net attached to a line held by half a dozen fishermen standing on the shore. We watched as one man sculled the sampan and two others laid out the net over the side. They made a large semicircle and came ashore about a few hundred yards down the beach, with another line attached to the net on that end. At a signal, two lines of fishermen began pulling in the net, while the younger boys coiled the line as it came in. Tending the lines, with slings over their shoulders, was backbreaking labor. The line was as thick as a man wrist.

It would take the fishermen hours to pull in the net, and wanting to see their catch, we decided to stroll down the beach to some high rocks on the far end and return in about an hour or so. We had no idea when we were climbing among the rocks that a crisis had arisen with the fishermen and the sailors. It wasn’t until we were returning, walking partly in the water, letting the incoming tide lap at our feet, when we became aware of a commotion ahead. I couldn’t believe it, but one of the Navy Jeeps was in the sea, almost completely submerged. Sailors were running up and down the beach while the fishermen were having their own problem. It appeared that one of the lines had broken, and the fishermen were struggling to pull the two ends ashore. The net was in a tangled mess.

The fishermen were too busy to explain what had happened. I went up to the Navy chief who was standing in the surf with water up to his knees, shouting orders that no one was listening to. The sailors were in a frenzy, screaming and cursing the Chinese, apparently for not giving them a helping hand. I finally got the chief to explain what had happened.

It seems one of the sailors became curious and went down to the seaside to see what the fishermen were doing. After seeing them laboring at pulling in the net, he ran back to his mates with an idea. Why not help the fishermen pull in the net? “With none of this backbreaking crap,” he said. No, they would pull in the net with one of the Jeeps.

The sailor jumped behind the driver’s wheel and three or four others piled into the back seat and off they went to help the fishermen. The driver turned the Jeep around and backed up to the line of fishermen pulling in the net. The Chinese were at first too bewildered to know what the sailors intended to do, but when they saw them making fast a cable to the fishing net line, they began protesting. But the sailors wouldn’t listen to them. If I am correct, it even got a bit violent with some shoving and pushing. But the US Navy out-muscled the Chinese, finished attaching their cable, threw the Jeep into four-wheel low gear and began to pull. What they didn’t realize was that, when fishermen pull in on the lines, they can feel the rhythm of the sea, when it’s time to apply effort and when it’s time to slack off. Before the Jeep could move five feet, the net snapped in two, about a hundred yards from shore. As the chief was relating the story, he chuckled from time to time. “It was the funniest thing you ever saw,” he said. “The chinks did everything but cry.”

The sailors returned to drinking their beer while the Chinese labored to salvage their net. But what the sailors forgot was that the tide was coming in. They had left the Jeep where it was, down by the water, and when they did take notice of it, the tide was almost up to the wheel. The driver, loosing no time, ran down to the Jeep, jumped in behind the wheel, started the engine and slowly began to pull away. He didn’t get far. The rear wheels sank into the sand. The sand was rapidly becoming water logged. He revved up the engine and let out the clutch, and the wheels only sank deeper and deeper.

Panicked now, he called his mates, and half a dozen Swabbies came running, stumbling and falling in their half• drunken stupor. They began pushing the Jeep while the driver spun the wheels, but the vehicle only sank deeper into the sand. The water was now up to the axle. “It was too late to get the other Jeeps to pull it out,” the chief said, “but then we didn’t have any rope anyway. “After that, he threw up his hands in disgust. “Those bloody chink bastards could have helped us. There were enough of them. But they just stood there with stupid looks on their friggin’ faces.” He went on to tell that a couple of sailors grabbed a few Chinese and began punching them, but still they wouldn’t help. In the end they sat on the beach and watched as the sea swallowed up the Navy Jeep.

As Stevenson, Little Lew and I drove back to the university, we wondered what the Navy men would put into their report. “Jeep lost at sea,” Little Lew said and we all laughed.

Being attached to the MPs, I could check out a Jeep from Motor Pool and drive around town at my own leisure. Sometimes, I went a step further and would drive out into the countryside. Little Lew didn’t like these long drives but if Stevenson could get away, he’d go with me. Most often I’d go alone. Out in the country it was fun to put the vehicle into four-wheel drive and cruise along the watersheds of farmers’ fields. After a few trips into the same areas I came to know some of the farmers, and I would park and talk to them. Often they invited me to sit and have tea with them in front of their mud houses and I would break open a pack of Chesterfields or Lucky Strikes and lay out the cigarettes. This was a real treat. The tea, served in bowls, wasn’t very good, but I enjoyed their company. I listened to the tales they had to tell, and they would ask me questions I could not answer. They wanted to know about the communists, but they didn’t call them communists. They called them balu, Chinese for “the Eighth Road.” The new army was coming via the Eighth Road. Soon all you ever heard talked about was the balu. The balu are coming! I picked up a little about the country’s politics while I was at the University of Peking, but it didn’t take a geo-politician to know there were great forces at play in China.

Winter came quickly that fall, like all winters in north China, without warning, and overnight we switched from khaki to greens. The smelly, round kerosene stoves came out from hiding and windowsills became our refrigerators. Terry brought cheer to the troops when he provided a ready supply of whiskey to everyone in his squad bay. Every time he returned from guard duty at the dock, he had two canteens filled with whiskey. He willingly shared his booty with the squad, but he would never tell how he got the whiskey, that is, until he had too much to drink one night, and the guys cajoled him into talking. In one warehouse guarded by the 22nd Marines, he claimed, there was whiskey for the officers’ mess stacked in wooden crates half way up to the ceiling. Terry knew if he busted into a crate there would be an investigation, and the Marines guarding the warehouse would be put on report. But, he concluded, he didn’t have to bust into a crate to get the booze out. At the maintenance shop in our compound, he rummaged around until he found just what he needed-a spike about six inches long. The next time he had guard duty at the docks, he sneaked from the warehouse he was guarding over to the one with the whiskey that the 22rd Marines were guarding. While the sentry did his rounds and walked around to the back of the building, Terry picked the lock and entered. He took one of the crates, tilted it to one side, and with a heavy blow from the butt of his M1 he drove the spike into the crate, breaking a bottle inside. The whiskey ran to one comer, and there Terry held his canteen cup, filling it up and pouring the contents into his two canteens. This went on for about two weeks, until the quartermaster came with trucks and transported the crates, some with broken bottles inside, to the storeroom at the officers’ mess. Terry’s heart broke when this happened, and so did the troops’, but he knew not to attempt to break into the officers’ mess. “That would be thievery,” he said.

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