THAT WHITE RUSSIAN WOMAN
At school the next day I passed word around that the Marines from George Company were having a picnic Sunday at the Great Wall, and anyone who wanted to go was invited. No one accepted the offer. I had a feeling a few of the girls might have wanted to go, but custom kept them from accepting. It wouldn’t be proper for a Chinese girl from a good university to be seen driving around in an open vehicle with a bunch of foreign men, especially Marines. They all knew and envied the foreign community with their fine parties at the embassies and legations, the parties where everyone dressed in their best and danced the night through to the music of 15-piece orchestras. They knew about the champagne that flowed and the gourmet food that was served, and they longed to be part of the fun, but they could not accept any invitations. I hated to disappoint the gunny. I had the feeling he only invited me because I knew a lot of female students at the university, but it did little good by my “just” knowing them. I was feeling rather glum, sitting at my desk in class with my nose in my books when a hand tapped me on the shoulder. “I would like to go,” the voice said. I looked up and couldn’t believe my eyes. My pulse missed a couple beats. It was the Russian girl. “I would like to go,” she repeated, “if you still have room.”
I had planned exactly what I would say to her if we met. I would be suave, charming in every way, and I would say clever things that would make her laugh, and she would tell me that I was very amusing, not at all like the other men she knew in Peking. What came from my lips was nothing like this. “Yea, sure,” I grunted, “Yea, I guess we have room.” I mumbled. When she wanted to know where we should meet, I said we would meet her in front of the university Sunday morning at eight. She thanked me, and then lingered for a moment. I was numb for words. She said good-bye and left. I wanted to yell after her as she was leaving the room, to say something nice, but it was too late. I cursed myself. I could face a banzai charge but not a pretty girl. Thank goodness none of the guys were around.
I didn’t see her in class the rest of the week and wondered if she would even turn up on Sunday. I went to George Company to check in on Saturday morning and there they were, Melanowski and Gilbert. “Boy, am I glad to see you guys,” I said. I mentioned the coming picnic and Gilbert was keen on going but Melanowski had other plans.
“I heard about your plans,” I said. “You’ve got a girl.”
“Yea, and I don’t want any shit from you,” he said, and without waiting for my response he continued his tirade. “I wanta marry her. So don’t give me any crap, not from you nor from nobody. I wanna marry her.”
“Hey, buddy, hold on,” I said and backed off. He was hot under the collar and with his temper there was no telling what he might do. I got him off to the side, away from the Company office. He was talking loud and didn’t care who heard him. “Hey, Ski, this is me, remember, your buddy,” I began. “Now what are you talking about? Do you know?”
“Hell yea, I know what I am talking about. What do you think, that I’m crazy too?”
“I don’t think anything like that, and you know it. But you can’t get married when you are in the Marine Corps and you know that.”
“I’m getting out,” he said.
“You can’t get out. You know damn well you can’t get a discharge here. You have to go back to the States for that.”
“Who said anything about a discharge?”
“What are you talking about? If it’s what I’m thinking, I don’t even want to hear it.”
“Well, I’ll tell you anyway. I’m getting out and I’m going to marry that girl.”
“You are saying you’ll desert.” “Call it anything you want.” “They can shoot you for that.” “They have to catch me first.”
He was far worse than I had thought. It was impossible to reason with him in his present state of mind. The best I could do was listen to him. He explained the girl that he was in love with was half-French and half-Chinese. She started working for Mamma Georgia six months before Melanowski met her. He wanted me to meet her and to talk to Mamma Georgia. He wanted to take me there right away. I agreed, but first I had to find the gunny and tell him we had to pick up someone at the university at eight the next morning. “A great looking Russian girl,” I boasted. He beamed. I then set out with Melanowski to Mamma Georgia’s place.
After we were away from headquarters and walking for a few minutes, I attempted to appeal to his senses once again. “Look, she’s different I told you,” he quickly said.
“For gawd’s sake, Ski, how many times have I heard that, ‘she’s different.’ They are all different.” I expected him to fire back at me in a tirade of four-letter words, but he didn’t. The fact that he didn’t made me realize something was not the same. Melanowski was one guy who couldn’t speak without using the four-letter “F” word. It was his vocabulary, his seven parts of speech; it was his nouns and his pronouns, his adjectives and his adverbs. He interjected his thoughts with the “F” word. Had he been a religious man, he could not have said his prayers without using the “F” word.
As we walked along toward Mamma Georgia’s, every now and then I’d glance over at him. I couldn’t help it but I felt sorry for him. It was that same kind of pathetic sorrow you felt when a favorite hunting dog gets lame and you know he wouldn’t get better. Melanowski should be back in Minnesota, I thought, and not in a back alley in Peking. He was a mill worker, not a pursuer of Chinese women 12,000 miles away from the mills. He was out of place, a big clumsy kid, with big hands and big feet. His father had emigrated from Poland and settled in Minnesota. Like his father, he was a steelworker. His idea of success was overtime at the mill. To be prosperous meant to have a potbelly. He didn’t mind the Polack jokes tossed his way. You might say, he even encouraged them. The jokes made him the center of attention, which he liked. Everyone riffled him, and ridiculed him, and yet they all liked him at the same time. Finally, I asked him, “Who’s this Mamma George?”
“Hey,” he said, stopped and placed a hand on my shoulder.
“You’ll like her.”
“No, why should I know her?”
“Holy bell,” he said. “I thought everyone knowed Mamma Georgia.” It took him a bit of hemming and hawing but he finally told me about Mamma Georgia. I was dumbfounded. Shocked, in fact. Mamma Georgia was a black woman, and she ran a whorehouse. Before he told me who she was, I thought she might be a dance hall owner or maybe a barkeeper, but not the madam of a whorehouse. And who was this girl he was in love with? Certainly not her partner. I wished I hadn’t agreed to go with him to meet her.
He tried to explain the best he could, in the mildest manner possible, all about Mamma Georgia. He said she had been a nanny for the two daughters of Col. Willard Scott and his wife Beatrice. The Scotts arrived in China just before the outbreak of the Boxer Rebellion in 1908. I read all about the Boxer Rebellion in the book I got at the library on Guam. Around the turn of the century, Tsu Hsi, the Empress Dowager of the Ch’ing Dynasty, was hoping to close China to foreigners. America wanted an “Open Door” policy in China that would guarantee equal trading rights for all and prevent one nation from discriminating against another within its sphere. A secret society, which foreigners called “Boxers,” refused to~ cooperate and in the early months of 1900, thousands of Boxers roamed the countryside. They attacked Christian missions, slaughtering foreign missionaries and Chinese converts. Then they moved toward the cities, attracting more and more followers as they came.
In Peking, foreign diplomats, their families and staff, lived in a compound just outside the Forbidden City’s walls in the heart of the city. Working together, they threw up hasty defenses, and with a small force of military personnel, they faced some 20,000 Boxers on a rampage. For almost two months, the foreigners withstood fierce attacks and bombardment. Things began to look hopeless. Seventy-six defenders lay dead, and many more were wounded. Ammunition, food, and medical supplies were almost gone.
An international relief force of soldiers and sailors from eight countries was summoned but they did little good. The United States, eager to rescue its ministers and American personnel, sent a contingent of 2,500 US Marines to the rescue. The Marines landed at Tientsin and fought their way to Peking and defeated the Boxers. Col. Scott, his wife and daughters, and their black nanny from Georgia, where among those whom the Marines saved. Evidently Mrs. Scott was a gregarious Southern woman who spent her time socializing, and in the restricted society that Peking had to offer, this meant endless hours at the officers’ club with the other officers’ wives. And like most of the other women, she was heavy on the bottle. Taking pride in being from the state of Georgia, she favored Mint Juleps. As a result of her socializing, she, of course, neglected her home life, but Mamma Georgia took care of things at home, plus a few other things. That’s about all that Melanowski knew. “If you want to know more, you’ll have to ask her yourself,” he said. I doubted she would ever tell me the complete story, but I thought I would try. It had to be interesting.