First Liberty -Sailors vs Marines
The EM Club was, indeed, an escape from a nightmare world outside into a haven of retreat, a house of fun, but to all who entered, it was also an entrance to a volatile world. Anything could happen, and did happen at the EM Club. There were no women, only service men in uniform. The noise was deafening. The floor vibrated, the walls shook, the ceiling threatened to collapse, and with jabbering, shouting, hard drinking Marines from the 6th Division and sailors from the 7th Fleet, the place was unhinged. There must have been a hundred tables or more, and clustered around them were groups of Marines and sailors, not together but separately. They mocked and sneered at one another, sailors vs. Marines, and any minute threatened to pounce upon the other. The more beer they consumed, the more tense the situation grew. Among this entire melee, waiters carrying trays laden with cans of beer and glasses with harder stuff scurried dutifully among the tables. The waiters accepted willingly, although not gleefully, the jibes and jeers from the carousing band of brothers. At some tables empty beer cans were stacked as high as a Marine or sailor could reach, that is, while standing on a chair attempting to place another can on top. When a mountain of cans toppled over it was mayhem. Dare the man who might deliberately have knocked over a pile of cans. He was sure as hell dead meat.
Behind the bar was a large mural painted across the entire wall. The mural was a masterpiece, the EM Club’s piece de resistance. It depicted various scenes common to China and to seafaring men. One scene showed King Neptune in pursuit of a beautifully endowed mermaid. He chased her at high speed, leaving a large foaming wake behind him, his long white beard streaming in the wind. He had a wild lustful gleam in his eye and there was no doubt what his intent was if he caught her. Behind him came Queen Neptune. She was in full pursuit of the King, leaving a large wake behind her too. She was terribly ugly, having a long nose with a large wart on the end of it. Her bare breasts were long and stringy like an old woman’s. One long tit was thrown back over the top of one shoulder. The other tit trailed in the breeze under her other arm. Her eyes were shooting sparks and fire. It was quite apparent she was mad as hell. The mural had a drunken mouse on it and the custom was for new guys to find the mouse. If they couldn’t find it, they had to buy a round. The more drinks they consumed, the harder it was to find the mouse for he was hidden behind a table leg lapping up spilt liquor. It was apparent the mouse was very drunk. It was really quite a work of art and very funny. ·
We found a table, marked out our territory and began swilling down cans of beer at ten cents a can. Hecklinger bought a box of Havanas, and soon we puffed on cigars, leaned back and boasted about what a great life we had. Stevenson arrived an hour later, all smiles, wearing his barracks hat, and immediately challenged everyone at the table to see who could chug-alug a beer faster than he could. He easily won the first round since most of us had our fill and were drunk by then. A swabbie at the next table made a remark about Stevenson’s hat, a most sensitive thing to do. Chandler defended his buddy, fists began flying and the machine gun squad of 2nd Platoon, Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 29th Marines, was kicked out and banned from the EM Club on their first liberty ashore in Tsingtao.
“Never mind,” shouted Smitty out in the street. He had his sleeves rolled up, and the Hawaiian girl tattooed on his left forearm seemed to dance in agreement. “Hey, boys,” he stammered, gyrating from side to side, “we go dancing, you know, dance.” He held his arms stretched out, like he was holding his dance partner. “Go dance, drink, you know, whiskey.” He puffed his chest, tilted his head back and smacked his lips, pretending he was kissing a woman. Terry turned his back and would have pulled down his trousers and drawers to expose his butt if we hadn’t pushed him away, with Smitty attempting to plant a foot in his rear. It was all worth a laugh.
Agreed, we’d go to the Prime Club, all except Hecklinger. He wanted to strike out on his own. “If you’re ridin’ ahead of the herd,” he said, staggering from one side to the next, “take a look back every now and then to make sure it’s still there with ya. I’ll find ya’all when I look fur ya’all.”
We called rickshaws and instructed the drivers in our newly acquired pidgin English-“You take us chop chop Prime Club lookie see.” The lead rickshaw boy said he knew the place, but we had doubts as our convoy shot through crowded streets and into back alleys, avoiding the main traffic route. The driver knew his business. A block before we reached the club we could hear the noise, a boisterous mixture of shouting, merry making and music. Feeling our liquor and in a jubilant mood, we gave the rickshaw boys more than they agreed to; they still complained and ran after us as we charged up the stone steps to the Prime Club.
The club was jam-packed and about ready to burst at the seams. It was marvelous. Dance music came from a four-piece band assembled upon a raised platform at the far end of the room. Behind them hung the sign THE TSINGTAO CHARIOTS. They were a comical lot, more like characters in a comic strip than a real live band. They wore Western suit coats and long trousers. The coats were ill fitting and the trousers hardly reached down to their shoes. One man was perched on a three-legged stool in front of an upright piano, and another sat half-hidden behind a set of battered drums. A saxophonist and an accordionist stood in front of a microphone. They were playing “Golden Earring” when we entered, not like Benny Goodman on sax and Gene Krupa on drums but their music was good enough to fill the dance floor with Gls swooning over their taxi-dancer partners. The music ended, Marines and sailors returned to their tables and the girls went back either to the tables where they had been sitting or else to their chairs along the wall. With only a brief delay, the band took up the beat and began playing “Give Me Five Minutes More,” or what sounded like “Give Me Five Minutes More.” The Prime Club was a rectangular room about the size of a basketball court. The dance floor was in the very center of the room. Tables three deep flanked the dance floor on three sides. The remaining side was lined with straight-back chairs. Here the taxi dancers sat. They were a pathetic-looking bunch of women and one felt pity for them. They tried to look their best, but sadly they had little to work with. Their dresses were motley, some Chinese, some Western. They were certainly more attractive in their Chinese clothes than they were when they wore Western costumes. Somehow they didn’t look right in ilk dresses with ribbons and bows their tailors made for them from pictures in the Sears & Roebuck catalogs dating back to the 1920’s. When it came to their attempting to wear high-heel shoes, which very few women had, they were a catastrophe. Surprisingly, no one laughed at them; GIs treated them as ladies, and in most cases the guys were proud, and protective, of their women.
However, these women were very clever. They didn’t miss a clue. They saw us coming, and smiled beguilingly and ogled any of us who happened to look in their direction. We had to grab Smitty by the shirt to hold him back when he saw the line up. Scotty and Chandler weren’t much better.
We looked for a table but all were taken. The room was heavy with smoke and the air charged with high-powered excitement. Through the smoke we had a difficult time telling if a dancer across the way was pretty or if she was pockmarked. Things were in a blur, Iike photographs out of focus. I attributed the blur to the smoke but most likely it was due to our consumption of booze. We did a lot of stumbling, and we felt we could lick any swabbie in the joint.
We stood at the bar, waiting, and when a table was free we rushed in to grab it, outmaneuvering a couple of sailors who thought twice about arguing. A bow-tied waiter in a white apron brought us two extra chairs and took our order. We had several choices of whiskey, all certified to be tested as safe to drink, but we settled on local Tsingtao beer, which the waiter called pijiu, and Hubba-Hubba vodka, which we had heard was the safest booze to drink. We ordered pijiu for everyone and two bottles of Hubba-Hubba. When the order came we poured out a peg of Hubba-Hubba for each of us and attempted to down them straight. We couldn’t stop the embarrassing tears that came to our eyes. The rotgut vodka numbed our tongues and burnt all the way to the bottom. We agreed it was fine stuff and ordered lime soda mix for the next round, with ice, but the waiter said they didn’t have ice. The band now began playing its rendition of “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” and made it sound like a polka. Smitty found a girl he fancied and asked her to dance but discovered he first needed a ticket to dance. The dancer led him to a booth near the entrance. Ten-cents a ticket to dance, or 50 cents per hour for a lady to sit at a table. lf you paid for a girl for an hour, you could dance as much as you liked, or you could spend the time talking. The girls also ordered their own drinks. We paid for the price of whiskey but figured it was only tea, but we weren’t allowed to taste.
The crowd became unruly, the music louder and the women more aggressive. They no longer sat at their chairs but now wandered among the tables, running their fingers through a man’s hair. They asked to sit at tables, and if rejected, they stormed off mumbling “Cheap Charley.” Disagreements over the women began to break out. Men sized up one another. Tensions were building.
Scotty brought a girl to the table. She was part Korean and spoke barroom English. She was quick to reprimand him when he admired a girl at another table.
“What’s with you?” Scotty asked. “You can look around and I can’t.”
“Me no likee man him butterfly,” she admonished him. “When girl sit your table, and you pay money, no one can come talk her. No dance with her. You furstay?
“I furstay,” he said, “but me no likee. Me have one girl friend, okay. You have many boy friend, that okay.”
“Now you furstay. You only one girl fiend. Me. You smart man,” she said and they got up to dance.
At a few tables away there was a ruckus between two Marines from Baker Company. The shorter of the two men grabbed an empty Hubba-Hubba, knocking over the drinks on the table as he stood up, and was about to swing it at the other Marine. The Marine squared off with both fists. All hell was about to erupt. The band took the cue and began playing The Girl that I Marry” as loud as they could. At that moment the girl sitting with them rose to her feet and stood between them. We couldn’t quite make out what she was saying but it was obvious the Marine with the bottle had paid time for her and the other one butted in. I couldn’t take my eyes from the woman. She was lovely, not beautiful, but striking.
I thought for sure she was going to get slugged, and having just enough vodka in me, I rushed over to their table. I was unaware that all my buddies from the machinegun squad, five of them, had followed behind me.
“We’re okay, okay,” the woman said. She spoke with a light English accent, not fractured English like most of the bargirls there spoke. As rapidly as the argument began, it ended. The woman bad everything under her control.
“A real pro,” Terry muttered when we sat down. We ordered more vodka and bought tickets to dance. There was more to pick from when you weren’t saddled with a girl at your table. I danced with a few girls but I couldn’t take my eyes from the one at the next table, the girl who prevented the fight. She was tall for Chinese, and slight of figure. It was her smile that was so beguiling. She had two dimples. I was tempted to ask her to dance but it was obvious she had been bought for the night. She was aware that I was watching her.
Two more fights broke out that night; each time, the band played louder. The last fight became a free-for-all and the Shore Patrol was called. Word got around the paddy wagon was coming. Everyone rushed back to their tables, straightened their chairs and tried to cover up their torn shirts, black eyes and broken teeth. We appeared to all outsiders like a loving bunch of babes in arms when the SP’s arrived. Nevertheless they stood around, and a half-hour before curfew they ushered us out to our waiting rickshaws.
The girls waved us good-bye and asked that we come again, which each of us promised we would do. But love stopped at the door. Taxi dancers in the clubs were not permitted to leave the premises. There was no need to explain to the rickshaw boys where to take us. They knew exactly. They dropped us at the main gate, but shortly before we arrived there, we all became disturbed by something we saw. A young Chinese boy, perhaps seven or eight, was asleep in a sewer pipe. When he heard our singing, he stuck his little head out from the sewer and with sad eyes watched us go by. The sight of him stopped us all from singing. We went through the gate in silence. Our defense was not to make comments. We pretended we didn’t see him.