Chinese Interpreter in Action
The Chinese foreman came rushing up to us when he saw us coming. He was a shadow of a man, dressed in a long black robe slit up the sides. He wore a felt hat, had a row of gold teeth and carried a slate for jotting down notes. “Ask him if the buildings are empty, and make sure no one is living in them,” Lt. Brandmire said.
“You want to know if the buildings are empty?” I asked. “Yes, I want to know if the buildings are empty,” he said and then abruptly stopped. It seems he suddenly remembered the briefing where Maj. Wallis said it was his duty to gather information about the local military situation. “Find out about security,” he added. “How many National Army troops are guarding the city.” He looked at me with cutting eyes and then at the foreman.
I searched my mind for-words. Troops. Soldiers. Guards. I didn’t remember seeing them or any words like them in my Spoken Chinese book. Not one. “Go ahead, ask him, private,” the lieutenant barked.
In my best Mandarin Chinese I addressed the foreman. “Sir, what is your honorable name?” I said. I remembered clearly, when addressing anyone older than me, I had to call him “honorable.” When referring to my name, I had to say that my “humble” name was so and so.
The foreman smiled and bowed from the waist. He repeated his name in Chinese, which I immediately forgot as soon as he had said it. Chinese names are hard to remember, especially when their last names are really their first names in line.
“What did he say?” Lt. Brandmire asked impatiently. “He said there are many.”
“How many, damn it! Ask him how many!”
“Sir, are you married?” I asked. The foreman looked at me as if I were asking, ‘are there green elephants in Tibet?’ He didn’t reply, only nodded. This wasn’t going to do. I had to get an answer from him. “How many children do you have?” He fired back his answer, so rapidly I couldn’t catch one single word. “What did he say? What did he say?” Lt. Brandmire questioned.
‘Sir, ah, he’s not quite sure,” I answered. “Ah, he will get full report for you later.”
“Very good, very good. How long will it take his men to clean up this place?”
“Honorable, Sir,” I began. “What is the color of your rice bowl?” And to Lt. Brandmire I replied, “They can do it in a couple hours.”
Other questions followed and I was able to learn where the WC was located, and what time the restaurant opened. I even think the old Chinese foreman liked me, although he must have thought I was a bit whacko.
The Seabees and Engineers came to our aid. There was no time to dally around with our quarters. The Chinese coolies were too slow for them. They stormed into the building with sledge hammers, axes and shovels. Opening the double windows wide, they began tossing everything in the classrooms out the windows-glassed-in display cabinets with jars containing strange specimens, weights and scales, vials, glass bottles, books and files with papers, charts and graphs, and anything that moved. Even things that didn’t move and were bolted to the floor, they smashed apart and threw those out the windows too. They then built wooden bunks, two high, and for each room brought in an oval kerosene heater.
A high brick wall surrounded the compound; pieces of glass were embedded into the concrete capping that topped the wall. Over this engineers strung rolls of barbed wire and immediately guards were assigned to patrol the inside of the wall.
We had to pitch our eight-man tents again, but not for long.
In a few short days we of the 29th Marines moved into our new quarters. That first night, when we were still in our tents, chow went early, and as we sat around in front of our tents wondering when we would get our first liberty, Melanowski came running towards us. “You can get laid,” he shouted. “You can get laid right here on base.” He grabbed his wallet from his seabag and ran off with everyone in our squad in close pursuit. I had a hard time keeping up with Stevenson.
At the far end of the compound was a cluster of pine trees matted with thick bushes. It was dark now but there was enough light to see a gang of Marines in a long line. “Get in line,” they shouted as Stevenson and I approached to see what was going on. “A buck, that’s all it costs,” one man said. I recognized the voice, Cpl. Wilson from the Hoopa Indian tribe in northern California.
“Who’s the woman?” Stevenson asked.
“What the hell does that matter,” Cpl. Wilson replied. “Yeah,” said Pfc. Robinson who was near the end of the line, and his second time in line, “what’s the difference. Stand them all upside down and they all look alike.”
“Right,” agreed Hecklinger. “How’s a man gonna find out. Good judgment comes from experience, and a lotta that comes from bad judgment.”
And so a couple dozen Marines from the 29th became indoctrinated. It wasn’t actually a Pearl Buck romance, not what Stevenson and I had in mind when we talked about China aboard the USS Napa. But our time was to come.