Day 2 on First Liberty
For those who had gone ashore the night before, the conditioning hike into the hills was sheer agony. Hecklinger suffered the most, and he wouldn’t tell us where he had been. “Always drink upstream from the herd,” he said.
No mercy was shown us that morning. Those who didn’t go on liberty took advantage of the situation. They talked about having greasy porkchops for noon chow when we got back. Marsden, who hadn’t gone on liberty, spoke about a dog he saw that got smashed on the road the day before. “His guts was all over the road,” he emphasized.
“Yeah, and the flies and stink,” Kyle chimed in.
“How in the hell would-you know,” Stevenson barked at Kyle. “You’ve never been out of the sack long enough to know what the road outside looks like.”
“You’re right,” Kyle said. “The only time I want to go out that front gate is when I leave China and go home.”
We all felt sorry for Kyle, and at the same time we hated him. There he was, marching right along with us. Poor Kyle, he had never exercised a day in his life; his arms were skinny as tooth picks and his skin was pasty white. But what was so annoying about him was that the conditioning hike didn’t bother him, not at all. He not only kept up, he was in better shape than most of us.
Our hike took us past the racetrack, beyond the city limits into the hills to a Shinto shrine. The shrine was a tower about 60 feet tall with windows looking out on each floor and had a four-cornered roof with eaves that curled up at the edges. We were too beat to climb the tower and instead sat around in front and rehashed the events that took place the night before. We all agreed we’d go back to the Prime Club again that night.
Stevenson and I went on liberty after lunch. The others slept and we couldn’t get them up. We had no idea where we were going. Rather than take rickshaws into town we decided to walk. It didn’t matter. Two rickshaws followed close at our heels, and in the end I paid them off anyway.
Along the road to the university the bars and restaurants were open and their owners stood out front and called us to enter. The specialty in all the restaurants was the same-steak and eggs. We continued on towards town, trying to understand our new world.
Tsingtao was a hilly town that sloped toward a wide bay. Looking down we could see ships and many hundreds of junks at anchor. We came to a square and at one end stood a big Lutheran Church with twin steeples. Across the square from the church was a row of buildings, and one of them had a hand-drawn picture of a bathtub and shower. Beneath the picture in small letters was the word BATHHOUSE in English. We entered to investigate. We were surprised to find a gigantic pool with warm water that filled the room with steam. We wanted to swim, but first, we learned, we would have to go through a cleansing process. We were each ushered into a little cubicle, whereupon my attendant gave me a towel and hung a wooden tab with Chinese characters on a peg near the door. He bid me to take off my clothes. Reluctantly I stripped down to my skivvy drawers, and he demanded those too. I took the three dollars I had, crumpled them up in my hand and held them tightly. The attendant then took my clothes from the room and pointed to a tub steaming with hot water. The water was so hot I could hardly put in my big toe, but the attendant insisted and pushed me in. He hung another tab on the peg. I could hear the same thing happening to Stevenson on the other side of the wall. He was squealing about the water being too hot.
My attendant washed me down, one arm and one leg at a time, while I held my cupped hand with money over my private parts. Two more attendants appeared, one with a straight razor and soap, the other with a pair of scissors and a nail file. One attendant pushed my head back and began shaving me while I still sat in the tub. He shaved not only my face but my ears as well, even my eyelids and forehead. The other man busied himself cutting my toenails. More tabs went up on the peg. Next came a rubdown like I never had before. Actually, to be honest, it was the first one I ever had. I heard Stevenson moaning, “Oooh, ouch, ahhh.” A boy brought hot tea. More tabs. I was given another towel, with another tab added to the peg. They then led me out to the swimming pool. Stevenson was already in the pool with only his head and toes sticking up above the water. For what seemed like an eternity we basked in the pool, until our flesh crumbled and our faces lost all color. Finally, they asked that we get out of the pool. Back in our cubicles our clothes were hanging, washed and neatly pressed. More tabs had been hung on the peg.
“How much money do you have?” l asked Stevenson. He only had a dollar, and I cringed as we approached the cashier. He got out his abacus and began adding up the bill. It came to $1.27 each. We had enough money left for a bottle of Hubba Hubba at the Prime Club, and a little for our rickshaws, but not enough for dance tickets. But first, feeling on top of the world, we had to check out Ping-Pong Wooley’s, the whore house some called the Thousand Assholes.
The rickshaw boys were still waiting. They beamed when we told them where we wanted to go. I doubt we could ever have found the place on our own. It had a number of entrances but finding them was the secret. The House of Pleasure could also be reached from a number of small bars through hidden runnels and passageways, but you had to know them. The rickshaw drivers deposited us in front of an arched doorway and said they would wait for us here. We looked at each other, Stevenson and me, took a deep breath and entered, like gladiators entering the ring.
We found ourselves in a large courtyard, expecting lions to charge, or at least something to happen. It was quiet for a moment, until a resonant gong sounded, and then like a movie screen bursting into life, a thousand women appeared. The court yard was flanked on all sides by a building four-stories high, and on each level facing the courtyard were long open corridors, and here the women stood, waving and shouting to us. They stood there, every age, in every stage of dress. Moments later sailors and Marines appeared, their women at their sides, only to disappear when they saw it was only two more customers who had arrived.
What do we do now?
The answer came soon enough. A half dozen mamasans appeared, little old shriveled up women, some with bound feet, each grabbing for our arms, beckoning us to follow them. One, more persistent than the others, spoke in broken English. “Come, you lookie see,” she said. “No likie, no money.”
“Right, no money,” Stevenson said and pulled out his empty pockets. He wasn’t lying. He didn’t have any money. I had the money, but the mamasan didn’t know that, and no amount of pleading would convince her otherwise.
“Melican plenty money,” she said and pulled us with her up a pair of steps to the level above. Suddenly a bevy of girls surrounded us. They tugged at our sleeves; they pulled at our coats. We learned quickly not to admire any one girl for then it was much more difficult to refuse them. Eventually the mamasan realized we weren’t serious and demanded that we get out. We left, and said we’d be back.
Our rickshaw drivers were waiting, but when we tried to tell them we would walk, as we had little money, they explained in gestures and arm movements it did not matter. We could pay them later. Okay, okay. They took us to the Prime Club.
Being Saturday night, the Prime Club was even more explosive than before. We found a table, ordered a bottle of Hubba-Hubba and bought a handful of dance tickets. Stevenson used the tickets doing the tango with Judy, a part Japanese girl he met the other night. And the girl that I so admired came to the table while her date went to talk to Marines at another table. “I’m Ming-Lee” she said. I was delighted she remembered me. She suggested I come back during the week, when the club wasn’t so busy. I said I would, but I wasn’t about to get on the Ferris wheel. She was attractive, and had a nice charm, but on a Ferris wheel one can’t always get off.
There was no money for more vodka or dance tickets; reluctantly we had to go back to the base. In the rickshaw I was proud of myself. No way was Ming-Lee going to catch me in a trap. “But then,” I said to myself, “she is lovely.” I soon forgot her when I saw the little boy in the sewer. I wondered what he ate, if he did. Where were his parents?
Sunday was a lazy day. Those who were not on guard could sleep in if they wished. Kyle missed both morning and noon chow. Sammy checked out a Jeep and took eight of us all squeezed together for a ride to the beach area north of town. We passed some beautiful beaches with homes nestled in the hillsides where affluent Chinese lived. In the summer months rich Chinese and many foreigners came by train from as far away as Peking, and from Shanghai by coastal boat. But it was winter now and the hotels and inns were closed, except for a hotel high on a rocky edge of a jutting peninsula. It was an officers’ quarters now, and, of course, out of bounds for enlisted men.
Before turning in that night, Stevenson reminded me Col. Roston wanted to see me at 0800 the following morning. “You have a way of messing up a guy’s perfect day,” I said to him. “Think of Ming-Lee instead,” he said. I thought about Ming-Lee, and about the kid sleeping in the sewer.