Learning Chinese with Missionaries
A few minutes before 0800, my hat in my hand, I was standing in front of Stevenson’s desk at Fox Company Headquarters. He was waiting for me.
Whittington was sprawled out on a bench at one side, reading a much-worn copy of Esquire. He always had some smart remark to make but this morning he was quiet. I wondered if he knew something that I didn’t. “You had better go right in,” Stevenson said. “The Old Man is waiting for you.” He knocked lightly on the door, opened it and announced to Col. Roston that I was there. He then stepped aside to let me pass. Once inside the office, I stood at attention, prepared for the worst but it didn’t make it any easier. I felt like l had a .45 cocked and pointed at my chest.
All kinds of thoughts danced through my head, but none were even close to what Col. Roston had to say. “At ease, Stephens,” he said, looking up from his desk. The .45 misfired. This was a good sign. He always had the troops stand at attention when he saw them in his office. But then, I thought, it could be bad news and he was being easy on me. If that were the case, something drastic must have happened back home. He would be sending me back State side. I didn’t want that. I wanted to stay in China. Someone cocked the .45 again. “There’s a missionary lady here,” he began, choosing his words carefully. “She’s British, and I feel, rather we feel, kind of sorry for them. For seven years, Mrs. Murray, her husband and their kids were in a Jap concentration camp. The youngest was born in camp.” He leaned back in his swivel chair, almost tipping over backwards. What did this have to do with me? Then the thought came to me. That was it, certainly! I had joked with the guys that I came from a missionary family. There had to be a connection. Col. Roston had it all wrong. I didn’t know any missionaries. I had never even met a missionary. I had no idea what a missionary even looked like. How was I going to explain this now? “Mrs. Murray, that’s her name,” he continued, “she contacted Fleet Headquarters. She wants to offer her services as a teacher, to teach Chinese.”
I wasn’t aware of it, but I might have even smiled. I wasn’t going State side. The .45 was uncocked and was put back in its holster. Col. Roston had something else in mind.
“She teaches Chinese,” I said, not quite knowing where this was going to lead, but I felt I had to say something.
“Yes, teaches Chinese,” he replied. “I’m relieving you of all your duties. You will continue with your study of Chinese, starting this afternoon. You will study at the Murray home, at their request, and Motor Pool will provide transportation. Your expenses will be paid out of Company funds. Mrs. Murray will report to us your progress. Any questions?”
“No, Sir,” l replied. I wanted to thank him but I thought it best not to, mostly because I didn’t know how to thank him. “You lucky bastard,” Stevenson said when I came out of the office. The door to the colonel’s office had been ajar and he and Whittington eavesdropped on our whole conversation. “Now you can really find out what those girls down at the Prime Club are saying.”
“Who’s the brown-noser now?” Whittington asked.
The Murrays lived in a residential area out near the racetrack. It was wooded with tall pines that hummed in the wind as we drove by in the Jeep. Sammy knew the area, as one of the staff officers moved into a house there, and he had no difficulty locating the Murray place. He offered to pick me up in a couple of hours but I said I’d find my way back. With an open-gate pass I wasn’t worried about being picked up by the MPs during non-liberty hours. Earlier that morning I thought I was going to be court-martialed and now I was as free as the wind in the trees above. I was floating. I thanked Sammy, walked up the steps to the house and was about to knock on the door, and stopped short. How our moods can change. I suddenly felt uneasy. Uncertain. When the door opened, what would I discover on the other side? I was soon to find out. A young girl of about six or seven opened the door. She stood there, looking at me, saying nothing.
“Who is it, dear,” a voice from far inside said and presently an elderly lady appeared. She hastily introduced the young girl, Sally, her daughter and promptly sent her way.
“I’m Mrs. Murray,” she said and bid me to come in. Some quick calculations and I placed her to be about 50 years old. It was very hard to tell though. She could have been much younger. She was dressed all in black-the shawl around her shoulders, her dress, her stockings, her shoes. She was very skinny. Her eyes were deep and hollow, with dark shadows beneath. The most prominent feature about her was her lower jaw. It jutted far out. When she spoke, I could see her teeth were very bad.
“Come into the drawing room,” she said. “You must be my new student.” I acknowledged that I was and followed her into a study with books on one wall and large bay windows facing the ocean on the other side. A table with a lace tablecloth was set in front of the windows, and upon it were books, writing tablets and pencils. Mrs. Murray was ready for business. I realized at that moment I hadn’t brought any study material with me, not even a pencil. “Do sit down,” she said and pointed to a chair at the table. Her accent was very proper English. She spoke like one of those British actors you see in the movies.
I was fascinated by the way she talked.
Awkwardly I took a seat. “You are American,” she said. “We had a few Americans in camp.” She hesitated as though she had said something wrong. “Your colonel must have told you, we were prisoners under the Japanese.” I nodded. “Your colonel is such a delightful man.” She waited for me to say something, and then continued. “How long have you been in the army?”
“Ma’am, I’m not in the army.”
“But you are a soldier.”
“No, ma’am, I am a Marine, United States Marines, ma’am. I am in the Marine Corps.”
“My, my, my,” she said. “I thought all boys in uniform were the same.” I was aware someone entered the room from behind. Mrs. Murray glanced in that direction. “Oh, my, you must meet Mr. Murray,” she said. I turned to see an elderly gentleman standing there. He was stooped and quite frail. He needed the use of a cane to support himself. He advanced slowly, reached out and we shook hands. I was used to firm handshakes, not one like this. I thought his hand might break. I quickly withdrew my hand. He sat down in a high-back chair with the utmost discomfort. Then he gave a deep sigh, and with his cane between his knees, he rested his two trembling hands on the curved handle.
The Atrocities of War
“I hope I didn’t interrupt anything,” he said. He spoke softly and it took an effort to understand him.
“Not at all, dear,” Mrs. Murray said. “We are just getting acquainted. “Mr. Stephens tells me he’s a Marine and not a soldier.”
She called me mister. No one had ever called me mister before.
“Of course, of course,” he said. “They were American Marines who rescued us from camp. We were very lucky. You fellows arrived before the Russians. Had the Russians been first, or Mao’s forces, we would not be sitting here now.”
I asked what outfit had rescued them. Mr. Murray didn’t know names of outfits but he did go into great detail about what had happened. He repeated several times that he was grateful to the Marines. “Eight years is a long time.” He interrupted our conversation for a moment and asked a servant to bring us tea. “The world has completely changed,” he continued. “China is not the same, and never will be.” He spoke almost in a whisper and had to stop often to catch his breath. The anguish of those long years in prison showed on his face.
“Now, now, Henry,” Mrs. Murray interrupted, “you mustn’t upset yourself.” Turning to me, she said, “Mr. Murray is under doctor’s care. He must take it easy.” With that Mrs. Murray helped her husband to his feet and led him to a more comfortable seat on the sofa. Tea was served on the coffee table in front of the sofa.
“You do drink tea?” Mrs. Murray said. “I know Americans drink coffee but we English must have our afternoon tea.”
We spent the next hour at small talk. The Murrays wanted to know where I was born and about my home. We discussed briefly my studies, and Mrs. Murray reminded me we would begin lessons the next day at 1400. I would be the only student but there may be others later. She had a Chinese-English dictionary but she suggested that I get one of my own. If the PX, which she called the army store, didn’t have one for sale there would probably be a shop or two in town that did. Our meeting over, we said our good-byes and I left the Murrays sitting in the front room. I was happy to walk through the woods and listen to the wind in the pines again.
By the end of the week, my studies with Mrs. Murray became a matter of routine. I would arrive every afternoon at 1400 and study until 1600. It wasn’t all studies, however. We took the time to talk about many things and I came to know much more about the Murrays. She had fascinating tales of old China to tell. She was a marvelous storyteller. “There was so much to do here in China,” she said. “And we were needed.” They settled in Cheefoo and traveled throughout north China before the war. The Japanese invaded in 1938 and their world was turned topsy-turvy. Their first daughter Clara had been born in 1927.
Although she lived with them now in their big house, she stayed pretty much on her own and remained out of sight. Once I got a fleeting glimpse of her when the Murrays invited me to dinner one evening. It was only a glance for she darted back into her room, thinking I had gone. I could sense that something was wrong but I could not quite put my finger on it. I was sure in time I would find out. I didn’t want to ask.