New Chinese Teacher‘s Philosophy
Existentialism, Kierkegaard, Jean-Paul Sartre. The names were swimming in my head when I got back to the Strand and I couldn’t wait until I could tell the others about my night at the Djungs. Marsden, Pappy Preston, Melanowski, and Chandler were all huddled around the kerosene stove, warming their hands. Pappy Preston had the floor. “When I get back to the States,” he was telling the others, “I’m going to make it up to my wife; I’m going to make it up for all the time we lost not being in the sack together.”
“You can never make it up,” Marsden said. “A piece of ass lost is a piece of ass gone forever.”
“Why can’t you make up for it?” Melanowski asked. “Because you should be getting it anyway, as much as you can, without thinking of making it up,” replied Marsden. Seeing me there, he said, “Come on, Stephens, sit down. What do you think?”
There was no use telling him about Kierkegaard, whoever the guy was. Nor would I even dare mention him. “I think you’re all full of crap,” I said and felt better.
Marsden slapped me on the back. “You’re okay, kid,” he said, trying to be nice. We had a run in that morning and he knew I was still holding a grudge. I didn’t feel like shaving and thought I could get away with it. None of us had much of a beard. The oldest Marine in our bay was nineteen. Pappy was 29, an old man by Marine standards, but he was only visiting our bay so he didn’t count. I thought I could get away with it, and I felt good about it for Lt. Brandmire didn’t notice during morning inspection. But Marsden did. He tore into me when we got back to the squad bay.
“You’ll shave now,” Marsden demanded.
“Okay,” I retorted, somewhat of a smart aleck. “I’ll shave.” “Dry shave,” Marsden said.
“Okay, dry shave,” I replied, still with a smirk on my face. What was the difference? I remembered my first home leave after boot camp, and the pride I had that I shaved now. My father looked at me. “Put some milk on your chin and let the cat lick it off. That’s all the shave you need.”
Marsden detected the smile on my face. “You’ll shave lying under your bunk, and don’t come out until you look like a proper Marine.” The others stopped stowing their gear and looked toward me for my response. “You have your choice. Shave or no liberty for a week.”
Marsden didn’t need to make threats. He had his own way of settling accounts. I did as he said. I shaved, without soap or water, lying tightly squeezed under my bunk. I knew I would never appear again at roll call unshaven. It wasn’t the agony of dry shaving that bothered me; it was the feeling of losing favor with Marsden. We all respected that guy. It goes back to Okinawa, and even before that.
Marsden went though some heavy battles in the Pacific; he had enough points to go home but he was needed to help get the troops into China and settled. He volunteered to extend for a few months. We knew he wanted to get back to his wife. He carried her photograph around with him in his wallet. She was a big woman, dark, Italian looking. She had plain features with her hair combed straight back. Marsden was proud of her, and to him she was beautiful. He had another photograph of her with their two sons. He showed the photograph whenever he could.
He wasn’t a braggart. He was what you call “calm and collected.” We were on the southern tip of Okinawa, bedded down in foxholes preparing for the final mopping up operations. Japanese soldiers and civilians escaping from caves attempted to filter through our lines. No one knew for sure if they were attempting to surrender or were coming to locate and report our positions. It was night and Chandler was on watch. We heard him slide back the bolt on his Ml and slip a cartridge into the chamber. Then he called out, “Halt, who goes there!” A moment of silence and Chandler called again, “Give the password!”
We were all awake now, waiting. Marsden leaned far out over his foxhole, and in the soft light of night we saw him take careful aim. He squeezed off one round, took aim again, and fired a second round. Then came silence. Not a sound was heard. The next morning, not more than fifty yards away, only a few feet from foxholes where the Second Rifle Squad was dug in, two Japanese soldiers lay dead, both shot through the head. They had died instantly, before they could lob their potato mashers into the foxholes. Marsden made no comment, except to call out to the squad leader to throw some dirt over the bodies to keep the flies from carrying them off. Heavy fire kept Fox Company from advancing that day, and by the next morning the dirt over one body was piled a couple of feet high, to keep the flies away and the smell down.
No, Marsden was not a braggart, but he did demand respect from his men. He got what he demanded.
Mail call that same morning put us all into a happy mood. Melanowski produced a newspaper clipping stating that Ben Hogan continued to dominate the world of professional golf. “Now hear this,” he said, waving the clipping above his head, and began reading it aloud again. “As the year’s top money winner, he takes home $42,556.36.” There followed sighs and whoops from everyone.
Other information followed. A horse named Assault, with a clubfoot, finished first in the Belmont Stakes in June, becoming only the seventh horse in history to win the Triple Crown. There were hoots and boos, and money to be bet, when Smitty announced the St. Louis Cardinals and the Brooklyn Dodgers were deadlocked with identical records.
“The Cardinals won two straight games in the National League playoff,” he shouted. “And they went on to defeat the Boston Red Sox, four games to three, in the World Series.”
Everyone listened when Hecklinger read aloud about a star movie performance by Harold Russell, a veteran who actually lost his hands in the war that eventually won him a special Oscar. He then read about another movie that got everyone thinking, a drama about three veterans home from the war trying to adjust to civilian life. “It’s called, ‘The Best Years of Our Lives,”‘ he said.
“What best years,” Melanowski said. “Not here in China.” “When you get back home, stupid,” Terry sounded off and an argument started.
It was April and spring was beginning to show its face. Conditions in Tsingtao were improving and life for the Chinese was getting better. All the privates in Fox Company made Private First Class, or PFC. Some PFCs were promoted to corporal. The guys gave me a surprise when they sewed my Pfc. chevrons on my green skivvy shirt. With good weather we no longer minded our conditioning hikes into the hills north of the city, and on Sundays when we were not on guard duty we took long walks, some into the countryside. When the 7th Fleet came to Tsingtao, that was something else. The town became undone at the seams. We were advised to stay in our quarters but we didn’t want to miss the fun. Merchants pulled down WELCOME MARINES signs and put up WELCOME US NAVY signs. You could be certain prices would go up. We had two currencies, FRB, the provincial currency, and CNC, the Chinese National Currency. FRB was around 900 to one dollar. That was on the weekends. It was less during the week. It climbed to 2900 when the fleet was in. American dollars could always be used.
Roger continued to be a good friend and he was helpful when I wanted to get Ming-Lee out of the Prime Club. He brought Ming-Lee and Judy to the New Year’s dance at the university for Stevenson and me, or we would never have been able to get them out. When the weather was good and Sammy was free, we’d make long drives into the countryside. The guys didn’t like Roger hanging around so I had to make excuses to him and then meet him somewhere in town. They called him a freeloader, which in part was true. He drank with us and he ate with us, and he would grab a dance ticket from the table any time he wanted one, but he never offered to pay. I didn’t mind. Roger was good company. Through him I was beginning to learn something about China. Like most of the guys, I knew nothing about the country before we came, neither its history nor its politics. We had no idea about the forces at play. All we knew was that we had to stand guard duty. What was happening behind the scenes was far beyond our comprehension. Even the very name communist-we had no idea what it stood for, except, they said, it was. something bad, some kind of evil force. We may not have known what was going on, but we couldn’t stop feeling that something was wrong. There were times when we drove through the countryside, and after meeting and talking to the people, we could feel a gloom that was unexplainable.