Losing Face or Honor?
The word face is misleading, and I soon learned very few of us Westerners fully comprehend its meaning. When the Chinese speak of face, it’s not “faces” they mean. They are concerned with a psychological and not a physiological entity. We can all admire a pretty Oriental face, with those beautiful almond eyes, but it’s their physiological face that we have a hard time understanding. Marines have face, but it’s not quite the same. Many men who lost their lives in battle on Okinawa lost their lives because they didn’t want to lose face in front of their buddies. They charged machinegun nests, not because they wanted to be heroes, but because they wanted to prove to their buddies they weren’t afraid. It’s more of a question of honor. The man who is slapped in the face and does not offer a challenge to a duel is losing “honor,” but in the Chinese sense he is not losing “face.” On the other hand, the unruly son of a Chinese general who goes to a Sing-Song cabaret and is insulted by a singer, and returns to order the arrest of the Sing-Song girl, then has the cabaret closed down, is getting “face,” but we would hardly say that he is gaining “honor.”
Marines want to be heroes, but only among their buddies. They come back from liberty, bragging that they beat up a couple swabbies, or they decked a queer who looked at them sideways. Maybe they say they met this big-titted blonde driving a convertible who stopped to pick them up and she had a case of booze in the trunk, and they went to her place and screwed all night. They wouldn’t dare say they went to Hollywood and had coffee and donuts at the USO and waited
a couple hours to make a free call home. They talked about their girls back home, but that was different. No one ever dared belittle another guy’s girl back home, not even in jest. And a Marine never admitted to the weakness of love. How do I explain this to Roger? “Yea, Roger, you’re right,” I said. “Me likie Ming-Lee.”
Love for China Marines came at a price. Jerry Ruker was in love, and he was a decent fellow. He could get away with things no one else could. Officers and staff NCOs had room boys and barbers come to their quarters. Ruker was the only non-NCO who had a private barber come to his room at the Strand every morning, just a few minutes before reveille. He had his own private rickshaw boy wait for him at the gate. He sent out his shoes to have them polished, and he had a private tailor who not only kept his uniforms trim but also tailored his shirts and even his skivvies as well. For some reason the other Marines respected his ways and he was not the subject of their wrath of jokes. In a way, he was everyone’s hero.
At the Prime Club, Ruker was King. He drank good Kentucky Bourbon. He was the only guy I knew who had his own private stash, a bottle the bartender kept behind the bar for him. And women adored Ruker. He was a gentleman to them all, and to Jenny he was a saint. If ever a code of chivalry existed in the Orient, it was displayed when Ruker was with his girl. Had he been able to walk the street with her, and come to a puddle of water, you could be sure he’d take off his field jacket and throw it down for her to walk upon. But then you never walked with your Chinese girl in public.
Ruker and Jenny were in love, and anyone would know there was something special between them when he entered the Prime Club. The instant Jenny saw him, no matter who she was with or what she was doing, she dropped everything and went running toward him with her arms open, and he picked her up and swung her around the room with her feet a yard above the floor. He may have been troubled when he saw her sitting with paying customers, but he never let on that it bothered him. He smiled through it all. It wasn’t an easy thing to do. We all wished we had enough money to have the girl we liked sit with us all night, but no one had that much money, except maybe a couple high-rolling blackmarketeers and the White Russian con artists. The women were marvelous in pacifying their boyfriends.
For a West Virginia backwoods boy, Ruker was a magnificent dancer, and he taught Jenny everything he knew. When the two of them did the tango, everyone on the dance floor stopped to watch them. He was always jolly and happy, and he made those with him feel the same. “Oh, I love this country,” he would say, and then add: “The women too, of course.” He did have his competition though. Billy Stompano, an Italian pretty-boy from LA was one. He wore his uniform like a zoot-suiter did. When he got into a club, he took off his tie and unbuttoned his shirt down to the waist. He had a heavy gold cross on a gold chain hanging around his nee~. He carried a comb in his back pocket and was forever combing his hair. No one liked Stompano, but they did like Ruker.
Ruker was the only guy I knew who slept with a girl from the Prime Club. I refused to believe it when I first heard it, but in private he confirmed that he was living with Jenny, The management had fixed up a spare room for him and Jenny above the club and he had moved in with everything but his sea bag. He spent several nights a week with her in their love nest, as he called it. It was almost like they were married. It was clever how he did it. Had he been a civilian and put his mind to business, he would have been a millionaire. At the Strand he managed to get assigned as laundry clerk. He had a room on the ground floor where Marines brought their laundry every morning. He had them fill out laundry slips which he signed and gave back to them, and at 10:00 every morning the Chinese came and picked up the laundry. He never lost as much as a sock or a skivvy drawer. He knew not to cause a disturbance or have any disagreements. No one had complaints. He convinced the Exec that he should have a gate pass, to supervise the laundry business, so the troops don’t get ripped off. “Good thinking,” the Exec said and signed his pass. He made it known it was his duty to go to the gooks to be sure they were using proper soap and hot water and not beating the laundry to death on a pile of rocks. When he was seen coming in the gate in the morning, a half hour before reveille, he was lauded for getting up so early and making sure the chinks were on the ball. No one knew he was out all night with Jenny and was just getting in.
But Ruker was no fool. He realized he was at a dead-end. Life was to be lived for the moment, and he accepted this without any feeling of self-pride. “We have to take from life what we can,” he told Jenny. He never denied to her that he would have to leave her one day. “I am in hell when I think about it,” he told me once, “but this is the way it is. We live in two different worlds.”
With Hecklinger it was something else, cool-handed Heckinger, the guy with an answer for everything. He had fallen in love with a Chinese girl and he wasn’t any better for it. “I never thought it would happen, not with a slant-eyed slope head,” he said. “I always knew you can’t squat with your spurs on, but I did anyway.”
Heckinger was a cowboy philosopher who had a saying for just about anything, but he never talked much about himself, until we were pinned down in a foxhole for two days and two nights on Okinawa. A foxhole is like a confession box in church. You begin telling things you never would outside. He was a cowboy, proud of it, and he even had the bowed legs to prove it. The only thing, he told me the second night, he didn’t know the ass-end of a horse from its head. He was an undertaker’s assistant. The rumor that went around was that his old man was killed busting a bronco when Hecklinger was six years old. In truth the old man was a bulldozer operator for an oil company and he died when the machine turned over on him, leaving behind a wife and three kids. At seven Hecklinger ended up in a home and at nine he was adopted by an undertaker and his wife in Oklahoma City. “I’d never be in the Marine Corps hadn’t the judge given me an option,” he said.
“Why’s that, Stretch?” I asked. We called him Stretch. He was about six four, skinny as hell, and the other rumor was he was hung like a stallion.
“I reckon I had this bitch and she ditched me, fur no reason. She just upped and said she didn’t wanta screw me no more. So I read about this creep artist who cut off his ear and gives it to his whore, so I think it was a good idea. But not to cut off my ear. We had a cadaver come in and I cut off his prick and mailed it to her. She panicked and called the cops and I went to jail. ‘Military service or to prison,’ the judge said. What the hell, the Marines sounded good. So here I am getting my ass blown off for sump’ton stupid.”
“This isn’t actually any genius idea you have now,” I said when he told me about his Chinese girlfriend. I was having a hard time believing what I was hearing.
“Hey, I know what you are thinking, but this is different,” he said. I thought we were back in the foxhole confessional box on Okinawa again.
“But she’s a whore,” I said, taking a chance that he wouldn’t lay a haymaker on me. He was a street fighter and capable of doing it. I then realized he was too troubled emotionally to be aggressive. He wanted sympathy.
“Come on, don’t say that,” he said sadly. I knew what was coming was not going to be easy. “I wanta take ya’ll to meet her.”
I wasn’t keen on meeting her, that is, until I realized the magnitude of his involvement. “I’m tired,” he confessed. “I hate this shit Marine Corps. I never wanted to be in it in the first place. I don’t wanta go back to pumping dead corpses with formaldehyde. This woman ain’t no different than me I tell yea. Hey, buddy, think about it. We call them sluts and bad mouth all these whores in Ping-Pong Willies, a thousand assholes under one roof, and we say every chink woman has her price and they are all available for a price. That’s a crock! And what about all these White Russian broads, they brag that they were cousins of the Tsar. Bu]! shit! They were kicked out of Russia and had no place to go. What about them? White Russian women get twice as much as a chink for a screw and that’s the difference with them. So what do we do, we screw them all; we give our dollars; and we go back to the barracks and call them all worthless sons of bitches. Are we any better? Come on, are we any better than them?”
It was dark when we set out to meet Hecklinger’s Chinese girlfriend. She lived deep in a poor section of town, where the streets were even too narrow for rickshaws. The pavement was cobblestone, rough and irregular; no street was straight for more than a dozen yards. They all twisted and turned, ran uphill for a couple yards and downhill the next. The buildings had slits for windows and like the doors they were locked shut. The walls were damp and if you touched them your hand came away soiled. The cobblestones were slick with grime and filth. “Don’t talk too loud and make noise,” Hecklinger warned. “Someone might open a window and dump a piss pot on us.” We had to be careful as we trudged along; we slipped with every step we took. When we chanced to see someone in a darkened corridor, they vanished suddenly without a trace.
I ended up looking behind me as much as I did where we were going. But Hecklinger knew his way. He made turns and rounded bends that completely befuddled me. At last we came to a door. He knocked a secret knock and the door creaked open. An old lady all in black with bound feet stood there. She smiled a toothless grin and bid us enter.
Presently the girl appeared. If I were to see her in the daylight I would not recognize her. The room where we sat, and drank tea, was as dark as the streets outside. I tried conversing with her in Chinese but she would only giggle. Conversation was impossible. Hecklinger in his pidgin English got his message across and they seemed to have no difficulty understanding one another. Hecklinger had obviously spent much of his time in her company. Here was an example of a case that I had heard so much about. A family sells the services of their daughter, and as is the custom, a young brother goes through the streets pimping for her. “Hey, Joe, you want my sister, clean girl.” Like everyone else I thought it was a promotional gimmick, but I could see now it was no gimmick. The girl was real, and so was her brother that we met. I gathered Hecklinger was supporting the entire family. The brother, he told me later, lay around with little to do anymore.
Hecklinger wandered off into a back room with her and an hour passed, and then another. Still he didn’t appear. I had to get back to the Strand by 2200 or be put on report. I don’t know how I managed, but I found my way through the maze of alleys, caught a rickshaw and was back at the Strand just as the bugler was blowing taps.
In 1946, trying to maintain a romance with a Chinese woman was near impossible. Any serious relationship had to be clandestine. Let it be known that a Marine entertained the idea of marrying a Chinese woman and he was on the next boat back Stateside. There was no law forbidding it, but the unwritten law was strictly adhered to. The church in town also worried with ~he authorities. They reported any attempts by Marines or sailors to marry.
Roger knew my feelings for Ming-Lee and he suggested that I rent a room m town and that we move in. I was beginning to think it might be a good idea. We were clearing 50 dollars a month on a Pfc. ‘s pay, and I made a couple of extra bucks from black-marketing PX goods. Cigarettes were ten cents a pack; I could get a quarter. I wouldn’t have to hang out at the Prime Club so much, and that would save money. I decided to talk it over with Stevenson. I went to meet him in his office where we could talk, making sure Col. Roston and the Exec had left for the day. He was sitting behind his deck puffing away on a Chesterfield. Before I could say a word, I knew something was wrong. It was written all across his face. “Looks like I won’t be seeing you again,” he said.
I didn’t expect this. He was leaving. What terrible news it is when you hear that a buddy is leaving. It can be devastating. Often it’s harder to take than when you leave home. Good buddies are forever. But Stevenson hadn’t even hinted that he was leaving. He must have known.
“Holy shit! You can’t go just like that,” I said. “What the hell, you could have said something.”
He looked at me in the strangest way, like I had lost my marbles. He got up from his chair and walked around to the front of the desk. He put his hand on my shoulder. “Hey, buddy, he said. It’s not me. It’s you who is leaving.”