I roll up the CBI newspaper, Roundup. It’s April, 1943, and Stilwell’s Road doesn’t even make the back page. The road crew has advanced only one mile in one month, but that doesn’t mean it’s been slow at the construction front. Schmidt dropped me in the middle of nonstop confusion here at Road Headquarters, and it’s hard enough to keep track of your own shoes, let alone trace any illegal ammo. Unexpectedly, the one thing that’s a constant is Nazir, the Naga headhunter, and his monthly ration of chilies.
I had been on the road front for less than a week when he found me. One minute I was alone, checking to see if there were any new equipment carcasses in the graveyard, and the next I turned to find Nazir with a rope bag of blue-throated barbets slung over his shoulder.
“Why you no bring peppers?” he asked, legs rigid and rooted to the ground like tree trunks.
No one can get my hands shaking faster than Nazir. “How did you find me?” As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I knew it sounded like I was running from him. “I mean, I was just transferred here and haven’t had time. So I was planning on doing it later.”
The relief on his face said he didn’t want my head decorating his fence post. “I wait here while you get peppers.” I found myself nodding and backing away, almost in a run.
When I returned, Nazir had already started to pluck feathers from and gut some of the birds. He sat on a boulder at the edge of the road, entrails intermixed with blue, red, and green feathers at his feet. I had never noticed before, but with his boar-tusk earrings and tattooed arms and legs, he blended into the jungle better than a shadow.
“You couldn’t wait?” I asked, handing him the bag.
He took the peppers and inspected them. “You move away. Need take longer path to find you. Make me late. So I fix birds be ready to cook. Birds no good with no peppers.” He stood to leave. “Harry come visit village. Children ask to play with white man who act like little boy.”
Nazir has become a part of my monthly routine and not the most unpleasant part of life on the front. The sixteen-hour shifts are enough to shatter anyone’s will. I push my way out of the barracks into a drizzling morning. Rain splashes mud against my already-damp clothes. I pass a soldier who stops, reaches down into his pants, and wrenches out a blood-dripping leech. Pissed at the mud, the rain, and the leeches, and now wondering if Schmidt got me out of Ledo to frame me, I stomp through puddles looking for Lt. Lin. I feel the tension in my neck with every step.
Off in the jungle, quarrelling birds skitter about in the undergrowth, taking advantage of the light sprinkle. They’ll probably be glad when we give them back their forest. I search for Lin as I walk past the Chinese road crew. Their broad, triangular, straw hats rise and fall in rhythm with picks and axes. One man, taller than the rest, stands with his hands at his sides. His jet- black hair is rain-slicked to his skull, and his legs are spread apart to secure his footing in the mud. His voice grates in response to a younger man, who reluctantly lifts a sledgehammer and looks back with sullen disinterest. Without even knowing the language, I understand their one- upmanship pattern of quarrels. Unlike with the Americans, where clashes became a nose-to-nose, chest-to-chest act of defiance, Chinese use incessant nagging to wear down their rivals.
Further down the road, I hear, “Damn it! Get the fuckin’ dynamite wedged in tight before you blow it.” Lester calls over his shoulder as he and several men scramble towards the detonation box and away from a bulging boulder, ready to be blown to smithereens, that blocks the road passage. The dynamite drops from the rock ledge, sinks into the mud, splutters, then dies. The men tip-toe back to the dead dynamite, sinking to their knees in the sludge and mud.
“Maaaaaaan, if you got a better way,” the soldier shivers, “show me how you’d do it. I’m just lookin’ to serve my time here and go home alive.” Lester shrugs, rolls his eyes, and plucks the dynamite from the mud soup. He’s looking in my direction, but doesn’t see me when I wave.
Putting one foot in front of each other each day is the only way to keep your sanity out here. If you could go backwards in time, you’d wish you could re-live your worst day before the war rather than face this endless future.
I look away, knowing at least one of the men in Lester’s unit will soon be left behind. At the current rate, we’re losing a man a mile to malaria, typhus, and the crumbling, waterlogged mountain slides. The number one assassins—mosquitoes, mites and mud—never take a break. There’s so much senseless death. I wish I could follow the popular path rather than question the Stilwells of the world; it’s so much easier to follow blindly. But I’m not going to go quietly.
No one knows that I’m stockpiling an arsenal of explosives. It gives me a sense of some control in my life. My stash grows each time another shipment of dynamite is delivered for the road crew. It shouldn’t be hard to place the dynamite at night so it won’t hurt the crew, but will wash out the road. I hope it’s enough to make Stilwell give up building this impossible road.
I trudge towards the supply hut, leaving the road crews behind, expecting to run into Lin. Along the road, trees rise hundreds of feet, and a dense undergrowth of palms and vines form a tangled green barrier, making it difficult to see the sky. I look up through the network of branches, hoping to see blue patches. Instead, I find dark, heavy clouds. Frustrated, I crunch the incomplete requisition list into a ball, ready to toss it in to the brush.
It’s then I see the tiger, with bold black stripes and golden fur, only a few feet from the edge of the road. My breath is sucked out of me; I’m fascinated and scared shitless.
Remembering what a man dismembered by a tiger looks like paralyzes me, and I’m not sure if I should run or freeze.
He sees I’m his only audience. I watch the thickly muscled, golden predator bat an unsuspecting trogon from a lower branch. The bird’s turquoise wings flail as the giant cat stuffs them between his immense white fangs. Satisfied, the cat slips away.
Lightening, obscured by the clouds, flickers; it’s followed by muffled, then crashing, thunder. Moments later, I hear scampering in the brush. Small rodents and dusty green birds rush for shelter under clusters of broad leaves to wait out the imminent deluge. Avoiding the ravine on my left side where trucks have lost the battle to the muddy mountain, I pick up my pace. With my crumpled wish list in hand, I duck my head into the small, leaky basha used for road headquarters to wire that day’s requests to Base Section Three, Ledo headquarters. Lt. Lin is waiting inside, not late like usual.
Pissed at myself for wasting my time looking for Lin just so I don’t have to place two orders, I recklessly grab the headphones for the radio. The gentle, polite nature of Lieutenant Lin Tien-Kuo hasn’t blinded me to his sly ways. Every day he wants something new, right after the day’s orders have been sent. Yesterday afternoon, he cornered me in my basha. Outside, the rain drove down like bullets, but he needled me into action.
“Lt. Flynn.” Lin started, like always, with his goddamn bow. “Men with no jacket in rain, no help to road if dead.” His gaze concentrated on the tears in his boots, exposing his dark, leathered skin. I felt no pity for him. He knows how to get what he wants and plays his part well. “Elephants leave Ledo in one hour. Radio talk with Ledo take only five minutes. Jackets here tomorrow if radio talk now.”
Like any good officer, Lin takes care of his men and wheedles away their opposition by handing out tokens of goodwill, be they bigger servings of rations or better clothing. I admit the Chinese are hard workers, but their bickering is like a static transmission that you can’t tune out, and it drives me up one side then down the other.
Rainwater puddles at my feet. “ROAD HEADQUARTERS to TIGAR,” the radio squawks as I push down the transmit button.
“TIGAR to ROAD HEADQUARTERS,” comes back the fuzzy response, crackling from interference caused by the weather. “Ready to receive.”
When my transmission is almost complete I reluctantly reach out for the paper Lin waves for my attention. “Just a few more items,” I warn base camp, then release the transmit button and glance over his scribbles. “Carrots? Onions? Peas? Out here?” Rolling my eyes, I let the sarcasm ooze with each word.
“Yes, most honorable Lt. Flynn.” Lin’s face shows no sign of emotion. “Chinese eat vegetables. Americans like meat. Chinese get sick from only meat.”
I say nothing, letting the drip drop of the leaking rain express my thoughts. “If you get fresh vegetables, then I’m asking for whiskey,” I say to him. Then I turn back to the radio and punch down on the transmit button. “Send me all the vegetables you got for the 10th Regiment. Our men want Jack Daniel’s. ROAD HEADQUARTERS out.”
The radio squeals a high pitch buzz, “ROAD HEADQUARTERS. Can do on vegetables.
Jack Daniel’s? In your dreams. TIGAR out.”
“I’ll be damned.” I toss Lin’s list across the table in frustration. “When I ask for simple things, like axle grease, carburetors, and bread, what do I get? Shovels and noodles. You ask for vegetables and you’ll probably get a shitload of every color.” I lean against the radio table and light a cigarette. I don’t offer one to Lin. After releasing a long drag, I spit out, “What makes you so special?”
Lin looks straight ahead, beyond me, as though I’m not there. He offers no apology. I notice the elbows in his jacket are worn thin, making it hard to believe he’s an officer. “I ask for what can be had,” he says.
I flick ashes on the wet floor. “Hmm!” I grunt, take another drag, pinch out the cigarette’s fire, and pocket the butt. “Why should we build a road for you if you won’t even fight your own goddamn war?” Unloading on Lin for his underhanded ways feels good.
Lin’s jaw is rigid. A stern glare is his only response.
This infuriates me further. “How come our boys are dying for you here in Burma? Can’t you and the Japanese fight your own battle and keep us out of it? If it wasn’t for China, we wouldn’t even be here.”
Without remorse or incrimination, Lin speaks quietly, “If Japanese not kill in China, then Japanese kill in Australia. Kill in Philippines. Kill in United States.” Lin bows, which I see he uses to define his strength, not subservience. When he looks up, he says, “Where Japanese troops be now if not battle China? Japanese hate of Chinese blind them to bigger treasures in Australia and America. We not give all our soldiers in Burma. We fight in China, too. Protect our children, our women. While Chinese families die, America homes are safe.”
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