The train chugs out of town as I motor up to the station. A tall, broad, silver-haired officer with the refined look of an executive, stands at the end of the rail platform. He is flanked by two small leather cases, looking like he could be anyone’s grandfather.
Colonel Pick catches sight of the staff car as I roll to a stop. I jump out of the sedan and rush to open the passenger door. “Sir,” I salute.
“Ledo appears to have a relaxed schedule,” Pick teases as he slides into the car and lets me load his luggage. “Old Stilwell must be getting a little lenient with age.” I notice how he watches me for a reaction when I start up the engine.
“No, Sir.” I won’t let myself get trapped into betraying my opinions. “Lenient is not a word I would use to describe the General. He demands strict obedience.”
The car bumps along the dirt road. I try to dodge the deep ruts but can’t miss them all. “Obedience?” Pick chuckles. “I knew Old Joe laid down the law, but I also heard he respected his men, Lieutenant…” Pick fishes for my name.
“Flynn, Sir.” Still wired with anger at the hurtful accusation from Bernie, I find it hard to stop myself from spitting out my thoughts. “General Stilwell’s a straight shooter. But he expects a lot out of his men, and if you get on his bad side, well, I’m told he remembers.”
“Sounds like you’re not a great fan of Stilwell.” Pick doesn’t beat around the bush. I feel his gaze waiting for my response.
Cold fear washes through me. I know I’m not making a good first impression, but my bet is he’ll be gone before the next monsoon. The bigwigs around here appear to be almost as dispensable as the enlisted men. Besides, if I can’t be true to myself, how can I call myself a man? I let my rage answer. “Some say Stilwell’s here to build his road, not win a war. It appears we’re fighting the road, not the enemy.”
“Son, that road’s why I’m here. I believe it’ll help us defeat the Japanese.” Pick sounds sincere, but the insignia ribbons and badges don’t encourage my trust.
I shift in the driver’s seat and roll my neck to release the tension. “It’s hard to beat the Japanese if our men are dying on the road before the fighting even begins.”
Without turning, I sense Pick’s tension as he straightens his shoulders. “So you don’t trust your commanding officer?” Pick asks bluntly.
“I’m here to fight a war.” I pause because I want to say that Stilwell doesn’t give a rat’s ass if we die. Instead, I say, “The General asks for the impossible, only faster. Some guys like the way the General dishes it out to the Brits and how he throws his weight around with the Chinese. Others say he’s got a way with words, and I don’t think they mean he’s tactful.” With my left hand, I point ahead towards a series of tin-covered bashas spreading out on both sides of the road, “Ledo base station.”
A red sambur bounces out from the brush, hesitates like any cautious deer, and bounds back into the forest. The Colonel doesn’t respond to me, choosing instead to study everything we pass: buildings, ditches, the invading jungle. The conversation dies, and we drive in silence to the gate.
As we enter Base Station Section Three, General Stilwell and Colonel Merrill stand in front of the chow hall yakking it up. They seem surprised by Pick’s early arrival. Stilwell motions to stop the staff car.
Stilwell reaches out to shake Pick’s hand. “Glad to have you on our team. We weren’t expecting you until tomorrow. We work, eat, and sleep—mostly work—around here. Hope that matches your expectations.”
Pick responds to Stilwell’s hint of the daunting task with a wry grin. “General, I’m honored to serve under you. I love a challenge.”
Stilwell lifts an eyebrow in response. “Is that so? Then can you cut me a fifty-mile, four- wheel- drive road up through five-thousand feet of limestone, then down into mud and quicksand? I can take a no as well as I can take a yes, but I can’t stomach a maybe.”
Without hesitation, Pick answers. “I can’t build you a road for a civilian car, but I’ll build you a truck route. Tell me when you want it.”
“By January?” Stilwell asks. “Yes,” is Pick’s only word.
I turn my head so they can’t see my reaction. I want to puke—another puppet.
Stilwell takes a deliberately long drag from his cigarette, sends out a victory smoke circle, then beams. “Glad to see you’re willing to roll up your sleeves and crack the whip.”
The following morning, in the quad fronting the H.Q. offices, I stand at attention with other key staff reporting to our new road officer. Pick’s not a man to preamble with insignificant gestures or words of tribute. I can tell he’s here to get a job done, one that’s already behind schedule.
“Men,” he starts in a tough but confident voice. “I’ve heard the same story all the way from the States.” Wrapping his arms behind his back and clasping his hands, he parades before us. “It’s always the same – the Ledo road can’t be built. Too much mud. Too much rain. Too much malaria. From now on, we’re forgetting the defeatist attitude. The Ledo road is going to be built, mud, rain, and malaria be damned.” He scans each man’s face. “I know there are no other soldiers as far from home as you. You’ll be asked to live in jungles never before penetrated by civilized people. But we’ve got work to do. That’s all, men.” He finishes with an encouraging smile.
Disappointment overwhelms me. I walk to the barracks with my head hanging. I’d fooled myself into hoping they’d send someone with the right vision.
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