THE EXPERIENCE OF COMBAT #4
New Zealand sure wasn't what it was cracked up to be, at least tonight. Torrents of rain pounded on the canvas roof our squad tent, and a damp wind whipped under the side flaps. Steady streams of water drip-dropped from the tent seams onto whatever happened to be below.
A Yukon stove glowed in the center, driving off the worst of the chill and we had a stack of cordwood piled to keep it stoked. Earlier, the pile had been three feet high, but we'd been tossing logs in at rapid rate all evening. A couple of lamps hung off poles, lit by the generator that shut off whenever it happened to run out of gasoline for the evening. The light they cast was dim, and they swayed this way and that from the wind outside.
Some of the guys were asleep on their cots, blankets and overcoats mounded on them. It was hard to tell there were men underneath so many layers of wool. You had to wear long johns to sleep and two pairs of socks, or you'd freeze all night. Our blood was still thin from the 'canal, and a lot of us were shot through with malaria.
Hajaway was fast asleep over in the corner, his big feet sticking out from the bottom of his cot. Like always, he was snoring – not the light sniffly noise of a gal back home, but a deep, resonant bass snore that kept us awake for hours when we weren't exhausted from a long field problem or carrying a load after liberty. Nic was perched on his cot, writing a letter to his mom. He wore his pisscutter with the flaps pulled down over his big ears and his overcoat was draped around his shoulders like a cape.
The rest of the squad was sitting around my cot playing cards; poker to be exact. We had a pretty good sized kitty stacked up on the blanket. It was mostly quarters and dimes, with a few New Zealand pennies thrown in. There were some odds and ends in there; a pack of Camels, a pinup of Betty Grable and a rubber; still in the wrapper. That sat off to the side. Williams had anted it up and we were undecided whether or not to let it stay in the pot.
I'd been carrying our card deck in my pack for at least a year. The cards were filthy and bent. We'd played with them so many times, everyone knew what each card was from the back. Some of them were so worn; you could almost see light through them. But, we still dealt and cut whenever we felt the urge to blow a few bucks. We never let guys from other squads play. It was okay to take advantage of each other, but damned if a card shark from outside our squad was going to fleece us.
Gizmo was dealing and running his mouth. We all anted up and I needed help. So did Williams with his rubber. I didn't have a darned thing in my hand and his face told the same story. When it was my turn again, I took the easy road and folded. So did Williams. That gave us the time-honored right to kibitz. I walked over behind Gizmo and looked at his hand. He was holding two kings and an ace; not bad.
I decided to have a little fun. "Hey Giz, you better get out while the gettin's good."
He tried to look mad, without any luck. "Sarge, please, I'm tryin' ta win here, huh?"
I snorted, "Buddy, you ain't won a poker game since Christ was a corporal."
Everybody broke up at my joke and Gizmo made a show of trying to cover up his hand. It didn't matter anyway since one of his kings had a stain on the back next to the bicycle. It was from when a can of tomato juice exploded the night the Tokyo Express decided to drop everything on us but the kitchen sink… let that one go. It's a story for another time…
I announced, "Hey Williams, go get us some beers." The case was outside the tent to keep the bottles cool.
He whined, "Aw sarge, it pourin' down out there."
I gestured to the hatch, trying to look serious. "Get out there and bring us all back a beer... and get that friggin' rubber off my bunk while you're at it."
The fellas laughed as Williams walked off and drew back the tent flap. A gust of wind-driven rain whipped into our warm cocoon. Leman tossed the cundrum at Williams' back and yelled, "Hey mac, close that pneumonia hole, huh?"
Williams came back with an armful of beer bottles. The 3.2 beer wasn't good for much, but at least it was wet. He broke out his fair leather belt and neatly popped the tops off with the buckle. Then he passed the beers around until everybody had one. Gizmo accepted his beer and took a solid pull. "Thanks Williams," he said, "If you was as good a BAR man as you are a beer server, we wouldn't have any problems."
Williams wasn't quite sure what to say in reply. He just sort of mumbled something and drank his beer.
Leman looked over at Hajaway, who was still blissfully snoring away. "Maybe somebody should go wake up sleepin' beauty and see if she wants a beer?"
"Nah," I said, "Let her sleep." Hajaway hated to be woken up. He was the grumpiest guy in the world for the first fifteen minutes after reveille. Better to just let him snore.
Pat Ryan pointed up to the tent roof above Hajaway's bunk. "Look, every time he breaths in, the tent sucks down. How does that guy do it?"
"I dunno," Williams replied, "It's unnatural. But you got no kick comin'. At least you don't have to sleep next to him." As the junior Marine in the squad, he was stuck next to Hajaway, probably for the duration.
Nic took a break from letter writing and came over to sit with us next to the stove. "Hey Williams, where's my beer?" he asked.
We chuckled as Williams realized he hadn't squared Nic away with a bottle of the suds. He started to get up, but Nic stopped him. "Don't worry, my legs aren't broken like these clowns." He went out and got his own beer. He came back in and settled down next to me on my footlocker.
"How come you don't finish your letter to Mrs. Nicholson?" I asked.
"Are you kiddin'? The way you guys are beatin' your gums, I can't concentrate. And Hajaway's snoring is louder than a B-17."
He took a drink of beer and shivered. "Boy, it's miserable out there tonight. Glad we don't have guard duty."
"Yeah," Leman went on, "That 15-miler tomorrow's gonna be hell." The weather forecast was for continued rain and wind.
Gizmo piped in, "Hard to believe we're in the South Pacific. It feels like the North Pole."
The squad laughed as I saluted Giz' with my bottle. "Good one, buddy. That's the first funny thing you said since Camp Elliot."
Gizmo shot me a sour look, but he wouldn't take the bait. He said, "Speakin' of hikes, did you guys hear about 2/8? They hiked up and back to Foxton last week. That's 80 miles."
Williams said, "I got a buddy in that outfit. I saw him in Wellington last Saturday. He said half their battalion came down with malaria attacks after they got back to Paekakariki. They got at least a hundred guys in Silverstream."
We'd been easing back into the training schedule. Every time we went out to the field, it brought on the malaria. Most guys sweated through the bone-wracking chills and fevers with the help of buddies and our hard-pressed Corpsmen. They were only sending the very worst cases to the big Navy hospital at Silverstream.
Scuttlebutt had been flying about the blistering pace 2/8 set on their jaunt to Foxton. On liberty last weekend, we'd seen guys in that outfit limping around Wellington. They'd looked like hell in a hand basket. We were all worried that our skipper was going to try and beat their time. Once the skipper got something in his craw, it was a done deal. I wasn't looking forward to walking 80 miles, but I had a feeling we would be doing it soon.
The card game had sort of petered out somewhere in our conversation. I gestured with my beer bottle and asked, "Hey, what are you heroes doin' with this game?"
Leman replied, "Maybe we should just finish it tomorrow night."
I was doubtful. "Well, whatever, but you guys ain't leavin' all this crap on my bunk. Gizmo, it seems like you're the winner for the time being, somehow"
He beamed, "Yeah, it does. I never actually won anything at cards. You guys are always cheatin' on me, but I finally got mine."
Nic slapped his forehead. "Wow fellas, This is a night of firsts. Giz' said somethin' funny and he won a hand at poker. The next thing ya' know, he's gonna find a woman to have sex with."
Gizmo wore a triumphant expression as he collected his winning, including Betty Grable. He went over to his cot and opened up his footlocker, dumping his loot in the tray. He gave Betty's picture a kiss and announced, "Well mates, that's about it for me. I'm gonna hit the head and call it a night."
"Yeah, good idea," I said, "Let's get ready to turn in. The generator's probably almost outta gas, anyway."
Like clockwork, the lights went out. Feeling my way around in the dark, I found my flashlight and pulled on my overcoat to go to the head. I went out into the raw night and Gizmo fell in step beside me. He said, "It was sure a good night."
I thought for a few seconds. "Every night since we been off the Canal's been good. Every day, too."
Gizmo smiled and slapped me on the back. "Yeah sure, but I never won anything them nights, only this one."
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