June 09, 2004
fiction

Ana's mention of Chris Matthews's odd justification of Reagan and his foggy lies makes me think of the ex-president's appearance in Cryptonomicon:

"Shaftoe looks harder and sees that it is not a bomb but a large bullet-shaped microphone on the end of a boom.

The lieutenant with the pompadour leans forward now, instinctively seeking the light, like a traveler on a cold winter’s night.

It is that guy from the movies. What’s-his-name. Oh, yeah!

Ronald Reagan has a stack of three-by-five cards in his lap. He skids up a new one: "What advice do you, as the youngest American fighting man ever to win both the Navy Cross and the Silver Star, have for any young Marines on their way to Guadalcanal?"

Shaftoe doesn’t have to think very long. The memories are still as fresh as last night’s eleventh nightmare: ten plucky Nips in Suicide Charge!

"Just kill the one with the sword first."

"Ah," Reagan says, raising his waxed and penciled eyebrows, and cocking his pompadour in Shaftoe’s direction. "Smarrrt —you target them because they’re the officers, right?"

"No, fuckhead!" Shaftoe yells. "You kill ’em because they’ve got fucking swords! You ever had anyone running at you waving a fucking sword?"

Reagan backs down. He’s scared now, sweating off some of his makeup, even though a cool breeze is coming in off the bay and through the window.

Reagan wants to turn tail and head back down to Hollywood and nail a starlet fast. But he’s stuck here in Oakland, interviewing the war hero. He flips through his stack of cards, rejects about twenty in a row. Shaftoe’s in no hurry, he’s going to be flat on his back in this hospital bed for approximately the rest of his life. He incinerates half of that cigarette with one long breath, holds it, blows out a smoke ring.

When they fought at night, the big guns on the warships made rings of incandescent gas. Not fat doughnuts but long skinny ones that twisted around like lariats. Shaftoe’s body is saturated with morphine. His eyelids avalanche down over his eyes, blessing those orbs that are burning and swollen from the film lights and the smoke of the cigarettes. He and his platoon are racing an incoming tide, trying to get around a headland. They are Marine Raiders and they have been chasing a particular unit of Nips across Guadalcanal for two weeks, whittling them down. As long as they’re in the neighborhood, they’ve been ordered to make their way to a certain point on the headland from which they ought to be able to lob mortar rounds against the incoming Tokyo Express. It is a somewhat harebrained and reckless tactic, but they don’t call this Operation Shoestring for nothing; it is all wacky improvisation from the get-go. They are behind schedule because this paltry handful of Nips has been really tenacious, setting ambushes behind every fallen log, taking potshots at them every time they come around one of these headlands. . .

Something clammy hits him on the forehead: it is the makeup artist taking a swipe at him. Shaftoe finds himself back in the nightmare within which the lizard nightmare was nested.

"Did I tell you about the lizard?" Shaftoe says.

"Several times," his interrogator says. "This’ll just take another minute." Ronald Reagan squeezes a fresh three-by-five card between thumb and forefinger, fastening onto something a little less emotional: "What did you and your buddies do in the evenings, when the day’s fighting was done?"

"Pile up dead Nips with a bulldozer," Shaftoe says, "and set fire to ’em. Then go down to the beach with a jar of hooch and watch our ships get torpedoed."

Reagan grimaces. "Cut!" he says, quietly but commanding. The clicking noise of the film camera stops.

"How’d I do?" Bobby Shaftoe says as they are squeegeeing the Maybelline off his face, and the men are packing up their equipment. The klieg lights have been turned off, clear northern California light streams in through the windows. The whole scene looks almost real, as if it weren’t a nightmare at all.

"You did great," Lieutenant Reagan says, without looking him in the eye. "A real morale booster." He lights a cigarette. "You can go back to sleep now."

"Haw!" Shaftoe says. "I been asleep the whole time. Haven’t I?"

He feels a lot better once he gets out of the hospital. They give him a couple of weeks of leave, and he goes straight to the Oakland station and hops the next train for Chicago. Fellow-passengers recognize him from his newspaper pictures, buy him drinks, pose with him for snap shots. He stares out the windows for hours, watching America go by, and sees that all of it is beautiful and clean. There might be wildness, there might be deep forest, there might even be grizzly bears and mountain lions, but it is cleanly sorted out, and the rules (don’t mess with bear cubs, hang your food from a tree limb at night) are well-known, and published in the Boy Scout Manual. In those Pacific islands there is too much that is alive, and all of it is in a continual process of eating and being eaten by something else, and once you set foot in the place, you’re buying into the deal. Just sitting in that train for a couple of days, his feet in clean white cotton socks, not being eaten alive by anything, goes a long way towards clearing his head up. Only once, or possibly two or three times, does he really feel the need to lock himself in the can and squirt morphine into his arm.

But when he closes his eyes, he finds himself on Guadalcanal, sloshing around that last headland, racing the incoming tide. The big waves are rolling in now, picking up the men and slamming them into rocks.

Finally they turn the corner and see the cove: just a tiny notch in the coast of Guadalcanal. A hundred yards of tidal mudflats backed up by a cliff. They will have to get across those mudflats and establish a foothold on the lower part of the cliff if they aren’t going to be washed out to sea by the tide.

The Shaftoes are Tennessee mountain people—miners, among other things. About the time Nimrod Shaftoe went to the Philippines, a couple of his brothers moved up to western Wisconsin to work in lead mines. One of them—Bobby’s grandpa—became a foreman. Sometimes he would go to Oconomowoc to pay a visit to the owner of the mine, who had a summer house on one of the lakes. They would go out in a boat and fish for pike. Frequently the mine owner’s neighbors—owners of banks and breweries—would come along. That is how the Shaftoes moved to Oconomowoc, and got out of mining, and became fishing and hunting guides. The family has been scrupulous about holding on to the ancestral twang, and to certain other traditions such as military service. One of his sisters and two of his brothers are still living there with Mom and Dad, and his two older brothers are in the Army. Bobby’s not the first to have won a Silver Star, though he is the first to have won the Navy Cross.

Bobby goes and talks to Oconomowoc’s Boy Scout troop. He gets to be grand marshal of the town parade. Other than that, he hardly budges from the house for two weeks. Sometimes he goes out into the yard and plays catch with his kid brothers. He helps Dad fix up a rotten dock. Guys and gals from his high school keep coming round to visit, and Bobby soon learns the trick that his father and his uncles and granduncles all knew, which is that you never talk about the specifics of what happened over there. No one wants to hear about how you dug half of your buddy’s molars out of your leg with the point of a bayonet. All of these kids seem like idiots and lightweights to him now. The only person he can stand to be around is his great-grandfather Shaftoe, ninety-four years of age and sharp as a tack, who was there at Petersburg when Burnside blew a huge hole in the Confederate lines with buried explosives and sent his men rushing into the crater where they got slaughtered. He never talks about it, of course, just as Bobby Shaftoe never talks about the lizard.

Soon enough his time is up, and then he gets a grand sendoff at the Milwaukee train station, hugs Mom, hugs Sis, shakes hands with Dad and the brothers, hugs Mom again, and he’s off.

Bobby Shaftoe knows nothing of his future. All he knows is that he has been promoted to sergeant, detached from his former unit (no great adjustment, since he is the only surviving member of his platoon) and reassigned to some unheard-of branch of the Corps in Washington, D.C.

D.C.’s a busy place, but last time Bobby Shaftoe checked the newspapers, there wasn’t any combat going on there, and so it’s obvious he’s not going to get a combat job. He’s done his bit anyway, killed many more than his share of Nips, won his medals, suffered from his wounds. As he lacks administrative training, he expects that his new assignment will be to travel around the country being a war hero, raising morale and suckering young men into joining the Corps.

He reports, as ordered, to Marine Barracks, Washington, D.C. It’s the Corps’s oldest post, a city block halfway between the Capitol and the Navy Yard, a green quadrangle where the Marine Band struts and the drill team drills. He half expects to see strategic reserves of spit and of polish stored in giant tanks nearby.

Two Marines are in the office: a major, who is his new, nominal commanding officer, and a colonel, who looks and acts like he was born here. It is shocking beyond description that two such personages would be there to greet a mere sergeant. Must be the Navy Cross that got their attention. But these Marines have Navy Crosses of their own—two or three apiece.

The major introduces the colonel in a way that doesn’t really explain a damn thing to Shaftoe. The colonel says next to nothing; he’s there to observe. The major spends a while fingering some typewritten documents.

"Says right here you are gung-ho."

"Sir, yes sir!"

"What the hell does that mean?"

"Sir, it is a Chinese word! There’s a Communist there, name of Mao, and he’s got an army. We tangled with ’em on more’n one occasion, sir. Gung-ho is their battle cry, it means ‘all together’ or something like that, so after we got done kicking the crap out of them, sir, we stole it from them, sir!"

"Are you saying you have gone Asiatic like those other China Marines, Shaftoe?"

"Sir! On the contrary, sir, as I think my record demonstrates, sir!"

"You really think that?" the major says incredulously. "We have an interesting report here on a film interview that you did with some soldier* named Lieutenant Reagan."

"Sir! This Marine apologizes for his disgraceful behavior during that interview, sir! This Marine let down himself and his fellow Marines, sir!"

"Aren’t you going to give me an excuse? You were wounded. Shell-shocked. Drugged. Suffering from malaria."

"Sir! There is no excuse, sir!"

The major and the colonel nod approvingly at each other.

This "sir, yes sir" business, which would probably sound like horseshit to any civilian in his right mind, makes sense to Shaftoe and to the officers in a deep and important way. Like a lot of others, Shaftoe had trouble with military etiquette at first. He soaked up quite a bit of it growing up in a military family, but living the life was a different matter. Having now experienced all the phases of military existence except for the terminal ones (violent death, court-martial, retirement), he has come to understand the culture for what it is: a system of etiquette within which it becomes possible for groups of men to live together for years, travel to the ends of the earth, and do all kinds of incredibly weird shit without killing each other or completely losing their minds in the process. The extreme formality with which he addresses these officers carries an important subtext: your problem, sir, is deciding what you want me to do, and my problem, sir, is doing it. My gung-ho posture says that once you give the order I’m not going to bother you with any of the details—and your half of the bargain is you had better stay on your side of the line, sir, and not bother me with any of the chickenshit politics that you have to deal with for a living. The implied responsibility placed upon the officer’s shoulders by the subordinate’s unhesitating willingness to follow orders is a withering burden to any officer with half a brain, and Shaftoe has more than once seen seasoned noncoms reduce green lieutenants to quivering blobs simply by standing before them and agreeing, cheerfully, to carry out their orders.

"This Lieutenant Reagan complained that you kept trying to tell him a story about a lizard," the major says.

"Sir! Yes, sir! A giant lizard, sir! An interesting story, sir!" Shaftoe says.

"I don’t care," the major says. "The question is, was it an appropriate story to tell in that circumstance?"

"Sir! We were making our way around the coast of the island, trying to get between these Nips and a Tokyo Express landing site, sir! . . ." Shaftoe begins.

"Shut up!"

"Sir! Yes sir!"

There is a sweaty silence that is finally broken by the colonel. "We had the shrinks go over your statement, Sergeant Shaftoe."

"Sir! Yes, sir?"

"They are of the opinion that the whole giant lizard thing is a classic case of projection."

"Sir! Could you please tell me what the hell that is, sir!"

The colonel flushes, turns his back, peers through blinds at sparse traffic out on Eye Street. "Well, what they are saying is that there really was no giant lizard. That you killed that Jap* in hand-to-hand combat. And that your memory of the giant lizard is basically your id coming out."

"Id, sir!"

"That there is this id thing inside your brain and that it took over and got you fired up to kill that Jap bare-handed. Then your imagination dreamed up all this crap about the giant lizard afterwards, as a way of explaining it."

"Sir! So you are saying that the lizard was just a metaphor, sir!"

"Yes."

"Sir! Then I would respectfully like to know how that Nip got chewed in half, sir!"

The colonel screws up his face dismissively. "Well, by the time you were rescued by that coastwatcher, Sergeant, you had been in that cove for three days along with all of those dead bodies. And in that tropical heat with all those bugs and scavengers, there was no way to tell from looking at that Jap whether he had been chewed up by a giant lizard or run through a brush chipper, if you know what I mean."

"Sir! Yes I do, sir!"

The major goes back to the report. "This Reagan fellow says that you also repeatedly made disparaging comments about General MacArthur."

"Sir, yes sir! He is a son of a bitch who hates the Corps, sir! He is trying to get us all killed, sir!"

The major and the colonel look at each other. It is clear that they have, wordlessly, just arrived at some decision.

"Since you insist on reenlisting, the typical thing would be to have you go around the country showing off your medals and recruiting young men into the Corps. But this lizard story kind of rules that out."

"Sir! I do not understand, sir!"

"The Recruitment Office has reviewed your file. They have seen Reagan’s report. They are nervous that you are going to be in West Bumfuck, Arkansas, riding in the Memorial Day parade in your shiny dress uniform, and suddenly you are going to start spouting all kinds of nonsense about lizards and scare everyone shitless and put a kink in the war effort."

"Sir! I respectfully—"

"Permission to speak denied," the major says. "I won’t even get into your obsession with General MacArthur."

"Sir! The general is a murdering—"

"Shut up!"

"Sir! Yes sir!"

"We have another job for you, Marine."

"Sir! Yes sir!"

"You’re going to be part of something very special."

"Sir! The Marine Raiders are already a very special part of a very special Corps, sir!"

"That’s not what I mean. I mean that this assignment is . . . unusual." The major looks over at the colonel. He is not sure how to proceed.

The colonel puts his hand in his pocket, jingles coins, then reaches up and checks his shave.

"It is not exactly a Marine Corps assignment," he finally says. "You will be part of a special international detachment. An American Marine Raider platoon and a British Special Air Services squadron, operating together under one command. A bunch of tough hombres who’ve shown they can handle any assignment, under any conditions. Is that a fair description of you, Marine?"

"Sir! Yes, sir!"

"It is a very unusual setup," the colonel muses, "not the kind of thing that military men would ever dream up. Do you know what I’m saying, Shaftoe?"

"Sir, no sir! But I do detect a strong odor of politics in the room now, sir!"

The colonel gets a little twinkle in his eye, and glances out the window towards the Capitol dome. "These politicians can be real picky about how they get things done. Everything has to be just so. They don’t like excuses. Do you follow me, Shaftoe?"

"Sir! Yes, sir!"

"The Corps had to fight to get this. They were going to make it an Army thing. We pulled a few strings with some former Naval persons in high places. Now the assignment is ours. Some would say, it is ours to screw up."

"Sir! The assignment will not be screwed up, sir!"

"The reason that son of a bitch MacArthur is killing Marines like flies down in the South Pacific is because sometimes we don’t play the political game that well. If you and your new unit do not perform brilliantly, that situation will only worsen."

"Sir! You can rely on this Marine, sir!"

"Your commanding officer will be Lieutenant Ethridge. An Annapolis man. Not much combat experience, but knows how to move in the right circles. He can run interference for you at the political level. The responsibility for getting things done on the ground will be entirely yours, Sergeant Shaftoe."

"Sir! Yes, sir!"

"You’ll be working closely with British Special Air Service. Very good men. But I want you and your men to outshine them."

"Sir! You can count on it, sir!"

"Well, get ready to ship out, then," the major says. "You’re on your way to North Africa, Sergeant Shaftoe."

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Posted by dbrown at June 09, 2004 05:04 PM
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