Max Klinger hoisted the mailbag on high and let the day's letters pour over his desk. He tossed the empty sack to one side and sat down to begin sorting.
Things had quieted down at the MASH in the last few weeks. Everyone had more or less come to terms with Captain Pierce being gone. The new surgeons were settling in okay. That was good news. Klinger wasn't supposed to know anything about it, but he'd heard rumors that Captain Hunnicutt might be reassigned soon. Apparently Colonel Potter wanted him transferred to a less-demanding position. It wasn't that the captain's work was bad. To Klinger he was as good as he ever was. But Klinger suspected that Potter felt guilty about what had happened to Hawkeye. Klinger thought that the colonel was only waiting for Dr. Freedman's say-so before he completed the paperwork and had BJ assigned someplace far behind the lines, maybe even Tokyo General. Wouldn't Major Winchester blow his vintage cork over that!
Unfortunately the current thorn in Klinger's side was his own CO. Usually Colonel Potter was a swell egg to work for, but in the five weeks since Captain Pierce's disappearance he'd become more and more grouchy. Maybe it was their efficiency rating. In the month following Hawkeye's loss, their efficiency had dropped a staggering six and a half percent. From being the best-rated MASH in Korea, they were now at the bottom of the stack. Still, they were starting to recover. The new guys were catching on, and BJ was more his old self, except that he didn't smile too much any more.
But Klinger thought that there was more to it. He had the feeling that Potter was waiting for something. That's why Klinger always sorted the mail as soon as it came in. He didn't know what he was looking for, but he sure wanted to get it to the colonel quickly in case it did come in.
Klinger began the routine. First, three piles. Personal, official drek, and other, like urgent notices or telegrams. Klinger was especially alert for "others," thinking that they might be the thing that the colonel was waiting for. As he whisked through the pile, sorting and stacking, he came across a really unusual letter. It was almost square, pretty fat, written on some thick, foreign paper. Klinger flipped it over to read the address. Capt. BJ Hunnicutt, it said, in childish block letters. Huh. Not the usual Mill Valley haul. About to toss it into the personal pile, Klinger glanced at the return address. BFP.
He stopped in mid-flick, letter frozen in his hand. That was the entire return address. Just "BFP." It was written in no handwriting that he recognized, but his heart kicked into double time. Slowly Klinger rotated his chair, staring at the initials. "Colonel Potter!" he bellowed, and bolted for his CO's door.
BJ was in post-op with Langley and Tuck. They had a light load these days, so BJ had turned the afternoon walk-through into an impromptu teaching session. He was clarifying the practicalities of debriding wounds at the next stop down the line when Klinger said from behind him, "Captain."
BJ turned. Klinger was nearly vibrating with suppressed excitement. BJ blinked. "What's up?"
"Colonel Potter wants to see you right away."
BJ handed the clipboard to Langley. "What about?"
"I'm not really sure, sir." Klinger backed up hurriedly, heading for the double doors. "It could be something. Might be nothing."
BJ followed after him. "You always get this excited over nothing?"
Klinger didn't respond, just beckoned BJ through the double doors and into Potter's office. Inside, BJ halted. Everyone was there -- Charles, Mulcahy, and Margaret, with Potter standing behind his desk. Obviously they were awaiting his arrival. Margaret paced nervously, pulling at her fingers.
BJ was thoroughly puzzled. "What is it, Colonel?"
In answer, Potter lifted a letter from his desk. "We aren't sure, son. Klinger found this in the mail."
BJ frowned at the unfamiliar handwriting, then noticed the return initials. For a moment the world hung suspended in timeless shock. He looked up, amazed.
Potter licked his lips. "We don't know if that's who it's from. We all want news. If it turns out to be a dud, well, so be it. But if it is from Hawkeye, I wondered if you would let us hear it. Of course, you're welcome to read it privately if you prefer."
BJ's hands shook as he tore into the envelope. "I don't think I can wait to read it privately."
He yanked the letter from the envelope. A top sheet of thin paper, folded in two with Korean writing on it, fell out and fluttered toward the floor. BJ snatched it and slapped it onto Potter's desk. All his attention was on the bulk of the letter, several sheets of strange, thick paper which had been folded into quarters. The letter clearly had been written on an uneven surface with a blotchy pen. But each page was thoroughly covered, front and back, with Hawkeye's well-remembered scrawl. The writing ran in two directions. It was as if Hawkeye had written two letters on top of each other, one in the usual way, across the shorter edge of the paper, and a second one where he'd turned the paper sideways and written across the long edge of the page.
BJ shuffled through the stack, his heart hammering. Hands guided him into a chair. Margaret. She sat beside him, leaning in to see. Charles and Mulcahy hovered over either shoulder.
There. This was clearly the start of the letter. He'd have to figure out the rest of it as he went along. Out of consideration for Klinger and Potter, who couldn't get in close enough to see, BJ began to read the letter aloud.
I'm writing this letter more as an act of faith than out of any real belief that it will ever reach you. They say that hope springs eternal, but so does despair, and lately they've been running pretty neck and neck in my own squalid little corner of the world. Still, I hope this letter finds you, and finds you well.
The fact that I'm able to write you at all is something of a miracle. You'll remember Our Mutual Friend, the person who made Sparky a happy man by sending him something unusual for his wrist by way of Radar. Well, however it happened, OMF is here, and is probably the reason why I'm still alive.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's start with the basics.
I'm still alive, which is more than I can say for Corporal Lewis and the poor private we'd stayed behind to help. I don't even know his name -- the kid I was working on. Everyone was bugging out. Captain Rackley was wounded in one of the mortar attacks, so we had to send him with the evac bus. As the resident surgeon, I'm sure he would have stayed if he hadn't been hurt. Lewis volunteered to stay behind with me. He's the real hero here. I had to be there, but Lewis stayed anyway. Between us we were going to get Private (whoever he was) onto the jeep as soon as he could travel. I was going to hold him down while Corporal Lewis drove like mad. That was the plan.
I was cutting and clamping like crazy, Lewis was pumping in plasma. The bus couldn't have been more than 30 seconds gone. The shellfire had lightened up -- or rather, moved past us -- so I was able to hear a step at the door. I looked up to see four North Koreans looking over the threshold. I froze with my hands buried in my patient. The lead guy in the doorway raised his machine gun so I was looking directly down the barrel. I swear I saw him fire. It happened with that weird slow-motion timing, like in an accident where every fraction of a second passes with complete clarity. The muscles in his hand moved. He fired. The same instant Lewis straight-armed me on the shoulder. I started to fall as the white flame of the explosion burst from the barrel of the gun toward the place where my head used to be. Lewis's arm was caught in the stream of bullets -- or rather, what used to be his left arm was. The force of it threw him against the wall. He screamed and curled up, hugging his shattered shoulder. I could hardly hear him, my ears were ringing so much from the blast of that gun in the tiny room.
I rolled to my knees, but the shooter turned toward me again. I waited for another burst of white fire. Instead, one of his buddies tapped him on the shoulder. Reluctantly he lowered his weapon. The next minute his squad leader, or whatever the NK equivalent is, came in. He took in the room with an appraising glance, looked from Lewis to me, then started talking to his squad. I crawled over to Lewis. He was in shock, bleeding bad. I began to wrap a pressure bandage around the stump of his arm. My back, exposed to the group in the doorway, felt hot; every second I expected to hear a blast of gunfire, followed by nothing. I concentrated on the wound. Lewis's lips had gone white. He couldn't lift his head, but he kept clutching my jacket with his good arm. He kept saying, "My wife," but I couldn't make out her name. If this letter gets through to you, Beej, please tell Lewis's wife that he was thinking of her at the end.
I heard footsteps behind me, and braced myself. Nothing happened. I glanced over my shoulder. The squad leader had come up to watch me work. Meanwhile his cronies ransacked whatever they could find in the way of medical supplies -- not a whole lot. Some bandages and alcohol, a few units of plasma is all. I finished securing the bandage, then looked up at him. He nodded in an appreciative way, then signaled me to move back. I got slowly to my feet, using the opportunity to get close to the stretcher. The private was lying there, motionless. I checked for a femoral pulse; nothing. He must have bled to death while I was tending to Lewis.
The squad leader (who I'll call SL) stooped over Lewis, who continued to clutch his shoulder and moan. It looked like he was assessing Lewis's condition. The guy who'd shot Lewis called to SL. All the supplies were now outside. SL nodded, then looked at me and jerked his head toward the door. I pointed at Lewis and motioned that I should carry him. SL shook his head and pointed at the door. "Ga!" I know what that means. Two of the shooter's cronies took an arm each and propelled me outside. I stood in the light coming from the open doorway while they bound my hands in front of me. SL came out then, and lifted my dog tags over my head. I wondered if they were going to kill me, but if so, why bind my hands? Then the shooter came out, wiping his knife. The memory of it makes me simultaneously sick and mad as hell. What happened to Lewis stinks, but I don't think he would have survived the next few days anyway. At least it was fast, or faster than it would have been -- for whatever cold comfort that might give his family.
I stood in the gloom with two guards watching me and the pile of supplies equally. SL and several of his guys piled onto the waiting jeep. He pulled out, heading toward the battle, taking the shooter and my dog tags with him. The aid station was in a depression, so I couldn't see much, but the sky lit up periodically with shellfire and flares. The night air was cold. About ten minutes later the main North Korean infantry showed up. Their commander introduced himself to me by cracking me across the jaw. While my former guards divvied up supplies among some of the troopers, their pals gave me the same warm welcome that the Jerries gave Sherman back at the Argonne Forest. The only difference is that these guys didn't bother to shave my head first.
The commander then told off several guys to march me and the supplies north. I kept stumbling in the dark, but my guide would jerk me to my feet by the rope around my wrists and keep going. The sky was paling in the east by the time we reached their camp. This was definitely not the place to be an American. Everyone and his brother wanted to have a crack at me. The guy who had me in tow didn't do anything to stop them, but kept me going at a brisk pace through a gauntlet of kicks and punches toward a row of stunted trees at the east edge of camp. I heard moans and screams as I approached, and realized that this was their aid station.
4 or 5 kerosene lamps hung from the lower branches of the trees. Beneath them lay the wounded on straw mats, covered with quilted jackets. Their bandages ranged from (very few) actual pressure bandages to torn cloth to bark. My guide untied my hands -- I guess rope is too precious to just cut -- and shoved an orderly carrying a basin of alcohol at me. I understood that they wanted me to take care of their wounded -- although with minimal supplies, and no equipment except the medical bag I'd left the MASH with, actually doing this was something of a challenge. Not to mention that all of my patients hated me. One of them attacked me so viciously that all I could do was curl up and hope that someone would pull him off me before he killed me. My orderly half-heartedly intervened. He wasn't at all sure about this pale foreigner, but I think he knew enough medicine to realize that I hadn't hurt anyone so far.
A couple of hours past dawn a medical team pulled up with the Korean staple of medical care: the bone saw. Their doctor was so harried that he only grunted when the orderly pushed me his way. He gave me a table and we set to work. There were absolutely no supplies. What little they'd taken from BA I'd already used up. Maybe their troops had outrun their supply lines. Maybe they had no supplies. All I know is that we were back to the Middle Ages, or the Civil War -- bandaging with skin and tacking it with thread, angling people head downwards to stave off shock, stunning them with smoke to put them under. This one guy woke up while I was sawing on his leg. I can still hear his screams at night. My orderly squeezed his carotid until he fainted, and I could finish.
Finally some troop carriers pulled up to evacuate the wounded. The guard who'd been hanging around all day tied my hands again, and started to put me on the truck. He got in a huge argument with the surgeon, who apparently didn't care where his help came from as long as he got some. It was strange, because he never looked directly at me. However, the guard released me and the surgeon, facing me only obliquely, pointed back toward the medical tent -- really a canvas sheet stretched between tree branches. I went in and helped my orderly pack our equipment. They put me in their truck and drove me over horrendously rutted roads to the next aid station -- and it started all over again.
You told me once that a person can stay awake for two whole weeks, but you gotta keep dancing. Well, I danced. There was an endless supply of wounded, and the working conditions remained pretty much the same. One time we got a cache of pressure bandages, and I wondered what aid station they had ransacked to get it, and what had happened to the people who'd been working there. But mostly it was a nonstop stream of casualties with very little to do for them.
We followed the battle. Sometimes we were close enough to see the flashes of light from small-arms fire splitting the darkness like fireflies. Several times shells fell right into our makeshift hospital, shaking us up. It's hard to keep track of time when you're catching a catnap whenever you can, but I think it must have been 6 days or so since my capture. I was resting against the base of a tree when my orderly (who'd stayed with me through the various moves) came up and tapped me on the shoulder. I started to rise, thinking that they needed me to get back to work, but he pushed me back. As he did so, he pressed a wad of cooked rice into my hand. He fussed with his tray, providing cover for me while I bolted it down. It was the first thing I'd had to eat since I'd left the MASH.
One thing I really tried to work on was getting the instruments sterile. Infection was our biggest killer after blood loss, and antibiotics were practically nonexistent in the field. When we didn't have alcohol, which happened all too often, we used fire or even urine, whatever we could. I hope we saved a few more lives. I know Uncle Sam might consider this giving aid and comfort to the enemy, but to me these soldiers were just more victims of the war. The real culprits are far from the front lines. Most of these guys were out of the fight anyway, unless the North Koreans are planning to field a one-armed or one-legged division someday.
My orderly had sneaked me several more handfuls of rice, so it was probably day 9 that the mucky-muck showed up. He was some colonel or equivalent. He jumped from his jeep, marched up to me accompanied by his entourage, and looked me over disdainfully from head to foot. Without a word he walked away to talk to the chief surgeon. The doctor said nothing, just hung his head lower while his shoulders drooped. When the colonel finished, he wordlessly turned away. Minutes later I found myself heading north, bouncing around in the back of a truck over the worst roads in Korea, while the soldiers clinging to their own benches either glared, sneered, or ignored me according to their natures.
They took me to a railway station where I met up with other prisoners of war -- two crew members from a downed US bomber, one of whom had a dislocated elbow and some fractured ribs, plus a handful of allies, among them an Aussie, a Canadian, and a real live wire from the Scottish Highlanders. It was such a relief to be able to talk to someone in English again! I splinted the lieutenant's arm as best I could, then looked over a French officer with a shoulder wound and a Turk who was in a bad way, with a belly wound and fever. Soon afterwards they crammed the baker's dozen of us into one end of a box car that had been barricaded off. I guess they'd used it for sheep at one time. I'm pretty sure they were the ones who left that mess on the floor. There was no real place for us to sit, and not enough room on the floor for us all unless we sat on top of each other. Those nearest the door had to stand spraddle-legged over the Turk. This included me, since I was still under the illusion that I might be able to do something for him.
We stood unmoving on the tracks for hours. Behind the barricade came all sorts of banging; I think they were loading some sort of machinery. The noise gradually moved down the track as they loaded car after car. Mid-day came and the temperature rose. The sunward side of the car radiated heat, and we all stood gasping for breath. Night fell, and still we stood there. It had been hours since anyone had had anything to drink, and the Turk was fading fast. The Aussie and Scott -- Wally and Don by name -- started banging on the wall and hollering. A passing guard hit back with something that sounded like a sledgehammer. After that they gave it up and we all just stood there, suffering.
We moved out sometime after nightfall. At first the train eased forward, and everything was fine. Then we hit the first jolt, and everyone who was standing fell over onto everybody else. I guess they figured if they packed us in tightly enough we'd be okay, but it's amazing how hard it is to keep upright in a moving box when there isn't anything to hold onto. Eventually we got a system going where those of us who were standing would brace against each other, but every time the train hit a curve the dynamics would shift and everybody would fall over again. There were a lot of curves. The track followed the river. I could smell the water, and hear it rushing past, especially when the trestle crossed a tributary. Our navigator's best guess was that we were heading north. We seemed to be paralleling the mountains, heading for the center of the country. The night wind seeped through every crack. Only the flight crew was dressed warmly enough. The rest of us huddled up, imitating a tray of ice cubes.
We got to know each other a little on that journey. My biggest concern, one shared by all of us, was that no one beyond our little band knew that we were alive. I kept imagining my father getting a second telegram, an official notification that this time said "missing" instead of "dead." It was tearing me up to think about it. Anyway, on the off chance that this letter does get through (and the sheer effrontery of that thought sometimes boggles my mind), here are the names of my companions. If you get this list, please get word back to their families:
MaGarry, pilot, USA
2 Lt. William Deesland, navigator, USA
Lt. Cpl. Donovan Ehler, UK
Lt. Herbert Allard, engineer, Can.
Pfc. Walter Maltby, Aust.
Lt. Stelios Ventris, Gr.
Cpl. Nikos Seferis, Gr.
Pvt. Petros Zugolis (?), Gr.
Pvt. Mikis Yanopoulos (?), Gr.
Pfc. Johan Janssens, Belg.
Lt. Ugo Chatigney (?), Fr.
I'm not sure about some of these spellings, but I'm pretty sure I got their names and ranks right. We stopped a few times during the night for more loading or unloading. Deesland had a map of Korea in his head, and was pretty sure we passed through Kumchan, Pyongsan, and Namchon (?), probably heading for the Sinmak pass. No one approached our car, and we got underway again after an hour or two. As soon as it got light, they side-tracked us. For hours the train stood without moving. In the morning we were shaded by the eastern mountains, but in the afternoon the heat became stifling. We all collapsed to the degree that we were able, given the tight quarters. To hear water running outside and not be able to get a drink was maddening. We all tried shouting again, but by that time none of us had much voice left. To no one's surprise, no one answered us. At dusk the Turk died. He had no tags, so I have no name to give you. He looked to be about thirty years old. He had a thick brown mustache, and sergeant's stripes.
Now Deesland and Chatigney were down, their injuries having taken more out of them than the rest of us. It was impossible not to step or sit on anyone once the train got started again, which it did shortly after nightfall. I think the engineer must have been trying to avoid our planes. It was hard to hear anything over the clanging of the tracks, but we were overflown by an engine once or twice. MaGarry said it sounded like a B-26. But either our train was missed in the valley or was not considered an important enough target, because we never drew any friendly fire.
The second night was a repeat of the first, except that no one had the strength to talk. I think I blacked out a few times. Maybe it was sleep, I don't know. I'm so tired these days. Every time the train braked for a station, MaGarry looked through the cracks and listened for some clue as to our whereabouts. He figured we passed through Sohung and Sariwon. Towards dawn we pulled into a medium-sized station. From the chat on the platform, he decided we were in Songnim. He speculated that they might be taking us all the way to Pyongyang. We were hopeful we might be turned over to the Chinese there, and maybe get some better treatment.
At Songnim, for the first time in two days, someone came to the door. Some railway worker slid back the door with a racket. MaGarry was standing, and a couple of the Greeks, but I couldn't move. I just sat there in a heap with the rest of them and watched a silhouette in a uniform climb aboard. He looked down at the dead man, then at the rest of us. I got a shock as our eyes met. It was Syn Paik, the North Korean surgeon we'd treated last year. How the hell he got there -- prisoner exchange, escape, special favor -- I don't know. But there he was. I felt the jolt right through my body.
Judging from his expression, he had the same reaction. The fact that he recognized me at all is a miracle. A week and a half with virtually nothing to eat, and bruises all over my face, not to mention the beard, I must have looked a fright. But he knew me. He turned and barked orders to the man behind him. When the worker hesitated, Paik yelled. The man scurried off. Paik then got one of the guards (the other kept us in his machine-gun sights) to help remove the dead man. The railway worker returned carrying a bucket of water. Paik handed it in. I thought we would go crazy when we finally got a chance to drink, but MaGarry and Ventris took charge. The wounded men got the first dipper, then every one else, lowest rank first. There was enough for us to have a cup and a half each.
While this was going on, Paik was conferring with the guards. The local NK officer didn't like what he had to say, but Paik was insistent and the guy backed down. The next thing I know, Paik was helping me off the train. "What about them?" I croaked with the remains of my voice, meaning my friends still on board.
"They are going to a work camp farther north," Paik said in his accented but otherwise excellent English. He put my arm across his neck. "You are coming with me."
He didn't say anything else, and I think it's just as well. It wouldn't do for his comrades to see him getting too chummy with a Yank. They gave us some powerful glares as we passed out of the station, I can tell you. I tried to look behind me, but Paik was walking so quickly I didn't have a chance to see my companions off. I hope they made it to the camp okay. I hope they're all right.
I see that I'm coming to the end of my paper. OMF slipped several sheets to me. Who'd have thought, exhausted as I am, that I'd still be writing? I guess I really needed to talk. Although I suppose I'm really just talking to myself. How the hell this can get through the lines is beyond me. Which is just as well, considering some of the things I've written here. I want to tell you, Beej, but I hate to think of you actually reading it. OMF got me some paper last week, too. I wrote my dad. I don't know if he got it, or how long it might take to reach America from here. If you get this, Beej, please tell Dad I'm okay.
All right, I still want to write and I'm out of paper. I'm going to try that Olde English trick of "crossing the lines." I hope you can read what I've written now that I'm writing across the long edge of the page. I'll put a little number at the top of each "crossed" page so you can read them in some kind of order. How you'll actually do this is beyond me. Everything's beyond me. I'm so tired I can't think straight. But I can't sleep. I keep imagining you sitting across from me in the Swamp, watching me with that focused expression on your face. You look exactly like you used to, with the light coming from the lamps over our beds, hitting your hair and the side of your face. It makes it seem almost light in here. The truth is it's dark, so dark I can hardly make out the lines I've written on this page. The only light is from a narrow gap under the door and a 6-inch rectangular grill two-thirds of the way up that the guard uses to look in on me, guided by the flickering gleam of his kerosene lamp. He's gone now, and the light with him. I can hear him coming in plenty of time to hide this letter, which I've done twice now and will have to do once more before dawn, if he keeps to his schedule. There's a window just up the hall, with moonlight streaming in. The paper shows up like pale smoke against the stone floor of my cell. I can partly see the lines I write, enough so that I don't think I'm overlapping my words too many times (except for now with this deliberate line-crossing). The most dangerous part of this venture will be getting the letter back to OMF tomorrow. It doesn't pay to worry about what might happen if they catch us. I try not to think about it. On with the account.
Paik helped me to the street, then summoned a rickshaw to carry me. If I hadn't been so worn out I think I would have enjoyed the ride. There's a lush range of mountains running from north to south on the east side of town. There are fields of fruit trees all around, bare of leaves now in winter, but what must be a pear- and cherry-blossom festival in the spring. The town is nestled into the foothills that rise toward the mountains. The river, broad enough at this point to be an estuary, borders the town on the west, with the railroad following its western shore. The predawn air was cool and moist. The sky behind the mountains was pale enough to reveal the undulations in the shadowy terrain.
Near the top of the hill, in the center of town, is the hospital. It's moldering like most Korean buildings these days, but it had been constructed of brick and was still an imposing structure. Believe it or not, it's a teaching hospital. I would have thought they'd have had one in Pyongyang. Maybe they do. Maybe they moved it here to get away from the bombing, I don't know. Anyway, Paik works here now, as does Our Mutual Friend, who I'll continue to call OMF in case this letter falls into official hands at some point. Paik had a hell of a time getting me in the door. It seems the North Koreans were not too keen on having one of my kind around here. But Paik argued diligently, and they finally let me in. A soldier followed us into the clinic, where Paik started cleaning me up. "I told them," he said in his throaty voice, "that you are surgeon of great reputation and technique. Perhaps you would care to demonstrate that femoral-artery transplant for the staff here."
"Delighted," I told him, wincing as the alcohol stung the cuts on my face. That was our whole conversation, because the man who turned out to be the official mouthpiece for Communist China came in. His name is Wei. I call him "No Wei" because he's very good at refusing all of my requests. Although he calls himself an interpreter, his real function is to monitor anything I might say to Paik or any of the other doctors who speak English. He also regularly extols the benefits of Communism to me, a very tiresome litany. Anyway, we doctors keep our discussions curtly professional as a result. Any given day you'll see me walking the halls followed by my faithful interpreter and the guard du jour. My clothing was condemned upon admittance, but Paik let me bathe in a bucket and put on a clean quilted-cotton suit. It's kind of the ubiquitous uniform here. It's too short for me, with my wrists sticking out and my ankles bare for several inches between the hemline and the house slippers that I wear everywhere. At least as a consulting physician they let me keep reasonably clean.
My home is the jail, where I'm writing you now. I think it used to be some kind of storage facility, before they converted some of the rooms into cells. It's just a couple of blocks from the hospital. Sometime after nightfall they lock me in my room, a windowless closet that clearly used to serve as a pantry. You can still see the holes in the wall where the brackets for the shelves were attached. Here they leave me to pace the stone floor in complete and utter boredom until dawn breaks. The cell measures six-feet long by four-feet wide. Since I'm six-two, I have to put the straw mat cater-cornered on the floor in order to stretch out. I rarely do this for long, as the rats have to climb over me instead of going around, and none of us likes that very much. When I'm not trying to sleep I pace in very small circles. I've got a honey bucket at one end of the room, and the steel-bound wooden door with the grill at the other. That's my world for twelve hours out of every twenty-four.
In the morning I get my meal of the day: a wooden bowl of rice gruel, sometimes with a bit of boiled cabbage or potato thrown in. The rats smell it and flatten themselves to squeeze in through the slit under the door -- repulsive. But they get nothing from me; I polish off every scrap. That didn't stop one of them from jumping up my leg, trying to get at the bowl. Even the rats are starving. I hope I don't get rabies; they haven't bitten me yet, but they make me nervous. And they lick the bowl when I'm done, which disgusts me. I've considered jumping on them, but I don't want to provoke them into biting me, and I'm not quite hungry enough yet to eat raw rat. Maybe I should be more broad-minded. I've tried asking for two meals a day, but "no way." I get dizzy if I stand up too quickly. I must have dropped twenty pounds since you've seen me. Already my cotton suit is looser. If this keeps up I could be the official Maine contestant for the Auschwitz survivor look-alike contest.
Sometime after breakfast they come and get me. I used to dread that short walk to the hospital. It wasn't the walk itself. I'd get a glimpse of the mountains and a breath of moist air, redolent with the vegetable and human waste that is sprinkled around the earth-walled buildings that crowd the street, between the bomb-damaged shells of larger structures. But my neighbors definitely don't want me here. No one has hurt me, but I've been spat on, cuffed and cursed at. I think I'd be in trouble if it weren't for my escort. Lately the black looks have eased up a little; I guess they're getting resigned to my being here. Still, it reinforces the futility of escape. Not only am I the only white-skinned, blue-eyed person in the district, I'm also at least a head taller than anyone else I've seen. I think I'm the tallest person in the province. It would be difficult to escape notice for long.
Wei meets me at the door and escorts me to wherever I'm supposed to be that day. Although he's the official interpreter, Paik is the one who translates medical procedures to the staff for me. Paik is keen to pass along every technique we used at the 4077th. Sometimes he has a patient he wants me to work on, sometimes I lecture while he translates. I've been doing this for around 10 days now, and so far I've come off looking like a genius. I hope I can keep my streak going. Thank God for Charles; he brought all those ideas from Boston and Tokyo that Paik's never seen. I'm dredging up every lecture that I ever heard about heart conditions. I also plan to do a series on bowel resections. I'll describe the gastrectomy you pulled off, Beej, on that tank driver. Anything that anyone's ever tried or shown us, I'm going to relate. Then I'll move on to things that I've only read about.
Still, I'm bound to run out of techniques sooner or later. Then it's off to the work camp, I suppose, or someplace worse. Provided that they keep me around that long. With the long days and short calories, it's getting increasingly hard to keep my wits about me. Case in point: It was only my second day here, and I was still a little shagged from the train ride. I had just completed an end to end anastomosis. Paik was relaying the final instructions to the gathered group of surgeons when suddenly his voice cut out. I came to looking up at the ceiling, with Paik wiping blood out of my eyes. I must have hit my head on something going down. I panicked, thinking this was just the sort of excuse they needed to get rid of me, but Paik just said, "Easy, doctor. They understand that this is just a temporary condition." I wondered what condition I had that was temporary, and tried to calm down. Some of my professional colleagues hate me, but others are like Paik, more interested in medicine than politics. I think they realized by then that I had information of value, and weren't necessarily on a mission to railroad me, so to speak. In any case, they let Paik take me to the clinic.
On the way, OMF slipped me an apple! I was so shocked that I almost didn't have the wits to hide it in my pocket. Paik put me in an examining room, then had a short conference with Wei just outside the door. I was alone less than a minute, but I wolfed that apple in record time. It was small and wrinkled and tart, and was absolutely the best thing I ever tasted. I had barely tossed the stem from my hand and wiped my fingers when Paik swung the door wide (he'd propped it with his foot) and they both entered. I don't think they suspected anything. Almost every day now OMF slips me something -- a few dried sardines, half a sweet potato, something. It helps. I'm not losing weight quite so fast as I was. One day he stuck a couple of folded-up blank sheets of paper in my pocket. I liberated a pen and wrote my dad that night. I returned my letter to him the same way -- tucked into his pocket. I don't know what he did with it -- gave it to some guy to run down to the border and turn over to the Red Cross, maybe. He might have turned it over to the Chinese, who knows. But it's nice to have something to do with my time.
The paper is getting more visible; dawn must be breaking. In the growing light I can see that this letter is an awful mess. I hope you can make it out.
I miss everyone there terribly. I can see you all so clearly. You especially, Beej, but the others as well. Father Mulcahy is here, rational and calm, exuding wisdom and patience. Klinger is up to some crazy scheme. Sometimes to amuse myself I mentally review his various costumes, paging through them like Radar with his bubblegum cards. I like this one, that one's hideous, this one has good lines but is over the top. Colonel Potter is here, too, usually delivering some colorful expletive like "Mule fritters!" at a time when I really need to hear it. Charles is with me at night, during those long evenings. It's a ritual, how he moves, how he repeats the same actions every evening. First, the bathrobe and slippers. Then, the selecting of the album. This can take minutes. I glimpse each record as he pages through them, the lamplight flaring on the glossy covers. The hesitation, the thoughtful consideration. At length, the decision: Ah, yes. This one. The respectful slipping of the album from its sleeve, the careful placement of it on the platter. The lowering of the tone arm, and the scratchy emptiness before the needle finds the sound. Then he pulls out his chair the way he does, props his feet on his red cushion, and leans back, fingers laced across his stomach, his eyes closed. The music begins. For twenty minutes I'll hear it -- every nuance, every note, every movement of the piece. Charles and I listen from beginning to end. Then, the music stops. Charles lifts down his feet and leans forward to catch the needle before it hits the run-out groove. The record is reversed. The ritual begins again. I think I've spent more hours listening to this remembered music than I ever did consciously back when I had access to the actual recordings. But it's a tremendous comfort to me, and gives me something to do when I'm all alone here, hour after hour in the dark.
When I really want to make myself miserable, when I can stand it, I think about Margaret. I remember the perfume she wears. I stand next to her in surgery and feel the familiar slap, slap, slap of instruments into my palm, always in time and never too late, and often as not anticipated before I call for them. I see her walking across the compound, her hair blazing in the sun like an aureole of gold. In the midst of that almost painful brilliance, her cool blue eyes, like the clearest sky you can imagine on a cloudless summer day, like a refreshing lake. I make up fantasies about her, happy little stories where everything turns out well. She marries a wealthy business man, and they have four children and move to California, where they visit frequently with you and Peg. She gets promoted to Colonel and reorganizes medical units throughout Asia. She goes to Tokyo and dances the night away with handsome service men, wearing a gown so daring that the silkworms who gave up their cocoons for it are shivering with embarrassment.
I've made up my mind that I'll likely never see any of you again. It's too dangerous here, and life is cheap. I don't know what my official status is, or whether I even have an official status. Did SL turn in my dog tags? If so, did he report me as captured, or killed? If the latter, I could be a walking dead man. I don't think Paik would want me killed, but he's only a doctor and might not be able to prevent it. And I think OMF is already running enough risks on my behalf.
All things considered, dying wouldn't be so bad. I mean, sure, I'd prefer to go home and go fishing with my dad and lie around with a half-naked woman popping peeled grapes into my mouth, but it's not the worst crime in the world if that doesn't happen. I've done a lot of good over here. Not as much as I've hoped to at times, but enough to feel that I've been true to my Hippocratic Oath. I've helped a lot of people. I try to remember that, when I start to worry about what might happen to me. And I think, it's not such a bad legacy. I can be content with it.
And another thing, Beej -- this is important. I know how you like to consider yourself responsible for things even when there's no way in hell you really are responsible for them. So I'm telling you straight -- my getting captured is not your fault. I know you. You're probably sitting around beating your breast about how you went to get a manicure in Seoul and as a result your best friend got sent to the front. That is bullshit. I mean technically, sure, that happened, but it wasn't you who was responsible. It was Battalion Aid, first off, being so inconsiderate as to have one of their surgeons killed. It was Potter who passed the word along, and decided that we couldn't wait. But most of all it was my own decision to remain behind when Rackley got hurt. No one decided that but me. I think the private would have died anyway, but Lewis certainly bought it because of me. I'll have his death on my conscience for the rest of my life. So if I don't make it back, in a weird kind of way it sort of balances the books. I want you to believe that. And in no namby-pamby, half-accepting sort of way, either. This wasn't your fault, Beej. Believe it.
I don't want you to worry about me. I want you to carry on. I want you to be as brave and whole as I know you are. Use your common sense, stay out of trouble. Go home to Peg and Erin. That's the thing I think about most. If you don't get this letter for months, because it's had to follow you across the Pacific because you got shipped out, that would be the best news in the world to me. You need rejoin your family. You need to escape this earthly manifestation of hell. That's my hope, the thing that keeps me sane. If I can imagine you -- you and Margaret and Potter, and everyone else at the 4077th -- going about your daily business, working and joking and eating in the mess tent -- that's my anchor, something to hook my sanity into so it doesn't float away. I want you, all of you, to be as happy and complete as you can be. I look from here into that distant window where I had the best friends in the world, and I think it will be all right. I may never get back there, but at least something I did in my life had some meaning. That's what I tell myself, anyway.
The light is growing rapidly. I'm going to have to close. Beej, stay safe. I want you to get home for me. Don't do anything more heroic than what you do already, working to save that endless stream of kids. And also, just once, I'd like you to wear your argyle socks instead of just washing them. Wear them under your greens. It cheers me up to think about you walking around in civilian socks, providing that little bit of rebellion that I'm no longer there to do. Give my love to Margaret. Tell her I'm sorry for all those times that I was such a jerk. Maybe, if her memory of me has faded sufficiently, she'll believe you. But if she barks "Hah!" right in your face, that would be nice, too. She never backs down, and I admire that about her. Among all the things I miss, fencing with Major Houlihan comes near the top of the list.
Goodbye, Beej. If I could have gone through the whole world, I could never have found a better friend or brother. I am so fortunate for that. You made it bearable -- you still do, even though you're far away and will never know it. I love you, Beej. I think you know it, but I wanted to say the words.
Give my best to everyone at the 4077th. Your friend always,