Sorry Soldier

“There are two principal races of the Britons… Both inhabit wild and waterless mountains, desolate and swampy plains, holding no walls, nor cities, nor tilled fields, but living by pasturage and hunting and a few fruit trees… Their form of government is mostly democratic and they are very fond of plundering. Consequently they choose their boldest spirts as leaders… (They are) very quick at running and very firm in standing their groun… and inspire the enemy with terror. They also have daggers. They can endure hunger and cold and any kind of wretchedness. They plunge into the swamps and exist there for many days with only their heads above water, and in the forests they support themselves on bark and roots…” 

— Dio Cassius, writing in the early 3rd Century about the tribal warriors first encountered by the Romans north of Hadrian’s Wall

Camp Roberts, California; Winter, 1960 — Sitting on his half-folded, inverted entrenching tool, its handle stuck into the mud, Private Jamieson shivered awake as a gust of wind tore the poncho roof away and the water poured down on him. He got to his feet, handed his M1 to Private Wong sitting on the log, and pulled his soggy boots out of the big mud puddle. There were three steps at the rear of the hole but it was so dark and the steps were so muddy that Jamieson knew he would slip if he tried to use them. Feeling along Wong’s log, he found the limb that went up out of the hole, pulled himself up and climbed out. 

The four corners of the poncho had been tied down, three of them to staked twigs, but the one that had been tied to Jamieson’s bayonet had come off in the wind. Slip-slopping under the angling rain, he found the loose end, dragged it across to where his bayonet was still stuck in the mud, and tied it again with the string. It was too dark to see, but he knew his bayonet must be rusty and that there was mud and silt inside the handle. Just like his M1. He had tried to fire his rifle that afternoon when the Aggressor detail had started up the hill, but the receiver was so full of crud that he couldn’t pull the operating rod back. Not that it mattered much; the Aggressors hadn’t been able to get very far up the hill it was so muddy. After they’d all slipped and fallen a lot of times they’d finally given up and gone away. Jamieson had kept trying to fire his blank cartridges at them. He had put the butt of the rifle down on the ground and jumped down on the operating rod handle with his boot, but it still wouldn’t come back. There was rust and caked mud all over it, probably even in the bore. Now he knew his bayonet was the same way.

He slipped going back into the hole and when his feet hit the puddle he splashed muddy water all over Wong, but Wong didn’t say anything. Jamieson took his rifle back and sat back down on his entrenching tool and lit a cigarette. He was careful to cup it and it got wet from his hand.

There were only a few more hours and the two-day foxhole problem would be over. Two whole days in a foxhole. Actually they’d been able to get out a few times for attacks, and then again it wasn’t always the same foxhole. And they hadn’t actually had to dig any of them; the same area had been used for the two-day foxhole problem for years by different troops. This was the third foxhole he and Wong had been in and if it wasn’t for the rain he probably would have thought it was the best. Anyway, it was the biggest. Listening to the rivulets of water coming in over the sides, he knew it was way too big for the poncho.

He remembered the sergeant telling them that this was the kind of weather when the goddam Red Chinese had been most likely to attack. Jamieson thought about how the steep, wet, muddy hill had looked when it was still light and he couldn’t imagine anybody even trying to crawl up. The sergeant had said that they’d had to stay in their foxholes for weeks, and Jamieson had tried to imagine that, along with only cold C-rations—“Cold Charlies,” the sergeant cheerfully called them—to eat, no showers, and no place to take a crap except a muddy hole and wet paper.

Jamieson listened to the steady pelt of the rain and tried to think of something good. He remembered hearing a rumor that they might call the problem off early because of the rain. After thinking about that for a while, he wondered if he really cared whether they got out early or not. It had been raining steadily since noon and he was wet and cold with mud all over him. A few more hours didn’t matter anymore. 

Sitting there soaked on his entrenching tool in the mud hole under the dripping poncho, Jamieson let himself play make-believe. Because he hadn’t anything else to do he pretended as hard as he could that he would have to stay there another ten days. He thought about how that would be. Ten more days. Raining all the time. Trying to sleep on the entrenching tool. The poncho coming loose and having to go out to fix it, slip-slopping out in the rain to take a crap. He imagined it all and tried to convince himself that it was true. Wet, cold, shivering, dirty—filthy dirty—mud on his face, in his hair, mud all over him. No showers. Never. Never any clean clothes. He’d never be clean again. He’d always be covered with mud, and his scalp would always itch, and his breath would always stink. Always.

Daydreaming and imagining things had never been hard for him. When he finally admitted to himself that it was all true, that it was really all going to be that way, he tried to feel bad about it. He sat there and for a long time tried to feel sorry for himself. But he couldn’t, he decided. He could tell that his face hadn’t changed its expression and that beyond that, inside, he really did feel neutral about it. It didn’t make any difference whether he left that wet, muddy hole now, or never left it. It was all the same.

He kept thinking about all the wet muddy things for a while, that they were really all going to happen and last all that time, and the dull, reflective reaction he was having to it all, and it seemed to him that there was a feeling of accomplishment, that he had arrived in some way. Maybe that was what it took: To sit in a wet muddy foxhole for two days.

Then he knew he had forgotten something and he tried to imagine all the goddam Red Chinese slithering towards him in the dark up that steep wet muddy hill, and he couldn’t.

2 Responses to "Sorry Soldier"

  1. Bruce McEwen   January 30, 2019 at 4:41 pm

    Reminds me so much of Uncle Ken, who married my mother’s little sister, just before I was born, 1952, and who served w/ 2nd Infantry in the Korean War — He was assistant machine-gunner, the guy who humped the heavy ammo boxes and fed the machine-gun; and one of his duties as a-gunner, was to go out in the free-fire area, after the latest charge had subsided, and clear the gun-range; to open the up the down range and help the sweep of the fire — which, as you know, machine-guns are arranged close enough to each other, that they cut like a pair of scissors — but so, yes, as I was saying, and as the Chinese Divisions overran Uncle Ken’s position he told me many years later, as I was on a ladder troweling plaster on his ceiling, that he had nothing much to do, as for clearing away corpses, and one day he tapped the machine-gunner on the shoulder and said, “you’re too high, bring it down!”

    The gunner replied, “I can’t kill ’em.”

    I had to move my ladder, and Uncle Ken opened another beer, lit another cigarette. “The next day,” Uncle Ken finally said, “the machine-gunner died from a single bullet wound through the top of his helmet, and I was bumped up, I was promoted to machine-gunner.”

    A long silence passed. I moved the ladder maybe three or four times; then I asked, “Uncle Ken, did you have any trouble shootin’ ’em?”

    Uncle Ken took a long drag on his cigarette and exhaled the smoke without a word. Did he have a certain look on his face, in his eye? I don’t know. I dipped my trowel in my mud pan and kept after my.work…

    Reply
  2. Jim Armstrong   February 1, 2019 at 9:40 am

    I like Jim Luther’s writing.
    This article appeared as part of MCT, January 23.
    I commented then:
    “Camp Roberts was known for blistering summers as well as winter rain and mud.
    My Camp Roberts was a twin in South Carolina.”

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.