Tuesday, January 20, 2009

12. Chungkai

Hospital huts at Chungkai POW camp
Watercolour by Jack Chalker
Image Source: Australian War Memorial (ART91822)

In the beginning of December, a number of fit personnel are to be sent to Chungkai, the largest hospital camp in the area, about five miles down the road. Our work will be mainly hut building. On our way to the parade ground, from where we are to march off, we halt at Nico's place to bid him goodbye. Nico asks me whether I have found an answer to that question I had put to him at that early morning hour by the cookhouse, and throughout his lectures on philosophy.

"As instructive as they were, Nico, they have nothing to do with my question, which is related entirely to the soul," I answer. "No explanation for that can be found in terms of logicality."

"I'm pleased to note from your answer that you've found the answer. First Corinthians 1:27," are his parting words. [1]

At Chungkai we select a place for ourselves at the entrance of the long hut facing the side of the hill where it slopes down to the river. In this camp fishing is permitted, so we want to be as close to the water as possible, for we have great plans. Another man, by the name of Harry, has joined us. He was born and raised in the Jordaan, a well known sector of prewar Amsterdam. The food here is as good as it was at Tamarkan, but the bugs here are known to be of a particularly persistent breed, so we go to sleep on the sun-warmed sand of the hill slope, weather permitting.

Having bathed and eaten, we lie on our groundsheets under the evening sky, dimlty lit by a waning moon: three contented, glowing cigarettes. The war and our conditions are simply put aside and forgotten. It is Joop who breaks the silence.

"Ye mind tellin' me what this here Nico meant with that one somethingth, one somethingth else? Ye landcrabs sure talk screwy!"

It is the start of a searching discussion on the question whether there is a God or not, until Joop begs to stop talking about it, lest him against drinking "yeast", which is not what the doctor ordered. Conversation then swerves to women, and there we really dig in until Joop walks off, muttering to himself audibly about "them silly hotpots", on his way to what he calls "sending a telegram to Tojo." He returns, and an hour later is snoring lustily. Harry and I are stirring beneath the sheets, unable to sleep. The moon is gone, the sky bright with a myriad of stars. A blue light hovers over the rooftops of the huts. The stretch of white sand runs from the hill down into the massive black-green wall of the forest way below. Nearer to us is the silvery, gleaming ribbon of the river, broken by grey cobwebs of young bamboo groves and darker scrub patches on its banks. A flight of bats zigzags around a tree.

The silence is suddenly broken by a giggle. Not loud, but distinctly cutting through the night. A darkly exciting giggle from a fully grown female. It had to be, the way it sounded, sexy, warmly promising. Two beads rise, two faces from where it seems to come. There, again that giggle, quite audible now. Pushing our bedsheets aside, we hurry as one man on our bare feet on the lukewarm sand. At the foot of the hill is a well worn path leading to the river, from where we pick up the sound of women talking and soft laughter. Quickly we move, without exchanging a word, to a bamboo grove from which the voices seem to come. Cowering on all fours, we look through an opening in the undergrowth and see a young native woman in a small boat, anchored at a little distance from our observation post, bending over the side, wringing a piece of cloth. The starlit water drops fall from her hands in a chain of silver. Bent over as she is, her behind looks big beneath the clinging wet sarong covering her body up to her armpits. She is talking to another young woman walking towards the boat in the shallow water, with her back turned to us. This one is rather plump, standing up to her knees in the river, wearing a halter and a sarong. Reaching the boat, she grips the gunwhale with both hands to heave herself over, while the other girl shifts to the opposite side to keep the boat in balance. With mounting excitement we watch the girl in the water wiggling her posterior this way and that, with one leg over the side to get in. Naturally, we both hope that the sarong will slip off. I feel an ant which has gotten between my toes, but I don't care. All I want is to goggle at that woman climbing into the boat. I feel a sting; the ant has bitten me. Without glancing downwards I crush it between my fingers. Giggling to her mate, the girl is almost over the side and...there goes the sarong!

"KOORAH!" The snarl explodes like a pistol shot, pushing my heart up in my throat. The girls shriek. With a flashing of legs and a surprisingly white bottom, the plump one tumbles in, almost capsizing the boat. I turn around to face the Korean guard who has sneaked upon us from behind. A moment later, two very embarrassed men climb the hill, two dogs ordered back to the kennel with their tails between their legs.

The man who calls himself a friend of mine roars with laughter, provoking my retort that twelve and a half years at sea must have pickled his hormones into impotence, or he would have understood. He replies that it is not the desire for women that strikes him as funny, but that we should be talking about religious matters and then be caught in the act of Peeping Tom! The blood rushes to my face.

"Don't git me wrong, matey. It's only natural an' yer not a hypocrite anyways, or ye wouldn't have told." A short pause. Then, with the beginning of a smile on his face, he says, "Next time take uncle Joop along. Wouldn't mind having an eyeful of it too."

"Oh, you would, eh?"

"Sure." Joop spits far out onto the sand. "I'm glad ye told me. Last night I hear ye carryin' on like that, I say to meself, me mate here has got his head all up in them clouds. Soon me an' him can't talk anymore about ordinary things. But now ye've come back to earth."

The small single huts, reserved for ranking POW officers, have small, well kept front gardens. The Japanese commander, named "Kakabu" for short (his real name being unpronouncable for Western tongues), is human, strange as that may seem. This Kakabu has always remained a farmer at heart, which he was before the war. His first order to every officer assigned to these huts is that the greatest possible attention should be given to their gardens, and that tomatoes should be grown. Kakabu is the self-appointed overseer, and woe betide the officer whose plot appears uncared for! Time after time, Kakabu, on his way in full dress uniform to a meeting of Japanese camp commanders, has dismissed his startled aides and squatted beside a POW officer busy in his garden. The meeting completely wiped from his mind, Kakabu helps with weeding and digging, giving free advice to the surprised officer.

One day we are detailed to dig a large pond of the "Duckoo Farm", Kakabu's latest hobby. The chosen spot is a patch of dried mud, fenced off with wire netting. On the ground are placed half a dozen large bamboo baskets full of squeaking yellow balls - the ducklings, packed in much too narrow a space. We start digging a small pond for the ducklings. In the afternoon the clay is hard enough to hold water, and the Korean supervisor opens the baskets. Several ducklings are found dead, for which we are held responsible, having taken too much time for digging, says the Korean. We tell him that it is really his fault for he should have let the ducklings out while we were digging. None would have suffocated.

His reply is what could be expected. We prisoners are all "no good-tenah", so he is going to smack our faces. We draw ourselves up as high as possible and look down on the chap with all the contempt we can muster. If he wants to smack our faces, let him reach for it. This prodding of his inferiority complex has its usual effect. His jaw muscles swell, the lips draw back over his buck teeth and the little rat-eyes assume the feared crazy glint. When he has worked himself up for a spitting and slapping session, in steps a powerfully built Jap sergeant who we recognise as Big Bert, nicknamed by Joop. Walking straight to the opened basket with the dead animals, he calls the Korean to him while pointing to the basket with an accusing finger. Then before our unbelieving, jubilant eyes the soldier is knocked to the ground by the sergeant, and ordered up to attention only to be flattened again. This goes on until the sergeant seems to be satisfied that the general purport of the message has penetrated the thick Korean skull. Leaving his victim standing on shaking legs and with glassy eyes, the sergeant orders us to return to our base.

At afternoon roll-call we become the undisputed subject of the day's major news. "That was even better than watching naked flesh," declares Harry, his voice thick with envy because he happened to be on another detail.

Thank goodness, no more "duckoo farming" for us. Hut building is our trade now, while Harry is made a medical orderly, moving about our hut busily painting ringworm and scabies with sulphur oil or wrapping bandages. He looks after our gear while we are away at work and he grows fatter by the day. The hut building job is not too bad but it requires our full attention and makes the day go by quickly. Joop is with the ground team digging holes and putting up the bamboo posts. I am working aloft, fixing the attap roof. "Roof Baboon" Joop calls me when he is in a bad mood, and it is "Mud Slinger" to him from me. He does not like that, for it resembles army business.

Drawing by Stanley Gimson
Image Source: River Kwai Railway

The hut building was at first supervised by a Korean corporal who followed the common Japanese pattern of terrifying haste with every part of his job. Bays collapsed, roofs caved in and, of course, our men were blamed. A British lieutenant stepped in and calmly succeeded in letting the Korean allow him a week's trial for a systematised work plan with better results and less time involved. He divided the gang into sections, one for measuring up and digging holes, one for erecting the bamboo frame and attap portions and one for laying the attap roof. It worked so well that from thereon the entire operation was left to "Mister Tom", as the lieutenant was called, who had introduced task-work, a novelty in our relations with the enemy.

Everybody in Mister Tom's gangs works steadily, so for once the motto "speedo finish speedo bamboo" becomes true. The sooner we are finished with the day's task, the sooner we knock off. To top it off, Mister Tom got better pay for the hut builders, and needless to say, this lieutenant has become very popular among his fellow prisoners. Most of the huts are built for our own men, arriving daily in an unending trickle from jungle camps up north. The huts assigned to Japs receive a final touch before delivery: they are expertly loused up with a matchbox of prime bedbugs, emptied into the hollow bamboo frame.

Like Tamarkan, Chungkai is not too bad as far as POW camps go. The Japs are reasonable because their commander is humane, the work is not too hard and the food is pretty good. There is even a canteen where one may buy fried eggs, omelets, spicy snacks, ginger bread and rice flour doughnuts! Finely cut native tobacco, properly cured by former tobacco experts from the British-American Tobacco Company in the Indies, is rolled with cleverly constructed tools into cigarettes of reasonably thin paper. Scores of men, unfit for manual work, are being employed by the "factories", the entire profit of which is donated into the hospital fund. On "concert" days the theatre ground resounds with the calls of cigarette peddlers, all for obvious reasons picked from non-smokers. They sell light, medium and strong blends.

In the afternoon Joop and Harry go fishing, leaving the frying of the catch to me. Repeated trials have established that, no matter what bait is used or at what time I try it, I am absolutely unable to catch fish. Harry says some people are born with it; the fish are allergic to them. On a concert day Joop and I knock off from work as quickly as possible, take a dip in the river, eat our dinner and proceed to the theatre ground, where Harry will be waiting with two "reserved seats", two empty jute bags laid out beside his own.

Incredible but true, in the circumstances we three are having a jolly good time in Chungkai, and why not? Who knows what is waiting for us before this blasted war is over? Instinctively we know that our very lives are at the absolute whim of our captors, who could have killed us all at will. But every nerve and fibre of our bodies and minds are set on survival, pushing the thought of looming death aside, grabbing any opportunity for diversion, for laughter, to forget, to live on as long as possible.

Likable characters these two, Joop and Harry. They have that unbeatable quality of Amsterdam humour, a blend of razor-sharp wit and compassion. It is what a man needs when his war is lost and he has been turned into a slave of the enemy, asking himself all the time what has happened to his wife and their baby.

Except on rainy days we sleep out on the sand. Usually we talk, swap rumours, chuckle, before going to sleep. But sometimes I stay awake to listen to the voices coming in the still air, muffled, whispering, the echoes of the past. Neither Harry nor Joop have had a similar experience, or so they've said. Joop declared that the only sound he could hear on a particularly hot day was the grating voice of a bartender: "Ye wanna light or dark?"

What was the name of that Blue Funnel Line captain who had such a grating voice, cutting right through the clang of steam winches? "My compliments to the Mate when you go down, and ask him to see me when he has a chance, will you?" The gangway swaying under my feet when I step down to the wharf. The brakes of the tram screeching to a halt near the edge of the lawn sloping down from the bench under our tree. The baby-voice she puts on when talking to a kitten or a puppy. Damn it! This won't help. Why can't I sleep like those two there, snoring away? "Poppop-poppop", the faint throb of an outboard motor on the river, a sampan going upstream.

Suddenly I am back in Surabaya. The starter of the launch motor turn a few times and catches on. The bows cut through the brackish water. Alongside the quay the higher pitch of the motor braking in reverse. Our wharf office, telephone ringing beneath the slowly turning ceiling fan blades. It's five o'clock. Homewards now. Her blond head over busily knitting hands, her mouth pouting in a deliberate sulk. "Lisa wanna doggie. Do I get a doggie?" Later, her pretty voice through the bathroom door: "My own, let me call you my own..." Her favourite song in those days.

These pangs of the past, hated and loved, turn me weak and despondent.

They come not when the sun is on the hill,
The sky blue and deep.
They come to the mind when it's still
And tired, but cannot sleep.
When darkness ends the day they come
And steal upon me.
The pulsing thoughts, beating the drum
To fleeting stabs of memory.


[1] "But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty."

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