Tuesday, January 20, 2009

13. More of Chungkai

Drawing by Jack Chalker
Image Source: British Medical Journal (October 5, 1946)

A man stumbles through the gate, leaning on bamboo crutches, one of his legs covered in a dirt-blackened bandage. His uniform hangs loosely in tatters on his pitiful, shrunken frame. His face is bent downwards, which is why I need a moment or two to recognise...my brother Han! Panic stricken, I run to him.


His tired eyes in the sallow face light up. "Frank! So glad to see you. They said you were dead! Oh, my leg. It hurts, it hurts. What's happening to me?"

Taking his arm, I support him to the hut, with fear in my heart as I smell the odour of a tropical ulcer. Oh my God, how far he is gone! He is so light, so awfully light! With a cold, sinking feeling I lay him down on the bamboo slats. "Jesus, not my brother, not him! You hear me?!" Han, too tired to speak, falls at once into a deep slumber. Only then do I realise that all the time I haven't spoken a single word to him.

Doc says not to worry too much. Rest and good food might just do the trick - and quinine, of course, for he's got a fair dose of malaria too. But most of all the will to live will be decisive.

"No fear!" I call out while running down the path leading to the hut where they sell that broth of tripe, entrails, fat and green peppers, known for its nourishing effect.

Han has so many friends who give him all they can spare, a snack, rice, marmite and quinine, naturally.

Finally there comes the day when the silent prayers are answered, when the stinking holes in his leg close and the feverish gleam disappears from his eyes. In the hours spent at his bedside, he tells me all about the ordeal he had to go through, the horror of the railroad, his share of suffering. It is nothing new. His story is but an echo of that from many others, though with typical human selfishness, we here in Chungkai had forced ourselves to forget, to push back the screaming evil into the dark recesses of the mind, until the day of reckoning.

Drawing by Jack Chalker
Image Source: www.nzetc.org

An unending line of sick, wounded and maimed arrive daily, bringing with them new stories of deliberate, sadistic savagery. There were two brave Allied officers, discovered as the engineers of an excellent news distribution system, beaten to death and their bodies thrown in the Jap guardhouse latrine. An example of the incomprehensible Japanese wickedness, which does not wish to observe even the primitive rule of respect for the dead.

We hear about the astonishing virulence with which cholera has decimated camp populations, seeking its victims with such unpredictable swiftness among the weak as well as the strong, so that any precaution seemed useless. There is also a sickening example of cowardice, the well-nigh unbelievable story of one of our senior Dutch officers, who had refused a Dutchman a chance to escape the firing squad by switching his identity with one of the many dead ready for burial. The Dutch soldier, who had run away but was driven back by the impenetrable jungle, was made to report himself to the Jap camp office. He was shot the following day. The senior officer had to witness the execution. May his nights be without peace for the rest of his days. With every group of new arrivals, another stanza is added to the "song of the railroad", the unending lament, sinister and sad, of a seemingly God-forgotten time at a monstrous project on which sixty thousand have been put to work, and of whom sixteen thousand will perish.

At last Han has beaten the malaria and ulcers, but it's taken almost all the strength he has left in him. He is too weak as yet to walk by himself, but he says that he can play for the boys if they want him to. And so a time is set, and one evening they take him to the stage on a stretcher. They place him in a chair before a large crowd assembled on the parade ground. For a moment or two, his fingers run tentatively over the keyboard of his old accordion. A hush has fallen over the audience. Then, up spring and sparkle the notes, rising and tumbling down, in singles and in pairs, in chords of low and high notes like a musical fountain.

First they let him play a little while on his own, but not for long. As many times before, the magic of the sweeping rhythm and harmony of his music makes them burst forth into singing. "Beautiful dreamer, wake unto me. Starlight and dewdrops are waiting for thee" sounds over the heads of the men. "Home, home on the range" echoes against the dusty attap walls, touching the trees looming in the darkness, touching the hardened souls of these ragged, skinny people drawn together in close unity. A unity which goes beyond the boundaries of rank and standing. For now the only important things are Dinah and My Blue Heaven, and She's My Lady Luck, and Always, and more of the songs of old. But not Home Sweet Home; that is forbidden. The accordion is only audible at the start of each tune, the singing taking over immediately, drowning the mechanical sound in the human voices of the one and same hope they all carry in their hearts.

Lights-out comes much too soon. After Auld Lang Syne the men walk back to their quarters, contented, for had they not, for a little while at least, beaten the enemy?

We slip under our blankets. The air is crisp and clear, the stars singing their own silent choir. I am tired. Soon sleep will come. Tonight no sounds from the past steal upon me, but only a dim, fading echo of the singing: "There is a long, long trail a-winding, into the land of..."

One morning while I'm shaving, a brilliant idea pops up. I'm just about to start on my chin, the old fashioned razor blade in my hand coming into view in the mirror, and there and then it hits me that this kind of shaving knife does not require replacement as ordinary blades do. In our circumstances it is difficult if not impossible to obtain new razor blades, while this knife can be sharpened on a strop. Costs nothing to do that. So, why not use it to earn some money on the side? Be a barber, use the knife to cut off other people's beards for a fee. What could stop me?

"Manslaughter, that'll stop ye," says Joop.

"Oh, come on now, Joop. I can always learn."

"Not on me face, ye won't. An' I'd ask them to pay in advance 'cause them jokers will refuse to part with their dough when you've finished with them!"

Harry offers to stand by with a club, protecting me against the wrath of next-of-kin.

Indeed the first customers bleed profusely, and bluntly refuse to pay the five cent fee. But after a while I get the hang of it, and there is the time when half a tikal, about fifty cents, is easily made on a busy afternoon. Because the extra money is used to sustain our daily menu, Joop and Harry call me affectionately "Mister Figaro", telling everybody that they never had any doubt as to the successful outcome of their friend's career.

Han Samethini (bottom, second from right) with the Chungkai POW orchestra
Source: Han Samethini Collection

Han is up and walking all by himself. He is doing well. Exempted from manual work, he has been permanently attached to the entertainment group as an accordion player in the camp's proudly boasted orchestra, which is led by Norman Smith, a former musician and conductor in Britain.

Barry, formerly an established member of the guild of pickpockets in good old England, seats himself on the bamboo stool and orders a clean shave. He's grown a full, well-kept beard and it is odd that he suddenly wants to get rid of it.

"Airs get stuck in them twigs and whatnot," is his answer to my unspoken question. Certain stories have been going around about this man, only five feet tall but tough and agile, known for his expertness in sneaking through bush terrain or among huts in camp, noiseless and invisible. Never applying his skill on his fellow prisoners, he has on one or two occasions volunteered to steal medicines from the Jap store, with complete success. Undetected naturally, for he is still walking about.

After cutting his beard as closely as possible with the scissors, I start the lathering. Placing his hand on my arm, he says, "Listen mate, can't pay now. Flat broke, you might say. But when you've finished I got a good thing lined up for you. You'll get your fee double and over!" I continue the lathering in silence. When one side of his face is shaven, I wipe my razor and put it away.

"Right, let's hear it and see if it's good enough to finish the other half."

"Smart cookie, what? Listen 'ere. Can earn me a fried chicken tonight, a big fried chicken, see? But I need another feller for the job. If you can 'elp me, you've earned yourself 'alf a chook, fair 'nuff?"

It is late in the afternoon when I get to the spot by the river where Barry is to meet me. It is right on the bank near a Japanese kitchen, partly hidden behind a thick hibiscus hedge. Perhaps there is a job to do for the Jap cook, but for what on earth would he pay a whole chicken? Barry has also insisted that a start angling the moment I arrive. Why? Not a clue, but if that's necessary, all right, here goes. There is no need to bait the hook; the fish never bite when I am holding the rod, no matter what.

Ten or fifteen minutes pass. It is very quiet at this spot but for the cook's voice sounding now and then from the kitchen. He's probably talking to himself, for no other voice answers him. The river flows slow and lazy here. From the point where my fishing line enters the water, little swiftly spreading rings flow out in widening circles. Here and there the surface is broken with a soft popping sound where a fish snaps at a fly. Where the dickens is Barry? Another few minutes pass. Then a sudden "Nandeska?" and the Jap cook steps into view, startling me out of a growing drowsiness.

"You catchie fishie?" And without waiting for a reply, he grabs my angling rod and pulls the line out of the water. The sight of the baitless hook renders him speechless. He shakes his head in disbelief. Then mumbling, "Stoppo chisai", meaning something like "wait a minute", he disappears in the direction of the kitchen. After a few minutes he returns with some meat offal. He takes over now, applies the bait and flings the line into the water, moving the rod from left to right and back again. In no time a fair sized fish is landed, run through the gills and mouth with a twig and thrown on the grass at my feet. I take the rod, bait the hook and follow his technique to the letter but, alas, my proverbial bad luck with the noble sport is demonstrated once more. I am not made for catching fish, it is as simple as that. But not for this Jap, who seems determined to make me catch fish. He shows me how to bend my elbows, how to hold the rod and so on. I follow precisely his instructions but it is hopeless. Arms akimbo, he steps aside with an expression of astonishment on his face, that a barbarian like this prisoner of war would be unable to catch a fish in a river teeming with them. Finally he gives up. The usual shouted "buggero" and "kaneiro" precedes his exit. Good. I give up too. That damned Barry never turned up anyway. I decide to return to our hut.

"Don't tell us you caught that all by yourself," says Harry with raised eyebrows.

"Oh, shut up!"

"Barry was here, left this for you."

It is half a fried chicken, wrapped in a banana leaf. Harry then explains that the Jap cook, actually not a bad chap as Japs go, is known for his passion for angling, and his habit of interfering with anyone who happens to fish near his kitchen. Barry had planted me there as "bait for the hook", to get the cook away from his kitchen. While the Jap was kept busy with the greatest living fishing jinx at this side of the world, Barry struck and made away with two fat fried chooks.

I am speechless.

"Get on with it and bury the bones. That cook might be smarter than we think. We've had our share of the chicken, together with Barry."

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