Tuesday, January 20, 2009

25. The Letter

Photo Source: LIFE magazine

I am sitting on my bed - holding her letter!

At last, after almost four years, a letter from Lisa, in pencil, dated 24th of October. I read it again and again, though I know it all by heart now. Thank God, so far all is well with her and our child. Also with her mother and sister, who had come to join her in this camp at Banjubiru in Central Java. I am dazed with joy, staring at the words in her handwriting, telling me that she is longing for me. The camp, she writes, is no more than a collection of disbanded army personnel dwellings, guarded by a dozen Gurkha troops who had arrived a few days earlier. Soon now all women and children will be taken to an assembling camp in Semarang, on the north coast, and from there on it shouldn't be long until we'll meet again! I will be introduced to Mary-Em, grown into a little darling with lots and lots of curls, almost four now and longing to meet her Daddy.

How great it is to live, to know that all this is going to happen to me! A sudden surge of intensely felt gratitude to God is welling up in me, bending my head down in silent worship and prayer.

Let me write to her at once - or should I go to Manila first and buy them a present?

I don't want to waste a minute, and dash off to the PX canteen, buttoning up my shirt, my cap slanted on one ear. I am eager to tell the marvelous news to anybody who cares to listen. The first one I see is Reverend Hamel, talking to someone. The minister, looking up when I call out to him, signals to me with his hand behind his back not to come near, to go away. I catch on at once, for the expression on the face tells its own tale. It is the empty face of one who has just received the dreaded news. I have seen it before. It is the first impact of the terrible message that seems to drain the cheeks and lips of blood.

Hitchhiking my way to Manila, I stop over at the Red Cross centre for a cool drink. Passing through the Indoor Games section I notice a pretty girl in American Red Cross uniform, standing behind the counter, smiling at me. She is petite, with auburn hair.

"Hi," I say.

"Hi, yourself. What can I do for you?"

"Are you American?" I reply, rather stupidly.

"All over. Where are you from? What's that you wear on your shoulder?"

"Dutch Forces emblem."

"You from Holland? Those bars, are you a captain?"

"No. Sergeant, and I come from Java. Gee, you're pretty!" It comes out before I can help it, but then, am I not in love with the whole world now that I know I will see Lisa again?

"Java? You're kidding. That's coffee. You know, cup-of-java?"

In another half an hour she knows all about the letter and that I want to buy something special for Lisa and Mary-Em. Vivette, that is her name, offers to get me things from the female personnel's PX that she feels certain our women would be wanting most of all. Frocks, shoes, underwear and the like. Males have no access to the store which sells these at very reasonable prices compared with other shops. I glad accept and promise to meet her again at four o'clock, when she will be off duty.

At about that time I am back in the Red Cross building's cafeteria, listening to a new tune played on the public address network:

Oh, give me land, lots of land under starry skies above
Don't fence me in
Let me ride through the wide open country that I love
Don't fence me in

When she enters, looking about her to find me, I get a sudden, guilty notion of - what am I doing here? But I rise to my feet to meet her.

"Where the hell have you been?" asks Roel when I step into the Fifth's recreation centre, an hour or so later, loaded with presents. I tell him, adding that I have a date for tonight to take Vivette to a show or something. Eyebrows raised, he goes, "Hey, hey, what have we got here? What will your wife say?"

"Oh, shut up. I've got to do something in return, haven't I?"

"That's right. It all always starts with the best of intentions!"

It turns out to be a pleasant evening at the Manila Opera, and when, after escorting her back to the Red Cross women's centre, I thank her for her company, she says, "Aren't you going to kiss me goodnight? Isn't that a Dutch custom? It is in the States."

Her lips feel warm against mine. "That's enough," she whispers a moment later, breaking loose.

When I return the tent is dark. The boys are all asleep. In the darkness I tiptoe to my bed and take off my shoes, feeling more guilty than that time with Hedy, though I had only kissed Vivette.

Two days pass, and then a second letter from Lisa is handed to me. She writes that all women and children were transferred without any incidents from Banjubiru to a large camp in Semarang. They were evacuated by Gurkha and Australian troops just in time, for in a neighbouring camp Indonesian extremists with white-painted faces had broken through the cordon and hand-grenaded and gunned down women and girls, leaving the male prisoners unharmed. Lisa's group were first taken to a former gaol in Ambawara, from which only a day before the Indonesian bandits had been driven out. The place was still partly filled with native dysentery patients, black with filth and flies.

Darling, millions of green-black flies! It was horrible, and the whole night through a ring of guns placed around the prison, manned by Australians, were blasting away at the murderous ghouls to keep them off. I saw them in the coconut trees, shooting at us while we were running about in all directions for cover. The following day we were taken in a truck convoy to Semarang, protected by a strong Japanese guard. Soon we shall embark for Batavia, from where I will write you again. I've got all your letters now and am counting the days.

How long have I got to wait yet? Waiting has become a major part of my life. But thank God, she is safe.

Perhaps I should try getting her something special, cosmetics maybe? A few hours later I am telling Vivette the latest news from Lisa.

Vivette is a very intelligent girl, holds a B.A. degree, good to converse with and very independent - but all woman, too much woman for my peace of mind. As often as I may keep telling myself that it is all well and above board, that she is too respectable a girl to get ideas about that, that I should not think of anyone else but Lisa, there are moments when I wish she wouldn't be all that respectable. She must sense it. One evening she says that I must save myself for Lisa, but that I should see her, Vivette, as often as I can, so she will be certain of keeping me away from bad female company. A remarkable girl, Vivette, and perhaps it is just as well that I have met her.

Two days later. A beautiful day. The tent is empty but for myself.

"Gonna take a sentimental journey..." The platoon sergeant is back. I pick up Life With Father and ease myself into a canvas chair to read, when I am suddenly startled by a loud cry from the neighbouring tent.

There I find the boys holding someone down on his bed. A minute ago he had tried to cut his wrist but was arrested in the act by men entering just in time to stop him. On the floor lies a blood-spattered safety razor blade. He had not succeeded in opening the artery - the boys were too quick for him. But he had come pretty close. They saw him behaving in a curious manner after he learned about the killing of his wife and children by Indonesian extremists. They grew alarmed when he suddenly ran into his tent. They say that it would be better if I went away. There is nothing anyone can do but hold him down until the doctor arrives. But when I turn to leave he calls me. With his face twisted and wet with tears he shouts, "Hey, you! You, talking about God to us. You're a liar, a damned liar! There is no God, you hear? No God, no nothing!"

"Seven. That's the time we leave. At seven," goes the infernal thing. The black despair on his face. What a blow it must have been for him, poor fellow. Henrik had said, "A man's hopes and prayers seem to be of no account, completely immaterial, when the die is cast. So why hope, why pray?"

Maybe I should not have taken on the church services. Maybe for some, religion wasn't all that good. If their faith, their hopes had not been stirred up, rekindled, the blow might not have been so hard.

About me I hear the peaceful, familiar sounds of everyday. Somebody hammering a nail down, in the distance a dog barking monotonously. Farther down the row of tents fragments of music and voices come from a radio being tuned in.

"There is no God, no nothing!"

"Gonna take a sentimental..." I am beginning to hate platoon sergeants. And I need a drink - bad.

Roel and I are having one in a spot on the corner, opposite the Red Cross. The radio is broadcasting the latest news from Surabaya. The whole town is now occupied by British troops. A total of eight thousand internees were successfully evacuated.

"Where have you been all this time? Been behaving yourselves?" That uniform looks pretty on her. I introduce Vivette to Roel and offer her a drink.

"No thanks, not just now, before work. What about you and your friend tonight at my place on Rizal Avenue, say about half past eight? We'll have a beer and some talk."

Roel has got another appointment, thanks all the same.

"What about you, Frank?"

"Thanks, Vivi, I'll come."

Watching her crossing through traffic, I ask myself why I should wish to see her again. A nice, friendly girl who wants to look after me and all that, but what about myself? Am I not after more than just a beer and some talk? A bad streak in my character. At a time like this, with Lisa still in a camp somewhere in Java, I should not even think of another woman. Better make it the last time with Vivi.

Lisa will always be the one for me.

I arrive far too early in Manila, with at least a couple of hours to myself before the appointment on Rizal Avenue. I decide to look up Jack, a member of the U.S. Air Force ground personnel at Nichols Field. It so happens that he is in. He welcomes me to a drink in his tent and introduces two of his friends.

Nichols Field (photo taken in 1941)
Photo Source: National Museum of the U.S. Air Force

"Frank," he says, after I have told him about the incident with the man who had tried to commit suicide, "That guy says there is no God. The trouble is that God is always dragged into all of our earthly affairs, which is so wrong. It all begins with ourselves."

"Listen, Jack," I reply, "That chap's all broken up. He is rebelling against the only thing which was left to him in the war years to hang on to for support - his religion. It is a terrible thing, you know, to hear that your wife and children have battled, struggled, done anything they could to beat hardship and disease in the Jap camps, only to be butchered at the end by a pack of gutless rabble, just when the misery seemed to be over!"

"Of course it is a terrible thing, but, no offense, isn't it all your own fault? I know, it's easy to say this when my own folks are not involved, but what a mean is...Oh, hell! Hope you don't mind my saying so. Wait, let's have a refill. Gimme your glass."

It is only seven on the alarm clock on top of the refrigerator. Plenty of time.

"Look," he continues after filling our glasses, "I don't wish to be regarded as a cold blooded know-it-all without any feelings for the poor man and his dead wife and kids. I'm only trying to pin down the reason. Can I talk without upsetting you?"

"By all means, go right ahead. I think I know what's coming now."

"You do? Well then, isn't all this bloodshed because of your colonisation of the Indonesian people? Isn't it so that the Indonesians were being considered inferiors, especially by your white women, merely for what they were, people with brown skin? Could it be that the sight of white women and girls, helpless and defenceless, stripped of their former status of racial superiority, has exploded the bottled-up anger of the Indonesians into a drive to kill rather than to rape? Would this killing have been avoided if white women and girls had taken the Indonesians as their equals?" For an ordinary soldier he seems capable of expressing his views in an academic manner.

"You know," I answer him, "You Americans amaze me. But for a handful left in the reservations, you've wiped out all the Red Indians, the real native Americans. In a great part of your country the Negro is still considered inferior to the white man, not allowed to eat at the same table or sit in the same tram with white-skinned people who call themselves Christians. And yet you sit there and wave an accusing finger at us!"

He flushes. I am sorry. I am drinking his beer, but I'm getting tired of these Yanks telling us what we should have done. An awkward silence follows which is broken by the sudden hum of the fridge recharging itself.

"You're right, pal. Me and my big mouth," says Jack, adding after a moment of deliberating, "I don't think that back in the States we are willing to take the coloured man as our equal. We're not ripe for that."

" 'Course, Jack. Anyhow, it would have been better in no colour-bar had existed in the Dutch Indies. But we will not accept the fact that because it did exist it is strong enough an excuse for butchering women and children. What's more, in all the years of Japanese occupation our white women and children were publicly put to the most humiliating sort of work, such as cleaning the latrines of the Indonesian guards, taking the manure to the fields and working it into the soil with their bare hands. Every day these young Indonesians saw our women and girls work in the rice fields, bow for Jap and Indo guard alike. They saw them slapped in the face and kicked about for the slightest offence. What more could these people wish for satisfaction of their hurt feelings?"

"Ah'm myself from the Deep South," says one of Jack's guests, "An' Ah've got my own opinion about them coloured folks. But Ah kin tell ya our white womenfolk would have rather died then do them things them Japs git yer women to do."

"Your women have never been subjected to servitude to a coloured race, so you can't be absolutely sure. Our women had set themselves that one object: to beat the war in their own way, come hell, come high water. That was to stay alive with the least possible damage to themselves and particularly their children. At all costs they wished to be with their husbands again, and the children with their fathers. In the meantime they were going to do what it took to be there when that day would finally come. The cold blooded, bestial murder of helpless women and kids, only because they had perhaps looked down on the Indonesian male, is as unacceptable to any civilised community as would be cutting off the hands of a thief, or setting alight a black man because he had raped a white girl," I add meaningfully.

"You've got a point there," says Jack. "And now for the mescal. You guys finish your beer and I'll open the bottle of cactus milk."

The Tequila is not bad, but I prefer good old Dutch Genever.

"Are you Dutch going to give them independence after what has happened?" asks the G.I. who had up to now kept his silence.

"I suppose so. I'm not the government, but I don't think that our leaders would withdraw their promise once given in an official statement by our Queen. You see, it's not the question why but the manner in which their anger is cooled. That is what cries out for punishment, for blood." I then remind them of the UP report on what had happened in Surabaya, where Dutch captives were led in their underwear before an Indonesian tribunal sitting in the lobby of the former, exclusive Simpang Club. In their underpants the Dutch were stood before the fanatical scum-judges, so the other clothes they had on when they were arrested would not be wasted by the carving knives of the waiting mob outside, to whom they were thrown after the so-called trial.

"Perhaps sooner than you think, we Dutch will regard them as equal. But now, right now, we are going to talk to the Indonesian murderers in the one language left to us - the bullet and the bayonet."

"Let's talk about something else now, shall we?" says Jack. "Listen, did you hear the one about..."

I am not quite sober when I meet Vivette at half past nine, but she forgives me. A strong, black coffee and she sends me home. I really don't care. I am not interested in anything but sleep.

The sun hits me smack on my face when I crawl upright from my bed in our tent. There is nobody else. Let's get a shower. Do me good, clear the cobwebs.

The cold water helps. When I grab my towel to rub myself dry, I see this chap standing there, staring at me with a funny expression on his face. It is a large, outdoor, communal shower place and there are only two of us looking at each other. He is as naked as I am and has lost a lot of weight. You can see that by the way his skin is hanging loose about his big frame. Wait, he's got something familiar about him - no, it couldn't be. He is too thin, but...

"Could you be Joop, corporal, Royal Dutch Navy?"

His eyebrows shoot up in amazement, lips pursed in amusement. "Sure I could be, ye cockeyed landcrab, because that's me, ye silly coot! Don't ye reckonise yer own sea-father?"


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