A Personal History of Moral Decay

Published: 2009-09-10

(SOUTH CENTRAL LOS ANGELES) "The Daring Young Man Meets William Saroyan"

That morning in the forest we fell out alongside the trail for a rest and some chow. There was the creek, the trail that followed alongside it, the trees, the bars of slanting sunlight with the specs drifting down, the underbrush and so on. It was a nice spring morning.

 

I ate a can of C-rations and threw the empty over my shoulder. After a moment it seemed something wasn’t right. When I looked back the empty was sitting on the quilted, uniformed chest of a Chinese infantryman.

“Hey, Decker,” I said. “Look at that.”

Decker looked back. “Shit.”

“I threw my empty back there and it fell on the guy’s chest. Right side up and everything.”

“Shit,” Decker said.

“I’m going to get a look at him.”

“Say hello for me.”

There was the brown leather chest strap, the quilted cotton cap with the ear flaps tied on the top of the head, the serene sickly yellow face. I circled the corpse carefully, my M-1 at ready, though I couldn’t have explained why I was being so careful because the corpse was half gone. It was missing from the belly button on down.

“Hey Decker, this guy’s only half here.”

Decker looked around again. He didn’t say anything.

“He’s been whacked off clean as a whistle just above his San Brown belt.”

“What the fuck are you doing over there?”

“I’m being careful to look at him from the top end, I can tell you that much.”

I couldn’t see any wires attached to the corpse. I couldn’t see his legs or ass anywhere either. I looked around. Nothing. It made me feel funny.

“Decker don’t you have any curiosity?”

“Yeah, I do. I want to know what the fuck you’re doing back there.”

“The other half must be around here someplace.”

“When you find it what are you going to do with it? Save it?”

“It must have been artillery.”

“Get the fuck down here before you start tripping off wires or some other goddamn thing.”

I looked through the trees and the underbrush but I didn’t find anything and then the column started up again and I fell in with my squad.

“Are you satisfied” Decker said?

“I’d like to know the answer to that one.”

“The answer to that one is that Chink never had no legs. He never had no ass either. It’s the latest thing in Chink infantry. He’s probably following us right now.”

Decker was always saying something to make me laugh. The image of hundreds, maybe thousands of Chinese infantry gliding through the forest all around us with no legs and no ass was too much.

Decker said: “You won’t laugh tonight when you wake up and find that no-ass Chinaman cutting your balls off.”

“Will you quit it,” I said? “I can’t stop laughing.”

The corpses were everywhere. In the forests, on the ridgelines, along the trails, in the paddies, in the thatched huts and in the houses with tile roofs. At first they were in the snow and on the ice, later they were in the mud, the swollen creeks, the irrigation ditches. In the end they were in the dirt in the hot summer sunlight covered with flies.

The first corpses were three Chinese machine gunners in a shallow hole on a ridgeline. I stopped in the cold afternoon wind at the edge of the hole and looked down on them. They were charred black, like barbeque left too long on the spit. Grey dirt blew across the top of the hole and settled on the charred heads and hands. I snapped a photograph with my brownie box and hustled on up the ridgeline to my place in the column.

One afternoon in a storm we climbed up on a small plateau where the Chinese had slaughtered a battalion of Englishmen. The English had buried their dead where they died. We stayed on the plateau three days and nights. The first couple days the rain washed out the graves. The Chinese had had time to buy their corpses deeper than the English. It’s always better when you win. I didn’t have the same interests in American corpses as I did in the Chinese and Korean.

They made a corpse out of O’Neil by shooting him through his radio pack so that he fell face down in three inches of paddy water where no one could get to him. They made a corpse out of Steubbens when they shot his jaw off with a fifty so that he bled to death in the middle of the dirt road. He couldn’t have made it without the jaw anyway. Doug Smith became a corpse one black night as the result of a single bullet to his heart from a Chinese officer’s pistol while Doug stood at my side on a mountain ledge.

Those things were alright with me. I didn’t have bad feelings toward the Chinese for how they made corpses out of us. Fair’s fair. We made more corpses out of them then they did of us. When Doug fell across my feet with a single anguished death groan I sat over him all that night and in the dawn light when I saw how yellow he had become I thought: “Well that’s alright, they turn pale and we turn yellow.” But when the Chinese made Captain Grey into a corpse with a machine gun my feelings began to change, and I didn’t look at corpses the same way I had before. They were less interesting than they had been, but more meaningful.

One afternoon when we relieved the Fifth Battalion there were the usual copses. One Chinese corpse that wasn’t dead yet but would be any minute was sitting against an embankment with part of it skull off. A Mexican kid was sitting on the embankment above, his legs dangling down, poking a straw through the open place in the Chinaman’s skull. Each time he poked the straw into the open place the Chinese who was becoming a corpse moaned and shrugged its shoulders.

“Don’t do that again,” I said. “I mean it.”

“Oh, man,” the kid said. “It’s a Chink.” He gave another poke with the straw and the corpse moaned and shrugged its shoulders. I started up the embankment. The kid jumped up and stepped back.

“MAN,” he yelled, “YOU CRAZY OR WHAT?

“LEAVE IT ALONE.”

“IT’S A FUCKING CHINK.”

I put the barrel of my M-1 to the soon-to-be corpse’s ear. The blast tore off the back of its head. I’d wanted it to go straight through but I hadn’t done it right.

“NOW DO WHAT YOU WANT, ASSHOLE.”

“Oh, man,” the kid say quietly. “You make me feel bad.”

When I was a child my ambition had been to go to war and be killed in battle. My greatest hero was Roland. I’d read the Saga of Roland at nine or ten and I wasn’t able to get over it. I never wanted to be a fireman or a scientist or president. I wanted to be a great hero like Roland and fight the foreigners to a standstill and be killed at the moment of my greatest feat. I daydreamed about it for years. The important point, the way I looked at it when I was a child, was to remember that if they don’t kill you when you are trying, you aren’t trying hard enough, or what you are trying isn’t important.

After they brought me back from Korea to the hospitals I had time to think about what had happened to me over there and what had happened to the others. I thought about how I hadn’t tried to do anything heroic. Real life it seemed had thwarted my ambition. At moments of great danger I had looked to my survival The rest of the time I had tried to not be too uncomfortable. And I had followed, I hadn’t led. And then it wasn’t as if there had been some significance to the fighting itself. None of us had thought that. If there had been some significance to it perhaps a lot of us would have behaved differently that how we did. I those days I still didn’t understand how important significance is.

One morning in the ward I was sitting cross-legged on the bed remembering. I did that a lot. Remembering. At one point, without any preliminary consideration, I stepped into my slippers and walked through the empty wooden corridors to the Post Exchange and bought a pencil and a fifteen cent notepad and returned to the ward. I got up on the bed again and began writing down how it had been the last day on line. The mountainside, the trees, the Chinese bunkers, the machine guns, the blasts of the hand grenades, the blood bubbling from the hand, the bones gleaming wetly in the sunlight, how I sat beneath the tree and searched through the leaves and pine needles for the missing finger while the air swarmed with bullets and falling branches and the yelling and the noise.

It didn’t come out right so the next day I sat at a card table in the little recreation room ant the end of the ward with the fog pressing at the windows and wrote it out again. It didn’t come out right then either. It never did come out right. But I started writing down the other things I kept remembering all the time. The corpses, the dreaming, the old childhood, the father. The usual satuff. None of it came out right but I began thinking I liked the writing and that I would go on with it.

The hospital lasted ten months then they discharged me from the army. I had no plans. I moved into the front bedroom it my parent’s house. I hitchhiked to Mexico City and came back. I took a job loading trucks at a dairy plant. I enrolled in a drawing class. When the dairy plant laid me off I found I job as a brakeman for the Southern Pacific. No matter what I did or what job I worked at, when I got home I would set up the card table in the bedroom and try to write something. It wasn’t easy to think up things to write. It was as if I had already written what was important to me and there was nothing left to write about.

One night at Southern Pacific yard I had to jump off a runway tanker and when I hit the ground I crushed the left heel so I had to quit the railroad. When I could move around again I took a job driving an ice cream truck through the neighborhood. There was a loud speaker on the cab and a musical recording I could switch on to get the attention of the kids as I drove slowly up their block. I didn’t mind the job. I didn’t really mind anything but often times I felt as if there was something inside me coming up, that something was going to happen.

I wrote to the consul of Vietnam in San Francisco inquiring about the procedure for enlisting in the Vietnamese army. I didn’t have anything against the Viet Minh but I was willing to do what was necessary. I felt it was important to start doing something. The Consul responded saying there was no procedure for accepting foreigners into the Vietnamese military.

One quiet, desperate Sunday afternoon I drove to the beach at Playa Del Rey and parked the car at the edge of the road and looked out over the sand and the blue ocean. A breeze was blowing off the water and I rolled down the windows so it could blow through the car. It was a nice afternoon but I could feel it coming up and I didn’t know what it was or what to do about it.

I had a couple paperback books with me. I decided to start the one by William Saroyan. The first story was called The Daring Young Man On The Flying Trapeze. The young man in the story was a writer. He must have been about my own age. The only thing important to him was the writing. He lived alone in a rented room and wrote every day but he couldn’t get any money for his stories. He couldn’t pay the rent on his room and most of the time he didn’t have money for food.

One day after he finished writing he went out walking. After a while he came to a café. He stopped and looked through the window. He looked at the people inside eating food, people who had ordinary jobs and ordinary salaries and could afford to eat food in ordinary cafes. The young writer knew he did not want to be like them but he couldn’t stop looking at their food and imagining he had some.

He walked around the neighborhood looking in all the café windows. He was weak and hungry but he was happy because he was living the life of a writer and not the ordinary life of the others. He walked slowly and uncertainly back to his room and collapsed on the bed. He grew delirious with hunger. He had already been delirious with that other hunger, the hunger to be true to himself, and now the room began to whirl in a hunger delirium. It was a wonderful story.

Then the young writer died. I was stunned. He had starved himself to death on principle! He had died for his art! It had never occurred to me it was possible to do that. No one had told me that writing could be that important. Were you supposed to find that out on your own? Everything seemed to be up to the writer himself. You had to decide for yourself. You could take the writing however far you wanted. I knew at that moment that that was what I wanted. I had never thought about it before that moment but I recognized it the moment I saw it. I wanted to risk death for the writing. I wanted to take it all the way.

The wind had come up considerably. It blew off the top of the blue ocean and across the sand and through the rolled down windows of the car. I sat on the front seat behind the steering wheel in a kind of elevated stupor, the pages of Saroyan’s book still open, it’s pages fluttering in my hands. I felt the tears going sideways across my face. That’s how hard the wind was blowing.


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Author(s): Bradley R. Smith
Title: A Personal History of Moral Decay
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Published: 2009-09-10
First posted on CODOH: June 29, 2012, 7 p.m.
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