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A friend of mine was the son of a man who had survived the Bataan Death March. He had seen men stagger out of line knowing they would be machine-gunned. He kept his head down. He didn’t talk to others. He was slow to react to the commands of the enemy herding them on, pushing them beyond their limits. He would breathe slowly, and let the air out like a monk meditating in a temple. His stoicism may have saved his life. But he had given up a precious virtue — anticipation. He didn’t want to think about the next moment, and kept his mind as empty as his pockets. He trudged. He slowed when someone staggered ahead of him. He didn’t want to fall or make a single mistake. He knew a certain guard kept his eye on him; he didn’t think anyone could be that determined. He was sure he was getting food somewhere, even though he was just a skeleton in the rags of his infantry uniform.
To meet such a haunted man was a trying experience. He would be sitting in his worn out easy chair studying his fingers, barely saying a word. He had survived, but he had sacrificed everything worthwhile to do so. He made himself into a lump of clay, a reduction of his spirit into the mud of the rain forest. He had no magic in him. No jokes, either.
When his wife put a present for him under the Christmas tree, he pretended not to notice. He chose instead to sharpen his penknife on a small stone in the kitchen drawer, and polish his shoes, very slowly, with a rag and dabs of Shinola. Breakfast on Christmas morning was mostly conducted in silence, with the forks scraping against the plates and the coffee sipped at while the kids scrambled around opening gifts. He was handed his gift; he put it carefully on his lap and continued to dawdle at his poached eggs. Then, when it was already too late to join in the holiday spirit, he would undo the tape and pry up the wrapping paper to reveal a miniature chess set or a book about falconry. He would allow himself to smile and look up with muddy eyes and thank his wife with a nod.
The march occurred in January 1942 and lasted until April, with some six hundred fifty casualties on the American side. Many more Filipino soldiers died. Along the way of the sixty odd miles they marched, there were guards who gave out ladles of water and stale bread. The men were bearded and hollow-cheeked; their boots were worn out, with their feet showing. Some discarded their boots for fear of tripping on the broken soles. If you were found with Japanese money in your pockets, you were executed for having stolen it from dead Japanese soldiers. Even officers were not spared from the death squads. The men had spent Christmas eating out of field rations and drinking cold tea from their canteens. But the New Year was perhaps the lowest point of the war, with Japanese victories in Manila and many of the islands. General MacArthur was having to order retreats and surrenders.
His son Jake started a rock band in central Texas and would play gigs around the city, at parties and weddings, an occasional street fair. He played rhythm guitar and his drummer had been his best friend since childhood. Jake sang with a good country twang, and smiled at the girls who crowded up to the stage to flirt with him. He was a gentle soul and clung to the music he made as the only escape from the gloom of his family life. A Christmas tree stood in the corner by the stairs shedding needles. The wrapping papers were still scattered about the floor. His father had retreated to his little corner of the garage to read the instructions on his chess set. He would later put the box away and come into the house to sit before the TV. He was among the living dead of the war and nothing could console him. But he would take out the chess set and study the pieces, then move one or two of them on the wooden board. He would think about war and how to capture the queen, how to surprise the enemy, how to pull victory from the terrible grief he suffered. But he didn’t get far. He had to surrender his pieces one by one to an imaginary player whose moves he determined and made more lethal than any of his own. The great matted canopy of the jungle clothed his soul in rain, in the hum of mosquitoes, the suck of mud against his tramping feet.
Christmas came and went. In summer, he was given time to putter in a struggling garden at the back of the yard. The train went by and the soot from the rail bed would dust the leaves of his tomato plants. He kept himself aloof from neighbors, and would chase the rabbit out of his carrot patch with a leaf rake. Summer erased the vision of endless mud and overturned Jeeps, the bombed-out remains of thatched huts and tin-roofed schools. War had ravaged the innocence of Filipino life. The rice paddies were deserted and arid, with wiry shoots of rice grass here and there. But as the weather cooled, it would bring back the smell of lemons and fish soup, the odors drifting out of the windows of small hamlets along their way. It would ease the pangs of memory a little. A child stared at him as he passed by. He dared not look at it for fear they would both be shot. In a month or two, it would be Christmas. He could hear the old mission bell in a town marking the noon hour. A water buffalo walked along beside the men and then went back into the fields dragging a slender plow behind. Life went on. Marriages were celebrated; a pregnant woman stood holding the small of her back after chopping grass. The steady rumble of thunder could be heard across the river.
When the new Christmas season began, the old man would stroll with his wife and sons into the mall. He wouldn’t shop, but he liked to sit on a bench and observe the throngs passing by. Happy people. Innocent people. They were eager to get home to eat a feast, to sip wine, to turn on the TV to Christmas specials. Everyone had lights blazing on the shrubs and on the porch roofs. It was a time of resurrection, of rebirth, a promise made by whoever God was, that life would persist, even triumph over the terrible failures of power. So there he sat, listening to the throb of drums coming from the food court, and the sound of his son’s guitar playing a shrill solo while he pressed his mouth against the microphone and wailed out a love song. He felt the calming influence of that harsh sound; his son was not scarred with the memory of so much death. He was hailing the return of love into the world as the bells rang.
When the old man was led back to the car, his wife kissed him on his cheek and patted his hands. She was glad he had come out, she said. She was happy he could hear his son Jake playing music. It all seemed to add to the spirit of the moment. She didn’t know why, but she said she was very happy, as happy as she had ever been. She was like a voice in the midst of war, a calming, soothing voice from home. He heard the words, he was moved to tears at their affection. He had survived. That’s what Jake said to him later, when they were assembled in the living room with cups of eggnog. The old carols were playing on the radio; there was nothing silly about them, even though he had heard them so many times his brain was numb. But on this night, this cold, dry night of Christmas Eve, he was lifted from his chair and led to the porch where his neighbors were standing with a box. He was told to take it. He put it under the tree with the other gifts and opened it the next morning. It was a garden kit of hand spades, a weeding fork, packets of seeds, a nozzle for the hose. And a cartoon of his lanky body bent over a bushy eggplant vine. He was smiling and waving. He felt a dull thrill pass through him, the kind you might feel after a girl kissed you the first time in your life.
Paul Christensen is a writer and poet who divides his time between Vermont and the south of France.
Copyright 2021 Paul Christensen