AS I sit here in the eyes of the ship, I scan the horizon for a glimpse of land. I know that none will appear for days, but when it does, I'll see it first. The sky is blue and the sea more calm now; we are riding along on gentle ground swells. We've lost our aerial convoy of albatross, and even the bosun birds are dropping behind with the fog.
We've jettisoned cargo in a hurricane at the Horn, and the sea is into our drinking water. The mate lost a finger in a slamming hatch, and most of us have been sick from rotten meat. But we're leaving the antarctic behind with the wake. Our bow is headed into tropical waters!
I do not know what this journal will become, or even if it will be diligently and regularly kept. But as I write this first entry, I do so in humility, conscious and frightened of what it begins. Perhaps I am foolish to be so solemn, so overweighed by my own introspections. Perhaps in a week I'll have forgotten this book and the serious intention which it represents. But perhaps, on the other hand, I'll not forget it. Perhaps it will become very important to me. And if it should, then it will eventually become the record of my worldly education. It will become the biography of a point of view, the thesis of a practical doctorate. It will become the log of my personality as it sails into unfamiliar water.
How many are the changes I must. undergo to become a soldier in the Royal Indian Army! How great the transition in temperament and attitude! How staggering the assault already has been! But I am not simply concerned with the facts of this journey, with their diligent, earnest, exact recording. I am interested rather in my own reactions, in the sophistications which they will undergo.
To be truthful, I suppose that I am keeping this record partly in fear of what may happen to me, for I know that I am on the brink of a great experience, an experience which must reshape my whole way of thinking. I have much to learn, and to learn I must change, and yet in one sense I am afraid of that change. There are certain provincial values which I feel I must keep, certain standards which I am determined shall not be relinquished. So it is these which I guard by such a zealous introspection. It is these which impel such strict self-scrutiny.
"I, Walt Whitman, twenty-two years old..." I think I know exactly how he felt. I, John Muehl, in sound mind and body, do proclaim these principles which I hold inviolable: that men are to be treated as ends rather than as means, regardless of their race or the accidents of birth; that the "meaning of the universe" lies within the individual, and in his duty to find or create it; that the only "burden" which any man bears is the sacredness and dignity of all mankind; that my first allegiance is to these principles, and to the brotherhood of good men in every nation.
In all other things I am willing to change, but in these I must neither swerve nor weaken. My self-respect and my sanity depend on them. There is no alternative but degeneracy!
I was awakened this morning by the sounds of running, and by the jubilant shouting of deck hands and crewmen. I dressed in a hurry and ran to the rail, but for several minutes I saw nothing beyond the monotony of water ahead. Then finally a spot appeared in the distance, the land which the crow's nest had reported earlier, and it did not seem long till we were close enough to the shore to see the riot of its vegetation. A long sand spit sweeps out ahead, guarding the mouth of Mombasa Harbor. Black forms run up and down its beach, launching canoes and paddling furiously.
As we ease into the mouth of the shipping channel, some natives are riding in the wake of our ship. I have expected them to turn over momentarily in the froth, but they handle their outriggers with amazing skill. When the garbage was thrown over, the boatmen fought over floating tin cans and bits of ham rind. A few of the ship's company have begun throwing cigarettes, precipitating a general free-for-all below.
We're anchored and waiting for a pilot to board. I think I can see his launch approaching. It bears the maritime Union Jack, though it is little cleaner than the scavenger outriggers. The officer himself, if this he be, is precariously balanced on the rolling foredeck. His clothes are grimy and his face blue stubbled. He seems to be waving to the passengers by the rail. I should judge that this fellow was some derelict beachcomber if it were not for the official insignia surrounding him. But apparently he's actually a competent helmsman, responsible for the safety of this enormous floating investment.
The beggar boats have left the sides of our ship, only to be replaced by floating peddlers. Coconuts, bananas, and native cigarettes are passing across the gunwales in quantities. The latter seem to enjoy the most healthy trade. I suppose that our fellows are buying for the novelty. But I have noticed some packages labeled "Lucky Strike." Apparently we've been buying our own gifts back.
A China boat has just entered the harbor this morning, slow moving, soot blackened, and leaking oil. As she creaked to a stop a slick spread out across the water in every direction. Midships the deckhouse has been cut away, revealing ancient and laboring machinery where sweating coolies in oil-soaked loincloths scramble over dangerous moving parts. There is no modern system of communication, so officers simply shout above the racket. Hissing clouds of escaping steam frequently obscure almost half of the hull. The decking is matted with tangles of rope, slippery with a coating of oil scum and coal dust. Two mangy dogs stalk the deserted fo'castle, fighting with each other over scraps of food.
The Shantung is berthed between us and a "Dutchman," which latter seems considerably cleaner than our own ship. But the master of the Dutchman has protested the position, insisting that the newcomer is a menace to the harbor. The master apparently has won his point, for he is swinging away from the shabby China boat. With a powerful blast of twin stern screws his boat is flipping her skirts at the offensive one.
We have been anchored here for twenty-four hours, in the crowded waterways of the harbor itself. The ships are jammed in like hats in some checkroom, with barely enough room to swing with the tide. But we were put ashore yesterday for a twelve-hour liberty, each bearing a shore-pass that lasted till midnight. The majority of the passengers made straight for the cafés, but I set out on a quest for ice cream.
I met two young Australian officers on a bus where I learned to my embarrassment that I did not have fare. I had quite forgotten that the American greenback is not the universal medium of exchange. But they paid for my ride and took me in hand, correctly supposing that I needed some help. And though we changed twenty dollars' worth of traveler's checks, they refused to let me spend a penny. We proceeded first to the Officers' Club, where they kept gin and limes almost constantly before me. But since they drank considerably more than I did, they soon began to mutter about the "Goddamned British." The Englishmen present were quite indulgent, laughing at the Aussies' indignant charges. And finally, when the two were far gone with their liquor, a major helped me load them into a cab.
I returned to talk with the major and his party, all of them permanently stationed in Kenya. They were hard-drinking men of a bitter turn of mind, typical of the real colonial officer.
As one of them explained to me himself, "It's the bastard sons that ship off to the colonies. If you're the black sheep of some prominent and wealthy family, or the illegitimate son of an earl and a chambermaid, or if you simply can't make a go of it at home, then you drink yourself to death in British Siberia." I didn't ask my friend which description was his, but I'd bet that he's either the black sheep or the bastard. Any man who possesses such remarkable insight could "make a go" in any country.
We talked on all sorts of trivial subjects, chiefly women. The major remarked, "This climate is so bad that you haven't the energy to do more than talk." A few girls were seated at an adjoining table, and though homely they were surrounded by a host of men, The competitors were outbidding each other in drinks and we all agreed that it was a "seller's market."
I picked up a newspaper upon leaving the club, just to see what made news in Kenya colony. The headline told of the mauling of a party of natives by a lion which had crept into town during the night. An editorial lamented the deaths in passing, but it derived all its meaning from the sagacious observation that "it might have been whites instead of these natives."
I want to visit the native section, but I have been warned not to go there after dark. It appears that the black men resent white visitors and "it's hard to tell what they're liable to do." I questioned the policeman who told me this, since I was surprised that such a primitive situation could exist. But he seemed to find nothing unusual about it and was, in fact, so uncomprehending as to be unable to answer my simplest questions.
"Are they allowed in this section after dark," I asked, or is the resentment more or less reciprocal?"
The policeman laughed. "If they're here without a good reason, we shoot them first and ask questions later." I asked what constituted a "good reason" in this sense, but the fellow admitted that he could not think of one. "But if they're alone, sir, and not attending a European, then it's safe to assume that they're up to some mischief."
I am becoming accustomed to the caste system already, though it will be several weeks before we land in India. For on the comers there is frequently a row of urinals, quite open to the public, but marked with dignity. On the right the sign reads, "For Asiatics Only." On the left the card says, "For Africans Only." Resplendent in the center is a much larger legend, written in three scripts, "For Europeans Only." I was surprised to find that this latter was not gilded, and I wondered what would happen if some mistake were made. Apparently we are not only of superior blood, but of genuinely superior urine as well!
This evening I entered a shabby restaurant that is tucked away on a Mombasa side street. The front was open and the floor was of dirt; flies and black beetles circled the naked light bulbs. The proprietor sat leaning on a rusty cash register, grinning foolishly as if partially drunk. His clothes were stained with grease and sweat. He seemed not to have shaved for a matter of weeks.
I stared for a moment at the disorder and filth, then I turned around, intending to leave. But my host had jumped down from his stool perch and had run to the door to block my path. "'Ere, guv'ner," he chirped in a cockney accent, "does something seem to be unsatisfactory?"
I answered bluntly, "This place is filthy," unaccountably angry with the grinning little man.
"Oh, I wouldn't say that, sir," he whined sarcastically, "though it ain't the same as Blighty or America. The kitchen is really surprisingly clean, and after all, that's all that counts. Why, you know, I just leave the front lookin' like this to preserve the original atmosphere."
I wanted to ask whether the filthy clothes were also just props which he wore for effect, but I was tired and hardly in a mood to argue. More in despair and fatigue than in agreement, I sank down into a near-by chair. My host clapped his hands in a businesslike way and an enormous black fellow padded out from the kitchen. He was dressed in a long white cotton nightgown that dragged the floor with its dirty hem. As he approached, the gown flapped back and forth, revealing a pair of great calloused feet. He wore an expression of abject servility, which found agreement in the ugly functionality of his dress. But the most startling thing was the sign which he wore, hung from his neck on a dirty cord. For this surely revealed his status in life. The sign read simply, "Boy Number 5."
He handed me a menu with a questioning grunt. I assumed that he wanted to take my order. The square piece of cardboard was greasy and gray, and I handled it gingerly, avoiding the worst spots. Boy Number 5 stared off into space, absent-mindedly scratching his buttocks. I felt less like eating than like disgorging all I had eaten in the last three days aboard the ship. But after a moment I ordered ham and eggs, handing the menu back toward the waiter. He seemed puzzled as I did so and only stared rather blankly, so I loudly repeated the order again. Finally he took the menu from my hand and placed his thumb under "Fish and chips." I took the menu roughly from him and pointed to the line that read, "Ham and eggs." Apparently this was exactly what he wanted, for he carefully substituted his finger for mine. The proprietor slipped quietly into the kitchen, anxious to conceal his second status as cook.
As I waited for the meal I could hear the sounds of squealing and scratching between the walls. The plaster was cracked and the laths were broken; rats apparently were nesting behind them. Over two or three of the most serious breaks, old pictures of the royal family were hung askew. King Edward VII was about a foot off the floor, while the Queen Mother balanced above, at a precarious angle. The pictures were held with large spikes and twine. The monsoon rains had come in upon them; George V was stained almost beyond recognition, while Wellington was curling out of his frame. As I lifted my sleeve from the wooden table it adhered to a spot of chocolate or fat. I shifted uneasily in the wicker chair, verifying my suspicion that it too was dirty.
Finally Boy Number 5 returned, bearing cold ham and eggs on a metal tray. I pushed the food back and forth on the plate. I toyed with it but I could not even taste it. The cockney was obviously displeased with this, but he pretended not to notice when I made ready to pay. On my way through the streets I stopped a fruit vendor and bought a banana, which I peeled with relish.
Suddenly today the reality has struck me: I am actually here, in Africa! Byron Kelly and I started early this morning to see the countryside on rented bicycles. Unfortunately, I picked up a nail in my tire, but that happened quite late this afternoon. Before that time we had managed to cover most of the outlying beach and jungle. It was a tremendous thrill, when we crossed Nayali Bridge, to see how the foliage presses in on the town. Only by cutting and blasting at the stumps have the natives thrown back its tropical assault. Byron called my attention to a sign which read , "Travelers not permitted on this road at night." The reason for this was plan to see, since "darkest Africa" began at the bridge. As the road wound on, the heavier thicket gave way to a parched and rolling plain. The land was dry and the road was dusty, so it was not very long till we were caked with dirt. After about five miles of hard and steady riding Byron suggested that we cut in toward the ocean, for a look at the surf and perhaps for a dip. I needed no urging on this account, since the dirt and the heat had softened my resistance. As we wheeled between two coconut palms the blinding white sand of the beach appeared.
A reef formed a small lagoon before us, the perfect setting for our afternoon swim. Neither Byron nor I had brought a suit, and we hoped that the beach would be deserted. As far as we could see in either direction, the sand was dotted only with driftwood. Byron hung his clothes on the frame of his cycle and I followed suit just as quickly as I could. Together we ran splashing into the water toward the gentle waves that rolled over the reef. For more than an hour we lolled about, alternately soaking and sunning ourselves. During one interval Kelly taught me several ballet movements, which we practiced up and down the sand.
I have never before felt so completely free as I did on the beach this afternoon. After months aboard ship, cramped and confined, I could run about as I wished. The shore curved outward in either direction, fading with a suggestion of infinite extension. And in the warm soft sand I finally managed to shake the sense of the responsibility of these last few years. Now I have broken completely from my textbooks! Now the professors are nothing but memory!
I was finally jarred back to the world of reality by Byron's insistence that we were getting very red. I crawled into my shirt and trousers, which by now had almost completely dried in the sun. I suggested that we cycle down the beach a way, rather than returning to the road and its dust, and though at first the idea proved rather impractical, we found that the sand by the water was firm. If we steered just a little too far to the right we would bog down in the wet and sticky places, and if we steered too far in the opposite direction we were dragged to a stop in a soft, dry powder. But there was one path, neither too wet nor too dry, where the bicycles pedaled without too much trouble. Following the twisting and curving shore line, we rode along for several miles.
At length a rock wall rose up in front of us, jutting obliquely to cut off the beach. I suggested that we try to wade around it and pick up our trail on the other side.
But unfortunately there was no "other side," since the cliff replaced the beach for several miles. Still, assuming that it was only a matter of yards, we set out with determination and rolled pant legs. The footing was sharp and treacherous in places, covered with slime and dipping suddenly. In spite of all this, we continued for an hour, sure every moment that we were just about through. At first we had carried the bicycles out of the water, being careful to keep the sprockets dry. But gradually our unselfish concern diminished, till at last we were riding over the rougher terrain. When we reached an unattended lighthouse, standing alone on top of a rise, I decided to climb aloft to its tower to survey the situation before us. I reported the dismal truth to Kelly, and he insisted that he would remain where he was indefinitely, for neither of us had the strength to start backtracking at once over those same monotonous obstacles which we had just overcome. Yet actually we were aware that we could not remain, in spite of our genuine inclination to do so. Already the sun was sinking in the sky, reminding us that it would soon grow dark. As we sat there pondering the seriousness of our plight, a native boy poled by in his dugout canoe. Byron jumped to his feet at the sight, to call and wave to attract his attention. Quickly the dugout headed in toward shore, and Byron turned with a sigh of relief. "We'll hire him to take us back to the beach, and from there we can ride back the way we came." I insisted that the canoe would not hold our cycles, and I laughed when Byron declared that it would. But since I had no better plan, I watched in amusement while Kelly bargained. The boy saw the inherent ridiculousness of our position and understood at once what was wanted of him. At this I took heart and joined the discussion, arguing shrewdly with fingers and gesture. I offered the shilling that was left in my pocket, suddenly realizing that it was all we had. But the youngster stubbornly shook his head, aware that our bargaining position was weak. When I explained that this was our total Asset, the boy pretended not to understand. In despair Byron drew an American quarter from his pocket and offered it too, in feigned indignation. The boy examined the coin very carefully, then looked up at Byron, overwhelmed with gratitude. "Amer-ee-can?" he asked in awe. Kelly pointed gravely to the "E Pluribus Unum." "Amer-ee-can," he said, imitating the accent, "and worth just the same as the shilling you refused." I recoiled instinctively as he said this last, unable to realize fully that the boy could not understand. But Kelly winked and said with a grin, "Now you are my witness that I've told the truth." Yet as Byron was literally telling the truth, he was making expansive, full-arm gestures, suggestive of the store of gold at Fort Knox or at least of the J. P. Morgan estate. Without any further hesitation our cycles were slung across the craft, while Byron and I crouched at either end, blinking and wondering if we had acted wisely. With a thrust of a pole we left the shore, skimming out over the gently lapping waves. Our craft settled awfully low in the water, so low that even its owner seemed worried. Byron and I were apprehensive, and we stared at each other for mutual support. Then suddenly the humor of our position struck us and we began to laugh at this strange situation. "A year from now," I said to Byron, "this whole afternoon will seem like a dream. And already I'm pinching myself to make sure that it's not---the whole idea seems so impossible." We laughed again, and the boy seemed surprised. He turned with a grin and said, rather happily, "Amer-ee-can!"
I HAVE always been told that the slave ship was a thing of the past, but with God as my witness, I'm on one now! Below me in the holds is a human cargo of fifteen thousand East African troops, black Swahili tribesmen out of the jungles of Kenya, with rings in their noses and ornamental scars covering their bodies. There are limping old men and rickety young boys, stumbling cripples and the withered, scrofulous sick, bulk manpower in its crudest and most readily expendable forms. They are aboriginal and untrained, barefooted and semi-naked, equipped haphazardly with knives, obsolete rifles, and regimental campaign hats. But around the neck of each of the troops, suspended on a piece of dirty string, hangs the proud insignia which bears a legend of His Majesty's Royal East African Rifles.
For three days they waited beside the ship to board, confused and overlooked, herded together into a tight, guarded square. For three days they stood unshaded and blistering, mumbling thickly to each other and milling around. For three nights His Majesty's Royal East African Rifles have slept in shifts beside the ship, shivering and coughing in the dampness of the docks, gazing mournfully back toward the brush fires along the shore.
Finally today the Swahili were loaded, with such pointless haste and cruel unconcern that legs were broken and heads split open. They were loaded by ladder and they were loaded by crane. They were poured into the hold like some bulky, inanimate cargo. By nature the process was brutal enough; but by choice it was made even more inhuman. On the forward deck the loading had been mechanized, to maximize speed and to minimize trouble. A group of blacks, ranging from ten to thirty, was herded onto a loading net which was attached by a cable to the power boom. With a jerk the net was swung into the air and down across the deck to an open hatch. Through this hole it would plunge with the speed of a fall, to be checked just a few feet from the bottom of the ship. But occasionally a boom would swing too far and dash its load against the deck machinery. The black men would scream and reach through the netting in a futile effort to avoid the crash. Whenever this happened a ripple of laughter would rise from the tommies who lined the railing. Frequently I could hear individual cries of "Lumme, what a crack he give 'em!" or "Hit em again, Alf, there's one beggar on this side is still alive." The waiting troopers fidgeted in terror as their turns approached by agonizing degrees. A few, less timid, peered into the hold where the injured were frequently dragged from the nets so that they would not delay the loading operations.
On the afterdeck another group swarmed aboard the ship over an improvised gangplank. They were prodded along in threes and fours, then divided to descend by a number of ladders. Even for the normally agile Swahili these strange new obstacles presented problems of adaptation, but no hesitation or caution was permitted. A delay was simply a sign of stubbornness and was treated as such by the tommies in charge. As each Swahili hurried down the ladder he was slapped on the back by a counter at the top. For a while this progressed in excellent humor, with the troops making a game of it. They dodged the routine slap which the counter aimed and feigned great pain if a blow chanced to land. They were like children at a slide, laughing and pushing, eager to outdo each other in pantomime and mimicry. But the work of the counters was nervous and irritating; the friendly play began to grow serious and slowly took on a vicious aspect.
The tommies began to develop a rivalry; their slaps grew harder and then became shoves. A few of the troops slipped and stumbled. Finally one fell to the deck below.
For a while this sobered the gleeful sergeants, but their hilarity returned as the hours wore on. Bored with their seemingly endless jobs, they vented their anger and tedium upon the black men. Often, as one was descending the ladder, a hobnailed boot would push him from above. He would plunge down on those below, carrying them all to the iron deck. If one of these victims dared look upward and curse, another Swahili might be hurled down at him. At least a dozen times this happened, and in more than one case the men were injured. On my way to the mess for afternoon tea I passed the lower end of these ladders. As I suspected, the treads were spattered with blood and a few little drops had stained the deck.
This evening the Swahili grew reluctant to descend, and a few of them hung warily back from the ladders. Their sergeant barked an angry order, but still the line refused to move. The other counters drew their lines to a halt, and attention was focused upon the frightened mutineers. I knew what must happen and I wanted to turn away, but somehow I felt unable to move. The sergeant in charge moved slowly toward the men and halted in front of the nearest one. For a moment he glared upward in hatred and disgust, into a sweaty black face that stared rigidly over his head. Then suddenly he struck, hard, and with a closed fist. The victim managed to ride the blow; he remained on his feet, swaying a little. As the sergeant deliberately set himself for the second punch, the frightened black man was breathing heavily and bleeding profusely from the nose and mouth. He looked fearfully out of the corners of his eyes and twisted a grimy hand into his dirty loincloth. As the sergeant swung he groaned rather softly, but he made no move to avoid the fist. He fell, barely conscious, to the deck, where he lay till dragged out of the way so that the loading could proceed.
The steward has just come into the cabin to introduce himself and to bring tomorrow's dinner menu. "Skinner, sir. If there's anything you want, just be sure to ask me for it." My quarters are wonderfully cool and roomy, like those of a first-class passage on a luxury cruise. To judge from just a glance at the menu, messing arrangements must be equally agreeable. Lobster cocktail, consommé, roast beef an jus, vegetable salad, chocolate mousse, and tea or coffee. I have learned from Skinner that there are facilities aboard for a daily bath in fresh water. I'm very pleased, since I expect to make good use of the shuffleboard and deck tennis courts on the sun deck above!
The troop officers came aboard last night, and I had a good opportunity to meet them at dinner. They are good-looking fellows from Oxford and Cambridge, who can talk quite as easily about Whitehead or Spencer as about their recent Ethiopian campaigns. A few of them seem rather cocky and supercilious, and I have a feeling that they are only playing a part. But they are personable and charming, one and all, and most of them don't take themselves as seriously as they pretend. They are given to a rather bitter and caustic wit, but they respect the opponent who can accept their challenge. It seems to be more of a conversational manner than any genuine antagonism or disrespect. I am amazed at the extent to which they fit the stereotyped idea of the British colonial officer. It is almost as if they were making an effort. And now that I think of it, I suppose they are.
I managed to get acquainted with Pierce and Richards over several bottles of South African wine. Pierce is inclined toward habitual overstatement, whether talking about the conquest of an Italian garrison or about the equally important conquest of a naive Welsh milkmaid. All of the others have warned me against him, ostensibly out of fear that I'll be taken in. But I think that in reality they simply enjoy playing their parts as much as they enjoy watching Pierce play his. Last night's conversation ran to hunting experiences, and Pierce was able to hit his stride. He told of hunting antelope from the back of a horse, armed with only a six-inch skinning knife. The object, it seemed, was to drop on the antelope and stab it to death before it could reciprocate. When I professed disbelief Pierce pronounced, with a crestfallen expression, "Oh, look here now! Someone's been talking to you about me."
The ship is still lying motionless at the docks, though we have all been aboard for quite a while. We've taken no more cargo on, but I cannot forget the black men in the hold. Even if the foul odor did not rise to remind me, I am sure that I would continue to brood over them. When the tribesmen boarded their food came with them, carts full of bitter and rotting squashes. I asked Dr. Marlowe, a medical officer, if they could live on that without physical harm. He dodged the issue, intentionally, I suspect, by assuring me that they have little more in the jungle. That is easy to believe when you look at their bodies, but somehow I cannot be satisfied with the answer. I am not sure whether it is a proof of justice, or simply a proof of greater injustice.
Now that I think of it, it is not this callousness or conscious cruelty that bothers me most. I have often been angry and unreasonable myself. I have been cruel and selfish on too many occasions. Yes, I can understand brutality, and I can understand calculating selfishness. Unfortunately, I can understand too well most of the baser motives that undermine the dignity of man. But I can argue against these, I can argue effectively, because they are essentially departures from a moral norm. There is nothing in them to undermine my idealism, for they are exceptional rather than characteristic states of mind. But in the loading of these black men there was something worse, something more terrifying than simple hatred or brutality. Worse than the counters, worse than their officers, worse than any emotion or profitable evil, were the tommies who lined the railing and laughed, simply because they could imagine no other response. This was no momentary assertion of the will. It was not the outbreak of uncontrollable emotion. It was rather a simple and utter detachment, a sheer and awful lack of concern. On this boat with me there are men who can look at other men and yet can somehow fail to see them as such. On this boat there are good-natured, smiling tommies who can watch another human's pain, and laugh.
I am puzzled and confused by what I have seen. I am angry because I don't know how to feel. After watching their treatment of the Swahili below, I want to hate the tommies who are responsible. And yet I cannot bring myself to it, for they are all, individually, likable men. Sergeant Gelston has just shown me a picture of his wife, a typical homely Englishwoman. Their "kiddie," as he calls him, was there by her side, hiding in her skirt from the cameraman. What can I think of a man like this, gentle and friendly, a little too respectful, who can suddenly become hard and unbelievably cruel with these helpless black men in the hold below? What am I to say when he turns from mistreating them to talk quietly with me of his home in "Blighty," of his family there, and their little plot of ground? As he thumbed through his wallet to show me the pictures, I noticed that his thumb was stained with blood. Perhaps he cut himself shaving this morning, but it is just as probable that this was black blood. Gelston is symbolic of all his fellows, for they are all the same strange paradox. Their humor is homely, their jokes are pleasant, and they are all rather quietly amusing among themselves. The redheaded sergeant who struck the mutineer lends out his pay as fast as he draws it. And the little cockney whom I recognize as one of the counters serenades us each evening with a squeaky but well-meaning concertina. I should be happy, I suppose, to see them so, but I feel immeasurably more bitter than I did before. The counters and the sergeants were out of a nightmare, evil men who enjoyed their brutality; they were few, and again, exceptional cases. But the world is full of generous redheads and of happy cockneys with concertinas. If I tried to hate these men and their kind, I would finish by hating everyone about me. Here is a riddle which has occurred to me in my present disillusioned state of mind: If a generous redhead is a brutal bully, and a cockney with a grin is a sadistic beast, then how far is it from London to Nurenburg, and what is the difference between a concertina and a cat-o'-nine-tails?
I talked at length with Richards this afternoon and I think I've found a kindred spirit. I learned that he was preparing for the Anglican priesthood when the war interrupted his studies at Christ College. He's a handsome, hawk-nosed British prototype, with an easy, well-bred, yet earnest manner. He is commanding East African troops for the present, but he hates his assignment and hopes for another. I don't think he's talked about this with the others, for he fell upon me like a long lost brother. I asked him why he wanted a change and he simply stared at me, too bewildered to answer. "My God!" he managed to say at last. "Do you mean to say that you can't understand?" This was the first healthy reaction I'd seen in days and it cheered me more than I was able to say. I knew at that moment that Richards and I would understand each other and perhaps be good friends.
"Why are you going into the Anglican Church?" I asked, trespassing on our immediate affinity. Richards was silent in thought for so long that I eventually began to fear that I shouldn't have asked. At last he answered in a tired voice, seeming barely to believe what he said, "Being British, I believe in Britain. I believe, that is, in what it can be. In the past our contribution was very great, greater perhaps than many realize. At that time our people had faith in themselves, in their morality and decency, as well as in their power. Perhaps the Empire, then as now, bled more from others than it was actually worth. But you see, we didn't feel that it did, and we didn't feel called upon to justify ourselves." Here he looked directly at me, and continued without averting his gaze. "Now, I'm afraid, the situation is different. We're clinging to others and dragging them back. And we know that you can't keep a man in a ditch without being in the ditch yourself. There is where the damage is done---to the individual Briton, I mean! He's been forced into that damned Continental belief that you can't expect unselfishness from a man. Gradually, you see, we are poisoning ourselves, destroying our self-respect as a nation. We reason that empires are by nature amoral, and that this absolves any guilt that might naturally attach to the individual. We insist that we are caught in a web of circumstance, and we are, but the web is of our own making. This fatalistic line that we've adopted from Europe is the cleverest refuge of a weak society, of a society which knows what should be done, but which also knows that it will hurt to do it." I stood aghast at the frankness of the speech, conscious that I would be stoned for repeating it at home. "Great Britain must be brought back to her senses," Richards continued, "and that, I feel, is the job of the church. Her hands must be pried loose from their grip on the past, so that she will be able to do her part in the future." It has been quite a while since I have heard anything like this, and I was almost embarrassed by the idealism of it. I am afraid that Richards may already regret the candor and confidence which I so deeply appreciate. I tried to express my feelings to him, but I know that I only managed to confuse them. "I can understand and sympathize with your desire," I said. "This sort of self-scrutiny is awfully hard."
When it grew dark this evening a few of the Swahili were allowed up on C Deck to spend the night. There they stretched out on the rough wood planking in crowded rows of ten and twelve. I knew nothing about the plan till a few moments ago, when I literally stumbled upon it in the darkness, stepping on a number of hands and feet, and probably kicking some skulls into the bargain. But by the time I realized my unfortunate position, I was virtually in the middle of the sprawling group. I stood still in horror for several minutes, having found the requisite square foot of space. Whenever I tried to work my way out, I was paralyzed by some coarse aboriginal oath. I tried to restore my failing confidence with a few sharp words of command to the tribesmen. Immediately I was struck by the shameful contrast between the sound of my voice and the hoarse, rude response. I was grateful to the men for totally ignoring me, since I could not even imagine any positive response. I remained quiet for several minutes longer, emotionally committed to waiting here for dawn. But gradually a tingling in my legs reminded me that actually this was quite impossible. So once again I began moving delicately. But delicacy in the dark is difficult to achieve, and once more I stepped incautiously. This time a hand reached out for my leg, feeling it for a moment as if in identification. My greatest fear, in that breathless moment, was that I might be taken for one of the troops, in which case I might be dragged from my feet and beaten insensible for my ambulatory indiscretions. Finally the grip was grudgingly relaxed; my leggings and boots had made an impression. I moved gingerly forward with increased confidence, till once again I encountered a "natural" barrier. This time the hand did not hesitate or feel, but struck out at my leg with a vicious swipe. Somehow I could not utter a word, and the newly acquired self-assurance dropped from me like a cloak. More than anything else in the world at that moment I wanted to be able to say in Swahili, "Please, fellows, let me out of here. All I want is to get out of your way." But instead I employed the only word I knew, "Djombo," meaning, prosaically enough, "Hello." Though my English commands did not establish my identity, my misuse and mispronunciation of Swahili did. With a roar of laughter, one fellow arose and led me quickly through the mob. As I got to the edge I retreated with thanks, but my guide simply called after me, "Djombo!"
This is to be our last night in port, according to the latest "latrine communiqué." We've had more than our share of shipboard rumors, but somehow I feel sure that this is not another. The gun crews have been greasing and limbering their weapons, which is generally one of the final preparations, and the intraship communication system has been buzzing and crackling since early morning. Above, in the saloon, Anglican padres are intoning the usual prayers for safe passage. After two months at sea I know them by heart, so I think I'll forgo the ritual tonight.
Somehow the Swahili have sensed the truth, even in spite of their language barrier. They too have noticed the increased tempo, the running feet, and the continuous piping. They are squatted together on C Deck aft, as many as could crowd up out of the hold. They look mournfully back toward their African shore line, swaying slowly together as they chant their sorrow. The sound has grown louder by imperceptible degrees, from a steady hum to an undulating roar. The tone has been taken up from the shore, presumably as a tribal lament at parting. It has been dark for an hour, but the beach is aglow with a hundred blazing driftwood fires. The glare reflects from sweaty black bodies, glinting and dancing with their primitive rhythms. The fervor has worked its way down into the holds, the hollow sound comes echoing up. All subtlety is gone from the chant by now; it shakes the ship in monotonous vibrations.
The discipline of the men is visibly cracked, and some of the officers have come out of their midst. I ventured below a while ago, but I was drawn back by the gentle hand of Colonel Weatherbee. For a while the junior officers worked feverishly, trying to quell the primitive rebellion, barking commands and seeking leaders, threatening and striking with their swagger sticks. But the troops looked blankly back at their lieutenants, humming through lips that were sealed and impassive. No one could possibly be singled out, and you can't discipline fifteen thousand men.
The chant at last has passed its peak; it is growing softer and more slow. Even the brush fires that were licking at overhanging branches are dying now, to glow as embers. The families that built them are leaving together, trekking homeward in silhouette, as the officers have begun filtering back among their men, conspicuously bearing loaded side arms.
I was awakened this morning at seven o'clock by a gentle but persistent rolling of the ship. As soon as I was dressed I went out on deck, hoping to catch one last look at Africa. But over the stem I saw only the whitecaps, and one of our sailors kidded me gently. "You'll have to get up much earlier than this, sir, if you want to see this ship leave port. But you didn't miss much, I can tell you that. It was still quite dark when we got under way." I protested that I did not feel cheated and that I quite understood the necessity for secrecy. But as a matter of fact, I wish I'd been awake, and I'm tempted to curse this fetish security. I have still not become accustomed to the sailing of a ship as large as. this. Tied as they are to the pier for days, their departure is always inexplicably surprising. It's almost like watching the Statler break loose from the pavement and go coasting down Washington Boulevard.
The Strathaird is a luxury ship, built for comfort and equipped with every tourist convenience. When it was converted to military use, only the holds were materially affected. A Deck is still reminiscent of the past, with air-cooled staterooms and paneled saloons. As flagship of the Peninsular and Orient Lines, she catered to the regular commerce of the Empire, and her bars still feature the legendary "gin and lime." Goan waiters hover, at the beck and call of a clientele now dressed in khaki, and the stewards are just as attentive as ever to the needs and whims of the pukah sahib. I find this attention rather embarrassing, since the tips and charges will keep me quite poor.
There is one steward in charge of bathing facilities, another in charge of the wine in the mess. Two serve as waiters, bringing the food, and the headwaiter superintends them all. Richards has offered me one of his Swahili to act as my bearer for the remainder of the trip. When he noticed my instinctive unwillingness to accept he assured me that I would be doing the native a favor, since as my bearer he would be fed and billeted better than if he remained in the hold below. I have since learned that he would sleep on the floor of my cabin, and I have refused Richards' offer, partly on this account. I have tried not to think of conditions below, and this would bring a constant reminder to my cabin.
In spite of their genuinely disdainful attitude, the officers are generally much kinder than the sergeants in their treatment of the Swahili soldiers and bearers. Though they don't take them seriously or treat them as individuals, they are more often amused than angered with the troops. They joke like a patronizing plantation owner, to be sure, but they joke more often than they strike the men. But with most of the tommies, all this is different. They are brutal to a purpose, intentionally, sadistically. I often suspect some sexual motive, a sublimation in cruelty and violence. Gelston and his fellows have been out here too long, some of them as long as fifteen years. Their normal channels of social expression have been denied and stifled till they have been replaced by others. Every last one of them is a case for psychiatry, and in a way their officers fill the bill.
Williams everlastingly talks about the tommy as if he were a race apart from his officers. He discusses the "psychology of the ranks" unblushingly, delving into the causes and explanations. He is like a scientist discussing the behavior of white rats, trying to catalogue their instincts by observation. At first I thought this was just a prejudice, a form of snobbishness and class rationalization. But I must confess that his morbid and unpleasant approach checks far better with the facts than my unbridled idealism. Williams can predict, with amazing accuracy, the reactions, attitudes, and wants of his men, often before the tommies themselves. He understands their biases, the blind spots in their thinking: he knows when to expect the unexpected. Without knowing much about Adler or Freud, Williams has learned to deal with mass neurosis. He has learned to cope with frustration and bitterness, to expect and understand them in the make-up of his men.
"The psychology of the ranks," he is quick to announce, "is quite unlike anything else in the world. If you take a fishmonger from London or Liverpool and dress him in the uniform of the Coldstream Guards, you've got a greatly changed individual. From nowhere he acquires self-respect and identity as a part of something quite glorious. He changes from a snotty-nosed little beggar boy to a dependable cog in this great machine. But don't be fooled for a minute by that. As an individual he's no better than he was. He's different in only one respect: in that the principles and standards of the group replace his own. He's more dependable, but also more dangerous, because he almost ceases to think as a person. Honor is what the group respects, and Right is the command of the next highest rank. Tommy Atkins is a real personality, not a useful generalization. There is something of him in each one of the sergeants, some of his perversity, some of his fear.
"Your 'GI Joe' is a cartoonists' creation, an amusing but arbitrary stereotype symbol. America has no 'military type,' because she has no empire dependent on her army. Britain is built around Tommy Atkins' personality; it is a necessary stone in the foundation of the Empire. Tommy knows that his welfare as an Englishman depends on his acceptance of the present society, without exception, without reservation, without the slightest hope of a change. He's not aware of the economic arguments, but he instinctively senses his relative well-being, and he's not going to tamper with a social order that has brought his country wealth and glory."
Richards had entered the room during this speech and he bounded at once into the conversation. "And that is precisely his greatest folly, his refusal to make demands on his government. Do you think that because Britain doesn't believe in progress, the stream of history will halt in its flow? My God, man! That's like sticking your head in the sand in hopes of escaping notice by doing it."
"But you misunderstand me," Williams replied. "I quite agree that it's only a stopgap. Yet you know yourself that maintenance of the Empire is synonymous with welfare of the British Isles. The social structure and the imperial system are inseparably linked together, I'm afraid. As long as the present social system prevails, Britain will be able to defend what she has. And as long as the colonial system remains, the ranks will be afraid to rock the boat.
"India has a far more important function than feeding the mills of Manchester and Paisley. It is the primary tool of the upper class in keeping the worker from going radical. As long as Tommy can be made to believe that his welfare depends on the traditional system, the squires and their country estates are safe, and the Welsh coal miner will stay in his hole."
"Yes, the squires and their estates are safe, all right, as safe as the idiot who sits on a safety valve." With this remark Richards left the room, an excellent stroke of rhetoric and timing. Williams continued for another hour, mouthing rather circular platitudes. But the remark which has stuck in my mind is the one with which Richards closed the real argument. Williams' soliloquy is not worth recording; it is like the pointless thrashing of a man in a strait jacket.
There are three Polish padres aboard the ship, and two of them dine at the same table as I. They are mild-mannered, quiet little men, only one of whom knows any amount of English. The British officers have shown them great deference, allowing them a gentle and tactful seclusion. But one of the few Americans aboard is a rather overzealous practical joker. On at least three occasions he has set upon them, insisting that the one English-speaking member convey his gibes and jokes to the others so that they too may appreciate his extraordinary humor. Fortunately, the padres are not easily shocked, and they have borne up well under the worldly taunts, better perhaps than I myself, since each of these occasions has left me exhausted. Whenever the priests see Samuels approaching, they dodge into their staterooms or a convenient lavatory. But at dinner they cannot help but face him and Samuels always makes the most of his chance. Tonight he leaned across the table and said in a stage whisper that carried the length of the room, "Say, Padre, who was that girl in your cabin last night? And don't tell me that she came in for confession. I saw her enter at seven o'clock, and she didn't come out till after ten." Richards and Pierce had dropped their forks and I stopped chewing my bite of steak. I wanted to hide underneath the table, but I kicked viciously at Samuels' leg instead. I looked at Richards and he looked at me, but I do not know who was in the greater agony. Suddenly we were startled by a raucous laugh, and I kicked Samuels under the table again. But when I looked around, he was only smiling; the padre himself was doubled with laughter. The attention of the entire room was upon him, but he continued, unabated, for almost a minute. Then catching his breath, he translated to his colleagues and joined them in another laugh. They debated in Polish as to the proper rejoinder and finally the spokesman of the group replied, "Mr. Samuels, it is our business to listen to confession and that girl insisted that she had nothing to confess. We would lose our jobs if we accepted that answer so we adopt what you Americans call the 'make work' policy." The other two priests chuckled together through the sentence, though the words themselves meant nothing to them. Samuels had never expected such a response, and he was bested for the moment by these unworldly men. Pierce broke the awkward silence by explaining, "The priests have been with fighting men for quite a while now, Samuels!" Samuels agreed that he "could see that they have," searching the while for a more clever answer. Finally the light came back into his eye and he said, "In the labor movement, they call that feather-bedding." I stared intently at my piece of meat, suddenly very interested in its color and texture. I glanced upward just long enough to notice that Richards and the others seemed to be similarly preoccupied.
With Dante as my guide, I could go no deeper into Hell than I went this afternoon. Dr. Marlowe decided to make a tour to inspect conditions below in the hold. When he asked me if I cared to go along, I agreed, probably out of morbid curiosity. But I have wished ever since that I had not gone; even my vivid imagination did little to prepare me for what I have seen. I suppose that I must get used to this sort of thing if I am to serve with the Indian Army, but I'd like to postpone that adjustment a while and perhaps work into it more gradually. I think that Marlowe was as shocked as I, and I hope that he'll try to do something about it. But he seemed rather cynical, and be muttered something to the effect that "it's useless to complain to their officers."
As Marlowe strode carelessly through the nightmare on D Deck, the black men squirmed quickly out of his way. But after he passed, they seemed to close together like water in the wake of a ship. I picked my way, with no help from them, through the tangle of bodies sprawled across the deck. Some were sleeping and others talked, but every waking eye was following us. Marlowe kept up a patter in Swahili, joking with the troops and patting their shoulders. One fellow had a nasty sore on his leg that seemed to be irritated and festering. He pulled at my trouser leg when I passed along, apparently convinced that I was a doctor. But I shouted to Marlowe for help in turn, and he looked at the scab without bending down. He raised the toe of his boot to touch it, testing the patient for his reaction. The Swahili winced and withdrew the leg, but it was obvious that the sore was not too tender. Marlowe prodded it again with his foot, making a face as pus oozed out. Then he stooped and removed the dirty scab, washing the sore with alcohol. The patient was properly appreciative, and Marlowe promised to see him tomorrow. I asked how many doctors were aboard and Marlowe answered that there were quite a few. "But there is no provision for regular inspection and the troops quite often must have some special attention." I asked how many doctors were detailed to the troops and learned that none worked with them directly. "Do you mean to say that you're the only one assigned to come down here among the men?"
Marlowe answered, "Oh, I'm not assigned to them. I just come down to be a good fellow. I can't do much, for I haven't the equipment, but I like to help wherever I can."
Some of the men had already begun to cook their squash over bonfires on the deck. Rags and splinters had been scraped together, and crude little pots were trying to boil. The smoke had filled three enormous rooms. The air was choking three feet off the ground, and the men lay down where the breathing was clearer. But to my mind the acrid smoke was better than the animal smell of the lower levels. I clung to Marlowe's loose shirt tail, afraid of losing him somewhere in the fog. I was getting quite dizzy when we finally emerged into a patch of fresh air below the afterhatch. There the column of smoke rose up, clearing the deck immediately beneath it. The footing had seemed particularly slippery, and now I noticed human waste on my shoes. I scraped it off as best I could, but I picked up more just a moment later. There were half-hearted attempts at sanitation; empty fruit cans once lined the walls. But most of them had been filled many hours ago, and the men had to defecate where they ate and slept. They try to avoid rolling in their own piles of dirt, but many of them seem to have been unsuccessful. They toss and thrash about in their sleep, encrusting their bodies and their clothes. I have noticed that few of them carry any life belts, macabre testimony to their realistic outlook. I hate to imagine a sinking of the ship. These poor beasts would be literally locked below.
Yesterday something happened to me which meant very little then but which now, in the light of what I have seen today, assumes a much greater significance. One of the girls, a WATS officer, was berating her bearer for his slovenly appearance. The native accepted her abuse without blinking, but the girl became more and more righteously indignant. She found soot on his back and fleas in his hair, both of which offended her feminine delicacy. Finally she spied a dry piece of dung which had apparently dropped off of the foot of the native. At this she pushed him rudely with her foot, so that he fell from the squatting position he had taken. She ordered him out of her cabin at once, and stood in the doorway with an exasperated air. "You can take an ape out of the jungle," she said, "and you can dress him up like a human being. You can teach him to shine shoes and even carry a gun, but you've still got just an animal on your hands. What good has civilization done them? Has he accepted any of our European standards? He's as filthy now as he was in the jungle, and what's more, he brings that filth to us." I felt that these words were indefensibly harsh, but I too was disgusted by the filth of her bearer. Then, as I turned to leave, the girl threw out an idea, obviously to see how I reacted to it. "I used to criticize Americans," she said, "for the way they treated their own Negroes. But I can see from this experience that they're quite impossible, and that sympathy is simply wasted on them." I stopped in my tracks and turned abruptly, wanting to take her by the shoulders and shake her. "You know nothing about it," I said instead, controlling myself as best I could. "Until you have a better basis for your opinions, Miss Chalmers, I think you'd better just keep them to yourself. We've enough prejudice and bigotry in America as it is. We needn't import any more from abroad. Our whole racial problem results from just such ignorance, and adding your bit to the pile won't help." Miss Chalmers recoiled as if I had slapped her face, and she was still a bit frightened that I might actually do it. Though an officer, Chalmers is from the lower classes, so she murmured an apology through force of habit. I felt rather sorry for the girl herself, but I have no sympathy for what she represents. I almost apologized, but then I thought better of it and left the room without a reply.
When I look at my souvenirs from Kenya colony I can't help comparing them with the American counterparts, with the burned leather sentimentalities with which every five-and-ten abounds. These carvings from Mombasa are particularly striking, highly stylized, yet thoroughly individual. Best of all, they bear no gaudy "Made in Africa" label upon them. There need be none to repeat that phrase which is implicit in every line of the work. Every curve of the ebony faces and every mass of the animal forms proclaim them to be something genuinely primitive. The letter openers sell for a shilling apiece, and they're hawked from every East African corner. The artists who make them are at work while they sell, bargaining and collecting without dropping their tools. Unfortunately there is no real art in my collection, not in the usual intellectualized sense. But the line of demarcation between artist and craftsman is less obvious in Africa than it would be in America. Here indigenous art seems to flourish as prolifically, as irrepressibly, and as naturally as the foliage. Every youngster has a sense of proportion, and if he does not proclaim it, it is only because he lacks a jackknife. Though some are better craftsmen than others, they all seem to have the fundamental appreciation, and creative expression is a mass phenomenon.
These people are living close to the soil; their hands and feet are honestly caked with it. Their intimate knowledge of the natural forms is clear in this feeling for line and mass. The artist knows his subject so well that simple representation does not fully satisfy him. His interplay of surfaces and his balance of form would rival the sophistication of our modernist sculptors. And yet this is all so thoroughly intelligible, so naive and genuine in conception and approach---a far cry from the intellectual enigmas laboriously created by Europeans in purple smocks. Here is the combination which the aesthete seeks, but which is always so basic that it eludes his self-conscious search. Here is the union of sensation and intuition that guided the hands of Myron and Praxiteles. I glory in the mediocrity of my pieces, in their unpretentious commonness. They tell the story of the Mombasa street corner, not the biography of a famous creator. They do not simply demonstrate what one man can do and outline the terms in which he thinks. They demonstrate rather what a whole culture produces, and they deal with democratic common denominators. In my masks and knives and letter openers I have the objectified introspection of the primitive African. Motion rides the haunches of his deer and creeps through the crouching lines of a lion. It thrusts upward in the tilt of this neck and curves back down through that paw in the dust. It courses actively through restless forms, depicting the bushman and the country in which he lives. This is the feeling and vital energy which the sophisticate completely lacks. This is the real artistic motivation which the homosexual dilettante can scarcely imagine.
Why can America produce nothing like this, except in scattered and isolated cases? True, there is an occasional Barthe or Benton, but these men are mutations rather than representatives of their age. They are artists in spite of the fact that they are American, not because of or through that fact. All American art seems caught on the horns of a serious dilemma which we ourselves have created. There is the heavy hand of the sensuous middle class with its maudlin, voluptuous sentimentality. On the other hand, there is the nauseating reaction against it, our sterile cults of unintelligibility. The antagonism which has resulted from their clash has leveled the productive ground between. It has made it a no man's land where none may venture without braving the crossfire which is doubly dangerous. There are a few brave men like Robert Frost who refuse to take sides in the esoteric discussions, and who refuse to shape their work to a pattern in order that the critics may automatically appraise it. But the New York art groups are as religiously biased as the various early Protestant reforms. They are as factioned and cross-factioned as the Communist party and every bit as zealous in purging their heretics. Culturally, this phenomenon is the perfect counterpart of Thurber's clever war between the "plains" and the "freckled." The issues at dispute are as arbitrary and illogical, and the destruction to everyone will be quite as complete. Time and time again I have seen the neophyte pause before a canvas in the Metropolitan, consulting his pocket guide, then crossing himself if he has felt something other than the prescribed reaction. He, of course, is just one step lower than the passer-by who vaguely supposes that the building contains either a collection of fish or the historic relics of Sherman's march to the sea.
What accounts for our disrespect for art? How can our vulgar taste be explained? I suspect that it results from the materialism which characterizes our whole society. The photograph is our natural medium, for we see only what can be measured with calipers or micrometer. Fineness and subtlety we partially respect, but only when concerned with engineering tolerances. The ultraphysical truths are beyond us, the meanings are lost in our race for efficiency. What a dismal future Americans have planned, to be the most efficiently vulgar nation in the world. I am almost ashamed that I was born in Detroit, that mecca of the religion. of Practicality, that home of race riots and the River Rouge Plant, that inner sanctum of our cultural sadism. I suppose Carl Sandburg could see something beautiful in it. But then, Carl Sandburg did not have to grow up there.
Even our religion is brutally physical, "literal" in the approved terminology. It has all been reduced to a contract with God in which Providence becomes the party of the first part. I am not simply bitter because I have no artistic talents, but because, lacking them, I have been refused a good substitute. I am bitter because I have been raised in a peculiar society which respects a whore more than an artist or a professor. Which came first, the neurotic art or the disrespect for sensitivity? Which came first, the purple smock or the belief that sculptors must inevitably be homosexual? It is another of those chicken-and-egg propositions, so we must accept the cubist and the fairy with the omelet!
A notice has been posted on the bulletin board, announcing the inevitable "ship's boxing tournament." The officers are mildly disturbed by this news, but the tommies are already preparing for the event. I am surprised to learn that A Deck will participate; I had supposed that this would be considered bad taste. Usually the activities of the troops and their officers are religiously segregated one from the other. Of course, each group will be matched within itself, but even so the thing amazes me. Richards tells me that there is a tradition behind this, a custom that the juniors exercise with their men. Supposedly it demonstrates their physical prowess, but from the looks of some, I suspect it might backfire.
I have been matched with a middle-weight captain, formerly a "Cambridge blue-ribbon boxer." He looks alarmingly capable, and I wish now that I had kept my experiences to myself. The committee was determined to match him with someone, in spite of his prominent amateur standing. So when I admitted that I had done some fighting in college, they went into a huddle and emerged with a leer. I suppose I'll have my head knocked off, but the matter is entirely out of my hands. The others have all accepted their fate gracefully, so I must "carry on" in the best British tradition.
These officers have reasonably healthy bodies and are generally almost a head taller than their men. Perhaps the tradition of interclass marriage has culminated in the development of two distinct strains. The tommies seem underfed and ill proportioned, particularly by my biased American standards. I'm not surprised that Britain was alarmed when she first took stock of her national health.
In any group of American men my five foot six leaves much to be desired, but when I stroll along C Deck, surrounded by the ranks, I find that I can look down on a majority of the fellows. Their teeth are rotten and they appear underfed; their ribs stick out and their legs are bowed. But they are certainly scrappers, one and all. What they lack in physique they make up in heart. They fight till they haven't an ounce of strength left, they seem to have no less than mayhem as their goal. They'll take a beating and come back for more just in hopes of learning from the experience. They're flailing away below right now, and the blood is flowing from noses and mouths. They swear as they belt each other around and I expect to see one kick at any time. But when the fights are over, contestants walk off with their arms around their opponents' shoulders. They're apparently very quick to anger, but equally quick in cooling off.
Pierce has come up on deck just now, little the worse for our party last night. We invited the enlisted WATS above for dinner and we scraped together a four-piece orchestra that shouldn't have happened to a bawdyhouse. I danced with only one of the girls, and just long enough to learn she could barely two-step. When I complained to Williams he looked surprised and answered, "Why, Muehl, she's the best damned dancer on the boat." The rest of the evening I spent with Pierce, shepherding and trying to sober him up. He had managed to get quite drunk in his room, "so that I wouldn't notice how ugly these girls are." Actually, he was more entertaining than bothersome, for he unfolded an amazing collection of songs, almost as clever and funny as filthy. The worst of them he chanted loudly from our corner, but the following he insisted on singing from the bandstand:
"Tiddlywinks, young fellow, get a woman if you can!
If you can't get a woman, get a clean old man!"
The climax of the evening, from my own point of view, came later, when a young girl came over to talk with us. She engaged in the usual conversational banter, leading nowhere, but pleasant enough. Finally she asked Pierce that standard question which everyone asks a kilted Scotsman. "Lieutenant Pierce," she began coyly, "if it isn't too personal, just what do you wear beneath those kilts?"
Now, Pierce had been bored with the lady's company and seized this chance to rid himself of her. "Why, just lift them up and see," he answered, managing to retain his innocent expression.
The young lady hesitated and murmured suspiciously, "Are you sure it's all right? Shall I really do it?"
Pierce gaily replied, "Of course it's all right. I'm hardly as immodest as you seem to suspect." The rest of the incident can only be appreciated by someone aware of Celtic tradition. 'It is an inviolable rule in the Scottish Guards that nothing is worn beneath the kilt.
My bout is over and I've emerged triumphant, having scored, it seems, a double victory. My opponent was large, but ponderous and slow, so that I had my own way through most of the fight. I could have won a more dramatic victory if I had pressed my advantage of the final rounds. But Arnold bore up in such a sporting manner that I was too softhearted to move in for a kill. I began by feeling the fellow out, learning that I could hit him almost at will. His guard was low and ineffective and my left jab kept him quite thoroughly confused. Then I began putting weight in my blows, destroying what poise he previously had. By the end of round one he was unnerved and jittery, possessing no semblance of effective defense. I shifted to his stomach to test its strength, but I decided that the captain's body was strong. I concentrated again on the face, cutting it up through the course of the fight.
In the final round my opponent rose and came to the center badly discolored. I suddenly felt quite ashamed of myself and I wished that I had not agreed to fight. I was especially bothered by the captain's air, by his friendly smile of resignation. It was almost as though he were trying to apologize for his inability to fight back more skillfully. As we circled in the ring I realized that I could easily win the fight on a technical knockout. The referee was hovering near, awaiting a few more blows to the face. But I quickly put this thought from my mind and resolved to "carry" the captain to the end. I began backpedaling, not too obviously, trying to appear a little tired. The captain moved in, encouraged by this, throwing wild lefts and rights. I circled away, punching out occasionally, only to keep him from rushing in too fast. I was stung by two or three rather lucky punches, one that chipped two of my lower teeth. I cursed to myself at the irony of it, that I should receive the only permanent mark. When the battle had ended, I stayed in the ring just long enough to take a bow on the decision. I realized, from the undue applause which I received, that the audience understood and appreciated my actions. The captain added his congratulations, saying that he suspected that I had been "kind" to him. Later in the day I received more compliments, most of them for "sportsmanship" rather than for fighting. Far from being annoyed with this, I appreciated it very much. In college I was chided on the identical count, that I did not adequately pursue an advantage. I suppose neither attitude is objectively "correct," but I certainly prefer the British outlook.
I have just come in from the eyes of the ship, where I've been watching our prow slide through the black water. it's dark outside, but down below the white bow wave is barely visible. I've watched it turn back when I could see it better, like a blanket turned back on a waiting bed. The sea opens so smoothly and folds over so neatly that I would suspect it was about the consistency of molasses. The most interesting thing about the ocean at night is the multitude of luminescent beings. As the ship passes by, its sides reflect the multiple glow of little bodies. Once in a while we pass a jellyfish, lighting up like a neon sign. At first it's a rather eerie sensation to watch these sparks from a blacked-out ship.
My favorite view, though, is back toward the midships, where only the dim outlines are visible. Silent and ghostly against the sky, the great black hulk slides over the water.
It sways softly and secretly in the dead of night, rhythmically shutting out the stars. The throb of the engines is muffled beneath me, like the reluctant breathing of a hidden animal. At all other times I can forget the danger, the waiting submarines, the streaking torpedo. Even when the alarm rings I feel no fright, only a sort of tingling thrill. But there at night I feel death at hand, riding the shrouded midships house. There at night fear takes possession of me and I wait, I pray to see Ceylon.
Table of Contents