Leaving For Korea

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We’d taken a couple of double rooms at the Mark Hopkins, two double rooms for seven of us who hung together. It was cheaper that way, and we shared beds and flipped for the couch and saved money. We could have gone to a lesser hotel, but on your last night in San Francisco it somehow seemed right to be at the Mark. Only Phelps, who had some style (and money), complained about the room arrangements, remarking it wasn’t a very classy way to go to war and was probably against the hotel rules. By the time we had the sleeping arrangements sorted out and had gone upstairs to the cocktail lounge of the Top of the Mark, it was full night, and Faust and Doran had joined us, men leaving wives behind, children.

I Wished I had a martial tradition on which to call. All I had was an uncle dead on D-day, who went into the Army instead of going to jail.

Out beyond the windows, as we lazed over drinks, the Pacific was dead black except for the lights here and there of fishing boats and coasters. Behind us the Golden Gate Bridge was a necklace slung delicately against the bosom of the dark.

“Nice,” someone said. And it was.

Mack and Phelps and I told them about PaIo Alto, about meeting the football team and having beers under the trees.

“Sounds good.”

I don’t know really what the others felt. This was one of those times when we were shy, even among ourselves, men who’d lived together for most of a year suddenly fallen mute. I knew what I was thinking, blend of exultation and pride, fear and inadequacy.

“Another?”

We all had one more. Why not? You could pick out individual stars in the western sky, way out over the ocean. I took a sip of bourbon and shivered. That night in bed, before I slept, listening to the muted sounds of men in sleep, the snores and restless movement, I thought of Freddie Grosse, who lived next door and of the sign the Germans held up that long ago October in the Argonne Forest, said a brief prayer for Wild Horse and Doug. I wished I had a martial tradition on which to call, like Mack Allen or Taffy Sceva, a noble father or grandfather. All I had was an uncle dead on D-day, a man I can’t recall having ever seen, who went into the Army and might otherwise have gone to jail.

I was sure that like my father, I would play the fool, and I hoped only that I would not run away or get men killed out of cowardice or weakness, hoped I might accomplish things in which people who knew me might take a modest pride.

They’d found a new plane or repaired the old one. And we climbed on board in the half-light that next morning—all those senior NCOs and officers who’d been to war before, and kids like me who hadn’t. They handed us box lunches as we climbed up, sufficient to get us to Hawaii.

“Waikiki next stop!” someone exulted. Men laughed, and there was some tomfoolery and kidding around, what the Marines call “grabass.” Mostly, I suspected, it was nerves. Even for the older men.

The interior of the plane had been gutted of its airline seats, and in their place hung rows of stretchers, double-berthed, riveted or bolted to the overhead and to the bulkheads.

“Hey,” I said enthusiastically, “we can stretch out, take a nap.”

A gunnery sergeant looked at me. “Lieutenant, them’s stretchers for the wounded. They fly replacements over, and they use this same plane to fly the woundeds back.”

There were rust brown stains in the canvas of the stretchers.

I nodded and shut up.

It took a while to get everyone on board and then a longer time to get the engines started and before we rolled out onto the tarmac, so I wrote a letter to my dad, writing on notepaper in my lap. You know how it is in the service, they’re always after you, making work, keeping you busy, sending you this way and that, so you learn to read or think or write a letter whenever there’s time, no matter how brief. I wrote to him about these last days in California and how it was now time to go, but mostly about San Francisco and what a great town it was and a lot about Stanford and especially about going to practice and meeting their football team.

He’d enjoy that. He loved football and had never played it. And he’d always wanted to go to war and never had.

We were moving now, rolling slowly over the tarmac, bumping gently, the old plane vibrating slightly, rattling, the wood and canvas stretchers banging against the bulkheads, the motors revving slowly and then faster. I was on the right side, and in the east the sun was climbing but slowly. Then the plane was rolling faster, bumping more, and now very fast.

Now we were off the ground and rising and the sun coming up with us, clear of the horizon, as we banked once over the bay and then banked again so that the Golden Gate arced beneath us. Then California fell behind as we flew west toward Asia.