by Lita Kurth
Tough and quick, you stood at the gates of a military base, holding out a filthy palm, begging in a singsong: No mommy, no poppy, no chow-chow. All of that was true. You made your face as pathetic as you could, and added what the soldiers taught you,“No flight pay.” One GI laughed and gave you candy against the regulations. Others gave you cigarettes, coins, these farm boys who sailed to fight the Japs, the commies, and anything inside that wasn’t fierce.
Word of you and your brothers had gotten out. Far away, volunteers sent stores and clothes.. Illiterate boy, those frigid nights outside, your bones stuck out while less than a mile away, tons of donated flour and rice rotted in warehouses. Warlords fought over who would turn a profit from roomfuls of blankets, clothing, food. All that bounty shipped from sparkling fundraisers might as well have stayed at home. Your unknowing belly twisted.
With your gang of fellow orphans, you ran the streets, shoeless, scalp caked with dirt till it cracked open, an eroded map of poverty. Among the few hairs and scabs, lice climbed and swarmed, another creature that could profit from you. When night came, you burrowed deep in the piles of horse manure, the warm and reeking mess, your blanket.
In the morning, when bare hands stuck to iron, a local man with a horse-drawn wagon, stopped to inspect each hill of straw and manure. White clouds rose from his mouth, white clouds from his horse’s mouth. Walking around the mounds, he pulled out the dead, and piled the bodies on his wagon. The feeble horse dragged its load of corpses to the dump beyond the city gates.
But this morning, you woke with a stomach ache and a mission, urine-y straw stuck to your head; you smelled like a stable. You would go to the place of plenty, that olive drab city of clothes, boots, candy, coffee, meat, bread, a heaven, well-guarded.
It was not yet dawn. How quietly you crept, shoeless and thin, slipping past the guard, creeping around the tent poles. You lay down and stuck your head beneath the canvas wall of the vast mess tent. Cookie and his crew cracked eggs, and stirred batter, making breakfast for a thousand. Drool fell from your lips. Maybe you’d grab a biscuit that dropped on the dirt and run like hell. They’d chase you with a raised spoon: “Get out! Get out!”
Patiently, so patiently, you lay. The sun of a short day rose. Soldiers stood in heavy coats, forming a line outside the tent, cursing, elbowing, breathing white, reading comics or New Testaments. One caught sight of your filthy feet and bony legs sticking out. (Your head and shoulders were in heaven under the tent.) The soldier winked at his buddies, stepped out of line, and sneaked up, keeping his thick boots quiet on the gravel.
“Aha!” he roared, seizing your shoulders. He’d give you a fright and a candy bar, then merrily toss you out.
You didn’t scream or jump. You weren’t alarmed. Your shoulders were stiff. Your body was cold. Dawn had come in a scented paradise you could almost reach—of frying meat, sizzling eggs, and biscuits piled up in hills.
The soldier dropped your body like a too-hot biscuit. His stomach sickened, he walked away from the chow line.
Thousands of miles away, an American kid tossed a square of rutabaga under his brother’s chair.
“Don’t waste food. There are starving children in China.”