by Kenneth Robbins
You remember noise. A constant clap rattle of thunder all around. Seemed strange, so much artificial thunder. And lightning.
Artificial lightning. Some early evenings the spectacle was better than the fireworks of a hundred Fourths of July. The zig-zag of tracers, the sudden midair collision of a small plane with anti-aircraft fire, the electric tracings where deadly fire zoomed looking for something, anything to hit.
Mornings were less noisy. Sometimes. Nights, too. Sometimes. Twilight, though. God. You scan the horizon where the sun is setting for possible Zeros looking for anything that moves. Every day seems like, with the sunset, here they’d come. Low over the water. Like sometimes, they’d rise up out of the water. Just all of a sudden, there. Coming in out of the sun. Heavy bombs suckered to their under bellies. Extra fuel tanks on each wing. Low and cunning. Zippers you call them. Nips riding in Zeros equals Zippers. Lunatics, every last one of them. Looking for death, not counting their own. Something about “The Divine Wind.” True spirit of the samurai, only their swords were propeller driven cans of death. Kamikaze, and they were all out to kill not just anybody. They were intent on killing you.
After a week or so of dodging the sons of bitches, you turn as crazy as them. You see them coming and you hop onto the gun turret and wave your shirt and yell, “Here I am you fucking bastard,” and you quack because after all, what are you but a sitting duck. After awhile all your buddies are quacking. They see the joke, and the punch line is all of you combined. After that, after the sun’s gone and no more Zippers to worry about, you laugh yourselves loony by quacking at strange times. Like as you vomit your bowels over the side of the ship and quack like you have no sense left. And maybe you don’t. It’s hard to tell who’s craziest, you or the kamicrazy.
How long can a body take it, day after day, always the same, on the tense side of being awake. Even asleep below deck, it’s with one ear expecting the wail of air strike. And come twilight, never fail, you hear the song, “In coming starboard, man the poppers, kamicrazies loose from the nut house again.” All you know is you hate the sons of bitches and pray to Jesus your watch is early a.m.
You see what praying gets you. Ha. It’s your watch, see? Twilight. Sun’s setting like a deflating yellow balloon. You’re hanging over the edge, eyeing the school of fish breaking water around the drop line and wishing you had a pole, a hook, and a bobber. Can’t hear a thing. You’re in the neighborhood of some of the big mothers, the “Death by Fire” you call the battleships and their row on row of flame spitting pea shooters. The New Mexico a couple hundred yards away is putting the crunch on somebody over there on shore. For most of the day, the guns have ripped the island apart like there is no more need for it on this earth. Even when the pea shooters take a breather, which they do, usually after sundown, you still can’t hear. The ring of cannon fire will be in your ears when you die.
So it’s your watch, and you put the clamor from the New Mexico out of your head and concentrate on the sea, good looking water here, considering, a blue like no other blue in the world, and the sky, the sun’s beams trying to slice through the thick haze of the smoke screen your ship has helped lay around the fleet, only the wind’s too brisk and the screen is whipped away as fast as the smaller boats put it in place.
For some reason, you look up away from the horizon. Maybe something moved. An albatross or sea gull. You don’t know for sure, but you look up, and Holy Christ, you nearly shit your pants as you eye what must be twenty of them, not low and humming just above the tops of the highest waves, but coming down, straight down out of the cloud cover, somehow undetected, untouched and unnoticed. Until you put your whistle in your mouth and blow for all you’re worth. The sirens blare through the fleet, sounded boat to boat, one loud monotonous surge of sound that everybody who hears understands. The kamicrazies are back, in full force, and aiming straight for the core of the battlewagon. Which sits like the quacker she is, vulnerable and pristine, a magnet with the power of importance stamped all over her. The fifteen seconds it takes to unlimber her anti-aircraft guns are five too many. The lead honeybee is home free, a clean shot, and a breath away.
You watch as the single bomb penetrates the New Mexico’s foredeck and sends a spray of fire and shattered metal two hundred feet in the air. But the kamicrazy’s not done yet. His dive is clean and unhampered. This guy knows what he’s doing. You admire him and his samurai sword that out of destiny and sheer luck is aimed clearly for the New Mexico midsection. The rapid fire of anti-aircraft is useless so late in a dive. And you watch as the Zipper disappears into the giant ship’s maze of metal and flesh. You watch as smoke and fire silence the big ship’s guns. And you remember: you’re supposed to muster to your own battle station.
So you man your post as your anti-aircraft pistols start raking the twilight air with a near constant fire. You don’t quack this time cause you know, without the mother ship’s big guns pecking away at the swarm of honeybees, you really are nothing more than a God forsaken sitting duck, for real this time.
You’re at the turret and you’re doing your job and so is everybody else on your team and you’re sweating and your sweat plops on the turn base where it sizzles like spit on a wood stove. You’re feeding the gun with an endless stream of lethal cones and you’re not sure what you’re shooting at until your buddy standing at your elbow, his sweat mixing with yours, whimpers a sorrowful sounding “Oh, sweet lord Jesus. . .”
You look where his eyes take you and you see it too. The sun as backstop, the propeller as grid, the Zipper with the kamicrazy at controls has picked you for show and tell. Your motor reaction to feeding the gun continues though your head’s not connected to the activity any longer. You glare at the approaching airplane and know, this is your time, mother dear, going to meet your maker here in this God forsaken hell.
The gun you feed lowers its muzzle and bellies fire nonstop into the speeding kamicrazy, and he takes it all like a gift, absorbing lead and explosives like a sand trap takes on water. And you know that in a minute, now less, you’re among the maggot breeders who have populated this stretch of sea. You dig in your pocket for a photo of your sweetie from back home, Indella, I’m so glad you ain’t here, and grasp her image into you tight and warm, readied for the concussion that is coming, coming, zipping straight for the bridge of your nose. . .
The explosion is a spray of water and a burst of flame a hundred yards across the spit. You take a chance to look, and the pilot, the kamicrazy himself, is strapped in his cockpit, surrounded by salt water and sinking metal. His eyes are open and you swear you look inside the man’s eternal soul and what you see turns your sweat cold.
How come you missed, you want to scream. You were ready, Goddamn it, and the fucker flat out missed. You sonofabitching stupid idiot, how come!!
Then you see the cockpit explode from inside, sending a shower of glass into the oily water. Through the hole comes a gloved hand holding a revolver which is dropped heavily into the sea, then a shoulder and another gloved hand, and finally a head with slant eyes and yellowish skin. He is coughing and blood is drizzling down his face. He works his way free of the sinking cage of a cockpit and slips easily into the churning sea. And before you know it, your guys are tossing him buoys and life savers and lines and you watch as the Nip, just a little cuss, grabs hold and clings to the buoy for dear life.
He is pulled aboard. He makes no struggle. He stands at attention even though it is obvious his left arm is shattered below the elbow. His pants above the left knee have been ripped open, revealing a deep gash along his left thigh. There is blood on his face and shame in his eyes. He is alive and he shouldn’t be. The honeybee that failed to protect the nest. Not worthy to live, to have been born.
A bunch of you gather round. You’ve not seen a real live Jap before, and you have to admit: he don’t look like a whole lot. Not only is he short but he’s thin, weighs no more than ninety pounds. Needs some of your Momma’s home cooking. And you look in his face and see a kid, a mere child of no more than sixteen, clear skin and jet black eyes. You wonder, are you fighting children now? Is that the enemy you’ve been sent to destroy?
One of the brass comes along and takes the Nip below. He has no fight left in him. He goes, no longer a kamikaze, now just a puny little boy, waiting to be tossed back into the sea or into a cubbyhole somewhere and gazed at like an animal in a cage.
The Zippers are finished for the day. You breathe again and wonder if you’ll be quite so ready next time. After all, the sun sets anyway, it doesn’t matter if you watch it or not.
Your watch is up and you can’t wait to get below deck and crash into your bunk. It’s been far too long a day and you’re ready to leave the war-making to other folks. Your buddy catches you by the sleeve and says, “You wanna see the Nip?” And you say, “What for? Done seen him.”
“He’s in the forward hold, shaking like an aspen tree.”
“How come? You guys scare him?”
“Don’t you think you’d be quaking, too, you was a prisoner of war of the Japanese?”
You hadn’t thought about it that way. It could happen, you know, in this the strangest war man ever invented. You make your way to the forward hold. There’s already a crowd of swabbies hanging around, making fun of the little Nip, poking at him with their fingers and talking “JaJa” to him as if they expected him to understand.
The prisoner, his wounds now bandaged and the oil washed off, just sits, staring at his boots. He doesn’t seem to breathe. “You sure he’s alive?” you ask the closest swabbie. And the swabbie says, “Give him a gun and let’s find out.”
The game of “poke fun of the prisoner” wears thin and everybody slips away. But you’re intrigued. Except for the slanted eyes and skin tone, the kid could just as easily be your younger brother, Pierson. Same height. Same lack of meat on the bones. It makes you a little homesick, being so close to somebody the age of your kid brother.
Soon it’s just you and him. That makes no difference: he still shakes. “I ain’t gonna hurt you,” you tell him. But he stares at his boots like he’s afraid somebody’s gonna steal them. “No need to worry about that,” you tell him. “Those boots ain’t gonna fit nobody else aboard this ship.” You laugh. He doesn’t.
In a bit, an orderly shows up with a tray of food straight from the Captain’s table. Give him the best. Makes sense to you. How often does a tub like the Circe get to take on a prisoner of war? Treat the bugger like a king and maybe the word’ll get out and you’ll be taking more prisoners than the Marines.
The orderly puts the tray on the floor near the Nip’s uninjured right hand. “Enjoy,” he says with a smirk.
The prisoner makes no move to eat. You wonder why. You know it smells damn good to you and you’ve already had your mess. Must be something wrong with his taste buds, not wanting to eat such delicious vittles.
You stand. Maybe he just wants to be left alone. That makes sense, too. So you lift your right hand, wave it a little, and leave. “Must be tough,” you say to yourself. “Sure enough, must be tough.”
But you can’t get the little fella out of your head. That look on his face as his plane entered the water, so close you could almost touch him, was one you know you’ll not easily forget.
It’s middle of the night when you get out of your bunk and make your way back to the forward hold. Nobody’s standing guard. No need to. The Nip is chained to lead pipe; he’s not going anywhere. Since your ship observes nighttime blackout, you carry your small flashlight with you just so you don’t fall into an open hatch and break your neck. You shine the beam on the prisoner’s face. His eyes are open, staring at his boots, but he’s no longer shaking. That’s a start.
“You doing okay?” you ask as you squat in front of him. You see the tray of food is still untouched. “Hey, buddy,” you say, “you gotta eat.” You bite into a chunk of chicken. It’s cold and greasy, but you make a face like it’s delicious and then hold another piece out to him. He doesn’t move.
You shrug your shoulders. You’ve done your best. As you stand to leave, he moves. Just his eyes, nothing else. His eyes move up and latch onto yours. And you stare at him and him at you. Still, he doesn’t touch the food.
“Back when I was a kid,” you tell him, “my Daddy’s brother, my Uncle Sol Cobb, got out his old twenty two, best rifle ever made and decided he was gonna shoot him a chicken hawk that kept taking his chickens. Well, blame if he didn’t do it: ping, took that old chicken hawk right out of the sky. Hev and me–Hev’s my brother, short for Heviathan, stupid name–took off after that hawk and found it, wounded but still alive. So we determined we’d make a pet of him, put him in a chicken coop and tried to nurse him back to health. You talk about something beautiful: that chicken hawk was a thing of wonder. We tried everything, but the dang bird refused to eat. Finally, one day, we went out to admire him, and he was dead. Done starved himself to death.” You look him deep in the eyes and say, “You ain’t that stupid, are you? to starve yourself to death?”
Of course he doesn’t say anything. How could he, him being a foreigner and not understanding a word you say to him.
You squat beside him and take a piece of Spearmint chewing gum from inside your shirt. It’s fresh, you just traded for it that afternoon. You unwrap it and break it in half. One half you put in your mouth and chew, the other you offer to the Nip kid. Surprise is your feeling as his right hand makes a move in your direction, reaches out, and takes the half piece of gum and puts it in his mouth. At first there is a look of surprise on his face. Then a slight smile. He nods, and you nod back.
“Damn good gum, ain’t it,” you say with a huge grin on your face as you offer him a second piece, a whole one this time. He takes it and nods as he puts the second piece of Spearmint gum in his mouth. Only he doesn’t chew. He swallows it whole. “You ain’t supposed to–” but by then it’s gone. Well, at least you can rest easy. The little fellow ain’t gonna starve himself to death this particular night.
Next morning you wake to the sounds of more kamicrazies. Only this bunch is hitting the fleet closer to the island. You stand on the bridge, watching the fray, thanking Jesus that during the night, your skipper’s taken the Circe out of harm’s way. There aren’t that many crazies this morning and the show is over about the same time as it starts.
You head to the forward hold. You have a few minutes before your watch. You want to say good morning to your new buddy.
Only, he’s not there. The hold is empty. What happened? Did he get lose and throw himself in the sea? Or worse, did an angry sailor come during the night and throw him overboard?
A junior officer is standing nearby. He says, “Looking for the Nip?” and you say, “Yes, sir,” the way you’re supposed to.
“They transferred him to the Toledo early this morning. She’s heading to Pearl and figured they could take him along.”
“Thank you, sir,” you say. Damn, and you’d invested in three packs of Spearmint chewing gum. Well, you could enjoy them, and with each piece, you’d think of the little fella from somewhere in Japan, a place you figured you’d never get to see.
Author’s Note on Spearmint:
My novel from which “Spearmint” is drawn was published in 2002 by DreamCatcher Press under the title “In the Shelter of the Fold.” Distribution was limited and the volume is now out-of-print.