Monday, December 28, 2009

The Lonely War excerpt by Alan Chin

Like most war novels, The Lonely War envelops all that is unique to war, the horror of battle, overcoming fear, the cruelty of soldiers, the loyalty and camaraderie of men caught in a desperate situation. Yet, it stands alone in two important ways. First, it is a passionate story about a tender love developing between an officer and an enlisted man, revealing a rare and dignified portrait of a couple struggling to satisfy desire within the confines of the military code of conduct. Even more importantly however, it describes the heart-wrenching measures of how much one man will sacrifice to save the life and reputation of the man he loves.

The Lonely War
Publisher: Zumaya Publications, LLC (November 12, 2009)
ISBN-10: 1934841447
ISBN-13: 978-1934841440

April 29th, 1942
0200 hours

On the fourth night out from Bora Bora, Andrew's exhaustion catapulted him into a deep and dreamless sleep that restored his strength. At 0200 hours, Lt. Hurlburt tugged on his shoulder and told him it was time to gear up. He stirred and, opening his eyes, had the most peculiar sensation--his bunk gently rocked back and forth. The compartment rode comparatively smooth, and the only sound was the rumble of the engines.

He untied the ropes holding him to the mattress and bounded out of bed. He pulled on his borrowed marine outfit--green T-shirt and skivvies, fatigues and combat boots. But before pulling on his over-gear, he removed the shoestrings from his navy boondockers and tied them together, then tied the shoestrings to both ends of his flute and slung it across his shoulder, carrying it under his green jacket like a hunting bow.

His loose-fitting clothes felt awkward. He took a moment to reconsider his decision then chased the thought away with a shake of his head. He climbed into a life-vest, cinched the straps tight and covered his head with a metal helmet. The helmet, like his borrowed fatigues, was too big--the front edge dropped down over his eyes. He had to tilt his head back in order to see.

On deck, he saw the sea running slightly rough, with long ground-swells. The sky pressed low, a blanket of gray clouds. He felt a peculiar quality in the blackness that surrounded him.

Now that the storm had passed, most of the men were again sleeping topside, their cots spread across the deck. Chief Baker ambled among them, shaking them to consciousness.

Andrew joined the marines for a breakfast of eggs laid over rare beefsteak, fried potatoes and mountains of crispy toast. He had no taste for red meat, but he chowed down, knowing this would be his last real meal for months. He ate his fill, sopped up the egg yolks with a piece of toast and washed it down with strong coffee.

Hurlburt entered. "I want everyone to leave their brain buckets behind. I don't want anyone jeopardizing this operation with a clank of a chin strap or your helmet thudding against a tree branch."

Andrew was only too happy to shed his helmet. He wished he could shed the whole mission and stay with Mitchell, but that was not an option.

At 0300 hours, they filed out of the mess hall and geared up. The marines lined up on the quarterdeck for debarkation while Baker supervised the lowering of the black whaleboat. Mitchell walked up to Andrew, who stood at the end of the line.

"Well, sir, I guess this is it," Andrew said.

"Wish you'd change your mind."

Andrew gave him a nervous grin. "'In peace there's nothing so becomes a man as modest stillness and humility/But when the blast of war blows in our ears/Then initiate the actions of a tiger/stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood/disguise fair nature with hard-favor's rage.'"

At that moment, he didn't know where the words were coming from, but he tried to gain strength from them, if only for long enough to climb into the boat and leave Mitchell behind.

Mitchell blinked once, looking like the entire world had imploded before his eyes.

"I'll miss your Shakespeare," he said with a slight tremble in his voice. "Well, then, do what you're told and keep your head down. I'll do everything I can to bring you back."

"Thank you, sir." He shrugged, smiled weakly. He reached into his pocket and extracted a string of prayer beads, all bunched into a ball. He pressed them into Mitchell's hand. "Something to remember me by."

Mitchell unballed the beads, took off his hat and slipped them over his head, letting them fall around his neck. As their cool smoothness pressed against his throat, he seemed embarrassed, as if he realized he should have brought something to give Andrew.

Silence. A thousand luminous thoughts raced through Andrew's head, but he couldn't make himself voice a single one.

Mitchell also seemed to stall for time, as if fearful of his own ineptness, even more of the approaching separation.

Andrew imagined himself leaning into Mitchell's solid mass, kissing him right on the mouth with all the tenderness and love he could muster. The thought made him feel wildly alive, breathless. The tips of his ears burned, and his head spun. He couldn't restrain himself any longer. He leaned towards the officer, lips pursed.

Mitchell quickly held out his hand, stopping him cold. Andrew grasped that hand, clung to it as the marines moved forward and clambered down the debarkation net two at a time.

They stayed together all the way to the net, and Mitchell stood on the quarterdeck to watch him slip aboard the whaleboat. The six oarsmen manned their stations on the thwarts. Ogden, acting as coxswain, stood at the tiller. Andrew was the last man into the boat. He sat next to recently freed Hudson, who was one of the oarsmen.

"Let fall."

The oars came down to a foot above the surface.

"Give way together, boys."

The oars dug into the water, and the boat slid into the blackness. Working with sharp, sweeping movements, the rowers strained to haul the boat across a mile and a half of water. The marines sat with rigid backs. Black shoe polish covered their faces; their M1 rifles pointed skyward, and their ammunition belts hugged their waists. They all peered forward, trying to see through the inky night.
Only Andrew looked at the ship. He knew Mitchell was standing on the bridge, binoculars pressed to his face, following their progress. He tried to imagine how the officer looked as he strained to see him. He stared at the ship, gray superimposed on the night sky, until it merged with the blackness and he could no longer distinguish its outline.

He wished more than anything he had brushed passed that outstretched hand and kissed the officer on the mouth like he'd meant to, even with everyone watching. He'd had that one last opportunity to show Mitchell how deeply in love he was, to share a loving gesture he could carry to his grave, but he'd let fear snatch it from him. Coward, he thought. I'm such a coward.

* * * *

The roar of surf grew progressively louder, until the whaleboat reached the area beyond where the waves swelled up and toppled over as they raced towards shore. Ogden signaled, and the oars were lifted out of the water to hang in mid-air while he studied the beach for the best possible landing site.

Beaching the boat in heavy surf was hazardous, even in daylight. If the boat should lean sideways to the wave even a smidgen, they would do a loop-the-loop and jettison the men from the boat. If they capsized, every man would have a hell of a time swimming through the breakers. The marines would have an especially difficult time, weighed down as they were by their weapons and packs.

Beads of sweat ran down Ogden's face. After two minutes of straining to see the topography, he took hold of the tiller. The oarsmen, all facing the stern, collectively braced their legs and took a firm grip on their oars.

"We'll take her straight in from here, boys," he whispered. He turned to see a wall of water speeding at them that was tall enough to block his view of the sea behind it. "Give way together and give it everything you've got."

Six backs bent, and six bodies stretched towards the bow, away from the oncoming wave. The boat drove smartly towards the beach. The stern rose on a gargantuan wave, and the boat went perpendicular as it crawled up the concave front of the monster. It seemed to hang there, cresting the immaculate white foam. The crew rowed at a frenzied pace as they flew towards shore.

Water sprayed Ogden's face, and the salty mist blinded him. Maneuvering on instinct alone, he deftly guided the whaleboat through the surf. He blinked until his vision returned, just as another liquid monster was about to thunder down on them.

"Put your backs to it--Christ! I'm out here with a bunch of fucking pussies."

The boat gained momentum, and by the time the next wave scooped down, they were far enough in front of it to keep from being swamped. Once again the boat lifted above the raging foam and was thrown towards shore like a spider being flushed down a toilet.

When the boat scraped sand, Ogden ordered, "Trail oars!" in his normal voice. The six oarsmen hauled their paddles in and jumped over the side into waist-deep water. They seized the gunwales and hauled the boat high onto the beach. The marines leaped overboard, and spread out with rifles drawn to form a perimeter.

Unexpectedly, the night shattered with the sound of a shot. The noise echoed from above, at the top of the cliff. Everyone froze. They waited crouched, anticipating a second, but only the waves pounding onto shore and the wind whistling up the cliff face disturbed the silence.

Ogden signaled Hudson, and the big man passed the communications gear to waiting hands. The sound of two more shots reverberated down the cliff. It was time to move out, and Hurlburt signaled his men. They heaved the communications equipment to the base of the cliff, leaving Andrew and the other sailors to push the whaleboat into the surf.

Before they could move the boat, a red flash lit up the sky several miles east of the island.

Ogden hissed, "What the fuck?"

A roar grew louder and louder until an explosion ripped open the Pilgrim's superstructure. More flashes lit the night sky. Funnels of water erupted all round the ship. The men on the beach watched, each holding his breath. Another shell blasted into the Pilgrim, and a huge fireball billowed above the ship.

The Pilgrim began to cut through the water. Her five-inch guns belched return fire.

Hurlburt raced towards the sailors, shouting, "Get that boat out of the water and follow me. We've got to take cover. This will bring every Jap on the island down on us. Move it!"

A fiery blast shredded the Pilgrim's bridge and conning tower. Another shell sheared off a section of the bow, and a tremendous explosion cleaved the forecastle apart. A second fireball soared skyward. A heartbeat later, the Pilgrim nosedived into the churning sea.

The sailors on the beach watched as their ship began to go down with little hope for the hands aboard.

"We've got to help them," Andrew screamed. He tried to push the whaleboat into the surf, but Hurlburt grabbed him by the shoulder and hurled him backwards onto the sand.

"We have to save ourselves before we're spotted."

A marine ran up with his weapon at the ready. Again, Hurlburt ordered the crew to beach the boat and follow him inland. The sailors all glared at Ogden, who stood petrified, gazing out to sea where the submerging Pilgrim blazed.

Panic seized Andrew. He leaped to his feet and tackled the marine with the Tommy gun. In a desperate rage, he wrestled weapon away from the marine and aimed it at Hurlburt's chest. His hands trembled, and beads of sweat erupted across his brow.

"Lieutenant, take your men and get the hell lost. We're saving what's left of our crew."

Hurlburt rested his hand on the Browning .45 holstered to his hip. "And if I don't?"

"I'll kill you, and anybody who tries to stop us."

"You're a pacifist. You won't hurt anyone."

Andrew lowered the Thompson's muzzle and squeezed off a short burst. The sand flew up inches from Hurlburt's boots. The sound rang in his ears as he pointed the muzzle at the Marine commander's chest again.

"Are you willing to bet your life on my convictions?" He said this so flatly he was sure nobody would detect the terror hiding beneath the words.

The color drained from Hurlburt's face; his mouth twitched. He searched Andrew's face intently. What he found apparently convinced him Andrew was serious, because he took his hand off his weapon and signaled his men to disperse.

Before he left, he said, "Waters, if we both survive this, I'm going to see you courtmartialed. You're looking at twenty to life." He raced after his squad. As soon as he reached the cliff, he began to climb.

The sailors hauled the whaleboat into the surf and manned the oars. Andrew jumped in at the last moment and sat in the center of the boat, trembling.

Hudson patted him on the shoulder. "Guts! That took a ton of guts! You're a better man than the rest of us pussies put together! That's two I owe you."

Fighting down the acid bile at the back of his throat, Andrew glanced at the Thompson still clutched in his hand and tossed it overboard. ( articles)

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1 comment:

Victor J. Banis said...

Great stuff, Alan - but then I'd expect nothing less.