Thursday, April 28, 2011
Like all essentially damaged people, I did what I could to patch up the cracks, to build a dam, to prevent the seemingly inevitable flow that was cascading in and around me.
Of course there was my damp cave. Suddenly, after a period or relative inactivity, when it appeared that I really served no actual, vital purpose to the mission of the Quartermaster, I was swamped with work. Things got so bad that I was assigned an aide de camp during a time of acute staffing shortages.
Arthur was just a boy. His cheeks were pocked with a red, raised field of fresh acne. Often, he would show up at my doorstep, and it was apparent from the red blotch on his cheeks (as if he had taken strawberry jam and gingerly smeared it in the sunken pits below his prominent cheek bones) that he had spent some time in the men’s washroom fastidiously removing his facial blemishes. It didn’t really work, but only called attention to the pronounced irregularities of his asymmetrical facial features.
At least the ache provided a gentle repose for the roving eye. He suffered a brutal, perpetual cold and kept a yellow snot rag stuffed up the left sleeve of his uniform. During my tenure at Quartermaster I never once saw him sit down, for I kept Arthur on his toes, sending him away from my overburdened desk with stacks of folders and files destined for other desks in all corners of our cavernous building.
“I’m sorry Arthur,” I would mutter in feeble apology from beneath a pile of growing papers and folder files. The constant hunching behind the midden of papers had put a crick in the small of my back. It was painful, as if someone had inserted a barbed metal rod between the disks of my spine. I could only sit erect in that traditional, hand on the small of my back posture, face twisted in agonizing pain expression on my bulky face, “there’s just so much to do. I’m not working you any harder than I’m working myself.”
“Oh, pay it no mind, Captain. Its really a genuine pleasure to work for an American. I’d always been told, well,” he smiled broadly, shyly, exposing his large teeth, discolored to a shade of pale gray, “that Americans don’t know how to buckle down and do some serious work. But that’s obviously false.”
I looked at the pile of folders beneath Arthur’s left armpit. The arm was twitching from the exertion of its load. One folder, a tan manila envelope, just peeking out from its multi-colored cousins, contained completed requisitions for rubber boots for troops stationed in northern Australia. The causal chain, running from a slim piece of paper on my desk to, ultimately, the shodding of Aussie feet in one of the Queen’s Lancer’s Division in the Northern Territories, poised to re-invade Borneo or Burma, Hong Kong or Indonesia, was a feat of imagination even beyond the pale of my super-activated mind.
It was far easier to conceive of a supernumerary God creating the world from nothing, than imagining that papers which recently sat inertly on my blotter, (and were now was pressed in the slim, perspiring crook of Arthur’s chicken wing arm), could actually transmute into a useable object in time and space.
Being a mere sliver in such a broad based pyramidal structure, one begins to loose track that one actually performs a useful function. The day is ruled by the ever present need of clearing your desk of paper, in order to make room for more paper. For somewhere down the hall, or above you, or down the street traveling toward your little bunker on a mail lorry, is more paper to replace the paper you have just sent on its merry way, more likely than not, to some poor sod’s desk, who he is encountering the same difficulties, trying to unclog the same paper log jams.
“Well, Arthur, I’m glad I’ve upset your notions about the American work ethic,” I said gruffly, not sure if I was annoyed or amused by this little ragamuffin’s insinuations about our national character. I could have crushed the emaciated waif like a worm.
What did he understand about the tenants of Americanism? His articles of faith were fossilized in a hybrid tradition of royalism and parliamentary procedures set in jerky motion by that watered down liberalization of feudalism know as the Magna Carta. A democracy requires a more solidified sacred text, one kept under glass like a holy relic, which is constantly scrutinized against the apparent orthodoxy or heterodoxy of its citizens. This sprawling British sense of Common Law legalism was utterly foreign to the workings of my mind, to my sense of historical pragmatism and down to frontier down-to-earthism.
“Oh, Captain, I meant nothing by that,” was he whimpering? His face turned so red I could not tell where his ache began and his skin ended.
“Why don’t you take those folders down to records,” I said in my best school master stern tone.
“Yes s-sir” he stammered, and as soon as his wire thin frame left the door I felt instantly guilty. I turned crimson with anger, and stared with a gaze of controlled rage at the particularly complicated form sitting on my crowded blotter. I grasped the stubby, soft, number one pencil that was my habitual writing utensil and began to ruthlessly scratch numbers into the blanks. The requisition was for bakery equipment, heading, swelteringly enough, for recently liberated Singapore. What they wanted with fresh baked goods in a tropical zone of occupation was anyone’s guess. We were out of bakery forms, so I was using a blank form for munitions. In the space that read ordinance, I scribbled in my precise hand, scones. Where it read magazine, I crossed it out and replaced it with the scrawl, bakery. Good God, I thought, things were getting slip shod.
I heard a spray of water piddle above me. In the last few weeks I had grown disgusted at being pelted with periodic geysers of water from heavenward, so I jerry-rigged a WWI surplus tarp above my head. The green canvas sheet slanted away from my desk and I had placed two empty jugs of tar at their two symmetrical creases. Every half day or so I would empty their brown, soupy contents into the lavatory sink.
I glanced over at the tar buckets. The portside container was near overflowing. I debated tramping it over the lavatory.
“You take the biscuit, old boy.” I glanced up from my desk. Angelic little Gavin, bathed in his white gauzy haze, stood in my threshold, literally poised between two mutually exclusive worlds, mine, a stark realm of black and whites, his an androgynous kingdom of the whimsy washy middle ground.
“What’s that Gavin?” I asked with a trace of testiness in my tone. Gavin seemed not to notice my irritation, for he just beamed, exposing his white ivory choopers, and sat, loose-limbed and diffuse, as if he were made of static, in my guest chair.
“What’s that Gavin,” he said in a row rumble, trying to imitate the flat nasal tones and clipped vowels of a Middle Atlantic accent, “I said,” he continued in a normal tone, “you take the biscuit. You’ve been snapping at your aid de camp again, old chap. Now don’t get me wrong, every now and then its important to chew out one’s inferiors, flex a little muscle and all that, but under the circumstances you might not want to saddle up Arthur and ride him so hard. After all, a good horseman knows when to use the whip and when to let the horse’s natural….”
“I’ve never ridden a horse,” I interrupted.
“Really?” Gavin was genuinely affronted, even shocked in a prissy way, as if he had misjudged my credentials as a gentleman.
“Well,” I sat back in my chair, folding my hands in my best conciliatory manner, “pony’s when I was a boy.” This appendix ratcheted his frown a notch further down. I decided to let the poor little cherub off the hook, “you’re right, of course, Gavin, I should lay off Arthur.”
Gavin shook his head vigorously, and I knew exactly what was happening. He was getting exactly what he wanted from me, and now had to make it seem like this really wasn’t his goal at all. “Please don’t get me wrong Langley. I’m not trying to tell you what you should do with your people…”
I held up the palm of my hand as if I were directing traffic. I wanted none of Gavin’s soft soap back pedaling.
“I understand, really Gav, I do.” I laid my massive paw over his fine, down covered hand, “I should have a gentler touch with poor Arthur. After all, he’s doing his best just like all of us. Everyone is overworked.”
Gavin smiled awkwardly. I removed my hand. I found myself, suddenly, as awkward as Gavin’s false smile, and I realized that I hadn’t a clue what I was doing or what I was saying. For a moment I viewed my situation like a general sitting in some situation room far from the front he was coordinating.
I am at my field desk, maps spread before me, battalions, units and field strength pictorially represented by stylized soldiers, green tanks, mobile rocket launchers. And I’m succeeding. I am getting hastily complied reports by my junior officers in the field of minimal resistance encountered, of startling advances far in excess of my wildest dreams.
The enemy is in a steady retreat. But then, after these massive gains, it begins to steadily rain. And quite unexpectedly the line halts. I did not give the order to stop the advance; and it seems, to my incredulous horror, that I do not have the full control over my troops that I once through I did. If I can not control their halt, than did I really ever control their advance? I was like a man who had been hiking over flat, monotonous terrain for weeks and weeks on end, without a single landmark to break the sheer monotony of the sweeping vista. And near the conclusion of the journey, encounters a gaping crack in the earth, as deep as it is wide, a chasm whose depth is concealed in an impenetrable shadow.