“Today, we’ll talk about Buna, Michael. Please take a seat.”
The patient did as instructed, glancing out the office window where a steady drizzle fell; a drizzle he’d watched for hours from his own room’s window
The psychiatrist continued to shuffle through a stack of papers, pausing from time to time to read a passage or study a diagram. Michael stared at the man, through him, to another place and time....
This drizzle, steady though it might be, is only the drip of a leaky faucet compared to what constantly beat down on us in New Guinea.
Private Mikhail Baranovitch flew into the jungle airstrip at Wanigela on October 16, one soldier among a compliment of replacements for the 128th Regiment of the 32nd Infantry Division; a division depleted by malaria and dengue fever and yellow jaundice. The flight over the mountains from Port Moresby was quick, during a break in the weather, no more than an hour. Private Baranovitch wished he could’ve had a window to view all the mountains towering from lift-off to touch-down. Fortunately, he was crammed into a space alongside the B-17’s port waist turret and the gunner let him take a quick glance out. In the hazy distance was a lofty peak tipped in white. He asked the gunner if the white was snow or limestone, but the man merely shook his head before shoving Michael back to his seat so the airman could reassume his post at the twin 50-calibers.
“All right Michael,” the doctor said as he laid the papers to his desk, “tell me about Buna. Were you transported by troop ship?”
The patient’s laugh was a sharp bark. “That came later. Actually, the next day.”
“The day after what, Michael?”
“The day after we flew in.”
“I see. So you arrived in New Guinea by air.”
“Michael, I’m trying to help you. You say you flew in to New Guinea, but you never arrived by air. How could that be?”
"We went to Port Moresby by ship, then flew across to Wanigela in a B-17.”
“I see. Now we’re getting somewhere.”
“Then they put us on small ships they called trawlers to go to this place called Pongani.”
The doctor rifled through the papers on his desk, found the one he searched for, then began to read. As he did, Michael’s mind spun backwar....
We marched from Wanigela to the sea carrying duffel bags and weapons. From the beach, we loaded into outrigger canoes paddled by Papuan natives who took us out to two trawlers anchored offshore. Me and fifty-five other men boarded the King John. Forty-six additional replacements were shoe-horned into a smaller sister ship, the Timoshenko.
The trawlers coasted along what he overheard an officer say was uncharted waters off Cape Nelson. All afternoon and most of the night, they coasted. It was during the night, while he watched the phosphorescent water curling from the King John’s bow that the newspaper guy said, “Where’re you from soldier?”
He turned to see this gruff old guy somebody said was a reporter from the New York Times standing at his side. The reporter was as tall as Michael and quite a bit beefier. He said, “Butte, sir. Montana.”
“You don’t need to ‘sir’ me, soldier. My war was the last one and I never rose far enough in rank for anyone to do it then, either.”
Michael said nothing to that, so the reporter asked, “Why you here, son?”
The young solder saw the man had out a notebook and a stub of pencil. He didn’t know what the guy wanted to hear, so he said, “Same reason the rest of ’em are, I suppose.”
The Times guy smiled. “How old are you?”
He smiled again. “Nineteen. How long you been nineteen, private?”
“A month. A month and a week, more or less.”
“So you weren’t drafted, were you?”
“When did you join?”
He jotted something else down. “Well, private,” he said, “despite what you say, you’re not like most of these soldiers. Most of them were drafted. So you joined because of ‘Pearl’?”
“No, I joined because of my coach. And my papa.”
The Times guy didn’t seem to hear. Or maybe didn’t care. Instead he stared down at the purling bow wave and asked, “Are you scared?”
Michael chuckled. “Scared? Of what? So far, I got to spend most of the winter outdoors in boot camp at Fort Lewis. Then I got a train ride to Frisco, took a pleasure cruise to Australia, a ferry ride to Port Moresby, then caught a plane to Wanigela. After Wanigela, natives paddled me around in an outrigger canoe; now I’m on a slow boat coasting over green coral reefs and into deep bluewater bays in the South Pacific. Over yonder is Tahiti and overhead every star in the whole universe sprinkles down. And to top it off, all the guys on this boat—every one of which seem nice—will do to go on a camp-out with. Frankly, Mister ...”
“Durham. Barnaby Durham.”
“... I ain’t never had it so good, and never would’ve, or even could’ve if I’da stayed in Butte, Montana. Hell, this is an adventure. A south seas adventure.”
Barnaby Durham scribbled for quite a while. He still stood by Michael’s side, but the journalist wasn’t paying any attention to the bow wave or reef colors in the moonlight. The young soldier wasn’t even sure if the guy knew when the trawler crew cut the engines and dropped anchor. But ...
“Michael, I asked you a question.”
Michael’s eyes cleared and there was Dr. Henderson with eyebrows arched and chewing on a lip. “I’m sorry, what was the question?”
“I asked why they took you to Pongani?”
“I thought you said that was where your outfit was going.”
"Was. But I didn’t get there.”
The doctor shook his head, puzzled. “So your outfit never got to Pongani. So where ...”
“The outfit—most of ’em anyway—got there. I didn’t.”
“Why didn’t you get to Pongani, Michael?”
“Got blowed off the boat. Had to swim for shore. Barney didn’t make it to Pongani, either. He didn’t make it home, either. Shell fragment in the head, I was told.”
“Shell fragment? Tell me about it, Michael.”
“Course I haven’t made it back home yet, either. I still got a chance, though. Barney don’t.”
“Where’s home, Michael?”
“Nope. Nothing left for me at Butte. Mama and Papa are both gone. But there’s lots of places in Montana besides Butte. I always liked Kalispell, every time we played up there.”
The doctor propped elbows to desktop and tapped fingertips together. “Tell me what happened on the boat.”
“It was the airplane.”
“Did the airplane bomb you?”
“So you were still in the boat, on the water, when the Jap plane came over and ...”
“Wasn’t Jap. It was one of ours.”
“One of ours! You mean the plane was American?”
“Yes. He made one pass to drop a couple that missed, then came back around. That time, I got a few bursts off before I was blowed into the water.”
“At an American plane? A few bursts? What were you firing?”
“So you handled the Browning Auto Rifle. I planned to get to that later. But right now I want to know about the results of the ‘friendly fire’ from the American plane.”
“He strafed us as well as bombed us. Wasn’t friendly at all.”
“So he came in low?”
“And you were blown into the water. Is that right?”
“Barney was my friend.”
“Of course he was, son. How far from shore were you?”
“Two miles, more or less. It’s hard to tell on the water. At least it’s hard for me to tell how far it is to any place when I’m looking over water.”
“Of course. But the boat was sunk?”
“Nope. Lots of guys injured and a few killed. But the boat made it to the Pongani beach. So did the other boat.”
“And is that when you got your first Purple Heart?”
“The six other boats coming up a week later didn’t make it, though. At least most of ’em didn’t. That time it was Japs. Japs are better at dropping bombs than Americans.”
Dr. Henderson scanned a file lying near to hand, then looked up. “Michael, this says you were wounded at Mendaropu on November 18. Is that the action between”—the doctor paused to glance at his notes—“your trawler and the American plane?”
“Mendaropu is where I caught up with my regiment. I reached ’em a couple of days later. They were still setting up camp when I hobbled in. By then, the shrapnel in my back hurt like hell.”
“Hit by ‘friendly fire,’ yet you got a Purple Heart for it,” the doctor mused. “I didn’t know they gave medals for being shot by your own side.”
“I told ’em I didn’t want it. Told ’em all I wanted was for them to pull out the bomb piece. But the sergeant said they all were so pissed off at the Air Corp that the officers wanted to decorate the only guy on board who fired back.”
“Were you the only one blown from the boat, Michael?”
“It wouldn’t have happened if I had been holding to the rail, instead of my B.A.R.”
“Were you the only one blown from the boat, Michael?”
“Barney was a good old guy. Went through the First War without too many scratches. Then got hit in the head by fragments from the same bomb that got me, I guess. Life’s a bitch, ain’t it, Doc.”
“She certainly is, Michael, a red-titted bitch! Were any others blown from the boat?”
“Couple others, I guess. Neither of ’em made it to Mendaropu. One of ’em was Callaway, from some place in Oklahoma I think. He seemed like an okay guy, too. If you ever see him, let him know I asked about him.”
“So you swam two miles to shore. Why didn’t you swim for the boat?”
The patient’s laughter was explosive. When he ran down, the doctor asked, “What was so funny, Michael?”
“You. Asking why I didn’t swim for the boat—and it hi-jinking all over that bay trying to dodge more bombs.”
“Were any more dropped?”
“Not that I know of. Four was probably all that plane carried. But I’ll tell you, the King John headed up the bay lickety-split for shore in case any more ‘friends’ showed up.”
Doctor Henderson studied the patient, then said, “So you dragged yourself out on the beach. You had no idea where you were. You didn’t know if Jap patrols would come screaming out of the jungle. You didn’t know which way to go, nor what it’d look like when you got there. You were wounded, and had no idea how severely. Were you scared?”
“No. I was hungry, though. We only had some C-rations on board the trawler. And I worked up an appetite during the swim.”
“And you’d lost everything.”
“No, I still had my belt knife. And I had my pants. Everything else I jettisoned in the water. Boots, socks, shirt.”
“Knife. Do you mean your bayonet?”
Again the patient snorted. “No place for a bayonet on a B.A.R, doc. They give special weapons people jungle knives.”
“I’m curious, Michael, why didn’t you jettison the knife, too. Wouldn’t it have been easier to swim without the knife?”
“Maybe. But sharks—there’re sharks in the Coral Sea. Everybody knows that. We never saw any from the King John, though. But I was bleeding and I didn’t know how bad. If a shark come along, I might need something to make it more even.”
“And a jungle knife would’ve made things even against a shark?”
“Better’n nothing. Better than my fists, way I figured.”
Dr. Henderson smiled. He thought a moment, then said, “So you reached the beach. What did you do then?”
“Got the hell off the sand. Scrambled into the jungle. Then I found some moss and laid in it to try and stop the bleeding.”
“I guess. Leastways it was pretty well quit when I woke up.”
“So you went to sleep?”
Mikhael Baranovitch pushed suddenly to his feet. “I don’t want to talk any more. I want to go back to my room.”
Dr. Henderson glanced out his office window and said, “It’s pretty much quit raining, Michael. Would you like to take a walk around the hospital with me? The air would be especially sweet right now.”
Dr. Henderson took a wide-brimmed, flat-crowned canvas hat filled with a multitude of hand-tied dry flies of assorted colors, sizes, and bizarre tastes from his closet, turning the hat around and around, admiring its adornments, pausing to fluff a fly here, stroke another there. Michael stared down at the freckled man’s few strands of grayish red hair raked across a sunburned dome; the squirrely fuzz over the ears appeared as a light blend of cayenne pepper speckled with salt. The face was speckled, too: freckled and puffed and florid. The patient suspected the doctor’s ruddy complexion wasn’t entirely from sun or an Anglo-Saxon heritage. Then the portly little psychiatrist settled the hat in place, glanced up and said, “Ready?”
An old soldier, perhaps a World War I veteran, leaned on a cane at the building’s double entrance doors, then hobbled out behind them. The sidewalks were pretty much empty so soon after the rain. The pair stood out in other ways, too: the tall, broad-shouldered, lean-hipped younger man wearing the blue cotton shirt and trousers issued to patients and the basketball-shaped older man with sunburned arms looking for all the world like small diameter pipes poking from a red-flowered Hawaiian shirt. To complete the outlandish ensemble, the doctor wore khaki British officer’s tropical shorts, and sandals over off-white, calf-length stockings. Henderson’s knees were sunburned, too. Overall, Michael thought the doctor emitted a faint pink, like light coming from a dim shuttered window in a seedy cathouse. Still, he liked the doctor, perhaps even understood and appreciated the man’s unconventional nature. He recalled, a few weeks before, when the orderly first led him into the psychiatrist’s office....
“Oh my,” a portly, ruddy, ridiculous little man sitting behind a clean army-issue steel desk noted the way Michael ducked at the doorway and said, “you’re a big bastard, hmm?”
That first interview began on the wrong foot in other ways, too, like when the doctor opened the file accompanying his new patient: “Says here your name is Mikhail” (he pronounced it Mick-hale). “Is that right?”
The prisoner—and that’s how he thought of himself since Morotai—felt no urge to reply until the doctor pointed out that the rules of war obligated prisoners to give certain information to their captors. “Michael Baranovitch,” he muttered. “Busted back to “buck.” And I don’t remember my serial number.”
That’s when the doctor’s chair rollers screeched and he came around the desk, holding out a hand, smiling, and saying, “Michael, it’s good to have you here. Our objective is to help you recover. We can do that, too, with your help.”
He doubted it. When he’d been led into this prison or asylum or whatever it is—his third since Morotai—they’d climbed two flights of stairs, passed through a security door, and started down a hallway when he and his orderly escort met two other orderlies pushing a gurney. A man covered to the neck with a white sheet was strapped to the gurney. The man’s face was long and cross-hatched with careworn wrinkles. Amid the wrinkles was a scattering of white beard stubble. The gurney rider’s pop-eyes seemed filled with fear. Those eyes followed Michael until the gurney rolled from sight.
Upon placing him in his room, the orderly had bolted the door from the outside. The prisoner strode to his cell’s window and dialed into the asylum’s distant sounds—a series of piercing screams and a hyena cackle coming from another direction. He’d noted the fourth floor’s barred windows on his way into the building; from that, plus the crazed sounds wafting into his room, he knew they’d stuck him near the lunatics’ floor.
The screaming stopped abruptly, but the hyena was joined by another, probably from the same pack.
The street through the hospital grounds was wet, with water standing in puddles on the pavement. A passing vehicle splashed the pair. The doctor shook his fist, but Michael who took the brunt of the spray, seemed not to notice. “This ... this is the first time I’ve been allowed to walk outside in ...” He paused to glance down at his portly companion, “… I don’t remember how long.”
Birds were beginning to chirp and robins began work on nightcrawlers emerging onto the watersoaked lawn. “I’m interested in your early life, Michael,” the doctor said when they were halfway around their circuit of the main hospital building.
“I don’t want to talk no more,” the patient muttered
Dr. Henderson chuckled. “Oh? I thought you might wish to know that I’ve sent to Butte, asking for your school records.”
The patient faltered, then took up the pace, walking faster and faster, until the doctor was panting, yet still falling farther behind. As they neared their first circle and approached the steps to the main entrance, Dr. Henderson shouted, “All right, Michael, that’s enough! We’ll go in now.”
Wrought-iron metal benches perched each side of the entry walkway. Michael collapsed onto one. Tears ran freely down his face. He did not glance up as the doctor approached. “Please let me sit here for a little while, Doctor. I won’t do anything bad. I promise.”
Henderson pulled off his hat, eyeing him closely. “All right, Michael. Sit here for, say, half an hour. I’ll tell Daniel to keep an eye on you. He’ll tell you when your time is up. After that, you’ll have to go back to your room. Will you do that?”
The doctor disappeared into the building as a soft rain again began to fall.
It was during Michael’s second session with the psychiatrist that the lightning storm struck. Dr. Henderson had just asked if he’d finished high school. When told no, the doctor said, “Shame on you. The army could’ve wallowed along without your help for a few more months. He was chuckling at his own joke when there was a flash and a deafening crack and the room lights blinked, then went out. Light still leaked in from around the window blinds, but it wasn’t much. The doctor opened the blinds. Michael was at his side in a heartbeat. Both men seemed excited by the lowering dark clouds and the black wisps trailing beneath.
“Looks like tornado weather to me, Michael. Or it would be if we were somewhere besides the ‘One Hundred Valleys of the Umpqua’.”
There was another flash and another not-quite-so-deafening blast somewhere to the north and east. “You know, if lightning strikes one of those maples, a limb could come through this window,” the doctor said, shivering. “Exciting, isn’t it?” He was even more excited when he helped the big man raise the windows so the wind-blown rain could pelt their faces.
A quarter-hour passed and the shower dribbled to a stop. Again, Michael and Dr. Henderson strolled outside. Again, Michael was permitted to sit unattended on the same wrought-iron bench. A wrinkled, gray-haired man in blue thrust his head out the main doors, peered up at the leaden sky, then crept outside, peering fitfully over his shoulder, as if being pursued. The man nodded at Michael just as a city transit bus pulled to the curb with a hiss of airbrakes to debark passengers. At the air’s “hissss,” the gray-haired old soldier screamed, “INCOMING!” and threw himself to the grass, covering his head with hands and forearms.
Michael helped the old man to his feet, then became alarmed at the crazy lights dancing in the other’s eyes. They met Daniel as Michael helped the old man up the building’s steps. The orderly took note of the older soldier’s wet, grass-stained shirt and trousers and said, “Heard ’em comin’ again, huh Chester?”
As the orderly took the old man by the arm, he said to the younger one, “You should change clothes, too, Michael.”