REMY TUCK had not seen his own reflection in three weeks. He’d lost his shaving mirror in a poker game to a man with jaundice. Remy hadn’t tried to win the mirror back. Lately, he played only for food.
He sat under a giant dao tree near the barbed wire, rolling dice on a plank. The faces of the internees around him told him enough of what he must look like. Scooped-eyed and hollow-cheeked, three of them bet with Remy for the prize of an egg, while the rest read or dozed. One of the gamblers, a former mechanic for Pan Am, tipped his sharp chin up away from their game. Remy stopped rattling the dice to gaze through the dao’s branches into the dispersing mist of a warm December morning. The far-off hum of an American plane—the Japanese had no presence anymore in the Philippine sky—added its burr to the calls of birds and insects in the scrub and bamboo inside the camp, the jungle outside it. Remy put down the dice. The whine of the airplane shifted to a higher tone. Something dived their way.
Remy rose first. He stepped out of the shade of the great dao. The tree provided him a favorite, cool place to sit, read, or run a quiet game of craps away from the guards and the Catholics.
He pulled down the brim of his old fedora to better search the lush horizon for the plane. At age forty-five, his eyes remained sharp, though fading sight was common inside the wire, where vegetables had grown scarce. Remy squinted to squeeze more distance into his vision. By the engine’s winding he expected it to come in low. This would be a fighter, not one of the big bombers that hammered the Japanese garrison in Manila every few days. Remy scanned west, beyond the fence. Three miles off, slips of fog clung to the forested slopes of Mount Makiling. To the north on terraced hillsides, bent Filipino farmers trod behind carts hauled by scrawny carabao, water buffaloes. Everything’s starving, Remy thought, except the fat dao tree.
Others moved out of the shade with Remy to find the plane. One of the dice players, the old piano player, black McElway, spotted it first. He said with a chuckle, “Hot diggity dog, look at ’im.”
The twin-tailed fighter appeared out of the northwest, above the bay, a green sliver returning to Mindoro from a dawn raid over Manila.
“Everybody,” Remy announced, “inside.”
The fifteen men and women under the tree got to their feet. Some had to reach down to help the ones slowed by the blue ankles of wet beriberi.
Remy hurried beneath the dao to the plank. He snared his dice and the egg he’d been about to win. He returned the egg to McElway, who offered a broad, rickety mitt for a grateful shake. Remy gripped the man’s elbow to hustle him and the rest along before any of the two hundred Japanese guards came to do it for them.
Everywhere in the camp, internees scurried for the two dozen sawali-and-nipa barracks. Guards on the dirt paths clapped, beating a rhythm of urgency. They shouted at anyone they observed meandering, “Bakayaro!” Idiot. Some brandished bayonets, jabbing them in the air as if they would skewer any malingerer.
Nearing his own barracks, Remy lagged for one more glance at the fighter coming hot and steady. The plane traced the earth so closely it blew through the smoke from a chimney in the village. McElway climbed the few bamboo steps into the barracks. The old man tugged Remy behind him.
“Come on, man. You don’t want that trouble.”
Remy made a beeline for the cubicle he shared with McElway and four other bachelors. Throughout the barracks, the ninety-plus men already inside shambled for their own bunks, grumbling at being forced under cover by a hotrodding pilot. Before Remy could poke his head out the window, the fighter screeched past, shaking the sawali walls and bamboo timbers.
Remy hopped up to his top bunk. He stuck his hat on a nail. The snarl of the fighter faded quickly southward. Remy smelled exhaust. Dangling his legs, he pictured the view from the cockpit, of speed and freedom, turning this way or that, no bayonets or wire fences. He imagined a horizon, the soft curve of the world.
“He’s coming back!”
All the men crowded into the hall to rush to the south-facing windows. Alone, Remy hurtled to the back doorway. Here he had a view across the southern grounds of the Los Baños camp, between the guards’ office and one of the married barracks. Four guards there watched the fighter bank wide above the jungle. Mount Makiling caught the plane’s engine noise and threw it back across the camp in echo. None of the men in Remy’s barracks cheered. The Japanese would not stand for that loss of face.
The plane leveled its wings. Other fighters had buzzed the camp, but those pilots had stayed on course after their joyride and disappeared. None had done this, come back.
The four Japanese outside their office sensed something different, too. They ducked behind their bamboo porch. Elsewhere in the camp, other guards scurried and shouted. The fighter bore in, menacing behind its slow, swelling roar.
In the barracks, someone hollered, “What the hell’s he doing?” From Boot Creek, cuckoos and bush doves flitted out of the tangle of palms and acacias; an indigo egret flapped away, spooked. The fighter dropped below the level of the foliage along the ravine. Remy lost sight of it.
No guards stood in the open hoping for a one-in-a-million rifle shot. The hidden plane closed in, trembling the floorboards under Remy’s sandals.
Outside the southern fence, a storm of wind and knives mowed through the treetops above Boot Creek. The stones of the ravine drummed and split. The bedlam halted as fast as it started, to begin again in the next moment farther along the ravine. This second burst stopped quickly; a third barrage did the same. Then a long rip of bullets pelted the remaining length of the creek.
The next instant, the fighter followed its guns. Only fifty feet above the camp, it blasted by at a speed that beggared any machine Remy had seen in his life. The men in the barracks leaped across the hall for the opposite set of windows to see the American go. Remy in the doorway watched this amazing thing; when the war and internment started, no one in the camp had ever seen a single wing plane, only the bi-winged versions. Now this modern wonder climbed, acrobatic and straight up, with a howl of everything American that Remy needed it to be, swift, unyielding, harshly potent. When the pilot turned the twin-tailed fighter onto its back in a snappy barrel roll, Remy shook a fist beside his hip to keep the gesture out of sight of the guards.
McElway sidled next to him. “You got the best view.”
Remy raised his nose, reluctant even to point. “Nah. He’s got the best view. His gets to change.”
The old man showed moon-pale teeth. “What do you reckon that fella was doin’ shootin’ up the creek like that? Three short ones. Then that long one.”
“Showing off. Telling the Japs to go screw themselves. I don’t know.”
The piano player raised a fingernail yellow as his teeth. “That there, I think. That was Beethoven’s Fifth.” He dotted the air with his finger. “Dun dun dun daaah.”
Remy considered the old man’s lean face. Mac kept himself shaved, a rarity in the camp. He’d cozened a whole year out of a single razor blade. McElway was one of the few Allied negroes living in Manila when the Japanese captured it in January ’42. They’d asked him to sign a statement supporting Nippon’s efforts to free all races in Asia, including his own. If he would sign, they’d leave him alone. Mac patted his piano, said “Paalam” to the Filipinas in the whorehouse, and got on the truck with the other Americans.
Remy hadn’t considered the musical quality of the strafing run. The pilot banked one more time, then flattened his wings for another sortie.
“This flyboy looks harebrained,” Remy said to Mac, “so maybe you’re right, Maybe it was Beethoven.”
Topsy Willets, once a stout fellow who’d lost all but his double chin, shouldered his way between Mac and Remy. He stuck his head out the door to see the fighter returning. In Manila, Topsy had been manager of Heacock’s Department Store and a regular at the University Club. He’d been a clever merchant, a transparent poker player.
“Right about what?” Willets asked.
Mac told him his guess about Beethoven’s Fifth.
Willets shook his head. “I like Clem’s idea better.”
Clem, a carrot-topped Scots merchant seaman, had missed getting out of Manila by two days before the city fell. He got drunk and was late for his ship. Last week, he went to see one of the internee doctors, who told him he had dysentery. Clem’s room was next to Remy’s. He’d taken to moaning at night.
The week before, that same doctor had killed a family’s dog to add it to that day’s stew rather than see food meant for the internees go to keeping a pet alive. A son from the family beat him up over it. The doctor swore he’d do the same again and did not understand such selfishness.
Willets said, “Clem figures it’s Morse code.”
Mac recast the musical notes: “Dot dot dot dash.”
“That’s V,” Willets said, raising two fingers. “For victory.”
Clem’s right, Remy thought.
He stepped out the door, onto the topmost bamboo tread.
Last month, sixty-year-old Scheyer was punished for standing outside while American planes were overhead. Scheyer had been manager of the Wack Wack Golf Course. Before the air raid, he’d eaten some flowering bulbs that turned out to be indigestible. Twenty minutes later, with the planes coursing past, he walked a few paces from his married barracks to throw up in private. Sentries nabbed him and took him to the front gate. They forced him to stand in the sun on a narrow concrete block for ten hours. If Scheyer wobbled or stepped off, they struck his legs with cane rods. The guards watched from lawn chairs. Scheyer left the camp hospital a week later with the backs of his legs still raw from a lack of iron in his blood.
The fighter pilot’s engine wailed in approach. Remy said to him, “Attaboy.” He took another stride down the bamboo steps.
Twenty yards off, one of the guards kneeling beside the office spotted him. The guard waved madly for Remy to retreat. He shook a small fist.
The fighter barreled closer, a mile off now. At that speed the Yank would blow by the camp in seconds. Would there be another machine gun melody? Was the pilot intending to chew up more jungle, maybe some of the camp this time? The huddling guard had seen enough of Remy. He got to his feet, unshouldered his rifle. He was not going to allow an American prisoner to gloat.
Remy split apart two fingers on his right hand. All he had to do now was raise the arm.
Brown hands lapped over his shoulders. Remy was tugged backward up the steps. Inside the barracks, Mac released him. The guard raised an angry finger at Remy, then resumed his squat behind the office steps.
Mac whispered in Remy’s ear. “What you thinkin’?”
Remy kept his voice low for only his friend to hear. “Whyn’t you grab me sooner? Jesus Christ. I almost did that.”
“I figure you a grown man. Had some sense.”
Remy rattled his head at himself. A gambler did not get carried away, ever.
Everyone in the barracks riveted their attention on the fighter. This time, the pilot didn’t line up on the ravine outside the camp but aimed his nose inside the wire, straight for the great dao tree. He cut his airspeed.
The plane came in low and slow. Again, none of the guards tried to potshot it, though this time they might have had a chance. When the plane closed to within a hundred yards of the camp, its canopy slid open. The pilot faced the twenty-four bamboo-and-grass barracks, the weedy yards and worn paths, the two thousand Allied prisoners, and jackknifed his hand into a salute.
Remy, Mac, and Topsy Willets ignored the consequences and returned the salute. Behind them, the barracks rustled. Remy pivoted. In the windows, all the men had their hands flattened across their brows.
From the opened cockpit, a small package tumbled to land in the trampled grass of what had been the camp garden. Coursing the length of the camp, the pilot held his salute until he slid shut his canopy and gunned the motor. He dipped the fighter’s wings, climbed into the last purls of mist above the jungle, and disappeared south.
No one in the camp moved. Slowly, to the departing growl of the fighter, the guards came out from the pillboxes, shadows, and various crevices they’d dived for when the plane first loosed its guns on the creek. The small package lay untouched in the open. None of the Japanese came near it.
Clem stirred first. “Maybe they think it’s a bomb.”
Mac said, “I hope it’s a couple chocolate bars.” The old man bared his teeth at the long-absent taste. His gums had faded to a milky pink.
Remy couldn’t guess what had fluttered to earth; from seventy yards away it looked like an olive green ball.
“We’ll find out,” he said, “soon as Toshiwara crawls out from under his desk.”
Every barracks waited for the commandant to sound the all-clear bell. Once the signal was rung, Remy could return his attention to winning McElway’s egg. The last drones of the plane ebbed below the creaks of the rafters and the chirps of birds returning to the thrashed ravine.
Most of the men spread themselves on cots. A dozen queued in the doorway, to return to their assigned chores interrupted by the air raid. Firewood detail, cooking, tutoring, maintenance, sewing, administration; the men, women, and children in the camp handled hundreds of tasks, like in any small town.
The silence in the wake of the plane deepened. The collective breath of the internees was held. Guards ran pell-mell toward the field.
From the barracks beside Remy’s, a tall boy strode with hands in pockets. He wore his black hair over his ears. His long-legged gait, in sneakers and patched shorts, was swift enough to carry him to the packet before the Japanese could beat him to it.
Once more, Mac lapped a hand over Remy’s shoulder. Mac pressed to hold him in place, though he needn’t have. Remy had no intention of going out there. He’d already had one brush with hotheadedness this morning. Besides, the boy had an independent streak. That’s why the Japanese had taken him out of Remy’s barracks and housed him next door, in No. 11 with the other troublemakers.
The boy, who’d grown gangly in his nineteen years, closed in on the packet, outpacing the guards. He bent his long frame to pluck it from the grass, then unraveled it into two parts. The first was just something to weigh the package down; he cast this off. The second item the boy held aloft, to show the camp a green box of cigarettes.
Willets snorted. “That’s gonna be bad.”
A tall man, Janeway, crowded beside Remy in the doorway. He’d been a bridge builder on Bataan, with a reputation for graft that stuck with him into the camp. Remy would not bet with him, he was known to welch.
“That’s gonna get him more than a binta.” Janeway patted Remy’s arm. “Sorry, old man.”
Janeway was right. The Japanese were not going to let the boy off with a slap. Far from it. Remy winced, quelling the impulse to pop Janeway in the jaw. Not because Janeway deserved it for his statement, but Remy wanted to lash out at something and Janeway had deserved it other times.
Close by, for Remy’s ears only, Mac clucked his tongue. Perhaps it was the old man’s brothel years that had taught him to speak softly.
“What is the matter,” he whispered, “with the men in your family?”
Out in the field, the Japanese neared the boy, who maintained a purposeful, theatrical unawareness of them closing around him.
Remy answered, “I don’t know.”
Again he wanted to raise his arm and flash the V sign, this time so his son could see it. The gesture would serve no purpose. The boy was not facing him, nor was anyone.
From the commandant’s office in the center of the camp, the brass gong tolled the all clear.
“But look at him,” Remy said to Mac above the ringing. “He’s goddam terrific, ain’t he?”
© 2009 David L. Robbins
Locked in the notorious Los Baños Internment Camp southeast of Manila, Remy Tuck, his headstrong nineteen-year-old son Talbot, and their community of Allied internees battle starvation and sadistic punishments by the Imperial Japanese Army. Defying the guards at every turn, Tal watches beautiful Carmen through the window of her room above the camp, where she is trapped in her own prison, a sex slave for the Japanese army. Without speaking, they fall in love. As the tide of the war in the Pacific turns against their captors, the camp grows even more dangerous, and Remy and Tal enact a courageous plan to save their fellow prisoners and the woman Tal loves from certain execution.