03

He shall rule them with a rod of iron.

—Revelations II:25

I did Basic at Camp Arthur Currie on the northern prairies, along with a couple of thousand other victims — and I do mean “Camp,” as the only permanent buildings there were to shelter equipment. We slept and ate in tents; we lived outdoors — if you call that “living,” which I didn’t, at the time. I was used to a warm climate; it seemed to me that the North Pole was just five miles north of camp and getting closer. Ice Age returning, no doubt.

But exercise will keep you warm and they saw to it that we got plenty of that.

The first morning we were there they woke us up before daybreak. I had had trouble adjusting to the change in time zones and it seemed to me that I had just got to sleep; I couldn’t believe that anyone seriously intended that I should get up in the middle of the night.

But they did mean it. A speaker somewhere was blaring out a military march, fit to wake the dead, and a hairy nuisance who had come charging down the company street yelling, “Everybody out! Show a leg! On the bounce!” came marauding back again just as I had pulled the covers over my head, tipped over my cot and dumped me on the cold hard ground.

It was an impersonal attention; he didn’t even wait to see if I hit.

Ten minutes later, dressed in trousers, undershirt, and shoes, I was lined up with the others in ragged ranks for setting-up exercises just as the Sun looked over the eastern horizon. Facing us was a big broad-shouldered, mean-looking man, dressed just as we were — except that while I looked and felt like a poor job of embalming, his chin was shaved blue, his trousers were sharply creased, you could have used his shoes for mirrors, and his manner was alert, wide-awake, relaxed, and rested. You got the impression that he never needed to sleep — just ten-thousand-mile checkups and dust him off occasionally.

He bellowed, “C’pnee! Atten … shut! I am Career Ship’s Sergeant Zim, your company commander. When you speak to me, you will salute and say, ‘Sir’—you will salute and ‘sir’ anyone who carries an instructor’s baton—” He was carrying a swagger cane and now made a quick reverse moulinet with it to show what he meant by an instructor’s baton; I had noticed men carrying them when we had arrived the night before and had intended to get one myself — they looked smart. Now I changed my mind. “—because we don’t have enough officers around here for you to practice on. You’ll practice on us. Who sneezed?”

No answer—

“WHO SNEEZED?”

“I did,” a voice answered.

“‘I did’ what?”

“I sneezed.”

“‘I sneezed,’ SIR!”

“I sneezed, sir. I’m cold, sir.”

“Oho!” Zim strode up to the man who had sneezed, shoved the ferrule of the swagger cane an inch under his nose and demanded, “Name?”

“Jenkins … sir.”

“Jenkins …” Zim repeated as if the word were somehow distasteful, even shameful. “I suppose some night on patrol you’re going to sneeze just because you’ve got a runny nose. Eh?”

“I hope not, sir.”

“So do I. But you’re cold. Hmm … we’ll fix that.” He pointed with his stick. “See that armory over there?” I looked and could see nothing but prairie except for one building that seemed to be almost on the skyline.

“Fall out. Run around it. Run, I said. Fast! Bronski! Pace him.”

“Right, Sarge.” One of the five or six other baton carriers took out after Jenkins, caught up with him easily, cracked him across the tight of his pants with the baton. Zim turned back to the rest of us, still shivering at attention. He walked up and down, looked us over, and seemed awfully unhappy. At last he stepped out in front of us, shook his head, and said, apparently to himself but he had a voice that carried: “To think that this had to happen to me!”

He looked at us. “You apes — No, not ‘apes’; you don’t rate that much. You pitiful mob of sickly monkeys … you sunken-chested, slack-bellied, drooling refugees from apron strings. In my whole life I never saw such a disgraceful huddle of momma’s spoiled little darlings in — you, there! Suck up the gut! Eyes front! I’m talking to you !”

I pulled in my belly, even though I was not sure he had addressed me. He went on and on and I began to forget my goose flesh in hearing him storm. He never once repeated himself and he never used either profanity or obscenity. (I learned later that he saved those for very special occasions, which this wasn’t.) But he described our shortcomings, physical, mental, moral, and genetic, in great and insulting detail.

But somehow I was not insulted; I became greatly interested in studying his command of language. I wished that we had had him on our debate team.

At last he stopped and seemed about to cry. “I can’t stand it,” he said bitterly. “I’ve just got to work some of it off — I had a better set of wooden soldiers when I was six. ALL RIGHT! Is there any one of you jungle lice who thinks he can whip me? Is there a man in the crowd? Speak up!”

There was a short silence to which I contributed. I didn’t have any doubt at all that he could whip me; I was convinced.

I heard a voice far down the line, the tall end. “Ah reckon ah can … suh.”

Zim looked happy. “Good! Step out here where I can see you.” The recruit did so and he was impressive, at least three inches taller than Sergeant Zim and broader across the shoulders. “What’s your name, soldier?”

“Breckinridge, suh — and ah weigh two hundred and ten pounds an’ theah ain’t any of it ‘slack-bellied.’”

“Any particular way you’d like to fight?”

“Suh, you jus’ pick youah own method of dyin’. Ah’m not fussy.”

“Okay, no rules. Start whenever you like.” Zim tossed his baton aside.

It started — and it was over. The big recruit was sitting on the ground, holding his left wrist in his right hand. He didn’t say anything.

Zim bent over him. “Broken?”

“Reckon it might be … suh.”

“I’m sorry. You hurried me a little. Do you know where the dispensary is? Never mind — Jones! Take Breckinridge over to the dispensary.” As they left Zim slapped him on the right shoulder and said quietly, “Let’s try it again in a month or so. I’ll show you what happened.” I think it was meant to be a private remark but they were standing about six feet in front of where I was slowly freezing solid.

Zim stepped back and called out, “Okay, we’ve got one man in this company, at least. I feel better. Do we have another one? Do we have two more? Any two of you scrofulous toads think you can stand up to me?” He looked back and forth along our ranks. “Chickenlivered, spineless — oh, oh! Yes? Step out.”

Two men who had been side by side in ranks stepped out together; I suppose they had arranged it in whispers right there, but they also were far down the tall end, so I didn’t hear. Zim smiled at them. “Names, for your next of kin, please.”

“Heinrich.”

“Heinrich what?”

“Heinrich, sir. Bitte.” He spoke rapidly to the other recruit and added politely, “He doesn’t speak much Standard English yet, sir.”

“Meyer, mein Herr,” the second man supplied.

“That’s okay, lots of ’em don’t speak much of it when they get here — I didn’t myself. Tell Meyer not to worry, he’ll pick it up. But he understands what we are going to do?”

“Jawohl,” agreed Meyer.

“Certainly, sir. He understands Standard, he just can’t speak it fluently.”

“All right. Where did you two pick up those face scars? Heidelberg?”

“Nein — no, sir. K?nigsberg.”

“Same thing.” Zim had picked up his baton after fighting Breckinridge; he twirled it and asked, “Perhaps you would each like to borrow one of these?”

“It would not be fair to you, sir,” Heinrich answered carefully. “Bare hands, if you please.”

“Suit yourself. Though I might fool you. K?nigsberg, eh? Rules?”

“How can there be rules, sir, with three?”

“An interesting point. Well, let’s agree that if eyes are gouged out they must be handed back when it’s over. And tell your Korpsbruder that I’m ready now. Start when you like.” Zim tossed his baton away; someone caught it.

“You joke, sir. We will not gouge eyes.”

“No eye gouging, agreed. ‘Fire when ready, Gridley.’”

“Please?”

“Come on and fight! Or get back into ranks!”

Now I am not sure that I saw it happen this way; I may have learned part of it later, in training. But here is what I think happened: The two moved out on each side of our company commander until they had him completely flanked but well out of contact. From this position there is a choice of four basic moves for the man working alone, moves that take advantage of his own mobility and of the superior co-ordination of one man as compared with two — Sergeant Zim says (correctly) that any group is weaker than a man alone unless they are perfectly trained to work together. For example, Zim could have feinted at one of them, bounced fast to the other with a disabler, such as a broken kneecap — then finished off the first at his leisure.

Instead he let them attack. Meyer came at him fast, intending to body check and knock him to the ground, I think, while Heinrich would follow through from above, maybe with his boots. That’s the way it appeared to start.

And here’s what I think I saw. Meyer never reached him with that body check. Sergeant Zim whirled to face him, while kicking out and getting Heinrich in the belly — and then Meyer was sailing through the air, his lunge helped along with a hearty assist from Zim.

But all I am sure of is that the fight started and then there were two German boys sleeping peacefully, almost end to end, one face down and one face up, and Zim was standing over them, not even breathing hard. “Jones,” he said. “No, Jones left, didn’t he? Mahmud! Let’s have the water bucket, then stick them back into their sockets. Who’s got my toothpick?”

A few moments later the two were conscious, wet, and back in ranks. Zim looked at us and inquired gently, “Anybody else? Or shall we get on with setting-up exercises?”

I didn’t expect anybody else and I doubt if he did. But from down on the left flank, where the shorties hung out, a boy stepped out of ranks, came front and center. Zim looked down at him. “Just you? Or do you want to pick a partner?”

“Just myself, sir.”

“As you say. Name?”

“Shujumi, sir.”

Zim’s eyes widened. “Any relation to Colonel Shujumi?”

“I have the honor to be his son, sir.”

“Ah so! Well! Black Belt?”

“No, sir. Not yet.”

“I’m glad you qualified that. Well, Shujumi, are we going to use contest rules, or shall I send for the ambulance?”

“As you wish, sir. But I think, if I may be permitted an opinion, that contest rules would be more prudent.”

“I don’t know just how you mean that, but I agree.” Zim tossed his badge of authority aside, then, so help me, they backed off, faced each other, and bowed.

After that they circled around each other in a half crouch, making tentative passes with their hands, and looking like a couple of roosters.

Suddenly they touched — and the little chap was down on the ground and Sergeant Zim was flying through the air over his head. But he didn’t land with the dull, breath-paralyzing thud that Meyer had; he lit rolling and was on his feet as fast as Shujumi was and facing him. “Banzai!” Zim yelled and grinned.

“Arigato,” Shujumi answered and grinned back.

They touched again almost without a pause and I thought the Sergeant was going to fly again. He didn’t; he slithered straight in, there was a confusion of arms and legs and when the motion slowed down you could see that Zim was tucking Shujumi’s left foot in his right ear — a poor fit.

Shujumi slapped the ground with a free hand; Zim let him up at once. They again bowed to each other.

“Another fall, sir?”

“Sorry. We’ve got work to do. Some other time, eh? For fun … and honor. Perhaps I should have told you; your honorable father trained me.”

“So I had already surmised, sir. Another time it is.”

Zim slapped him hard on the shoulder. “Back in ranks, soldier. C’pnee!

Then, for twenty minutes, we went through calisthenics that left me as dripping hot as I had been shivering cold. Zim led it himself, doing it all with us and shouting the count. He hadn’t been mussed that I could see; he wasn’t breathing hard as we finished. He never led the exercises after that morning (we never saw him again before breakfast; rank hath its privileges), but he did that morning, and when it was over and we were all bushed, he led us at a trot to the mess tent, shouting at us the whole way to “Step it up! On the bounce! You’re dragging your tails!”

We always trotted everywhere at Camp Arthur Currie. I never did find out who Currie was, but he must have been a trackman.

Breckinridge was already in the mess tent, with a cast on his wrist but thumb and fingers showing. I heard him say, “Naw, just a greenstick fractchuh — ah’ve played a whole quahtuh with wuss. But you wait — ah’ll fix him.”

I had my doubts. Shujumi, maybe — but not that big ape. He simply didn’t know when he was outclassed. I disliked Zim from the first moment I laid eyes on him. But he had style.

Breakfast was all right — all the meals were all right; there was none of that nonsense some boarding schools have of making your life miserable at the table. If you wanted to slump down and shovel it in with both hands, nobody bothered you — which was good, as meals were practically the only time somebody wasn’t riding you. The menu for breakfast wasn’t anything like what I had been used to at home and the civilians that waited on us slapped the food around in a fashion that would have made Mother grow pale and leave for her room — but it was hot and it was plentiful and the cooking was okay if plain. I ate about four times what I normally do and washed it down with mug after mug of coffee with cream and lots of sugar — I would have eaten a shark without stopping to skin him.

Jenkins showed up with Corporal Bronski behind him as I was starting on seconds. They stopped for a moment at a table where Zim was eating alone, then Jenkins slumped onto a vacant stool by mine. He looked mighty seedy — pale, exhausted, and his breath rasping. I said, “Here, let me pour you some coffee.”

He shook his head.

“You better eat,” I insisted. “Some scrambled eggs — they’ll go down easily.”

“Can’t eat. Oh, that dirty, dirty so-and-so.” He began cussing out Zim in a low, almost expressionless monotone. “All I asked him was to let me go lie down and skip breakfast. Bronski wouldn’t let me — said I had to see the company commander. So I did and I told him I was sick, I told him. He just felt my cheek and counted my pulse and told me sick call was nine o’clock. Wouldn’t let me go back to my tent. Oh, that rat! I’ll catch him on a dark night, I will.”

I spooned out some eggs for him anyway and poured coffee. Presently he began to eat. Sergeant Zim got up to leave while most of us were still eating, and stopped by our table. “Jenkins.”

“Uh? Yes, sir.”

“At oh-nine-hundred muster for sick call and see the doctor.”

Jenkins’ jaw muscles twitched. He answered slowly, “I don’t need any pills — sir. I’ll get by.”

“Oh-nine-hundred. That’s an order.” He left.

Jenkins started his monotonous chant again. Finally he slowed down, took a bite of eggs and said somewhat more loudly, “I can’t help wondering what kind of a mother produced that. I’d just like to have a look at her, that’s all. Did he ever have a mother?”

It was a rhetorical question but it got answered. At the head of our table, several stools away, was one of the instructor-corporals. He had finished eating and was smoking and picking his teeth, simultaneously; he had evidently been listening. “Jenkins—”

“Uh — sir?”

“Don’t you know about sergeants?”

“Well … I’m learning.”

“They don’t have mothers. Just ask any trained private.” He blew smoke toward us. “They reproduce by fission … like all bacteria.”

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