A Joke for Chong
Life in the trenches.
First published by The Icarus Anthology, Issue 2, August 2017.
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Chong dives to a sprawl, flips on his back, rotates one-eighty, and drops feet first into our slit trench, grabbing his helmet on the way. Worthy of a silver medal. I maintain a squat outside the trench, not wanting to spill my half-heated water or drop the cigarette from my mouth. Also, I can differentiate between C-4 explosive and incoming artillery. Chong exits the trench with a grin as if to say, hey, just practicing. He points toward our rear, now our front, and says, aren't they supposed to yell fire in the hole? What are they doing anyhow?
I've figured out how to make a stove by punching holes in the bottom of an American C-ration can, filling it with twigs, and adding lighter fluid. I'm elated to see the water in my canteen cup at a roiling boil. Chong hovers above me, dirt embedded in his face, his hands, under his cracked fingernails. His armpits smell like half-dried ox shit, or is that me?
My guess, I say, they're blowing the bridge. And you're right, they should yell fire in the hole. What are they trying to do, scare us to death?
Chong says, so what good is blowing the bridge? Tanks can drive right through the stream.
I pry the lid off a can marked coffee, instant, 1 oz net wt.
Chong presses his argument. So why are we bothering with the bridge?
I look up from my squat. Chong, I say, do I resemble General Kim? Do you see stars on my shoulders?
Chong turns his face away and spits. He turns his face back, lowers it my way, and says in a confidential tone, you know, I'm not crazy about our current leadership.
He straightens his posture and says, what happened to Pak Jung-soo anyhow. When was he killed? How did it happen?
Poor Chong—his grasp of reality continues to deteriorate. I say, Pak wasn't killed. He was promoted.
Chong bends at the waist with his mouth open. Aar, aar, he says, that's a riot. He wasn't killed, he was promoted.
It's not a joke, I say. He was promoted and went to battalion staff.
Aar, aar, says Chong.
I remove the cigarette—which has burned to two centimeters—from my mouth, and sip instant coffee, Hills Bros, Chicago, Ill. Not bad. I light a fresh cigarette from the stub of the old one.
Chong has meandered down the trench line to second squad. I hear him bumbling through the tale of Pak's departure, ending with: he wasn't promoted, he was killed, aar, aar.
I clap a palm to my forehead. Chong, I call out, you idiot, you have it backwards.
Second squad laughs.