WILLIAM REESE HAMILTON
The Wonks of Santo Tomas
We were locked up in Japanese Internment Camp Number One at Santo Tomás University in Manila and we were running, all the time, perpetual motion, over wide lawns crowded with people, under dark acacias and hot buzzing skies, against the cool shadow of the Main Building and through the loud boom of the tower clock, circling the Main Plaza, checking all along the tall outer wall, zigzagging past the Education Building, dodging in and out around the Gym. After all, we were kids, you know. And just maybe my mom had it right when she said we were running around like a bunch of wonks.
Wonks were big yellow dogs we used to see moving in packs when we lived up in North China. And now Mom was working on making wonks sound like the worst kind of curse. After all, wonks were in no way regular dogs. They specialized in getting themselves filthy dirty, mangy and foaming at the mouth with hydrophobia. And that's just the civilized ones. Not much good for anything, people said, except maybe target practice.
Let me translate for her – I was acting like a common ignoramus hanging out with a low crowd of hooligans and would likely come to a nasty end.
But that was just the surface stuff. There was a whole lot more underneath. She didn't just pick wonks by accident, you can bet on that. She was giving me what I called my "Tyler Whipping." You see, wonks happened to come up big in a story she loved to tell about my brother Tyler, who was older and smarter and a whole lot nicer than me, but who was dead. I remember hearing her tell it to her friends over gin slings under the mango tree in our back garden out in Pasay.
When Little Tyler was maybe four years old, according to Mom, he was already some sort of certified genius. In her story she's out walking with him on this lovely long beach at Peitaiho, up on the China coast not too far from Chinwangtao. They're just strolling along over the sand, conversing in Mandarin most likely. He could chatter on in Chinese like a native – no accent or anything. So there's just Mom and Little Tyler and the waves pushing in off the Po Hai. When all of a sudden comes the pop-pop-pop of rifle fire.
Well, little Tyler knows just what that racket means. It has to be Marines – U.S. Marines – from a post just up the shore, guarding who or what I never found out. Tyler's seen those guys march by many a time, strutting their stuff. They're big time favorites of his. Even better than a Chinese funeral. So he stops dead in his tracks and listens real careful, like a little animal sniffing the breeze. And damned if the rifle fire isn't followed close behind by the yelping of dogs. Yipping up a storm, they were. Right off, sharp as a tack, little Tyler says, "Wonks!" Imagine that, just four years old.
Wonks were a top military assignment for our China Marines up there. When that wonk population got too big and vicious, those curs started marauding through villages and doing terrible things, tearing up livestock or carrying off a neighborhood tot. That's when local elders stroked their whiskers and called in our troops for support. So the boys broke out the Springfields and headed off on a wonk hunt. It was just the ticket for Chinese-American relations, I'll bet.
Little Tyler listens and listens, eyes getting bright as brass buttons. Then there it is again, carried by the wind across the sands. The sound of shots and the yelp of dogs. He looks up at Mom and smiles. Everyone in China's sure to be safe now. Those dirty wonks are being got rid of. Well, after a while, the firing thins out, fades away, and it gets really quiet, with just the gentle waves lapping and the wind sighing. All's right with the world, as Mom and little Tyler, hand in hand, head home. But when they're just about to go back into our beach bungalow, what do they hear but more shots, just closer. Only this time no dogs. Not a bark, not a whimper, not a single yip. Just the pop-pop of Springfields.
And it's this part that my mom always loved to tell best.
"That's strange," she says. "I don't hear any wonks."
"Oh, no, Mommy," Tyler says with his bright look. "They're big dogs." And he holds onto it just a second. "Big dogs don’t cry," he says.
You see how hard it was coming second to little Tyler. If you want to know the truth, I don't think Mom ever quite forgave me for his dying, even though I was only in diapers at the time, and even though we were thousands of miles and a whole bunch of years away from there now, and locked away tight in this Camp to boot. All she had to do was just say wonk and I knew right where I stood. I want you to notice though, she never said I was a wonk, or even that my friends were wonks. She just said we were running around like wonks.
But wonk I was and most likely always would be. Thank God Dad’s pal Harry was there. I figured he knew a "Tyler Whipping" as good as me.
"It's OK," he said. "It's OK. Let the kid run. Every ragamuffin's got to run it off." Harry was a writer, you see.
The hooligans I was with were hanging back and squirming around, just waiting on me to get the hell out of there, with this one kid Red even pulling at the tail of my polo shirt. So I broke it off quick and we went dashing away again, out past the classrooms and the kitchen sheds, to this place where the weeds had grown high and tangled, a kind of little jungle tucked up against the wall at the back corner of Camp.
It was our secret place, away from grownups and Jap guards. Funny thing, this place'd been some kind of university dumping ground. Most people didn't even know what was there on account of those weeds. Likely thought it was too wild and inhospitable. But when you're running around like a bunch of wonks, you'd be surprised what you can come up with.
It was mostly junk – rusty tin cans, broken plates, beer bottles, soggy boots, car axles and school chairs, even sinks and toilet bowls. But in there among the snakes, toads and rats, there was good stuff too, if you could find it.
Someone claimed he found a watch there once. Or a compass, maybe. Another said he came on some coins. Of course we had to go for it, whatever it was. So pretty soon, without knowing why, we were all digging just like wonks, panting and sniffing and clawing through thick matted grass and dirt, raising big clouds of hopping insects and swarming mosquitoes, each of us rushing to be the first to discover a gold mine or the queen’s lost emeralds.
Jerry was first to try to put some logic to it. Even if she was a girl, she was tough as most guys. In her beat-up shorts and polo shirt, she looked pretty much like a guy anyhow. Skinny, with short hair and scuffed up knees and elbows.
"What're we lookin' for?" she asked. But Red was having none of that.
"You'll know when you find it," he yelled back. He was older and fond of bossing. Just then he was scratching. He was always scratching. All kids scratch, but with Red it was addiction. Scratching his head, scratching his armpits, his balls, his ass. It was like he had cooties and thought it was swell. He sure didn't like having girls around. Trouble was, Jerry was first to find anything. She pulled out a bunch of test tubes filled with bloody serum. That was her claim anyway.
"They're straight out of the hospital," she said, holding this pinky-brown specimen up to the sun. "Stuff to track deadly disease. Typhus or rabies or cholera, maybe."
Then Pete dug out a canteen with a rotted canvas cover that said "US" on it, all corroded around the top. It came down from the Spanish-American War, we figured, so it was prime. Pete passed it around with the screw cap off to give us all a whiff of history. It was about as good as nothing, but at least it was something. The best the rest of us were coming up with was a couple of good-sized toads and a skinny black snake that slithered off quick into a dark hole.
But it was Finch who found it. He was up on a mound of junk above us, like a black balloon against the hot sky, just sweating and shimmering, one foot perched on a toilet bowl like he was ready to lift off. We had to laugh, the way he hollered, shaking something in his fist.
"Hey," he cried. "Hey, hey."
"What's a Finch anyhow?" Red yelled back.
"Some kind of fat little bird?"
Who'd ever thought he could come up with anything. We had this little song. It went to that tune kids sing, "Yah yahyah yahyah yah." He always got red and flustered, he hated it that much, so naturally we sang it all over again.
"Fatty Boom Banana
Had a skinny amah
Fatty Boom Banana."
But this time he got us back.
"I got marbles!" he shouted. We stood there blinking up at him, waiting. Then he opened his hand and there, like magic – two little ceramic balls. They did look to be marbles, even clicked like marbles when they came together.
Ordinarily we wouldn't have gone crazy over marbles. We were too old for that. It was just that when the Japs rounded us up and trucked us into Camp, we never figured to bring our marbles along. Most of us probably had a bag full back home, lying forgotten in a drawer. But what good was that? Now all at once, with a load of time on our hands, they looked monumental.
"Let's see," Pete said, holding out his hand. But Finch pulled back, closing his fist.
"Where'd you get 'em?" Red asked. Finchy shrugged.
"C'mon," I tried. "How're you ever gonna play if nobody else's got any?" That didn't work either. He just kept looking down at us with a little smirk on his face. Asking for it.
"You know what I think?" Red said, scratching his neck. "I think Finchy's looking to get depantsed." That froze everybody in place. Probably nothing worse could happen. Maybe getting shot. But even that couldn't be as embarrassing. If you wanted to put the fear of God into a kid, all you had to do is just mention the word. Right away Finch started looking for escape routes. But everybody knew he was slow as a tortoise. All he could do was stand there, his little eyes darting around. And no sooner did we start circling than he started changing his tune.
"I doubt there's any more," he said. "These are probably the last."
"Maybe he wants to get depantsed right now," Red said.
"Right here's where I found 'em," Finch pointed at a busted toilet. "In here." We were still suspicious but climbed up anyhow. And damned if there wasn't one lying there, half-buried in weeds. Some kind of porcelain stopper, I guess, but it was nothing but a marble to us.
Quick as a wink, we’d all grabbed onto something – big rock or hunk of pipe – and started running around plundering marbles out of toilet bowl tanks in a kind of frenzy. It didn't take long. Half-hour maybe. Just as soon as we'd stuffed our pockets, Red called us down to a little clearing in the weeds, so we could lay our loot on the ground and admire it.
"We'll call 'em Clayees," Red said, picking his nose. "That way we'll know 'em from Glassees." But no one was paying Red much mind. We were too busy taking shots and getting the feel back.
"Nobody's got Glassees anyhow," said Knockers.
"So what? You got to have a name," Red said.
"These are better'n regulation," Finch said.
"Yeah," Pete said. "We came up with 'em ourselves."
"I'm calling this one Clayee Number One," Finch said. "First one ever found." But Red just laughed.
"That's till somebody wins it off you."
"I discovered 'em."
"And tried to hog 'em all to yourself," I reminded him.
We got so busy firing off marbles and laughing, we didn't notice Jerry standing frozen, gaping at the wall. Then we all followed her stare. And leering back down at us was this face. Round, with a shaved head, peeking at us through tall weeds. That was all we saw at first – just the head. It was attached to a guard, and it had a grin that made us squirm. Then he laughed, a high tittery kind of laugh. Sent shivers up the spine and shut down the blood flow. We all went stiff as boards and quiet as graves, scooped up our Clayees like we were on official business and slipped off without one look back.
We didn't say a word, just walked on until we got back to the bright open field. Then Jerry laughed out loud like she was exorcising ghosts and hollered, "Hey, you guys, we got us some Targets!" And Pete fired back, "Cat's Eyes!" And pretty soon a kid boomed, "Swirlies!" and another, "Clearies!" and then, "Agates!" and, "Rainbows!" and, "Peewees!" and, "Shooters!" and every other crazy name for marbles we could think of. We were all marching along with them clicking in our pockets, making a big display of ourselves and feeling rich as kings, shouting in a kind of chant, "Clayees, Clayees," and then a great big, "We got CLAYEES!" And when I looked around, there was old Finch with a kind of glow on him, all puffed up like he'd just invented the wheel.
You might think it queer, our going nuts for those marbles. But it's no different from a lady oohing and aahing over a pair of shoes or a guy over a set of golf clubs. It's just human nature, like diamonds. I can never figure why anyone gets in such a lather over a little sparkly stone. But I've seen it with my own eyes.
Even with Mom. When the Japs came, first thing she sewed into her underwear was her diamond ring, guarding it like it was the key to the American Battle Plan, worrying over it all the time we were in Camp. And you know what she got out of all that? Ended up trading it off for a pound of wormy rice – something you could’ve picked up cheap at your local bodega in any ordinary year. Even if we were starving at the time, it does tell you something about diamonds.
Every morning before chow, they'd roust us out for roll call on the Main Plaza. The monitors counted us all up, room by room, then added on the folks in the Camp Hospital and the Camp Jail and those out on early morning work detail, and then they presented that number to the Japs. If it didn't match Jap figures, they had to do it all over again, while the Commandant and his crew got nervous and paced back and forth along the line. If luck ran our way, the whole exercise only took maybe twenty minutes. But if there was a slip in addition, we could be out there for hours.
They kept us out there until afternoon the day those three British merchant marines escaped.
Standing at attention in the same spot got pretty boring. So while they counted us, I counted my Clayees. I couldn't get enough of sticking my hand in my pocket and running my fingers over them. Felt like money in the bank. Time and again I reached in just to make sure they were all still there. Card players in Camp used cigarettes for currency. We had Clayees.
Of course, when other kids learned about them, they started searching the Dump for some of their own. But by the time they got to the toilet tanks, we'd pretty much tapped them out. So that put us right in the limelight. It was monopoly at work in the marketplace. Just like diamonds, you see. Kids we barely knew came up and offered all kinds of things for just one Clayee. Knockers traded a kid one of his worst-cracked Clayees for a whole Spam sandwich. He was pretty proud of himself, thinking he'd pulled off the Deal of the Century. But it just got Red mad.
"How could you do such a low thing?" he asked.
"I was hungry," Knockers said. "Real hungry." But he was starting to feel guilty, I could tell.
"Yeah, might've been their last can of Spam," I put in. But that wasn't the kind of low Red had in mind.
"You leaked a Clayee. That's how it starts. Pretty soon everybody'll have 'em. Then where'll we be?"
That put some fear into Knockers. He smiled at us and let out a little nervous chuckle. Then he rushed off quick to get that kid back in a game. And he had to play him and play him until he won that Clayee back.
Marbles is a funny game. You get a bunch of kids all playing along in the same bumbling way and you can run through awful streaks. For a while I was winning Clayees left and right off just about every kid in sight. Seemed like I couldn't lose. I collected so many I couldn't carry them all with me at one time. I must've had more than twenty. Naturally I started feeling pretty good about myself, thinking all kinds of smart stuff, believing I was special and God must be on my side. Even started crossing myself before the big shots.
But just that quick I got myself into a bad streak and lost and lost till I was way down to maybe five. Then I got to feeling spiteful, wondering why some other kid had to win instead of me. I figured I'd been hexed by sour luck. So I cussed God out for being two-faced. And that's how it went. Those marble streaks could be wicked.
It was during one of these dips in fortune that I got into a game on that flat piece of ground by the Baseball Field. It'd gotten so hard and dry there, we couldn't help kicking up little dust clouds. Before we even got through our warm-up shots, we looked grimy as piglets rolling in a sty. Finch was sweating like a cold pipe in a heat wave, so he got hit the worst. He started changing complexions from beet-red to a kind of mud-yellow, fading into the scenery like a clever chameleon. We all looked at him and grinned.
"Oooh, Finchy," Pete said in a low, scary ghost voice. "Just up and disappeared. Where'd he go?“
"Where are you, Finchy?" Jerry picked up, rolling her eyes. Finch was starting to get a little upset. "Come back or I'm telling on you."
"We're telling your amah. We're telling your yaya."
"He couldn't play worth a damn anyhow." Red said. "He already lost all his marbles."
"I did not!" Finch shouted, jumping out to show us he was there. He did look awful, little pink rings round his eyes. "I still got Clayee Number One." He held it up for us to see.
"Yeah?" Pete asked. "And what else you got?"
"I got enough," he mumbled, pushing his hands into his pockets so we couldn't see how empty they were.
"Just two," Red said. "He lost all but two." And that really got to him.
"OK, I'll play all you guys," he challenged. "Knuckles Down. Right now,"
Knuckles Down was our game. Sometimes we played others, but nine out of ten, it was Knuckles Down. Not too hard, for one thing, just shooting at holes in the ground. And besides, we were used to it. Everyone knew the rules. So before Finch was done digging the holes, we were all down in the dust together, squinting hard and shooting our way around the course, seeing who could get through all five holes and back first, so he could take free shots at all the losers' Clayees. It was every-man-for-himself. All we cared about was grabbing Clayees off the others.
We were so caught up in it that it was a while before anybody noticed this Neddy Nickerson watching us, looking crisp and cool as a cucumber. Skinny white legs sticking out of white shorts, skinny white arms out of a white polo shirt. We only knew him from school. Nobody hung around him much. He was English for one thing, and always looking down his nose at us Yanks. At least that was how it seemed. You could never be too sure with Limeys. It might be just the way they acted, even amongst themselves. But finally, his standing there broke Finchy's concentration.
"Yeah?" he said. Nickerson had his head cocked to one side with a queer grin on his face, like he was getting set to talk to the servants.
"It is marbles you're playing?" he said.
"Naw, it's football," Finch answered.
"Found 'em ourselves."
"You wanna play?" Knockers asked.
"I prefer Stony-Wop," Neddy said. Then Finch did something real stupid. He tried to get sarcastic.
"Stony-Wop?" He made a face like he'd just eaten a big sour lime himself. "Oh, no, we nevah play Stony-Wop." Like the rest of us, he didn't have a clue what Neddy was talking about.
"OK," I said. "What's Stony-Wop?" I figured it might be one we knew by a different name. I sure wasn't set for what followed.
"Well, it's quite like Ringers, if you know that. Not so many marbles though. You shoot for Reels rather than the Regulars, but I should allow you to use those just the same." It rolled right out of him. We just stared and nodded our heads. "All the rest – lagging, rounsters, slips – are just the same as in Ringers."
"You're makin' that up," Finch said. "I bet you're just makin' it up."
"I swear it's cricket."
"Show us," Red said.
"See here," Neddy said. "It's quite simple." He took a stick and drew a near-perfect circle ten feet across. At least, he said it was ten feet. By then, no one was arguing. With all the dust rising, he looked to be a magician standing in a ring of smoke. "After we lag for our place in queue, we put our Ringers three inches apart, in a cross right at the center here. We shoot from over there. And, oh yes, one more thing. Whenever you hit a marble, you must knock that marble out of the circle straightway, or you lose your turn. Is that clear?"
"How old are you?" Jerry asked. "I think he's older." She was good at analyzing things.
"Hell, Red's older too," Knockers said. "What's that prove?"
"Do we need to know all that stuff to play?" I asked. Neddy looked like he thought maybe I was trying to be friendly.
"It's not so difficult. You chaps will see, it's very exciting. It's special to shoot for Ringers."
"You mean Shooters?" I asked.
"Yes, so much at stake. Like a tiger hunt."
"You been to Inja?" asked Jerry.
"Oh, yes," Neddy said, brushing it aside. "Now, do we all have two marbles?" No, Finchy'd already lost one and was down to just his Clayee Number One.
"Aw, Finchy!" we all said, disgusted. But Neddy pulled a marble right out of his own pocket and handed it to him. A beautiful red agate! It was like he'd just made Finch king.
"A Glassee! You got Glassees!" Finch said, grabbing it right out of his hand.
"Only a loan, mind," the English kid said. "I've just brought three." He didn't let us see the others right off. First he drew a line in the dirt and waited for us all to shoot at it for position. Then he got down to "lag for place," as he called it. That's when he slipped the first Shooter out of his pocket. It was a clear silver-green dancing in the afternoon light and I couldn't help sucking in my breath. He knuckled down and shot without even preparing. Still his shot beat all ours by a good four inches.
Each of us put a Clayee in the middle of the circle. He showed us where to put them so they formed this big cross, with his green Glassee on the top and Finch's red agate on the bottom. Finch muttered something about wanting to shoot with that one. But the boy was strict with him.
"Just to give us all something to shoot for," he said. He had a queer mouth, kind of buck-toothed and thin-lipped at the same time, so he smiled quirky. You couldn't tell whether he was concentrating hard or just chuckling to himself at our expense. It was like he was doing everything in his power just to put up with us. But in the next second he dropped right down on one knee and studied the cross like he was at High Mass on Sunday. And here we were, poor saps, all gaping at him for something to imitate.
Well, if we were impressed by those shenanigans, it was nothing to what we felt when he pulled out his other Shooter. You couldn't take your eyes off it. It's hard to explain. Some marbles are just more special. This one was black, orange and red flames licking at the sunlight. A real dazzler! Every last one of us was saying private prayers, hoping to get his hands on it.
Only it didn't work out that way. When Neddy finally shot, that marble jumped out in a long spinning blur, chipping not one, but two Clayees right out of the circle. And when his Shooter finally spun to a stop next to our Clayees, it sure made us look shabby, like a Bengal Tiger amongst a pack of yellow jackals.
Neddy crouched in the circle and sighted down the cross at the red agate, but he didn't go for it all at once. He worked his way toward it, one Clayee at a time, chipping them out of his way like little scraps of thrash. The closer he got, the more Finch groaned. Then just when he had that agate lined up at close range and Finchy was chewing his lip double-time, Neddy turned around and went for a much tougher shot up on the arm of the cross. He hit a Clayee there, but not hard enough to knock it out. So he got up, gave us a little twitch of a smile and stepped out of the ring.
"What about your Shooter?" Pete asked. "Ain't you gonna take it out?"
"Oh, no," he said. "This is much more sporting. If we leave our Reels in, we can shoot for position better. You see, if you can touch my Shooter, you get another shot from wherever you land. Just keep track of which is whose." He pushed the Clayees he'd won into a little bunch with his shoe.
That knocked all the confidence out of us, so we shot even worse than usual. I was lucky enough to get a Clayee on my first long shot from outside the ring, but then I messed it up going for the green Glassee. By the time it was Finch's turn, only two more Clayees had been knocked out. He hunkered down and powered Clayee Number One right into Neddy's Shooter.
"Hah!" he shouted. That gave him great position to shoot for a Clayee, but he was having none of that. He sighted in on the green Glassee, too, even though it must've been four feet away. He took a deep breath and fired away, hitting it broadside and spinning it right out of the circle. I got to tell you, we were all amazed. He jumped up triumphant, ran over and scooped it up. "I got it, I got it!" he was yelling to the sky, doing this funny little dance.
"I'm terribly sorry," Neddy said. "But I can't allow that shot." Finch looked like he'd been shot, then like he was going to cry. "I'm afraid you fudged."
"Buggers!" Finch shrieked. "I never fudged."
"Sorry, but it was a clear fudge." No one said a word. It's like some shame had come over us, and it got dead quiet. Finch was looking around at us for support.
"You're lying," he said, looking at me desperate. "Isn't he lying?" I felt bad about it, but by now I was pretty sure Neddy never lied. "Isn't he, Johnny? Isn't he?" Finch was right on the verge of panic.
"You did fudge, Finchy," I said. But it sounded so stark, I tried to soften it a little. "You've been fudging pretty much right along." But still it seemed too bare, so I added, "Off and on." I couldn't look at him for a while. We all just stood around. Finally he dropped the marble back into the ring. We were all feeling so guilty, we pretty much gave up right there.
When it was all over, Neddy'd taken eight out of twelve marbles, including his own and the one he'd loaned Finchy. But that wasn't enough of a licking for him. He had to do the meanest damn thing of all. He made us take all our marbles back. It was worse for any of us who'd won some ourselves, because of course we had to give ours back too. Then the damn kid just said a quick, "Thank you very much," and walked right off, little dust clouds kicking up at his heels.
Finch tried hard to get us into it again by bragging about how much harder it was to shoot with Clayees. "We're playing with marbles out of a toilet, you know," he said. But the thrill'd gone out of it for the rest of us. We couldn't even look at Clayees for weeks.
Then maybe it was what happened to those three British guys who went over the wall. The Japs caught up with them five miles out of Camp and executed them over at the Chinese cemetery. Sat them at the edge of the grave and shot them with small caliber rifles. They were still moaning when they threw the dirt on them.
Of course, that marble frenzy couldn't last. By the time I was thirteen, we were into some more official sports – baseball, football, gymnastics and my own personal favorite, boxing. It was Dad's pal Southy Jack who coached us and he was a real pro.
Southy'd once worked out of New York and Chicago gyms, a quick lean lefty with a good jab and right hook combination. He'd fought lightweight at the pro level, and made some good dough at it, my dad told me once. A nice little guy, built like a terrier, with a crooked nose and some scar tissue built up around the eyebrows. Mom called him, "Mon Petit Cro-Magnon," but he was sweet as marmalade.
He'd discovered an old dusty speed bag hanging down in the Santo Tomás University Gym, a big barn of a place, with maybe six hundred guys sleeping on the floor. And he worked out there, starting the bag slow till he got the rhythm, then turning up the tempo till it was a quick drum roll, the sound echoing off the roof and far walls. Like all pros, he could make that bag dance and sing.
Some old guys sat there quiet on their cots, watching him. One yelled at him to knock it off. But when he'd got his rhythm, you couldn't shake him. He just smiled and yelled back. The sweat beaded up on his face and broke free, streaming down his neck and chest and back. He was something to watch. I couldn't get enough. The water was flying off him like spray from a garden hose.
When he was through in the Gym, he'd move outside and work the skip rope on flat ground. He could spin it so fast you couldn't see it anymore, then slow it down so it slapped hard in the dirt, raising a cloud of dust. Those pros know all the tricks. Then maybe, if he felt like it, he'd shadow-box or jog under the trees. It was natural that people would want to have him teach their boys the manly art.
Southy had kids mesmerized. All he had to do was start that rope and they gathered in a ring. He did a crossover and their mouths gaped. He stepped through hoops and they blinked and shook their heads. What Southy had every tough kid wanted bad. Why, it looked to be magic!
Even the Japs bought into it. Maybe it went with that bushido stuff they loved to strut. Certain sentries’d been watching right along, on the sly. I saw them. I bet they figured him for magic too. Anyway, they let a detail of our men pick up boxing gloves and a heavy bag from the Manila YMCA. And the Carpentry Detail fashioned Southy a big adjustable stand for the light bag, so he could work with us out there under the trees.
A lot of the stuff Southy taught I already knew, so he made me his little demonstration model for a time. And that was a kind of curse with bigger guys. See, Southy was teaching kids from little six-year-olds clear up to lugs nineteen or so. He said, "Let's give 'em a hook, Johnny." So I’d snap one off. "Now let's show 'em how to double up on the jab." It sure felt embarrassing shadow boxing out there in front of guys old enough to be called men, like shedding clothes in a striptease. Imagine them looking at this squirt dancing around, flicking punches.
"If this kid can box this smooth," Southy told them, "just think what you big fellas can learn to do." And I could feel my ears getting red.
Well, you know there had to be one tough kid named Feeney, eighteen or so, standing with his arms crossed and a little smirk dancing across his face, thinking who is this Southy anyhow that looks small enough to be a kid himself. Course Southy'd seen that look before, so he waved poor Feeney into the ring of kids, had him put on the gloves, and told him to come at him serious to see what damage he could do. "Don't hold back now," Southy said. He looked at me and I had to grin. This sort of thing was always fun to watch.
Nobody who'd ever wandered even two steps into a gym would fall for it. But Feeney bit. And Southy had his partner for the dance. He was a sly fox putting on another magic show for kids. Textbook lessons on how you shift and balance and move on the balls of your feet. How you slip some punches and pick off others. How you bob and weave in and out. And how, if you're real good and the other's bad, you can do it all without ever getting hit once. Southy could do it without even breaking a sweat. Till poor Feeney was left out there winded and panting and blushing with shame. Then Southy went over real gentle, reaching a hand up onto his shoulder and whispering soft and husky like a lover in his ear, "You got spunk, kid. You'll do fine." Like a jockey talking to his horse after a quick spin around the track.
But Southy could play a sweet mom to the kids too. Like when some little one who never even got spanked before got hit hard the first time on the nose and was stunned maybe as much as hurt. Southy squatted there, rubbed the spot a little, and talked soft and calm until he'd dried up that kid's every tear.
Only I don't think he reckoned the next one right. This other kid about my age had been watching while the rest of us shadow boxed in a kind of chorus line. Maybe we were a sight. But he just stood there with his hands on his hips while we groaned and sweat. Just a skinny kid, with a scraggly mop and a gap-toothed grin. Swarthy. Then all of a sudden he started laughing. Pretty near hysterical. I was thinking, damn, this kid's got his nerve!
I'd seen him before. He’d come in late to Camp and was living with some old guy down at the Gym. He’d been there watching when Southy worked the bag.
"He's mestizo," Pete told me. But there were damn few of them in Camp.
"You sure?" I said. "Japs don't let Filipinos in here. You got to be American or European to get to be a prisoner in our Camp."
"His old man's American, that's why," Red said. "My dad said he's a squaw man."
"Sounds like somethin' out of the old West," Jerry said. She looked skeptical.
"That's what he called him all right," Red said, scratching his belly. Well, the phrase made me prick up my ears. Specially since my old man was part Indian. So I brought it up to Mom.
"You ever heard of a squaw man?" I asked her. She looked right up from what she was doing.
"What a nasty name. Who said it?"
"Just heard it someplace," I muttered, a bit ashamed. But the phrase came to mind when I saw him standing there laughing like we were the freaks. And that's when Southy saw him too.
"Mabuhay," Southy greeted him, which was queer. It's the word Filipinos use to welcome special folks, and this kid was a long ways from that. Maybe that was why Southy had that smile on his face. The mestizo kind of grunted back, then spit in the dust. "Want to join us?" Southy asked. The kid didn't exactly answer, but made a funny little shrug, what folks called bahalana. It was about as Filipino a move as squatting on the ground. Meant something between "whatever" and "who cares." Southy took it for a "yes" and asked, "You ever box before?"
"I fight," the kid said, real tough.
"Oh, I'll bet," Southy said. "But can you box?" So the kid gave him another one of those bahalana shrugs. And that's when Southy got his bright idea. "OK, here are some gloves. You can box Johnny."
I was pretty proud of my right, that's a fact. With the big gloves I could hold my own against all the kids my size. Dad and Southy had me sparring at the gym long before the war. I had nothing against a little match. But I sure wasn’t expecting what the mestizo offered. He stood waiting for me with both arms poised down at his side and mayhem darkening his face. As soon as I set up to move in, he started dancing back and forth like he was looking for an opening to shove a knife in my ribs. He had no thought of putting his mitts up, either. His head was tilted forward and real hate lurked there under his eyebrows. He sure wasn't taking this as sport.
The first time he lunged at me, I was lucky enough to turn with him and shove my right hand up hard into his face, but the way he did it kind of unnerved me. It was a lot more mad-dog-get-you-by-the-throat than a friendly sparring match. So I squared off again, steady-as-she-goes, and moved in more careful, landing a nice quick jab just as he started sliding off to the side. Then I followed with a combination to his head and body. That felt better. I was starting to settle into some kind of comfort zone.
But all of a sudden he slid off again to the side, and before I could turn to meet him, he rushed in low at me, head down, butting me up under the ribs. I was flat on my back in the dust, the wind knocked right out of me, feeling him pound me with both gloves at once. He was yelling something vicious, and I could hear kids laughing too. But just as quick I felt him lifted off and saw Southy over me holding onto him by the seat of the pants and the scruff of the neck, the kid still dancing full throttle in the air.
Southy was laughing too. He couldn't help it, I guess. But I was burned up and ashamed at once, still gasping for air and chewing dirt. "No puedes! No puedes!" Southy was shouting. "No can do!" But the kid just kept thrashing away. It took some time before he’d danced himself out and Southy could put him back on the ground.
The mestizo looked sour. Southy kept hold of the back of his neck and looked right in his eyes. "Only glove, kid. Just punch." He held his fist up in the kid's face. It was a big fist, specially close-up. Southy talked Pidgin English at him, spelling it out real clear. "No kick! No bite! No butt with head!" He did a little pantomime after each one. "You still with us?" And that's when the mestizo looked up at Southy and gave him his big smile.
"Sure, Southy, I got ya!" He drawled it, like in a Western. Well, you should’ve seen us, a bunch of open mouths all in a row. The damn kid spoke English as natural as any of us. And all his hate had passed like a cloud.
So Southy dragged me out there again to demonstrate, showing the mestizo how to put up his dukes to guard, how to position his feet for balance. But now I was the one who was looking for vengeance. I wanted at that kid again. I couldn't wait for Southy to quit. As soon as we were set, I was firing, throwing shots to his midsection, hooks to his head, you name it. But the kid was just loving it. I gave him my best combinations and he just blinked and smiled and came back for more. I even bloodied his nose. But finally I got too arm-weary, I had to clinch. Damn! You just can't hate a kid like that. You've got to give him a hug. We stood there clinching and panting away, him dripping little drops of blood on my shoulder.
Then Southy hugged us both and yelled, "OK, OK!" I do believe right there me and the mestizo became blood brothers. Later we did the jackknife thing, mingling our blood and looking at it, but I hold you're never closer to any living soul than when you're flailing away at him with everything you've got.
Funny thing is all the other kids kind of ignored me, going right over to the mestizo instead, patting him on the back like he'd won, and saying, "Swell job, kid," and, "You got heart," and all that sort of thing. They accepted him right into the bosom of our boxing family. And I got absolutely nothing out of being subjected to all that abuse, save delivering his initiation rites.
The kid just naturally loved boxing and threw himself right into it. Everything Southy asked he did double-time. Took to it like a carabao to the wallow. And there was no doubt in his mind Southy was boss. If Southy said, "Skip rope," the mestizo had three revolutions done before the rest of us had even got ours off the ground. He was a devotee. He'd pummel the heavy bag so hard so long, I knew his arms had to be throbbing. He ran extra laps. Sometimes I even caught him off by himself, walking across the Camp, still throwing combinations.
The next afternoon Southy was trying to hang the heavy bag from a big acacia tree. He asked for somebody to climb the tree so he could throw a rope up. Well, before he'd even finished saying it, the mestizo’d scampered up there like a Zamboanga monkey and stood on the branch smiling down at us like Robin Hood.
"Toss it up here, my good fellow," he yelled down real English, puffing out his chest and giving a hearty laugh. He did the Errol Flynn pretty good too. He didn't appear to give two hoots for heights. He just snagged the rope in his hand first try, wrapped it around a branch and came swinging down like one of the merry men.
That's when Southy named him, "Polecat." And it fit so natural, it stuck. There was never really any other. In fact, it was a long time before I ever heard his real name. We all used Polecat from the start and the mestizo loved it. Probably figured like the rest of us that it came from how he’d scampered up the tree. He could shinny up anything in sight, with or without branches. But I should've known enough about Southy to figure there had to be more of a smile to it.
Southy used that very word again later, when we were talking about the old guys who bunked in the Gym where he'd once worked the speed bag.
"Those old guys reeked," Southy was saying. "All around their bunks it smelled. And I mean strong, like a polecat."
"You mean, stunk like a skunk," Mom said. And click! I got the picture. Like a little scene from a movie show reeling through my head.
"Oh, that polecat!" I said. Southy looked at me and smiled. He saw that I saw. Something he’d picked out of the air when he first spotted the mestizo. He divined that if anybody ever threatened this kid, he'd all at once drop down on all fours, stick his little rear end in the air and spray everybody with a secret killer perfume. You know that had us laughing.
Southy called it the "Polecat Attitude." And he was right on target. I can vouch for it. Something that happened a couple of weeks later showed just how it worked. We were playing marbles with Neddy Nickerson behind the Jap Kitchen. More likely, Neddy was giving us another lesson in eating humble pie. Polecat spotted us there and sauntered over, like there was nothing better to do.
"Mabuhay," Finch greeted him. He'd heard the boxing story and was likely looking to curry favor. Polecat just grunted but stuck around to watch. Neddy was so deep into the tiger hunt by then, he never noticed the mestizo until he finished. It wasn't too good a round for Neddy. He'd only picked up maybe three Clayees. But Polecat went right over to him, real courteous and Filipino, like he was meeting the master.
"I have heard you are champion," Polecat said. Neddy cocked his head and gave him one of those be-polite grins. "Could you teach me how to play?"
"Well, yes," Neddy said. "But have you ever played any sort of marbles before?" I got the feeling Neddy was surprised Polecat could even speak his lingo.
"I have played only with small stones," Polecat said. "Only with Pilipino boys in the barrio." He did it so slick, I wouldn't have known myself if I hadn't just witnessed his Errol Flynn a few days before.
"Oh, yes. Well, I'm sure you could learn. It's quite simple really."
"Yes," Polecat said. "Perhaps I learn from you." So while the rest of us took turns shooting, Neddy explained the basics of Stony-Wop to the poor savage. And when Neddy's turn came up, he went true to form.
"Could we allow this chap a turn in here?" he asked.
"Sure, Polecat can go," Finch said.
"You got marbles?" Red asked.
"Yes, Finch showed me where to find them," Polecat answered. Red gave poor Finchy a hateful look, scratching fierce under his nose.
"Well, then," Neddy said. "You can try your luck right now." Polecat put a cracked Clayee on the ground at the bottom of the cross and stepped outside the circle.
"Is OK from here?" he asked.
"Fine," Neddy answered, ever so patient. Polecat studied the marbles in the ring, chewed his tongue and reached deep in the pockets of his dirty shorts. He brought out a closed fist, spit on it and shook it next to his ear like he was shooting craps. I heard the marbles clicking away like dice in there. Then, real quick, he dropped one into his other hand and put the rest back in his pocket. When he knuckled down, I could just make out the marble gleaming small and silver under his thumb. Then it flashed straight across the circle and hit Neddy's Tiger Shooter with a crack. That orange, yellow and black beauty split right in two.
"Jees!" Finch gasped. For a minute nobody else said a thing. It was just too sudden. Polecat let out one hard laugh. Neddy’d gone pale around the mouth and eyes. Then that queer smile flicked across his lips. "Jees!" Finch said again. "What you got?" Polecat picked up his marble and held it in his open palm. It was small and bright silver.
"You guys got Clayees, he's got Glassees. So I got Steelies."
"Steelies," we echoed.
"But where'd you get 'em?" Finch asked.
"Where you told me." He waved his arm toward where the Dump once was.
"It's a ball-bearing," Neddy said.
"A steel ball-bearing, chap," Polecat said with this real English accent. "From the wheel of a motorcar." Then he bowed. When he came up, he had his big grin. Neddy tried to smile too, but he had to look away. He walked over, picked up his other two Glassees and held them out to Polecat in his open hand.
"Here you are. I shouldn't want you to have to break these too." Then he walked off. He never played with us again.
But from then on, we had to play with Steelies if we wanted to survive. The currency'd changed. Polecat never used the Glassees. He kept them in his pocket, even the split Tiger. He liked the way they clicked when he walked.
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