September 12, 1950. The survivors limp down the mountain to a 6×6 that drops them at the field service platoon behind the hills. Seven men remaining from forty, stunned and filthy as they line up for fried chicken and mashed potatoes and beer chilled in a stream, their reward for not dying. In the shadow of apple trees, Hohner sobs and chews with his narrow face and big teeth, Nick shifting away as if crying was contagious. Sarge sucks down two canteens of water and takes off with a drumstick to find the El-Tee.
Private Herschel Marx feels the food bringing energy to his limbs. It’s hard to imagine Americans on the other side of the world listening to the radio, making love, sleeping. The subways coursing beneath the streets. Amazingly, he’s uninjured save for cuts and bruises and one elbow scraped to the meat. His trigger hand is painfully swollen, but a medic says, It’s normal, it’ll wear off in a day or two. Go take a shower, you need it.
The guy from the bath unit looks him up and down: That uniform is history, bub. In the shower, the cuts sting as Hesh lathers away the stink of the dead. Nick comes in, naked and whistling Hank Snow’s I’m Moving On. He wets a bar of Lifebuoy and writes on the canvas, Don’t drop the soap. Hesh wants to ask why he doesn’t seem at all fucked in the head, but he doesn’t want his buddy thinking he’s shook.
Afterward in his fresh fatigues, he is directed to a tent with the flaps up to catch the breeze and the supreme luxuries of cots and mosquito netting. Fumigated, sated, hydrated, Hesh sleeps hard, in his mind’s eye green flares drifting to earth. At some point, he hears a sudden frightening boom followed by echoing trills of North Korean bugles. He sits up, hyperventilating, holding his weapon. In the half-darkness, his eyes meet Nick’s.
It’s okay, Herschel. That’s somebody else’s problem.
In the morning, Field Service is bustling with men coming off the line to shower and eat, grinding noises from the vehicle shop. Graves Registration has sobering piles of fresh body bags. Everything seems unreal, like a reflection in water, touch it and it might ripple and disappear.
Sergeant Anderson finds them on the chow line. He says, I got good news and bad news. Which one you want first?
Hesh says, We’re going back to the line?
Nope. Lt. Perth bought the farm. A mortar dropped right in his hole.
Nick says, I thought you had bad news.
Sarge ignores him. He says, The good news is Private Marx here is going to the Jewish New Year service. There’s a Corporal Sheldon waiting for you in a Jeep.
He stuffs a piece of paper into Hesh’s breast pocket—a pass.
The Jews have all the luck, Nick says.
Sure, Hesh says. Nothing but rainbows for the Jews.
Actually, all Hesh wants is sleep, but he knows Sarge is doing him a solid. He’d been aware the holiday was coming but the idea of going to a service hadn’t even occurred to him. He gathers the necessities—ammo, canteen, candy bars, smokes, and his good luck charm, the pocket Hebrew Bible he got on the troopship. Everybody has their charm, to provide the illusion of control, of being less at prey to random forces. Sarge has a big brass coin inscribed with the Lord’s Prayer he got in the last war. Nick, a traditionalist, has a rabbit’s foot. Metzger, who is dead, had a French coin his dad gave him, and with a pang, Hesh regrets he didn’t take it from the guy’s pocket to send to the family.
Sheldon is a serious-looking guy with carroty hair behind the wheel of a chugging Jeep.
Gut yontiff, private. Hop in.
Hesh knows he’s supposed to make chitchat with another Jewish fella, feel him out like a distant cousin at a family reunion. But the day is warming and his own feelings are catching up with him. At first, he was just shocked he made it—when you know you’re going to die, what’s more surprising than living? Now there is relief. His hand throbs and he hurts all over, but he’s alive, and he has all his limbs. It’s the strangest thing, but a kind of heartache for the world swells within him: as Sheldon navigates the trucks going the other way, Hesh feels for the poor bastards heading for the line, for the locals humping their burdens toward Pusan. The women with ludicrous bundles atop their heads and babies strapped to their backs. The small children limping with exhaustion. The old men beneath their wooden backpack frames laden with one hundred, two hundred pounds. Hesh feels for them all, and he wonders if it’s better not to, if he should tuck the compassion away, squash it, until his own ass is safely back in Queens.
He says to Sheldon, What do you hear about the perimeter?
It’s holding. They’re helpless against our air power.
They ain’t helpless against our infantry.
Sheldon looks at him. You were on the line? I’ve been pushing paper. Wish I could get up there.
Hesh thinks of Metzger and the others.
No, you don’t, he says.
The road is corrugated concrete. It’s hard on the ass and lower back, and every so often Sheldon has to inch by an oncoming truck, which admittedly he does with competence. Then the road rises to an insane switchback between steep hills where a bulldozer is trying to clear a dead T-34, one tread trailing like the sole of a broken shoe. Sheldon cuts the engine, dabs insect repellent on his neck and wrists. The men supposedly guarding the bulldozer chewing the fat. It’s quiet here—too quiet, as they say in the pictures. With alarm, Hesh sees the roadway is littered with spent shells, empty sulfa packets, syringes. Splotches on the concrete. Somebody got it here good.
He says to Sheldon, You need the engine off?
Yeah, standing order to save fuel.
But we’re sitting ducks. He leans over to press the horn. Let’s go, fellas.
One guy points at the tank and shrugs: We can’t do nothing about this.
The bulldozer nudges at the tank to little effect. It’s like watching a crummy tailback failing to make yardage. Hesh flexes his fingers—he can shoot if he has to, but if the enemy opens up from both sides everybody down here is done for. At least Sheldon has enough sense to keep his trap shut while Hesh watches the ridges and knobs for movement, ears open for North Korean bugles. One thing about the commies, they announce an attack, to rally their troops and scare the living shit out of you.
It’s maybe five minutes but feels like twenty until finally there’s enough room for the jeep to squeeze through. When they clear the pass Hesh wipes the sweat from his forehead, drinks shakily from his canteen. Sarge had said, after they got off the troopship, It’s simple. Keep your eyes open, you got a chance. He didn’t mention you’d spend every waking moment exhausted and jumpy. Every sleeping moment too.
Beyond the switchback, the hills spread into a wide flat valley where they’ve set up a field hospital, a tidy village of olive-drab tents with trucks rumbling around, a landing pad for a chopper. One tent is flying the Jewish chaplain’s flag from its mast. Inside it’s dim and of course uncomfortable. Hesh clears his rifle and sits with Sheldon among men of various regiments and ranks, many slathered in mud, a pair of doctors in blood-spattered whites, their surgical caps like yarmulkes. A guy with a grenade at each hip where tzitzis might have been. Somebody passes Hesh a satin yarmulke and a prayerbook. He nods his thanks, trying to rid himself of the idea someone will shoot at him. Also present is the usual feeling before services, that the next hour or so will be boring but in some way improving.
With evening coming on, a corporal lights the Coleman lanterns and the chaplain steps up, yarmulke on his head, a tallis draped over his fatigues. He’s a small guy with tiny doll-like limbs. He looks like he belongs on Edgar Bergen’s knee. Appropriately, he starts with a joke: Welcome chosen people to the land of Cho-sen! He puts on a serious face. Seriously, men, it’s no small thing to meet so far from home. As we celebrate Rosh Hashanah together, let’s pray to return to our loved ones and enjoy God-given peace. Let’s pray for the health and strength and wisdom of our leaders and to crush the forces of godless communism. I almost forgot, join me in the mess hall after the service, we have gefilte fish. Turn to page one-thirty-two.
The service begins as they always do, with thanks and praise for He who gave us life, the Torah, and so on, and the muttering of Jews at prayer is familiar and comforting. You could almost forget where you are except you can’t. The heaving of outgoing artillery has started up, and growling P-51s momentarily deafen the congregation, and curious South Koreans crowd the doorway to watch the proceedings. Obviously this bunch has never seen Jews before, which is fine: in basic training, Hesh had met Americans who’d never seen one either.
Now they’re standing for the Amidah prayer. Hesh thinks of the old Hasid he saw for bar mitzvah lessons, no extra charge for teaching the holidays and a little Hebrew. The Amidah, he said, is like entering into the divine presence, which is why we take three small steps back and then forward again, as if approaching a king. And Hesh is trying to pray with sincerity, really he is, to be a Jew while he has the opportunity. But his hand hurts and his elbow is raw, and he’s recalling Metzger poking at the enemy dead as they searched for weapons or food. The booby trap was the last act of a dying man: fuck you, G.I., I’m taking you with me.
Sheldon says, You okay, Marx? You look pale.
I’m fine, Hesh says, although his calves are burning because they’re up again for Avinu Malkeinu. Our Father, our King, pardon all our iniquities. But Hesh doesn’t blame himself. It was a mistake, that was all—Metzger’s mistake. His final question before the explosion took his arm and most of his face: Do Jews believe in heaven?
Metzger, a Methodist, had been asking such questions since the troopship: Hesh, what do Jews do on Easter? What does God mean to you as a Jew? Hesh never really answered. He didn’t like being singled out. Now he wishes he had because Metzger was just curious. Sure he was annoying, but he was also dependable, never griping or shirking his duty. Which was more than you could say for other guys in their unit. So Hesh wishes he’d said, Metzger, it depends what you mean by heaven, and on Easter, we don’t do anything. And he wishes he’d said, You gotta understand, I don’t think about God much because He ain’t thinking about me. He’s an absentee landlord, Metzger. I don’t know if that’s Jewish exactly but that’s what I believe.
Metzger would then have asked, So why are you in the chaplain’s tent?
Hesh sighs. Because it’s what you do. You go to services on Rosh Hashanah, even in Korea. Because you don’t say no when Sarge does you a favor. Because they have gefilte fish.
They’re standing yet again as the chaplain gets out a miniature scroll from his kit. It’s like a toy Torah, perfect for an undersized rabbi. Then some major is called up to murder the Hebrew. Hesh wants this to be over. He feels smothered by the growing darkness and his shirt is sticking to him. On the other hand, when this is over it means returning to his unit, which no longer has Metzger in it.
He’s startled when the shofar sounds. He almost grabs his weapon, mistaking the blaring horn for a North Korean bugle. Noting with relief a lieutenant with his cheeks puffing out like a poor man’s Dizzy Gillespie. Funny how the rabbi hasn’t asked any enlisted men to help with the service.
Sheldon says, Marx, are you sure you’re all right?
I said I’m fine.
But he isn’t, because it’s outrageously hot in the tent and Hesh is finally grasping that he wasn’t a good friend to Metzger. He wasn’t exactly mean but he wasn’t kind either. And now there is nothing he can do. Even though the Book of Life is open for the time of repentance and atonement. Repentance, no problem. He’s got a bucketload. As for atonement, the real deal, you need forgiveness from the person you wronged, and that guy’s dead.
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