"Get the lead out of yer ass, you guys! Fall in!"
"That makes eight hunnert 'n' ninety-six," Gasser whispered under his breath.
"Eight hundred ninety-six what?" I whispered out of the side of my mouth.
"I been counting'. Ever since Basic."
Company K instantly fell silent. Only the steady drone of our Signal Corps search radar broke the desolate stillness. But that didn't count, since it had hummed day and night, 24 hours on end, until it had become part of the stillness. A horsefly buzzed past my eyes, parting the shimmering heat waves like a tiny spaceship. The rash between my shoulder blades had awakened with the morning sun. A million tiny needles pricked my back and seemed to crawl around under my armpits. A faint breath of air from the swamp tinkled our dog tags as we waited for Sergeant Kowalski to finish the morning ritual.
"Eight hundred ninety-six what?" I asked again in the faintest of whispers, trying to keep my face at attention.
"Eight hunnert 'n' ninety.six formations in a row,"' said Gasser, sotto voce, as Kowalski stalked up and down in front of the company, flicking over the pages on his clipboard. "That's the eight hunnert 'n' ninety-sixth time that little bastard has said 'Get the lead out of yer ass. Fall in.'"
I lost interest. For the past six months or so, my mind seemed to be floating in warm water.
"AT EASE, GODDAMN IT!" Kowalski's green Air Corps sunglasses flashed in the sun. It was just another morning in Company K. We stood strung out in a ragged formation over the blinding coral sand, amid scraggly palmettos, completely unaware that a great event in our lives was about to take place.
"Men, if I have to tell you about them butt cans again, there's gonna be some ass-bustin' around here." We shifted in the heat, waiting for the next boring blast from Kowalski's inexhaustible arsenal of harassment. "Goddamn it, I'm gettin' tired of bitchin' about them butt cans. I want 'em emptied every night, y' hear, or am I going to have to detail somebody to do it?"
My heat rash now seemed to be creeping down to the backs of my knees. My mind drifted off over the horizon as the endless tirade about the butt cans continued. Kowalski tapped a yellow pencil on his clipboard to emphasize the salient points of his lecture.
"Kee-rist, what diddleyshit." It was Elkins, our company driver, who was directly behind me in formation.
"The following personnels will report at oh-eight-hundred tomorrow morning to get their shots renewed ..." Kowalski droned on. It was the usual morning business.
"Uh-oh," Gasser breathed a warning. Lieutenant Cherry, the C.O., had appeared next to Kowalski. "Keep yer ass low. Here it comes." The lieutenant rarely made an appearance outside the orderly room before noon. He carried on his furtive secret life far from the rabble of Company K. His appearance at this hour was ominous. He was dressed in crisp sun-tans, in itself an unusual sight around Company K. We had long since given up wearing uniforms and usually dragged around in GI shorts, shoes and, of course, dog tags. Lieutenant Cherry carried a manila folder.
"ATTEN-HUT!" Kowalski barked out his favorite command. A slight movement among the ranks indicated that we had come to attention. Kowalski stepped back and Lieutenant Cherry took charge. For a lone moment, he peered through his steel-rimmed GI glasses up and down the company.
"Gentlemen...." Lieutenant Cherry had a thin, clerk-like voice, dripping with weary irony. He was a disappointed man, a West Pointer who, through some cruel trick of fate, had found himself in charge of a unit so far down the Army table of organization as to be practically nonexistent. ". . . I am in receipt of the following memorandum from Army Headquarters." He paused to brush ineffectually at a swarm of gnats that was passing by on their way to better things. "It concerns this company. You will listen carefully." He cleared his throat. Kowalski shot a ray of menace up and down the ranks to make sure we obeyed orders. "'To all units in the Signal Air Warning Command: There has been a marked decline in morale among radar-operating teams. This will cease as of this date.' "
Gasser muttered something under his breath. Elkins sniffed listlessly. "'A program of morale-building activities is hereby ordered. Athletic-type equipment will be furnished through quartermaster channels and will be made available to the E. M. by order of the commanding officer of each unit.''' Cherry paused to swab at his sweaty forehead. "'Henceforth the morale of Signal Air Warning Radar detection teams will be at a high level. By order of the Commanding General, Army Headquarters, Air Defense Command.'''
The lieutenant finished reading, in his singsong voice, and lowered his manila folder. "All right men." Cherry's half-beat pause before the word men made it sound faintly sarcastic. "Immediately after morning chow, we will begin building a baseball diamond over in B area. Those of you who are off shift will be supplied with tools and will continue work until it is completed."
An electric current swept from man to man. A ball diamond! It was the first mildly interesting thing that had happened in Company K for longer than any of us could remember. For the first time in months, I forgot my heat rash. Even Gasser had stopped muttering obscenities.
"Yessir." Mitropoulos, our resident Greek from the West Side of Chicago, raised his hand.
"Yes?" The lieutenant seemed always to find Mitropoulos amusing.
"Are we going to be allowed to play baseball on the diamond, sir?"
"That is a good question, Mitropoulos," The lieutenant gazed moodily upward at the brassy sky, as though deep in thought. At length, he answered: "What is a ball field generally used for, Mitropoulos?"
"Are you asking me, sir?" Mitropoulos, always a little slow, was eager to please. His stomach bowed out tautly in front of him. It was his idea of standing at attention.
'''Uh - to play baseball, sir."
"Very good, Mitropoulos." The lieutenant smiled as at a performing ape.
"You mean, sir, we're going to play real ball games?"
"That is correct, Mitropoulos." The lieutenant turned to Kowalski : "Sergeant, I'll put You in charge of this
matter. And see that the boys have a good time."
"Yessir!" Kowalski saluted smartly, his biceps snapping taut the stripes on his sleeve. "They will, sir." He was not aware of how right he was. "Aw right, You guys, you heard what the lieutenant said. After morning chow, the second section will meet in front of the supply room. And I don't want nobody draggin' ass. This outfit's gonna have morale or I'll burn a few butts around here. DIS-MISSED!"
"I think our good sergeant put that rather well, don't you, Gasser?" Zinsmeister chewed on a rubbery Milky-Way bar as we straggled back to our baking tent.
"Now look, Zinsmeister, I don 't need no wisin' off. I gotta think this over." Gasser, six feet, five and a natural pitcher, pulled his fatigue hat down low over his eyes against the slanting rays of the sun, which was already burning nails of heat into my festering rash.
"Kee-rist, I can't believe it. Company K is gonna have morale. Now there's a twist." It was Elkins, whose own lack of morale was a byword in the chaplain's tent, where he spent countless hours trying to wrangle a transfer out of the Signal Corps--into anything. He had long since become known as "T. S." Elkins. He was so desperate, in fact, that he had been known to sing Bringing in the Sheaves loudly at Sunday services, figuring that maybe the chaplain would break down and spring him. What he didn't know was that God Squad Gorman, our nearsighted battalion chaplain, had been trying to get transferred himself for over a year and couldn't make it.
"Elkins, do you know precisely what morale is?" Zinsmeister carefully licked his thumb, so as not to waste any chocolate.
"Yeah." Elkins spat at a passing lizard.
"Would you please define it for us?" Zinsmeister shaded his eyes and peered upward into a palm tree, squinting as though he thought something would fall out of it. Our dog tags clinked as we shuffled through the shimmering heat toward our six-man tent in the listless gait that all soldiers use around the company area.
"Yeah, well, you tell us. I don't feel like it." Elkins scratched his hairy belly.
"Come on, T. S., surely you know what morale is," Zinsmeister persisted.
"Tell 'em about morale, Elkins. Tell that smart-ass what morale is," said Gasser. This brilliant debating society had been in continuous session since our earliest days of Basic. Everyone knew his part. I was just a spectator. Elkins, Gasser, Edwards and Zinsmeister operated like a well-oiled machine, with Zinsmeister as the moderator.
Before Elkins could pick up his cue, Zinsmeister continued: "Do. you remember that movie we saw the other night when it rained?"
Company K had movies twice a month, which were scheduled to coincide exactly with the nightly downpour. They were outdoor movies, of course, but life was so crashingly dull in Company K that no one stayed in his tent no matter how bad the weather - or the picture - was. The steady pounding of rain on our helmets mingled with the sound track until it sounded like every movie was shot in the middle of a roaring surf. Everyone ate apples and threw the cores at the screen.
"You mean the one where Van Johnson was this lieutenant?"
"That's the one, Elkins."
"Yeah. What about it? He looked pretty chicken-shit to me." Elkins had hated all officers ever since he had failed to make flight training. He considered himself basically a first lieutenant, but fate had screwed him and made him a truck driver in a radar company.
"You remember the scene when the company was pinned down and Mickey Rooney, with all that Hqllywood mud on his tin hat, was crying? And then Van Johnson crawled out of the foxhole to save Eddie Bracken, who was Mickey Rooney's best friend? Do you remember what Mickey said through his tears when Van dragged Eddie, mortally wounded, back into the foxhole?"
Zinsmeister paused dramatically, waiting for the answer. "Nah. I musta missed that. I guess that came when I went out in the bushes to take a leak."
Gasser laughed raucously.
"Leave it to you to take a leak at the wrong time," said Zinsmeister. "That's the story of your life, isn't it, Elkins?"
"Screw you." It was all Elkins could say, because he knew Zinsmeister was right. It was the story of his life.
"Edwards, do you remember what Mickey Rooney said?" Edwards' total lack of humor made him Zinsmeister's perfect straight man. He never let him down.
"Why, yes, I believe he said, 'I'd follow that man into hell.' "
A pregnant silence fell over us.
"That, Elkins, is morale."
Elkins looked at Zinsmeister in disbelief. "What a crock of shit," he said. "What a load of bananas."
What, Elkins, you mean you wouldn't follow Lieutenant Cherry into hell?"
Elkins squatted down on the wooden duckboards and rocked in phlegm laughter at the obscene image of himself following Lieutenant Cherry through the gates of hell, into the roaring furnace, over a pontoon bridge spanning the River Styx, in which floated the writhing figures of the damned, probably from our archenemy M Company.
"You find it hard to believe that you would follow our Lieutenant into hell?" Zinsmeister spoke quietly. "It is my opinion that you already have." Sometimes the truth is so true that there's nothing more to say.
"MOVE YER ASS, GASSER, WE AIN'T GOT ALL DAY." It was the next morning, and Kowalski was in his sharply creased fatigues, a sure sign that he meant business. Gasser was the last man into Company K's battered troop carrier. Sitting in two rows facing each other in the stifling gloom, we roared and banged off in the direction of B sector. Our troop carrier, due to its condition and also because of the way Elkins kicked it around, produced as much concentrated sound as a P-51 just before lift-off. Before us on the floor, a pile of rakes, shovels and sickles bounced and rattled. We were officially off duty. The bitching when we drew a work detail on such an occasion was usually continuous and bitter, but today all was sweetness and light. We were returning to the games of our childhood, the simple pleasures, the ecstasies we knew before any of us had ever felt the weight of an M-1.
"WHAT'D YOU SAY?" I yelled at the top of my lungs at Gasser, who was crouched directly across from me. His face had been working soundlessly for some time and 1 finally got the drift that he was yelling something at me. Nobody ever tried to carryon any kind of conversation in the back end of a troop carrier, at least not with Elkins at the wheel.
"YOU LOOK LIKE A NATURAL-BORN BIRD CASER!" he screamed back.
I thought about this for a second or two. "WHAT'S A BIRD CASER?" I hollered, as the dust swirled in over the tail gate.
"WHAT'D YOU SAY?'" he shouted back through the uproar.
"WHAT'S A BIRD CASER?" I was getting hoarse.
Gasser dug an elbow into Edwards' ribs and yelled something into his ear. They both laughed, which for some reason made me mad.
"WHAT'S SO GODDAMN FUNNY?" I hollered.
"I SAID THIRD BASEMAN, YOU JERK.' Gasser kicked my knee with his Gl shoe and spat out over the tail gate.
"We roared on and on. At last, with a shudder of worn brake linings the load of tools slid along the truck bed and slammed against shins and ankles as the carrier bounced to a stop. Simultaneously, Kowalski's hated whistle shrieked out.
"Let's have a column a twos here. Dress it up. I don't want no horsin' around now. AT EASE, goddamn it!"
We quieted down until the only thing making a sound was the oil-pan drip in the troop carrier and the faint cries from two chicken hawks that wheeled in the sky high above us. B sector was a silent wasteland, inhabited only by tarantulas, scorpions, a few rattlesnakes and an occasional alligator. It was miles from our radar site and was the only comparatively flat land in our area of operations, if what we did could be called operations.
"This here manual is how to build a U. S. Army four-three-two slash B. D. GI ball diamond. And we are gonna go by the book. Y' understand?"
We did. There was a book for everything. Half an hour later, we had already created the faint outlines of a
baseball diamond on the scrubby sand of B sector. One gang of guys hacked away with shovels and pickaxes, smoothing out the rough coral sand. Another team toted rocks and debris for dumping in the undergrowth where foul territory would be. Gasser, Zinsmeister and I were in the outfield swinging sickles,
chopping away at the razor-sharp palmettos. A happy buzz of playful obscenity filled the air and floated out over the invisible grandstands.
"Christ, it's hot." Gasser spat on his hands, the sweat dripping off his dog tags.
I grunted, trying to pull my sickle out of a tenacious root. A malevolent blue-green thing covered with claws and stingers scuttled across the sand. I leaped back. Gasser dropped his sickle and lunged sideways, giving himself a nasty slash on a palmetto leaf.
"Well, as I live and breathe, a genuine scorpion." Zinsmeister fanned his face with his fatigue hat and bent over, peering down at the little beggar. "By George, he's a nice specimen."
Gasser hissed from behind the palmetto: "Kill the bastard '"
"Gasser, please. He might hear you." Zinsmeister continued to examine the scorpion closely. I could see its stinger curled upward, ready for action. It looked like a tiny green lobster.
"The Arachnida are an interesting class," Zinsmeister intoned in his lecture voice.
"It looks like a scorpion to me!" said Gasser from behind the palmetto. He was taking no chances; he held his sickle at the ready. Zinsmeister prodded the terrified little creature with his GI shoe and instantly it scuttled off into the undergrowth . I thought: This is going to be a hell of an outfield, especially for ground balls!
As we rode back to the company area late that afternoon-sandy, hungry happy, covered with mosquito bites - I dozed off from time to time. The tropical sun was just dropping to the edge of the horizon when we climbed out of the troop carrier in front of the dayroom. A couple of guys from the third section who had just come off duty in the maintenance tent began pumping us about the ball diamond as we turned in
our tools and went back to our tents to get ready for chow.
"What the hell are you doing, Gasser?" said Elkins as he smeared sulfa salve over his permanent heat rash. Gasser was rapidly lifting up the end of his footlocker and lowering it to the floor, using his right hand.
". . . Twenty-six . . . twenty-seven ... twenty-eight ... twenty-nine ... ," he grunted.
Elkins rolled his eyes in the direction of the tent roof, muttered an obscene prayer and crossed himself, leaving big slippery dabs of the smelly sulfa salve at each point of the cross.
"... Thirty-six ... thirty-seven ... thirty-eight ...," Gasser was breathing hard. The end of the footlocker wasn't going up and down as fast as it had been. His eyes were squeezed shut with concentration.
Zinsmeister sat quietly on the bunk and just watched, one sock half on, the other foot bare. The pious Elkins, who had finished beseeching God for mercy, moved away from Gasser as though whatever kind of fit he was having might be contagious.
". . . Fifty-three . . . fifty-four . . . fifty-five ... fifty-six . . . ," Gasser's face was crimson with exertion as he toiled on and on.
Goldberg stuck his head in the tent door, or rather his pipe entered the tent. A cloud of purplish sickly sweet tobacco smoke preceded him.
"... Sixty-one ... sixty-two ... sixty-three ...," Gasser began coughing violently, a reaction often encountered in the vicinity of Goldberg's pipe. But he didn't stop:"... Seventy ... seventy-one ... seventy-two...."
Another fit of coughing and he fell heavily across his footlocker. "God . . . damn itl" he wheezed. "Goldberg ... you bastard . . . if you hadn't blown that stink in here ... I coulda made a hunnert."
Elkins crossed himself again and said to no one in particular: "This heat is gonna get us all. First it's Gasser, and then . . . who knows?"
Gasser, who was reviving, sat up on his footlocker, rubbing his right arm and flexing his fingers to get the circulation going. "Elkins, you sorry son of a bitch, can't you see I'm gettin' the old soupbone in condition? This is my money arm. Wait till you see my slider, which you probably won't be able to see anyway. Not if it's workin' right."
"Ah, spring training." Zinsmeister pulled on his other sock. "Not a bad idea, Gasser. We're counting on you to help us murder M Company."
M Company, an even more socially deprived outfit than ours, was buried in the underbrush a few miles away. There was little love lost between our two companies, mainly because they had a commander who believed in handing out as many stripes as he could. Lieutenant Cherry, on the other hand, awarded stripes as though he paid for them himself. There was even a rumor to the effect that no one in M Company held a rank below staff sergeant, and that all of our nonexistent stripes had been given to them.
. "You mean we're gonna let them fuck-ups play on our ball diamond?" This from Edwards, who was lying
prone on his bunk, polishing his dog tags. He had a theory that heat rash was caused by dog-tag poisoning.
"Only to humiliate them," said Zinsmeister, as he left the tent on his way to the latrine.
So it went all through chow. For the first time in a long while, we had something to talk about other than the usual bitching. Even guys who hated sports in real life were sucked in. The next day, another section of Company K rode off in the truck to pick up the work we had started. Our section was back on regular duty: trying to keep the radar functioning, at least during our trick. Private Dye, sometimes known as "The Ninety-Seven-Pound Weakling," sat hunched over an azimuth-scope screen in the darkened operations room. He was wearing sunglasses.
Zinsmeister, the section chief, tapped him on the shoulder. "Dye, how can you read a PPI scope wearing black glasses? Will you tell me that, please?"
Dye looked up from his work. "I gotta protect my eyes. After all, we got a ball game comin' up." He went back to peering closely at the screen.
"Oh, yes, of course, Dye. Excuse me, I forgot."
During this exchange, I was taking voltage readings and writing them down on a clipboard form. I had been doing this every half hour for as long as I could remember. Long ago, most of our meters had lost whatever accuracy they had once had. Some read high, some low; others didn't read anything at all. But it didn't matter as long as the radar kept working. We wrote down the voltages we knew were right and hoped for the best.
During that fateful week, the ball diamond and the glorious ball games to come grew steadily in our minds. We had lived in a state of droning boredom for so long that any break in the routine was a major event. Since our radar surveillance, such as it was, went on 24 hours a day, one section of the company was always squatting in front of the scopes or tuning antennas while the other two sections alternated between sleeping and feverishly chopping away at the tropical undergrowth at the ball field.
A corporal from the supply room started calling it the Polo Grounds, and the name stuck. Soon nobody called it anything else. And gradually three ball clubs took shape-naturally, the Giants, the Dodgers and the inevitable Yankees. Gasser, Dye, Edwards, Goldberg, Zinsmeister and I volunteered for the Giants. Friday afternoon, we were hauled out to the Polo Grounds to put the finishing touches on the field.
"One thing about the Army," said Gasser as we trotted away from the troop carrier in the direction of the diamond. "When they finally decide to do something, they really do it."
"Yeah. Look at that," I wheezed in the heat.
One of the peculiarities of life in the Service is its total unpredictability. A quartermaster truck had delivered a set of portable knockdown grandstands, as well as a folding chicken-wire backstop, along with all the other necessities of a baseball diamond. This astounded everyone, and resulted in another round of speculation about obscure departments in the Pentagon.
"Can you imagine some joker of a bird colonel with the title of Folding Grandstand and Pitching-Rubber Procurement Officer?" asked Goldberg of no one in particular. ''I'll bet the bastard has two majors, nine lieutenants and three companies of yardbirds under him, all running around testing home plates and visiting plants where they make catchers' mitts." He was probably not far wrong.
Our two wooden O.D. colored plank-and-trestle grandstands stood baking in the sun. The field was practically done. We had brought out in the truck a couple of buckets of whitewash for base lines and, for a couple of hours, we carefully dribbled out the whitewash on the crumbly soil, which the company had laboriously smoothed out during the week. The pitching rubber had been laid the day before; the bases were in place. Now all that remained was the ceremonial installation of home plate. It was a real home plate, too, made of hard snowy rubber. Lovingly, we laid it in place.
Even Sergeant Kowalski was visibly moved. Standing on the lowest plank of the third-base grandstand, he said quietly, "This is one helluva ball diamond. When them guys from M Company get a look at this, they'll shit." He was right. Nestled in the trackless wilderness, attended only by coral snakes, scorpions, alligators and raccoons, Company K had carved out a gem of a ball park. Its beauty and perfection would grow in the imagination of everyone in the company over the dismal years ahead.
I stood behind home plate and looked out over the Polo Grounds, taking part in spectacular plays to come, watching stirring rallies, hearing the crack of hard-hit line drives. High above in the cloudless sky, a huge buzzard wheeled slowly on motionless wings. It was an omen. The stage was set. Company K was about to enter legend. Tomorrow was opening day.
"Aw right, you guys, police up the area and field-strip them butts."
For the next 15 minutes. we picked up bits of debris until the Polo Grounds was as spotless as any major-league ball park on the eve of the world series. We rattled back through the undergrowth to the company area with that elated feeling we all know a few times in our lives and never forget. As I took the voltage readings that night, I noticed that even the grid-drive meters registered higher than usual.
Saturday-morning breakfast, usually listless, was more like somebody's birthday party. The K. P .s hummed, the French toast crackled and Gasser hit Zinsmeister on the back.
"You intellectual son of a bitch. You better catch a good game. I ain't gonna start the season zero and one."
"The catcher is the brains of the club, Gasser. Don't forget that. You throw what I call and don't try thinking. You're not good at it."
Big fat Goldberg squatted at his end of the mess table, puffing away on his meerschaum. He was our kindly manager. The Giants, from B section, were playing the Dodgers-C section-that afternoon. The Yankees, A section, were going to take Oil the winner Sunday, and then the whole series would begin again the following weekend. The company clerk had been working on charts that outlined the whole season for our three-team league. It would carry us joyously well into next year, when we might allow M Company to face the winner.
Life in Company K had miraculously turned golden. Even Lieutenant Cherry smiled occasionally and Kowalski hadn't once bellowed "GET THE LEAD OUT OF YER ASS! " since construction on the 'Polo Grounds had begun. It was a new era.
Shortly before noon, the Giants and the Dodgers piled out of the troop carriers - followed by the Yankees, who were on hand to jeer the winner. As the home club, we took the field first, peppering a brand-new Q. M. - issue ball around the infield. The three outfielders trotted out into the shimmering distance. I kicked up the dirt around third base with my GI shoes, getting set for play to begin. Zinsmeister squatted behind
the plate, taking Gasser's practice pitches. Across the diamond, Elkins talked it up at first. Edwards, our wiry shortstop, plucked at pebbles and spat in his glove. Sergeant Clobberman, our supply sergeant, wearing face mask and chest protector, loomed behind Zinsmeister. After a suitable dramatic pause, he bellowed "PLAY BALL!" and the first act of our drama began.
The lead-off hitter, a short, squat private, stepped in to the box.
"Lay it in here, Gas. This dogface don't even know what a bat is for. Come on, baby, lay it in here." Zinsmeister began a running fire of chatter.
The Yankees, scattered around the grandstands, hooted and sucked at cans of warm beer. Gasser glanced around the infield, then peered through the heat waves at Zinsmeister, who flashed a sign. For hours the night before, they had wrangled in the tent over their secret signals. Gasser went into his big revolving motion and the first pitch slapped into Zinsmeister's mitt, high and outside. Clobberman, who had obviously watched many a major-league umpire, snapped out his finger in the ball-one sign.
I pawed at the dirt at third base, pounding my glove. Faint cries drifted in from the outfield as our ball hawks shouted encouragement. On the second pitch, the private hit a slow roller down the first-base side. Elkins charged in, scooped it up and tagged him on the run. A ragged cheer wen t up from the Yankees in the stands. The private spat in the dirt and trotted back to the bench, muttering and trailing sweat.
As naturally as night turns to day, we stopped being soldiers and became ballplayers - an eminently civilian state of mind. The next hitter was Widgy Birdsong. Widgy was short for Widgeon; his father was a fanatical duck hunter. A tall, thin, sad-looking corporal wearing glasses, he swung wildly at Gasser's first
pitch and ticked a high pop-up between the pitcher's mound and third.
I yelled, "It's mine, Gas!" and waved him off. High in the blazing sky, the ball arched and came down, dropping clean and true. I grabbed it solidly with my gloved hand and whipped the ball over to Edwards, who relayed it to Elkins and back around the infield, just like the real Giants always did after a putout. The last man rolled weakly to Gasser, and we were at bat.
Edwards, Our lead-off man, struck out, darkening the air with rich obscenities. Batting second, I tapped the plate and waited for the first pitch. Hurling for the Dodgers was Boob Swenson, who worked at the motor pool, a heavy-set Swede with a shaved head. He threw a low, mean, rising ball with a nasty hop on it. He had played semipro ball before the Signal Corps happened to him and he was back in his element. I swung at the second pitch, topping a bouncing ball to short, and was out by ten feet. Elkins fanned with wild gusto. He played baseball as he did everything else in life.
And so went opening day at the Polo Grounds. Locked in mortal combat, the Giants and the Dodgers played tight ball for five innings. In the top of the sixth, the Dodgers scored a run on a couple of scratch hits and a dropped fly ball in left field. But we were still ahead by a run. In the third, Gasser, batting left-handed, had caught one of Boob's slanters on the fat part of his bat and pulled a shot down the first-base
line for a triple. He scored on a roller to first, and the next hitter, Dye, astounded everyone by swatting a long fly over the left fielder's head and into the palmettos for a home run.
It happened midway through the sixth inning, spontaneously, without so much as a word of discussion. Throughout the game, we had worn our usual GI shorts, shoes and dog tags. But by the sixth, the heat of both the game and the sun had reached such blast-furnace intensity that someone in the outfield kicked off his soaked shorts and, within five minutes, both the Dodgers and the Giants were stark, bare-ass, jaybird naked in the sweltering sun. For the past three innings, my loins had been chafing under the weight of my soggy shorts anyway and, after all, what did it matter? We were light-years away from civilization and, somehow, shucking our Government Issue olive-drab shorts was the final act in returning to the free, uncluttered lives of our lost youth.
I crouched at third, slapping my glove. Gasser swung into his windup, everything swinging gracefully along with him. Zinsmeister, squatting pendulously behind the plate, mattered on in a pool of sweat, as naked as a bowling ball. Somehow the game picked up from that moment. The Yankees in the stands shouted and tossed pennies onto the infield after each sparkling play.
Widgy Birdsong charged around second in the top of the seventh and came barreling toward me, arms flapping, trying to stretch a double into a triple. Edwards snagged the relay from the right fielder in the webbing of his glove and shot the throw low and hard toward me at third. I caught it on the short hop, just as the runner slid past me in the sand. I laid the tag on him hard, on the only place I could get him. Clobberman yelled "OUT!" Widgy leaped up, clutching a vital spot, and shrieked at me in a high voice, "Oh, you stop that! That was a naughty thing to do!"
He minced off toward the Dodger bench. The Yankees were in an uproar and a few handkerchiefs were waved. One guy stood up and blew kisses toward Widgy. Company K's morale had never been higher. And Widgy Birdsong had a new nickname.
The next man up looped a Texas leaguer into short right for a cheap single, and the Dodgers bench began clamoring to get a rally going. There was one man out and the score was 2 to 1. I crept in from tbird, my glove held low, expecting a bunt. I glanced upward for a split second at the blazing ball of sun, sweat funning down my nose, my dog tags clinking wetly. I noticed that the buzzard from yesterday was circling high above. Then it happened. From my right, off in the tangled jungle undergrowth, I heard a low rumble, the sound of a motor. Gasser laid in his first pitch. The batter swung and missed.
"Atsa pepper, boy. These guys ain't got nothin'," Zinsmeister droned.
The motor hummed closer. A thought crossed the back of my mind: That's the half-track coming back to pick us up. I edged back to third, pounding my glove. I was aware, from the corner of my eye, that a vehicle had stopped just back of third, behind the end of the grandstands. At first, it didn't register. Gasser was in the midst of a windmilling windup.
It hit me. My God, it can't; be! I looked back at the car. It was. In the front seat of a dark-green staff car, a
stone-faced sergeant in full-dress uniform sat at the wheel ramrod stiff. From the back window, which was rolled down, peered a face - an elfin, alabaster, pertnosed face under a cloud of cascading golden-blonde hair.
I've got sunstroke, I thought. It's a heat mirage. Company K had not been in the vicinity of a live female human being for over a year and a half. For one wild instant. I tried to cover myself with my glove. Gasser, who hadn't noticed our visitor, was winding up, in eye-filling view of all the world, and Zinsmeister
continued to crouch obscenely behind the plate.
I stared speechlessly at the car. The girl stared back, eyes wide at the orgiastic athletic contest in progress before her. The staff-car driver glared grimly in my direction. I turned to face second base - a somewhat unorthodox position for a third baseman - and hollered, "HEY. GASSER!"
Something in my voice caught him in mid-windup. He glanced in my direction, then to the car - and instantly turned a deep beet-red. All over. Still unconscious of disaster, Elkins and Edwards continued to dart back and forth at their positions. The batter, equally unaware of what was happening, waggled his behind and took a couple of practice cuts.
I heard the engine restart. There was a clash of gears and a roar, and the staff car disappeared into the greenery. The whole thing was over in less than a minute. High overhead, the buzzard glided. He had been joined by two friends.
Gasser stepped off the mound and weakly called for time. He shuffled over toward me. "Did you see what I saw?"
"Who the hell was she?" It was all I could think of to say.
Gasser seemed to be half crying and half laughing. In a moment, the news had spread all the way to the outfield. Two schools of thought instantly developed. One crowd refused to believe that there had been an actual girl, that we had seen what we thought we saw only because we had forgotten our salt tablets. The other side, a tiny minority, believed that there really was a girl, but that she was some kind of swamp goddess, since no actual girl was known to be within 500 miles.
Somehow, the ball game ran out of gas after that. Eventually, the Giants nosed out the Dodgers, as they so often did at the real Polo Grounds; but that was merely academic. Even the Dodgers sensed a larger defeat on the horizon.
We piled quietly back into our troop carriers, covered with scratches, slide burns and mosquito bites, sunburned to a deep raspberry shade, and 20 minutes later pulled into the company area. It was ominously silent. No sooner had the brakes stopped squealing when Kowalski, sunglasses flashing, roared out of the orderly room, his whistle screeching fiendishly. He was followed by Lieutenant Cherry, dressed in crisp suntans and wearing his peaked officer's cap with its gleaming golden eagle.
"FALL IN. ON THE DOUBLE. LINE UP IN A COLUMN A TWOS. LET'S GO. GET THE LEAD OUT. I SAID MOVE!"
We straggled into formation, dropping balls and bats as we jostled one another.
I sucked in my gut with a sinking sense of foreboding. Lieutenant Cherry stepped forward and spoke, clipping off his words sharp and hard: "At ease. I am going to read to you a communication received by this company at eleven hundred hours, this date. I quote: 'From Signal Command Headquarters, Air Defense. To Lieutenant L. Cherry, C.O., K Company, Thirteen-Sixty-Second Signal Air Warning Regiment, Signal Corps. Expect visit Miss Barbara O. Smythe, daughter Lieutenant General L. D. Smythe, C. G., Second Corps, for purpose of morale. Show her all courtesy. Signed, Lieutenant Colonel F. E. Brimstone, A. D. C., G. O. C,' "
An electric current surged through Company K. Lieutenant Cherry silently set his visored cap lower on his forehead. "I have just received a telephone call from headquarters. It seems that Miss Smythe was indeed shown all courtesy by K Company. According to the colonel who spoke to me, Miss Smythe observed a ball game."
A ribald thought slithered through my mind: You can say that again.
"I understand that this alleged ball game was a sordid spectacle," said the lieutenant, his voice crackling like ice cubes coming out of a frosty tray. "I have the following orders to transmit to K Company: At oh-eight-hundred tomorrow, K Company will begin dismantling the recently completed athletic field. We will, I repeat, will, replace every blade of saw grass, every palmetto plant, every scorpion to its previous position. Upon completion of this mission, we will return every, I repeat, every, item of Issue athletic equipment to the area quartermaster stores. Henceforth, this is a radar company and not a stag show."
He paused, allowing his eyes to move slowly from one end of the formation to the other. "Are there any questions?"
There were none. Silently, he turned and disappeared into the orderly room. Kowalski took over. "Aw right, you bastards. You blew it. I have often stated that if you played ball with me, I would play ball with you. We will now begin my ball game. Immediately following chow, we will have a company GI party.
We will clean every inch of this area. For three hours, I will see nothing but elbows and assholes,"
Company K was back in business. Baseball season was over. The long hot winter had begun.