I remember as a kid my granddad telling me not to drink the water in Calcutta. Now you had to know my granddad. The man never traveled further west than Des Moines Iowa nor further east than Fort Wayne Indiana. What he meant by stating that I should never drink the water in Calcutta was that I could help myself to all the water I wanted here at home. As a matter of fact, I should drink water over too much coffee in the morning, milk in the afternoon or beer in the evening. No, he wasn’t a moralist, he was cheap.
When I was shipped off in 1942 to the Pacific, to island hop with the greats like MacArthur and Halsey, the old man got teary eyed and asked me to sit down and have a beer with him before I left. I did but I wish I hadn’t because I never liked the taste of beer. I wasn’t much for sentiment and he being old fought against the emotion so as to not embarrass me; my Mother didn’t feel that way she cried all the way to the train station and cried (according to my father) until I came home.
The things I saw.
God help us all.
We were told to die rather than get captured and they said it with all the sincerity of a man with a gun to his head. The fly boys were being tethered in the jungle with honey smeared into their eyes, nose and ears so that the ants would eat them alive, took a while. The natives were too frightened to make a rescue – even to kill the poor bastards.
I saw men blown apart in front of me and the last thing I ever heard my first sergeant say was “get off the beach you lead assed mother fuc-.”
They put him in the body bag piece by piece.
I forgot everything. I forgot that there was a Des Moines and I forgot there was a Fort Wayne and I forgot I had a mother, father or grandfather. I forgot I had a home.
So you can imagine after three years what it was like to be sitting at my parent’s kitchen table and hearing that old man, as he placed a tall, cold glass of water in front of me, saying – “aren’t you glad you didn’t drink the water in Calcutta?”
Three years, because it went bad for all of us at first and I had no sweetheart and I had no wife; just a mother who wrote to me once a week and that wasn’t enough, you see, to get me stateside.
So you can imagine with that cold glass of water before me, the outside of the glass glistening, my parents sitting down next to me, the pressure of my mother’s hand on my arm. No gunfire, no bombs, no screaming, no cursing.
“Sir,” I said, “Sir, I never it made it to Calcutta.”