World Wars III
This happened in Hamburg on the eve of J-Day, the night of that now legendary USO triple bill: the Beatles opening for the Supremes and Elvis. Sort of a chorus of pop Valkyries the brass had kindly arranged for all us Jivey G.I. Joes and Jolly Jack Tars, before booting us over the edge of the steaming crevasse--filled with prop dry ice, or leading straight to Hell?--into the gaping maw of the massed Warsaw Pact troops, chivvied so recently out of West Germany, harried and weary, but far, far from beaten.
Half the North Atlantic fleet, it seemed, had put in at Kiel two days before, for refueling and provisioning. All hands were forbidden shore leave. Scuttlebutt had it we all--or at least my ship, the U.S.S. Rainbow Warrior--would soon be steaming for Gdansk, to participate in a humongous amphibious attack, which--given the Polish defenses around their shipyards, led by the already legendary young Major Walesa--had about as much chance of success as the Republicans had of beating J.F.K. and Stevenson in the next elections, or Woody Allen had of playing the romantic lead against Sinatra's wife Mia.
Those were our chances, that is, if the patrolling Russkie subs didn't sink us first en route.
This prospect did not sit well with Pig Bodine and me. It wasn't so much that we were scared of dying. Gee whiz, no. Three years of battle had cured us of that childish fear, innoculating us with the universal vaccine known as war anomie. It was simply that we didn't want to miss the big show down Hamburg way.
"I seen the Beatles before the war," said Pig, "right in Hamburg, at the Star Club. Man, they could rock. I thought they were going somewhere, but I never heard anymore about them. I didn't even know they were still playing together."
Bodine was lying upside down on his bunk, head hanging floorward, trying to get a cheap--and the only available--high from the rush of blood to his head. Physiology recapitulates pharmacology. Above the bunk hung a tattered poster of James Dean and Brigette Bardot in From Russia With Love. (The Prez, Fan in Chief of Fleming's novels, had an identical one, only autographed, hanging in the Oval Office.)
Pig's enormous hairy stomach was exposed below--or, more precisely, above--his dirty shirt; his navel was plugged with some disgusting smegma that resembled bearing-grease and Crisco.
Bodine's navel-jam fascinated me at the same time it repelled me. Coming from a white-bread background, illustrious Puritan forebears and all that, good school and the prospect of a slick entrance into the corporate life at Boeing, I had never met anyone quite like Bodine before. He represented some kind of earth-force to me, a troll of mythic proportions, liable at any moment to unleash a storm of belches and farts capable of toppling trees, accompanied by a downpour of sweat and jizm.
I had known Bodine for ten years now, since I had dropped out of Cornell and enlisted in the Navy in '55. Peacetime. It seems so long ago, and so short. Twenty years between the first two, and twenty more till the third. Had They been planning it all along, just biding their time until the wounds had healed and the people had forgotten, until the factories could retool to meet the new specs from the R. & D. labs? Was peace, in fact, like diplomacy, merely another means of waging war...?
Bodine had been my constant companion through all that time, even when I had made it briefly into officers' territory, before being busted back. (And that's another story entirely, but one also not entirely innocent of the Presence of the Pig, Germanic totem of death, he.) We had been through a lot of craziness together. But even so, even knowing him as I did, I could not have calculated the vector of the madness we were about to embark on now, nor its fatal terminus.
"I think I heard something about them a year or two ago," I replied, imagining Pig's mouth as occupying his forehead and his eyes his chin. It barely improved his looks. "The guy named McCarthy--"
"McCartney," interrupted Pig.
"Whatever. He was arrested on a morals charge. Got caught with some jailbait. And then his buddy, Lemon--"
"All right already with the teacher riff. Do you wanna hear the story or not? Lennon started shooting heroin when the war broke out, and had to spend some time in a clinic. This must be a comeback tour."
"I could use a little cum back myself," snorted Pig.
"Left too much in the last port! Snurg, snarf, hyuck!" This last approximating Piggy laughter. "God, I'm going ship-crazy! I gotta see that show and get laid! Dig me--do you still have that Shore Patrol rig we swiped?"
And so, several hours later, all tricked out, we prepared to breach our own force's defenses. It was dark, and Benny Yoyodyne, slowest of the slow, was on duty guarding the gangway. I was wearing the S.P. armband, harness and nightstick, and had my sidearm strapped on. Pig was in cuffs.
"Halt!" said Yoyodyne, brandishing his rifle like some Annapolis frosh. "No one's permitted to disembark."
"It's okay, Benny. They just need Bodine on shore for his court-martial tomorrow."
Yoyodyne lowered his gun and scratched under his cap. "Court-martial? Gee, I'm sorry to hear that. What'd he do?"
"You know the soup we had last week? The one that tasted so grungy? He pissed in it. They discovered it when they saw the distinctive urine corrosion in the kettles. The Captain had seconds, and nearly died."
Yoyodyne turned six shades of green. "Good Christ! what a--a pig!"
"C'mon, Bodine, it's time to meet your fate."
Pig started struggling. "No, no, I won't go, don't make me, General LeMay will hang me by the balls!"
Yoyodyne prodded him with the rifle. "Quit fighting, and take it like a man. You can do at least one noble thing in your miserable life."
Pig straightened up. "You've made me see the error of my ways, Benny. C'mon, Tom, I'm ready now."
I marched Pig down the ramp to the dock. He exuded such an air of holy martyrdom that I found myself almost feeling sorry for him.
As soon as we rounded the corner of a warehouse, Pig unsnapped the shackles from his wrists and collapsed atop a barrel, racked by laughter.
"As Bugs Bunny would say," I commented, "'Ehhh, what a maroon!'"
"He really thought I was like all reformed in an instant. Jesus, some guys deserve the Navy. Let's hit the road, Jack Ker-oh-wack!"
It was a sweet warm July evening, we were instantly and unforgivably AWOL, and the King was playing the next night about a hundred miles to the south. Uncle Sam and the rest of the western world was pausing like a punchdrunk fighter between the penultimate and final round in a senseless slugfest, a brief moment of mocking peace, to have his mouth spritzed and the blood wiped from his brow, before plunging back into the fray with the pug-ugly, cauliflower-eared Papa Nikita and his robotic Commie hordes.
I had never felt more alive, nor ever would. Kiel was crawling with SP's and MP's (S&MP's one and all,fer shure), striding imperially among the crowds of refugees, black-marketeers, NATO-deputized civilian cops and homeless war-orphans, all Dondi-eyed in rags and viscious as lampreys as they tried to attach themselves to Pig and I as unlikely saviors. The kids were dressed in Carnaby Street rags collected by Swinging London matrons and debs. Polka-dotted caps, paisley shirts, striped trousers. Fab gear.
Pig and I had to dart from shadow to shadow, down rubble-filled alleys, into doorways that were all that remained of the buildings they had been attached to, and up stairs leading to nowhere to avoid getting orphan-mobbed or cop-trammelled. Using the moon, we worked our way south, to the outskirts of the city. On the autobahn, we were lucky enough to hook a ride with a camo-decorated canvas-backed Mustang-model truck heading Hamburg-way.
The driver was a blonde English lieutenant named Jane "Sugarbunny" Lane. Her cuddly co-pilot was a dark-haired Romanian exile with the handle of Viorica Tokes, now also a member of the British armed forces. Ribbons from a double handful of campaigns: the Congo, Panama, Algeria, Finland, Manchuria.... Experienced, these two! Been in more theatres than Hope, Burns and Berle combined. The gals, it developed, were also illicitly on their way to the Presley show, having wrangled the assignment of delivering the truck's contents to the big DP camp outside Hamburg.
Viorica reached across my lap to crack the glove compartment and liberate a bottle of Swedish vodka, which Pig immediately and immoderately snatched away. I flipped on the truck's radio, tuning for the NATO station, which, once found, proved to be broadcasting a bland diet of anti-war tunes. Streisand singing "A Pox on Marx (And Lenin Too)." Barry Sadler with "The Day We Took Moscow." Dionne Warwick doing the Bacharach tune "Do You Know the Way to Riga Bay?". You dig, I'm sure. I snapped it off.
"So what kind of mercy mission to the poor displaced person-types is this?" asked Pig after a swig, squeezing Sugarbunny's thigh as she drove. To ease the crowding--the door lever was pushing my service revolver into my hip--I placed my arm around Viorica, whose accented English I found entrancing.
"Is that a billygoat club in your pants, or are you just being glad to see me?" the Romanian babe responded, sending Pig into gales of vodka-scented laughter. When Bodine's snorts tapered off, I repeated his question, rephrased.
"Yeah, what's in the back? Blankets, medicines, powdered eggs?"
Sugarbunny smiled. "Something even more vital. Propaganda. Namely, comics."
My heart nearly stopped. "American?" I asked, not daring to hope. "New?"
Viorica nodded. "Americanski comics, yes. And very much recently up-to-date."
"Stop the truck right now." Sensing the urgency in my voice, Sugarbunny did as I asked. In less time than it takes to tell, I was back in the cab with a shrink-wrapped bundle in my lap. I couldn't believe my luck. This whole crazy misadventure was starting to remind me of an episode of Hogan's Heroes. The one where Hogan talks the idiotic camp commander Gerasimov into letting him and the boys borrow a truck to deliver some beets to the borsht factory and they make a sidetrip to blow up the tank factory, along the way pulling a truckload of beautiful female Young Soviet Pioneers out of a ditch.
With trembling hands I ripped the shrink-wrapping off. The Fantastic Four had been enlisted on the Middle-Eastern front. The sight of the Human Torch zipping through Red Egyptian jets, hot metal splattering above the Sphinx, was just what I needed to see to remind me of the United States media machine I had left behind. The Invisible Girl fell in love with a handsome Israeli soldier, and the Thing called "Clobberin' Time!" on a bunch of Russian generals. Meanwhile Superman was busy in the Pacific, lifting entire Commie aircraft carriers out of the sea and dashing them down off the coast of sleepy and ostensibly neutral Japan, inadvertantly causing a tidal wave which he then had to outrace before it washed over the ruins of Tokyo. And there was more. The Flash picked up General Westmoreland and rushed him across China just in time to meet Chiang Kai-Shek. The Submariner in Australia, Captain America in Tibet, Green Lantern in French Indochina....
So engrossed had I become that I barely noticed when the truck pulled off the road, into the grounds of an abandoned farm.
"Dibs on the barn!" yelled Pig, pulling Sugarbunny by the hand toward that relatively unscathed structure full of moldering but comfortable and soon-to-be-rolled-in hay, leaving me and Viorica to sack out in the ruins of the farmhouse. We unrolled some bedding in the angle of two standing walls and a bit of roof. The air was effervescent on our bare skins, the stars jealous of what they saw. After sex, she told me a little about herself.
"I survive conscription work in Soviet munitions factory at Timisoara, until I can take no more. I sneak across the border of my soon-to-be-ex country and then journey through all of Yugoslavia to Adriatic, dodging all kinds of bad men, and swing passage on hobo ship which is sunk off Sicily. For six months I am prisoner of hill-bandits who use me like love-doll. Rescue comes in a big shoot-up with Britishers--Special Forces--who are looking for their kidnapped ambassador but find me instead. I arrive in London just in time for guess what?"
"Not Napalm Night?"
"You bet. Whole city and plenty of citizens burned up by flaming Russian Vaseline. Some kind of big mess."
That about summed up the whole world just then, so we fell asleep.
In the morning we were awakened early by a rooster's arrogant assertion that life was worth living. We tracked him down, found his harem and rustled up some eggs. The girls produced government-issue Tang and Pop-Tarts, and we had a fine breakfast in the ruins of civilization. Pig ate enough for two--horses, that is.
Back on the road we raced over the remaining miles to Hamburg. The tanks and trucks and Jeeps and APC's we passed were all heading toward the city; no one was leaving. It seemed the entire European theater of operations was funnelling into the old Hanseatic city for the big show, their courses bent like rays of light around the King's sun. We saw teams from all three Stateside networks and the BBC. I thought I recognized Walter Cronkite.
"Make me a star!" shouted Pig as we zipped by.
The gals dropped us off in the center of the war-torn town well before noon. "We've got to get these capitalist color catechisms to the people who really need them, boys," said Sugarbunny. "We'll catch you at the show tonight. Thanks for the company."
"Lady Jane," I said, trying my best to sound like Jagger, "may I kiss your hand?"
She extended it graciously out the driver's window.
"You coulda had more than that to kiss if you asked," said Pig. "Nyuck, hyuck, snurt."
"Pig, it would insult the entire species to call you a sorry example of humanity."
"Heads up for anti-personnel mines," Viorica advised as Sugarbunny shifted gears. "Ivan planted plenty before he retreat!"
Made wary by Viorica's parting words, we picked our way gingerly down the center of the empty street, two cautious cocks come to Cuxhaven.
"What now?" I asked Pig.
"Get drunk, of course. That was half the reason for going AWOL, remember?"
We found a functioning rathskeller, The Iron Stein, occupying the roofed-over basement of a building that didn't exist anymore. Inside, patchily illuminated, various locals mingled with off-duty troops from all nations. A cadre of Canadians consorted with a flock of Kiwis, while a gaggle of Ghurkas slopped swill with a passel of Portugese. B-girls and con-men lived lower down on the food-chain. Pig and I were liberally supplied with occupation scrip, and we plunked it down on the bar for some of Herr Feldverein's best homebrew.
Pig, on my right, slurped down two boilermakers to my every one, and was soon snoring gently on the bar. I doubted he had gotten much sleep with Sugarbunny. I myself was at the stage where vision is muzzily enhanced, and thoughts flit free as dogs in a Dylan song.
The fellow on my left gradually became the focus of my attention. He was an older man, easily past sixty, but in good shape. Bearded, dressed in a kind of modified safari getup popular with correspondents and other white guys slumming in foreign climes, he radiated an air of melancholy wisdom the likes of which I had never felt before. In my boozy condition, I felt it incumbent upon me to try and cheer him up.
"Mister Hemingway, I presume," I said lifting my glass in mock recognition.
"Sorry, son, he's got the glamour assignment with the occupying forces in Cuba."
I could tell by his voice that he was completely sober, perhaps the only such soul in the room. "You are a writer, though?"
"Yes. Herald-Tribune. And you?"
An inexplicable shiver unzipped my spine. Was I misinterpreting his question? And if not, why had he asked such a thing? My uniform was obvious as Senator Johnson's hernia scars, and I had thought none of my bruised karma was showing. I swigged my beer and said, "No, 'fraid not. In another lifetime, maybe, if I hadn't left school...."
He laughed then, as bitterly as I've ever heard anyone laugh. "Another lifetime.... You wouldn't want one, believe me."
"And how can you be so certain?"
He grabbed my sleeve and stared me down. "I'll tell you a good story, son, and let you decide."
He let me go, and then began.
"I was eighteen in 1985--"
I had to interrupt. "Twenty years in the future."
"Your future. Once my present. Now, nobody's future. Anyway, shut up. I don't tell this one often, and might change my mind. I was eighteen in 1985, and a simple soldier. The world I lived in was one you probably can't imagine. You see, in my world the United States and the Soviet Union were both armed to the teeth with atomic bombs. Do you have any notion what those are?"
"Something to do with atoms, I bet," I managed to wise-mouth.
"That's right. Explosive devices that split atoms to unleash unimaginable destructive power. They were invented during World War Two--"
"In my world, yes, they were. And after the war, thousands were manufactured and mounted on rockets--" "Rockets now," I said. "This is quite a story. I've always liked rockets, but I've never seen any big enough to carry a bomb. A firecracker, maybe."
"Believe me, they can be built big enough to cross continents. Can you picture such a world? Held hostage by two insane superpowers with enough megatonnage to destroy the whole ecosphere?"
Megatonnage? I thought. Ecosphere? A madman's glossolalia.... But the putative nutcase ran right past my speculations with his story.
"Well, in 1985 it finally happened. The Soviet premier was Yuri Andropov, a mean bastard, former KGB man. The Russians were losing in Afghanistan--"
"Afghanistan? Didn't the British have something to say about that?"
"The British Empire fell to pieces after my Second World War. They meant nothing. No, the geopolitical scene was strictly the US versus Russia. They were the only players who really mattered. Well, the Russians invaded Pakistan, our ally, where the Afghanistan rebels had their bases. We responded with conventional forces, and the conflict escalated from there. The next thing we knew, the birds were launched, and World War Three had begun.
"I was assigned as a simple guard in the command center under the Rockies. That's how deadly those bombs were--we had to hide our asses under the weight of mountains just to survive. Well, in the first few minutes of the war--and it only lasted an hour or two--everything went like clockwork. The generals gave the launch codes to the soldiers manning the silos, read the damage reports handed to them, counted up their losses and launched a second batch of missiles in response.... But then things began to break down. We were still getting a few visual feeds along the fiberoptics--the whole atmosphere was churning with electromagnetic pulses of course--and the sights that we saw--"
The man began to weep at the catastrophe that hadn't happened yet, and apparently never would. His face was briefly contorted with an intensity of deep emotion. I was rapidly becoming bummed out. This had gone from being a kind of half-amusing, half-draggy conversation with a lively minded liar to a Coleridge-style buttonholing by a certified maniac.
Tears in his beard, the old reporter pulled himself back together, obviously drawing on some immense reservoir of will. He caught me by the elbow, and I was frozen. His touch had communicated to me the certainty that every word he spoke was the truth as he knew it.
"The carnage was awful. It drove technicians and soldiers alike mad. Nobody had predicted this. There was mutiny, rebellion, firefights and suicides in the command center, some pushing to continue the war, others to cease.
"I couldn't take sides. My mind was paralyzed. Instead, I dropped my rifle and fled, deeper into the enormous bunker.
"When I came to myself again, I was in a lab. Everyone there was dead, suicides. I slammed the door, locking myself in.
"There was an apparatus there. It was a time machine."
"Jesus!" I shook his hand off and looked around me for help in dealing with this madman, but everyone was busy getting drunk, except Pig, who was still blissfully snoring. I was on my own. "Atomic bombs, rockets, okay, maybe. A time machine, though. Do you expect me--"
"I don't expect anything. Just listen. As soon as I discovered what the device was--an experimental, one-way, last-ditch project that had never even been tried--I knew what I had to do.
"I wanted to live out most of the century again, up to the year the final war had broken out, so I set the machine for seventy years in my past, 1915. I figured I could hang on till my eighties. And the second decade of the century was early enough to start changing things.
"There were spatial settings as well. I put myself in New York. Instant transition, very elegant. There I stood, dressed all wrong, eighteen years old, the tears still wet on my face. But quite certain of what I had to do.
"Very quickly, I established myself as a reporter. It's amazing the scoops you can deliver when the future is an open book. Then I began systematically killing some very important people.
"Einstein was first. He had already published some papers of course, but I staged his death so as to discredit his work as much as possible. Travelling to Switzerland, I carried with me the government-issued poison the lab technicians had offed themselves with. I had grabbed it before entering the wayback. Traceless, efficient stuff. It was no problem to slip some into the coffee Einstein and I shared. I paid a Zurich orphan boy to report to the authorities that the 'Jewish pervert' had died during sex with him. Quite a remarkable scandal. No respectable scientist would touch his theories afterwards with a ten-foot pole."
"Walesa?" I half-heartedly quipped. He ignored me.
"After such an obvious target, I began working through a list of everyone who had had a hand in developing either atomic fission or rocketry.
"Bohr, Lawrence, Fermi, Dyson, Alvarez, Feynmann, Panofsky, Teller, Oppenheimer, Goddard, Sakarhov, the Joliot-Curies, von Braun, Wigner, Ley, Dirac-- I completely wiped the slate of history clean of most of twentieth-century nuclear physics. It was easier than I had ever dreamed. Those people were vital, indispensable geniuses. And so trusting. Scientists love to talk to reporters. I had easy access to almost anyone. The Army had taught me many traceless ways to kill, and I used them once my stock of poison ran out. It was pathetically simple. The hardest part was keeping my name clean, staying free and unimplicated. I visited the victims at night, usually at their homes, without witnesses. I misrepresented my employers, my name, my nationality. Oh, I was cunning, a regular serial killer. Bundy and Gacy had nothing on me, and I eventually beat their score. But for the salvation of the world!"
None of the names he had mentioned meant anything to me, except Einstein's, whom I recalled as a crazy Jewish physicist who had died in disgrace in Switzerland. I had to assume that they were real people though, and had been as pivotal as he claimed. "Why did you have to kill scientists, though? Why didn't you go the political route, try to change the political structures that led to war, or eliminate certain leaders?"
"Too much inertia. The politics had been in place for decades, centuries. The science was just being born. And it was the scientists' fault anyway. They deserved to die, the arrogant bastards, unleashing something they could barely comprehend or control like that, like children chipping away at a dam for the thrill of it. And besides, what difference would it have made if, say, I could have gotten someone different elected as president, or nominated as premier? Would Russia have gone democratic under someone other than Andropov, released its satellite nations, disengaged from Afghanistan? Bloody unlikely. But still, I didn't neglect politics. I reported favorably on the creation of the president's scientific advisory council that started under Roosevelt, and curried favor with its members. I wrote slanted stories ridiculing the notion of funding anything even remotely connected with rocketry or atomic power. Not that there were many such proposals, after the devastation I had wreaked. Of course, I kept killing off as many of the second-stringers as I could who had popped up to take the place of the missing geniuses.
"History remained pretty much as I remembered it, right up till the Second World War. Nuclear physics just didn't have much impact on life until the 'forties. But by the time Hitler invaded Poland, I was certain I had succeeded. There would be no atomic ending to that war. I had staved off the ultimate destruction of the earth.
"Naturally, my actions meant a huge loss of American lives in the invasion of Japan. Hundreds of thousands of extra deaths, all directly attributable to my intervention in history. Don't think I haven't thought about those men night after night, weighing their lives in the balance against those of the helpless civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and, later, every city on the globe. But the scale always tipped the same way. Atomic destruction was infinitely worse."
He was talking almost to himself now, more and more frantic, trying to justify his life, and my incomprehension meant nothing. By my side, Pig had stopped snoring.
"After the war, though, events really began to diverge from what I knew. It all slithered out of my control. The permanent American presence in a devastated Japan led to stronger support of the Chinese Republicans against Mao and his guerillas, resulting in their defeat. How could I know though that having the Americans on their Mongolian border would make the Russians so paranoid and trigger-happy? I couldn't be expected to predict everything, could I? The border incident that started your World War Three--a total freak accident! Out of my hands entirely! But what does a little global skirmish mean anyway? As long as there's no atomic bombs. And there's not, are there? You've never seen any, have you?"
I could only stare. He grabbed my shirtfront.
"I fucking saved your ass from frying," he hissed. "I'm bigger than Jesus! You all owe me, you suckers. I made your world--"
There was a shot, followed by screams and the sound of clattering chairs and shattering glasses. The time-traveler's hands loosened and he fell to the floor. Pig Bodine had my service revolver in his shaky hand. "My fucking Dad died in the invasion of Japan," said Pig.
"Bodine," I opined, "I think you've just killed God."
"This is war, man. Why should God get off free?"
We split fast from The Iron Stein before anyone could gather their wits to detain us. We found Sugarbunny and Viorica and shacked up in a safe spot till the show, which we thought it would be okay to attend, under cover of darkness. After all we had been through, it would have been a shame to miss it.
The Beatles played superbly, especially Pete Best on drums. The whole crowd forgot their J-Day jitters and began to groove. During their last number--a little ditty called "Tomorrow Never Knows"--I began to cry so hard that I missed all of the Supremes' set, and the opening notes of the King's "Mystery Train."
But Presley's singing made my world seem real enough again, and more important than ever before.
After the concert the four of us ambled off hand-in-hand through the nighted streets, lit only by the stars so impossibly high above, where no "rocket" bearing "atomic bombs" had ever trespassed, back toward the truck, now as empty of its four-color contents as my brain was of plans.
Yet somehow I felt content.
"Where to, boys?" asked Sugarbunny.
"The future," I said. "Where else?"
"Nyuck, nyuck," snuffled Pig. "How about tripping into the past? I'd like to be in that barn again."
"If you get the chance, please don't ever try it, Pig. Living in a world created by a moral idealist is bad enough. One made by an amoral hedonist--I can't even begin to imagine it."
The girls were puzzled. Pig sought to explain by goosing them simultaneously so they squealed. "Could it be worse, Tom? Could it be? Snurg, snarf, hyuck!"