Errata Literary Magazine

Bucks County Writers Workshop

All the Way to Hungnam
by Jules C. Winistofer

As the Wissahickon Creek winds its way through Fairmount Park, along Lincoln Drive on its way to join the Schuylkill River, it passes under the Henry Avenue Bridge whose graceful stone arches curve gently downward, ending in massive concrete abutments.

Eleven-year-old Melvin Cash saw the man sitting on a big rock at the edge of the creek. One end of a string was tied to the top of a pole he held, the other end to a bob that dangled about six inches above the water's surface. A dry twig snapped under Melvin's foot; the man turned in the boy's direction, tilting his head back as if testing the air for a scent.

"Hey mister," said the boy, "you ain't gonna catch no fish with that rig; there ain't even a hook in the water." He paused. "My name is Melvin, what's yours?"

"They call me Shadow, and I'm not tryin' to catch anything."

"Yeah? That don't make no sense."

"I don't eat fish, and I won't kill 'em if I'm not going to eat them. I relax and think that's all. Man is the only animal that kills for sport; all of the other animals kill only for food to survive."

"Yeah?" Melvin said, not grasping the meaning. "I still think it's silly for anybody to do make-believe fishin'."

Melvin moved a little closer and sat down on the rock, near the man. Shadow snapped his head in the boy's direction, staring with sightless eyes. "Can't you see anything?" Melvin tried to sound concerned, not just idly curious. "Only shadows; bright sunlight seems to shut everything down. I see better at night. Maybe I'm becoming an owl, do you think?"

The contrived humor evoked a polite chuckle. "I ain't seen you around here before." Melvin's head was bursting with questions, but before he settled on the one to ask first, Shadow stood up, looking as though he were going to leave.

"Where do you live?" the boy asked.

"Oh, not far from here. C'mon, I'll show you where I live."

"That's OK, we can talk here," Melvin said, glad that the guy couldn't see the look on his face: the one brought on by years of his mama's warnings about talking to strangers.

Shadow took a few cautious steps, as a man discerning only the barest minimum of imagery. He waited for the boy to speak. With a child's innocence, Melvin asked, "Why do they call you Shadow? Did you get blind in the Nam War?"

"No, the Korean War - the forgotten war. The American people hated our soldiers who fought in Vietnam and were openly hostile to them when they came home. When the soldiers returned from Korea, it was kind of like nobody gave a damn, like they didn't even exist."

"I seen about it on a TV show wunst, but I din't really pay much attention. Tell me about it Shadow."

"Well, the Gooks had beat us back bad from the Yalu River."

"Who was the Gooks?" Melvin asked.

"The Chinese and what was left of the North Korean Army in that area."

The boy knew his mama would not like calling people Gooks even if they was the bad guys here. He wasn't sure he wanted to hear more, but his curiosity prevailed and he asked, "What happened next?"

"Some twenty thousand U.S. Marines and Army infantrymen were surrounded near the Changjin Reservoir; I was one of them. We had to fight our way to the port of Hungnam, over a hundred miles away, for evacuation. I remember, the retreat started December 8th, 1950."

"Was you a Marine or an Army guy? Is the way you got the name Shadow because you got blind in the war and you can only see shadows now?"

Shadow was annoyed by the interruption but jumped back into the narrative. "I was an Army guy, and I was assigned to a rear guard battalion. It was our job to fight a delaying action to protect the rear of our retreating army. At every bend in the road, we set up in a position hidden to the enemy. When he made the turn, we were waitin' for 'em. We fired our bazookas point blank; sometimes the tanks were so close we could see the drivers' eyes through the little slot in the front. Usually we blew off a track. The crippled tank blocked the road, and we'd fall back to the next position. Sixty miles from Hungnam, the terrain got very rough: a lot of rocks, hills, ditches. The brass decided that we could move faster across the frozen lake we had pulled up to. It was fifteen miles long and pointed right at Hungnam. The flat surface afforded no natural barriers for protection, but the threat of tanks was eliminated because the enemy feared the ice would not support their massive weight. It snowed like crazy, but the sun was bright as hell. By dusk on the fourteenth, I couldn't see a damn thing. I had to walk holding a line tied to the guy in front of me. 'Snow blindness,' the medic said."

Melvin had never heard anything like this before. At least nothing that was true, not just made up for some crummy TV show.

"During the night, when we were about seven miles onto the surface of the lake, another huge blizzard blew in from the north. The Gooks must have known it was coming, because they didn't even follow us onto the lake. They didn't have to. We had more trouble fighting the snow and the cold than we had fightin' the enemy. By morning, thousands of men were on their backs with their arms and knees pointing into the air. They had frozen to death while crawling, and the wind had rolled them over onto their backs. They just lay there, pointing at the sky like grotesque, frozen cattle - as far as the eye could see. Funny thing was, the tops of their heads were all pointin' toward Hungnam. It looked like, if they were rolled back over onto their hands and knees and thawed out, they would'a just kept on crawlin' - all the way to Hungnam."

Shadow leaned forward, straining to see across the creek, almost losing his balance. "Yeah, as far as the eye could see. Most were wearing the same summer fatigues they came there with back in July. Many had no winter gear at all. A few of them, with buddies in quartermaster outfits, scrounged parkas or winter hats. Most of the soldiers were draped with a poncho or blanket and had rags tied around the outside of their uninsulated boots. They reminded me of George Washington's ragtag army. Yeah, it was an honest-to-god disgrace."

Shadow pulled a large, white hanky from a back pants pocket and executed a noisy, wet honk. He fumbled at the chain around his neck and removed it over his head, using both hands. Melvin spotted the little, silver colored tag that dangled from a hole through which the chain passed. Shadow pushed the tag toward the boy's face so he could examine it. In the waning daylight, Melvin squinted to read the cold, little characters coined into the lusterless, hard surface: "Shadow, Tyrone Jefferson, Sergeant, U.S. Army, S/N 29876534."

"Wow! Your name gots nothin' to do with you bein' almost blind. It's OK if you fooled me Shadow, but it ain't really funny."

Melvin wondered if all them guys was scared when they was freezin' to death. No, the Gooks tryin' to shoot 'em in the back had to be worse. Anyway, they was all really brave, he thought.

Then, as though needing the man to deny death itself, he said, "Shadow, I bet you ain't scared of nothin' - not even dyin'."

"You'd lose that bet, Melvin. My greatest fear is getting rolled back over onto my hands and knees, thawing out, and having to crawl the rest of the way to Hungna-a-a-a-m." His final words trailed off in a ragged, wheezy voice, leaving the boy alone and terrified in advancing darkness as nighttime noises moved closer.

Trembling, Melvin barely saw the crude fishin' rod that lay close to his feet on the big rock.

Bucks County Writers Workshop