Adam Padgett, Fiction

We had orders to relieve a battalion in our division at an outpost just above the 38th parallel. They had fought the Chinese like hell to defend the outpost and lost about sixty percent of their men. So we marched on a road that was dry and brown. The dirt would kick up into a light dust and the heat pressed through us as easily as light passes through glass. Our water supply had been running low. I had heard about soldiers refilling at rice paddies and contracting dysentery from the stagnant water—sick and bleeding out of ends one ought not to be bleeding from.

I was nineteen when I joined the army. Drove down to the office in Boone and signed the forms. I joined not for the promises of “seeing the world,” but I joined for country, for America, because General MacArthur and President Truman needed their countrymen to fight for her like she was some mistress these men couldn’t quit. I was twenty when the ship docked in Pusan, Korea in 1951. Back home, the Appalachians furrowed out into the distance like ocean waves, and as I stared at those odd, foreign hills in Korea, I wondered why they were so gray and jagged, as if angry about something. Never saw so much rice in my life. Hundreds of rice paddies, patched like quilts. I think it was nearly all they ate. The people out in the country looked poorer than poor. They went about, half-naked. They lived so dirty it nearly made you sick to look at them. Believe me, compared to these people, we lived like millionaires down in the holler.

I hadn’t ever killed anyone. I had killed livestock on the farm but never a person, not yet anyway. When I was young, my father fell from a ladder and broke his leg. My mother had gone to the Banner Warehouse to auction off what tobacco she could, and so my granddaddy came by to help on the farm. He decided to slaughter a sheep for us. Daddy would shove a blade into its neck and cut a wide opening and the bleed would be quick. But when Granddaddy did it, he took a hammer to the animal’s skull. The sheep stumbled as the old man hammered the wits out of it. When the animal didn’t die, he hit it again, the blow sounding like a wooden bat connecting with stone. The creature moaned a confused noise and the other sheep cried and scurried about at the brutality. The old man hit it again and again until it collapsed in the grass, bleeding through its nose and mouth and ears. I sobbed at the killing. I was a boy.

We would only sleep a few winks at a time, digging foxholes and stealing an hour here or there. A column of South Korean refugees passed us on the road from time to time. They smelled, just as I was saying, dirty. We stopped for a second and the medics looked at some of the refugees and wrapped injuries. The interpreters would try to console weeping mothers. I saw a Korean boy once, maybe thirteen, lying in tall wheat-like grass, holding his leg, stained with both crusted and wet blood. He was very quiet. I didn’t know the nature of his wound or whatever became of him, but I was impressed with how quiet he stayed, pitiful and pallid. Women carried children on their backs with a single sheet of white fabric wrapped around their torso and tied in front. The children’s rears hung in the fabric and against their mothers’ laced fingers as if sitting in a basket. I didn’t much care for the Koreans. To be truthful, I down right hated most. North or South didn’t matter. Regardless, those tiny babies were just about the most precious looking things you ever saw.

It was hard to tell the difference between the two, though. The North and South. We’d been told of northern spies hiding among the columns of their southern brethren, appearing, speaking, and behaving just the same. When we first arrived in Pusan, we heard stories of the North, of the ruthlessness and discipline. From the stories, I imagined the enemy as a fleet of robots made of iron, twenty feet tall with pincers for hands and lasers that shot from their eyes. Like something printed in Weird Tales.

The day wore on and we had been marching for several hours through rice paddies and by hills, thick with trees, with the looming sense that snipers could be hiding in them. Thankfully, we hadn’t heard a single shot. It was night. Private Malcolm Armstrong and I dug and shared a foxhole. He was white and Christian and joined the army just as I did. He had the thirst in him. For the frontline, I mean. Not the talkative type but when he did say something, we often talked about home, about girls: the ones waiting for us, and the ones we wished were waiting for us. He talked about his native Wyoming and the mountains there. I talked about my Appalachians and the trees so darkly green they nearly looked blue. And at times, the distance did turn them blue. It struck me how two people, born thousands of miles from the other, could experience life much in the same way.

Armstrong snuck a flask of whiskey, and we drank in the foxhole. With the bolt pulled and locked, I unloaded and reloaded the magazine of my M-1 carbine just to hear the click of it, a habit. We sat there for a while, not talking, and I felt the onset of numbness from the whiskey. Armstrong told me how he didn’t much care for the Negroes and how he resented our Negro sergeant and how the sonofabitch acted like he was a colonel. The sergeant had grown on me though, so I didn’t mind him, but I nodded as Armstrong told me all about it. His eyes were sunken and pale, and he told me about a woman named Rebecca. His favorite feature of hers was her milky white breasts when she showed them off in private moments. He asked me if I knew what he was talking about, and I said that I did. He asked me if I had a girl, and I said that I did. He asked what my favorite feature of hers was. I told him it was her privates in those moments. I regretted saying this as soon as I did.

A small village lay empty ahead of us with straw roof houses, some collapsed, a few burned, all abandoned. A line of twenty or so refugees passed by. No one was from the village. They carried and pushed all their belongings. They looked at us pitifully, people who’d lost just about as much as a person could possibly lose. The Koreans dressed in white garb, dirtied and turning gray. A few stopped, spoke to soldiers in their native tongue, and stood there with expressions of despair and supplication. So the battalion stopped to drink and wait for straggling soldiers to catch up while the South Korean soldiers in our battalion spoke to the refugees. Several seemed to be looking for supplies and maybe water, though we hadn’t much if any to give. The time neared noon. The sun arrived at that place in the sky where you couldn’t tell if it still rose or was now falling.

I sipped my canteen. Armstrong turned his up, drank a little, and then he had none. I had enough to wet my lips. To offer him some of mine would have only been out of politeness and maybe insult, so I did not. We stood and talked about the next rotation, what a pain the hill would be to climb, and how we were not looking forward to it.

Off a ways, a young man, a refugee, sat by himself, sitting on top of a pile of rubble, looking like a lost waif. He could’ve been fifteen years old or twenty. Hard to tell with these Koreans but he certainly looked younger than either of us. I pointed the kid out to Armstrong, and he didn’t seem to care. I had great suspicions of anyone in this desolate country who wouldn’t be bothered with something as basic and human as the company of another. I took it upon myself to talk to the young man and, as I neared him, he glanced at me, looking uneasy and distrustful. So, I waved in gestures no one would mistake for aggression. My carbine hung by its sling from my shoulder.

“Hello,” I said to the young man.

He said nothing.

I figured this to be as much as I would get out of him. He sat, crouched, knees to chest, and looked at me, brow furrowed from the bright sun, aware of me and my closing proximity. Once close enough, I reached out my hand to help him rise to his feet, though he just stared at my hand and then my face. A haversack lay at his feet. When I toed the opening, I could see a few cans and what looked like C-rations maybe acquired from troops elsewhere. The kid regarded the satchel in a very serious manner. I toed the bag again, and a grenade rolled out toward the opened flap and then stopped against my boot. I stared at it. For a moment I had the instinct to run, but the pin had not been pulled and so there was no cause for panic. Though, a grenade resting near one’s foot didn’t allow much in the way of relaxation. My hand eased toward the trigger of my carbine as I squatted to pick up the explosive. The kid watched me carefully and, once my fingers wrapped the wooden stock and my index rested on the trigger guard, the Korean raised his palms slowly and splayed his fingers.

I hollered over for help. Private Armstrong called for Lieutenant Colonel Davidson. I could hear Armstrong’s shouting and was pretty sure I could hear the Lieutenant Colonel say “do what?” Shortly thereafter Davidson came marching down with a few curious soldiers in his wake. He patted his flak jacket and produced a single cigarette from his pack of Lucky Strikes. He lit it and then drew on it as he approached me and the Korean. He asked me what happened. I lowered my carbine for a moment to hand him the pinned grenade. He held it in his hand as if weighing it, and nodded in understanding. He took the cigarette from his mouth. The smoke fogged around his head as he drew and exhaled again. He squatted, only feet from the Korean, and the Korean watched carefully as Lieutenant Colonel Davidson rummaged through the green haversack and produced a black revolver. Davidson examined it and rotated the cylinder and said it was a seven-shooter. He then removed the base pin and the cylinder, which was empty. He shook the haversack to the sound of bullets rattling at the bottom.

The lieutenant colonel dropped the cylinder and the revolver back into the bag, stood, and motioned for Private Pak, a South Korean soldier who could speak English very well. Davidson asked the refugee who he was and if he was a spy or a communist. After Pak translated, the refugee didn’t answer. The lieutenant colonel told him to empty his pockets and take off his shirt. Private Pak translated. The refugee immediately complied. A lighter and a pack of cigarettes, Luckies.

The four of us stood there for some time, no one saying anything to the other, just staring off at the distance, looking toward the hills as though answers lay there, in the same way people had for centuries all over the world, anyone who had ever lived near or among the mountains.

The lieutenant colonel looked at me and said, “You see that building over there?”

“That one there, sir?” I pointed at what looked like a house made of paper and hay.


“The one with the burnt roof, sir?”

“Yeah. The one with the burnt roof. Take him to the other side and shoot him.”

“Just shoot him?”

“This is a Soviet revolver, Russian, and that there”—he held the haversack open for me to see the brass-colored cartridges that had collected at the bottom like loose change—“is Soviet ammunition. So, yes. Just shoot him. If we turn him loose, he’ll be another gun shooting at us from the trees. We can’t take him with us. So, shoot him.” He said this, then he turned, left, and spoke with one of the other privates about matters that I could not hear.

The refugee looked up, watched everyone leave, and then looked at me, gathering that I was now his caretaker. The interpreter had not translated the part about shooting him, so therefore he had no idea that an order had been given. He motioned for his cigarettes, and I picked them up and handed them to the kid. He pocketed the pack, save for the one he put in his mouth, and then he motioned for the matches. I picked up the box and removed a single match and lit the cigarette for him, holding the flame so that he could smoke what would be his last. I gestured with my carbine where I wanted the kid to go. We marched toward the small house, one of the few still standing.

Behind the house was the top of a short but steep embankment. At the bottom of this embankment was a very shallow river, maybe only a few feet deep from my best figuring. The water moved but only just. It hadn’t rained in some time, and the ground had dried and the mud seemed to curl at the cracks. As we approached the house, the man kept walking toward the water. He did so casually as if that was the direction we were headed all along. I began to yell at the kid, but he stopped, bent over toward the water and splashed several large handfuls over his face, head, and chest. I stood atop the embankment, looking down. The water from his splashings scattered, darkening the parched earth around him.

The refugee then stopped, turned, and looked at me as if maybe it was my turn to splash in the water. His eyes found mine. I wished that they hadn’t. I saw, again, the youth there. His skin was very dark, likely from long hours in the sun. For some reason, I wondered if he’d ever been in love. If he had ever touched a girl where boys dreamed of touching girls and, in that brief rumination, I lifted my carbine. I fired a few rounds near the boy, not aiming or even bringing the stock to my shoulder, maybe hoping those bullets would find the target on their own accord. My arms spasmed before the weapon ceased and wet dirt exploded in small clumps to the right of the young refugee. Silence after. A terrible shot. A terrible silence.

The kid jumped at the sound of the shots, and then his eyes widened. Suddenly the fog of languidness lifted, a clarity and clairvoyance in his eyes. He began jabbering senselessly. The jabbering then melted into sobs so that, even if it was English, the sounds would have been just as inscrutable as they were now. He held his hands up again in a gesture of surrender and held them near his face almost as a shield. I raised the weapon, properly this time, against my shoulder, my finger resting on the trigger. The kid then took off in a sprint down the river, perhaps thinking himself free or maybe just terrified, and as he ran with the wind pushing back his hair, I tried to will my finger to shoot, though it would not. Then, three shots cracked the air in slow succession, and on the third, the refugee’s limbs lifted into the air, as if in surrender, and then his run consequently ceased as his skull connected audibly with the earth.

Lieutenant Colonel Davidson stood on the road, having fired his Enfield at a considerable distance, ejecting the third spent shell. The battalion all stood there, watching and gazing thoughtfully at the sudden and brutal accuracy of the shots.

We hiked for most of a day, and by the time the light began to fade, we reached the outpost. Cement and wooden bunkers equipped with three times the artillery one would need for even a worst-case scenario. Mortar fire and bullet holes riddled the ground and sandbags, scars from the recent battle. Bodies lay lined on stretchers, soon to be loaded into jeeps to then be taken to Japan and then finally to their respective homes. A few, though, remained frozen in the position directly preceding their deaths. A Chinese soldier with a balloon of gray intestine exposed, jaw slack. An American with a pressure bandage wrapped around half of his head. There was a bloom of dark red where one would suppose his eye to be, though he was dead and there was no eye to save.

A few from our battalion collapsed in prostration from the heat. I felt as though the pressure from the sun would nearly kill me and so, for the moment, I feared the sun more than the Chinese or North Koreans hiding on distant hills. We sat and refilled our canteens from jerricans of water and recovered our strength. Once we did, we helped load the bodies. All the injured had been transported to Japan already, and now the dead remained the final priority.

When the last of the jeeps left, I looked at the view of the low lands and could see for several miles until the ridge on the other side truncated the view. The Negro sergeant stood beside me, unannounced, and started talking to me about how the Chinese built this fan-shaped system of trenches and bunkers. I nodded along, not listening much to what he had to say. The two of us stood there a while, and as the wind caressed the hairs across my arms, I tried to imagine that somehow these mountains were the same ones back home and that I was there, but no matter how hard I imagined, I couldn’t buy fully into the fantasy. The sergeant patted my shoulder and said, “I wouldn’t’ve done it neither,” and then walked away.

A few weeks went by, and I didn’t speak to Private Armstrong very much. As reports came in, it looked as though an armistice wouldn’t be coming as soon as we had thought. While the outpost remained largely quiet, I spent a good deal of time unable to get that kid out of my head. The manner in which he fell. The sounds. I have revisited that particular memory so many times now, I am not sure which details I remember and which I have invented.

My granddaddy’s granddaddy had fought briefly in the War Between the States. He marched as far north as Roanoke before abandoning his battalion and hiding in the mountains. He’d become an outlier and stayed that way until the war ended. A rich plantation owner’s war, is what he apparently called it. Not his. He hadn’t seen any sense in shooting down his fellow countrymen for the big ideas of a few. The world, it seemed, was a beast forever intent on eating itself, but those sorts of things, I figured, always came and went in these senseless cycles. Maybe the only sense to be made of it were the cycles themselves.

Winter was coming. In the cold, there was less fighting and the outpost would be an easy defense, for a time anyway. Soldiers spoke of how the snow would fall here and that it would rise several feet like it did in the Midwest or in the Appalachians, and those from the western deserts or the Southern states spoke about the snow as something to look forward to because they had never seen such a thing and, if they had, it sure wasn’t often. A drop. I felt it on my cheek. The rain fell in tiny pellets and, if it were cold enough, those pellets would turn to white powdery flakes. The rain fell heavier and heavier until it fell in sheets. The water hammered the dirt, it hammered those hills and it hammered and hammered. Trying to correct the losses of the drought, to correct the wrong. Though it wouldn’t. The water would be too much and then there would be flooding and then, when the flooding was over, the weather would turn cold and harsh, never allowing a true equilibrium, a stasis. The world would come close but would always shift and never allow itself to be as sure-footed and wholesome as we once believed it could be, as dumb simple-minded children.