Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Chapter 9. The Cannibal Ambulance

Transportation was always a thing, juggling the vehicles and getting enough gasoline. For example, once when one Eighth Army Commanding General rotated back to the States, he ordered himself a huge parade in his honor. They used up so much gasoline that half our vehicles were grounded for a month to make up the deficit. But even in normal times getting a jeep was a problem. I don't mean for leisure use. I mean for work. When I would go to Seoul on a weekend off, I would take an army bus. Some guys made a big deal about being officers with their jeeps and drivers, but actually it was a pain trying to snag a grouchy private to spend his weekend off driving you around. Anyway, you could be more independent and inconspicuous on the bus.
But the bus didn't go to all the places where I had to go for work. I would gladly have bought a bicycle in the Vill, but officers couldn't ride bicycles in uniform. I guess it wouldn't have looked nice. So between sharing the jeep, mooching rides, catching the bus, and just using feet, I managed to get around most of the time.
One day Sergeant Duffy thought he found the answer to our problem when he drove up in front of the office in an ambulance. It was not quite army green, lacked markings of any kind, and leaned slightly to the left. It was beautiful in its simplicity, al least it seemed so in our eyes.
"Its nice. We can sure use it. But where'd you get it."
"From Squeaky, Sir."
"Squeaky in the motor pool. He sold it to me for twenty dollars and thirty five cents."
"Sold it? Doesn't it belong to the Army?"
"Not really. You see Squeaky made it by cannibalizing parts from vehicles that were earmarked for the scrap heap anyway. It took him three months, but he's real smart, that Squeaky is. He can put anything together. If you give him the parts, I'll bet he could make an atomic bomb."
"Why twenty dollars and thirty five cents?"
"That was all I had in my pocket."
"Isn't that kind of cheap?"
"Well, old Squeaky doesn't have any use for it. He just likes to cannibalize things and put them together, and it didn't cost him anything."
"Something has to be wrong. This is too good to be true. There has to be something wrong."
I was just getting used to the idea of regular transportation, when along came Major Fratelli, the Division Surgeon, and we presented the ambulance to him, all bubbling with enthusiasm. Fratelli stared at it, churned the idea in his head, and said, "We have to get rid of it."
"Why? We need it for work, not for fun.
"But it's not authorized. Officially, it doesn't exist."
"You can't have something that doesn't officially exist. That's the way it is in the Army. You have to get rid of it."
"It's not fair. Last Fall, Eighth Army burned up a month of our fuel supply just make a parade for the General. But Duffy here buys a vehicle with his own money which his friend made with his own ingenuity out of parts which were going to be thrown away anyway, and that's no good because it doesn't fit into the master plan. My grandfather came to America poor, went into the junk business and made a living out of it. That was the beginning of my family in America, my origins. That's free enterprise. What's the matter with the Army? Is it Communist?"
"It may not be fair or practical or laissez-faire, but if you guys don't get rid of that thing, we're going to get in trouble. So get rid of it. I don't care how or where. Just get rid of it."
Sergeant Duffy spent the next few days looking all over for a customer. Squeaky wouldn't take it back, let alone refund the twenty dollars and thirty five cents. Every sergeant in the Seventh Infantry Division was approached, but not one would touch the thing with a ten foot pole. I tried the Division Chaplain. Chaplains are notorious scroungers. They sometimes can get away with stuff that the rest of us can't because they're the only ones who can claim to listen to a higher authority than army manuals or whatever it is that constitutes military dos and don'ts. But even the holy men couldn't figure out what to do with it.
All seemed hopeless until Saturday night when Duffy, five days short of payday, took his last thirty five cents to the Vill to get drunk and forget about the "damn Ambulance." He passed through the gate, across the highway, over the railroad tracks, and down into the Vill, that is the honky tonk end of town near the gate that catered to the G.I.s. At the main street he turned right. All the Black bars were to the right, and the White ones were to the left. Even here there was segregation. Duffy wandered into his favorite haunt, Freddy's Detroit Bar.
"I only got thirty five cents. What you got that'll get me drunk for thirty five cents?"
"Oh, thirty five cents. That not lot a money. You not even change money to Korean. Cost me extra to change scrip. But I have for you something. Old woman in Vill make. Whole bottle cost thirty three cents, scrip. You still have two cents."
The stuff looked murky and tasted like it was intended for an internal combustion engine rather than a human stomach, but it did the job so that one third of the way down the bottle, Duffy saw the world differently.
At that point, appeared one Suzy, princess of Freddy's Detroit Bar. At least, that's what they used to call her. Her father had been a hero, a giant Black soldier who was disintegrated by an artillery shell on some ridge during the Korean War shortly after Suzy's conception. Her mother was a young Korean business girl who was strangled in a room behind the Detroit Bar by a disgruntled American customer, leaving Suzy an orphan to be raised by Freddy (his real name was Kim Cho Lee) and his business girls. She knew no other life, no other place. She was condemned to this life by her inheritance and her environment. She had no other opportunity. Suzy, at fourteen years of age, was already a big girl, almost six feet tall, the image of her father, with only her mother's Korean eyes and straight black hair. She wore a tight sweater that accentuated her abundant muscles and fat as well as two huge pendulous breasts. Her micro-miniskirt exposed thighs that could have supported the Parthenon. Who's to say what is beautiful? To Duffy she was gorgeous, especially after a few snorts of Freddy's brew.
"Duffy, you buy me drink. We go hootchie. Do something."
"Suzy baby, you're welcome to share my bottle."
"You crazy? I no drink that shit! You no like me. You want poison me."
"But baby, I spent all my money. I only got two pennies left 'til next pay day."
"Duffy baby, you nice guy. But I no work for nothing. Five dollar all night. Two dollar one time. You no have two dollar, goodbye Suzy."
"But Suzy baby, I need you and I need you now, 'cause I'm really low. I got this problem and I'm really low."
"Duffy baby, I do free just for fun, I no eat. You got two dollar, we do something. No two dollar, we no do something."
"How about we do it tonight, and I pay you when I get my money on pay day."
"How I know you pay me?"
"I can give you collateral."
"What you mean?"
"I have an ambulance. That's what I spent my money on. I'll give you the ambulance to hold until pay day."
"You crazy? What I do with ambulance? I no doctor."
Freddy behind the bar was listening to this entire conversation, absorbing it, processing it in his head, and finally breaking in with, "Suzy, Sergeant Duffy good customer. I trust him. Sergeant, you bring ambulance now and take back when you get money. But, you do something now, pay later, like loan from bank. You pay interest. You do Suzy all night, ten dollar. You pay five dollar interest, so you pay fifteen dollar."
"Freddy, you're a crook."
"Freddy just good business man."
Duffy agreed. What else could he do? He ran back to the post, and drove the ambulance out the gate in a rush, claiming that he had an emergency patient that needed to get to the MASH right away, so that the guard neglected to note the lack of markings on the vehicle. He proceeded over to the Detroit Bar where the deal was concluded. By now it was almost the midnight curfew, but Duffy didn't go back to the post until long after the gate opened the next day. He spent the night with Suzy, enjoying the fruits of his bargain.
Duffy returned on pay day, fifteen dollars in hand.
"Freddy, you crook. Here's my money. Give me my wheels."
"My wheels! The ambulance, you dumb slope!"
"Oh, ambulance. No have ambulance. Slicky boy come in night. Take ambulance. Sergeant, you keep fifteen dollar. My loss."
Duffy grabbed Freddy by the collar. What do you mean your loss, you honky slope crook? I paid twenty dollars and thirty five cents for that ambulance, and it's worth a lot more than that!"
"No be so mad, Sergeant. Freddy can fix problem. You say true, I owe you ambulance or twenty dollar and thirty five cent scrip. You owe me fifteen dollars won. So, I must count."
Freddy wrote in the air as though he were computing some complex mathematical formula. He appeared to make a mistake, slurping with his mouth, erasing in the air, and then writing again. Finally, the calculations were completed. "Twenty dollar, thirty five cent ambulance cost, take away fifteen dollar Suzy cost, leave five dollar, thirty five cent scrip. Cost me four dollar change fifteen dollar scrip to won. I give you one dollar, thirty five cent scrip. Then we O.K."
"Hell no, you cheat! It don't cost any four dollars to change fifteen dollars!"
"Police very careful now. Very dangerous to change money now. Freddy can go jail."
"By this time, Duffy was getting tired of the haggling, and two tough looking associates of Freddy sitting at a table in the corner were starting to appear edgey. So Duffy took the dollar and thirty five cents and left.
Some time later a freshly painted white ambulance appeared in Tongduchon. The rumor that floated around was that Freddy worked out a deal with a local clinic, the ambulance in exchange for two hundred dollars worth of V.D. checks on his girls.

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