At the end of last month Eric Alagan posted a 55 word challenge inspired by an image of a lioness and cub on his blog ‘Written Words Never Die’ http://ericalagan.net/ One of Eric’s 55 word pieces stimulated an active discussion about the roles of men and women in national leadership. This story, set in 1967, comments on the Vietnam War. I offer it as a general observation on fighting and war which you might find just as relevant today.
The sisters walked along a deserted shore in a place they thought to be close to paradise. They looked so alike that no-one would have guessed Evelyn to be two years older than the twenty-year old Renee. Their brown hair, lean sun tanned bodies, skimpy khaki shorts and white tops blended with hues of the beach while their colorful Greek tote bags echoed the brilliance of the ocean. In their carefree walk they swung the totes crammed with provisions for the day: towels, sun lotion, books, feta, bread, fruit and bottled water. Their toes felt the warmth and texture of the fine sand, and they gazed at clear blue waters enjoying being together in un-tampered nature.
They had come a long way to attain this treasured moment of August 1967. Over a month ago, carrying only knapsacks and a Blue Guide, they left their home under the chilly overcast grey skies of London to fly to the brilliant blue over sun-soaked Athens. Then, they nobly braved the Greek mainland heat, visiting such required sights as: Olympia, Mycenae, Delphi and the Acropolis itself. At last they escaped the torpid Greek mainland and boarded a ferry to savor the cool breezes of the Aegean Sea and magical Greek islands rising, welcoming, out of ocean mists: Santorini, Mykonos; and Delos. Finally they boarded a last ferry which dropped them off at Heracklion the capital of Crete. After they visited the Minoan palace at Knossos they followed the Blue Guide’s recommendation and boarded a rickety local bus for a two hour trek to this tiny port on the South coast. The Blue Guide spoke of pristine beaches where one could legally sunbathe nude and this is what they intended to do.
Both were acutely self conscious and so they decided to walk the beach towards its rocky horizon to find a discrete deserted spot for their enjoyment. An absence of Cretans and tourists pleased them, for the sight of a naked man would have been a new experience which they did not want and would probably have sent them into ignominious retreat. They both savored the sense of peace given by the lapping waves whose pulsating glisten had an ethereal intensity they had never seen before. Seabirds called overhead and ran along the shore line digging for worms, the girls skipped in their path. A light land breeze still blew from the craggy shore carrying the smell of olive groves and gardens to blend with the salt and sea as it lifted their hair in gentle caress. Although early, the warm sun teased their skin with a promise of tanning warmth to be experienced along with the cooling embrace of the waves.
Towards the end of the beach where a rocky outcrop jutted seaward in a halo of crashing waves they found a small cove, “This place should do,” said Evelyn. Renee nodded as she dropped her tote on the soft sand. They brought out their towels and sat to enjoy the place, and absorb its ambiance while they delayed the moment of undressing. Then they, hesitatingly, removed their tops, shorts and bikinis. Their young bodies bore white marks where their bikinis had previously given protection. At first glance they looked as though they wore white undergarments. They aspired to tan themselves into uniform gold, bodies good enough to compete with Europa and make love with Zeus to sire the Minoan dynasty. Or perhaps, as they did not think of seduction, bodies worthy of the Garden of Eden, for they only thought of the bliss of solitude, sun, sand and sea. Both felt mildly embarrassed and unaccustomed to their lack of clothing, and so they ran into the warm waters and dived into its azure immersing-coolness to hide their nakedness in the waves. The salt teased their lips while the water fondled their bodies. They did not speak for their ecstasy mounted too profound to rupture with human voices. When they were cool and tired of the water, they emerged from its concealing depths to hurry to their towels on the sandy shore. As they settled themselves down they looked around to further their joy at the beauty of their Eden.
“Are those ships out there? Your eyesight is better than mine. What do you see?” asked Renee as she gazed out across the bay.
Evelyn followed her look towards the horizon while she put on suntan oil. “Yes, I think so, but they are a long way off. They look like war ships,” she said “You know, as I squint at them I think that they are war ships.
Renee looked alarmed, “What an intrusion, who would have war ships in this location?”
“Do you think that they might be American? They have bases all over Europe and they have a war going on in Vietnam.”
Renee’s alarm was increasing, “No, this is awful. We came all this way for peace and solitude and there are war ships lurking off shore. War ships taking troops to fight in some remote tropical jungle. I hate it.”
Evelyn smiled weakly, “Well, we are here now and they are a long way off so let’s make believe that they are the islet of Volakas, the stone which the blinded Cyclops Polyphemus hurled against Ulysses. That’s less threatening than war ships and The Blue Guide says that it is visible off the south coast of Crete.”
Renee was still pouting, “It is all wrong. I had hoped for Dolphins like the ones painted on the walls of Knossos.” Her brown eyes wistfully scanned the waves for a glimpse of leaping bodies.
Evelyn was determined to reestablish utopia and said, “It is still idyllically beautiful on this beach, and they, and their fighting are so far away that we can still have our paradise. Let’s forget them.” Renee looked at her older sister and nodded. With this reassuring thought they both lay glistening on their towels dozing in the sun’s warmth. Later they stirred and bathed again and then they brought forth their provisions and ate.
As Renee bit into her tart green apple; she had a prickly sensation, the inexplicable physical sensation of being observed. Her skin tingled and told her, “You are being watched and not by shore birds or indigenous Caretta-Caretta sea turtles but by people, probably male.” She wondered if this was the feeling that Adam and Eve had experienced in the Garden of Eden when the Lord God walked in the cool of the garden discerning their nudity revealed by forbidden fruit. She sat and gazed around the cove. She saw nothing threatening apart from the distant war ships. The cove remained a spread of empty sand with waves lapping peacefully on the shore while the sea birds hunted for worms. The sun beat hot and reassuring. But, the uncanny sensation persisted and so she turned to her sister for reassurance. “Evelyn, it is weird, but I feel, I almost know, that we are being watched.”
“There is no-one,” said Evelyn shaking her brown curls, but then, she too began to get the prickly feeling of violation. Their senses heightened by fear and adrenaline they looked all around and listened intently. It was then that they heard a faint rustle behind them, and turned to see the peeping Toms, many peeping Toms. Clad in soldier’s fatigues, they stood in the dunes behind a barbed wire fence which the girls had hitherto not seen. They passed binoculars between them and seemed in high spirits. In their quick glance the girls saw someone waving and a voice shouted, “Want some fun?” These words destroyed their slice of eternity. Trembling, they pretended to ignore what they heard and saw, and dressed fast. They gathered their belongings and walked, almost ran, without enjoyment back to the small port. Now the soft sand burnt their feet, the broken shore shells cut their soles, the seabirds wailed overhead, the waves broke louder on the shore seeming to laugh at their retreat and they could hear a dog barking among the dunes.
Only two buses a week connect that remote port to Heracklion, which obliged the girls to cope with their emotions and stay the weekend. They spent the afternoon reading and recovering their self esteem in their tiny rented room. Its cavernous painted stone walls and exposed wood beams gave them a sense of protected enclosure. The smells of the port, fish, tar and salt mingled with the tropical blossoms wafted in through their window to soothe their spirits and reestablish their utopian idealism. A woman sang a Mikis Theodrakis melody in the courtyard, her voice crystal and mournful echoed off the white stone walls.
When evening came they felt renewed and bathed, donned light summer dresses to go outside. The cooler evening air, invigorated by a sea breeze felt good as the Tzitzikia insects moaned their tropical ‘tzit, tzit’ song in the trees. The girls inspected the port’s two restaurants which faced each other, one on each side of the street. They selected one, sat in the outside patio and ordered Ouzo and seafood mezedes. They mixed water with the anise flavored aperitif, and watched it cloud, white and milky. They sipped it slowly and nibbled the accompanying spicy mezedes. By the second round of Ouzo the final remnants of their nude sunbathing fiasco evaporated and they felt their normal selves. They ordered gyros and salad. They watched with amusement as the waiters scurried across the street between the two restaurants bringing some of their food from one side and some from the other. They finished their meal with small cups of sweet black “Greek” coffee and Baklava. They licked the sweet honey from their fingers, content again.
“This is the life,” said Evelyn. Renee nodded in assent.
“Yes, I think that this is as close to heaven as you can get on earth.”
While they ate the town came alive. Some young men hung a white sheet between two opposing houses forming a screen across the street and gradually the street’s occupants came out with chairs which they set in the road creating a makeshift cinema. The women wore colorful clothes and most carried knitting with them as they positioned themselves for their evening’s entertainment. The men carried Greek worry beads which they expertly flipped in their hands. The knitting needles and beads seemed to clip in gentle unison. A waiter told them, in broken English, that Saturday night is movie night. He also told them that, instead of their usual old movies, Nikos had been able to acquire an early release of the film The Dirty Dozen directed by Robert Aldrich. He told them that all were invited and so they decided to linger on and took their chairs out into the street to join the audience. The film had an English soundtrack with Greek sub titles. They watched the story unfold as the dirty dozen, with their lack of moral inhibitions, proved that a troop of society misfits probably better in jail: sociopaths, killers, rapists, fanatics and idiots, could outperform ‘normal’ soldiers with ‘normal’ inhibitions about killing their fellow men.
The street, now dark, except for the flickering screen seemed eerie and again the girls began to experience the sensation of being watched. Looking around they noticed that the audience was gradually increasing as silent men oozed into the makeshift cinema. They swarmed in like ants, coming over clay tile roofs, along the connecting white washed alleys and in through nooks and crannies between the white buildings. Even though the film depicted a threatening kind of soldier the girls felt a sense of protection in the security of the Cretan Greek audience and remained in their seats. They both privately wondered what would happen when the show ended. As the story climaxed in a final battle scene the audience heard a muffled, distinctly American, whisper “Military Police, MP’. The warning, repeated on all sides, ‘MP, ‘MP’. It sounded urgent and mournful. As quietly as the men had appeared they dissolved into the darkness, some running into the arms of the uniformed MPs but most evaporating as silently as they had emerged. They disappeared in less than ten minutes leaving the laden air electrified with their empty presence.
The film over, the girls climbed white washed exterior stairs to their room and went inside. They bolted their heavy hand-made wood door and even though it was hot closed their window for an additional sense of security. Half an hour later, when they felt more secure they opened the window and began to think about getting undressed for bed. It was then that they heard a noise, someone tapping on their door. They peeped through the keyhole taking turns to assess what they saw. A uniformed young man stood outside. He didn’t look like the dirty dozen soldiers; he looked like a terrified child in dress-ups.
“I’ve got to escape the MP. They are all around,” he urgently whispered through the door. His American twang seemed immature and unthreatening.
“No, I don’t think so,” said Renee.
Evelyn looked out through the keyhole. “Renee, he’s a boy. He looks so young, and there are two of us. He needs our help.”
The beseeching boy outside began to let tears roll down his cheeks. He looked not only youthful but pitiful and needy. “You are my only hope. I can’t let the MP catch me. There is one coming up the stairs,” he begged
Renee relented; he looked so young, so innocent. Her nurturing female instincts aroused and she quietly nodded agreeing with her bolder older sister. They unbolted and let him slip into their room. He barely looked at them or the room but sat on one of the two cots with his arms around his knees rocking himself. They both noticed his bitten nails and white effeminate hands. At first he said nothing. He sat, diminutive and vulnerable, shaking with fear. The girls proffered some Retsina in a plastic tooth mug, he accepted, still trembling.
“Shouldn’t drink,” he said as he winced at the resinous flavor of the wine.
“Not yet twenty-one.”
“It is allowed in Crete,’ said Evelyn as she made herself comfortable on the cot facing him.
“No one will know, we won’t tell,” said Renee as she drew up her knees on the facing cot next to Evelyn.
“Who are you?” said Evelyn
“Paul, Paul Shaw,” he stammered his blue eyes still focused on the ground.
“What are you doing in Crete?” said Renee.
“Nam. We are on our way to Vietnam. We ship tomorrow,” he said. “There’s an American base here. It is the final stop before we join the fighting.”
The girls wanted to know more, his age, where did he come from, what did he think about the war, his understanding of the war’s objective? He answered their personal questions. He told them his age; nineteen, his home; California, but he couldn’t tell them much about the war or the objective of the American battle. The girls knew little about politics but they had read about California’s Governor Ronald Reagan who had spoken against the war stating that the US should get out of Vietnam when “too many qualified targets have been put off limits to bombing.” Paul had no response to this event and, although from California, appeared to be unfamiliar with Governor Reagan. The girls noticed that any talk about the fighting disturbed him, but they pressed on.
“So you are considered too young to drink alcohol?”
“Yes, not until I’m twenty-one.”
“And the voting age is also twenty-one isn’t it?”
His young head, with its cropped blond stubble nodded, “Yes, that’s right twenty-one.”
The girls looked at each other then Evelyn spoke: “So, at home in that democratic country of yours you are considered too immature to be able to drink alcohol or vote and yet you are considered old enough to be conscripted to a war which you don’t understand and can’t win, in a place you don’t know.”
Paul nodded. They had summed up his situation. Renee went on, “It isn’t your fault, but I think that America shouldn’t be putting you guys in places like Crete either. Your presence here destroys the peace which America seems so dedicated to maintaining elsewhere on earth.”
Paul nodded in assent, “I agree, I don’t want this war, I don’t want to be here and I don’t want to go to Nam. I’m not alone; none of the guys want to go.”
The talk about war took on new meaning when they heard a boom outside. They immediately thought of guns, surely not guns? Paul began to tremble again. Evelyn opened the door and went outside. She leaned over the white washed stair rail and examining the night sky. She quickly came back in.
“There’s an MP at the end of the hall, so that’s bad. The boom is only distant thunder, so that’s good. I saw the lightening, there is a storm brewing,” she said. They waited as the storm approached and soon the air began to freshen and cool as tropical rain beat outside their window. Evelyn peeped out again. “The MP is gone; it must have been too wet for him.” Paul seemed atrophied and unable to move. At midnight the sisters looked knowingly at each other and Renee said, “It is getting very late. You cannot stay the night. The storm has almost passed the rain is gentle now.”
“I think that it is time for you to leave. Do you have some protection against the rain?” added Evelyn.
Paul shook his head. “No, all I have is these clothes.” He still looked defeated and diminutive, the sort of soldier who would be destroyed by war. The type that has moral inhibitions against killing, or worse just has inhibitions and so would probably be killed. They wanted to protect him, nurture him, like a younger brother. Evelyn pulled out her folded plastic rain poncho, one-size-fits-all. “Here, put this on, you may keep it,” she said. Paul accepted without comment and together they helped him put it on. Then they went outside and scouted the whitewashed corridor and stairs to the street to make sure of an “all clear” before they sent him into the rain.