Authors: Gus Lee
“DEEPLY MOVING … The novel rises to an astonishing power … and confronts issues that trouble many Americans today, including how they feel about their country.… It stands up to the best of Amy Tan for insights into the Chinese community in this country and its emotional tug-of-war among generations.”
The San Diego Union-Tribune
“OVERPOWERING … PHILOSOPHICALLY RICH … A PLEASURE … It has been a long time since anyone has wrestled as profoundly with what we owe family, friends and institutions.… Kai Ting earns his peace dearly; he is a classic hero.”
New York Daily News
“WONDERFUL … ALLURING … Gus Lee churns a great story.… Pages melt away like ice in springtime. An environment few readers have experienced quickly feels familiar as a favorite old pair of jeans.”
“ENTHRALLING … Confirming the promise of his first novel,
, Lee has produced another insightful, moving tale…[and] fashions a convincing first-person narrative in Kai’s voice, skillfully drawing the reader into each of his young narrator’s painful dilemmas.”
Published by Ballantine Books
Copyright © 1994 by Gus Lee
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States of America by Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.
Grateful acknowledgment is made to the following for permission to reprint previously published material:
Paul Simon Music
: Excerpt from
“The Fifty-ninth Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)” by Paul Simon, copyright © 1966 by Paul Simon.
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 92-42711
ebook ISBN 978-0-8041-5170-2
This edition published by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
The sad things that happened long ago will always remain part of who we are … but instead of being a burden of guilt, recrimination, and regret that make us constantly stumble … even the saddest things can become, once we have made peace with them, a source of wisdom and strength for the journey that still lies ahead. It is through memory that we are able to reclaim much of our lives that we have long since written off by finding that in everything that has happened to us over the years God was offering us possibilities of new life and healing which, though we may have missed them at the time, we can still … be brought to life by and healed by all these years later.
United States Military Academy, West Point, July 1, 1964
It was the most beautiful morning in my life. A warm and gentle breeze caressed my face and rustled my shirt as I walked up the winding river road toward West Point. It was late dawn of Reception Day for a thousand men and boys. No one wanted to be here more than I. Sunlight glittered on the Hudson and birds trilled in deep green oaks and maples as I followed the stone wall of Thayer Road to the beat of my pounding heart. I swung the suitcase to the lilt of imaginary bagpipes and the murmur of distant drums. The bag, filled with my worldly goods, was light. I was going to trade it and my past for a new life. I wanted to be the first to report.
An imposing array of tall, granite towers and stark, gray battlements came into view. Their majestic austerity consumed my vision with each nearing step. I inhaled history. After all the years of hope, I was here. This was America’s Hanlin Academy, its Forest of Pens, designed by Washington, built by Jefferson. It was the object of my father’s desire; here I would fulfill his dreams. The outline of spires seemed to be etchings from his spiritual blueprint, in which I was the human ink.
The grand oaks whispered sibilantly, carrying away my father’s expectations. For a precious, golden moment, West Point was my dream. I heard the paratrooper captain from the Academy entrance exams say, “West Point is a school in the mountains and the clouds. There, at the River and the Rock, young men are bound to each other not by hopes of fame but by pledges to honor. A West Pointer is an honest man, all his life. He always strives to do the right thing.”
I was seventeen and thirsted for redemption from more wrongs than I could admit. The air was different, and I paused. American flags waved softly, and I imagined the yellow pennons
of the Ch’ing emperors snapping across the years of history in the face of gritty Manchurian winds. I saw the great Chinese military hero Guan Yu and his red face and barrel chest. I stood straighter, flexing the arms that had worked in a YMCA weight room for ten years, preparing for this day. I was strong and ready. I exercised one of my talents, learned only this year: I smiled from an inner pleasure. Sparrows whistled in high, five-note calls and a deep and distant buzzer rang. Heat came down and the earth began to warm.
A mile later, I obeyed the sign “Candidates Report Here.” I stood alone at the great doors to a gray-stoned building. A tall, silver-haired janitor with a badly scarred face stood with his mop and stared at me, a Negro elder studying a Chinese youth at the gateway to West Point. “Good luck to you, young man,” he said as I entered. “Thank you, sir,” I replied, warmed by his kindness.
The building was a vast gymnasium. I was processed through tables manned by straight-postured Army sergeants. I filled out an ID tags form (Ting, Kai/O-positive/religion: none), surrendered cash ($18.61), received inoculations, and did pull-ups. I could normally do fifty. Unnerved by the observing sergeants, I did forty-two, but I basked in their admiration. I was photographed in a jockstrap, which could not cloak my scoliosis, the curvature of the spine.
The candidate buses unloaded, and my status of being the first was lost. The reminder, in echoing tones, of a five-year service obligation after graduation, induced a few to leave, beginning a process of attrition that would last for over three years. The grim words invited me to belong to something honorable; there was no going back. We were briefed on the oath of service and directed to Central Area. I was the only Chinese I saw.
As we left with our bags to meet our fates, the sergeants gazed at us as if we were boys instead of projections of parental ambition. The Negro janitor and I exchanged a glance. He was solemn, as if he were saying farewell to someone he knew. I nodded, appreciating his presence, wishing he knew that I had been raised as a Negro youth, knowing that, for an American, I always dipped my head too low in deference to China.
We stepped into the bright and angry flare of a day that was now alarmingly hot. The heat broiled my skin. I was entering a huge quadrangle filled with a deep, primitive roar of voices.
A breathtakingly immaculate cadet awaited me. He thrust his
intensely focused features directly into my face and I jerked Man—too close! “Hi,” I gulped, “my name’s Kai and—”
“DROP THAT BAG!” he roared, and I recoiled as my unguarded mind took his angry words like punches to the head. I gaped as my smarts fled before this
, bad omen. I placed my luggage at my feet. Others began to drop their bags in small “whaps” across the Area.
“PICK IT UP!” the cadet screamed, then bellowed, “DROP THAT BAG!” I winced as the bag smashed onto the concrete: it contained my father’s carefully preserved Colt super .38 automatic pistol. “PICK IT UP!” I picked it up, faster. “DROP THAT BAG!” I dropped it. “PICK IT UP!” I recovered it before the “UP!” I had become a human marionette, bobbing at my master, disarmed by the emotion.
“MISTER!” the cadet shouted. “YOU WILL IMMEDIATELY EXECUTE THE COMMAND GIVEN. DO YOU UNDERSTAND?!”
“Yes,” I said, voice quavering, eardrums ringing.
“MISTER! You have THREE ANSWERS: ‘YES, SIR,’ ‘NO, SIR,’ AND ‘NO EXCUSE, SIR.’ DO YOU UNDERSTAND?!”
“Uh, yes, sir,” I said, politely.
He was impeccable in a starched white shirt with blue, gold-striped shoulder epaulets; a bright, black-visored, snow-white cap; razor-sharp, black-striped gray pants; brilliant shoes; and advertising-quality white gloves. His name tag said “Rice,” a name I liked. I had never seen anyone so marvelously perfect.
“I CANNOT HEAR YOU, SMACKHEAD!” he bellowed, as if I were back at the hotel rather than an inch from his clanging tonsils.
“Yes, sir,” I said, pupils and testicles contracting.
“POP OFF, MISTER! KNOCK YOUR EQUIPMENT TOGETHER! YOU SOUND LIKE A WEEPING GIRL! DO YOU HEAR ME?! DROP THAT BAG!” he screamed.
“YES, SIR!” I cried, wincing at my own voice, the bag slapping the concrete. His face filled my vision. Uncle Shim believed that shouting was for thoughtless men. To my mother, shouting was a mortal sin. A street ditty inanely ran through my addled brain:
Step on a crack, break yo’ momma’s back.
Yell at her face, lose all yo’ grace.
“BRACE, MISTER! You are CROOKED! PUSH that neck IN! KEEP YOUR EYES
THAT NECK BACK! MAKE WRINKLES IN YOUR CHIN! CRAM IT IN!
YOUR SHOULDERS BACK!
OUT THAT PUNY, BIRDLIKE CHEST! HEELS TOGETHER, FEET AT FORTY-FIVE DEGREES! ELBOWS IN! THUMBS BEHIND THE SEAMS OF YOUR TROUSERS! KEEP YOUR HEAD STRAIGHT! ROLL YOUR HIPS UNDER! How old are you, SMACKHEAD!?”
I balked. He had almost spit in my face. “Se-seventeen,” I said. Ten years in the ring spoke to me: take your stance, gloves high, and box this bully with the Godzilla voice. It was an old tune: China boy trips in and bingo from the jump, it’s Fist City.