Read Tornado Pratt Online

Authors: Paul Ableman

Tornado Pratt (23 page)

BOOK: Tornado Pratt
7.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

She was a fine woman, Horace, the finest I ever knew but we never did lay pressed together. When we next met, it took some time to re-establish cordial relations and the truth is she’d just gone over the top. When I’d first known her, she’d been a mature tiger, powerful in mind, with lithe limbs and rippling muscles. Embracing her then would have been embracing a ripe continent. But now her nose stuck out. She’d got that mite skinnier and bonier and—I just didn’t fancy her any more. She asked me, straight out, one night when we were at her place and I’d kissed her goodnight.

“You don’t want me any more?”

“Hell, Alex—”

“Just tell me.”

“Okay, I—okay, I guess it’s true. I can’t figure it out myself. That first evening, I wanted you more than I’ve ever wanted a woman.”

She looked at me for a long moment with a look that might
have been contempt, amusement or anguish and then she shrugged:

“You’ll call for me tomorrow? For the symposium?”

And we never discussed it again, Horace. I liked being with Alex better than with anyone else in the world but all our future relations were governed by strict formality. She’d take my arm if we were out in public. I’d kiss her on the cheek when we parted. That was all the physical contact there was. Oh my God! I just saw it, Horace, those ghastly last months when, blue with emphysema, so lungless that raising a cup to her lips made her gasp for five minutes, she still tried to instruct and advise me. What happens, Horace, when we die? Do we empty ourselves into the huge vessel of the cosmos or just go out like a light? In which case, why switch us on in the first place? To suffer like Alex? Is there any point in light that just shows you a blank wall ahead? There must be more! Our flicker must be part of a great blaze too immense for human vision. Horace? Are you still there?

Thanks, son. So—sure—I’ll get a move on. I—yum—hoo—so, son—that was about—in Washington—oh, sure, Alex made me ashamed and I saw the error of my politics and so I changed all that because—I began to see—Poland. Oh, and there was this general—General Paxou Aristopholis—sure, that’s cute. He was a Greek, too, like Alex only I met him with a Danish senator and—we just became kind of buddies. He said:

“This is not going to be a European war, Tornado. This is going to be a world war.”

I stated that most thinking Americans thought Europe should go fuck itself because America was a long way off and nobody could land an invasion fleet on our shores. I asked Paxou:

“Can you see the American businessman jeopardizing his new prosperity by getting entangled in European squabbles?”

And he replied: “No.”

That set me thinking, Horace. I realized I’d been wrong about the Nazis, who were not the harbingers of the future but lice. I became alarmed when I realized that France depended for its security on an obsolete Maginot Line. What was the use of having underground barracks and railways and concrete bunkers, even fortified with gun pillboxes, when all the enemy had to do was bomb out a bit of the line and pour through, ignoring the rest? What good is a line? It has never been a sound military defence. The Chinese started it with the Great Wall of China which is very impressive as it snakes massively across valleys and hills but the same thing applies. Cross it at one point, as the Tartars did, and
the line’s no good any more. Line thinking was always unsound but when you add aircraft and armour—I mean, shit!

I spoke to various people about the non-viability of the Maginot Line but Americans were complacent and isolationist in those days. It wasn’t that they didn’t perceive the frailty of that line but that they didn’t care a fuck. They said:

“So what?”

I explained:

“So the Germans’ll be in Paris a week after they attack.”

“So let’s hope they lay off the whorehouses.”

I got more facetious replies than any other kind. Then I learned the British were drilling with pitchforks because they didn’t have any rifles. The Nazi factories were pouring out tanks, planes, submarines, guns. And these were the finest armaments in the world at that time, a great iron fist with which to pound England. And big nostalgia enveloped me, Horace, for the fair island that had given me my bride and my friend. I saw the bombs ripping up English villages and imagined the gentle scholars and maidens stamped beneath jack-boots. So I began to agitate. I went to New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, St Louis and to Dallas, Texas where there was a lot of oil money. I got very little response but in every city I found a few awakened spirits. It would be inaccurate to say that I founded the Free World Society because it was really the idea of Mike Adler in Cincinnati. But he just had a duplicator and an attic. I took the name, the letterhead and Adler’s fervour and added to it some practical business organization. And it grew. By the time the dive bombers were screaming down on to Warsaw we had a hundred thousand members in a hundred cities and about a million bucks in the bank, half of which I had personally
contributed
, which is why I was broke again after the war and had to engage in dubious business enterprises.

We had the popular base but not the power base. Roosevelt was on our side but hampered by being President. It’s not true that the guy at the top has the most power. Sometimes he has but
sometimes
he is just a symbol of the majority and if he sways a little out of line they crucify him. I went to Paxou and asked him to found a cell in Washington but he claimed he was impotent:

“Because I’m a Greek. I have the brains, the guts, the knowledge. I’m the best damned infantry general in the American army and you know my job? I’m in charge of records. I can put five hundred filing cabinets into the field.”

The last time I’d seen him he’d been operational so I asked him what had changed that.

“They don’t like my name.”

“How do you mean?”

“They don’t want a Greek any more. They used to need me—to show how democratic the American army is. Hell, I knew I was a propaganda item but I also knew I was a good officer. Now—”

It seemed some four-star general had hinted that if Paxou Americanized his name they might find a field command for him again. He replied, shit, his name was as American as anyone else’s and he wasn’t going to tangle with Nazis under some cosmetic name.

So I had a tough job raising support in Washington. I was still working on it when Chamberlain reached the end of his elastic patience and declared war on Germany. Then I did something sentimental. I got on a train and went to Virginia. There I took a bus to Humberson Camp where I enlisted in the marines.
Humberson
Camp was where I’d done my boot training twenty-two years before and where I’d met Harvey. Again I lied about my age because they wouldn’t take anyone over thirty-five and Paxou fixed it with records in Washington. I used my real first name but changed my last one, for the duration, to Sark. I became Tornado Sark. Sark was the name of an island off the coast of Scotland, I think, where Nat and I had once loved and roamed. I ended up Colonel Sark. Only one guy suspected anything. That was in Japan where an old major who had once been a clerk in Chicago for Blane Products, a former subsidiary of mine, asked if I was
anything
to do with the Tornado Pratt who had run that outfit. I said: wish I had been. I acted amazed that anyone else could have had the same bizarre Christian name.

P
RATT ON THE
M
ARCH

I found Humberson Camp awe-inspiring. When I’d last seen it, a quarter of a century before, there’d been a parade ground
surrounded
by huts and nothing much else. Well, naturally, there’d also been stores and weapons stores, ranges, officers’ quarters and such like but basically the whole camp had been part of the
landscape
. The contours had been those of the Virginia hills. The forest had started just behind the chow-hall and there’d been blue grass growing between the huts. Now it had become a city of war that had conquered that part of America. The airfield alone reached practically to the horizon. The barracks were small sky-scrapers
and the huge repair shops roared and clanged twenty-four hours a day. Machine-guns chattered on the ranges and tanks skimmed over the concrete aprons and bucked over the training grounds. And everywhere platoons of white-vested men wheeled and trotted.

For the first month I was very depressed. I was convinced that enlisting had been quixotic. I couldn’t even orientate myself. The first Sunday I tried to locate my old barracks, or its site, and the places where Harvey and I had talked. But nothing was the same, not the roads, the buildings, anything. I felt superannuated, like the old camp that had gone. I felt that the obliteration of that camp was a symbol of the obliteration of my life. Nat was gone and Harvey was gone. All my works had perished. I had nothing to do with this mechanical army. Also I found it hard to keep up. I’d thought! was fit but at the end of the first week I was an aching hulk. Then it got worse. The guys started to pick on me. Sure I was different. I was older. I never talked about my
background
and they couldn’t figure me out. But the worst thing was on my first day I made an enemy and he turned out to be the natural leader of the pack: a red-haired brute from Oregon, six foot four with a face like a cliff and a punch that could knock bricks out of a wall. He was dumb as a hog and mean as a
rattlesnake
and he was the one I crossed.

The first incident was in the showers. We were sluicing down after a day of quick-marching about the dusty parade ground and I was revelling in it. The guys were shouting and horsing around and suddenly there was a crack and loud yelp. The red oaf had flicked a recruit with his towel. The guy, rubbing his buttock, protested:

“Hey, cut that out!”

The aggressor turned to a lackey, whom he was obviously familiar with, and asked:

“You know what he’s talking about, Mick?”

“Hell no, Peko.”

Then the two of them had a little towel flicking duel, only I noticed that Peko was playing for real and the other guy, although he laughed a lot in a sycophantic way, made sure he didn’t land any flicks. Then Peko tried it on with a few of the other guys and got half-hearted, cowed protests. Thent he flicked at me and I said:

“Don’t start on me.”

“Hey, dandy!” shouted Peko. “Come on, dandy!”

And he danced about, very light for his size, flicking at me. When I got a chance, I grabbed his towel and, with a jerk, tugged
it from his hand. He slouched towards me, grinning, with
outstretched
hand:

“Aw, come on, dandy. That’s my towel, dandy.”

But I gathered it into a ball and lobbed it on to the wash-basins. A quiver in Peko’s grin indicated reproach but he merely purred:

“Okay, dandy, exchange is no robbery.”

And he darted up his hand and snatched my towel off the partition just as the master-sergeant stomped in:

“What the hell’s keeping you bunch? Jesperson, put that towel back!”

He’d inferred what was going on from our postures. Peko Jesperson shrugged and replaced the towel. And that was the whole incident.

For a while nothing else happened. There was endless horseplay in the barracks and I felt caged up with a bunch of idiots but I was left pretty much alone. Then, about a week later, I dozed off on my bunk after lunch, as a lot of us did, to grab twenty minutes rest before the sergeant bellowed for us. Suddenly, I was conscious of a feeling on my face as if spiders were running across it. I opened my eyes and, against the brilliant sunlight streaming through the windows, saw a dark bulk looming over me. Immediately I jerked my head to one side to escape a hand that was near it and then twisted off the bed and stood up. A ring of guys was standing around and they had faint sneers on their faces. Jesperson was the one whose hand I had dodged and I tackled him:

“What the hell’s going on?”

He answered with mocking tenderness:

“Take it easy, dandy. I was just wiping away your tears—like your ma would have done.”

“Yeah?”

“You was sobbing your little heart out, dandy.”

A few of the others nodded and I realized that he’d spoken the truth. In any case, I suddenly felt a rush of anguish. I couldn’t recall the dream but a huge shadow rose out of it and darkened my heart. I may have gulped or sobbed. I sat down on the bed. Peko said:

“Gee, guys, dandy’s had a bad dream.”

One of the more decent men urged:

“Why don’t you skip it, Peko?”

“I just feel sorry for him.”

He reached down and, almost effortlessly, lifted the end of the bed and pumped it up and down. He said:

“Come an, fellows, we’ll rock him to sleep again.”

I bounced up and down ludicrously for a few seconds before lurching off the bed. I tried to feel anger but I just felt misery. I stood, staring at Peko in what I hoped would seem an attitude of menace. But he just shrugged and said:

“Okay, dandy, have it your own way.”

And he turned and swaggered over to his own bed. And the gang dispersed. But it scared me, Horace. I knew the incident had demonstrated my vulnerability and I figured there was worse to come. I was right.

No one hit me but once or twice they fucked about with my kit or my bedclothes, and there was a lot of verbal kidding and threats. Perhaps the worst of it was, there was another rookie who also got the treatment, a scholarly and pious boy. If anything, they hazed him worse than me. I wanted to stick up for him but I was scared and I didn’t like that. It was hard for me to accept. I’d always been the boss, the toughest guy present, the one the others looked to for approval. And now I was the quarry of a pack led by a mindless red wolf. And I couldn’t think of a damned thing to do about it. I had more brains than Peko but I doubted if I could lick him and even if I did, that rabble would rally to him again.

I got near to chickening out. Like I could have gone to the Colonel, told him the truth about myself, including my real age, and slipped ignominiously out of the army. But I decided I’d try one last thing. I volunteered for tank instruction. The gimmick was: I’d be put in a different section and be able to make a fresh start. And it worked.

BOOK: Tornado Pratt
7.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Their Million-Dollar Night by Katherine Garbera
Leap of Faith by Blair, Jamie
Slowly We Trust by Chelsea M. Cameron
On a Clear Day by Anne Doughty
TYCE 6 by Jaudon, Shareef
The Eleventh Hour by Robert Bruce Sinclair
Being Magdalene by Fleur Beale
CHERUB: The General by Robert Muchamore
Forget Me Not by Luana Lewis