Since I began posting stories, a frequent question I get asked has been: where do your story ideas come from? I would imagine many writers get asked this question.
The answer, of course, is from many different sources. I can get one from any of my senses being tweaked. Just smelling something that reminds me of something else can get me thinking of a remembered time, and an idea can blossom, and sometimes a story can result.
More frequently, ideas grow out of stories I read, or movies or TV shows I see. Something strikes me, and my mind takes over. That’s what happened with this story.
I read Douglas’s China Boat—a remarkable achievement that should be read by everyone—and got lots of ideas, but one struck me harder than most, and I started writing. That’s how this works, I guess, at least for me.
This tiny portion of China Boat is what inspired me:
“I’m doing fine, sir. Thank you.”
"Don't call me, 'sir'," from the Marine; his craggy face darkened. "I'm not an officer." His expression said, it would be an insult to be mistaken for an officer. "You can call me Sergeant," he went on, "or Sarge, or Gunny; that's short for Gunnery Sergeant, which is what I am. But don't call me 'sir'."
That’s all it takes. Something as innocuous as that. What follows below came from those few words, words which inspired me. Okay, so my mind works screwy. I know; I have to live with it.
And now I’d better get on with it or the Foreword will be longer than the story.
A bar fight. Perfect! Just what we needed.
I’d known this was a bad idea, coming here. Still, it was in the ballpark of what we were supposed to be doing.
“Stay behind me,” Bradley said, speaking loudly as the noise from men shouting was ear-splitting. “Work toward the men’s room. There’s an outside door at the end of that hall.”
How’d he know that? He was just more observant and aware than I was. I did know that.
His advice was a plan, I guessed, but simply unworkable. Too many people between where we were at the bar and that hallway. Too many angry people. Too much testosterone. Too much alcohol.
“Stay low when the fists begin flying,” Bradley said, anticipating the worst. How did he stay so calm? But then, he always had been braver than I was.
As the three men shouting were shouting in Tagalog, I had no idea what they were saying. I could easily tell that it wasn’t good, however. I knew they were angry and that their anger was directed at us.
One of the men, the largest and angriest, stepped up and took a swing at Bradley. Bradley turned away from it, tried to duck, but it caught him near his eye, thankfully only a glancing blow. He was staggered but stayed on his feet. I grabbed him as I felt something hit me on my forehead. I looked up through blood that began dripping down into my eye in time to see the Marines arriving. A group of soldiers had jumped up from their table and were coming to the rescue. That brought a contingent of friends of the guys who’d attacked Bradley and me. All at once, a brouhaha had broken out, a full-scale melee.
The guy who’d hit Bradley and then me wasn’t there any longer. He was down on the floor thanks to a rather large corporal who’d been sitting next to me and was now standing over our attacker. But other guys in the bar were happy to join in with what he’d started. Maybe it was due to the tenor of the times. We were at war. 1944 was a time when fighting was what young men were doing all over the world, and here in the Philippines, even though we were supposed to be on the same side, emotions ran high, and that it didn’t take much to incite a crowd. Throw in a little alcohol and nationalistic fervor and this is what you got. Or maybe everyone was just drunk. In any case, a riot was taking place, and there we were, two American kids not even out of our teens yet, right in the middle of it.
The cause might not have been because of anything but pure irrational hatred of the same kind we’d met elsewhere. Bradley and I may have been sitting too close to each other. Maybe my hand had touched his on the bar a little too often or lingered too long. Maybe the men had objected to us being in their bar, or anyone of our kind being there.
Bradley grabbed my arm and pulled me down the bar, staying between it and the backs of those who’d turned around and were now doing the fighting, dodging elbows and fists the best we could. We were small and by staying low were mostly hidden behind the combatants. Seemed like everyone in the place was scrapping by then. We reached the hallway, then were down it and out the door. I could hear sirens and saw two jeeps with MP placards on them pulling into the parking lot. Large men with helmets and billy clubs jumped out. Bradley and I made ourselves scarce.
“Don’t call me ‘sir’!”
I’d been walking across the drill ground, headed for the headquarters building. I stopped and turned to the man who’d spoken to me. When I stopped, my detail—that’s what they said the group protecting me should be called—stopped, too, and two elements of it subtly moved, sidled just a little, this way and that, so my protection was more evenly spaced and I was more thoroughly protected from three sides. Actually, as I’m rather small, and they were all incredibly large, I was almost entirely surrounded; the gaps in my shield were quite thin indeed.
Professionals. That’s what they were. Professionals—and good at their jobs. Not that I thought they had to be, but I wasn’t calling the shots here.
“Uh, sir, let’s discuss this.” I might have been small, but not intimidated. I didn’t intimidate easily, and refraining from voicing my opinion wasn’t something I was good at.
He gave me a funny look, a little bit exasperation and a little bit resigned acceptance. He refrained from rolling his eyes. “Discuss what?” he asked.
“This matter of what I’m to call you, sir.” I smiled, hoping he’d see the humor. He didn’t. Sergeant Meyerson scowled. So I moved on into an explanation of my perspective.
“You have your culture, and I have mine. They are different, but one does not supersede or abrogate the other. They are both legitimate, and there is no hierarchal element innate in them. You cannot say with any merit that your culture has more credence than mine or that it should be honored to the nullification of mine.”
As I’d been speaking, his expression had been changing from disapproval or perhaps even annoyance to questioning, then perplexity. I was confusing him. But that in itself furthered my argument.
“You have no idea what I’m talking about, do you, sir?”
He pulled himself up straighter, which I was surprised was possible as he always stood straight and tall. “I am a Marine Gunnery Sergeant,” he said trenchantly. “I learned my trade the hard way, through experience, sweat and tears. What I never did learn was about half of those words you just spat out at me. They weren’t in my vocabulary when I quit school after seventh grade, and they ain’t in it now. But what you were trying to say isn’t worth a load of crap, anyway. Facts is facts, and the fact is that noncommissioned officers are not called ‘sir’; not by anyone, and that includes you.”
He didn’t make that ‘you’ sound condescending or disparaging, somehow. As I said, professional. His job was to protect me, not belittle me.
I had to look up to him as he spoke. He was over a foot taller than I was.
“I’ll try to simplify my stance,” I said, not backing down, still attempting to explain myself. “You have every right to your value system. It defines you, and by your actions, you define it. In that system, you are differentiated from your superiors in several ways, and one of them is the way in which each is to be referred. The label ‘sir’ is only used for them, and that’s a rigidly protected and enforced separation. You’ll certainly agree with that.”
His face was still showing a degree of confusion—or was it disgust?—but he gave me a single head nod. I copied the gesture. “So you’re sure of your place in your society by following the cultural dictates with which it encumbers you. So, too, am I. I come from a culture where education, while not first and foremost, is of the essence. First and foremost are tradition, heritage and breeding. And it is part of those three, with a seasoning of education thrown in, that makes this discussion necessary.
“From a very young age, almost from before I was self-ambulatory—” I could see I’d lost him again, so compromised “—before I could walk, I was told to address elder males as ‘sir’. I was also taught that this dictate did not hold for some—specifically servants or others of that capacity—but did hold for those deserving my respect. You, sir, deserve my respect. I would be forsaking my entire culture to avoid that usage when addressing you. ‘Sir’ is what I’ve been taught, and I adhere to that to the same degree and just as vigorously as you adhere to a differentiation between yourself and your, well, your betters.”
Aha! That calculated description of officers brought the response I’d thought it would.
“Not ‘betters’.” He was obviously repelled by even the notion that his superiors in rank were somehow, in any way, better people than he was. They were simply different people in different positions. “They do the thinking and administrating,” he said. “We get things done, whatever needs to be done. We dirty our hands in the process. Those officers are the thinkers; we’re the doers, and the use of labels like ‘sir’ and ‘sarge’ points that out.”
“I see,” I said, being agreeable. “And if you look at it that way, you’ll certainly agree that I need the same thing. I need to ‘point out’, to make it clear, that you belong in a group that gets my respect. So you get the title ‘sir’ and should wear it with the honor it deserves. I’m not addressing you as ‘sir’ to lump you in with officers, but to show my respect for someone who not only gets things done but does it exceedingly well.”
He began shaking his head, but then the situation changed, and he had more important things to do. What he had to do was fulfill the obligation of his assignment—i.e., see to my personal protection—and I was making that a bit difficult for him as I’d suddenly squeezed between him and another member of his detail and taken off running. I’d done this because I’d caught sight of my boyfriend leaving the company headquarters where he’d been hobnobbing with the general heading the intelligence group for the northern Philippine Islands. There was a small group of Philippine soldiers standing between where I was and where he’d come out of the building, and I was aware of the attitudes of those men. One of them was the man who’d ended up on the floor after attacking both of us.
The bar where my boyfriend and I had encountered them was off base. I guess we’d make our relationship too obvious while we’d been there. It hadn’t been a first for us, going to a bar. Age restrictions made that impossible in the States. Here, drinking age laws were rarely enforced, probably even less so now in wartime, and so we’d decided to enjoy the adventure that laxity provided us while we were here, and bars were a good place to do what we were here for.
And we had been enjoying ourselves until the local objections to homosexual liaisons confronted us. Objections to our presence—objections to us personally—quickly became ardent. The ensuing fracas was abrupt and violent and would have been more widespread without the American soldiers also in attendance stepping in when they did. They may or may not have felt something of what the Philippine nationals felt about our orientation, but they felt stronger about fellow Americans, young fellow Americans, being attacked in their presence.
It was a bar, people were inebriated, and as a result, several men on both sides were now hospitalized because the scuffle had escalated. And the MPs weren’t all that discriminating when it came to whom they were subduing.
Anyone who wouldn’t stop fighting when they came in was fair game.
My boyfriend had a black eye, and I had a bandage covering a cut over my left eye. It seemed remarkable that that was all the two of us had had to endure. Thank God for the Marines. And that convenient exit door.
But, because of our vulnerability and the nature of our work we’d now completed, it had been decided that while we remained on the base awaiting transport back stateside, we needed protection. Three large noncoms were protecting me, and two MPs were assigned to Bradley, my boyfriend.
His MPs followed him out of headquarters, but they were a decent ways behind him coming through that door. This was unusual because protective details usually worked ahead and behind those they were protecting. In this case, they’d been held up inside, and Bradley had taken it upon himself not to wait for them. Much like I’d taken off running, leaving my detail behind when I saw him and realized the danger he was in.
Because he’d not waited, he’d put himself in harm’s way. The Philippine soldiers had been part of the group who’d been in the bar. I saw them recognize Bradley.
I was moving fast, but I had the legs of a 5’ 4” non-athlete. It served us well, being small. We’d been doing undercover work, determining the mood of the native population, learning the local sentiments about the Japanese and about our own forces. 1944 was a critical time in the Philippines. We’d recently taken Leyte back from the Japanese and were preparing for an assault on Luzon in a few months, and the knowledge of whether we could expect support or resistance from the Filipino population was important.
We were just two American teenagers, we looked harmless, and it was probably assumed that Tagalog was as foreign to us as Greek. The fact was, I understood Greek well, having studied it with a tutor while being homeschooled on our estate in the Hamptons, and Bradley had learned Tagalog from a Philippine nanny. We were perfect for undercover work, especially Bradley, who, as I’ve mentioned, is a lot braver than I am. I was the sidekick, mostly in the background.
Sergeant Meyerson had the legs of a 6’ 4” well-trained and fit soldier. I hadn’t gone more than a few steps before he was at my side, grabbing my shoulder and saying, “What the hell?”
“Look,” I gasped. Okay, so maybe my fitness wasn’t soldier-sharp, but I was scared, and that more than my running affected my vocal response.
I pointed at where the soldiers were spreading out. There were five of them, and they were moving to cut off, to intercept Bradley. Bradley saw them, and I saw worry cross his face.
The Filipino soldiers started to close in on him.
Sergeant Meyerson saw what I saw, and when I yelled, “Go save him,” he took off running again. He reached the soldiers before they reached Bradley. One of is two cohorts was a step or two behind him; the other stayed with me. Before the MPs could react, my two Marine sergeants had the five Filipinos flat on the ground.
When I reached the group, the MPs were there with handcuffs. The soldiers were stood up and marched off, two of them needing the support of their captors. Bradley joined me, and we briefly hugged.
“Don’t do that again, you hear me?” Sergeant Meyerson said, addressing me. He wasn’t even breathing hard.
I looked at him and grinned. “Thanks, Sarge,” I said.
Thanks to my editors for their keen eyes and lack of embarrassment about telling me where I screwed up.
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