China Boat

Chapter 32

April 28th, 1937

Dear Jack:

Greetings, from Yokohama!

Not that I can see any of the scenery pictured on the reverse; it's dark, and we're at the dock, and of course we can't disembark. But we'll leave in the morning, so maybe we'll get a chance to look around, then … 

* * *

April 29th, 1937

Dear Jack:

And greetings again, from Kobe!

If you received the last postcard — well, it's the same drill; except it's not dark, yet, but it is raining, and we're at dock. I wish I could get off and explore; what we saw coming in was beautiful.

I wish you were here … 

* * *

 … Well, old man. It's Thursday the 29th, and we're in Kobe Harbor, and I just gave the cabin-steward a postcard addressed to you, to mail for me. God knows when it will get to you; if it gets to you at all, this long letter will probably arrive first.

I'm in the First Class Library, as I write this; and I have a perfect view forward, of all of the frantic activity taking place. The hatch covers are off, and the cargo-booms are swinging around, pulling up big nets and pallets one after another from the forward holds, and unloading them onto the dock. As usual, there seem to be five men watching, for each man actually working … 

Not ten minutes ago, I watched them hoist out what I'm sure was a new Packard! It was black, and very highly polished, and very large; I suspect it will be somebody's limousine. I had no idea the ship carried so much cargo.

I just hope they don't unload my own trunks too, by mistake.

To my eyes, Kobe looks much more interesting than Yokohama; there are mountains overlooking the city, and some large hills, and one can see whole neighborhoods built partway-up the hillsides. It reminds me a little, at least, of San Francisco, in that sense.

And of course, we can't get off the ship to go exploring, without visas.

It's really very frustrating, old man. I'd give about anything, for the chance to go down the gangplank, and stretch my legs a little; even if it is raining like the end of the world. For that matter, I'd give even more for the chance to go for a run, in something like a straight line, for a while, instead of an endless series of left-hand-turns, or right-hand-turns!

Ah, well. I'll get my wish, I know, soon enough. One night here; one more night, at sea; and then, we'll be in Shanghai, and I'll finally be able to mail you this letter. Along with all of the other letters I've written you since Hawaii, in fact.

With all of my complaining, would you take it wrong if I said again how much I wish you were here? Because I do, very much, wish you were here … 

* * *


Thursday, April 29th, 1937
7:45 p.m.
S.S. President Hoover
In Kobe Harbor

"Choose," said Mister Grey, cheerfully.

He held out two slightly-battered, closed fists toward me; I touched the right one, lightly. He turned the fist palm-upward, and opened it; inside was a white pawn.

"Well, you're in luck tonight," he said, brightly. "I hope — "

"Just a moment. Now let's see your other hand … sir."

I watched the crinkle of laughter-lines deepen, at the corners of his eyes. He turned his left fist palm-up, and opened it; inside was another white pawn. I felt Tom, next to me, stir with surprise; while the smile bloomed wider on Mister Grey's face.

"What can I say … I've always preferred playing Black. It's just a thing I have; I really don't know why. You don't mind, I hope — ?" In addition to the obvious amusement, he had the grace to look a little sheepish.

"Not at all, sir — "

"Call me Ian?" This, with a dazzling smile.

"Yes, sir," from me; a little stonily. "No, I don't at all mind playing White … as long as we actually play, this time."

"Of course," from Mister Grey, soothingly, as we began setting up the chess-board. "Of course."

We were, naturally, in the First Class Smoking Room; just as we had been for our first game, the previous evening. And it was, indeed, smoky, as it had been then, too … 

And just as before, the deck was oddly stable; and there was no rumble of engines — or as Tom had corrected me, the vibrations of the propellers; turbo-electric engines, evidently, do not rumble — underfoot.

And, just as it had yesterday, to me it felt … oddly disquieting. Here we all were — the 'we' included Father, and Mister Sayles, tonight, and Lieutenants Dunleavy and Allison, and Mister Podgorski — here we all were, on a ship, a machine designed to transport people across great distances of ocean at high speed … and we were stationary.

The mind knew that it was all planned; and indeed, one only needed to step out to the Promenade Deck, to see the works-lights, and the crew, and to hear the clatter of the cargo loading operation. But still — it felt wrong. I could only compare it, to the feeling of being on a train, waiting on a siding for another train to pass by. There is something uniquely frustrating, in the sensation.

"There … that's it." Mister Grey placed his last chess-piece, and straightened in his chair. Another smile at me, and at Tom; Tom was, as I'd informed Mister Grey, my 'second' for the game … 

Actually, he was there to help me keep an eye on Mister Grey's hands; to help discourage — well, the kind of thing that had happened, at our first game.

I moved my pawn out; Pawn to King Four, the most standard of possible openings. Mister Grey responded with the same move.

"The Hedgerow," intoned a voice on the radio, "has been a feature of the English landscape since pre-Roman times." The rising-falling background noise, of short-wave static. "Properly maintained, it provides an excellent degree of protection against both roaming livestock, and deer … "

Father turned a page of his newspaper; a three-day-old copy of the 'North China Daily News'. Mister Sayles went on explaining the brewing of sake, of Japanese rice wine, to a bored-looking Lieutenant Dunleavy.

I made another move; Pawn to Queen Four.

Mister Grey had not exactly cheated, at our first game; rather the reverse. As I'd speculated, he had tried to throw the game; to lose, deliberately.

Oh, he'd been quite good at it; it wasn't until the twelfth move in, that I'd been sure of what he was doing … 

So I'd started doing the same thing; as subtly as I could.

"Key to the art of hedge-laying," the British voice continued, "is pleaching." Another pause; more rising-falling background noise. "In pleaching, the trunk of a young tree or bush is partially cut through, a foot or so above the ground; and the trunk is then bent carefully over to the horizontal … "

Mister Grey had then caught me, in turn, of course; soon enough. Although he'd said nothing, had given no outward reaction.

"The young trunk is then woven through a series of upright sticks, or wands — the shoots of coppiced trees, if available, work excellently, for the purpose — "

But he had reacted, in his moves. He began making more and more mistakes, missing more obvious openings … and once, even, moving one of his pieces out-of-turn, to his own disadvantage, when I'd looked away — 

And I had responded, in kind.

It had ended in farce; a grotesque parody of a game, culminating in a stalemate, with our two kings the last pieces on the board. At that point, I'd looked up at him.

"Perhaps sometime we could play a game of chess, sir — ?"

"Why?" He'd smiled at me, sunnily. "Wasn't this more fun — ?"


Now, Tom was by my side; my Second, keeping me company, and providing moral support, and — I hoped — encouraging Mister Grey to behave himself.

A rather optimistic hope, as it turned out.

I advanced my King's Bishop's pawn one square; making a King-side castle unlikely. Mister Grey raised a blond eyebrow.

"Hmmmm … You're leaving your rear rather attractively uncovered, I see … " He kept his voice low.

Without moving my head, I lifted my eyes to meet his.

"Oh, I'm sorry. I did promise a minimum of leading innuendo, didn't I — ?" The laughter-lines crinkled at the corners of his eyes, again — 

All of this in front of Tom, of course; as much as openly acknowledging Tom's own membership in our homosexual society. I gave Mister Grey another look; he returned it, blandly.

" … coppicing and hedge-laying are, in fact, complementary activities, in the English countryside … " from the radio.


The game continued.


I made, finally, another move, with which I was quite pleased; it would, two moves hence, result in my capturing a bishop and a knight, at the cost of a bishop and a pawn. Mister Grey studied the board for some seconds. At last, he looked up.

"Oh, my … That is rather underhanded of you," he said, admiringly.

As underhanded as picking the lock to my bed-stand, and reading Jack's letters?, I thought to myself.

"Thank you, sir," from me, evenly; which brought another flash of a smile, from him, as he looked down at the board, again … 

And the thought occurred to me, that three of the four persons who could possibly have read Jack's letters were in the room.

And, that of the three, or four — as much as I resented the invasion, the intrusion — of the four of them, I would far prefer the guilty party to be Mister Grey.

As a fellow-homosexual, I would, rather perversely, be proud of Mister Grey knowing of Jack's love for me, and mine for him.

As long as the knowledge could not be used against us … 


The game wore on. Father's newspaper rattled. Mister Sayles shifted topics to the virtues of Bamboo, the Wonder-Wood. I tried to tell if Mister Grey was throwing the game again, just more subtly than he had before … I in fact could not be certain; but nothing would surprise me, at this point.

The BBC program on hedgerows came to a merciful end.

"This is the BBC Empire Service," the cultured voice from the speaker intoned. A moment of silence; rising-and-falling background noise. Then; "The News."

Another silence; more rising-and-falling, shortwave background-sounds.

"It is reported in the newspaper, The Times, of London, that the northern Spanish town of Guernica has been completely destroyed in an attack by insurgent Nationalist air-forces."

I blinked. The drone of conversation in the Smoking Room, faltered.

"The attack commenced in the late afternoon, and took place over the course of three-and-a-quarter hours." A pause; the rising-falling background-sounds, again. "The attacking aeroplanes were of the German Heinkel and Junkers types." Another pause. "A mixture of high-explosive, and incendiary aluminium, bombs were reported to have been employed."

'Completely destroyed' — ? It began to sink in. All conversation stopped; Father laid down his newspaper.

"The historic Basque town of Guernica, in the vicinity of the port city of Bilbao, is some miles away from the front lines. It is reported that there were no Republican forces in the town, nor in the immediate area." Another pause; the rising-falling background noise. Then, the distinct sound of a piece of paper being turned over, on the news-reader's desk. "It is reported that the town had no anti-aircraft defenses."

I looked up, to meet Mister Grey's eyes.

"I do not believe it!" from Mister Sayles; indignantly. "I do not believe it! The Republicans are perfectly capable of bombing their own cities, to gain sympathy, and to raise anti-Franco propaganda — "

"The Republicans do not have access to German aeroplanes," said Mister Podgorski, crisply. "The Republicans have very few aeroplanes of any kind left, at all."

His speech was heavily-accented, and he was quite young; but he spoke with flat authority, and his bearing just at that moment, was erect, and far more military that that of Lieutenants Allison and Dunleavy. I wondered, briefly, who he really was, and where he was going — 

"It is thought," the news-reader continued, "that the attack was planned in such a way as to cause the maximum number of civilian casualties. The attack took place on Monday, the 26th; which was a market-day." A pause; the rising-and-falling, shortwave sound, again. "It is reported that fighter-aeroplanes machine-gunned survivors, as they attempted to escape into the surrounding fields … "

I met Mister Grey's eyes, again. I felt almost physically ill.

"I cannot believe that a Spaniard could do such a thing, to fellow country-men! To women, and children!" Mister Sayles was still indignant.

"You obviously have not been following the news from the Spanish war," said Father, drily; surprising me more than he had surprised me, recently.

"The Nationalist pilots are not Spanish," stated Mister Podgorsky. "They are German. They are regular officers of the Luftwaffe, the German Air Force." Again, the tone of authority; his rather angular face was bleak.

So, at the moment, was Mister Grey's.

"Are you familiar with the writings of General Douhet — ?" he asked me; quietly.

I nodded. "Yes, sir." Anyone who had read about the possibility of war, knew of General Douhet.

"It appears we are not the only ones."

"It is reported that, in addition to the town of Guernica proper, surrounding hamlets and clusters of houses were similarly bombed." Another long pause; more of the rising, falling shortwave static. "The Times correspondent reported that the town center of Guernica was fully engulfed in flames, at two-thirty of the following morning; and that many victims were trapped in the rubble … "

"Who is … General Douhet — ?" from Tom, next to me; quietly.

Mister Grey answered for me.

"He is an Italian General, of their Air Forces; a horrid man. He has developed a theory of waging Total War, from the air, by bombing civilians and inflicting the maximum amount of damage upon them, and by deliberately inflicting terror." He smiled, humorlessly. "He's even developed mathematical formulae for the act; so many tons of high explosive, per thousand of population, will so demoralize a people that they will compel their leaders to sue for peace. It is grotesque."

"It's called, 'The Doctrine of Frightfulness,'" I added; not looking at either of them. "At least, by the Germans."

Tom said nothing.

" … there are," from the imperturbable news-reader, "as of yet, no reports of poison-gas having been used … "

In General Douhet's writings, he blithely advocates for a mixed use of high-explosive, incendiary, and poison-gas bombs.

"Well, that's bloody decent of them!" from Mister Grey; quietly, but a little savagely. He downed the — rather watery — remains of his usual gin-and-tonic, in one pull, and set the glass down with a slight, audible 'click'.

A long pause, now, from the radio; the background static noise, again. And then, again, the unmistakable sound of a piece of paper, being turned.

"In London, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Neville Chamberlain, has announced a new issue of National Defense Bonds, in the total sum of one hundred million pounds sterling, in the forthcoming Fiscal Year. Mister Attlee, the Leader of the Opposition, asked on the floor of the House of Commons whether … "

I was back to feeling slightly sick.

I have long felt, like Father, that a new Great War is perhaps inevitable; one could not live in Europe, one could not drive across Germany, or experience Berlin, without thinking so … 

But none of us can see the future. And it is human nature, to hope.

I could not help hoping, that Herr Hitler and his Party might be less insane, than all of the reports, than all of the frightful newsreels of his speeches and of his rallies, suggested. Or that Signor Mussolini, odious as he was, might prove to be some sort of restraining influence on the Germans. Or that the German military, unwilling to have another disastrous Great War thrust upon them, might stage a coup d'état — a putsch, as such things are called, in German — 

I could not help but hope, still. But that hope was, now, just that minute, considerably diminished. This air-attack sounded very much like a dress rehearsal for the next war; a war in which the horrors of the Somme, of Ypres, would be visited upon open cities from the air … 

"Mister Chamberlain told the House, that the expenditures for armaments is not unlimited, as it was in the World War. 'We are not seeking to dominate the world, but only to make ourselves and empire communications safe', he stated." Another pause; more rising, falling background noise.

I looked down at the chessboard; this mock battlefield. I had no desire to go on with the game.

"Umm … under the circumstances, sir — "

"Oh, God, yes." He reached over and tipped his king on its side. I did the same with mine, almost simultaneously. It was unorthodox, but I did not care.

"I think I'm going to the bar, and have a drink. Or, possibly, two," he said, with just a ghostly hint of his usual facetiousness. He stood up, on this unnaturally-still deck. "Would you gentlemen permit me to buy you each a drink, as well — ?" He paused. "Cokes for two — ?" He said this last, with a gallant attempt to appear as if it pained him.

I surprised myself.

"Thank you, sir. I'd like that." I glanced sideways, at Tom.

"Uh … Thank you, sir."

I did not know who or what Mister Grey really was. He could potentially be a blackmailer, or a thief, or a confidence-man; he might have broken into my cabin, and read Jack's letters … 

But just at that moment, I did not care. We shared the same horror at the news we'd just heard; and the same fear, for the future.

"Do you know," he began, as we pushed through the lobby doors into the Continental Lounge, "what Foch said, at the signing of the Treaty of Versailles?"

Maréchal Foch was the supreme Allied commander, in the last year of the War.

"Yes sir," I replied. And I recited it, in the original French.

"Yes," from Mister Grey; and he looked sideways at Tom, as we approached the bar, and translated.

"'This is not a Peace: this is Armistice, for twenty years.' I do hope the old boy is wrong. Especially," he went on, glancing first at me, and then at Tom, "for your sakes … "

His expression was serious; for perhaps the first time in our acquaintance. I looked down, and away.

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