THE SOUND OF NEARBY GUNFIRE

Published by Gregory Benford on March 6th, 2012

Gregory and James BenfordGREGORY & JAMES BENFORD, AGE 12

We slept fitfully and woke several times to the rattle of machine gun fire. Probably to scare them off, I thought. Then M1 rifle shots, sharp hard raps in the moist night. I looked out our bedroom window and saw a flare blaze into the dark sky. More snapping shots. Nearby, clearly.

We lay and watched the fitful glows fall on smoky tendrils from the black sky. Nothing more sounded. No doors opened. Our parents maybe didn’t hear. Or maybe they didn’t want to know about it. But we did, yes. Silence.

Too early to go out and see, so my brother Jim and I went back to sleep. Nothing is easier than sleep when you’re nine years old. But at 5 AM the first orange feelers of dawn crept across the Japanese sky and we got up quietly, with excited whispers. Dressed, down the stairs with shoes held in hand, out the back door. We moved as stealthily as we could, heading outward through Narimasu Base’s cookie-cutter uniformity, each unit in the military housing complex built to mirror image sameness. The Army likes consistency. The guarded perimeter at the edge of Tokyo lay only three blocks away. The Base was built atop a large Japanese Air Force airfield and was perfectly flat since it was the landing field. We used bushes for some cover as the dawn was turning rosy now.

Already there had been riots in Tokyo led by the Communist Party. In Japan and Europe, many thought that communism was the Next Big Thing, since after all, they had paid the most and done the most to defeat the Germans. As many as half a million people surged through the streets, shouting. Our father came home to tell of US cars burned in the streets as the human tide rushed past. One rioter would unscrew the gas tank, a follower would push a cloth into the tank to draw gasoline up through wicking, and a third lit the result. The Communist opposition to US and British occupation tried to provoke incidents. Some well-armed hardcore Communists  tried to get into the US residence camps where we lived. The Marine guards at the Base perimeter were deeply necessary, not decorative.

By the time we got to the perimeter the sun sent slanting rays across the rice paddies as pearly mist rose in the soft glow. US Marines were bent over out in the flooded rice fields, knee deep. As we arrived they were pulling bodies out. The men in black shirts and trousers had been lying there for hours and certainly were dead. A med team with stretchers followed the searchers at a trot along the raised paths between paddies. I counted three bodies.

The Marines saw us and shooed us away. We slipped back home and got back into our beds without our parents waking. But we did get a curious look from our maid who came out of her room to see us creeping light-footed in our socks down the hallway.

We had come to Tokyo midwinter of 1949-50. Before that we had grown up around the small town of Fairhope, Alabama. We spent a year in transition to Japan, in Lawton, Oklahoma’s Fort Sill after our father gave up his high school teaching position in 1948 as the Cold War warmed up, and accepted a Regular Army commission as a Captain. He had fought in WWII, called up from the Reserves a week after Pearl Harbor. In the 3rd Army he went into Normandy at Omaha Beach the 5th day and fought across France, at the Bulge, and all the way into Austria by the end. Of the 16 forward observers in his battalion who who went in at Normandy he was the only survivor. They had to move with the infantry and between units and the Germans knew to target them to avoid the US artillery, which was superior in both quantity and quality.A farm boy, he knew how to move quietly in the natural world.

Now the Korean War was in its first raging battles less than 150 miles from where we listened for distant riots and close-in rifle fire. Dad was a senior staff officer for General McArthur and often worked weekends and came home late at night. In that role he was the watch officer for the entire Pacific Command when he picked up the hot telephone in the small hours of Sunday 25 June 1950. An officer at the South Korean border reported he was taking incoming artillery. Dad told him to pull his regiment back. The North Korean Army had crossed the 38th parallel behind artillery fire at dawn. Dad didn’t come home for five days, though he was only a 40 minute drive away. After that we had less time with him, and though our mother compensated, that’s not the same kind of fun.

Jim and I had the vast strange land beyond our Base perimeter to explore, an alien landscape of fascinating detail — a daily excitement. But we had larger horizons still. They rose from Nippon’s serene blue into the star-struck reaches of space. Science fiction called us to look further.  Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke–they told us of what could be, not just the gritty reality of what was.

I recall my twelve year-old self thinking, when I sighted Farmer in the Sky for sale in the big Post Exchange in Tokyo, There it is. Gosh, $2.50. That’s a lot…5 weeks’ of both our allowances. ButI can’t wait! Got to persuade Jim…

I recall vividly reading those Heinlein juveniles, which helped direct our attention to space, science, the limitless future. I’ve noticed that many Army brats turn up in fandom and sfdom generally. In foreign lands while young, the book is a good friend. My brother and I were self-reinforcing, united in a focused effort to understand the strange forces all around us, to make sense of it all. Heinlein played a major role in giving us a viewpoint, from within the military culture, of how to think about the enormous events transpiring around us.

There is a further commonality between sf and the South: we’re outsiders. Though the South has dominated conventional culture to an impressive extent, and sf is the champion American genre (still alive in the magazines, and ruling Hollywood), both derive power and profit from taking an exterior angle. We look askance at the expansive Northern culture. For a Southerner this is automatic. When Japanese rioted through the streets, shouting “Yankee Go Home!” I had been momentarily scared, but then felt relief; after all, I wasn’t a Yankee.

By the time we had reached Giessen, Germany in 1955 our father commanded a field artillery battalion. We served drinks and canapés at the battalion parties in our home, a three-story 19th century stonework with a maid and furnace man and gardener. A long way from Fairhope. Servants! My mother especially loved it, bless her.

During the Hungarian revolt of 1956 the battalion deployed to the Austrian border and my reaction was to imagine a story with us on a school bus, caught in a suddenly escalating war that became nuclear in Europe. We had to seize the bus and drive west to avoid the front. I tried to write some of it and suddenly realized that I liked telling stories. I wrote some for our fanzine, Void–simple idea stories, very short. One quite clearly contained the precursor ideas to my novel Timescape. I discovered this while rereading one over half a century later.

But lurking all around this imaginary future of Mars colonies and time paradoxes was the Cold War, standing in the bombed out shadows of WWII. The present seemed choked with war, brimming just over the horizon. The future, ripe with promise, was a much finer place to live in one’s mind’s eye.

I have many memories of those years. Dad driving us from the ship we came on, the Shanks, at berth in Yokahama, to Narimasu Base.  I looked out over fields of grass and suddenly, jutting  from that waving ocean, was a chimney. In an instant I recalled a car voyage across Georgia, along the route Sherman took. Across vacant fields the sole monuments to the Civil War were the brick chimneys standing forlorn above seas of grass. Same story: the big air raid on Tokyo in 1945 had burned away thousands of homes and left only grass to mark the 100,000 who died.

We had been on the way then to my first funeral. My uncle had been Sheriff of his county. On a hot summer day he had led a party up a steep hill to a tin distillery specializing in White Lightnin’. They found it by the cottonwood smoke, an amateur’s error – smarter moonshiners would have used drier fuel, maybe oak. The entrepreneurs had vanished, taking some of their product, and on that hot July day my uncle asked for a dipper of water. There seemed some confusion over whether he had gotten water or White Lightnin’ in that dipper but what was beyond dispute was that he had toppled backward, a man in his forties, and died as he hit the ground. It was later found to be a heart attack, from too much exertion in the heat., not raging retribution of the gods of moonshine. But knowing the cause only made my uncle’s transformation from so vividly living–sweating, swearing, laughing–to this sudden emptiness, deeply mysterious.

Those lonesome chimneys lingered in my thoughts, the last remnants of homes and families long vanished.

So these grass fields in Japan hid a similar secret. The fire bombings of Tokyo killed more than Hiroshima and stopped nothing, except over 100,000 lives.

Only long after that morning of flares and rifle fire did I realize that I wanted none of that. I wanted the future I had read about, not the hard slog of the Cold War, which looked as though it could last forever. And it did last over 40 years more.

Jim and I dutifully took ROTC at university for two years and had planned to sign on for the two years more to get a Lieutenant commission. But then we both decided to follow our noses, not our origins. We failed to appear to sign up when we registered for our junior year. We were bound for the profession of physics, which came directly out of our sf reading.

It was a strange path indeed to the abstract graces of theory and experiment. Science tries to understand the world, at least in constricted, controlled ways. But in physics when you understood something, it meant more than the chaos of the world itself could ever mean. It somehow lived above the fray, eternal and true. That was a blessing.

And we would not have to pick bodies out of a rice paddy.

 



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