John Dos Passos.

Three Soldiers online

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Fuselli's mind had suddenly become very active. The notes of the bugle
and of the band playing "The Star Spangled Banner" sifted into his
consciousness through a dream of what it would be like over there. He
was in a place like the Exposition ground, full of old men and women
in peasant costume, like in the song, "When It's Apple Blossom Time in
Normandy." Men in spiked helmets who looked like firemen kept charging
through, like the Ku-Klux Klan in the movies, jumping from their horses
and setting fire to buildings with strange outlandish gestures, spitting
babies on their long swords. Those were the Huns. Then there were flags
blowing very hard in the wind, and the sound of a band. The Yanks were
coming. Everything was lost in a scene from a movie in which khaki-clad
regiments marched fast, fast across the scene. The memory of the
shouting that always accompanied it drowned out the picture. "The guns
must make a racket, though," he added as an after-thought.


"Forwa - ard, march!"

The long street of the camp was full of the tramping of feet. They were
off. As they passed through the gate Fuselli caught a glimpse of Chris
standing with his arm about Andrews's shoulders. They both waved.
Fuselli grinned and expanded his chest. They were just rookies still. He
was going overseas.

The weight of the pack tugged at his shoulders and made his feet heavy
as if they were charged with lead. The sweat ran down his close-clipped
head under the overseas cap and streamed into his eyes and down the
sides of his nose. Through the tramp of feet he heard confusedly
cheering from the sidewalk. In front of him the backs of heads and the
swaying packs got smaller, rank by rank up the street. Above them flags
dangled from windows, flags leisurely swaying in the twilight. But
the weight of the pack, as the column marched under arc lights glaring
through the afterglow, inevitably forced his head to droop forward. The
soles of boots and legs wrapped in puttees and the bottom strap of the
pack of the man ahead of him were all he could see. The pack seemed
heavy enough to push him through the asphalt pavement. And all about him
was the faint jingle of equipment and the tramp of feet. Every part of
him was full of sweat. He could feel vaguely the steam of sweat that
rose from the ranks of struggling bodies about him. But gradually he
forgot everything but the pack tugging at his shoulders, weighing down
his thighs and ankles and feet, and the monotonous rhythm of his feet
striking the pavement and of the other feet, in front of him, behind
him, beside him, crunching, crunching.

The train smelt of new uniforms on which the sweat had dried, and of
the smoke of cheap cigarettes. Fuselli awoke with a start. He had been
asleep with his head on Bill Grey's shoulder. It was already broad
daylight. The train was jolting slowly over cross-tracks in some dismal
suburb, full of long soot-smeared warehouses and endless rows of freight
cars, beyond which lay brown marshland and slate-grey stretches of

"God! that must be the Atlantic Ocean," cried Fuselli in excitement.

"Ain't yer never seen it before? That's the Perth River," said Bill Grey

"No, I come from the Coast."

They stuck their heads out of the window side by side so that their
cheeks touched.

"Gee, there's some skirts," said Bill Grey. The train jolted to a stop.
Two untidy red-haired girls were standing beside the track waving their

"Give us a kiss," cried Bill Grey.

"Sure," said a girl, - "anythin' fer one of our boys."

She stood on tiptoe and Grey leaned far out of the window, just managing
to reach the girl's forehead.

Fuselli felt a flush of desire all over him.

"Hol' onter my belt," he said. "I'll kiss her right."

He leaned far out, and, throwing his arms around the girl's pink gingham
shoulders, lifted her off the ground and kissed her furiously on the

"Lemme go, lemme go," cried the girl. Men leaning out of the other
windows of the car cheered and shouted.

Fuselli kissed her again and then dropped her.

"Ye're too rough, damn ye," said the girl angrily.

A man from one of the windows yelled, "I'll go an' tell mommer"; and
everybody laughed. The train moved on. Fuselli looked about him proudly.
The image of Mabe giving him the five-pound box of candy rose a moment
in his mind.

"Ain't no harm in havin' a little fun. Don't mean nothin'," he said

"You just wait till we hit France. We'll hit it up some with the
Madimerzels, won't we, kid?" said Bill Grey, slapping Fuselli on the

"Beautiful Katy,
You're the only gugugu-girl that I adore;
And when the mo-moon shines
Over the cowshed,
I'll be waiting at the ki-ki-ki-kitchen door."

Everybody sang as the thumping of wheels over rails grew faster. Fuselli
looked about contentedly at the company sprawling over their packs and
equipment in the smoky car.

"It's great to be a soldier," he said to Bill Grey. "Ye kin do anything
ye goddam please."

"This," said the corporal, as the company filed into barracks identical
to those they had left two days before, "is an embarkation camp, but I'd
like to know where the hell we embark at." He twisted his face into a
smile, and then shouted with lugubrious intonation: "Fall in for mess."

It was pitch dark in that part of the camp. The electric lights had a
sparse reddish glow. Fuselli kept straining his eyes, expecting to see a
wharf and the masts of a ship at the end of every alley. The line filed
into a dim mess hall, where a thin stew was splashed into the mess
kits. Behind the counter of the kitchen the non-coms, the jovial first
sergeant, and the businesslike sergeant who looked like a preacher, and
the wrinkled-faced corporal who had been on the Red Sox outfield, could
be seen eating steak. A faint odor of steak frying went through the mess
hall and made the thin chilly stew utterly tasteless in comparison.

Fuselli looked enviously towards the kitchen and thought of the day
when he would be a non-com too. "I got to get busy," he said to himself
earnestly. Overseas, under fire, he'd have a chance to show what he was
worth; and he pictured himself heroically carrying a wounded captain
back to a dressing tent, pursued by fierce-whiskered men with spiked
helmets like firemen's helmets.

The strumming of a guitar came strangely down the dark street of the

"Some guy sure can play," said Bill Grey who, with his hands in his
pockets, slouched along beside Fuselli.

They looked in the door of one of the barracks. A lot of soldiers were
sitting in a ring round two tall negroes whose black faces and chests
glistened like jet in the faint light.

"Come on, Charley, give us another," said someone.

"Do Ah git it now, or mus' Ah hesit-ate?"

One negro began chanting while the other strummed carelessly on the

"No, give us the 'Titanic.'"

The guitar strummed in a crooning rag-time for a moment. The negro's
voice broke into it suddenly, pitched high.

"Dis is de song ob de Titanic, Sailin' on de sea."

The guitar strummed on. There had been a tension in the negro's
voice that had made everyone stop talking. The soldiers looked at him

"How de Titanic ran in dat cole iceberg,
How de Titanic ran in dat cole iceberg
Sailin' on de sea."

His voice was confidential and soft, and the guitar strummed to the
same sobbing rag-time. Verse after verse the voice grew louder and the
strumming faster.

"De Titanic's sinkin' in de deep blue,
Sinkin' in de deep blue, deep blue,
Sinkin' in de sea.
O de women an' de chilen a-floatin' in de sea,
O de women an' de chilen a-floatin' in de sea,
Roun' dat cole iceberg,
Sung 'Nearer, my gawd, to Thee,'
Sung 'Nearer, my gawd, to Thee,
Nearer to Thee.'"

The guitar was strumming the hymn-tune. The negro was singing with every
cord in his throat taut, almost sobbing.

A man next to Fuselli took careful aim and spat into the box of sawdust
in the middle of the ring of motionless soldiers.

The guitar played the rag-time again, fast, almost mockingly. The negro
sang in low confidential tones.

"O de women an' de chilen dey sank in de sea.
O de women an' de chilen dey sank in de sea,
Roun' dat cole iceberg."

Before he had finished a bugle blew in the distance. Everybody

Fuselli and Bill Grey went silently back to their barracks.

"It must be an awful thing to drown in the sea," said Grey as he rolled
himself in his blankets. "If one of those bastard U-boats..."

"I don't give a damn," said Fuselli boisterously; but as he lay staring
into the darkness, cold terror stiffened him suddenly. He thought for a
moment of deserting, pretending he was sick, anything to keep from going
on the transport.

"O de women an' de chilen dey sank in de sea,
Roun" dat cole iceberg."

He could feel himself going down through icy water. "It's a hell of a
thing to send a guy over there to drown," he said to himself, and he
thought of the hilly streets of San Francisco, and the glow of the
sunset over the harbor and ships coming in through the Golden Gate. His
mind went gradually blank and he went to sleep.

The column was like some curious khaki-colored carpet, hiding the road
as far as you could see. In Fuselli's company the men were shifting
their weight from one foot to the other, muttering, "What the hell a'
they waiting for now?" Bill Grey, next to Fuselli in the ranks, stood
bent double so as to take the weight of his pack off his shoulders. They
were at a cross-roads on fairly high ground so that they could see the
long sheds and barracks of the camp stretching away in every direction,
in rows and rows, broken now and then by a grey drill field. In front
of them the column stretched to the last bend in the road, where it
disappeared on a hill among mustard-yellow suburban houses.

Fuselli was excited. He kept thinking of the night before, when he had
helped the sergeant distribute emergency rations, and had carried about
piles of boxes of hard bread, counting them carefully without a mistake.
He felt full of desire to do things, to show what he was good for.
"Gee," he said to himself, "this war's a lucky thing for me. I might
have been in the R.C. Vicker Company's store for five years an' never
got a raise, an' here in the army I got a chance to do almost anything."

Far ahead down the road the column was beginning to move. Voices
shouting orders beat crisply on the morning air. Fuselli's heart was
thumping. He felt proud of himself and of the company - the damn best
company in the whole outfit. The company ahead was moving, it was their
turn now.

"Forwa - ard, march!"

They were lost in the monotonous tramp of feet. Dust rose from the road,
along which like a drab brown worm crawled the column.

A sickening unfamiliar smell choked their nostrils.

"What are they taking us down here for?"

"Damned if I know."

They were filing down ladders into the terrifying pit which the hold of
the ship seemed to them. Every man had a blue card in his hand with a
number on it. In a dim place like an empty warehouse they stopped. The
sergeant shouted out:

"I guess this is our diggings. We'll have to make the best of it." Then
he disappeared.

Fuselli looked about him. He was sitting in one of the lowest of three
tiers of bunks roughly built of new pine boards. Electric lights placed
here and there gave a faint reddish tone to the gloom, except at the
ladders, where high-power lamps made a white glare. The place was full
of tramping of feet and the sound of packs being thrown on bunks as
endless files of soldiers poured in down every ladder. Somewhere down
the alley an officer with a shrill voice was shouting to his men: "Speed
it up there; speed it up there." Fuselli sat on his bunk looking at the
terrifying confusion all about, feeling bewildered and humiliated. For
how many days would they be in that dark pit? He suddenly felt angry.
They had no right to treat a feller like that. He was a man, not a bale
of hay to be bundled about as anybody liked.

"An' if we're torpedoed a fat chance we'll have down here," he said

"They got sentries posted to keep us from goin up on deck," said

"God damn them. They treat you like you was a steer being taken over for

"Well, you're not a damn sight more. Meat for the guns."

A little man lying in one of the upper bunks had spoken suddenly,
contracting his sallow face into a curious spasm, as if the words had
burst from him in spite of an effort to keep them in.

Everybody looked up at him angrily.

"That goddam kike Eisenstein," muttered someone.

"Say, tie that bull outside," shouted Bill Grey good-naturedly.

"Fools," muttered Eisenstein, turning over and burying his face in his

"Gee, I wonder what it is makes it smell so funny down here," said

Fuselli lay flat on deck resting his head on his crossed arms. When he
looked straight up he could see a lead-colored mast sweep back and
forth across the sky full of clouds of light grey and silver and dark
purplish-grey showing yellowish at the edges. When he tilted his head a
little to one side he could see Bill Grey's heavy colorless face and the
dark bristles of his unshaven chin and his mouth a little twisted to the
left, from which a cigarette dangled unlighted. Beyond were heads
and bodies huddled together in a mass of khaki overcoats and life
preservers. And when the roll tipped the deck he had a view of moving
green waves and of a steamer striped grey and white, and the horizon, a
dark taut line, broken here and there by the tops of waves.

"O God, I feel sick," said Bill Grey, taking the cigarette out of his
mouth and looking at it revengefully.

"I'd be all right if everything didn't stink so. An' that mess hall.
Nearly makes a guy puke to think of it." Fuselli spoke in a whining
voice, watching the top of the mast move like a pencil scrawling on
paper, back and forth across the mottled clouds.

"You belly-achin' again?" A brown moon-shaped face with thick black
eyebrows and hair curling crisply about a forehead with many horizontal
wrinkles rose from the deck on the other side of Fuselli.

"Get the hell out of here."

"Feel sick, sonny?" came the deep voice again, and the dark eyebrows
contracted in an expression of sympathy. "Funny, I'd have my sixshooter
out if I was home and you told me to get the hell out, sonny."

"Well, who wouldn't be sore when they have to go on K.P.?" said Fuselli

"I ain't been down to mess in three days. A feller who lives on the
plains like I do ought to take to the sea like a duck, but it don't seem
to suit me."

"God, they're a sick lookin' bunch I have to sling the hash to," said
Fuselli more cheerfully. "I don't know how they get that way. The
fellers in our company ain't that way. They look like they was askeered
somebody was going to hit 'em. Ever noticed that, Meadville?"

"Well, what d'ye expect of you guys who live in the city all your lives
and don't know the butt from the barrel of a gun an' never straddled
anything more like a horse than a broomstick. Ye're juss made to be
sheep. No wonder they have to herd you round like calves." Meadville got
to his feet and went unsteadily to the rail, keeping, as he threaded his
way through the groups that covered the transport's after deck, a little
of his cowboy's bow-legged stride.

"I know what it is that makes men's eyes blink when they go down to that
putrid mess," came a nasal voice.

Fuselli turned round.

Eisenstein was sitting in the place Meadville had just left.

"You do, do you?"

"It's part of the system. You've got to turn men into beasts before ye
can get 'em to act that way. Ever read Tolstoi?"

"No. Say, you want to be careful how you go talkin' around the way you
do." Fuselli lowered his voice confidentially. "I heard of a feller
bein' shot at Camp Merritt for talkin' around."

"I don't care.... I'm a desperate man," said Eisenstein.

"Don't ye feel sick? Gawd, I do.... Did you get rid o' any of it,

"Why don't they fight their ole war somewhere a man can get to on a
horse?... Say that's my seat."

"The place was empty.... I sat down in it," said Eisenstein, lowering
his head sullenly.

"You kin have three winks to get out o' my place," said Meadville,
squaring his broad shoulders.

"You are stronger than me," said Eisenstein, moving off.

"God, it's hell not to have a gun," muttered Meadville as he settled
himself on the deck again. "D'ye know, sonny, I nearly cried when I
found I was going to be in this damn medical corps? I enlisted for the
tanks. This is the first time in my life I haven't had a gun. I even
think I had one in my cradle."

"That's funny," said Fuselli.

The sergeant appeared suddenly in the middle of the group, his face red.

"Say, fellers," he said in a low voice, "go down an' straighten out the
bunks as fast as you goddam can. They're having an inspection. It's a
hell of a note."

They all filed down the gang planks into the foul-smelling hold, where
there was no light but the invariable reddish glow of electric bulbs.
They had hardly reached their bunks when someone called, "Attention!"

Three officers stalked by, their firm important tread a little disturbed
by the rolling. Their heads were stuck forward and they peered from side
to side among the bunks with the cruel, searching glance of hens looking
for worms.

"Fuselli," said the first sergeant, "bring up the record book to my
stateroom; 213 on the lower deck."

"All right, Sarge," said Fuselli with alacrity. He admired the first
sergeant and wished he could imitate his jovial, domineering manner.

It was the first time he had been in the upper part of the ship. It
seemed a different world. The long corridors with red carpets, the white
paint and the gilt mouldings on the partitions, the officers strolling
about at their ease - it all made him think of the big liners he used to
watch come in through the Golden Gate, the liners he was going to Europe
on some day, when he got rich. Oh, if he could only get to be a sergeant
first-class, all this comfort and magnificence would be his. He found
the number and knocked on the door. Laughter and loud talking came from
inside the stateroom.

"Wait a sec!" came an unfamiliar voice.

"Sergeant Olster here?"

"Oh, it's one o' my gang," came the sergeant's voice. "Let him in. He
won't peach on us."

The door opened and he saw Sergeant Olster and two other young men
sitting with their feet dangling over the red varnished boards that
enclosed the bunks. They were talking gaily, and had glasses in their

"Paris is some town, I can tell you," one was saying. "They say the
girls come up an' put their arms round you right in the main street."

"Here's the records, sergeant," said Fuselli stiffly in his best
military manner.

"Oh thanks.... There's nothing else I want," said the sergeant, his
voice more jovial than ever. "Don't fall overboard like the guy in
Company C."

Fuselli laughed as he closed the door, growing serious suddenly on
noticing that one of the young men wore in his shirt the gold bar of a
second lieutenant.

"Gee," he said to himself. "I ought to have saluted."

He waited a moment outside the closed door of the stateroom, listening
to the talk and the laughter, wishing he were one of that merry group
talking about women in Paris. He began thinking. Sure he'd get private
first-class as soon as they got overseas. Then in a couple of months he
might be corporal. If they saw much service, he'd move along all right,
once he got to be a non-com.

"Oh, I mustn't get in wrong. Oh, I mustn't get in wrong," he kept saying
to himself as he went down the ladder into the hold. But he forgot
everything in the seasickness that came on again as he breathed in the
fetid air.

The deck now slanted down in front of him, now rose so that he was
walking up an incline. Dirty water slushed about from one side of the
passage to the other with every lurch of the ship. When he reached the
door the whistling howl of the wind through the hinges and cracks made
Fuselli hesitate a long time with his hand on the knob. The moment he
turned the knob the door flew open and he was in the full sweep of the
wind. The deck was deserted. The wet ropes strung along it shivered
dismally in the wind. Every other moment came the rattle of spray, that
rose up in white fringy trees to windward and smashed against him like
hail. Without closing the door he crept forward along the deck, clinging
as hard as he could to the icy rope. Beyond the spray he could see huge
marbled green waves rise in constant succession out of the mist. The
roar of the wind in his ears confused him and terrified him. It seemed
ages before he reached the door of the forward house that opened on a
passage that smelt of drugs; and breathed out air, where men waited in
a packed line, thrown one against the other by the lurching of the boat,
to get into the dispensary. The roar of the wind came to them faintly,
and only now and then the hollow thump of a wave against the bow.

"You sick?" a man asked Fuselli.

"Naw, I'm not sick; but Sarge sent me to get some stuff for some guys
that's too sick to move."

"An awful lot o' sickness on this boat."

"Two fellers died this mornin' in that there room," said another man
solemnly, pointing over his shoulder with a jerk of the thumb. "Ain't
buried 'em yet. It's too rough."

"What'd they die of?" asked Fuselli eagerly.

"Spinal somethin'...."

"Menegitis," broke in a man at the end of the line.

"Say, that's awful catchin' ain't it?"

"It sure is."

"Where does it hit yer?" asked Fuselli.

"Yer neck swells up, an' then you juss go stiff all over," came the
man's voice from the end of the line.

There was a silence. From the direction of the infirmary a man with a
packet of medicines in his hand began making his way towards the door.

"Many guys in there?" asked Fuselli in a low voice as the man brushed
past him.

When the door closed again the man beside Fuselli, who was tall and
broad shouldered with heavy black eyebrows, burst out, as if he were
saying something he'd been trying to keep from saying for a long while:

"It won't be right if that sickness gets me; indeed it won't.... I've
got a girl waitin' for me at home. It's two years since I ain't touched
a woman all on account of her. It ain't natural for a fellow to go so
long as that.

"Why didn't you marry her before you left?" somebody asked mockingly.

"Said she didn't want to be no war bride, that she could wait for me
better if I didn't."

Several men laughed.

"It wouldn't be right if I took sick an' died of this sickness, after
keepin' myself clean on account of that girl.... It wouldn't be right,"
the man muttered again to Fuselli.

Fuselli was picturing himself lying in his bunk with a swollen neck,
while his arms and legs stiffened, stiffened.

A red-faced man half way up the passage started speaking:

"When I thinks to myself how much the folks need me home, it makes
me feel sort o' confident-like, I dunno why. I juss can't cash in my
checks, that's all." He laughed jovially.

No one joined in the laugh.

"Is it awfully catchin'?" asked Fuselli of the man next him.

"Most catchin' thing there is," he answered solemnly. "The worst of
it is," another man was muttering in a shrill hysterical voice, "bein'
thrown over to the sharks. Gee, they ain't got a right to do that, even
if it is war time, they ain't got a right to treat a Christian like he
was a dead dawg."

"They got a right to do anythin' they goddam please, buddy. Who's goin'
to stop 'em I'd like to know," cried the red-faced man.

"If he was an awficer, they wouldn't throw him over like that," came the
shrill hysterical voice again.

"Cut that," said someone else, "no use gettin' in wrong juss for the
sake of talkin'."

"But ain't it dangerous, waitin' round up here so near where those
fellers are with that sickness," whispered Fuselli to the man next him.

"Reckon it is, buddy," came the other man's voice dully.

Fuselli started making his way toward the door.

"Lemme out, fellers, I've got to puke," he said. "Shoot," he was
thinking, "I'll tell 'em the place was closed; they'll never come to

As he opened the door he thought of himself crawling back to his bunk
and feeling his neck swell and his hands burn with fever and his arms

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