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Chapter 19

JIMMIE HIGGINS PUTS ON KHAKI

I

There were seven fellows who boarded the train that evening, under the temporary charge of a blacksmith from the near by country. At seven o'clock next morning they presented their papers at the entrance-gate of the training-camp, and under the escort of a soldier were marched down the main street, hanging on to their bundles and suit-cases, and staring about them at the sights.

It was a city inhabited by some forty thousand men, on a site which a year ago had been waste scrub-land. Long rows of wooden buildings stretched in every direction--barracks, dining-rooms, study-rooms, offices, store-houses--with great stretches of exercise and training-grounds between. Just to see this city, with its swarming population of young men, all in uniform, erect, eager, well-set-up and vivid with health, every man of them busy, and every man seemingly absorbed in his job--that alone was a worth-while experience. It was a new kind of city--a city without a loafer, without a drunkard, without a parasite. The seven working-men from Leesville felt suddenly slouchy and disgraced, with their ill-fitting civilian clothes and their miscellaneous bundles and suitcases.

The first thing they did with the new arrivals was to make them clean, to fumigate and vaccinate them. In a Socialist local one meets all sorts of eccentrics, the lunatic-fringe of the movement, and so it happened that Jimmie had listened to a tirade against the diabolical practice of inoculation, which caused more deadly diseases than it was supposed to prevent. But the medical officers of this camp did not stop to ask Jimmie's conclusions on that vital subject; they just told him to roll up the sleeve of his left arm, and proceeded to wipe his skin clean and scratch it with a needle.

And then came the tailor, to do him up in khaki. This also was something the little machinist had not bargained for; he had taken it as a matter of course that he would be allowed to work for Uncle Sam in any old clothes, just as he had done for Abel Granitch. But no--he must have an outfit, complete even to a tooth-brush, which they would show him how to use. Having been done up neat and tight in khaki, with a motor-wheel on his sleeve to show his branch of the service, he stood and looked at himself in the glass, experiencing a demoralizing and unworthy excitement. He was every bit as handsome as Comrade Stankewitz! When he walked down the street would the girls giggle, and turn to look at him, as they did at the sedate and proper Comrade Emil? So the meshes of Militarism were being woven about the soul of Jimmie Higgins.

II

Jimmie was in quarantine, not allowed to go out of camp on account of his typhoid and other vaccinations, There was enough about the place to have interested him; but, alas, he became suddenly very sick, and was terrified to realize that the opponent of inoculation must have been right. His health had been undermined for ever, he would suffer from a dozen obscure diseases! He went to the hospital, miserable in body and still more miserable in mind; but in a couple of days he began to feel better, and listened to the nurses, who told him cheerfully that everybody felt that way for a bit. Then he got up, and had several free days in which to complete his recovery--days which he spent in wandering about the camp, watching the fascinating sights.

It was like a circus with hundreds of rings. The drilling and marching he had seen in the Leesville square were here going on wholesale. Hundreds of groups were being put through squad-drill and the manual, while other groups were having special kinds of exercises--climbing up walls, digging trenches, making roads, shooting at targets. It rained every other day, and the ground was a morass, but no one paid the least attention to that; the men came in plastered with mud, and steaming like lard-vats. They seemed to enjoy it; nothing ever interfered with their bantering and jokes.

Jimmie watched them with alternating moods of curiosity and horror; for the things that were done here brought the war, with its infinite and multiform wickedness, before his very eyes. Here was a group of men being taught to advance under fire; crawling on their bellies on the ground, jumping from one hummock to another, flinging themselves down and pretending to fire. A man in front, supposed to have a machine-gun, was shouting when he had "got" them. Now they unslung their little trenching-tools, and began to burrow themselves like wood-chucks into the ground. "Dig, you sons o' guns, dig!" the officer would shout. "Keep your head down, Smith! Make the dirt fly! Put the jazz into it! That's the stuff!"

Jimmie had never watched football practice, so he had no conception of the efforts to which men could be goaded by "coaching". It was abhorrent--yet also it was fascinating, the spell of it got hold of him. He saw what these men were doing; they were learning to act in masses, to act with paralyzing and terrific force. Whatever it was they did, they did with the smash of a battering-ram. You saw the fire in their eyes, the grim, set look on their faces; you knew that they were not going to war with any hesitations or divided minds.

You would move over a rise in the ground, and come upon a bunch of them at bayonet-practice. You didn't require imagination to get the hang of this; they had dummies made of leather, and they rushed at these figures, hacking, stabbing--and here was the most amazing part of it, shouting with rage. Actually the officers taught them to yell, to snarl, to work up their feelings to a fury! It was blood-curdling--Jimmie turned away from it sick. It was just what he had been arguing for three years and a half--you had to make yourself into a wild beast in order to go to war!

Also Jimmie watched the target-ranges, from which came all day a rattle of shots, like the whirr of many typewriters. Companies of men came marching, and spread themselves out along the firing-steps, and under the direction of instructors proceeded to contribute their quota to the noise. Over by the targets were others who kept score and telephoned the results; so all day long, winter or summer, rain or shine, men were learning to kill their fellows, mechanically, as if it were a matter of factory routine. At other ranges were moving targets, where sharp-shooters were acquiring skill; you noticed that their targets were never birds and deer, as at the shooting- galleries which Jimmie had seen at the beaches and at Socialist picnics. No, they were the heads or bodies of men, and each body painted a greenish grey, matching the uniforms of the enemy.

III

So day by day Jimmie lived with the idea of killing, confronting the grim and ferocious face of war. He had thought that repairing motor-cycles would be pretty much the same anywhere you did it; but he found that it was one thing to repair motor-cycles to be ridden by errand-boys and working-men out for a holiday with their sweethearts, and another and entirely different thing to repair them for fighting-men and dispatch-couriers. Jimmie was driven more insistently than ever to make up his mind about this war. It was every day less easy for him to hold two contradictory sets of opinions.

All the men he now met were of one opinion, and by no possibility to be persuaded to consider any other. Jimmie found that he could get them to agree that after this war for democracy there would be vast changes in this world, the people would never more let themselves be hoodwinked and exploited as they had; he found that he could interest them in the idea of having the government run the great industries, producing food and clothing for the people as it was now producing them for the troops. But when he tried to give this programme the name of Socialism, then the trouble began. Weren't Socialists the lunatics who wanted to have America "lay down" like Russia? The premise from which all discussion started with these men was that America was going to win the war; if you tried to hint that this matter could so much as be hesitated over, you met, first sharp mockery, and then angry looks, and advice to go and take a pill and get the Hun poison out of your system.

Nor was there any use trying to talk about the dangers of militarism. These men knew all about the dangers of militarism--for the Kaiser. The man who is at the buttend of a gun, and knows how to aim it so as to pick off a cat at six hundred yards--that man will let the cat do the worrying. So, at any rate, the matter seemed to these husky young recruits, who were learning to march in the mud and sleep in the rain and chew up carpet-tacks and grind Huns into leber-wurst. They were putting through the job--with a fierce and terrifying gaiety; they exulted in their toughness, they called themselves "grizzlies" and "mountain cats" and what not; they sang wild songs about their irritability, their motto was "Treat 'em rough!" It was a scary atmosphere for a dreamer and utopian; Jimmie Higgins shrank into himself, afraid even to reach about for some fellow-Socialist with whom he might exchange opinions about the events of the outside world.

IV

In the evening there were picture-shows, concerts, lectures-nearly all dealing with the war, of course. They were held in big halls built by the Y.M.C.A., an organization for which Jimmie had a hearty contempt. He regarded it as a device of the exploiting classes to teach submission to their white-collar slaves. But nobody could live in a training-camp without being aware of the "Y". Jimmie was invited to a lecture, and out of boredom he went.

It was Sergeant Ebenezer Collins, imported from Flanders to tell the "doughboys" about the wiles of the Hun. Sergeant Collins spoke a weird language which Jimmie had never heard before, and not all of which he could understand; it served, however, to convince him that the sergeant was genuine--for nobody could possibly have faked such a form of utterance! "When yer gow inter Wipers naow," said the orator, "yer see owld, grye-headed lydies an' bybies like little wite gowsts, an' yer sye ter them, 'Gow-a-wye, the 'Un may be 'ere ter-dye,' but they wown't gow, they got now 'omes ter gow ter!"

But in spite of the difficulties of a foreign language, you realized that this Cockney sergeant was a man. For one thing he had a sense of humour; he had kept it in the midst of terror and death--kept it standing all night in trenches full of icy-cold water, with icy-cold water pouring down his collar. Also the sergeant had a sense of honour--there were things he could not do to a 'Un, even though the 'Un might do them to him. Jimmie had listened to excited debates in Local Leesville, as to whether the Allies were really any better than the Germans; whether, for example, the Allies would have sunk passenger-liners with women and babies on board, if it had been necessary in order to win the war. Sergeant Collins did not debate this question, he just revealed himself as a fighting man. "It's because we plye gymes, an' they down't," he remarked. "If yer plye gymes, yer now 'ow to plye fair."

For three years and eight months Jimmie had been hearing stories about atrocities, and for three years and eight months he had been refusing to believe them. But now the Cockney sergeant told about a pal who had been wounded in a night attack by the 'Uns, and the sergeant had tried to carry him back and had had to leave him; towards dawn they made a counter-attack, and retook the village, and there they found the sergeant's pal, still alive, in spite of the fact that he was spiked to a barn-door with bayonets through his hands and feet. When that story was told, you heard a low murmur run through the room and saw a couple of thousand young men clenching their hands and setting their jaws, getting ready for their big job in France.

"Just now," said the sergeant, "the Germans were making the most desperate attack of the war. The British were at bay, with their backs against the wall. It was upon the men in the training-camps of America that the decision rested; there was no one but them to save the day, to save the rest of the world from falling under the hoofs of the Hun monster. Would they do their part?" Jimmie Higgins heard the answer from those two thousand young throats, and the pacifist in him shrunk deeper out of sight.

But the pacifist was never entirely silent. War was wrong! War was wrong! It was a wicked and brutal way for human beings to settle their disagreements. If human beings were not yet intelligent enough to listen to reason--well, even so, that didn't make war right! A man had to have principles, and to stand by them--how else could he make the world come his way? Yes, war was wrong! But, meantime, war was here; and calling it wrong did not put a stop to it! What the devil was a fellow to do?

V

As soon as Jimmie was able to work, they took him to the part of the camp where a motor-cycle division was training. Here was a big repair-shop, with plenty of damaged machines upon which he might display his skill. He did not know the particular engine they used here, but he soon learned the secrets of it, and satisfied the officers in charge that he knew how to take one apart and put it together again, to replace and mend tyres, to clean ball-bearings and true crooked rims. "You're all right," they said. "And you're needed like the devil over there. You won't have to wait long."

There was a platform where the trains came into the camp, and every few hours now there came a long train to be loaded with men. Jimmie got his notice, and packed his kit and answered roll call and took his place; at sundown of the next day he was detrained at a "mobilization-camp"--another huge city, described in the cautious military fashion as "Somewhere in New Jersey", though everybody within a hundred miles knew its exact location. Here was a port, created for the purposes of war, with docks and wharves where the fleets of transports were loaded with supplies and troops. The vessels sailed in fleets, carrying thirty or forty thousand men at once. From the port of New York alone there was going out a fleet like this every week--the answer of America to the new drive of the Hun.

One met here, not merely the fighting-men, but the forces of all the complicated service behind the lines: gangs of lumbermen from the far North-west, who were to fell the forests of France and make them into railroad-ties and timber for trenches; railway-men, miners, and construction-gangs, engineers and signalmen, bridge-builders and road-makers, telephone-linemen and operators, the drivers of forty thousand motor-cars and of five thousand locomotives; bakers and cooks, menders of shoes and of clothing, farmers to till the soil of France, and doctors and nurses to tend its sick and wounded. There was nothing which the skill and knowledge of a nation of a hundred million people had to offer that was not gathered into this vast encampment. All the youngest and keenest were here, eager to do their part, laughing at danger, tingling with excitement, on tip-toe with curiosity and delight. Jimmie Higgins, watching them, found his doubts melting like an April snow-storm. How could any man see this activity and not be caught up in it? How could he be with these laughing boys and not share their mood?

Jimmie himself had not had a merry childhood, he did not know the youth of his own country--the breezy, slangy, rather shocking, utterly irrepressible youth of this democratic world. If there was anything they did not know--well, they did not know it; if there was anything they could not do--their motto was: "Show me!" Jimmie, not having been to school, found himself having a hard time with their weird slang. When one of these fellows hailed you, "Hey, pimp!" it did not necessarily mean that he did not like you: when he greeted you, "Hey, sweetness!" it did not mean that he felt for you any over-powering affection. If he referred to his officer as "hard-boiled", he did not have in mind that this officer had been exposed to the action of water at 212 degrees Fahrenheit; he merely meant that the officer was a snob. When he remarked, "Good night!" in broad daylight, he meant you to understand that he disagreed with you.

He disagreed frequently and explosively with Jimmie Higgins, trying to point out a difference between the German rulers and the German people! Such subtleties had no interest for these all-knowing boys. When Jimmie persisted, they called him a "nut", a "poor cheese"; they told him that he was "cuckoo", that his "trolley was twisted"; they made whirling motions with their hands to indicate that he had "wheels in his head", they made flapping motions over him to signify that there were "bats in his belfry". So Jimmie subsided, and let them talk their own talk--imploring one another to "have a heart", or to "get wise", or to "make it snappy", or to "cut out the rough stuff". And he would sit and listen while they sang with zest a song telling about what they were going to do when they got to France:

Bring the good old bugle, boys, we'll sing another song, Sing it with a spirit that will move the world along, Sing it as we love to sing it, just two million strong-- While we are canning the Kaiser.

CHORUS:

Oh, Bill! Oh, Bill! We're on the job to-day! Oh, Bill! Oh, Bill! We'll seal you so you'll stay! We'll put you up in ginger in the good old Yankee way-- While we are canning the Kaiser.

Hear the song we're singing on the shining roads of France; Hear the Tommies cheering, and see the Poilus prance; Africanders and Kanucks and Scots without their pants-- While we are canning the Kaiser. (Chorus)

Bring the guns from Bethlehem, by way of old New York; Bring the beans from Boston, and don't leave out the pork; Bring a load of soda-pop and pull the grape-juice cork-- While we are canning the Kaiser. (Chorus)

Come you men from Dixieland, you lumberjacks of Maine; Come you Texas cowboys, and you farmers of the plain; Florida to Oregon, we boast the Yankee strain-- While we are canning the Kaiser. (Chorus)

Now we've started on the job we mean to put it through; Ship the kings and kaisers all, and make the world anew; Clear the way for common folk, for men like me and you-- While we are canning the Kaiser.

CHORUS:

Oh, Bill! Oh, Bill! We're on the job to-day! Oh, Bill! Oh, Bill! We'll seal you so you'll stay! We'll put you up in ginger in the good old Yankee way-- While we are canning the Kaiser.

Upton Sinclair

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