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   Chapter 3 No.3

Three Soldiers By John Dos Passos Characters: 18417

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

It was Saturday morning. Directed by the corporal, a bandy-legged Italian who even on the army diet managed to keep a faint odour of garlic about him, three soldiers in blue denims were sweeping up the leaves in the street between the rows of barracks.

"You fellers are slow as molasses.... Inspection in twenty-five minutes," he kept saying.

The soldiers raked on doggedly, paying no attention. "You don't give a damn. If we don't pass inspection, I get hell-not you. Please queeck. Here, you, pick up all those goddam cigarette butts."

Andrews made a grimace and began collecting the little grey sordid ends of burnt-out cigarettes. As he leant over he found himself looking into the dark-brown eyes of the soldier who was working beside him. The eyes were contracted with anger and there was a flush under the tan of the boyish face.

"Ah didn't git in this here army to be ordered around by a goddam wop," he muttered.

"Doesn't matter much who you're ordered around by, you're ordered around just the same," said Andrews. "Where d'ye come from, buddy?"

"Oh, I come from New York. My folks are from Virginia," said Andrews.

"Indiana's ma state. The tornado country.... Git to work; here's that bastard wop comin' around the buildin'."

"Don't pick 'em up that-a-way; sweep 'em up," shouted the corporal.

Andrews and the Indiana boy went round with a broom and a shovel collecting chewed-out quids of tobacco and cigar butts and stained bits of paper.

"What's your name? Mahn's Chrisfield. Folks all call me Chris."

"Mine's Andrews, John Andrews."

"Ma dad uster have a hired man named Andy. Took sick an' died last summer. How long d'ye reckon it'll be before us-guys git overseas?"

"God, I don't know."

"Ah want to see that country over there."

"You do?"

"Don't you?"

"You bet I do."

"All right, what you fellers stand here for? Go and dump them garbage cans. Lively!" shouted the corporal waddling about importantly on his bandy legs. He kept looking down the row of barracks, muttering to himself, "Goddam.... Time fur inspectin' now, goddam. Won't never pass this time."

His face froze suddenly into obsequious immobility. He brought his hand up to the brim of his hat. A group of officers strode past him into the nearest building.

John Andrews, coming back from emptying the garbage pails, went in the back door of his barracks.

"Attention!" came the cry from the other end. He made his neck and arms as rigid as possible.

Through the silent barracks came the hard clank of the heels of the officers inspecting.

A sallow face with hollow eyes and heavy square jaw came close to Andrews's eyes. He stared straight before him noting the few reddish hairs on the officer's Adam's apple and the new insignia on either side of his collar.

"Sergeant, who is this man?" came a voice from the sallow face.

"Don't know, sir; a new recruit, sir. Corporal Valori, who is this man?"

"The name's Andrews, sergeant," said the Italian corporal with an obsequious whine in his voice.

The officer addressed Andrews directly, speaking fast and loud. "How long have you been in the army?"

"One week, sir."

"Don't you know you have to be clean and shaved and ready for inspection every Saturday morning at nine?"

"I was cleaning the barracks, sir."

"To teach you not to answer back when an officer addresses you...." The officer spaced his words carefully, lingering on them. As he spoke he glanced out of the corner of his eye at his superior and noticed the major was frowning. His tone changed ever so slightly. "If this ever occurs again you may be sure that disciplinary action will be taken.... Attention there!" At the other end of the barracks a man had moved. Again, amid absolute silence, could be heard the clanking of the officers' heels as the inspection continued.

"Now, fellows, all together," cried the "Y" man who stood with his arms stretched wide in front of the movie screen. The piano started jingling and the roomful of crowded soldiers roared out:

"Hail, Hail, the gang's all here;

We're going to get the Kaiser,

We're going to get the Kaiser,

We're going to get the Kaiser,


The rafters rang with their deep voices.

The "Y" man twisted his lean face into a facetious expression.

"Somebody tried to put one over on the 'Y' man and sing 'What the hell do we care?' But you do care, don't you, Buddy?" he shouted.

There was a little rattle of laughter.

"Now, once more," said the "Y" man again, "and lots of guts in the get and lots of kill in the Kaiser. Now all together.... "

The moving pictures had begun. John Andrews looked furtively about him, at the face of the Indiana boy beside him intent on the screen, at the tanned faces and the close-cropped heads that rose above the mass of khaki-covered bodies about him. Here and there a pair of eyes glinted in the white flickering light from the screen. Waves of laughter or of little exclamations passed over them. They were all so alike, they seemed at moments to be but one organism. This was what he had sought when he had enlisted, he said to himself. It was in this that he would take refuge from the horror of the world that had fallen upon him. He was sick of revolt, of thought, of carrying his individuality like a banner above the turmoil. This was much better, to let everything go, to stamp out his maddening desire for music, to humble himself into the mud of common slavery. He was still tingling with sudden anger from the officer's voice that morning: "Sergeant, who is this man?" The officer had stared in his face, as a man might stare at a piece of furniture.

"Ain't this some film?" Chrisfield turned to him with a smile that drove his anger away in a pleasant feeling of comradeship.

"The part that's comin's fine. I seen it before out in Frisco," said the man on the other side of Andrews. "Gee, it makes ye hate the Huns."

The man at the piano jingled elaborately in the intermission between the two parts of the movie.

The Indiana boy leaned in front of John Andrews, putting an arm round his shoulders, and talked to the other man.

"You from Frisco?"


"That's goddam funny. You're from the Coast, this feller's from New York, an' Ah'm from ole Indiana, right in the middle."

"What company you in?"

"Ah ain't yet. This feller an me's in Casuals."

"That's a hell of a place.... Say, my name's Fuselli."

"Mahn's Chrisfield."

"Mine's Andrews."

"How soon's it take a feller to git out o' this camp?"

"Dunno. Some guys says three weeks and some says six months.... Say, mebbe you'll get into our company. They transferred a lot of men out the other day, an' the corporal says they're going to give us rookies instead."

"Goddam it, though, but Ah want to git overseas."

"It's swell over there," said Fuselli, "everything's awful pretty-like. Picturesque, they call it. And the people wears peasant costumes.... I had an uncle who used to tell me about it. He came from near Torino."

"Where's that?"

"I dunno. He's an Eyetalian."

"Say, how long does it take to git overseas?"

"Oh, a week or two," said Andrews.

"As long as that?" But the movie had begun again, unfolding scenes of soldiers in spiked helmets marching into Belgian cities full of little milk carts drawn by dogs and old women in peasant costume. There were hisses and catcalls when a German flag was seen, and as the troops were pictured advancing, bayonetting the civilians in wide Dutch pants, the old women with starched caps, the soldiers packed into the stuffy Y. M. C. A. hut shouted oaths at them. Andrews felt blind hatred stirring like something that had a life of its own in the young men about him. He was lost in it, carried away in it, as in a stampede of wild cattle. The terror of it was like ferocious hands clutching his throat. He glanced at the faces round him. They were all intent and flushed, glinting with sweat in the heat of the room.

As he was leaving the hut, pressed in a tight stream of soldiers moving towards the door, Andrews heard a man say:

"I never raped a woman in my life, but by God, I'm going to. I'd give a lot to rape some of those goddam German women."

"I hate 'em too," came another voice, "men, women, children and unborn children. They're either jackasses or full of the lust for power like their rulers are, to let themselves be governed by a bunch of warlords like that."

"Ah'd lahk te cepture a German officer an' make him shine ma boots an' then shoot him dead," said Chris to Andrews as they walked down the long row towards their barracks.

"You would?"

"But Ah'd a damn side rather shoot somebody else Ah know," went on Chris intensely. "Don't stay far from here either. An' Ah'll do it too, if he don't let off pickin' on me."

"Who's that?"

"That big squirt Anderson they made a file closer at drill yesterday. He seems to think that just because Ah'm littler than him he can do anything he likes with me."

Andrews turned sharply and looked in his companion's face; something in the gruffness of the boy's tone startled him. He was not accustomed to this. He had thought of himself

as a passionate person, but never in his life had he wanted to kill a man.

"D'you really want to kill him?"

"Not now, but he gits the hell started in me, the way he teases me. Ah pulled ma knife on him yisterday. You wasn't there. Didn't ye notice Ah looked sort o' upsot at drill?"

"Yes... but how old are you, Chris!"

"Ah'm twenty. You're older than me, ain't yer?"

"I'm twenty-two."

They were leaning against the wall of their barracks, looking up at the brilliant starry night.

"Say, is the stars the same over there, overseas, as they is here?"

"I guess so," said Andrews, laughing. "Though I've never been to see."

"Ah never had much schoolin'," went on Chris. "I lef school when I was twelve, 'cause it warn't much good, an' dad drank so the folks needed me to work on the farm."

"What do you grow in your part of the country?"

"Mostly coan. A little wheat an' tobacca. Then we raised a lot o' stock.... But Ah was juss going to tell ye Ah nearly did kill a guy once."

"Tell me about it."

"Ah was drunk at the time. Us boys round Tallyville was a pretty tough bunch then. We used ter work juss long enough to git some money to tear things up with. An' then we used to play craps an' drink whiskey. This happened just at coan-shuckin' time. Hell, Ah don't even know what it was about, but Ah got to quarrellin' with a feller Ah'd been right smart friends with. Then he laid off an' hit me in the jaw. Ah don't know what Ah done next, but before Ah knowed it Ah had a hold of a shuck-in' knife and was slashin' at him with it. A knife like that's a turruble thing to stab a man with. It took four of 'em to hold me down an' git it away from me. They didn't keep me from givin' him a good cut across the chest, though. Ah was juss crazy drunk at the time. An' man, if Ah wasn't a mess to go home, with half ma clothes pulled off and ma shirt torn. Ah juss fell in the ditch an' slep' there till daylight an' got mud all through ma hair.... Ah don't scarcely tech a drop now, though."

"So you're in a hurry to get overseas, Chris, like me," said Andrews after a long pause.

"Ah'll push that guy Anderson into the sea, if we both go over on the same boat," said Chrisfield laughing; but he added after a pause: "It would have been hell if Ah'd killed that feller, though. Honest Ah wouldn't a-wanted to do that."

"That's the job that pays, a violinist," said somebody.

"No, it don't," came a melancholy drawling voice from a lanky man who sat doubled up with his long face in his hands and his elbows resting on his knees. "Just brings a living wage... a living wage."

Several men were grouped at the end of the barracks. From them the long row of cots, with here and there a man asleep or a man hastily undressing, stretched, lighted by occasional feeble electric-light bulbs, to the sergeant's little table beside the door.

"You're gettin' a dis-charge, aren't you?" asked a man with a brogue, and the red face of a jovial gorilla, that signified the bartender.

"Yes, Flannagan, I am," said the lanky man dolefully.

"Ain't he got hard luck?" came a voice from the crowd.

"Yes, I have got hard luck, Buddy," said the lanky man, looking at the faces about him out of sunken eyes. "I ought to be getting forty dollars a week and here I am getting seven and in the army besides."

"I meant that you were gettin' out of this goddam army."

"The army, the army, the democratic army," chanted someone under his breath.

"But, begorry, I want to go overseas and 'ave a look at the 'uns," said Flannagan, who managed with strange skill to combine a cockney whine with his Irish brogue.

"Overseas?" took up the lanky man. "If I could have gone an' studied overseas, I'd be making as much as Kubelik. I had the makings of a good player in me."

"Why don't you go?" asked Andrews, who stood on the outskirts with Fuselli and Chris.

"Look at me... t. b.," said the lanky man.

"Well, they can't get me over there soon enough," said Flannagan.

"Must be funny not bein' able to understand what folks say. They say 'we' over there when they mean 'yes,' a guy told me."

"Ye can make signs to them, can't ye?" said Flannagan "an' they can understand an Irishman anywhere. But ye won't 'ave to talk to the 'uns. Begorry I'll set up in business when I get there, what d'ye think of that?"

Everybody laughed.

"How'd that do? I'll start an Irish House in Berlin, I will, and there'll be O'Casey and O'Ryan and O'Reilly and O'Flarrety, and begod the King of England himself'll come an' set the goddam Kaiser up to a drink."

"The Kaiser'll be strung up on a telephone pole by that time; ye needn't worry, Flannagan."

"They ought to torture him to death, like they do niggers when they lynch 'em down south."

A bugle sounded far away outside on the parade ground. Everyone slunk away silently to his cot.

John Andrews arranged himself carefully in his blankets, promising himself a quiet time of thought before going to sleep. He needed to be awake and think at night this way, so that he might not lose entirely the thread of his own life, of the life he would take up again some day if he lived through it. He brushed away the thought of death. It was uninteresting. He didn't care anyway. But some day he would want to play the piano again, to write music. He must not let himself sink too deeply into the helpless mentality of the soldier. He must keep his will power.

No, but that was not what he had wanted to think about. He was so bored with himself. At any cost he must forget himself. Ever since his first year at college he seemed to have done nothing but think about himself, talk about himself. At least at the bottom, in the utterest degradation of slavery, he could find forgetfulness and start rebuilding the fabric of his life, out of real things this time, out of work and comradeship and scorn. Scorn-that was the quality he needed. It was such a raw, fantastic world he had suddenly fallen into. His life before this week seemed a dream read in a novel, a picture he had seen in a shop window-it was so different. Could it have been in the same world at all? He must have died without knowing it and been born again into a new, futile hell.

When he had been a child he had lived in a dilapidated mansion that stood among old oaks and chestnuts, beside a road where buggies and oxcarts passed rarely to disturb the sandy ruts that lay in the mottled shade. He had had so many dreams; lying under the crepe-myrtle bush at the end of the overgrown garden he had passed the long Virginia afternoons, thinking, while the dryflies whizzed sleepily in the sunlight, of the world he would live in when he grew up. He had planned so many lives for himself: a general, like Caesar, he was to conquer the world and die murdered in a great marble hall; a wandering minstrel, he would go through all countries singing and have intricate endless adventures; a great musician, he would sit at the piano playing, like Chopin in the engraving, while beautiful women wept and men with long, curly hair hid their faces in their hands. It was only slavery that he had not foreseen. His race had dominated for too many centuries for that. And yet the world was made of various slaveries.

John Andrews lay on his back on his cot while everyone about him slept and snored in the dark barracks. A certain terror held him. In a week the great structure of his romantic world, so full of many colors and harmonies, that had survived school and college and the buffeting of making a living in New York, had fallen in dust about him. He was utterly in the void. "How silly," he thought; "this is the world as it has appeared to the majority of men, this is just the lower half of the pyramid."

He thought of his friends, of Fuselli and Chrisfield and that funny little man Eisenstein. They seemed at home in this army life. They did not seem appalled by the loss of their liberty. But they had never lived in the glittering other world. Yet he could not feel the scorn of them he wanted to feel. He thought of them singing under the direction of the "Y" man:

"Hail, Hail, the gang's all here;

We're going to get the Kaiser,

We're going to get the Kaiser,

We're going to get the Kaiser,


He thought of himself and Chrisfield picking up cigarette butts and the tramp, tramp, tramp of feet on the drill field. Where was the connection? Was this all futile madness? They'd come from such various worlds, all these men sleeping about him, to be united in this. And what did they think of it, all these sleepers? Had they too not had dreams when they were boys? Or had the generations prepared them only for this?

He thought of himself lying under the crepe-myrtle bush through the hot, droning afternoon, watching the pale magenta flowers flutter down into the dry grass, and felt, again, wrapped in his warm blankets among all these sleepers, the straining of limbs burning with desire to rush untrammelled through some new keen air. Suddenly darkness overspread his mind.

He woke with a start. The bugle was blowing outside.

"All right, look lively!" the sergeant was shouting. Another day.

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