An excerpt from Martin Limón’s
Strange wasn’t in the Snack Bar.
Most mornings he sat at his usual table, sipping on a cup of hot chocolate, perusing the Pacific edition of the Stars & Stripes. By 0730 hours, he’d hoist himself upright, stick his folded newspaper into his back pocket, and mosey on over to the 8th Army Headquarters building, about two blocks away. There he’d let himself into the steel-reinforced Classified Documents vault, hang up his hat and his jacket, roll open the iron-barred customer window, and start handing out reports stamped confidential or secret or, upon occasion, top secret. After, that is, the supplicants presented their military identification and properly annotated the sign-out/sign-in register with the date, time, document number, destination, and purpose of acquisition.
But this morning, for some reason, he wasn’t at his usual table in the big Quonset hut that housed the 8th Army Snack Bar.
I don’t think Ernie noticed. He hurried to the serving line and ordered a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich. Because my stomach was gurgling, I grabbed an overpriced fruit cup out of the display cooler.
After a quick stop at the cash register, we walked toward the rear of the Quonset hut, a few people nodding to us along the way.
Ernie was just slightly over six feet tall with a pointed nose and green eyes peeking accusingly out at the world from behind round-lensed glasses. Not particularly good-looking, I thought, but for some reason—a reason unfathomable to me—women found him attractive. Maybe it was his energy; a nervous compulsion to “fire them up.” That is, cause trouble.
I was a couple inches taller than Ernie, maybe twenty pounds heavier. On the darker side. Hispanic. The gringo stereotype of a mugger. Together we made people nervous, which more often than not was the desired effect.
At the back wall, we found an open table, plopped porcelain mugs onto Formica, sat down, and began discussing the day’s work.
“More black-market detail,” I said.
“Riley’s got a hair up his butt,” Ernie told me.
He was referring to Staff Sergeant Riley, NCO-in-charge of the Administrative Section of the CID Detachment; a stickler for keeping tabs on the black-market arrest statistics. His boss—and our boss—Colonel Walter P. Brace, the 8th Army Provost Marshal, briefed the 8th Army Chief of Staff at least war women twice weekly on our so-called progress on the black-market detail. In other words, on how many yobos—the Korean wives of US servicemen—we’d busted buying duty-free PX and commissary goods on the American compound and selling them for a nice markup.
The Korean War had been an era of death, pestilence, and starvation. Now, two decades later, the standard of living was improving, but not by much. The black market was an income flow that often meant the difference between a Korean woman’s extended family being fed and having a roof over their heads, and being thrown into the street. Sometimes it paid for a younger sibling’s tuition so they could attend high school and thereby land steady work in the viciously competitive Korean job market. So Ernie and I didn’t feel great about busting people who were just trying to keep their family afloat.
“Our black-market stats must be low,” I said.
“Screw ’em,” I told Ernie.
He agreed wholeheartedly.
We arrived in the CID office just prior to the ceremonial firing of the 0800 start-of-business cannon. I’d just sat down at the wooden field table that served as my desk when the phone rang. Miss Kim, the gorgeous and genteel admin secretary, picked it up and identified herself. Then, in a sweet voice, she said, “Just a moment, please,” and covered the receiver with her palm. “Georgie,” she said, holding out the phone. “For you.”
I walked over, took the phone out of her hand, and said, “Sueño here.”
“Agent George Sueño?”
“I’m Specialist Orting, over at the Eighth Army head shed.”
“You probably saw me a few times. I work for Sergeant Harvey.”
For a moment I wondered who he was talking about, and then it came to me. The man we called Strange was actually Sergeant First Class Cecil B. Harvey, a senior NCO who was only two stripes below the pinnacle of the enlisted rank hierarchy.
“Okay,” I said. “I remember you, Orting. What is it?”
“It’s about Sergeant Harvey. He isn’t here.”
“Maybe he’s just late.”
“Him? Never. He always arrives at least a half-hour early.”
Orting was right. A man’s work can become his life. Like breathing. It even has a similar rhythm. The good air comes in and the bad air goes out, endlessly, in a reassuring pattern. Work is like that. You crawl out of bed on a Monday morning, drag yourself through the day, then bless your lucky stars when it’s finally time to get off and go home. After a few hours of rest, you wake up and start the whole process again. The cyclical routine, punctuated artfully by weekends and holidays, has a salutary effect. God is in His heaven, a four-star general is in command of the 8th United States Army, and all is right with the world.
This pattern is especially appreciated by non-commissioned officers. They don’t call us “the backbone of the army” for nothing. We’re the ones who are there in the morning, taking roll call, making sure all the doors are open, the lights are turned on, and the operation keeps humming during the workday. And then, at close of business, we make sure everything is secure and turned off, and another successful day is properly recorded in the annals of military history. NCOs, people like Strange, are the men who kept the army breathing.
“Why are you calling me?” I asked Orting.
“I don’t want to tell Major Cranston. Not yet. He’s our OIC.” Officer-in-charge. “I’m hoping Sergeant Harvey just overslept or something.”
“You don’t want to get him in trouble.”
“Exactly.” Orting seemed relieved that I understood. “Besides, Sergeant Harvey told me that if anything ever went seriously wrong, I should call you.”
“He gave you my number?”
“Yes. Criminal Investigation Division. Eighth Army. He made sure I wrote it down.”
This was sort of a compliment, I supposed. Although Strange had his differences with Ernie and me, he knew we wouldn’t bail on him. At least he hoped we wouldn’t.
“What’s Sergeant Harvey’s quarters address?”
“Senior NCO billet 332, Room 7.”
I wrote it down. “North Post?” I asked.
Yongsan Garrison, the 8th Army headquarters compound, was divided into North Post and South Post. South Post was mostly dedicated to officer quarters and housing for the few dependent families who were allowed in Korea.
“I guess,” Orting replied.
“You haven’t been there?”
“Nobody has. Sergeant Harvey mostly keeps to himself.”
“Like a hermit.”
“You could say that. He attends the office parties, but he always comes late, sits by himself, and leaves early.”
“He keeps a low profile,” I said.
That sounded like Strange, I thought. Waiting for everyone to get half-soused, listening to their loose lips as they sank a few ships. Mentally recording the data, then slipping out when no one was looking. That was his value to us. Not only did he control classified documents, but he was a notorious gossip—or more precisely, a collector of gossip—and his information had proven invaluable to us in more than one investigation. He wasn’t supposed to pass any classified info on to us—in fact, it was illegal. Ernie and I didn’t officially have a need-to-know. But more than once, these illicit revelations had helped us crack a case wide open and even saved lives.
The quid pro quo was that every time we saw him, he led with the same question: “Had any strange lately?” And either Ernie or I, usually Ernie, had to come up with a satisfying answer. Ernie would tell him some story about his latest sexual conquest, and, meanwhile, I’d go to the serving line, draw Strange a fresh cup of hot chocolate—with two marshmallows and a stirring spoon—and serve it to him, and in return we’d receive our information. It made us feel soiled, but so far, all his information had been accurate and well worth the extra hot shower or two.
“Okay,” I told Orting. “I’ll go check on Sergeant Harvey.”
“Great. I gotta go. People waiting at the window.”
He hung up. I lowered the receiver and turned to Ernie.
“What?” he said.
“Hat up,” I told him.
He walked over to the coat rack and slipped on his fatigue cap. Thirty seconds later, we were outside in the jeep, Ernie firing it up, revving the engine, and slamming it into reverse.
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