Red woke up again to the sound of B-29’s flying overhead. He was a soldier on the island of Guam during World War II. He tried to keep his eyes closed and sleep some more, but the warmth of the afternoon woke him completely. He looked around at the GI’s on the other cots and saw them stirring too. The men who served as orderlies during the night in the Army hospital were waking up. Rising on one elbow, Red kicked his nearest neighbor with his big toe. Joe’s dark-blue eyes flew open, and he grinned.
“What’s the big idea waking me up?”
“Any good reason to stay asleep?” Red stood, stretched, then bent to feel for something in his Army locker. He made a face as a moldy smell rose to him from the things inside, but he forgot to smell as soon as his hands held towel and soap. “Come on, Joe, let’s go shower.” Red made no attempt to speak softly, and growls disgust rose from the other fellows in the tent.
Red and Joe loved the cool water of the showers, but the coolness didn’t last long.
“Don’t know why we bother.” Joe walked along beside Red, his damp towel draped over one shoulder. “This crazy heat and sticky weather don’t give a guy much chance to feel good around here.”
“You’re sure right. Lots of times I’d love to trade in this 85-degree temperature and 85-degree humidity for one cool day on the beach in California.” The two GI’s turned in at their own tent again and Red sprawled on his cot with relief.
“Hey, you to,” came the call. “Come on over. We’ve got a good game going on!”
Joe dropped his towel and soap on his bed and headed for the cluster of soldiers. Red sat up and watched from where he was without much interest. The card games his buddies played never did interest him much. He surely did wish that this war would hurry up and get over.
“Whew!” A fat fellow in the fourth bed wiped a hand across his perspiring face. “You guys play your games. All I can do is concentrate on the beautiful canvas above me, and even that isn’t much fun.”
Joe turned from the group he was watching and looked at Red. “Why don’t you go and get us some coconuts? Sure would love some coconut milk!”
“You nuts or something?” The fat soldier sta up with an effort. “You want Red to get shot by some Japanese sniper like that man they hauled in last night? The fellow was shooting at the sentry, and they caught him; but you can count on it ten to one there are plenty more snipers out in that jungle!”
Red stood and stretched again. Joe watched him fasten his big jungle knife to his belt, and the short, darkhaired GI slowly shook his head.
“You really going? I was only joking! One of those snipers’ll get you sure!” Joe came over to stand by Red and then followed his friend to the front door of his tent. “I shouldn’t have even talked about the coconuts.”
“I think they’ve got all the snipers,” Red answered quietly. “Anyhow, after working in the hospital all night, then sleeping in this soggy heat all day, a guy’s got to do something. How about coming along, Joe? All we have to do is find the right tree. We’ll come back with enough coconuts for the whole gang.”
“No, thanks! Guess I don’t have to get killed just because you want to be!” Joe turned back to watch the card players.
Red’s long legs measured the distance to an opening in the piled-up vegetation at the edge of the hospital area. He stood looking along a path into the jungle and carefully examined the nearest coconut. Then he checked another and another. He needed a tree that had plenty of coconuts of just the right maturity. He moved on to the shady path and inspected the next trees he found. His GI shoes were so big he knew he would have to find a tree that had the neat little notches so carefully cut by the boys of Guam. Not being too experienced at coconut harvesting he also wanted a very slanting tree. Before Red realized what was happening, he had followed the jungle trail quite a long way from camp. Mahogany trees, young papaya trees, and many other kinds of vegetation grew on every side, closing in the lone American soldier. Still looking, measuring each tree for his needs, he walked on slowly, not thinking about danger.
Then he saw the tree he wanted. The path widened ahead and in a small natural clearing stood Red’s tree. It was the one he needed. His eyes followed up its perfectly curved, leaning trunk, took in even, carefully-made notches, and greedily counted the bunches of coconuts under its long green fronds. A breeze ruffled the top, and Red walked slowly over the base of the tree. He went part way around it, recounting the nuts, then turned back.
|I wish grandmother could see all this,” he mumbled softly to himself, then paused and looked around with renewed interest. He tried to imagine grandmother standing there, looking up at the coconuts! Dear grandmother! He patted the pocket where her latest letter rattled slightly at his touch. Setting one foot against the bottom of the coconut palm, Red pulled the letter out and opened it.|
“The corn is tasseling out and it won’t be long before we can eat corn on the cob. I wish we could share it with you. Wherever you are I suppose you are trying out fruit and vegetable that are quite different from any you ate here on the ranch! We’ll have plenty for you in the freezer and cellar when you get home. And may the dear Lord Guide you and keep you safe. Grandad and I have a prayer always in our hearts for your safety.”
Red folded the letter and tucked it back in his pocket. Looking around, it seemed to him almost as if he could hear grandmother’s soft voice saying, “May the dear Lord keep you safe.” He shrugged his shoulders, shoved the jungle knife to keep it out of the way, and began to climb the tree. He realized that the ready-cut toe holds were slightly close together for his lanky legs and big feet, but they surely made things easier than trying to get up all that distance any other way. The palm swayed a bit as the soldier climbed, till at last he could touch the first small bunch of coconuts.
Still looking up, Red unsnapped the case of his knife. He pulled the sharp machete out, then swung it to cut the tough stem and let the nuts fall. Cleanly the sharp metal cut, and Red’s eyes followed the bunch to the ground.
At this point time seemed to stand still for Red. He felt his eyes widen with horror as he saw the nuts barely miss a slender wire he hadn’t noticed before. The bunch landed with a splat, and the coconuts bounced hither and yon. Red clung to the palm, his mouth dry and his stomach uneasy. He closed his eyes briefly, then looked again. The wire was still there. What’s more, he could see now that it was connected to a small metal box attached to the underside of the slanting tree trunk. He could trace the outline of the box now with his eyes, sillouetted against the color of the bare ground under his tree. Looking past the wire, Red counted the coconuts. Four. With sudden finality, he put the knife back in its case and snapped the cover shut.
Feeling a good deal weaker now than he had a moment before, Red slowly climbed back down the notches in the tree trunk. Numbly he stepped around to look at the box. It was certainly plain enough now, but if he had gone all the way around before he climbed up he would have run right into the wire.
Red bowed his head, thinking. Again he could almost hear grandmother’s voice, “May the Lord keep you safe.” He pulled his shoulders straight, looked around, and cautiously gathered the four coconuts for his buddies. Carefully he avoided touching the wire, and he knew now that it had been purposely stretched where it could be easily seen.
Back at the hospital base, Red stopped in at headquarters.
“What do you want, soldier?” The officer at the desk looked up from a huge pile of papers.
Red shifted the coconuts in his arms. “I think, sir, that I just found a booby trap. It looks like the thing the enemy sets to explode when they’re touched.”
“Really? And did you get those coconuts out in the jungle? Why, man, we’re bringing in the enemy from out there all the time!” The officer stood now and continued speaking. “You’d better give me an exact description of this—booby trap. I’ll send instructions for a demolition squad to investigate it.” The officer pulled a sheet of paper toward him and waited.
“Yes, sir, it was right out the trail past the orderly tents.” Red gave an accurate account of his experience. As he turned to leave, the officer spoke again. “This morning we brought in a whole nest of enemy soldiers who had surrendered. They must have been hiding just beyond your coconut tree! I’d suggest, soldier, that you get your coconuts closer to base next time!”
The fellows in the tent were lolling around when Red walked in the door. Volunteers immediately rushed to relieve him of his load of coconuts.
“How come this is all you got?”
“Are you going back after the rest?”
Joe managed to get hold of the last coconut and raised his knife to cut the top. Suddenly he stopped and looked Red in the eye.
“You have any trouble out there?”
“Well, I’ll tell you sometime, buddy. But no, no I really didn’t have any trouble at all!” Red was remembering the words again, “May the dear Lord guide you and keep you safe!”
This story originally appeared in the July 15, 1970 issue of Guide.