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Excerpt from The Last Ring Home

He crouched on his cracked heels above the dirt floor, the shreds of his uniform stuck between his thighs by weeks of sweat and grime. He could no longer smell himself or anybody else in the hut. Good thing. Slavery stank. The dysentery rampant among the men didn’t help matters. Poor bastards. Minter knew how they felt—cramping as their guts twisted, a knife-like pain deep in their bowels, followed by the helplessness that came when the diarrhea couldn’t be stopped. It was humiliating, he remembered. He had just recovered from pneumonia when they first brought him to this hellhole, his body too weak to fight off the camp curse. At the time, Minter had found himself apologizing to the other guys for what he couldn’t control. Now, he no longer apologized for things like that. There wasn’t much here any of them could control.

There were no good days, but there were some days not as bad as others. Today wasn’t one of those. He held his head, feeling the grit burrow into the sunburnt cracks of his forehead and the strips of skin that came off in his hand.

I am rotting, he thought. My body is rotting away right into the muck of this godforsaken jungle. What is left of me, the flies will eat.

He looked over at one of his buddies, asleep with his mouth open. Flies were using it as a landing pad. Who knew there were this many types of flies? Blue flies, black flies, horse flies, and maggots in everything, hatching new flies.

Jesus, snap out of it, he told himself. Chin up, chin up, chin up, chinup, chinup, chinupchinup, he said faster and faster, slapping his own face. Think of something else.

He tried to turn his thoughts to Lisa and his kids, but the thought faded like a mirage in the desert. His mouth felt beyond parched, as though all moisture had fled forever, replaced by a vile-tasting film coating his tongue and teeth. A couple of scoops of rice a day didn’t cut it and there was never enough water—or the brackish, warm swill that passed for water. He would kill for an ice-cold beer.

That thought started the flood of images: drinking frosty mint juleps in silver cups, so cold the condensation ran down the side; flipping cheeseburgers on the backyard grill; three-scoop banana splits with extra whipped cream; huge rare T-bone steaks with thick strips of fat, dished up with sautéed Vidalia onions. His stomach grumbled in never-ending complaint.

He knew he was obsessed with food. They all were. At night, the men would call to each other in the darkness. Strawberry rhubarb pie. Georgia peaches. Asparagus with hollandaise sauce. Everyone would groan; but the voices went on—reciting recipes for mashed potatoes with whole sticks of butter or New England clam chowder full of cream and carrots. They planned elaborate menus for the meals they would eat when they got home. On and on the talk of food would go until exhaustion took over and they finally passed out.

The next morning, the sun would rise again, starting its climb into a cloudless sky. He would pull himself out of his bunk, already feeling the heat of the day, and use up more of his waning strength to do mule labor for his captors, hoping that soon he and the other men could go home. He did his part, but resentment boiled in him.

That fire had been stoked when he’d read the circular being passed around. In it, the camp’s American commanding officer, Colonel Curtis Beecher, had written,

“However lowly and humble our present position, we are fortunate in being assembled here alive and more or less physically fit. I desire to impress upon you that we are operating under a strictly absolute power. There is only one interpretation, and that is the Japanese interpretation. The Japanese make all the decisions . . . . Ours is a state of complete subjugation. Your duty is to obey.”

Screw that, he thought.