Several Questions Deep

           During the summer of 2010, my wife and I spent several weeks in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  We frequently traveled by taxi. Most of the cabs were pretty old and poorly kept. However, on one occasion we rode in a cab that was very different from the norm. This cab was a bright red late model car and was spotless inside and out.

            As we got in the cab, I commented to the driver on how nice the cab was and that he obviously took pride in his work. He responded favorably to that comment and we began a conversation. As we rode along I asked about his schedule of work. I also asked how many hours a day he drove the cab and if he were a native of the city. As we talked, he seemed to become more comfortable in sharing personal information and I continued asking questions. 

I learned a lot about him.  He only worked when he wanted to since he had retired from the police department. He had worked mainly in the special forces of the department. Then he mentioned that he was a marksman and had actually been trained by Americans in Bangkok. As I was pondering this information, he began pointing out locations where he had been sent because of a murder or a robbery in process.  His job was to shoot the perpetrator.

We passed one building where he casually said that he had shot and killed four people. So as calmly as possible, I asked how many people he had killed in the line of duty. His answer was quick and concise. He said, “Overall, I have killed 84 people.”  This information really shook me. My cabby was a trained and experienced assassin! I was grateful when we reached our destination.

            This experience demonstrates not only the value of questions, but especially that the most interesting and memorable information is several questions deep.


The Battle of the Bulge

A dear friend of mine in his eighties, Clancy, fought in the Battle of the Bulge  during the winter months of 1944-1945. Recently, he recounted for me his several weeks on the front lines of that famous battle.

He told about his company pushing forward in a forest area to attack the enemy. He recalled the constant bombing that he and his fellow soldiers were exposed to. They never knew when the bombs were coming and had no idea where they would explode. The constant noise was deafening. The cold temperatures were numbing and made it hard to pull the trigger on his rifle. Sometimes he saw individual soldiers he was shooting and sometimes he just aimed and shot, hoping to secure his own safety.

Foxholes were the only source of protection and that was minimal. The enemy had concrete bunkers, which were difficult to penetrate so our troops always felt that they were at a disadvantage.

The most telling exchange with Clancy was his lack of specificity about some of the events. For example, he did not remember even an estimate of the casualties among the 500 men who were fighting in his particular part of the battle field. His response was simply, “Most of the soldiers.”  He did not recall in specific details any of the many close calls with death he experienced.

He was vague about how they survived the cold temperatures, lack of living quarters, the constant barrage of enemy fire, and the poor sanitary conditions. As he was pausing to consider these kinds of questions, his daughter who was listening said, “Dad, do you still have nightmares about it?” His pause followed by a simple “Yes” after sixty-seven years was a quiet tribute to the horrors of the war.

The human mind is able to shut out the horrific and couch the memories in general terms. There were 81,000 American casualties in the forests of Belgium during that battle. Clancy’s story is a reminder of the debt we owe the men, often very young, who fought in this battle that was the turning point in the war.