He hasn't got a grave, of course. Well, not to himself. He was thrown in the pit with the others. But at least I got his name on the memorial. And at least I was there to shed a tear for him, and for all the others who died. Not just a tear, actually. I broke down completely and crumpled onto the ground, sobbing uncontrollably; as much for myself as for the friends I'd lost and for what had happened to my adopted country. I wasn't the only one. Martyrdom is fine and noble in retrospect, but the thing was, we didn't really see it coming, at least until it was too late; and even then, we didn't exactly volunteer for it.
Besides, if you'd asked me about martyrdom when I was still working, I'd probably have had some sort of romantic notion about Heroic Last Words and facing a firing squad with my head held high. I wouldn't have thought of... well, just work, endless work, in freezing cold and burning sun, mud and dust, working until you dropped. In a way, that was the worst of it too. When you dropped, they didn't just put a bullet through the back of your head. That would have been a merciful release for many of us. Certainly for me, after the first year. But oh, no: that wouldn't have been The American Way. Instead they'd put you in hospital, with more food and less work. Then, when you'd recovered, they'd send you back to the fields.
There was not much chance of working your ticket, either. Sorry: that's an English expression. I've written so little in American, for so long, that I tend to revert to the usages of my first thirty years. Two nations, separated by a common language? Unfortunately, the common language seems to have made it all too easy to adopt a common political reaction. “Working your ticket” means playing the system, telling them what they want to hear, even if it's crazy, until they let you off all the hardships and treat you as some sort of holy fool. Well, fool, anyway. Someone who is no threat and can safely be warehoused for the rest of their (ideally short) life.
That's why they treated you so well in hospital. Physically, it was hard not to recover. Mentally; well, mentally wasn't something they worried about. That bought you the exact opposite treatment: solitary, and a reduced diet. If you were totally refractory, you got what the torturers of old had called the House of Little Ease: a room, or more accurately a box, too small to lie full length and too low to stand up. There were four of them, distributed through the accommodation blocks, so everyone could hear their screams; or, when they'd screamed themselves hoarse, their croaks, their racking sobs, their pleas for release. Sure, it worked, the way torture always works. You get the result you want. It's just not a result that means very much. People will say almost anything to make the torture stop. They'll even work on the camp newspaper. If that sounds like bathos, read on.
We were all journalists. Like most journalists of my age, I'd fallen into it by accident and by a series of sideways and always unplanned moves. In a way, that made us tougher than many of the younger ones who'd studied Journalism with a capital J at university and thought it was a career rather than a form of Brownian motion. We weren't always a lot stronger, though. There were plenty of nights when I cried myself to sleep, even though I'd have sworn I was too tired to stay awake for even a minute or two, let alone cry. And then, seemingly seconds after I'd fallen asleep – sometimes, before I'd even realized I was asleep – there'd be the bell, the endless shrilling like the worst school bell you ever heard. And the gruel for breakfast, and back to the fields.
Now, you might not think that there was much scope for political dissent or “fake news” in my chosen field. I mean, for God's sake, I wrote for bloody photographic magazines. You know: Classic Lenses for Macro and Top Tips for Shooting Landscapes, or Turning Pro. Even before the government closed down the last one I wrote for, though, it was a shadow of its former self. Much of the advertising had disappeared onto the internet, and besides, fewer and fewer people were willing to pay for real dead tree magazines when they could get content for free on the internet. What they read was mostly rubbish, but hey, it was free rubbish. I'd been pretty well off in the 1990s and early 00s, but things had gotten steadily worse and by the time Trump was elected we were just about hanging on. Five of the magazines I'd once written for had disappeared; one had gone from weekly to monthly; and one was web-only. ++ But we still had a big circulation, over 20,000, so we fell under the Executive Order that mandated the subjects we had to carry every month. Actually, that would have been impossible anyway, because the lists were issued monthly and the magazine was planned three months ahead. They never paid much attention to the fine detail, though. The problem was, we didn't take it seriously. That was a big mistake. An even bigger mistake was pointing out that the whole idea was half-assed and betrayed a complete and utter lack of understanding of what journalism was about.
To tell the truth, too, I was just a little bit heroic when they came for me. My language may have been slightly intemperate: they didn't take it kindly when I said that the whole boiling lot of them were gibbering idiots, from the top downwards. They didn't beat me up or anything. Just took away my livelihood and my freedom and, not too long afterwards, my house. It was mortgaged and the bank foreclosed. My wife managed to get away, back to Syria. The hardest day of my life, including all the days in the re-education camp, was that day when we parted. No, maybe it wasn't. At the time, we didn't know it was for the last time. Maybe the hardest day was the day I learned she'd died, almost a year to the day after I was sent to the camp. Looking back, there isn't much to choose between those two days.
If anything could turn me into a revolutionary, it was that. All of that. But what could I do? I was just a generic bien-pensant liberal who couldn't really believe what was happening. Unlike most bien-pensant liberals, I owned a couple of guns – we'd inherited them from my wife's father – but what of it? There's not much you can keep at home that is any good for taking on a squad of heavily armed brown-shirted hooligans posing as a well-regulated militia. I could probably have taken down half of them: I'd had basic military training and I was (probably still am) a good shot. But I remembered a story my father had told me, about the boarding of the Altmark in 1944. It was the last time cold steel was used in a naval engagement, as far as I know. The boarding party, a Chief and five, had gone over the side. The first guard they encountered had had a Luger. He could have shot some of them. That would still have left at least a couple of rather unhappy sailors with a yard of sharp steel each in their hands. Rather than getting chopped up by the survivors, he wisely chose to surrender. That was how I felt at the time. Besides, my wife was with me. If we'd known we'd never see one another again, we'd probably have started shooting at them and saved a bullet each for ourselves. But we just couldn't believe how bad things could get, or how quickly. Today we know how bad things can get, and how quickly, but then, we didn't.
Melon picking may not have been the worst job, but alongside cotton it was the lowest in the pecking order. Strawberries and peaches and grapes are at least as back-breaking, but they require a degree of care if you are to avoid bruised or crushed fruit. This gives you room for quite a range of silent protest. Melons and cotton can take a lot of abuse, so the awkward squad were assigned to them. We took quite a lot of abuse, too. They weren't allowed to shoot us unless we were rioting or running away – though both were interpreted loosely – but a rifle butt in the kidneys gets your attention.
Again, that was the crazy thing. I really wasn't that much of a rebel. But you didn't need to be much of a rebel. You just needed to be an Innerlekshul, a Pointy-Head, an apologist for the Elite, though words like “apologist” were beyond the ken of most of them. Journalists were especially hated, though lawyers were nearly as poorly regarded. We weren't all old men when the memorial was consecrated, though to look at us, you might not have realized it. Seven years in a re-education camp will do that to you. Your hair goes grey, if it doesn't fall out, and your back begins to bend. The dignity of labour? Stuff it. There's not a lot of dignity in picking melons, let alone cotton, especially when you haven't had quite enough to eat and you're dressed in rags.
All right, I said at the beginning that this was about Dave, and how I got his name on the memorial. I didn't really have to try very hard. The whole regime may have been near illiterate, but they had computers and biometrics. Retina scans beat the hell out of tattoos. Records showed that Dave had gone into the same camp as I, and that he'd never come out. Half a dozen or more of us remembered that he'd just disappeared one day, not come back to his bed in the barracks – sorry, they called it a dormitory – and that given his medical history he was unlikely to have escaped. We could even recall roughly when: spring, which appeared to come early that year. After that it was just a question of going through the retina scans of the dead at around the right date. Why they bothered to keep records, I don't know; but they weren't very bright, and they seemed to like following orders. Anyway, we got the date he died, or at least, the date he was thrown in the pit. I honestly can't remember if I'd seen him in the previous couple of days. Once they realized that he and I had once worked together, they moved us as far apart as possible, and assigned us to different squads. Again, it was impossible to believe at the time that any of this was happening.
By then, he was getting harder and harder to recognize. When he first arrived at the camp, it was he who recognized me. He was so much thinner, his face gaunt. He'd already been through more than I, because he'd worked in hard news, so they'd picked him up sooner and treated him worse. He had a couple of teeth missing, and one eye. Then his hair started falling out. In my memory, his beard is patchy too. We were close for a couple of months, as close as we'd been when we'd both worked on the same title in the early 90s. Then, as I already said, they separated us. I didn't see him for a couple of weeks, and even after that short a time, once again I didn't recognize him until he called out my name. He was emaciated and staggering. That was the last time I saw him; as I say, I don't recall exactly how long that was before he died. We didn't keep much track of time in the camp anyway. There was no point.
And then, suddenly, it all ended. The structure was so rotten that it took almost nothing for the country to fall apart when Mexico invaded. Then Canada came in from the north. Mexico took back Alta California and Nuevo Mexico and Tejas and Arizona and still hold them now, but the Canadians apparently did it out of a disinterested love of democracy: they're all back behind the 49th parallel now. I don't know if Washington and Oregon will succeed in having the border changed. ++ How did they win, against what was reputedly the most powerful nation in the world? Apologists for the ancien régime will tell you that it was a failure of will on the part of the United States but my own view is that it was just a distaste for killing their own. We had a full scale Civil War once, and we didn't like it. The federal troops refused to use the tactical nukes that the president ordered; most of the National Guard had already gone over to the Mexicans and the Canadians: and while the ones that hadn't gone over may have been among the bravest, they were rarely among the brightest. There was some pretty vicious fighting in the mid-west, but they learned (as some of the resistance had already found) that the right to keep and bear arms is not a lot of use against tanks and fighter aircraft
Not that I'm against the right to keep and bear arms. When people quote the statistics for firearms deaths in the USA, they tend to neglect the fact that about two thirds of them are suicides. I've managed to get the stainless-frame Ruger back from my brother-in-law. There are six rounds in the cylinder: semi-jacketed hollowpoint. Three of them literally have my name on, engraved with a Dremel tool. The other three have Anna's name on, in her memory. They alternate: my name, hers, my name, hers, mine, hers. One day I'll play Russian roulette with it. Those are the odds I'm comfortable with since my time in the camp: six out of six. But maybe I'll stick around for a while first, just to see what happens. And maybe I'll write a few more pieces like this, so people don't forget.
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Text copyright (c) Roger Hicks 2017