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Pfc. La Houd

Symbol of America

By Howard Fast

During the war, he was nursemaid, parent,
guide, and a slice of home to GIs in India

   For a long time to come, Pfc. La Houd and civilization will be inextricably linked in my mind; from here on the two are one, and the misery of famine-stricken Indian villages, the memory of men and women dying and starving, will be softened somewhat by the picture of Pfc. La Houd, benign and knowledgeable, in bathrobe and slippers, pacing before the mail car. It came about this way:
   I was in Delhi, India, back in those distant days when the end of the war still seemed years away, and I was told that I would have to take the train to Calcutta. I could not fly. This was not as simple as it seems, nor is a forty hour ride on the East Indian Railway a matter-of-fact journey.
   For a long time, Army personnel had traveled by air; that was taken for granted, and the technique had been admirably worked out. Rail travel was something else. For one thing, what about food and water? Those I questioned shook their heads. Eating or drinking out of bounds in India is an invitation to cholera and dysentery, and as far as they knew, everything between Delhi and Calcutta was out of bounds.
   Halazone would purify my drinking water--in a limited way--but that was small consolation when you knew that cholera and plague were rampant in four towns along the way. And what about sleeping? Valuables? Then, too, it was 130 degrees in the shade in Delhi. How did one exist in a metal coach at that temperature?
   There was only one redeeming feature: when I got to the railroad station I was to seek out Pfc. La Houd, the mail courier.
   It was then, mentally, that I laid my troubles on the broad shoulders of Pfc. La Houd. I got to the station in Delhi toward evening and looked about hopelessly. As usual, there seemed to be at least thirty thousand people present: men and women and children, dogs and goats, babies and old gaffers, some obviously traveling, but most of them simply there, as they are at every station in India.
   There were ragged beggars without number, vendors of every sort, smoking tubs of hot rice and curry, soldiers of the Indian Army, cold drink stands, hot drink stands. And there were the cows, the placid, undisturbed white cows, insinuating themselves everywhere with gentle and amiable purpose.
   The trains arrived and the Indians packed themselves in. There was no menace, no anger, only incredible confusion and dirt.
   I tried to find my train or get some clue to when it might come in, when it might depart. I got nowhere, but in the course of my search attached myself to Sgt. Endreson of Colorado and Sgt. Segrest of Mississippi--or they attached themselves to me. The magic word was "La Houd, the mail courier."
   They had come down by car from a rest camp in the Himalayas, and they were traveling back to their base in Burma.
   We split up to cover all the platforms; we moved back and forth carefully, searching for an American uniform. Segrest found it just as the quick night fell, the torches were lit, and the bedlam doubled.
   We pushed our way through to him, bearers dragging our luggage. We poured sweat; it was fifteen minutes past train time. Somehow, our luggage became separated from us. Great crowds of humanity wedged us in; train whistles hooted.
   And then there was Pfc. La Houd. His round face beamed, an air of peace emanated from him and settled on us gently and comfortably. We grabbed him; at this point we were like three small homeless children.
   "La Houd!" we said.
   "La Houd," he acknowledged.
   He waved a hand, and our luggage appeared. "The train?" we wanted to know. He explained that there was still twenty minutes. He told us to sit still, cool off, and then he departed. He returned with ice-cold bottled soda. "Approved," he assured us. "It's good as gold. Drink all you want. Make yourselves comfortable.

   More or less in that fashion, I came to know Pfc. John J. La Houd of Minneapolis. La Houd is thirty years old; he has two children; he talks Brooklyn, but has never been there; he's been almost everywhere else. His job, when I knew him, was to convey several hundred sacks of mail from Delhi to Calcutta, a distance of some nine hundred miles on what is not, perhaps, the worst railroad in the world. Arriving at Calcutta, he picked up more mail and returned with it to Delhi. As he pointed out, it was a job without a future, but someone had to do it.
   The human part of his job consisted of being father, mother, and nursemaid to GIs and other assorted passengers the Army assigned him. In essence, he represented civilization.
   The mail compartment in which he traveled was about twenty feet long and contained six bunks. The mail sacks covered two of the bunks and made a ridge between the other four.
   The car was ancient, run down, filthy; the bunks were rotten; the smells were without number. At its best, the East Indian Railway is not good, and this was not its best. Into this, La Houd injected civilization.
   To describe La Houd is not enough; you have to see him in relation to an environment. When the train was ready to depart, we climbed in and sat down on the bunks; we sat gingerly, with a sense of filth--we might have sat there all night. But La Houd appeared with two bearers. They had brooms, mops, and a bucket of water. When the train pulled out, a good deal of the surface dirt had been removed from our compartment.
   Then La Houd raised the screens and fastened them. An insect bomb appeared, and he sprayed the compartment thoroughly. He climbed up to the electric fans and moved switches. Nothing happened.
   "Always the same," he said. "Simply not a technological country. The British don't have the instinct and the Indians don't know. Any of you know fans?"
   We didn't.
   He went to his huge brown grip, emerged with a small tool kit, and went to work. In ten minutes, all four fans were spinning.
   We took off our shirts and undershirts and luxuriated. La Houd stripped to the skin. From the grip emerged spotless linen. He made up his bunk and added a pillow. He put on white shorts and felt carpet slippers. He handed us each a sheet. We tried to protest.
   "It's all right," he said. "I always have a few extra."
   While we made up our beds he checked his .45 and hung it up in easy reach. Then, from the inside of the same suitcase appeared four books--Caldwell, Hemingway, Conrad and Lewis.
   "Most of the time I spend reading improving books," La Houd explained. Then, after a moment, he added, "You learn a little from everybody. When you have that philosophy you look at mankind more comfortably."
   "What about water?" Segrest wanted to know. "Do we drink the stuff on the train?"
   "Strictly no good," La Houd assured us. "But wait." From the brown bag emerged a red silk lounge robe. La Houd put it on casually. "Either you lose touch with civilization, or you retain it. What is civilization? A state of mind."
   We nodded in agreement with him; a state of mind.
   Now the train was pulling into a station. As it stopped, La Houd leaped off and disappeared in the midst of a crowd of amazed Indians. He returned with a bearer and a huge cake of ice. The ice was chipped into the sink. From the same brown bag four cans of fruit juice appeared. They went into the ice. The train started again and La Houd put his slippered feet up onto the mail sacks. He took out a pipe and filled it.
   "Give it a little time to cool," he said.

   That was the beginning of our acquaintance with La Houd. This was no comic strip character, no cartoon book representation, but a very large and competent man who never gave his surroundings an inch. During the next two days, I came to know a good deal about him--more than I ever could have known had I seen him in the States.
   At home, he would have lived a prosaic life, which is the life he preferred. He had a natural and warm appreciation of all the small things man earned in his long struggle against nature; he would come home from work, take off his shoes and put on his slippers, eat a good dinner, and then he would read the paper. He was like a slice cut through the middle of America. He believed in that slice and he took it with him.
   We came to a plague-stricken town, and on the crowded platform a woman lay dying. Her head was in her husband's lap, and three small children stood around her.
   Segrest, Endreson and I stood there and watched. We were helpless, frustrated, angry, but there was nothing we could do.
   I had never seen death so casual and awful as in this place where death was so common that nobody paid more than a passing glance.
   But La Houd came, and he moved matter-of-factly. He prodded the station authorities, and when they attempted to eject the poor dying woman, he drove them back.
   Afterwards he said, "They got to get angry about such things. I'm a quiet guy, but under such circumstances I get angry.
   The secret of La Houd was, as I said, that he never made a concession to conditions. Before the war he had been a working man, and as a working man he had a set of standards. I don't think I had ever appreciated those standards until he put them to work in that car.
   When the two boys bound for Burma discovered that they had forgotten their Atabrine, he produced it. When I had a headache, he produced aspirin. None of this was accidental; La Houd remained aware of himself, he had a sort of agreement with himself. But this agreement involved everyone else as well.
   But his compact with civilization was what I liked best. "Civilization," he said, "is something worth fighting for. But you got to understand civilization. You got to understand that when it's properly applied, it doesn't hurt anybody."
   Now the war's over, but La Houd's part in it will not soon be forgotten by us. He would insist, I am sure, that it was a small part, an unimportant part he played; but those to whom he revealed his splendid compact with civilization would never agree.


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