Entering Villanueva de la Jara, in the province of Cuenca, we passed a mammoth, fortresslike church. We had already noticed the many huge thick-walled churches of Spain, every one of them closed, with sandbags barring entrance. We had also not seen one priest or nun. Some had been murdered, some driven out, some had ﬂed in time. The Church stood at Franco’s right hand. Marxist priests were not yet even on the horizon: disaffected with one dictatorship, they would seek out another.
We were barracked in a convent left ﬁlthy by its previous occupants, a French battalion. It had six-seater outhouse-type toilets and we soon found bags of lime to empty into the pits. I slept in a nun’s cot and thought often of her. What had she been like, this little nun whose bed I ﬁlled? From what village had she come? Had she been a daughter of the religious rich, or the pious poor? Had she exulted in her marriage to Jesus Christ? Had she ever committed carnal sin? Rumors about the nuns ﬂew among us, originating where, I know not. The nuns’ little bastards were buried in the courtyard where, to add to the six-seaters, we dug a long latrine trench. The monks from the two or three monasteries in this tiny village of one street had used our nunnery as a house of assignation. In such manner we titillated each other.
It wasn’t long before we leamed why the inhabitants shunned us and lived behind shuttered windows. As we paraded through the narrow cobbled street we could see one or another of them peeking through a raised shutter slat. The French battalion training here before us had been an undisciplined lot, drinking heavily, ﬁghting among themselves, discourteous and arrogant to the peasant folk who lived here. The French Party, in its rush to fullﬁl the Comintem resolution to form an international army, had scoured the streets of Paris, careless about whom it recruited. Our behavior, on the other hand, was exemplary. No one had to tell us. Most of us, as were those Americans who came after us, were idealistic young men. We had come to help the Spanish people defeat fascism with the hope, of course, that the Party itself would take power. As Communists it was our desire to be an example of discipline and decency. On arrival, we were ninety-six men; by the time we left some four weeks later, we were a battalion of four hundred, and there had not been one incident to upset the people of this peasant village. One man did get drunk publicly, but he was quickly hauled in and placed in the brig for a night. His name was Ray Steele, a merchant mariner who called himself a Wobbly. He was one of the few non-Communists in the Lincoln battalion. Though Ray had a club foot, he could outrun anyone in the battalion. I thought I was fast, but he beat me by yards in a hundred-yard dash. We had a football that we passed around and punted to each other. Ray could kick beautiful spirals forty, ﬁfty yards. He became one of the ﬁnest machine-gunners and soldiers at the front.
Phil Bard, our battalion commissar, we saw rarely. He was not well, and was off in Albacete a good part of the time. Then he was gone for good, sent back to the States because his asthma attacks increased. We were sorry to lose this sweet man. His place was taken by one of the other three commissars, Marvin Stern; he was intelligent and young, with a carping axelike voice. We did not like him. The two remaining commissars were Phil Cooperman, an obese, cold-faced operative, and Bernard Walsh, a sculptor, slender, taciturn, serious. They did not participate in manoeuvers or training, even though they were going to the front with us.
We trained with only two guns, very old World War I French riﬂes for which we had no bullets, and an old Russian Vickers-Maxim machine gun, for which we also had no bullets.
Through Joe’s conniving, I was transferred from an infantry squad to the machine gun company and was assigned as runner for Doug Seacord, the company commander. I rarely left Seacord’s side. His commands were conﬁdently given in a gentle, soft-spoken voice. He was very handsome, and we all loved him. He also was a secret drinker, as was Jim Harris, our battalion commander. Seacord was said to have served a hitch in the American army. Of Jim Harris it was rumored that he had trained Chinese Red Army units, and had earlier been a soldier in the Polish army before he came to the United States. He had come to us from the Party waterfront unit of the Maritime Union. Seacord came from P’town on Cape Cod, where he had been an active Party member. When Doug Roach’s group came through from the States, Seacord immediately had him assigned to our company. Within a couple of days Joe and I took him into our circle; he was tough, terse, even-tempered. We all laughed a lot. When I was alone with Seacord, he told me that Roach was A-1, topgrade, the best. It wasn’t long before I agreed.
Doug and I soon had a competition going to see who could strip and reassemble the old Vickers-Maxim faster blindfolded. We were just about even. One day, much to our joy, bullets arrived. Enough, at least, to enable each riﬂeman and each member of the machine gun company to ﬁre three or four shots. Doug’s score surpassed mine and I had to suffer his superiority with a bow. There were to be no more bullets until we left for the front.
A Comrade Vidal, André Marty’s deputy, came to tell us how cowardly the fascist soldiers were; according to him they ran away when faced with heavy ﬁre. The boy scouts cheered. Joe, Doug, and I looked at one another. Though we had not received much news from the war fronts, we hadn’t heard of any great victories from our side, either. Then G. Marion, correspondent for the American Daily Worker; came to visit. We got another silly speech about how the fascists would run when we shot at them.
One morning, Jim Harris introduced a tall, bespectacled, beaming man at an assembly in the former convent hall. He had just come from the Soviet Union. An American. He was to be our adjutant commander. It was rumored that he had come directly from the Soviet Frunze Military Academy, which was of course very impressive. Then there was another rumor that he had come from the Lenin school in Moscow. How nice.
Where Jim Harris was a thin, slight, very shy man, Robert Merriman, our new adjutant commander, was tall, square-shouldered, and spoke with a ringing voice. Blond and blue-eyed, he was an ideal picture of the Popular Front man. There were bets that Jim Harris’ days as commander were limited. The winners never lived long enough to collect their bets, a direct result of their having won them.
A new group arrived one day, this one not from the States but from the British battalion training camp—an Irish company. Though so far as we knew no bullets had been ﬁred, the Irish troubles had broken out among the British, and the Irish company was transferred to us. We were warned the evening before their arrival to watch our tongues; we were being joined by Irish Catholics, and we were to clean the prayerbooks we had been using for toilet paper out of the six-waters and latrines. Within a few days after the Irish joined us, they had found the books and were themselves using them.
We were approaching battalion strength. A meeting was held at which it was decided to name our battalion after Abraham Lincoln. Who suggested the name, I no longer remember. Earl Browder claimed credit for it. It was unanimous, of course. Someone suggested Mooney, of Mooney and Billings fame, as the name for the machine gun company. It was unanimously chosen. Then it was suggested that Comrade Kavorkian be chosen as machine gun company commissar. Again unanimously, and this time heartily, agreed to. He was one of the strong silent type. In my time with the company, he never disciplined anyone. When I became an officer, he was in one of my squads.
The villagers invited us to a dance. We had won their full trust. Mamas, papas, grandmas, grandpas, aunts, uncles, babes in arms, nubile young women in old-fashioned long dresses, all came, but no young men, they were of to war. The ﬁddlers played unknown tunes. We danced. How pleasant to hold a girl, a woman, in one’s arms again. Modestly. No double-Lindy here. We smiled. Essayed a Spanish word or two. The Cubans had no problem, of course. Even the lone vaquerro, Cardenas, was voluble. Gladnick’s laugh was loud and his voice louder still as he rampaged through the Spanish language almost as if he owned it. Some guys are lucky. We were very polite. We had wine and cakes (tasting of olive oil). And were very proud of ourselves because of our exemplary behavior. Within a week, Rodolfo Armas, a handsome bull of a boy, the Cuban commander, and a lovely young woman became afﬁanced. After a day’s manoeuvers, she and he could be seen hand in hand strolling down the main (and only) street of the village. Rodolfo was killed during the battalion’s ﬁrst battle at Jarama, on February 23, 1937.
Peripatetic, curious, Joe had found and made friends with the Party leader in Villanueva de la Jara. He was the village school teacher and now with his family occupied the priest’s quarters in the huge fortress church at the entrance to the village. He was also the village mayor. Joe got himself, along with me and Cardenas, invited to the mayor’s for supper. Huge hams and sausages hung above the charred hearth, and hot soup and sausages are what we ate with gigantic slabs of hard bread. And vino rojo, dry and harsh to the throat. We spoke in Spanish monosyllables; helped out by Cardenas when we got stuck. Cardenas told us the mayor said that a marquis had owned nearly all the land in the area and had run it as an absentee landlord. The marquis’ cacique, the boss foreman had abscondod at the beginning of the civil war, and the mayor and the Party had taken control of the village and that now the land was run more or less cooperatively. There were several who wanted a collective formed, but the Party said this was not a revolution but a bourgeois republic, and he and the Party had fought off the opposition.
Several nights later, we heard what the opposition had to say. Our convent chapel was to be used for a village meeting and the battalion was invited. The mayor, whom in my novel ¡Hermanos! I called Espartico, chaired the meeting. Cardenas and I sat together, I made sure of that. His translation of the proceedings would, I was certain, be helpful. It was the sort of meeting run by Communists all over the world—well orchestrated. They were discussing daily business and whenever Espartico proposed something, there was great applause; when anyone spoke in opposition, bedlam. Then Espartico gave a report on how the war was going, optimistic and rah rah. There were great cheers. Next a skinny little guy stood up to speak, and before he uttered a word the heckling began. The opposition leader, no doubt. A large shawl was wrapped around his thin shoulders and he carried a spotted handkerchief in his hand. He coughed and brought the handkerchief to his lips. He was tubercular and spitting blood. They were yelling at him, sit down, shut up. He merely stood quietly, staring from face to face. An old man stood, faced the jeering crowd and said something about being ashamed before their American guests. The little skinny guy just stood there, facing them down, his black eyes like knife points. One had to admire his guts. Espartico ﬁnally raised his hands, and they shut up.
He spoke quietly, yet ﬁrmly. The only victories against the army, against the Church, against the falangistas had been won by the workers and peasants, while the democratic govemment had sat on its hands. We can run the factories and we can run the ﬁelds as brothels, they belong to us who do the work. We can manufacture our own arms, what we must do is take over all the factories of Spain. We must give Morocco its freedom and so stop the flow of Moorish mercenaries by Franco. You Communists have given up the ﬁght for socialism, we of the PQUM who are free of foreign inﬂuence, Stalin is not our leader, we govern ourselves. He coughed blood. Cardenas looked me square in the eye and I returned his stare. I was certain he was with the POUMist, as was I, but of course we dared not say a word. We were outside the compact mass. The POUMist sat down and hell broke loose. Marvin Stern, our commissar, gave us a sign and we all rose and left. Inside the hall POUM POUM was bombarding the place.
Two days later I was ordered by Seacord to observe a machine gun squad during maneuvers—without a gun, of course. We were guarding ingress to the village at the narrow point where the road passed the fortress church. As we chatted and smoked, we saw a donkey pulling a two-wheel open wagon laden with bedding, pots, household goods, and a young woman holding an infant. The donkey was led by the tubercular POUMist. He was leaving the village with his young family. He was a kid, really, as young as we were. Without a word, we watched them as they moved slowly down the road. I realized l was with him all the way.
Joe told us that night that Espartico had said the man was a Trotskyite fascist trouble-maker and had been expelled from the village by majority democratic vote. Joe added an expletive. He, of course, was a red hot. I loved him and barely listened to him when he issued political dicta parroting the Party line. He detested leaders—except Stalin. He would always say, If only Stalin knew what a bunch of jerks we are led by, petit bourgeois bastards. Doug Roach rarely if ever made any political remarks. He was a Party member, period. Cardenas, who was one of our gang, also kept his mouth shut. Gladnick, the most voluble man in the battalion, managed not to talk politics in Spain. When he returned to the States, he vomited it all out. But of course by that time he had spent twelve months as an interpreter and tank driver with the Russian Tank Corps. He had learned about the Russians firsthand.
Our time was fast approaching. We were becoming nervous, tense, anxious to get into the ring. Bring on the enemy. Let’s get this thing over with. Several ﬁghts broke out. Seacord was drinking more, as was, Cladnick said, Jim Harris, our commander. Adjutant Commander Merriman was partial to the infantry commander, Scott, two WASPs on a hot tin roof. Scott was much liked by his men, as was Seacord by his. We of the machine gun company thought of ourselves as the royalty. We sneered at the infantry companies and disliked Merriman. We were probably prejudiced against him from the start, and were most vociferous in our criticism after he had led the battalion into disaster at Jarama. He had, of course, followed the orders of the XVth Brigade commander, Colonel Copic, Yugoslav and Red Army officer, later recalled and purged. Not because of his disdain for the lives of his troops, but simply because of Stalin’s blood thirst.
One morning several days before we left the village, as we stood at attention outside our barracks, Commissar Stern introduced a plump, middle-aged, unprepossessing man named Sam Stember as our new battalion political commissar. Then Stern, to our utter astonishment, strode white-faced to an infantry squad and just like that became a simple rank-and-ﬁler. Our heads whirled. There were no explanations. The Party leadership and its mystical ways.
The narrow cobbled street outside the convent was ﬁlled to overﬂowing with villagers, old men and women, children, lovely young women. As we boarded the camions, they cheered and wept. We were going off to war. To fight. To die.