"So can you do it, Camacho?"
The truthful answers were "No" and "No." But the only possible answers were "Yes" and "Yes." How could he possibly stand there and say, "Well, to tell the truth, Sarge, I don't actually speak Spanishcertainly not well enough to talk anybody out of anything." He was like a lot of second-generation Cubans. He could understand Spanish, because his parents spoke only Spanish at home. But in school, despite all the talk about bilingualism, practically everybody spoke English. There were more Spanish-language television and radio stations than English, but the best shows were in English. The best movies, blogs (and online porn), and video games, the hottest music, the latest thing in iPhones, BlackBerries, Droids, keyboardsall created for use in English. Very soon you felt crippled out there if you didn't know English and use English and think in English, which in turn demanded that you know colloquial American English as well as any Anglo. Before you knew itand it always occurred to you suddenly one dayyou could no longer function in Spanish much above a sixth-grade level. That bit of the honest truth shot through Nestor's mind. But how could he explain all this to these two americanos? It would sound so lameand maybe even craven! Maybe he just didn't have the stomach for an assignment like this. And how could he say, "Gosh, I don't know whether I can climb that mast or not"?
Utterly impossible! The only alternatives he had were to do itand succeed or to do itand crash and burn. Making things still more muddled was the temper of the mob on the bridge. They were booing him! From the moment Nestor and the sergeant boarded the schooner, they had become steadily louder, uglier, more hostile, more raucous. Every now and then Nestor could make out a discrete cry.
"¡Comemierda, hijo de puta!"
As soon as he started up that mast, they would have it in for himand he was Cuban himself! They'd find that out soon enough, too, wouldn't they! He couldn't win, could he! On the other hand he went out to lunch for a moment staring at the man on the mast without any longer seeing him. It came to him like a revelation, the question: "What is guilt?" Guilt is a gas, and gases disperse, but superior officers don't. Once they sink their teeth in, they're tenacious as a dog. Possible disapproval of a mob of his own people wasn't remotely as threatening as the disapproval of this blue-eyed sandy-haired Americano, Sergeant McCorkle, who was already just one button away from canning him
and to whom he turned and said, "SargeI can do it."
Now he was in for it, whether he could pull off this stunt or not. He sized up the mast. He tilted his head back and looked straight up. Way way way up thereJesus! The sun was burning up his eyeballs, darkest extremos or no darkest extremos! He had begun to sweat wind or no wind! Christ, it was hot out here, grilling out on the deck of a schooner in the middle of Biscayne Bay. The man on top of the mast looked just about the size and color and shapelessness of one of those turd-brown vinyl garbage bags. He was still twisting and lurching about way up there. Both his arms shot out again, in silhouette, no doubt with the fingers once more crimped up into the supplicant's cup shapes. He must have been rocking pathetically in his bosun's chair, because he kept protruding and then withdrawing, as if he were yelling to the mob. Christ, it was a long way up to the top! Nestor lowered his head to size up the mast itself. Down here where it joined with the deck, the damned thing was almost as big around as his waist. Wrapping his legs around it and shimmying up would take forever inching up, inching up, pathetically hugging a seventy-foot boat mast all too slow and humiliating to think about But wait a minute! The rope, the lanyard the turd-brown boy had used to hoist himself to the tophere it was, rising up along the mast from out of a puddle of slack rope on the deck. On the other end was the illegal himself, smack up against the top of the mast in the bosun's chair. ::::::I've climbed fifty-five feet up a rope without using my legs, :::::: it occurred to him, ::::::and I could have climbed higher, if Rodriguez had a higher ceiling in his "Ññññññooooooooooooo!!! Qué Gym!" But seventy feet Christ! No?I got no choice.:::::: It was as if not he but his central nervous system took over. Before he could even create a memory of it he leapt and grabbed hold of the rope and started climbing upwithout using his legs.
Excerpted from Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe. Copyright © 2012 by Tom Wolfe. Excerpted by permission of Little Brown & Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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