Catch-22: Chapter 11 Captain Black

Corporal Kolodny learned about it first in a phone call from Group and was so shaken by the news that hecrossed the intelligence tent on tiptoe to Captain Black, who was resting drowsily with his bladed shins up on thedesk, and relayed the information to him in a shocked whisper.

Captain Black brightened immediately. “Bologna?” he exclaimed with delight. “Well, I’ll be damned.” He brokeinto loud laughter. “Bologna, huh?” He laughed again and shook his head in pleasant amazement. “Oh, boy! Ican’t wait to see those bastards’ faces when they find out they’re going to Bologna. Ha, ha, ha!”

It was the first really good laugh Captain Black had enjoyed since the day Major Major outsmarted him and wasappointed squadron commander, and he rose with torpid enthusiasm and stationed himself behind the frontcounter in order to wring the most enjoyment from the occasion when the bombardiers arrived for their map kits.

“That’s right, you bastards, Bologna,” he kept repeating to all the bombardiers who inquired incredulously ifthey were really going to Bologna. “Ha! Ha! Ha! Eat your livers, you bastards. This time you’re really in for it.”

Captain Black followed the last of them outside to observe with relish the effect of the knowledge upon all of theother officers and enlisted men who were assembling with their helmets, parachutes and flak suits around thefour trucks idling in the center of the squadron area. He was a tall, narrow, disconsolate man who moved with acrabby listlessness. He shaved his pinched, pale face every third or fourth day, and most of the time he appearedto be growing a reddish-gold mustache over his skinny upper lip. He was not disappointed in the scene outside.

There was consternation darkening every expression, and Captain Black yawned deliciously, rubbed the lastlethargy from his eyes and laughed gloatingly each time he told someone else to eat his liver.

Bologna turned out to be the most rewarding event in Captain Black’s life since the day Major Duluth was killedover Perugia and he was almost selected to replace him. When word of Major Duluth’s death was radioed backto the field, Captain Black responded with a surge of joy. Although he had never really contemplated thepossibility before, Captain Black understood at once that he was the logical man to succeed Major Duluth assquadron commander. To begin with, he was the squadron intelligence officer, which meant he was moreintelligent than everyone else in the squadron. True, he was not on combat status, as Major Duluth had been andas all squadron commanders customarily were; but this was really another powerful argument in his favor, sincehis life was in no danger and he would be able to fill the post for as long as his country needed him. The moreCaptain Black thought about it, the more inevitable it seemed. It was merely a matter of dropping the right wordin the right place quickly. He hurried back to his office to determine a course of action. Settling back in hisswivel chair, his feet up on the desk and his eyes closed, he began imagining how beautiful everything would beonce he was squadron commander.

While Captain Black was imagining, Colonel Cathcart was acting, and Captain Black was flabbergasted by thespeed with which, he concluded, Major Major had outsmarted him. His great dismay at the announcement ofMajor Major’s appointment as squadron commander was tinged with an embittered resentment he made no effortto conceal. When fellow administrative officers expressed astonishment at Colonel Cathcart’s choice of MajorMajor, Captain Black muttered that there was something funny going on; when they speculated on the politicalvalue of Major Major’s resemblance to Henry Fonda, Captain Black asserted that Major Major really was HenryFonda; and when they remarked that Major Major was somewhat odd, Captain Black announced that he was aCommunist.

“They’re taking over everything,” he declared rebelliously. “Well, you fellows can stand around and let them ifyou want to, but I’m not going to. I’m going to do something about it. From now on I’m going to make every sonof a bitch who comes to my intelligence tent sign a loyalty oath. And I’m not going to let that bastard MajorMajor sign one even if he wants to.”

Almost overnight the Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade was in full flower, and Captain Black was enraptured todiscover himself spearheading it. He had really hit on something. All the enlisted men and officers on combatduty had to sign a loyalty oath to get their map cases from the intelligence tent, a second loyalty oath to receivetheir flak suits and parachutes from the parachute tent, a third loyalty oath for Lieutenant Balkington, the motorvehicle officer, to be allowed to ride from the squadron to the airfield in one of the trucks. Every time they turnedaround there was another loyalty oath to be signed. They signed a loyalty oath to get their pay from the financeofficer, to obtain their PX supplies, to have their hair cut by the Italian barbers. To Captain Black, every officerwho supported his Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade was a competitor, and he planned and plotted twenty-fourhours a day to keep one step ahead. He would stand second to none in his devotion to country. When otherofficers had followed his urging and introduced loyalty oaths of their own, he went them one better by makingevery son of a bitch who came to his intelligence tent sign two loyalty oaths, then three, then four; then heintroduced the pledge of allegiance, and after that “The Star-Spangled Banner,” one chorus, two choruses, threechoruses, four choruses. Each time Captain Black forged ahead of his competitors, he swung upon themscornfully for their failure to follow his example. Each time they followed his example, he retreated with concernand racked his brain for some new stratagem that would enable him to turn upon them scornfully again.

Without realizing how it had come about, the combat men in the squadron discovered themselves dominated bythe administrators appointed to serve them. They were bullied, insulted, harassed and shoved about all day longby one after the other. When they voiced objection, Captain Black replied that people who were loyal would notmind signing all the loyalty oaths they had to. To anyone who questioned the effectiveness of the loyalty oaths,he replied that people who really did owe allegiance to their country would be proud to pledge it as often as heforced them to. And to anyone who questioned the morality, he replied that “The Star-Spangled Banner” was thegreatest piece of music ever composed. The more loyalty oaths a person signed, the more loyal he was; toCaptain Black it was as simple as that, and he had Corporal Kolodny sign hundreds with his name each day sothat he could always prove he was more loyal than anyone else.

“The important thing is to keep them pledging,” he explained to his cohorts. “It doesn’t matter whether theymean it or not. That’s why they make little kids pledge allegiance even before they know what ‘pledge’ and ‘allegiance’ mean.”

To Captain Piltchard and Captain Wren, the Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade was a glorious pain in the ass, sinceit complicated their task of organizing the crews for each combat mission. Men were tied up all over thesquadron signing, pledging and singing, and the missions took hours longer to get under way. Effectiveemergency action became impossible, but Captain Piltchard and Captain Wren were both too timid to raise anyoutcry against Captain Black, who scrupulously enforced each day the doctrine of “Continual Reaffirmation”

that he had originated, a doctrine designed to trap all those men who had become disloyal since the last time theyhad signed a loyalty oath the day before. It was Captain Black who came with advice to Captain Piltchard andCaptain Wren as they pitched about in their bewildering predicament. He came with a delegation and advisedthem bluntly to make each man sign a loyalty oath before allowing him to fly on a combat mission.

“Of course, it’s up to you,” Captain Black pointed out. “Nobody’s trying to pressure you. But everyone else ismaking them sign loyalty oaths, and it’s going to look mighty funny to the F.B.I. if you two are the only oneswho don’t care enough about your country to make them sign loyalty oaths, too. If you want to get a badreputation, that’s nobody’s business but your own. All we’re trying to do is help.”

Milo was not convinced and absolutely refused to deprive Major Major of food, even if Major Major was aCommunist, which Milo secretly doubted. Milo was by nature opposed to any innovation that threatened todisrupt the normal course of affairs. Milo took a firm moral stand and absolutely refused to participate in theGlorious Loyalty Oath Crusade until Captain Black called upon him with his delegation and requested him to.

“National defense is everybody’s job,” Captain Black replied to Milo’s objection. “And this whole program isvoluntary, Milo—don’t forget that. The men don’t have to sign Piltchard and Wren’s loyalty oath if they don’twant to. But we need you to starve them to death if they don’t. It’s just like Catch-22. Don’t you get it? You’renot against Catch-22, are you?”

Doc Daneeka was adamant.

“What makes you so sure Major Major is a Communist?”

“You never heard him denying it until we began accusing him, did you? And you don’t see him signing any ofour loyalty oaths.”

“You aren’t letting him sign any.”

“Of course not,” Captain Black explained. “That would defeat the whole purpose of our crusade. Look, you don’thave to play ball with us if you don’t want to. But what’s the point of the rest of us working so hard if you’regoing to give Major Major medical attention the minute Milo begins starving him to death? I just wonder whatthey’re going to think up at Group about the man who’s undermining our whole security program. They’llprobably transfer you to the Pacific.”

Doc Daneeka surrendered swiftly. “I’ll go tell Gus and Wes to do whatever you want them to.”

Up at Group, Colonel Cathcart had already begun wondering what was going on.

“It’s that idiot Black off on a patriotism binge,” Colonel Korn reported with a smile. “I think you’d better playball with him for a while, since you’re the one who promoted Major Major to squadron commander.”

“That was your idea,” Colonel Cathcart accused him Petulantly. “I never should have let you talk me into it.”

“And a very good idea it was, too,” retorted Colonel Korn, “since it eliminated that superfluous major that’s beengiving you such an awful black eye as an administrator. Don’t worry, this will probably run its course soon. Thebest thing to do now is send Captain Black a letter of total support and hope he drops dead before he does toomuch damage.” Colonel Korn was struck with a whimsical thought. “I wonder! You don’t suppose that imbecilewill try to turn Major Major out of his trailer, do you?”

“The next thing we’ve got to do is turn that bastard Major Major out of his trailer,” Captain Black decided. “I’dlike to turn his wife and kids out into the woods, too. But we can’t. He has no wife and kids. So we’ll just have tomake do with what we have and turn him out. Who’s in charge of the tents?”

“He is.”

“You see?” cried Captain Black. “They’re taking over everything! Well, I’m not going to stand for it. I’ll takethis matter right to Major —de Coverley himself if I have to. I’ll have Milo speak to him about it the minute hegets back from Rome.”

Captain Black had boundless faith in the wisdom, power and justice of Major —de Coverley, even though hehad never spoken to him before and still found himself without the courage to do so. He deputized Milo to speakto Major —de Coverley for him and stormed about impatiently as he waited for the tall executive officer toreturn. Along with everyone else in the squadron, he lived in profound awe and reverence of the majestic, white-haired major with craggy face and Jehovean bearing, who came back from Rome finally with an injured eyeinside a new celluloid eye patch and smashed his whole Glorious Crusade to bits with a single stroke.

Milo carefully said nothing when Major —de Coverley stepped into the mess hall with his fierce and austeredignity the day he returned and found his way blocked by a wall of officers waiting in line to sign loyalty oaths.

At the far end of the food counter, a group of men who had arrived earlier were pledging allegiance to the flag,with trays of food balanced in one hand, in order to be allowed to take seats at the table. Already at the tables, agroup that had arrived still earlier was singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” in order that they might use the saltand pepper and ketchup there. The hubbub began to subside slowly as Major —de Coverley paused in thedoorway with a frown of puzzled disapproval, as though viewing something bizarre. He started forward in astraight line, and the wall of officers before him parted like the Red Sea. Glancing neither left nor right, he strodeindomitably up to the steam counter and, in a clear, full-bodied voice that was gruff with age and resonant withancient eminence and authority, said:

“Gimme eat.”

Instead of eat, Corporal Snark gave Major —de Coverley a loyalty oath to sign. Major —de Coverley swept itaway with mighty displeasure the moment he recognized what it was, his good eye flaring up blindingly withfiery disdain and his enormous old corrugated face darkening in mountainous wrath.

“Gimme eat, I said,” he ordered loudly in harsh tones that rumbled ominously through the silent tent like claps ofdistant thunder.

Corporal Snark turned pale and began to tremble. He glanced toward Milo pleadingly for guidance. For severalterrible seconds there was not a sound. Then Milo nodded.

“Give him eat,” he said.

Corporal Snark began giving Major —de Coverley eat. Major —de Coverley turned from the counter with histray full and came to a stop. His eyes fell on the groups of other officers gazing at him in mute appeal, and, withrighteous belligerence, he roared:

“Give everybody eat!”

“Give everybody eat!” Milo echoed with joyful relief, and the Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade came to an end.

Captain Black was deeply disillusioned by this treacherous stab in the back from someone in high place uponwhom he had relied so confidently for support. Major — de Coverley had let him down.

“Oh, it doesn’t bother me a bit,” he responded cheerfully to everyone who came to him with sympathy. “Wecompleted our task. Our purpose was to make everyone we don’t like afraid and to alert people to the danger ofMajor Major, and we certainly succeeded at that. Since we weren’t going to let him sign loyalty oaths anyway, itdoesn’t really matter whether we have them or not.”

Seeing everyone in the squadron he didn’t like afraid once again throughout the appalling, interminable GreatBig Siege of Bologna reminded Captain Black nostalgically of the good old days of his Glorious Loyalty OathCrusade when he had been a man of real consequence, and when even big shots like Milo Minderbinder, DocDaneeka and Piltchard and Wren had trembled at his approach and groveled at his feet. To prove to newcomersthat he really had been a man of consequence once, he still had the letter of commendation he had received fromColonel Cathcart.