LIFE IN EXILE
Salvaging Bamboos in a Thunderous Night
One night in July shortly after my arrival in Jiang Creek, there was thunder, lightning and heavy downpour. We were awakened from our sleep by the rain dripping through the roof-tile cracks. Hastily, we rolled up our belongings and bedding. Before we had time to find ourselves a dry spot, we heard the blowing of whistle for emergency gathering. Except for the lantern carried by the cadre, it was totally dark in the rain. As ordered, the 150 inmates gathered in front of our dilapidated cottage. None of us had any rain gear on; in a matter of a few minutes we were all soaked through and trembling in the chilly rain. The team leader ordered us to take immediate action to salvage the bamboos (national property) being washed away by the mountain flood.
In the daytime, we chopped down bamboos on the slopes, trimmed off the branches and then carried them to the riverbanks. With our chopping knives, we made a hole on each side of the base of the bamboos. We then stuck a small stem about 3.5 cm in diameter (called the "green wood") through the bamboo holes. Thin strips of bamboo were then used as rope to fasten the ends of the "green wood" to 15 bamboos together (8 in the lower layer and 7 in the upper layer). This was how a small bamboo raft was formed. These rafts were poled downstream by designated persons to the wider part of the river. The small rafts were then combined to form big rafts. Usually, by the time we stopped working, there were many bamboos that had not yet been made into rafts, or small rafts that had not yet been poled down the stream. With the sudden rise of water level during rainstorms and mountain floods, the bamboos and small rafts would be washed downstream. The emergency call was for us to salvage the bamboos that were being jammed at the abrupt turn-off points by risking our lives in the water.
Only one lantern was provided for the 120-150 inmates of a medium-sized team. The narrow paths were paved in the middle with large and smooth stones measuring about 1.5 feet in diameter, with smaller muddy cobblestones on the two sides. The stones were good for bare-feet walking on fine days; but on rainy days with the mud turned into "lubricants", they became very slippery. With over 100 people walking in single file on the narrow, winding path and just one lantern in the very front of the line, most of us could see nothing in the rain except for a few moving black shadows. By the time we arrived at the worksite, most of us had fallen three or four times. To pull bamboos out of the cold torrents of a mountain flood was extremely dangerous, as one could easily be washed away if not careful enough. One teammate was lost in the torrent, and everyone figured that he must have drowned. He was washed away for a distance of 4.5 miles to a place near Yellow Pond Town. Fortunately, he had been trained as a marine in the military and was able to save himself, returning to the Camp three days later.
One time, we were in the river moving a big raft made up of 1,200 bamboos when a dead body with red underpants emerged from underneath the raft. It was already badly swollen and decayed, and a soft-shelled turtle weighing 40 pounds was gnawing on his flesh. Pan, who was formerly a primary school teacher, pulled the turtle out of the water and presented it to the cadres for a special treat. The dead body was obviously a victim of drowning. It had swollen so much that it was not easy for it to be squeezed into the coffin. Just when would the deceased's relatives learn about their loss?