Seven months in the bush brought on many changes. A lot of friends back in the world stopped writing, including a brother and sister. Most never wrote to begin with. I would never have imagined that a simple letter could be so important, except maybe for old people. I remember reading about Vietnam in the paper. It had never seemed like it was really happening. But now, for me, Vietnam was no longer some bizarre fantasy war on Walter Cronkite. The jungle, with all its death and fatigue, was the only thing that was real. Flushing toilets, cars, and knives and forks didn’t exist. Civilization was the fantasy.
I felt ready for a cage. I had to have R&R soon. If not, certain parts of my anatomy might never operate properly again. Female water buffaloes were looking better all the time. No one bothered explaining why Chan and I had gone so long without an R&R. Men who were boot to us had already gone and come back. We guessed they were waiting for more gunners to show up before they trusted the gun to a rifleman. We did a lot of guessing. Like we tried to guess why we were still PFCs after so many months in combat. I had more than one friend in the Army. Three to be exact. All three were sergeants after six months, and they were still stateside.
“There’s a freeze on all promotions in the Fifth Marines,” Lieutenant Campbell said. He pulled the bolt out of his M16 and peered through the barrel.
“What the crap does that mean?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Ask your congressman.”
“I know what that means,” Chan said. “They want to keep us at eleven cents an hour.”
“Your R&R came through,” the lieutenant said matter-of-factly.
“Where?” I asked, trying not to scream.
“I’m not sure. Go ask Sudsy.” We turned to find Sudsy.
“Wait.” Gunny looked left and shot a jawful of tobacco juice at a long column of giant red ants marching by five feet to the left of the CP. I always envied the four of them—Gunny, Lieutenant Campbell, Sudsy, and Doc—sitting in the command post in the center of the perimeter, able to sleep all night if they wanted to.
“Nice shot, Gunny,” I said.
He leaned back on one elbow and crossed his calloused bare feet. “I got a can of meatballs ‘n’ beans. You got any dry writing paper?”
“I think so. Let me go check supplies,” I said.
“I’ll locate Sudsy,” Chan said. “Where is Sudsy, Lieutenant?”
“I think he went on the water detail.”
Chan walked away.
“How ’bout throwing in a pack of coffee, Gunny?” I asked.
“Yeah, sure. You wouldn’t have any new socks stuffed away somewhere, would ya?”
“We already traded them,” I said.
“A toothbrush, peaches, and pound cake.”
“Ah! Couldn’t top that anyway.”
“How ’bout a book, Gunny?”
“How did you get a book?”
“Traded a pack of Salems to a black gunner in Third Platoon back at An Hoa.”
“What is it?”
“I’ll loan it to you for a pack of hot chocolate.”
“It’s a deal.”
“I found him!” Chan jogged up to me with a huge silly grin pasted all over his Chinese face.
“If I didn’t know better, I’d swear you found a woman instead of Sudsy. That grin’s immoral.”
“Australia! And would you try to think of something besides women and boom-booming all the time!”
“Round-eyed women! When?”
“One week, but try to control yourself.”
“I won’t even know how to act around people.”
“Australia. I was there in ‘44.” Gunny leaned back farther, as if the memory soothed an old wound. “The women love Marines in Australia.” He straightened up, realizing he’d grabbed the full attention of all of us and looking a little embarrassed. “Leastwise they did in ‘44.” He cleared his throat then spit another shot at the ant column.
“I’ll bring that paper back over in a minute, Gunny,” I said.
“Don’t forget the book.”
I gave him a thumbs up as Chan and I headed for our position on the perimeter.
“The last girl I saw looked like a reject from Dachau. Remember? That girl on Truoi Bridge and the kid who sold that horrible candy,” I said as Chan booted a stone in soccer fashion.
“Oh yes, he tried to market his sister to you.”
“Right. Boom-boom five dollar.”
“Seems like years ago, doesn’t it?”
“God, it really does. I feel like I’ve been here most of my life.”
“I know what you mean,” Chan said as we reached the gun. “I tried to explain to my girl just how long one single day is over here. It’s futile. No one can understand.”
“That’s weird,” I said. “I tried to tell Polly—”
“Which one is that?”
“The one in Missouri. I tried to explain how old I’m getting or just how the time is different. It sounds like bull to them. Remember the last time we got mail call?”
“Just barely,” Chan said. “My mother informed me of the Tet Offensive. As if I were unaware of it,” Chan said sarcastically.
“I got that letter from Polly. She’s been going to school in Missouri. Well, she went home on a break and met three friends of mine and hers, and the jerks thought I was away at college.”
“Isn’t everybody?” Chan smirked.
“When she told ’em where I was, one of these jerks said I was probably having a great time because they had two uncles who had gone back to Vietnam twice because the pay was so good.”
“Navy and Air Force, right?” Chan asked.
“Right on the nose.”
“Let’s just think about R&R.”
“Saddle up!” Swift Eagle’s voice carried across the perimeter. Just hearing those two words made me tired, but this time even they couldn’t erase my thought of R&R. My spirits were up too high. I couldn’t help thinking what an odd pair Chan and I were. While he was majoring in medicine and minoring in ministry in college, I was majoring in football and minoring in drinking and women in high school. Somehow, for God’s own obscure reasons, we’d become closer than blood brothers. Now we’d really get to party together.
The hump started again. I nestled the gun on my right shoulder. The thick callus that had developed from the side of my neck to my shoulder bone from the constant weight and rubbing of the gun seemed to be getting thicker. I’ll probably be permanently lopsided when this war is over, I thought. Humpback of the Fifth Marines.
Hours passed. Our direction did not change. A straight shot toward the pale gray mountains along the Laotian border. As we inched closer the mountains grew greener and greener, until no other color existed. We crossed a small stream. My feet were wet again. The jungle rot on my feet sent streams of pain up my leg until I didn’t think I could go any farther. But I did.
More hours passed. We finally reached the ominous mountains and started up a small trail that looked too well used. Dense green, unfriendly foliage bordered each side of the steep trail. Striker started grumbling about staying on the trail. I didn’t like him behind me. He grumbled about everything. This time he was right, though I felt like belting him for mumbling out loud when we couldn’t see a foot to either side of us. Staying on a trail like this was a great way to get ambushed. We all knew it.
The trail got steeper and steeper until grabbing branches to pull myself forward was the only way to negotiate the incline. We followed the path over the mountain, then down the other side, where it ran into a mountain stream. On the left a small brown hill stuck out like a short bald brother of the steep, green, tree-covered mountains around it. It overlooked the open area between the two large mountains where the path crossed the stream.
We wasted no time getting up that little hill. The gunny placed Chan and me where the field of fire was clear. I set the gun down on a slightly pitched slope. The gunny spat a stream of tobacco out the side of his mouth and looked me straight in the eye. “I’m telling everybody to hold their fire till you open up. Make sure you get as many as you can in the open before firing.”
“No sweat,” I said. Chan gave the gunny a thumbs up.
The gunny returned the sign and rushed off to check another position.
“Think we’re in Laos?” I asked.
“We’ve been in Laos for the last hour,” Chan said.
“How do you know? I didn’t see any road signs,” I said sarcastically.
“Quite elementary. Differences in vegetation and so on.” Having finished his usual line of bull, Chan pretended to be busy checking his rifle.
“How do you know where we are?” I asked again.
“I asked Swift Eagle.”
“Did you really?”
“Yes. He said this is where Delta Company ran into it two weeks ago.”
“You mean hand-to-hand?”
“That’s what the chief said. He said Delta’s gunny sergeant was up for the Medal of Honor.”
“After he ran out of ammo he killed six NVA with his K-bar.”
“I wish you hadn’t said anything about that hand-to-hand crap.” I pulled out my .45. The blue-black metal was rust brown. I pushed the clip release button. Nothing happened.
Chan started laughing. “You’d be better off with a bayonet,” he chuckled.
“This is ridiculous! I oiled this miserable piece of junk a few days ago.”
Sudsy ran at us, crouching along the slope of the hill. He looked naked without his radio strapped to his back. He dropped to one knee beside us.
“Lieutenant says dig in.” He paused, gasping for air. “He wants you to open up first when they cross the stream.” He inhaled again and raced off for the next position.
Chan rolled his eyes back and looked toward heaven.
“Did he say dig in?”
“Yep, he sure did,” I answered.
“I find that depressing.”
“Don’t worry about it. We can’t dig in. We threw our E-tools away. Remember?”
“Was that us?”
“Something about them being too heavy. We never stay in one place long enough to dig in anyway.”
“Ah, yes,” he said. “ ‘Salts don’t carry unneeded weight.’ It’s all coming back to me now. Must have been your idea.”
“I move that we ignore the order as usual.”
“You guys are really crazy! Aren’t you scared?” I didn’t recognize the high-pitched voice, but whoever it belonged to was serious. Chan looked as surprised as I felt. We rolled over onto our sides and looked behind us to see the totally distraught face of a thin young Marine boot. I didn’t know his name yet. He had joined us two days before. He shook like a cold, wet puppy. He flattened out on his stomach like he was under fire.
“Who are you?”
“My n-n-name is Arvis. Arvis Hendry.” I wasn’t sure if he stuttered or if he was just that nervous.
“Calm down, Arvis,” I said.
“What are you doing here?” Chan asked.
“Corporal Swift Eagle told me to bring the two crazy gunners an E-tool.” He felt behind him without lifting his head from the ground until he found the E-tool. “Here.” He handed it to us, jumped to a crouching posture, and ran back to his position.
The scene in front of us looked like a Salem cigarette commercial. Chirping birds overwhelmed the distant thunder of artillery, for a pleasant change. A rare, wood-scented breeze sifted between the mountains to our front, rustling the leaves like a fall day. It cooled my sweaty body down to an almost human level. War was out of place here. I wanted to take off my rotting boots and go barefoot in the softly flowing stream below. I couldn’t help thinking the only thing missing from the tranquil setting was two lovers on a picnic.
Something moved through the vegetation below. A big bird lifted off into the blue sky squawking. Suddenly an NVA soldier emerged from the cover of the trees. He wore the usual green pith helmet. It looked greener than most. Brand new, I guessed. Fresh troops from the North. My heart started pounding. He paused at the stream and looked both ways like a kid crossing a busy street. He carried his AK47 with both hands. Something was missing. No pack!
Finally he crossed the stream. Two more pith helmets appeared. My heart joined my Adam’s apple. Chan tensed up. I tightened my grip on the gun. I put the lead man in my gun sight. Someone started digging into the rocky earth behind me. The man in my sight turned. He stared straight into my eyes.
I heard my teeth grinding. The noise didn’t matter. It was too late. I squeezed. The first orange tracers seemed to go right through the lead man, like he was made of papier-mâché. The first burst blew him back, arms flailing like a mannequin thrown into the air. I kept firing and firing.
“Cease fire! Cease fire!” Chan was shaking my shoulder. I felt like he was waking me from a hazy dream. My lip hurt. Blood. A generous piece of my lip was wedged between my teeth.
“Guns up! Let’s get a body count!”
“Got some ammo?” I asked Chan.
I stumbled down the hill, following Corporal James’s squad, plus a couple of extra men for support. We reached the stream. One man lay half in and half out of the water. His right arm and part of his shoulder had been torn from his corpse and were lying on the legs of another body three feet away. Crimson, pulsing blood colored the crystal water of the stream.
“Good shootin’, John. He looks like Swiss cheese,” Sam said.
I tried to ignore Sam. The bloody scene reminded me of the movie I saw on my last date back in the world, Bonnie and Clyde. The second NVA lay face down, still breathing. A bloody trail led into the brush, revealing where the third had somehow managed to crawl away. Hot, dank air had replaced the earlier breeze. It was as though the tranquility had been killed too. An eerie impression came over me that it might never return.
Corporal James nudged Striker with his M16 and pointed at the trail of blood.
“See how far he got, and be careful. It gets pretty dark in there. Take Jones with you.”
A painful groan brought our attention to the NVA still alive. He lay on his stomach. Then he shuddered in pain. Corporal James cautiously rolled him over with his foot while pointing an M16 at his head. No weapon. Everything looked safe. James knelt on one knee and removed the pith helmet. Long shimmering black hair tumbled across the face of an exceptionally beautiful Vietnamese woman. It stunned me. The last thing in the world I expected to see was a beautiful woman.
“Wow! How old do you think she is?” somebody said.
“Twenty at the most,” said Corporal James.
“I bet she’s half French.”
“Yeah. She’s too fine to be all gook.”
Chan and I were speechless; we appeared to be the only ones who were. All I could do was stare. A flawless complexion matched her beautiful features. Her striking eyes, more rounded than the usual, gave hint of a Eurasian background. She wore the same khaki uniform that most NVA did, and the same Ho Chi Minh sandals, made from American tire tread. I wanted to throw up. I knew I’d probably just killed one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen.
No one took their eyes off her. The closest thing to a female any of us had seen in months were two women who had popped out of a hut on a search-and-destroy mission. Village women looked haggard or hawk-faced. Most were toothless and weather-beaten from years in the paddies. This woman was a flower in the desert.
We gathered around her in a semicircle. Her khaki shirt, which was quickly sopping up her dark red blood, had two holes just above the belt line. The semicircle of Marines moved a step closer. The moment felt dark, primitive. We stared hypnotically. She clutched her stomach in pain, looked up at us, and said something in Vietnamese. She repeated it again, her eyes squeezed shut. Then she said it again, this time with her eyes opened, steaming with defiance. I recognized only one word: Marines.
Corporal James broke the trance. “Chan, what’s she saying?”
“She says Marines are murderers and animals.”
Sam dropped his blooper gun. His eyes bulged. His coarse, dirty, furrowed skin matched his strange personality perfectly. He suddenly looked very old. In an instant, before anyone could stop him, he fell to his knees and ripped the woman’s trousers down her thighs in one violent motion. I was stunned. No one moved. By the time we reacted, Sam had ripped her bloody shirt up over her head. I lunged forward with two others, grabbed Sam by the shoulders, and threw him onto his back. He gasped, out of breath and panting.
The woman started cursing us. Large glittering tears trickled down her face. Chan yelled, “Corpsman up!” then knelt beside her. He quickly tore her shirt in half and tried to stop the bleeding by tying the two pieces around her waist.
“How bad is it, Chan?” I asked.
“Looks like three hits by the gun.”
“Can she make it?”
“I don’t know. Looks like one round went through her back and out her side. It’s the most serious.”
The huge hole in her side gushed blood each time she cursed us. Sam jumped to his feet.
“Why don’t we all get her before she bleeds to death!” Sam shouted.
“Yeah, why not?” someone added.
“That would be a mistake,” Chan snapped at Sam, then stared at him, almost daring him to respond.
For a helpless moment it looked like a fight. I knew Sam was just crazy enough to grab his weapon. I took two steps back and put the M60 on my hip. Sam paid no attention to Chan or me. He kept a fixed stare on the naked girl. I could hear my teeth grinding.
“This guy in Delta told me they ambushed a chick up near the rock pile.” Sam’s speech had become slow and deliberate. “They took her clothes off and stuffed flares up her to keep it warm while his whole squad …” Sam’s coarse laugh overwhelmed him until he couldn’t finish his sick story.
Striker and Jones appeared from the brush. They stared at the woman without speaking.
“Well, where’s the gook?” James barked.
“Couldn’t find him,” Striker replied, eyes glued on the naked girl. “He’s in bad shape, though. There’s blood everywhere. Hey! What’s this? We gonna gang bang her?”
“Keep it cool. She’s probably dying,” James said.
“Oh, well,” Striker grumbled. “Ain’t enough of her anyway.” Striker looked at Chan, then down, as if he was embarrassed or maybe just regretting his choice of words.
Still, no one took their eyes off the girl for more than a moment. Sweat dripped off my eyebrows. Corporal James lit up a cigarette. He carefully placed the precious matches back in his helmet. One boot rested comfortably on the shoulderless corpse. He exhaled a long, disconsolate stream of smoke. His rifle resting on his hip, held by one hand on the stock, reminded me of a hunter posing over a fallen deer.
“How ’bout it, Chan?” the corporal said. “Is she gonna live?”
“She might if we get her medevaced real soon.”
“I don’t know, Chan. She looks like she’s lost a lot of blood.”
“She has, but it doesn’t look like anything vital was hit.”
“I’ll go see what the lieutenant says.” Corporal James dropped his cigarette into the stream and started back up the hill.
“Don’t bother with the Lieutenant,” Sam said. “Just ask Swift Eagle.”
A half hour later a medevac chopper appeared overhead and lowered a basket for the wounded woman. Chan and the corpsman had managed to slow the bleeding considerably by that time. They delicately strapped her into the swinging basket and gave the chopper gunner a thumbs up. The hovering helicopter swung left, as if blown by a powerful gust of wind. The whirling rotors smacked against the tallest treetops, then the chopper swung right, seemingly out of control. For one horrible instant it looked like the heroic effort into Laos would end in disaster. Finally under control, the medevac gained altitude and disappeared over the mountaintops.
A wave of pride swept through me. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen Marines risk their own lives to save a wounded enemy, but this time I felt wonderful. I wasn’t sure why. Maybe because she was young and beautiful. Maybe because she thought Marines were animals. Or maybe because I was the Marine who shot her. Whatever the reason, I felt proud of being an American.
We saddled up right away. We all knew every gook in Laos knew exactly where we were after the medevac. I was glad to be leaving Laos. By the time we reached the valley, only the glow of the sun was still visible on the horizon. Our pace quickened as we crossed the first rice paddy. Huge black clouds rolled across the darkening sky, bringing a light drizzle and poor visibility.
By the time we reached hard ground on the other side of the paddy, the light drizzle had turned into a deluge. The column halted. My back ached. My legs begged for rest. I felt physically and emotionally drained. The gun weighed a ton, and my pack straps felt like they were nearing bone. I closed my eyes.… Sometime later I found myself being led by Chan to our position for the night. It looked like a perimeter, but I wasn’t sure.
I didn’t like our field of fire but felt too tired to complain. It looked like bushes in front of us, or was the rain just getting heavier? “Who cares?”
“What?” Chan asked.
“I was talking to myself,” I whispered.
“If you are able to communicate with yourself, then you should take the first watch. I can’t stay awake.”
“I’ll try, but my eyelids feel like lead.”
Chan didn’t answer or bother removing his pack; he fell into an instant coma. I took off my helmet, hoping the cold rain might wake me up. It didn’t. I put it back on. I felt my eyes closing again. I tried to think of home, but I felt too miserable to think of anything pleasant. More rain. God, I hated this country. At least the rain kept the mosquitoes off me for a night.
Man, I thought, I’m getting awful skinny. I’ll probably make it through the bloody war and die of some disease. I don’t want to get old anyway. Drinking legal might have been nice. My friends will think I died a hero. I’ll probably die of jungle rot. Probably have to be a closed casket. I’ll never get to wear those darn dress blues. Chan says I’m making eleven cents an hour with combat pay and overseas pay. Who the crap can afford dress blues?
An hour passed. The rain lightened from a downpour to a pour. Something sizzled bright colors, like a sparkler moving in circles. Stay awake, I thought. I have to stay awake. The sparkler exploded into the mud on my right. “Incoming!”
Another B-40 rocket sizzled overhead, exploding twenty meters behind us.
I opened up with the M60.
“There’s a flash!” Chan was shouting and pointing. “Ten meters left!”
My tracers zeroed in on the last flash.
“Cease fire!” Chan said.
“Do you see anything?”
“Ow! Chan! Something just hit me in the helmet! Felt like a brick!”
A numbing explosion blasted me forward. A frag had hit my helmet and bounced to the ground nearby. The flash stayed on my eyes. “I’m hit! God, I’m really hit this time! My back’s burning!” I rolled left. “It’s the barrel! Chan!”
“Johnnie! Are you okay?”
“God, I’m glad to hear you! Yeah. No. I don’t know. There’s a lot of warm stuff running down my leg, and it ain’t rain.” Another rocket exploded to our right, throwing mud around us. “Can you see?”
“Are you hit too?”
“Yes,” Chan said. “Listen.”
“I don’t hear anything.”
“Neither do I.”
“Think we should call for Doc?”
“Can you see yet?” Chan asked.
“They might be on top of us.”
“Have you got your rifle?”
“I think I’m bleeding from the groin, too!”
“No. I don’t think so. Chan, feel my legs. Are they okay?” Chan moved closer. He hit my boot. I felt it. “God. Thank you.”
“They’re bleeding but still there.”
“See if you can get the gun ready, I’ll call the doc.”
I oriented myself and pulled the M60 to me. She felt like solid mud, but nothing was out of place. I still saw spots. Memories of being timed taking the gun apart and putting it back together blindfolded came back to me. The only sound around us was the pounding rain.
“The gun’s ready. I don’t know what good it’ll do. I can’t see or hear.”
“Corpsman!” Chan’s call scared me. A moment later the call was echoed by the position on our left.
I tensed. I tried to straighten my left leg. It hurt. A sense of total helplessness swept over me. Then panic. “I’ll never run again!” I blurted.
“I can’t play ball!”
“Hold it, you’re okay.”
“Am I crippled?”
“If you’d avoid catching frags with your fat head I wouldn’t be lying here bleeding and having this absurd conversation!”
The exact words I needed. My panic subsided. I found myself giggling and feeling ashamed. I’d always wondered how I would react if I got hit. Now I knew, and my pride hurt more than my knee. Heavy boots splashed into a puddle of mud behind us. My night vision was still a useless series of yellow spots from the blast.
“I can’t believe it. Hit you right in the head!” Chan started giggling. “Oh, it hurts to laugh!” He laughed again, trying to smother the sound with his hand.
As always, the laugh was contagious. I started giggling and crying at the same time.
“If one of you isn’t wounded, you soon will be!” The threatening whisper belonged to Corporal Swift Eagle. Another pair of feet hustled up behind us.
“Is that Doc?” Chan asked.
“We’re both hit. Check John first.”
“Then what’s funny?” Swift Eagle growled.
“The frag …” Chan started to giggle.
“It hit me in …” I started snickering. I couldn’t talk.
“Let’s get ’em back to CP,” Swift Eagle said. “Grab an arm.”
“Think they’re in shock?” Doc asked.
“No. They’re both too crazy to be in shock.”
The chief pulled me up like he was either mad or in a hurry. I came up on my right leg. “Can you walk?”
“No.” The laugh was over. I started to straighten my left leg but the pain said no. I forced the leg to straighten. “I think I can hobble.”
“Yeah, Lieutenant. Grab an arm and leg. We’ll carry him back to CP.”
“Can you get Chan, Doc?”
“Yeah, right behind ya.”
In the center of the perimeter was a small grass hootch. They carried me inside. I could hear Sudsy calling for a medevac.
“How ya doing, son?” a familiar voice asked from the darkness.
“Is that you, Gunny?”
“I don’t know. My knee hurts.”
“How bad? Is it shrapnel?”
“It’s not too bad,” Doc said. “Looks like some time in Da Nang.”
“I didn’t know you guys found a hootch,” I said.
“You and Chan will be sleeping in a real bed tomorrow night,” Doc said. “Maybe tonight.”
“No way. Can’t get a medevac,” Sudsy said.
“Chan, you in much pain?” Doc asked.
“Yes.” Chan sounded weak.
“How bad is he, Doc?” I asked. Doc lit a match and quickly moved it all around Chan looking for wounds.
“A few shrapnel holes, but he’ll be okay. Gunny, hold a match over my pouch for a second.” Gunny lit a match, and Doc fingered through his pouch until he found what he wanted. “Okay, got it.”
I sat up to get a look at my leg. My trousers were covered with red mud. “Wow! I’ve lost a lot of blood!”
A moment later Doc stuck something in my leg.
“This is morphine. You won’t feel anything soon.…”
“What’s all the bouncing?” I opened my eyes, then shut them. The sun was bright. Someone had my legs. I opened my eyes again, squinting to see what was happening.
“I hear a chopper.”
“You sure do, girene.”
“I’m here, Johnnie. You’re in for a good time in Da Nang, buddy. Your taxi’s here.”
I focused in on the chief’s voice. His mud-spattered face showed no emotion, as usual, but I sensed friendship in his tone. It felt good.
“Don’t catch any of those rare diseases in Da Nang, now.” The lieutenant’s voice surprised me. He was helping Swift Eagle carry me to the chopper. First-class service, I thought. “See if you can bring back some dry writing paper.”
“Sure will, Lieutenant.”
“Hurry up!” I couldn’t see who was shouting. The wind from the chopper rotors blew water into my face. “Hurry up! Get him on!” It was the door gunner. They lifted me in. Swift Eagle shouted something, but the noisy engine drowned out his words.
“Where’s Chan?” I shouted.
The chief gave me a thumbs up. The door gunner dragged me away from the open hatch. I couldn’t understand the speed at which things were taking place around me.
“Go!” he screamed.
The rickety H-34 helicopter sounded like it might not get off the ground. Once it did, it climbed quickly, circling as it gained altitude. For an instant I could see the guys below. They were moving out again. I felt guilty for leaving them.
“Sit back, dummy, before you roll out.”
“Chan! I was wondering where you were.”
An odd sucking sound followed by a loud smack against the chopper wall on my right made me cringe. The gunner started firing at muzzle flashes below. A loud metallic thud came from the cockpit.
“Woooooo-we!” the pilot shouted. “Thank you, Uncle Sam, for this steel plate I got my butt on!”
A moment later we were out of range. The door gunner slid back toward Chan and me. “Are you okay?” His bushy mustache made him look like a walrus.
“Yes, but your aircraft has a new hole in it,” Chan said.
“That’s par for the course. We picked up a medevac in Dodge City about a month ago and got hit thirty-seven times in an old bucket just like this one. We still made it home.”
“No one got hit?” I asked.
“Yeah, the copilot, but he lived.”
“We’ve spent time in Dodge City, only in the mud. We’re gunners. Wouldn’t want to change places, would ya?”
I knew the answer, but I wanted to see if these fly-boys had proper respect for the grunts.
“Ain’t no way, dude! I’ve been down there once too often already.”
“You were a grunt?” Chan asked.
“For one week. With the Ninth.”
“How’d you get out of the bush? I heard you have to have three Purple Hearts to transfer from gunner to chopper gunner,” I said.
“Yeah. That’s what I heard too, but I had a good buddy who was an office pogue in the rear, and he wrote me up a duty change.”
“Are you feedin’ me some bull?” I said.
“Nope. It’s the truth.” He held up his right hand as if he were swearing in.
Chan and I looked at each other in disgust.
“Can your friend do it again?” I asked.
He shook his head. “Rotated home.”
“Is there actually a movie theater in Da Nang?” Chan asked.
“Sure is. On Freedom Hill. Got cold beer, too.”
“I bet you guys get beer every night, don’t you?” I asked.
“Yep. We even have our own little refrigerator.”
“It feels like we’re going down. Are we at Da Nang already?” I asked.
“No. We’re picking up some KIAs on Hill 188. See it?” He pointed at a muddy hilltop surrounded by barbed wire. It stuck out like a brown-cratered thumb in a sea of green.
The chopper settled into the muck of the mountain with a squish instead of the customary bounce. Four solemn-looking, helmetless Marines hustled toward us from a nearby sandbag bunker. They were shirtless and splattered from head to toe with dried mud. They carried a dead Marine wrapped in a poncho liner. Ten yards from us they sank into green muck up to their knees. When they reached the open hatch, they heaved the corpse in. It landed at my feet. The expressionless face just stared. Chan and the door gunner dragged the stiff, heavy corpse away from the hatch. Two more shirtless Marines came toward us carrying another dead man wrapped in a poncho spotted with dried blood. They heaved the corpse in and stood staring with the same blank faces. Then huge tears started streaming uncontrollably down the cheeks of one of the young men. I’d never seen anyone cry such huge tears without a sound or the slightest change of expression.
The chopper lifted off grudgingly from the sucking mud. Not a word was uttered by anyone. Wind swirling through the open hatch lifted the poncho nearest me, revealing a blond-haired, handsome boy.
“Look at his face, Chan.”
“Yes. He was a good-looking guy.” Chan leaned back with a sigh. “I wish we’d try to win this war.”
“I wonder why we don’t. I mean the real reason.”
“We’ll probably never know.”
“Did you hear what old MacArthur said?” I asked.
“My mom wrote in her last letter that he was appalled at what the government was doing to the American fighting man. He said he could take the First Marine Division, sweep to Hanoi, and end the war in three weeks.”
“You know he’s right.” Chan sighed. “And I know and the gooks know, but I’m beginning to think we’ll never do it.”
“My leg is starting to hurt pretty bad.”
“Mine too. The morphine is wearing off.”
“I’m a PFC, and I could have told the morons that after one month,” I said.
“Told them what?”
“That we could end the war in three weeks if we went to Hanoi.”
“If we don’t do something offensive, we’re going to look just like the chicken French.”
“How long has it been since you two slept in a bed?” the door gunner shouted from his position near the open hatch.
“I don’t even remember!” I answered.
“I do!” Chan said. “At least seven months!”
“Well, get ready for a real bed!”
“Welcome to Da Nang!” the pilot shouted from the cockpit.
We came down on a portable landing pad about fifty yards from a group of gray Quonset huts. NAS was painted in large red letters on the roof and side of the nearest building. I could see people running from hut to hut. Others ran toward us carrying stretchers. Another medevac chopper lifted off to our left. It wasn’t one hundred feet off the ground before another landed in its place. A drab green truck pulled up beside us. Two corpsmen jumped out, opened the back doors of the truck, then rushed over to us.
“Give us the stiffs!” a tall young corpsman shouted at the door gunner.
Two other corpsmen ran up to the open hatch. “Wounded first! Who’s hit the worst?”
“After you,” Chan said with a motion of his hand.
“Where am I going?” I asked as I struggled onto a stretcher.
“Your friendly Naval Aid Station,” a corpsman answered.
A minute later they dumped me onto an operating table and rushed off again. Chan was close behind. Two corpsmen laid him on a table beside me. He looked like he had just gotten off a roller coaster the hard way. Fifteen tables lined the wall to my front with muddy Marines, all of them bleeding. Tubes ran in and out of each man. Plastic bags of blood and glucose and God knows what else drained over each bed.
Doctors shouted for instruments while others shouted for thread or bandages. The large room was a pandemonium of noise. No one seemed to be in charge. Bright lights glared off white walls. Even the doctors were dressed in blood-spattered white, with only their eyes showing. Medical personnel rushed about, colliding and shoving each other out of the way.
The pain was getting worse. A whiff of ether smacked my nostrils. Normally, the smell of hospitals made me sick, but it had been so long since I smelled anything but the stench of the jungle and unwashed bodies that I found the antiseptic aroma strangely comforting.
I felt like a caveman. The electric lights fascinated me. The air felt abnormally cool. Maybe the loss of blood, I thought. Air conditioning! “Chan! It’s air conditioning!”
“Where are you hit, Marine?”
I looked to my left to see the harried face of a young corpsman.
He reached for a large pair of scissors and started cutting up one leg of my trousers to the hip. A grenade fell out of one of the huge trouser pockets and bounced between the corpsman’s feet. He turned pale. Then he lost control.
“You jarheaded moron! What are you doing with a grenade in here!”
His panicky scream startled everyone around us into silence. He was still too stiff with panic to pick up the grenade from between his feet.
“Haven’t you heard, Squid?” I said with as threatening a tone as I could muster. “There’s a war going on out there, and frags are tools of my trade.” The frightened corpsman squatted slowly, delicately picked up the grenade with a forefinger and thumb, and ran out of the room holding it at arm’s length.
The wounded around me were getting quite a chuckle, especially Chan, and I must say I was feeling rather pleased with myself until a doctor appeared from nowhere and shoved a pill in my mouth.
“This is Darvon, Marine. It will help relieve the pain a little. I can’t give you anything else for now. We’re out of nearly everything. We have to save what’s left for the more seriously wounded.”
He turned to the frightened corpsman, who had by now reluctantly disposed of my grenade.
“Cut his boots off and dig the shrapnel out.”
The most serious wound was just under my left knee. The doctor was pointing to that spot when he said the word “dig.”
A moment later three very large characters, all dressed in white, waltzed up to my table and proceeded to hold me down by my hands and feet. Things were beginning to look very grim again. I wanted to resist being held down, but six months of C-rations and humping fifteen to twenty miles a day had turned me into a walking skeleton. I was too weak to put up a struggle.
It felt like he was digging for clams. I screamed until someone gave me a towel to bite. He finally ceased the torture, stepped back from the table, and made the most ludicrous statement a man in his position could possibly make.
“Well.” He paused, looking into the now gaping hole in my left leg, scratching his head like Stan Laurel, and sounding like a female impersonator. “I guess it’s too deep to dig out.”
My head dropped back to the table. I kept waiting to hear the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. The pain felt worse now than when I got hit. It convinced me that these fools were using me for on-the-job training.
The brunt of the Tet Offensive was over, but the combat was still heavier than at any other time in the history of the war. That fact became more alarming to me after they sewed me up, cleaned me, and wheeled me into a long Quonset hut filled to the limit with wounded Marines.
I fought back a loud sigh at the touch of clean white sheets. It felt so clean, cleaner than anything I could remember. I drifted into a deep sleep.
“How are you feeling, Marine?”
The soft voice sounded too pleasant to be anything but a dream.
“Wake up. Time for medicine.”
I opened my eyes slowly for fear of chasing away my sensuous illusion. Huge round blue eyes seemed to be staring back at me through a thick fog. What was that smell? Lilac, I thought. Benita George used to wear lilac, or was that Jody Abbott? Oh, what a body. Benita was blond. I blinked my eyes. Either some of the fog had cleared or I had perfected dreaming. Bleached-blond hair surrounding large white teeth. I blinked again. Huge, healthy, positively American breasts. Couldn’t be.
I slowly raised my right hand toward the lovely vision. I gave one breast two light pats. Hm. Firm dream, I thought. She smiled.
“I think you’ll live, Marine.” She reached for a tray beside the bed and hoisted out of it a bayonet, disguised as a needle. “Roll over.”
I felt like a beached whale. I quickly nodded off and into a world full of large, friendly blondes.
That is not a dream, that is a nightmare, I thought. I opened my eyes. A stern-faced major in dress greens looked down at me.
“I am presenting you with the Purple Heart medal on behalf of the United States Marine Corps.” A young Red Cross girl handed him a purple box, then focused in on me with a camera. He opened the box and showed me the medal. “Would you like me to pin it on?” he asked.
I looked down to discover I was wearing blue pajamas. “No, I’ll just lay the box by me.”
“As you wish. This young lady is here to take a picture if you want. We suggest that you have the photo taken to send to your folks back home and let them know you’re okay. Marines will come to their door with a telegram informing your next of kin that you have been wounded in hostile action in Quang Ngai Province.” He turned and practically marched to the next bed.
“Smile,” she said, and I didn’t. “That will be one dollar.” She tore the Polaroid picture from the camera and handed it to me like a traffic cop.
“But I don’t have any money. We don’t get paid in the bush. I don’t even know where my wallet is.”
“Your belongings are in the medical bag hanging on the side of your bed. You will receive a one-hundred-dollar Military Payment Certificate today. I’ll come back later for the dollar.”
She never got her dollar, and I never got my hundred. Twenty-four hours later I was flying south toward an Air Force hospital in Cam Rahn Bay aboard a C-130. Vietnam looked so pretty from the air, a giant green quilt with each square piece a different shade of green. I envied pilots.
The giant snub-nosed plane bulged with wounded Marines. I couldn’t see Chan, but I figured he’d be aboard. I dozed off again and didn’t wake until we bounced down at Cam Rahn airstrip. The engines whined to a stop. As we were unloaded from the plane, I noticed a strange silence. No artillery! We had landed so far away from the war there wasn’t even the sound of artillery.
The Air Force hospital at Cam Rahn looked more like a cheap housing district in the U.S. But the Waldorf wouldn’t have looked any better to me. Paved roads led us to the hospital, and I thought I actually saw streetlights. Sidewalks and well-kept hedges linked all the little one-story buildings together. Army and Air Force people walked about, carrying soft drinks instead of M16s and towels instead of packs. Everyone looked clean.
They wheeled me into a hospital ward. The wonders continued to unfold. Cold air-conditioned air slapped me in the face. Television sets mounted above some of the beds just about took my breath away. Telephones rang, and women nurses strolled in and out of the building. “I don’t believe this!”
“Can you believe this?” a familiar voice said.
I looked right. Chan lay in the bed next to me.
“Chan! I’ve been wondering where you were.”
Before he could answer another voice interrupted.
“Just like downtown, ain’t it, dude?”
The voice was slow, deep, and monotonous, with a faintly nasal intonation. The face looked like a New York Italian’s. Definitely a New York something.
“It’s unreal!” I said. “I can’t even hear artillery.”
“You guys are Marines, no doubt. Da Nang must be overflowing again.”
“Yeah, it is. Are you a Marine?”
“No way, man. I just broke my arm playing volleyball down at the beach. I’m Air Force.”
“Volleyball?” I asked in disbelief.
“Beach?” Chan echoed my disbelief.
“Sure,” he said. “What do they do to you clowns anyway? Where have you been, another planet?”
“Yeah. It’s called the bush.” I rolled toward Chan, hoping to end the conversation.
“Hey listen, man. I wanna quiz ya about the war when I get back from the latrine, okay?”
I ignored him. “How you feeling, Chan?”
“A lot better now that she’s here.”
His eyes led me to a beautiful red-headed Red Cross girl doing her best to maneuver a cart full of books and magazines through the swinging doors of our ward. She pushed the cart to the foot of my bed and stopped.
“Hi, fellas.” She smiled. “See anything you’d like?”
My heartbeat picked up a couple of extra thumps. All we could do was stare. I felt like a country boy visiting the big city. Before either of us gained our composure, she dropped a pencil. The pencil bounced between our beds. She seemed to pay no attention to the pencil; she grabbed two magazines, walked between our beds, and handed one to each of us. She then turned around and bent over from the waist to retrieve the pencil.
Though normally Chan’s manner conformed to an accepted standard of propriety and good taste exceeding that of most Marines, with the combination of combat fatigue, pain, short dress, long legs, exquisite rear end, and generous view, the strain was too much. He succumbed and leaned so far out of his bed that his head banged into mine, which coincidentally had drifted into approximately the same area. Naturally, she turned around in time to see us gawking.
Chan winced slightly, closed his eyes, and grimaced as if in great pain. I had never seen him more embarrassed. I decided to come to our weak but nonetheless hopeless defense.
“We’ve been in the bush a long time, ma’am, and you’re our first mini-skirt.”
“I would like to apologize …” Chan began.
“You haven’t seen a mini-skirt before?” she asked unbelievingly.
“They were coming in just as we were going out,” Chan said.
Chan spoke the painful truth, undoubtedly the single most atrocious crime against good timing I had personally committed.
“You have to be Marines.” Her smile let us know she understood.
“Are you wounded badly?”
“No, just shrapnel,” Chan answered.
“Speak for yourself,” I said. “Mine hurts!”
“I suppose you’ve been on R&R by now?”
“No,” we said in unison.
She looked pleased with our answer. She looked around secretively before continuing.
“If you two want more than a look, it’ll cost you fifty each. Make up your minds. I’ll be back later.”
With that she pushed her little cart away, leaving me thoroughly jolted.
“That’s a shame,” Chan said quietly, as much to himself as to me.
“That a beautiful young lady, who very likely began her adventure as a Red Cross girl in Vietnam with humanitarian and patriotic ideals, has become no more than a prostitute.” He looked at me seriously. “I think we should pray for her.” He stared at me, then broke into a smile. “You look like I just stole your candy.”
He was right, that’s the way I felt.
“Look, Chan”—I suddenly felt angry with him, but I wasn’t sure why—”I don’t want to pray.” I stopped myself from going on with some angry comment on how I just wanted to lust in peace.
“Sorry,” he said. He knew how I was feeling.
I was almost happy to see two solemn-looking characters dressed in white appear at the foot of my bed with a wheelchair. A half-dozen examinations later, a bespectacled physician informed me that I had managed to catch four or possibly five strange little jungle diseases ranging from a touch of malaria to worms.
“According to your records, you’ve lost forty-two pounds.”
That hurt. I hated losing weight. I hadn’t realized how skinny I’d become. One of the strange ironies of war was how all the trivial concerns, like worrying about my physique, had not entered my mind once in seven months. In a bizarre kind of way it felt good to forget all the trifles.
A few shots later I was wheeled back to bed.
“I reconned the area in a wheelchair I confiscated,” Chan said as the two medics lifted me into bed. “You won’t believe who is occupying a bed in the ward at the end of the hall!”
“Staff Sergeant R. C. Jones!”
“Senior Drill Instructor R. C. Jones? I don’t believe it.”
“Hello, men.” I knew that baritone voice. That voice had given me nightmares. It was true. There he stood, big as life, hanging on to crutches for balance.
“Sergeant Jones? What are you doing here?” I hesitated ending the question without a “sir.” There was a time when I swore I’d nail this sucker if I ever met him off Parris Island.
“They can only refuse a transfer so many times. I had to get into this war. Been with the Ninth for about three months now. My gunner got killed and I had to jump on the M60. Got about fifty rounds off, and next thing I knew I was on a medevac. Thank God I made it over here before the mother was over!”
I knew he really meant what he was saying.
“If we don’t try winning, it may never be over,” Chan put in.
“That’s the bloody truth,” Jones replied. “Chan told me you two were put up for the Silver Star. That’s bleedin’ wonderful! You came out of PI Marines. Do you remember that fat-body that got the hernia in the squad bay?” His eyes got angry.
Chan and I exchanged glances. We remembered all too well chunky Private Peoples. Our three DIs made him do sit-ups, push-ups, and leg lifts in front of the platoon until he ruptured himself. Then they cursed him all the way to the ambulance, promising to drive his fat body out of the Marine Corps.
“Yeah, I remember him,” I said.
Jones let loose a chorus of curses before telling us why the uproar. “The little girl wrote his congressman and started another investigation.”
“Is that right?” Chan said, trying to act surprised.
“Do you remember that pantywaist that climbed up the water tower and threatened to jump? Maybe that wasn’t your platoon.”
“No, it was ours,” I said.
I remembered it like it was yesterday. One more character who should never have joined the Corps. He panicked when he climbed the tower. All the DIs in the battalion marched their platoons to the tower and made them stand in formation around it. Then each DI threatened him with various tortures if he didn’t jump. It was only about fifty feet, and he probably would have lived. He finally came down.
“That twerp got himself killed his third day in country, up at the rock pile. I tried to drum him out but he made it.” Sergeant Jones’s voice trailed off. In spite of his harsh language, he couldn’t hide his obvious regret over the boy’s death.
Before we ended our reunion I hit the sergeant up for a small loan. When he heard the reason, he acted happy to give it to me.
With loan in hand, nothing stood between me and the Red Cross girl. Chan confiscated another wheelchair, and I wheeled it to the head for a quick cleaning before the big date. Thirty minutes later Chan came after me.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“How long has it been since you flushed a commode?”
“You mean you’ve been in here flushing that commode?”
“Man, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen that apparatus.”
Chan started laughing. Then he laughed harder. He leaned back, clapping his hands and losing temporary control of his chair. It rolled right, banging Chan’s newly stitched leg into a hard porcelain sink. Dark red blood soaked through his blue pajamas.
Ten stitches and thirty minutes later Chan was back in bed beside me and groaning to the tune of taps vibrating through the hospital over a tinny-sounding intercom.
I requisitioned a pair of crutches from a patient who was not aware of his generosity. I was ready. Chan was asleep before taps finished. My palms started sweating like they did before hitting a hot LZ. I knew she wouldn’t show up; it was too good, too much to hope for.
The fluorescent lights weren’t even cool when she appeared in the doorway at the end of our row of beds. When she sauntered toward me, carefully placing one foot precisely in front of the other to give her hips a smooth, sensual sway, the sweat left my palms and went to my forehead. She still wore her short gray Red Cross dress and carried something under one arm.
I grabbed my crutches and slid out of bed as quietly as a cripple can. I started to giggle but managed to swallow it. She led me out of the one-story ward with no difficulty and across a small asphalt parking lot where I felt sure everyone in Cam Rahn Bay could hear me plodding across the asphalt. She guided me to a row of trucks with big red crosses on the hoods. We made our way to one that was conveniently open and unoccupied. Once inside the back of the truck, she lit a small candle and produced a six-pack of American beer from the brown paper bag she had tucked under her arm.
The night looked to be proceeding along quite nicely. The war was an old dream. Her name was Linda. She came from Dallas, was twenty-two years old, unmarried, and physically luscious. Her ambition centered around making enough money to buy a house.
“I only need about twenty-five more guys,” she said with a bright, perky smile that came closer to a cheerleader’s than a harlot’s.
“A house! Can you make that much?” I asked naively.
“Oh sure,” she said matter-of-factly, her sky-blue eyes springing open wide with information. “The girl I replaced made forty thousand bucks in eleven months.”
I stupidly tried to divide fifty into forty thousand on ten fingers. Not enough fingers. I felt a bit upset, realizing she hadn’t been swept away by my charm, or at least my good looks.
She stood to remove her gray Red Cross dress, stooping slightly to avoid bumping her head. I felt myself melting faster than the candle. Her dress fell lazily to the floor of the ambulance.
The flickering candle gave off just enough light to drive me crazy, revealing a tight, muscular body. Her beautiful shoulder-length red hair waved naturally around a face that could have been doing soap commercials. She had the complexion of one of those people who probably couldn’t even spell the word “pimple.” She pushed a long red twirl of hair away from her slightly upturned nose and smiled enticingly. I fell immediately in love—or in lust. Definitely in something. I tried unbuttoning my shirt, but I couldn’t get my eyes off her long enough to find the buttons. For no sane reason the thought that this might be the last beautiful girl I’d ever see drifted into my mind.
The clang of an emergency bell erased my trip down paranoia lane, replacing it with a brand-new fear, the fear of getting caught. Heavy boots hustled across the asphalt, getting louder and closer. Someone opened the cab door of our truck. The truck rocked with the weight of a large man jumping into the driver’s seat. I froze.
“Maybe he won’t open up the back,” I whispered.
The starter whined. The driver stomped the gas pedal and cursed.
My lovely and naked accomplice was perfectly calm. I was ready to panic. She leaned back comfortably, observing me the way a psychiatrist might study a patient.
The engine whined again. How could she be so cool? I thought, rather angry at the idea.
Voices outside the truck made me hold my breath. The engine whined again. I didn’t think the candle could be seen from outside, but out of nervousness I started to blow it out anyway.
“No,” she whispered with her hand covering the candle. “Just relax.” I didn’t. The engine whined once more. The driver cursed. She put her finger up to her thick red lips, reached into the bag that had held the beer, and pulled out a round black object.
In the flickering light the object didn’t look familiar. The engine whined. The driver cursed again. The truck rocked, then the door of the cab slammed shut. Boots stomped toward another truck. A door opened and closed. An engine started on the first try. I squinted to see the black object more clearly.
“Oh no!” I said. “It isn’t!” I said covering my mouth to keep from laughing out loud.
“Yes, it is,” she said. “A slightly used U.S. Army distributor cap.” I tried to smother the noise, but it was no use. I laughed until I cried. “You’re a real redhead. I mean, everything matches. I mean I haven’t been with a girl in a long time. In the jungle, the war, ya know …”
“We’ll take care of that.…”
“Besides jungle rot, various worms, and what may be a touch of malaria, PFC”—the stern-faced doctor looked down at his chart with a slight hint of disgust—”you now also have gonorrhea.” I slumped against my pillow. I looked at Chan. His bed was cranked to a sitting position. He pretended to be reading a magazine, with his Snoopy grin plastered across his contented face. He said nothing.
Every morning during every humiliating, painful penicillin shot, he grinned and said nothing. Oh, one day he hummed and said nothing.
We spent over a month in the hospital. For over a month Chan held his tongue in check, not once succumbing to the temptation of “I told you so.” He drove me crazy.