My platoon carefully walked through acres of crisscrossed bamboo punji stakes out in the fields surrounding the villages, one eye on the bamboo daggers all around, the other scanning for locals waiting to shoot you from behind the bushes and trees. "Must have taken a lot of work to put out all these stakes," I said over my shoulder to Mulenburg.
“Ah reckon theat be true, young troop. Best walk mighty keer'ful, cause them punji stakes'll give ya world's a hurt. Not only's they sharp’nd and dipp’t in human ex-cree-ment so's to fill y’alls tough Yankee hides with alien bugs," Mulenburg said, but them orn'ry SOB's crisscross's punji stakes so't they can get you comin’r goin'. Yeah, each'n every one o' them little babys's dipp'd in a sauce of bod-i-ly dew to give Amer'cans theat 'Get outta here flu.' So, y'all best be watch'n y'alls butts, grunts, cause Mr. Charles'd whole lot rather wound y’alls sorry, good-fer-nuthin' asses, than kill ya."
"Got it all figured out, eh Sarge," I mumbled.
"Damn straight I got it figger’d, troop!" Mulenburg drawled. "Punji stakes’r designatory by Mistah Charles t’is war effort, t'do the worstest poss’ble harm t'us. His punji stakes make it so’s a whole passel o' folks has’t take care’a one frog-stuck young troop 'at didn't watch where he was steppin'. Charles ain't no dummy...no sir! He knows a wounded troop has't be cared fer by least ten people...platoon medics, med-e-vacs, field hospit'l doct'rs, nurses, ord'lies, admin'strators, jan’tors 'n such. A wounded troop ties up a whole passel of folks, while a KIA troop...why he only needs't be zipped up in a body bag nice ‘n neat, and flown back ta home."
O'Neal snickered. "Charlie figures a dead GI is a lot easier to handle for Uncle Sammy than wounded ones...and he don't like us having it too easy."
We hiked to the end of a long valley, where O'Neal, Riley and Nigel investigated a hooch, turning everything over careful-like, in case they found a booby trap or two, spilling a large basket of rice into the dust in the process. They bayoneted the walls looking for booby traps and weapons caches, while Ottel, Snyder and I watched their backs, standing guard in a circle pattern around the hooch.
An old, withered Vietnamese papasan toddled out, bowing and scraping to all the GI's, but nobody took notice of him when they saw he wasn't armed. His eyes rolled sad and forlorn, as he shuffled over and held a shot-glass-sized cup up to me. He muttered some soft, kindly sounding words in Vietnamese, graciously bowing and beckoning me to take it.
My throat was bricky dry, and I really could have used a drink, but Ottel stepped between us, pointing his M-16 at the wrinkled old man. "No thanks you old coot. Di-di mau!" he said as the papasan, with sad hurt in his eyes, simply turned and waddled away. "Could have been poison," Ottel said. "Never know."
"Sure it was poison," O'Neal smirked. "Why I oughta put a bullet in his sorry ass old head right now." He pointed his M-16 at the retreating old man. "Pow," he whispered. "Pow, pow!"
Riley chimed in from where he was taking a long drag on a cigarette, "Put the old fart out of his misery, that's what I say, you know?"
"I'd like to give that old man a little old-time religion," O'Neal smiled sadistically, patting his M-16 fondly. "Why that old fart's surely VC...ya know he is...leastways a VC sympathizer. He'd surely like nothing better than to see your sorry ass wriggling and dying in the dirt after what we did to his shanty. Think I ought to waste 'im," he nodded, "convert that old-timer to my religion?"
Ottel nodded his head. "I just hate agreeing with Old Blood and Guts here, but why would that old man want to be nice to us, Jacob, when we're tearing up every raggedy thing he has in the world?"
I couldn’t do anything more than sigh. "Could be papasan was just trying to make contact. You know, just be nice. But I guess we'll probably never know now. Can't take the chance."
"I'll make papasan a believer right now," O'Neal said with a sparkle in his eye, caressing his rifle with an almost lusty affection. "That old man won't hear your sorry God, nohow, noway, but he sure as hell will hear mine. And he’ll learn to fear the sound my god makes too, and dance those raggedy old bones to his beat. Want to know why? Because my fucking god is real," O'Neal cooed. "When my damned god speaks, people listen...people sit up and take notice of what my god says. People fear my god, by god, because when he speaks...thunder rolls."
Riley nodded, as he munched on some C-rations crackers. He ate O’Neal’s words right up. "Can't trust none of 'em, Jacob...none of 'em, hear? If a kid gives you a Coke, you'd be smart to look at that fuckin' can real careful..."
"Real careful," O’Neal finished his sentence, smiling, "'cause it just might blow up in your face...likely as not."
"Look for a grenade, or something in it," Riley said. "You better look sharp that the Coke can don’t blow up and kill you...and take along a few of your buddies, too.
Leaving the old man’s hooch, my platoon passed over a tree-covered ridge and into a large field, led by a German shepherd trained to sniff out explosives, and his handler, who must have come in with the supply chopper. I looked back as we passed over the lip of the hill, and saw the old man bending to scrape up what he could of the rice spilled in the dust.
Just after we again passed into the jungle, we destroyed a covert Vietcong meeting place. At least we were told it was a VC meeting place by the officers. We uncovered and blew up a hidden reserve of weapons and two tons of rice.
"I don't know about this," Ottel muttered. "Somebody goes messing with my food and I would get an awful mad-on." As if on cue, a sniper opened up withering fire, and everybody hit the dirt. I could feel the breeze of the bullets passing by overhead, but when I pointed my M-16 to search the tree line, nobody was there. The VC had again di-di'd and gone, once again choosing to hit and run.
"See,” Ottel smirked, “I told you they’d be mad.”
When night fell, I prepared to spend another night in yet another abandoned Vietcong hamlet, but Lieutenant Pike popped a red smoke for the Hueys to mark on, and soon we were soaring above the rice paddies on a heading for home.
Trenery called in the artillery, giving coordinates to raze the village at zero minus ten...ten minutes after we lifted off.
“Ten minutes oughta just give the Charlies time to assemble and see what goodies we left behind,” Ottel said, as he wolfed down some C-rat fruit cocktail rifled from his pack.
“Giv'm hell, Arty," O'Neal mumbled as he stumbled aboard. “When the shit hits, them mothah fuckers oughta just be digging out my C-rations franks and beans. Oh how good they'll think they've got it....then, boom!”
"I left 'em my ham n'chokers," Riley snickered, so if Arty don't get'm, my C-rats ham and lima beans will."
"Damn, Riley," O'Neal said, "we wanta draw the Charlies in, not drive'm out."
“Pound'm good, Arty," Riley said.
“Give them one for Richardson," Ottel said.
Mulenburg passed on the scoop that the choppers were carrying us home to Landing Zone Betty, our home on the outskirts of Phan Thiet.
"War's Hell!" Snyder screamed, breaking the silent noise punctuated by the incessant whop-whop-whopping drone of the helicopter rotors. As we looked out the door, the chopper came in low over the white-washed shanties of Phan Thiet, stretching to the north and east of our LZ Betty home by the China Sea. I looked around, and our dour expressions would seem to answer a question that was never asked...but in our minds.
LZ Betty wasn’t much to look at, as homes go, but it had the unique luxury of a boundary of rolled concertina barbed-wire strands six-feet high to keep the Charlies out, or at least slow them down a bit. It had sandbag bunker homes built over foxholes that had been pre-dug on the defensive perimeter firing line, just inside the wire for the grunts. Now this was luxury! There was plenty of room inside the concertina wire for several companies and three artillery pieces, and a group of old buildings, hooches and tents for the brass, pilots and administrative personnel. Defoliants and bulldozers had pushed the forest back to make for security, and establish a good killing zone range of fire. The bunkers still had dirt floors, but it beat all to hell having to dig your own hole to live in for a few hours, then packing up the next morning to move a few klicks just so you could dig another hole.
Having a pre-dug fighting hole was a real fine luxury that everybody was almost ecstatic about. “However will we pass the time?” I joked to Ottel, “with beaucoup time on our hands. I mean, we don’t have to dig foxholes, but we do still have to set up trip flares and claymore mines to guard the front door of our ‘home.’"
"Betty won't make you forget about your home back in 'the world,'" Ottel mumbled, happy as a kid finding a quarter under the couch cushions, "but at least a guy can sleep without worrying about someone sticking a knife in his ribs, or rifling his dead body's pants pockets."
Sitting on my own sandbag-roofed bunker in my first relatively secure moment since coming to Nam, I felt almost bored. I reviewed some of the horrors occurring over the last few days, over a canteen cup of C-ration hot chocolate. Days! has it only been days? I thought to myself. It seemed more than mere days. It seemed like a millennium!
I couldn't get Richardson's face eating C-ration beans and franks out of my mind. I had wanted to smash somebody when he was killed, but the VC had vanished as quick as they had appeared, and there was nobody to smash, not unless I wanted to pickon some local, and earn a tour of beautiful, downtown Leavenworth. Richardson’s death was just another dull hurt, piled on in a country filled with hurt.
Ottel had warned me not to even think of him while out in the booneys, first because thinking of him clouded your vision a mite, and second because if you were thinking of him, you weren't giving full attention to the trail...and there are things that can jump up and bite you out there.
"You can't afford thinking of Richardson, he'd said. "Not when everything depends on your staying one hundred percent alert. The VC that killed Richardson are likely haning around out there, shadowing our every movement just out of sight...just waiting for the chance to kill again." The death was filed away as far back as I could get it...down deep in a place I feared would soon be filled with a host of innumerable hurts.
I feared too, that very soon the death of people so close would become matter-of-fact, a common occurrence, nothing about it making it stand out to any unique degree. But why Richardson? I know it's best not to think about it, but how can you not? It could just as easily have been me toe-tagged, bagged, and sent home. There was no answer for a long while, as I looked out into the distant tree line, feeling almost a guilt that I was here, and Richardson was beginning the long journey home. I could have just as easily been the one that caught it. “'There but for the grace of God go I,' I guess," I mumbled, on the rim of dozing.
I suddenly remembered something someone had said as I was about to get on the plane for Nam. It was something about God knowing when even the smallest sparrow falls. Was Richardson’s death really as senseless and without plan as it seemed? Was his life and death really in vain, or was it part of some greater plan? I recalled a scripture. “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory.” (1 Cor. 15: 54,55)
Suddenly I felt strangely envious of Richardson. Richardson was hurting no more. He was probably leaning back on some fluffy cloud somewhere, having laid this mortal body by, and taking up a body of immortality, while I was just setting out on the path he had walked...
I thought again of the wall scribbled with graffiti I’d seen back at the Oakland Army Terminal, Barracks 590. Many Army personnel awaiting transport to Nam processed through Area 590. It seemed like years ago when I had passed through, staying three days in its whitewashed barracks. In reality it was closer to a week. I'd heard that never in the history of warfare has a resupply of fresh bodies for the front been warehoused on such a large scale. Seven hundred men daily took the "cross-the-pond" shuttle between Oakland and the Vietnam War Zone, and seven hundred newbies were shipped in to take their place. This also meant seven hundred veterans of Vietnam were shipped stateside, some alive...some sorely wounded in body and spirit...some dead and bagged.
Somberly, I pulled out a piece of paper where I'd copied the graffiti, scribbling on it the writings from off the wall. "Please God, let me come home to my family and friends in Ohio; and please God, let Linda love me forever and ever."
“Fat chance,” I smiled, but my smile turned into a reflective gaze as I looked out past the concertina wire, trying to remember myself before Nam. How I had changed. I glanced over at my squad lying around the bunker, and tried to picture one of them offering that prayer. Each man in the squad had come through 590 at one time or another. Any of them could have written it...me too. I’m sure we all looked like fresh-faced boys in the football bus on the way to the next game then, all gung-ho and full of spit and vinegar. There was one big difference, though. These boys here...these men, were armed to the teeth and dangerous. These boys' game plan involved killing the opposing team. Our running attack would be over their bloody guts, employing a passing attack with artillery and air suport that would fill the VC full of holes and blow them to smithereens. No. Nobody from Ohio with a prayer to God on his lips here. Maybe there was once, but not now.
I glanced at O'Neal, flat on his back with his mouth wide open, and his mustache quivering. He looked so innocent...so innocent. But I knew looks could be deceiving, because O'Neal was anything but innocent. I stared at that twitching mustache, caught up in the rhythm of it, as his breath went in and out. Ottel had said O'Neal had grown the mustache to hide the kid he was in fact. But O’Neal didn't need it, because when he opened his stony, jaded, unfeeling eyes...if you looked into them, I mean really looked, he looked old.
I wondered if the soldier who had written on the wall would ever see Linda again? I wondered if Linda would take him back when she saw what the war had made of him. What if that soldier had been someone like O'Neal? Would Linda appreciate and understand his sacrifice? Could he ever tell Linda what he'd seen, what he'd done, what was inside? Probably not. "Amen," I said to the young man's prayer, shook my head and closed my eyes...just to rest them you understand. "Amen."
I looked again at the scribbled scrap of paper with its pleadings for deliverance in moralistic and gung-ho naďve language, and saw one that kind of reflected the way I had felt when I was a newby on my way to the Nam. "Wherever there is injustice, let me be there to rectify it."
"Hell, injustice...had I ever been that naďve? Maybe...once, but that was a long time ago! Maybe it had been only a matter of days, but a lot can happen in days...a lot that stays with you forever like monkeys on your back. Whatever happened to those glorified dreams of saving a young nation from the clutches of tyrannical communism? That had been so long ago. Whatever happened to thoughts of quelling the domino effect...of fighting for right? Those thoughts had long been dismissed from my reality...they were dinky-dau.
I looked down to the next writing from the wall. Here was the age-old sentiment, and chilling thought, "Ours not to reason why...ours but to do and die." Wow...it has such a different meaning now, than before. Now we too were about to ride the wild beast, our helicopters, into the valley of the shadow of death, to do terrible battle with an elusive carnivore called war. Even if war's ogre didn't kill you, it could eat you up and spit you out, forever changed when you finally went home to "the world." That put a whole new slant on things.
Some of the scribbling I’d copied from the wall hid fear behind humor and boasting, like the one that read, "I'm one of the Vietcong for lunch bunch," or "Join the Army and see the world." I flashed a sardonic smile. Yeah, that'll happen! The smile broadened as I read, "Visit the Vietcong-a-go-go, where the action is," and, "Nineteen years of heaven...two years of hell. How naďve," I thought. "How utterly naďve."
I looked around me, and grinned sarcastically, "Well...pretty damned close! Vietnam is filled with action, and this war is truly Hell. And boys coming over have no idea what awaits them."
I didn't know why I had copied the private, anonymous, almost sacred writings from the wall. Maybe it was a moment of impulse, because I could somehow see men dancing the fine line between life and impending death awaiting them just over the pond, or around the next bend. I don't know why I kept the writings in my pocket either. Maybe they were a reminder of myself...a reminder of the man I had been way back then before I'd even seen Vietnam. The lines of writing expressed uniquely horrible feelings of men who knew they might never return from war, gettin ready to jump into the unknown abyss, baring their souls one last time, jacking-up their bravado. The writings had a solemn character, almost as if seeming to know that soon...too soon, this writing might be the only thing left of them in "the world." This naďve innocence just might be the only thing to remind the "real world" that they had indeed been here, briefly passing on this mortal foil. This might be their sole memento...their sole contribution to the world...quite possibly even the last thing anybody would ever hear from them again. How sad they were...yet somehow, brave too!
I wondered about all those brave men, and all their brave thoughts. They knew what might come, yet they were still so willing to give their all. I wondered about their determination in the face of an as yet unknown evil. These young, pubescent, nubile authors on the road to war had spent their last hours on American soil contemplating unknown futures. They had come from a land of milk and honey, now about to risk it all, writing of faith, courage, bravado, humility, fear, hate, and pride...the seven primary colors basic to a soldier's soul. I wondered how many of these naďve "boys-next-door" were still alive. How many? How many of the naďve boys who wrote on the wall had now lost their innocence? How many of the innocents will come back as killers? How many of those pleading with God have transformed irrevocably, losing faith, not only in God, but in their country, in their leaders, in their fellow man...in humanity? How many have changed forever, physically...and mentally?
I carefully folded the tattered paper, unbuttoning my fatigue pocket, starting to put it back in, figuring somehow, just maybe, if I held the writing close, I could help the boys that wrote the messages come home. "What you got there?" Ottel asked, playfully snatching the paper from me before I could put it in my pocket.
"Just some writings I copied from the terminal wall back in Oakland," I said. When he'd read it, he handed it back. He was suddenly sober, without a word. After a few agonizing moments he said, "Don't matter what the uninitiated thought about war back then! Nam is a whole other world. Nobody can conceive of it, so they had no idea what they were getting themselves into back then.”
“Vietnam sure enough is a reality check!” I said. “Nam sure can turn your life around. I guess those that wrote on the wall’ve all grown older since they left the states.”
“They'd have to have,” he said, “even if it’s only been a few days...a few days can be a lifetime. More sometimes! You have to learn Nam’s ways quick, and grow up quick...or you're gonna die quick. Most of us have seen too many buddies die, so there won't be too many crying about it here...not now. We can't afford to. Maybe there will be a time for that sometime, somewhere, but not now. Friends are a thousand hurts, and Jacob, you’re fast learning the ways...so you just might live. Now, when you first talked to me on the tarmac, I didn’t think so. I thought, 'What is this F-N-G twink thinking?'"
"Yeah, 'fucking new guy.' Like I told ya, that's what we call twinks fresh from 'the world.' You looked so green and vulnerable back then, kinda like a lost puppy. O’Neal even bet us all you wouldn’t last more than five days.”
“Nothin’ personal,” O'Neal said, having woken up. "Can't afford to make friends. No time to cry about them either, what with death so common. Each time one of your buddies gets zapped, you die a little more inside...just add their memories to the load you carry. Here you die an inch at a time, till you just don’t feel it no more."
Ottel said, “Have to go numb or you won’t survive. I can't explain it, but you'll know what I mean...if you don't already."
“Nobody got to tell you, it just happens," O’Neal grunted. "Have to laugh at death in the face...joke about it, or it's AMF, ‘cause that’s better than crying about what you can’t do nothing about.”
O'Neal grinned. "Shit, Ottel, why don't you tell your boy the lingo? AMF means, 'Adios mother fucker!'"
"That's the worst," Riley nodded, "not blinking an eye when you know you will never see your friends again...nobody will never know what really happened. Pretty soon when you see somebody get it, you don't even think about it much anymore...'cause you just gotta go on."
“You can’t afford to get too attached,” O’Neal said. "You think about your buddy dying too much, and pretty soon you don't watch out careful as you should...you react a little slower, and pffft, you're dead too! You don't wanna join 'em, so you just store it deep, man."
Nigel growled, "When it's your time...it's your time, thass all...end of story."
"Killing's exciting though, ain't it," O'Neal said, his eyes getting big, an animated sparkle dancing in them, excitement crackling in his voice as if he were fishing and reeling in the big one. "What you all gotta have such long faces for? Killing is a pure rush of adrenaline. It’s fear, anger, power...thrill, all rolled into one. Killing makes you feel alive! I feel, I don't know, a sort of elation every time I kill another Charlie. I'm suddenly more, I don't know, more immortal somehow...but the feeling doesn't last. Killing's got to be fed like any drug. It gets to be too ordinary."
"Ah, c'mon, O'Neal, give it a rest," Ottel said.
"Whatta ya mean? Killing's an addiction, where you got to do...what you got to do, more and more to keep that high, that intoxication of the kill." O'Neal flashed what he meant to be a smile, but a hard ridge trembled on his lips, and something...I don't know what it was, but something unsettling burned in his eyes.
At that moment I really knew fear. I saw its face, and it wasn't Charlie!
"It's you or Charlie out there," Riley said. "And it don't really matter who wins to nobody but you."
“It does matter a little bit to Charlie,” O’Neal said, flashing a sardonic, patronizing grin, "but don't you see...that's the thrill of the game. Charlie cares if it's you or he live or die. He cares a whole hell of a lot."
"Damn, Riley," Nigel snickered, "the way things're goin', this war'll still be goin' on long after you're in the ground feeding worms."
"Killing's gotta be automatic," O'Neal said, continuing with sincere but feverish intensity on his face, once again lecturing his naďve pupils about the ways of war. "The longer you wait the more you choke. Fear can paralyze you.”
Snyder nodded. "Seen it happen. In fact, it almost happened to me."
"Hell, it happens to me every time I get shot at," Ottel quipped. "Good thing it only lasts for a split second, or I'd be dead meat that Charlie hung out to dry."
“Ya gotta root the fear out,” O’Neal continued. “You’ve gotta take it by the balls and rip it, pushing it back down that dark hole it came from. You've got to subdue your emotions and get your thinking right. You’ve got to want to kill Charlie more than he wants to kill you, or you're gonna die...for sure you're gonna die!"
"I was afraid once," said Riley, with an empty, faraway look on his face, "but I can't remember that far back," he grinned. "That seems like such a long time ago."
"Been over here long as I have," O'Neal said, "you learn to kill the fear. You learn to love killing! First you just do it 'cause that's what we hafta do to survive. Then, I don't know when it changes, but you start killing 'cause it's the greatest sport around. Then after you've been here awhile, you live for it. You want it more than anything else in the world! It's euphoric! It's an addiction stronger than any drug you ever seen."
"Gotta have that fix," Riley said.
"We're bad," Nigel grinned, "we’re bad. Muley told me those captured VC documents we got back there the othah day warned all but top NVA troops to avoid contact with the 1st Cav."
“We're bad'ns all right," Riley said. “Charlie’s afraid of the ‘Hard Corps.'"
"Where did you hear that...Pike?" Ottel asked. "Wouldn't believe anything that bastard said. I wouldn't put it past him to lie through his teeth just to get you to go out again. The officers call it 'Raising the morale.'"
“Hell, they got to get a bigger body count somehow,” O’Neal said irreverently. “I know it raises my morale just thinking about killing Charlie. I feel it rising now. Hell, I get a hard-on every time I see the fear in Charlie’s eyes...just before the light goes out."
Ottel chuckled, "O'Neal, you are indeed a piece of work, no doubt about it, but everybody doesn't carry their morals around in their pants like you do."
"They don't?" O'Neal said with feigned surprise. “Well they oughta, because they don't know what pleasure is! But one thing's for damned sure. Charlie’s afraid of the First Cav,” he said, pumping his fists and looking from Ottel to me with pride glowing in his eyes. “It’s a proven fact. We got a 45 to one kill ratio of VC to friendlies...and that’s a damned fact.”
"The Hard Corps," Riley nodded. “There ain't no lie there.”
O’Neal draped his arm around the young boy's shoulders. “You bet your sweet...y'see anybody who's been over here long as I have that don't shoot first and ask questions later, well he's in a body bag on the first chopper out...on his way back to 'the world.'"
"Pike and Trenery want you to kill anything movin’ in 'no man's land,'" Nigel grinned, “an I'm pleasured to oblige'm. The more Charlies I kill out there, the less they is to kill me.”
"Y'got that right," O'Neal gave him a high five. "Vietnam's just a piss-ant hill, and we're just stepping on the ants."
“It’s our sworn duty,” Riley said with mock righteousness.
O’Neal smiled wryly in approval. “Pike and Trenery know now and then you find a ‘friendly’ out there in the killing zone, and they don't give a damn if you zap a friendly gook now and again, just to put the fear into his buddies. It’s just the cost of doing business. They don’t mind either if you pay back a few scores with Charlie now and then. They’ve given the go-ahead to shoot first...clean it up later....”
“They always say they'll ask questions later if they have any,” Riley said, "but they never do."
O’Neal smiled tight lipped, “I done saved Trenery and Pike's raggedy asses more than once without them having to dirty their lily-white officer hands. They’re not about to turn their back on me."
"I know, Trenery and Pike need your kind," Ottel sighed. "Officers look the other way and don't report atrocities, pretending they didn’t see. They get a higher body count that way, and that's the bottom line."
“They see!" smiled O’Neal, "but if they pretend they don’t see, they can tell themselves it didn’t happen. One thing's for damned sure, they sure as hell do want me walking through the valley of the shadow in front of them, sure enough."
“Officers are stupid, but they’re not dumb,” Riley snickered. “They know O’Neal’s the best buffer they got between them and the war, a war that can so easily reach out an kill 'em. They got to have the number one killer on their side...a real, honest to goodness, chew 'em up gunfighter.”
"I sure can't do them pansies much good if they haul my ass back to Leavenworth," O'Neal shrugged innocently, an evil grin plastered on his face. “Besides, I do the dirty work, they get a body count they can brag on to the big boys in I Corps. I'm just a humble businessman," O'Neal deadpanned. "Killing is my stock in trade. Can I help it if I'm good at it?"
“It's a 1st Cav tradition to take care of business,” Riley nodded, “like our namesake Custer's 7th Cavalry took care of business."
O'Neal looked over at me. "Probably didn't know you rode with such an elite outfit as Custer’s old unit, the 7th Cav, did you rookie?"
"The 2nd of the 7th, First Cavalry Division was General George Armstrong Custer's unit at 'Little Big Horn,'” Ottel said. “You guys remember how things turned out there?"
“Show a little respect for them pony boys,” O'Neal sneered. "When the cavalry traded horses for choppers, the 7th Cavalry became 'Airmobile.’ That's when the advantage shifted.”
“Hard Corps," Riley said, pumping his fists.
“Got that right, little brother,” O’Neal said. “Our new horses, the helicopters, can drop us any damned place...even right on top of Charlie’s head."
"Back in the day, ground-pounders had to march to the shit," Ottel said with a half-smile. "Sometimes took 'em days to wlk the distance, then get in position...but now, they drop us right into the middle of it.”
“Saves time,” O'Neal said. "The hotter it is, the better I like it...you gotta keep your wits about you, though."
"Well then you're the only one," Ottel said, shaking his head. "Besides, correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t Custer learn an invaluable lesson from the Indians? Now what was it again?” he snickered sarcastically. “I only hope it doesn’t go that same way for this version of the 7th Cavalry.”
"We're in Vietnam now, you twink college boy," O'Neal said with growing malice in his eyes, "or couldn't you make out the jungle for the trees? Our AO is the Central Highlands...this ain't no 'Little Big Horn.' I’ll give you a clue Jacob, you get a gook in your sights, you squeeze off a clip, then you think about whether it was good. If you're wrong, sorry ‘bout that...”
“That’s the only way we're gettin’ back to 'the world,'” Riley echoed. "Just say, AMF to Charlie, as you blow him away."
After an uncomfortable pause O’Neal said, "When it comes to war stories, Jacob, I got me some show and tell." He hiked up his shirt. "Got myself three purple hearts," he said proudly, pointing to a four inch scar just under his ribs that stuck out like a pink-white worm. "Got this one at 'Happy Valley', see. It's a knife cut," he proclaimed proudly. "Picked this one up in hand-to-hand combat when Charlie overrun our base camp."
“B Company was real lucky," Riley said with a satisfied look. "We had only eleven KIA’s...you know, killed-in-action. ‘A’ Company almost got wiped out for the second time in six months though. They had twenty-five KIA's."
"If them boys didn't have hard luck," O’Neal smirked, "they'd hardly have no luck at all." O'Neal was joking around, but he hadn't finished his story and bubbled with anger at Riley's intrusion into his tale. His eyes had rigid slits like cat's eyes on the prowl. Haughtily he showed his back side, a welt of mottled flesh the size of a half dollar. "Got this at Bong Son...shrapnel from a mortar round they say," he said reverently. “Couldn’t sit down for two weeks.”
"Aren't many guys here half-a-dozen months that don't have at least one scar," Riley said. "Look at this," he said, lifting his shirt, but backed off when he saw O'Neal's grim look.
"Let me finish first, you don't mind," O'Neal growled. "I have to show’em. This one is the worst." He pulled up his trouser leg and showed an angry purple wound six inches long. "Got this in the Ia Drang valley from a piss ant punji stake...a punji stake. Can you believe it? I was in the hospital six weeks with that one."
"No tellin' what them VC had smeared on it," Riley said with this sarcastic grin.
"Maybe a little LSD," O'Neal joked. “Make your blood boil.”
"You ain't that lucky," Nigel cracked. "It was just, you know, bo-di-ly flu-ids."
“Human waste,” Ottel said aside to me, wrinkling his nose.
"Yeah, I know...thanks!"
"Doctors like to never got the infection under control," O'Neal went on proudly, craning his neck to better appreciate his wound. "Docs said I could of died...but said I'm too tough to die. My leg blew up like a balloon from a blood clot, the docs said. They gave me twenty shots of a drug called heparin...gave it to me in the stomach to dissolve the clots. Docs wanted to send me home, but I wouldn't hear none of that bull. No sir...not this GI. I had to get back to my life. I had to get back to the killing fields, 'cause this war won't last forever."
"Scars'll impress the mamas back home," Nigel smirked.
"You reckon," O'Neal drawled, looking at his wounds solemnly. "Each one's got history, you know! Each one's an open book that'll always bring back the dust, the blood, the memories of battle."
“Who would want to remember this hell?” Ottel said derisively. "I can hardly wait to forget it.”
“I don’t think we’ll ever, ever, be able to forget Nam,” I said. “At least you’ll always feel at home with your scars, O’Neal."
"Yeah," O'Neal replied, not noticing the sarcasm in my voice. "That's a comforting thought."
He stared at his scars for a long minute, then his eyes started to grow cold. "The only problem's I see the faces of my buddies who died in my scars. Each of them reminds me of some operation where somebody was lost. I also see the faces of the men I killed in them. I can't get away from the faces," he said, suddenly agitated. "I can't get rid of the faces! I try, but...their history will be part of me till I die. Their blood is my blood, and I will have my revenge."
"Veterans always have war stories," Ottel said. "Poke a veteran who has been here awhile and a war story comes out...poke him twice and he’ll tell you all he knows about the war. Some tell the stories worse than they were, I reckon, but others...others they can never tell it as bad as it really was."
I felt a hurtful pang inside my soul after the men went to sleep. I couldn’t explain it. Nam was a conundrum I hadn't yet fully figured out. It puzzled me. It wasn’t anything like I thought it would be. I mean, I had beaucoup training in all kinds of weapons and war strategies...bgut nothing prepared me for Nam's reality. I had been in Vietnam now only a few days, but nothing was the same as when I started at the other end. I was no longer even the same boy I was...no longer as young as I was only a few days ago. But time here wasn't measured in days. I wasn’t really old either, but when you looked at me, especially in the eyes, I looked old. Maybe it was my imagination, but I even felt older. I wasn’t really afraid...maybe I was too dumb to be afraid, but I wasn’t brave either. I wasn’t particularly smart about the war, but I wasn’t a fool. It only takes a few people shooting at you before you learn the score...and you have to learn it quick, or you'll never have time to learn. I’d heard plenty of stories and opinions from men who’d lived, for all practical purposes, their whole lives here in Vietnam. Yeah, I know the tour was only one year, but when it’s one year in Vietnam, that can seem a lifetime. You learn more about yourself in that one year, than you do in the eighteen or nineteen that precede it. I knew I would have to trust in the Lord with all my heart to come out on the other side of the pond alive and well of body and spirit.
I looked at O'Neal and I could plainly see how the war ate at a man’s spirit till nothing was left but the bones. Yes, O'Neal had deep scars, but the deepest weren't on his body. They were in his eyes. They were in his soul! I prayed that I would never see the things causing O’Neal to get like that. Most important, though I knew I wasn’t as strong as I should be...would be. But then, I knew I wasn’t ever going to be as weak as I was. The war was making me tough, but the war was making me weak too...weak where I had once been strong. How was that? How the hell was that?
I knew war would shape me in ways I couldn’t begin to understand now, ways that would determine the rest of my life. My heart welled within me at the prospect. I cried out in fervent, but silent prayer that God would be with me, to guide me. I prayed that His refiner's fire would not leave my soul with nothing but charred and blackened ash, that I would not break nor wilt under the withering heat of battle.
I prayed mightily that I might do the will of the Father, and bear with honor His sword of righteousness. I petitioned the Lord that I might be stouthearted and courageous in the battle’s calling, that the man I would become would wear the armor of God’s Priesthood well, and be a valiant servant to Him throughout the eternity of this year in Nam. I knew too, that now was the hour I had to decide, and every hour hereafter, whether to live Christ’s gospel or cast it aside. This was important to my spirit...life or death important.
But still, with all my praying...I felt an emptyness welling inside...