"The 2nd Battalion of the 1st Airmobile Cavalry presently operates in the valleys around the town of Phan Thiet," the information officer sent in by I Corps to give the men a monthly briefing in a tent set up near the center of LZ Betty said dryly. "Four months ago, Vietcong forces held nearly complete control of the province. Only Phan Thiet, a small town of fifty thousand population, remained under government control. The 482nd Main Force Vietcong Battalion, supported by four or five local force companies, roamed the countryside at will, boasting that Phan Thiet would fall without resistance. So gentlemen, this mission is about control."
O'Neal honked with a loud, drawn out snore, pretending to sleep.
The I Corps officer fumed, visibly upset by the insubordination. "Soldier, sit at attention or I'll have you disciplined. I don't hafta take this kind of crap."
"Well, sir," O’Neal drawled, "what kinda crap do you hafta take...sir? You gonna make this bad boy stay after class? You gonna send my raggedy ass to the front, out into the Killing Zone, or what?"
"Well, I...I, I'll make you show an officer more respect, you son of a..."
What greatly surprised me during this little battle for control, was none of the officers or sergeants present made any attempt whatsoever to curtail O’Neal as he back-talked the man from I Corp. Several of them had turned their backs, talking quietly amongst themselves, as if they hadn’t seen, and Mulenburg was off to the side, about to split a gut.
"An just how you gonna do that, you rear echelon pencil pusher? You gonna not let me go on the next patrol? Oooooh, I will be so hurt...don't know I can live with the shame," O'Neal giggled. "You gonna not make me walk point where every bastard wearing black fucking pajamas gets first crack at me? Tell me, amigo, what ya gonna do...expel my ass from the Army and send me to the stockade at Leavenworth?" O'Neal leaned his chair back on the back two rungs and folded his hands behind his head. "Well, you just go right on ahead, mothah! One hell hole’s 'bout as good as another, and I don’t think you can put me down any further than I already am."
The officer looked around nervously for help, but seeing nobody jumping to his defense, decided to ignore O'Neal. The rear echelon officer continued shakily, as if nothing had happened. "By January, 1967, six months ago, the VC battalion and supporting companies were ordered dispersed after a series of costly defeats at Happy Valley, Bong Son, and Tui Wah. In countless smaller skirmishes during this period, the VC came out with stinging defeats. They were told by their chain of command to hide their weapons and to avoid the 1st Cavalry at all costs, preferring to wait until they mounted a clandestine operation."
O’Neal, looking around and smiling, snorted another snoring sound...but he was pretty much ignored. The officer didn't even look at him, as he continued, "Operating only in squad-size forces of five to six men, they leave spider holes, caves and forests at night to search for food. How do we know this? From the documents you men pull out of the hooches on ‘search and destroy' missions. Despite the fact Charlie is doing well with his sniping, hit-and-run tactics, carpeting our pathways with booby-traps, he knows he cannot win the war this way. If he wants to win, he has to try and defeat a sizeable American force on the field. That is precisely what your battalion and higher command are waiting for,” he said with a big smile, resting his hands on a couple of polished .45's on his pistol belt.
"Christ, would you look at them babies," Ottel growled. "I've been trying to get a .45 pistol ever since I started lugging that machinegun...you know, in case it comes to hand-to-hand fighting where I need something for close in action...but you think I can get what I need? No! And that's why. All the rear-echelon-mother-fuckers gotta strut their stuff, wearing shiny .45's on their hips to impress the Saigon ladies and other 'toy soldiers.'"
“You get killed cause you ain't got the weapon you need in the boonies," O'Neal grinned, "it don't mean a thing. Jelly, you're just a grunt in the bush! You're expendable...get used to it. Your sorry ass life don't mean nuthin'. Don't you know that?"
“Yeah, you ain't as essential as ol' shiny brass there," Riley whispered...but straightened up when he saw the officer looking his way unapprovingly.
The officer glared knives for a moment, before turning away. “You men are to be congratulated by a proud country. For God and country you have helped to restore hope and peace for a brave young nation battling tyranny and injustice, and seeking to establish freedom and domestic tranquility, now and forever, for their children, and their children’s children."
“You rear echelon bean counter,” O’Neal growled under his breath. “You wouldn’t know a VC if he was standing right in front of you with his AK-47 barrel up your left nostril.”
The grunts chuckled apprehensively as O'Neal grinned triumphantly, but the man from I Corps just ignored him. "More than 110 former communists...forty-seven families to be exact, gave up their arms and swore allegiance to the South Vietnam government. The VC, shoved twenty kilometers inland, suffered 260 killed, 220 tons of rice seized or destroyed. This area is the breadbasket of Vietnam, gentlemen. Its return to government control bolsters the nation's economy, as American forces and Vietnamese forces combine to help the people help themselves."
"This is PR bullshit," O'Neal said as we left.
"I Corps always paints their scenarios with a rosy brush," Ottel said. "You gotta piece through the crapola, and read between the lines."
“Yeah, you gotta do that a lot,” said Riley smiling, then pushing Ottel playfully. Everybody was laughing as we headed back to our squad area, clowning around like schoolboys on their way home from school.
"I took it all as gospel when I was a gung-ho rookie," Snyder scowled. "I listened to whatever they said. I believed! Now I know better."
"They're just layin' it on thick,” I said, “saying what you wanna hear. I really think they think we need a morale boost."
"Hell," O'Neal sneered in a mock gasp, "Is that what you think? Well glory be...don't you believe in fighting against injustice for a brave young nation struggling against tyranny? Don't you believe in freedom and the red-blooded American way being transported to Nam...? Hell!"
"The Americanization of Vietnam you mean," Riley snapped.
"What a crock," Snyder agreed.
"I’ll bet that bars and stars colonel ain't never seen anyone fighting in anger since he came in-country," Riley said.
"He ain't so much as seen nobody with an angry look since somebody cut in front of his ass in chow line," O’Neal guffawed. "He prob'ly thinks it's a big thing when some bored Charlie lobs a mortar in from five miles away."
“He’d prob’ly wet his pants he saw an honest to goodness, AK-47 totin’ Vietcong,” Riley laughed.
"When's he ever walked 'the park' in the killing zone?" O'Neal scoffed. "Seein' a Charlie up close and personal, would give that rear echelon mothah fucker the heevy shakes."
"He's most likely holed up back in Saigon in some posh hotel," said Ottel, “where he can keep a close eye on the war, of course.”
"Well somebody gotta keep score," O'Neal said laughing.
"His sort prob'ly only eats at the finest Saigon restaurants, too," Snyder said grinning. “I doubt he's even tasted C-rations.”
“With regular visits from the mamasans to keep him informed as to the state of the people, of course,” O'Neal scoffed. "Why, that rear echelon pipsqueak of a colonel wouldn't know a VC if he bit him in the ass. Why, I’ll even bet his mamasan is VC, milking him for information.”
"I’ll give you ten-to-one odds he even goes to the john in an honest-to-God toilet," Riley chuckled.
“Toilet...uuhhmmm, I think I remember hearing something about those,” O’Neal said, “but it’s been so long, I can’t remember.”
“Aren't toilets some fancy do-jigger civilians back in the world call a damned latrine,” Snyder said laughing. “I haven’t seen one of those in...Lordy, I can’t recall I ever saw one...”
"Still, it was kinda nice of that fine, upstanding gentleman to take time off from his visits to Saigon's PX, and forego his nightly pleasures with horny mamasans on the town in Saigon to visit us grunts here in the boonies. Nice of him to give of his valuable time to run this nonsense war...but it's a job,” Ottel said, with a serious look on his face. “Somebody has to do it.”
"However can he stand us?" Riley smirked. "We're so...so dirty."
"So bush," O'Neal smiled.
"Why, what do you mean?" Ottel snickered. "I took a bath specially in honor of this occasion...in my steel helmet...just last week...”
“Bath? C'mon, what’s a bath?” Snyder asked.
“I'll bet that rear echelon puke hasn't had anything 'sides a hot meal in his whole tour," Ottel said.
"Well after all, we must be civilized," O'Neal nodded.
"What's a hot meal?" Snyder asked.
Everyone laughed. We slung our M-16's and put our arms around one another’s shoulders heading back to our bunker on the perimeter...that is, everyone laughed but O'Neal.
O’Neal suddenly wasn't laughing, and he suddenly pulled back from us. "Bull shit! That main force VC battalion operating around the valley has sure got that paper-shifter fooled good. Bull shit! When it comes down to it, it's us will have to put up or die...just because of paper pushers like him! Don't he know...I mean, don't he really know? Those VC haven't gone anywhere. They’re just using a 'hide until they're gone' tactic. I could tell him that...hell, any of us could tell him that. Why, I oughta go back and tell that creep the facts...that most all the villagers smiling when you pass are VC...or VC sympathizers."
"Whoa, O’Neal, don’t go doing anything foolish,” Ottel murmured. “What am I saying? This whole damned war's foolish. But what're you going to do about it? I mean, you can't swim home."
"Learn to gut, clean and skin Charlies," O'Neal said simply.
The next day, as we set out to patrol through the rice paddies ten klicks from LZ Virginia, ten or fifteen wrinkled, gap-toothed peasants stood ankle deep in the water. They waved with gracious smiles as we came near, but no sooner had we passed than we felt red-hot lead skim by our ears. When we doubled back, no one remained in the paddies. No one was in the village either.
"They've all gone to the moon," Snyder said, snarling with a curled lip.
"Never trust a smiling Charlie," O'Neal growled, as we resumed the patrol, “and never trust one that frowns."
"How do you know which ones are Charlies?" I asked.
"They're the ones with the black pajamas," O'Neal said, smiling.
"But all Vietnamese peasants wear black pajamas."
"Exactly," Riley agreed. "Still, the ones that ignore you are the worst of the lot. You never know what they might be hiding."
"Y'best bet is not to trust any of the gooks," O'Neal said tightlipped. "Not trusting them slant eyes is the only way you're gonna make it back to 'the world.'"
"You don't trust anybody very much," Ottel said, “do you, O’Neal? Why should Charlie be any different?"
"I don’t trust nobody," O'Neal replied. "Why should I, when they’ve given me such grief? Should I trust the ones back home too, the ones that sent me here to mop up Nam’s dirty work? You’ll only get a gutfull of lead poisoning trusting people too much...and I mean anybody,” he said, looking at Ottel. “Hell, I don’t even trust you very damned much, boy. I'd kill you too, if I didn't need that machine gun you're totin' guarding my back...but the VC rules out here. You'd be better off givin' him an 'M-16 howdy' soon's you see him, and just keep right on walkin'."
"M-16 howdy?" I asked, smiling weakly.
"Yeah, M-16 howdy," O'Neal grinned. "That's the butt of my rifle slammed into his face, followed shortly by hot-lead ticklers."
"The peasants do tend to smile on whichever side is near," Ottel shrugged. "One day he smiles for the Americans, and the next day he smiles for the VC. Sometimes their smiles are deadly, and seldom sincere!”
"Sometimes!" O'Neal sneered. "That's a load of bullshit. Hell, I'd rather shoot ten Charlies by mistake than have one shoot one of my buddies...or me, the bastards."
"It's survival," Riley said. "Don't even trust the kids. Remember Harkins? He got hisself killed when a grenade exploded in a Coke can some VC kid gave him."
O'Neal's cherubic smile returned. "Then the rest of the merry men blew the kid away."
"And Jim...what was his last name?" Riley said, screwing up his face. "I can't believe I forgot Jim's last name..."
"Falco," O'Neal said, his lips hard and quaking with the memory. "Jim Falco was his name..."
"Yeah, that’s right, Jim Falco...anyway some old papasan down by a place called "the Rockpile," gave Jim a cup of tea...then when he looked away, the papasan up and shot him dead...then di-di mau'd the hell outta there."
After leaving the rice paddies, the patrol walked in line on the south side of a dike system. We saw men running from a hut on the north end, and the whole platoon opened up, twenty-seven rifles on "rock 'n' roll" full-automatic fire, tracers fingering their way across the waters to pinpoint the targets. M-79 grenade launchers plopped their payloads into the trees, exploding where the men had di-di'd.
Sergeant Mulenburg led three squads wading across and up the bank on the far side, covered by ten riflemen, the M-60 machine gun and two grenade launchers. He didn’t take the easy way on a slender dike traveling right to the hut, because everyone knew the VC might have made a move to draw us across that very dike, where they had more than likely planted booby traps to kill a few of us. When they sloshed ashore, we spread out, deploying around the hut and into the trees...but nothing.
"Don't see how we could of miss'd hittin'm," Mulenburg grunted, "but don't su’prise me none. Hell no! Hardly evah find VC bodies...carry off theah dead, y'know."
"Lieutenant," called out Gutierez, the platoon radioman, "Captain Trenery says not to fire into the tree line on our right flank. Charlie Company's making a 'search and destroy' sweep over there in that area." Lieutenant Pike made a command decision not to fire at anything anywhere without specific orders, and directed Mulenburg to have the men unload their weapons.
"All right girls, y’all heard the man. Un-lock and un-load," Mulenburg said, echoing the order. "Un-chamber them rounds."
"But why?" I asked. "That doesn't make any sense at all."
"What's that little tin god think he's doing?" fumed O'Neal when he heard the order.
Mulenburg pushed his helmet up and scratched his head. "I guess the cap’n don't want nobuddy firin' on frien'lies by mistake...spec'ally they be our frien'lies. Y'all'r jest grunts, I reckon, and grunts don't have much say...jest be sure'n keep a hand on yer weapon so's ya can chamb'r a round right quick if'n yer need'ter."
Ottel shook his head, looking over to me. "Now you have an idea why grunts don't have a whole lot of respect for authority, Jacob...'cause the Pikes of this world too often get us killed for no good reason. Don't you get it? We're nothing more than expendable cannon fodder...toy soldiers for 'the man' to play around with, and if we get killed, no sweat...he still walks away. But it don't mean nuthin'."
"Nigel nodded. "Yeah, it don't mean nuthin'."
"Unless it's real deep shit," Snyder said. "Then you'd be\st pull your head outta that hole you got it buried in, and take notice."
Ottel looked distraught. "The only thing wrong with that theory is, these 'toy soldiers' bleed real blood. But who cares?"
"Yeah, who the hell cares?" O'Neal fumed. "You see anybody around here that cares, Jacob? Your mother back home cares...but is she here? She's thousands of miles away. Your buddies care, but they're right here alongside you, facing the same shit you're facing. Most officers don't care diddley squat as long as the body count and kill ratios are squared up!"
"They don’t care two hoots, long as we keep them lookin' good," Ottel grimaced, "because they don’t give us respect."
O'Neal was still shaking his head. "Naw, they don't care...other than when the situation reports when we all got killed would make Pike look bad. The generals only sit up and take notice when our deaths deplete forces at their disposal."
“Respect’s the name of the game,” Nigel sighed, “and grunts ain’t got any. Grunts’re just the number runners for the boss man fat cats.”
“Grunts’re the low man on the totem pole,” Riley nodded.
“I’ve seen good officers,” said Snyder, “at Ia Drang and Tuy Hoa. They weren’t afraid to put themselves on the line for their men...first on the ground off the choppers, and last off the ground when loading. They cared about us grunts. You can’t say that for Pike and Trenery.”
"That's it!” O’Neal said. “I'm sure as hell not walking point without a round locked and loaded. I suppose if I see a VC, I’m required to beg his pardon while I look at his ID, ask him what in hell he intends to do with that AK-47 pointed at my head, and ask if he would be so kind as to wait a moment while I ask Pike's permission to flip my bolt and chamber a round so I can fire and kill him? Surely they would wait...I mean...”
Riley continued his thought, “After all, it would only be the polite thing to do."
"Well I'm not playing his games either," said Snyder.
"Me neither," said Riley.
"That mothah's gonna get us all killed," nodded Nigel. "Damn, we unload now, our M-16's nothin’ more'n a club."
Sergeant Mulenburg came down the line checking weapons to make sure we all complied with Pike's orders. "Sorry as hell girls, but ord’rs is ord’rs."
"Even if they're gonna get ya killed, Sergeant?" Riley whined.
"Nobody's gettin' kilt," Mulenburg whispered.
O'Neal begged off point, saying he didn't feel too well.
“I think that is the first time I remember O’Neal not wanting anything to do with point,” Ottel whispered.
Pike put George Faust up front in point. Sure enough, two hours later Faust led the column around a stand of thick bamboo into a clump of trees and surprised five or six Charlies cooking chow. He was felled instantly by automatic rifle fire from several Russian AK-47's. Faust spun around with a wide-eyed stare, grabbed his chest and fell flat on his face, dead before he hit the ground. The VC vanished into the bamboo as Faust died-- all but one.
Ottel had stopped one of them after he had clanged the bolt to load his M-60 machine gun, spraying the departing Charlies. The VC body had spun around in a crazy dance, hitching, lurching and jerking grotesquely as each bullet hit, staggering backwards but held up by the rapid fire of the M-60, like a puppet on a string.
Lieutenant Pike scolded Ottel about firing without permission. He ranted something about a court martial, but when Ottel turned and his smoking M-60 barrel bore down inches off Pike's center, accidental-like of course, Pike backed off.
Dustoff medevacs picked up Faust in a clearing a klick away, after his buddies had carried what was left of him to the small clearing, zipped up in a body bag. A somber cloud hung over the platoon. "Pike might as well have put the bullet in Faust his-own-self," O’Neal scowled.
"VC didn't kill Faust...Pike killed Faust," Riley growled.
"What a waste," I thought, frustration and tears mounting in my eyes as I looked out into the trees. Who knows how it would have played out if Faust had a loaded M-16, and the chance to get off the first shot? The dead Charlie didn't seem real. He looked like a scarecrow you see in some cornfield, with a moldy, mushy pumpkin head over raggedy blue clothes. The M-60 hadn't left any human features other than a pulpy, wet mop of wet, black hair on top of a torn scalp.
O'Neal posed beside the body for the camera, looking grim, mean and angry...a volatile combination. Riley snapped the picture, then put the ace of spades on the man's jellied face just before we started to march. We were all uptight and ready to kill something. God help anything that crossed our paths now.
As the last light of day left the sky, we dug a foxhole perimeter of defense in the center of an opening with dense, elephant grasses eye-high all around. Lieutenant Pike sent out two "goat" ambush patrols to stand as listening posts, whittling our numbers down to six four-man foxholes in the "palace guard."
O'Neal and I strung out trip flares sixty feet in front of our position, to insure that anyone who passed and touched the wire would trip it and be illuminated in light. We stretched the wires to meet those from neighboring foxholes to the right and left of us. Ottel and Riley rolled out the wire to the claymore mines, having a hundred-yard kill zone in front, placing the mines fifty feet in front of our foxholes. They placed the detonation button on a remote control wire, which led to the foxhole being dug by Nigel and Snyder. That was the drill for every night on patrol. Nigel stood guard with his M-16, and Ottel swiveled his machine gun searching for someone who didn't belong. Anyone with a warm body, anyone not wearing Army fatigues would do at that point.
"Sounds like a purty solid defense, don't it," I recalled Mulenburg had warned when I set up the trip flares and claymores my first week. "Seems you got your front purty well covered, right? Right...Well it ain't. Charlie knows they’re there, young troop. Y’all best know’at 'e does. Charlie has this nasty habit though. He slips ovah them precauti’ns undetect'd like a hot knife through butter, and turns them claymores around, so ya best keep a watch out. Quicker’n snot he can cut youah throat'n vanish into the black of night...if'n y'all ain't alert."
"Pike's a piker, sure enough," grumbled O'Neal when we were back at the foxhole making preparations for the night. Over and over he said it, and each time, like water over a fire, I could see him getting closer to his boiling point. “He keeps hassling us; he’s gonna get us all killed.” He spit a marble agate into the night. "Hell, you expect harassing in boot camp stateside...not here...not in Nam! There's no room here in Nam for gung-ho lunatics!”
Nigel rumbled a string of invectives, half-cussing, half-praying, so low I could barely make out what he said. But there was no mistaking the tone. "Honky best watch 'is back, thass all I gotta say...best watch 'is back. That mothah made me shave my mustache off with my bayonet before I could go on leave into Phan Thiet two months ago. Honky best watch 'is back, thass all I gotta say."
"Pike ordered me to cut mine off three or four times, but I never did," O'Neal snickered. "He keeps forgetting. Then he'll get the bur under his helmet again and prattle on about dissension in the ranks, spit-shine and glory. God almighty, he thinks he's punishing me by making me walk point. It burns him that I like it, but he don't know how else to punish me. I like it that by choosing to walk point, I disarm him. I'm the one makin' the decisions here...I’m the one! I took it Pike was nothing but just a green Louie fresh from the states at first, when I first seed him, but he keeps ragging me, he’s gonna feel my cold steel up his backside."
Riley snickered. "What's he going to do, send you home?"
"Yeah, what's he gonna do," O'Neal grinned tight-lipped, as he looked over the bank, not outbound, but into the center of the compound where Pike had a man adjusting his tent. "Pike's not just mean, he's more than that. He’s a stupid, pompous, asinine maniac, and he's going to get us all killed."
"Pike killed Faust, sure as if he’d put the bullet in him himself," Riley said, spitting out the words toughly, and looking to O’Neal for approval. I could see he tried hard to look like the tears in his eyes were angry tears, instead of the fear tears they really were.
"Yeah, he did," whispered O'Neal, "just like his smart-ass, uptight posturing killed Tagherty last month when he called artillery in on that lookout post at Lucky Strike, remember?"
"Yeah," Nigel glared, his eyes big and white as moons, "he's dangerous, and whose he gonna rain the shit down on next? Whose accident’s next...mine? Somebody ought to do something."
"Yeah...somebody," O'Neal grunted.
After a few minutes, as night fell, everything got quiet. You couldn’t hear anything but the crickets chirping. Everybody else in the foxhole was sleeping as I stood guard. A hard lump in the pit of my stomach told me something was out there. Something wasn't right. I smiled briefly, as the thought quickly crossed my mind that I was getting that sixth-sense warning of trouble an infantryman needs to have in order to survive. I peered into the darkness. Suddenly a big harvest moon crested the hill, glowing gold in the sky, bathing the open area to the elephant grass. In other times I would have reacted to the full moon’s finer, more romantic qualities, but here...I cursed its light for making me an open target. I felt naked and exposed, silhouetted in the moon glow. So I knelt close to the ground, behind the lip of the foxhole breastwork mound, my squad partners sleeping flat on the dirt beside me.
I couldn’t help thinking that I was standing first guard again, and O'Neal was second up. Surely O’Neal wouldn’t pull that stunt again like he had in the Le Hong Fong Forest. It had happened so long ago -- maybe only a couple of days, but it seemed longer. It still rankled in my gut. Two days can make you a veteran out here. But O’Neal and I had reached an understanding, of sorts, when I told the little cockfighter that if he ever tried that again I'd slap him silly. O'Neal'd just grinned -- but he knew.
I thought of many things, silently and alone in my foxhole in this hot Vietnam night, chewing my tongue to keep awake. I thought of my family, the well-meaning but innocent parents who had let me naïvely go off to war. I thought of their sense of duty they had instilled in me. I thought of my bishop, Bishop Housley, who as I’d prepared to go, said something about fighting for freedom for the oppressed. I thought of my neighbor who'd told me to give the Vietcong a kick in the pants for Marvin Beleele. They just didn't understand what was happening here. Nobody did...nobody that hasn't been here. I pictured the love in my mother's eyes. I wanted to remember her so bad, but the picture of her was already fading. I was hoping someday soon I’d see that look again. She always called me her "Number One Son," and it made me uncomfortable, because it made my brother jealous. Her memory was a reminder of what was good in the world.
I worried about her. She had taken my draft call-up so hard -- really hard. She had seen me to the airport, watching me go up the ramp into that plane, with the look in her eyes like it was the last time, like she'd never see me again. That look still haunted me. She wrote me a letter that caught up with me in Pleiku, before I moved on to An Khe, that she fasted two days a week, and had sent my name for special remembrance and prayers to all the temple prayer rolls. She had made a shrine to remember me by, with an 8x10 glossy in my Sunday suit, and several photos in Army battle gear. She lit a candle that she called "the eternal flame," to burn in front of my pictures twenty-four hours a day until I returned. She said that as long as it burned I would stay alive. She said that she placed a fresh-cut flower there every day, and prayed to the Lord in front of this place of remembrance, long and hard for my return to her bosom. She told me of these things in her letter, and I just knew if I died...she'd die.
I thought of the cute way my little sister smiled. How I had loved to give her hugs, and skob her blond knob. I thought of my brother Jay, in the Marines at Okinawa. Jay had volunteered for combat in Nam, but was sent to run a forklift in a warehouse in Okinawa. My parents joked in a letter that the Marines must think if you want to be in Nam, if you volunteer to be in that crazy place, the Marines figure you must be crazy, and send you somewhere else. If you tell them you’d rather not be in Vietnam, like me, then they think you've got the right stuff, and send you packing. That's why Jay ran a forklift in Okinawa with the Marines, while I was fighting in Nam. At least, that's what I figured, though my brother would probably see it another way.
I had mentioned my brother’s Marine affiliation once, and O’Neal’s face got this awful, contorted look. “Leathernecks! They all think they're little gods, or heaven's warriors, or something. Marines think nobody's shit smells as good as a Marine's shit. Why, I know for a fact that Marines sleep in their uniforms, and never wash below their dog tags."
“So do we,” Ottel said with a chuckle. “Hadn’t you noticed the ripe smell?”
In the quiet surrounding me, I thought of my sweet car back home, a '55 Chevy convertible with four on the floor -- a real girl magnet. Girls -- that was a whole other subject -- a subject I liked to wrap my arms around. I thought of Brenda, her dark brown eyes sparkling up at me mischievously. Her dark lustrous, ebony hair flowed softly across her shoulders in enchanting ringlets. Brenda’s skin had a peaches and cream glow like translucent porcelain, with ruby-red lips like velvet. I could lose myself in those lips. She showed her passion in them, and shared my passion. I tried to remember the smell of her, but couldn't remember if she smelled like lilacs, or a summer morning after a cleansing rain that cooled the Nam. Maybe it was both, but the smell of rotting jungle vegetation was too strong for the memory to last.
Brenda had wanted in the worst way to get married before I left, but I couldn't see getting married with such an uncertain future. The last thing I wanted...I mean, the very last thing, was a young widow crying over my casket. Ah, Brenda! I would give anything to be with Brenda one more time, I thought, as I leaned back in that foxhole. Oh, how I wish I could again caress that porcelain cheek.
"Incoming!" someone yelled. Suddenly the still night air broke with a horrible whistling sound, followed as the others dropped into the trench, by an explosion that shook the ground.
"Charlie's a hundred yards short," O'Neal guessed, peering into the night. A moment later O'Neal yelled, "Incoming," and again we squeezed to the bottom of the hole as another mortar exploded, much closer this time. The dirt and the smell rained on us as he announced, "Forty yards short." Then another, "Twenty yards." We clung to the bottom of the hole, trying to find a crack, to burrow deeper.
"Christ," Nigel griped, "Charlie's walking those shells right up our hip pockets." Then came five mortars rapid fire, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, showering fire, smoke and flying shrapnel overhead. "Charles found the range," Nigel said with a shudder, as we all made ourselves small as we could in the bottom of the foxhole.
Then came a deafening silence.
"Something's not right," I said. "Why did Charlie stop?"
"He ran out of ammo?" Riley said hopefully.
The trip flare two foxholes over went off. "Watch out!" O'Neal yelled, as automatic rifle fire pocked the earth around the foxhole. "Look front!" The earth shook with another blast, followed by a pulsing energy wave that blew over the top of the hole.
"Claymore, over there...where the flare went off," I said, fingering the suddenly cold button of our claymore nervously. “Anybody see anything?”
“Could have been rabbits,” Snyder whispered.
"Sure,” O'Neal said, taking the button out of my hands, “and maybe it was the sixth fleet. Rabbits don't shoot AK-47's, Bozo."
Then our trip flare went off like a giant Fourth of July sparkler. Automatic rifle fire spat out of the darkness, splattering dust around our hole. O'Neal pressed the claymore button, and we all drew up tight as the thunder from the backblast rolled over the top.
We all fired at any movement, shadows, or sounds. Nigel fired a burst with his head still buried in the bottom of the pit, and his arm and M-16 extending over the edge shooting. Then came the lull, more frightening than the actual shooting, because I didn’t know what was happening.
O'Neal vaulted over the edge of the hole, saying something to the effect of having to go kill some weeds.
"Now!" I shuddered after he left. "I’d think he could wait for a better time." He was only gone a couple of seconds, then dropped back over the edge of the foxhole, and held onto his helmet.
Six seconds later a detonation blew from the center of the compound. I thought it was a mortar round at first, but then as I thought on it, something wasn't right. I don't know what it was, but it wasn't as big as the other mortars the VC had walked in on us. Dead silence again fell over the palace guard. Even the jungle appeared to hold its breath. Moments later there came distant shots, shouting and explosions from where we knew a squad had set up a goat. Then more silence. I held my breath for a long time, clutching my rifle in a white-knuckled fist, my muscles tensed, ready to jump at the slightest thing, ready to fight to the death, and expecting to. But nothing more happened.
After the dust and smoke cleared, Mulenburg alligator-crawled from hole to hole. "Y’all okay?" he drawled.
"Fine, Sarge," O'Neal said. "What's up?"
"Lewten'nt Pike be dead. Must’a been a mortar...but the sound of it was a might pecul’ar.”
"Everything was a might peculiar tonight," O'Neal said.
“How’s that,” O’Neal asked, cocking his head to look up at the Sergeant.
“The ex-plo-sion sounded a tetch suspicious, almost like a grenade, but it was hard’ta tell. Ever'body else seems okay. Still and all, don't see how no VC could'a got close 'nuff for a grenade. Would'a got me too, ‘ceptin I was holed up in Jefferson's foxhole out on the perim'ter. I reckon y’all best keep an eye out fer unfrien’lies in the compound."
"Lucky you were with Jefferson," I said."
"Wouldn't want to see you hurt,” O'Neal said. “And Sarge, it sounded like a mortar round from here, from where we were, you know, where I was in the hole here. I saw some shadows...can't be sure...we all hung pretty low."
Nobody else spoke. Mulenburg looked hard at O'Neal for a long minute, then shook his head and crawled for the next foxhole, muttering, “Somethin’s not right.”
We could all see the little cockfighter's mustache quivering in the moonlight, and the closest thing I had ever seen on O’Neal’s mug that resembled a smile, crept onto his face.
With the first light Sergeant Mulenburg, now acting platoon leader, called in the dustoffs to take Lieutenant Pike home, and transport three wounded men from the goat ambush. Then we went chasing Charlies, but we were all strangely disappointed when we couldn't find anyone home. The adrenaline to kill was still surging, and we were all mad. We wanted to pay somebody back. We found where Sergeant Mulenburg said they'd fired their mortar rounds, but the efficient little buggers had di-di'd, even taking their brass casings to refill and use again another day.
Our battered platoon climbed a jungle-covered mountain to relieve the Fourth Platoon, at LZ Buffalo, guarding a radio relay station. Sergeant Wright announced that he would move over from the Fourth to be the Second Platoon leader till an officer could be brought in. He and I exchanged looks, nothing more, but I felt strangely as if my heart had wings. I needed Jonathan’s guidance now more than ever. I felt confused more than ever, like my heart was a deep pit, and I wanted to crawl into it, or run, but there was no place to run. All I could do was go along, frustrated, mad, and scared.
"Sergeant Mulenburg, you should'a been Platoon Sergeant," Ottel said as our squad dug into the rocky mountainside.
"Didn't want it," Mulenburg replied.
Riley had stripped his shirt in the tropical heat while we dug our foxhole, slinging his weapon over his back, as though he dared not lay it aside even for a second. When I leaned mine against a tree, it smacked of heresy. "Five months of infantry training in 'the world,' and you lay your weapon in the dirt!” Riley wailed. “You'll learn to always stay in contact with yur weapon, no matter what, mark what I say. Just see if I'm not right. You'll learn fast when a few bullets whistle around your ears and you die a lonely death without your M-16."
“Don’t you dare call yur M-16 'a gun,'” Nigel said, an ear-to-ear smile on his face, swaying his hips to an imaginary Armed Forces Radio sing-song beat. "Remember the chant from basic training," he said, pointing from his rifle to his male organ. "This is my weapon, this is my gun. This one's for killing, this one's for fun."
The second day on the mountain Mulenburg called out, "Second'n Third Squads, saddle up girls, lock 'n load. Serg’nt Wright wants us t'patrol the perim'ter."
The frightening sound of metal against metal sounded as fourteen bolts were pulled back and fourteen M-16 rounds chambered. "Riley, y’all take point," Mulenburg gestured, then noticed somebody missing. "Where'ats my machine gun?"
We saw Ottel daydreaming on a rock ledge, staring out at the thick green trees surrounding the hill. "Yo, Specialist Ottel...y'all be need'n an engraved invitation 'ta join our little party? Less'go, young troop," Mulenburg called. Ottel reluctantly swung on his pack and hefted his M-60 onto his shoulder.
"What'n god-awful tarnation were y’all doing up there?" he asked, as Ottel followed Riley's lead around the ledge.
Ottel sighed, "Just looking around, Sarge, just looking around, thinking...what a place to die, on this knoll top, in the middle of Southeast Asia, in the middle of this jungle, in the middle of nowhere. It’s crazy. This war’s crazy! We’re crazy!"
"Well noow, least you be a talkin' sense, troop...we're all crazy. We all should be somewheres else...but here we be, and my job's jest to see you keep it swingin', young troop."
Our patrol scared up several small musk deer, and were instantly metamorphosed from reconnaissance patrol to hunting party. The patrol dragged two little deer back, and immediately, though we kept a watchful eye, all war talk ceased.
Sergeants Morgan and Mulenburg, long-time infantrymen, used their imaginations to create a culinary delicacy befitting the spirit of the occasion. They prepared a special BBQ sauce for a ranch-style barbecue of prime venison...well, the nearest thing to prime venison that musk deer can get. A musk deer wasn't at all like the white-tail or mule deer I'd hunted back home. Musk deer were puny, under-sized deer, standing only about two feet tall. That wouldn't provide much more than a taste, but still, I've always been a firm believer in the adage, “It's the thought that counts.”
"Cookin's mah hobby," Morgan laughed as he went through our combined C-rations looking for juices and meat dishes, picking out anything that looked like it might taste good. "I love my own cooking so much. That’s probably why I never married."
"Oh yeah, Sarge," Nigel asked, "Why's that?"
"Ah never met a woman whose cooking I enjoy much as mine."
"Doc" Patrick made a basting brush out of wire from wrapped cases of C-rations and medical gauze. The Radio Relay Station crew contributed the grill, three sections of a spare radio antenna. We used the plentiful kindling supplied by the ever-present jungle, and a fire-starter of C-4 explosive dug from the back of a spare claymore.
I never had any delusions that this was the rich cattle country of Texas, but I couldn't remember
a barbecue I enjoyed more than this one, where the cowboys wore the olive green fatigues of the First Air Cavalry.