The Huey's plucked my platoon from the desert, pointing their green-brown noses towards the South China Sea, soaring a hundred feet above the treetops. The whump-whump-whump of the rotors made incredible noise, but the farmers below in their rice paddies didn't seem to even notice. I wondered at that as I looked down. How could they ignore us? The farmers didn't even look up. It was as if the bristling armada didn't even exist; as if a fleet of helicopters in the sky were as common as a swarm of mosquitoes; as if we were nothing more than the nightmarish result of a bad bowl of fish sauce.
I felt strange as I watched the landscape passing swiftly below, yet not a part of it. It was almost an out-of-body experience as I looked through the helicopter’s open door looming wide-open beside me. It was an ethereal, almost other-worldly feeling, that momentarily made me feel like I’d left my stomach on the ground. Peculiarly surreal, the voyage caused me to feel strangely apart from life, as though I was floating amid the clouds, apart from the world, disenfranchised from very existence.
Looking out through the open door of the Huey, I saw far out into the South China Sea. Puffs like marshmallow clouds moved slowly, hovering in thick smoky haze around a battleship with guns as big as trees, on an ambiguous fire mission to shell some unknown VC site. The giant warship looked tiny on the open sea, for all the world like a toy boat bobbing harmlessly in a giant bathtub, spouting Cheerio-sized smoke rings.
That it was a reality, and that somebody down below would forever remember this day...this very minute...this very moment in time, the moment the very course of their lives was set upon a new direction, was hard to imagine. Yet I knew the battleship’s big guns were at this minute wreaking terrible havoc and destruction that would unalterably change peoples' lives. The shell craters pocking the jungle floor, just off to the side of us, seemed so unreal, so much like innocent blips on a distant screen. But to somebody they were real. To somebody they were the beginning of death, or worse, a horrible nightmare.
I looked back and saw I was the only one in my squad who even looked. I was the only one who really saw, who really felt the anguish our war machine's deadly devastation was bringing. The others sat like empty husks, green and black camouflage chalk-darkened faces looking straight ahead, unseeing, not moving, vacant eyes deadened to anything happening outside the chopper door. They seemed deadened to the war, like they had seen it all played out too many times before. I couldn’t help wondering how that could be. I wondered if I also looked as dead-spirited, as emotionless. I certainly didn’t feel that way. Or perhaps it was because I was still so green, so wet behind the ears. But somehow I knew if I didn’t look like that now, I was on my way. It was only a matter of time till so much happened to you that you couldn't bear to see it anymore, so you just quit looking if it wasn’t coming right at you...almost quit caring for anything but surviving, outlasting this hell on earth.
The constant droning of the helicopter rotors carried me away, into almost a sleep that wasn’t sleep, hypnotized by the regular thump-thump-thump-thump drowning out all other sound. I looked at the men sitting shoulder-to-shoulder beside me in full war regalia, armed and dangerous, thinking of the club the war had drafted me to join. I saw the men sitting beside me in times that loomed as my last. The war had brought the Boy Scouts together from different worlds and divergent lives. But the war had also made these strangers with different personalities dependent upon one another, dependent like they had never been dependent on anyone before. You need someone to watch your back, to survive, to come out on the other side of the pond alive. I remembered the adage, "If things don't fit right, all you need is a bigger hammer." War was the big, super-sized hammer that made us all fit. If we didn't fit, we were pounded and screwed till we did fit. If we still didn't fit, we would probably die, because nobody could go it alone without his brothers.
Take Ottel, a happy-go-lucky college student from an upper middle class Philadelphia family. Ottel had told me he liked to "party hardy.” He was the typical fraternity "good-old-boy," drinking-buddy-type. On the intellectual front we held a lot of common ground, but Ottel's answer to everything was, "Let's go get drunk." Like he had said, "You can lose a lot of cares in drink, and Nam makes you need it. Nam loads us down with a world of cares...and that’s just it, nobody cares. Nobody can afford to carry that kind of baggage."
Ottel talked about drinking in almost reverent terms, "But the damnable thing is, this blasted war has enforced my sobriety more than I'd like. There aren’t many bars out in the boonies where a man can get something cold and wet, and that’s where I seem to spend nearly all my time."
Then there was Snyder. Snyder had lived the simple life of a Kansas farm boy, with uncomplicated tastes and a one-track life. He had played football in a small-town school, so had brawny muscles, no doubt toned by the Nam. He had no greater ambition than to ride his tractor all day below sunny skies, harrowing, tilling, fertilizing, planting, spraying to eradicate noxious weeds and insects, and then harvesting...and then to do the same thing all over again, following the seasons, winter, spring, summer, and fall. That was the circle of life. He longed for nothing more than to repeat the cycle religiously, year after year after year in never-ending procession, tending his fields...maybe marrying the girl next door and having a passel of kids, and living in a comfortable-looking farmhouse with a white picket fence. Uncle Sam had changed all that, plucking Snyder off his tractor, slapping a rifle in his hands and sending him to a far-away foreign land to fight his country's battles, eradicating the noxious weed to society known as Vietcong. Uncle Sam had ingrained this new circle of life that just might alter the old life Snyder had been raised in.
Riley was a pimple-pocked teenager, an impressionable bubble-gummer. Riley was immature to everything except a war that forced him to grow up too quick. His only thoughts before Uncle Sam's call revolved around first dates, or necking with girls in the back seat of his '55 Chevy with super-charged headers and four-on-the-floor. "I kissed my ass goodbye six months ago," Riley had said. "I thought I'd be dead by now, I really did. But here I am, still alive, still killing Mister Charles."
Nigel was a hep, black, bebopper from the mean streets of Chicago. He had music for a soul. Pimps, number-runners, drug dealers and gang-banging home-boys were his heroes. He had lived a lifestyle that spoke in a language I didn't, couldn't comprehend. Nigel said he’d lived a war all his life, so "Whether in Chicago or Nam, survival's the name of the game," he said. "Don't axe me if it's the mean streets or the mean jungle, don’t matter diddly to me. Don't matter none to nobody. I see Charles gang colors, his black pajamas; that’s all I need to know and that mothah is dog meat. That’s all that matters."
Then there was O'Neal. O’Neal might seem only a little man as soldiers go, but talk about a piece of work. He was a two-bit chip on the shoulder who never amounted to much stateside, suddenly thrust into the limelight. As the veteran here, O'Neal was the big man in the platoon. He was a tough, wily old soldier with the face of a green recruit, leading a group of naive Boy Scouts. O’Neal had probably always carried a chip on his shoulder from the time he was born, needing to constantly prove his adequacy and manhood because of his small stature. He fit the mold perfectly of what I had heard called, "The Napoleon syndrome." But the war made O'Neal hate. Combined with the chip on his shoulder, war made killing a religious expression, and O'Neal was the ultimate disciple. He loved to worship at its altar, paying homage to the gods of war with his M-16 whenever he could. He was a born-again killer.
No one else here had the time and equity invested in the war like O'Neal. Even most of the officers had less time in country. His three tours of duty had left him with no peer. No one had seen what O'Neal had seen. He had blood on his hands; his enemies', his brothers', his own. Maybe that was why when O'Neal talked, he talked with arrogant, patronizing sanctimony...and despite yourself, you listened. He always appeared to talk at you rather than with you. He talked like a football halfback giving you the stiff arm as he ran, like he didn't want to get too close. O’Neal was a warrior’s warrior, mindful of his standing in the bush, and proud of his abilities to fight. He was indeed the master of all the battlefields he surveyed. Even the officers didn’t give O’Neal any guff.
I somehow understood my buddies as I stared at the patterned rice paddies far below, and as I looked again at those in the chopper beside me, I wondered that I understood. These are my fellow citizen soldiers, my brothers drafted to the battlefield to stand beside me, teetering on the brink of life and death. I had very little say in the choice of companions, where I went, where I fought, where I died. Now my only choice was to fight the good fight. "God, I hope I survive it," I prayed silently.
I was jerked out of my philosophies as the two door gunners in each Huey opened up a steady stream of machine gunfire to soften up the area below.
“That ought to discourage any VC mother fuckers peeking out of the bushes,” O’Neal yelled above the noise in the chopper. A sardonic look, almost of glee, flushed his face.
I hoped the machine guns did their job...prayed it worked. The troops beside me edged for the open sides, standing on the landing skids as the ground pushed up to meet us. When the chopper hovered at four feet above the ground, we were poised on the skids, ready to jump and run. Following O'Neal, I jumped and ran in a blind rush for cover through the dust beat up by powerful rotors, ours leaving, others pulling in where ours had been. Gun-ship helicopters hovered overhead in case Charlie was waiting for us on a hot landing zone, but this time it was a cool LZ. No Charlies in sight this time. Soon the Hueys vanished like a dream, in a world of dreams.
"Now hell...that's downright bad manners," O'Neal sneered, as he stood atop a fallen log. "Here we come all this way to see our little buddy in the black pajamas, and he doesn't even have the courtesy to greet us."
"That O'Neal is a pistol, isn't he," Ottel said when he saw me looking at O'Neal as if in deep thought. "O'Neal likes it olut here. It's his life. He doesn't want to go home, Jacob. He doesn't feel he would fit back into society, and he’s more than likely right.”
I was uncomfortable talking about O’Neal, what with O’Neal right there. But Ottel didn’t seem to mind, and O’Neal took no notice.
“O'Neal's greatest talent is killing," Ottel continued, "and that’s not a commodity that's got a whole lot of call for back in ‘the world.’”
“I suppose not.”
“You see, O’Neal developed a certain flair for the soldierly art of killing in infantry training that really impressed his drill sergeants, but he’s advanced far beyond that now. O'Neal has taken killing to a whole other level. His proficiency level has flourished in Nam so that he has developed a real genius for killing, a propensity for it that’s a special gift...a gift not fully appreciated back in 'the world.' Even the government which spawned him, and made him the killer he is, would now be embarrassed that his tastes for war and killing have fanned into a hunger. His murderous instincts are flames not easily quenched, and not tolerated in society. The hell of it is, O'Neal no longer fits in his own country."
"I’ve seen the hard look in his eyes," I whispered, taking pains that my words could be heard by no one but Ottel.
But Ottel didn't care. He had no compunctions about O'Neal hearing. He laughed out loud. What was even stranger still, O’Neal didn’t seem to notice...or didn’t care. He just looked straight ahead, with lips as tight and rigid as a barbed wire fence, his eyes like marbled stones.
"Look at those eyes," Ottel said. "There’s something awful in them. I see those eyes every morning when I look up from my C rations eggs and ham. I see them when he looks back at me from point to make sure I’m watching his six when we're on patrol."
"Six?" I said with a look that showed I wasn't following.
"Jeez! You don't mean to tell me you don't know what 'your six is?' So that an infantryman can get a quick fix on a precise direction, he determines direction by the clock, twelve is straight ahead, three is to your hard right, nine is harde left from front. Exactly and quickly pinpointing where it is you should be looking can be life and death important, counting a lot when a buddy tells you to watch your two o'clock, because someone there is about to shoot you. Watching O'Neal's six means watching his back. Now, where was I...Oh yes...God help me, I even see his O'Neal's eyes...those killer eyes...at day's last light. I dream about his eyes. I have nightmares about them. I used to wonder why O'Neal had re-upped, why he had signed on for a second and third tour. Now I know. O'Neal knows it too. He's different than the people back home.”
“You really don’t think he could resume his life stateside?”
“He can't go back, Jacob. He just wouldn’t fit. O'Neal knows it too. He's afraid of the demons if he goes back. He has blood on his hands that no society can wash off, but O’Neal likes the killing too much to stop."
"Remember when O'Neal killed that VC back there? If you looked into his eyes in that first instant, you could see deep inside, and it would scare the hell out of you. You could see the demons. That fool joker back in 'the world' that decided Vietnam wasn't a war, but a 'police action,' ought to have a rifle slapped into his hands and his butt shipped over to sit in a foxhole beside O'Neal. I'd pay to see that reawakening...yes sir, I would!"
I agreed. "It feels like 'war' when boys are dying over here.”
"Here boys learn the true art of hating, just like O'Neal," Ottel said. "O'Neal's alive, but his soul is dead and it's too late to revive it, Jacob. We aren't ready for this shit...none of us. We've had it too soft back in 'the world,' but no matter, ready or not, we're here...and we’re here for the count. Boy are we here, tethered to this war by the all-seeing powers that sent us here. And the war doesn't have to kill us to alter the course of our lives."
"Society in 'the world' will have to deal with us when we get back, if we don't die first."
"Society's not ready," Ottel said grinning. "Believe me, they're not ready for guys like O'Neal. Society's not ready for any of us little wonders that are the products of this little police action. But some will make the adjustment back to society easier than others. For instance, when I first arrived in country, every waking moment was spent thinking about the minute..."
“Yes the minute," Ottel said, lowering his eyes, "the minute you die. Now, I’m getting used to it. I live with it, because it’s everywhere. There's a whole lot of little minutes that come awfully close. There’s nothing yhou can do to escape it. I don't want to die, but I'm used to thinking about it every minute...but I don’t know that I really wanted to get used to it. Some even get to like it, like O’Neal. Maybe it’s the adrenaline rush, or that electric sense you feel always in the air. Then one day you get to be a short-timer, and thinking about dying changes to dreaming of going back to 'the world.’ You think you can take up where you left off there, but that’s not so easy. It’s harder than you think. Nam has become etched into your soul. It's brainwashed you. When the time comes closer for rotation home, you start to fear going back. Like O'Neal, you wonder how you can go back home when killing has become such a part of you. How you gonna solve your problems back there...?"
"I see what you mean,” I said sadly. “But what will friends and neighbors on the block think? What will your parents think when the boy they raised and loved walks through the door, but the boy they knew is no longer there?"
"They can’t understand." Ottel said. “Nobody understands that hasn’t been here! There’s no way that anybody can...nobody! This war has torn us from our field of dreams, and molded us into soldiers; killers in the name of freedom are still killers by any other name. We don't know anything else any more, Jacob. Everything else has taken a back seat. Your mind has to be constantly aware of death here...you have to look for it, or you won't survive it. All it takes is one careless moment when your attention is distracted somewhere else...like thinking of home...a soldier can't afford that luxury, or the bullet with his name on it will find him for sure."
Ottel sat looking up at O'Neal for a moment. "We've become the dispossessed, Jacob. We don't fit anywhere. We don’t fit here in Nam, and we don't fit back in society either. This may not qualify as the longest day in the annals of war...but it is my longest day, that’s for damned sure...over and over and over. Each day is longer than the last, torture in perpetuity ad nauseam, day after damned day."
Suddenly the choppers were gone, and it was deathly quiet. One minute they were there, the next minute they weren’t, and the next minute we were hiking in full battle gear far beyond endurance...then ten miles further.
After a few hours I was physically used up, and simultaneously bored out of my ever-living skull, long past caring about the VC. The whole world had become simpler. It existed just for that next step. Then the next step imposed itself on my thinking, and then the next. I was incapable of thinking of anything beyond that next step.
We came into an open valley with banana palms on the fringes. Great flowering rosebushes grew wild on every side. Each man's thoughts were once again his own as we spread out on line, scouring the trees for snipers like our very lives depended on it...which of course they did.
All the while our battalion commander, an officer I had never met, named Colonel Emery Slough, directed our every movement from a speck high in the sky in the comfort and safety of his observation helicopter. The men, seeing him and no other enemy, focused their hate on him. It seemed to make us all feel better to have someone upon whom we could vent our frustrations.
O'Neal shook his fist at the copter. "Do you see him up there? He’s probably sitting back in his shotgun seat enjoying a Coke right now. Hope it’s not lukewarm, you bastard. Right there's the only god us grunts will ever know, Jacob, flying in the clouds, directing us two klicks this way, or two klicks that way. He would send us into the teeth of the Vietcong if he could find them, dirty bastard. Don't get your feet dirty, mein colonel!” he shouted, shaking his fist at the chopper.
“In that case, I guess we should be grateful for his ineptitude,” Ottel said.
“Don't want any blood getting on your spit-shined boots," Nigel echoed, as he too shook his fist.
"Don't want you getting too tired, sir," Riley grouched, shaking his fist too. "Don't want you feeling like us slobs down on the ground, with those scuffed boots and all. You might get your pansy butt killed down here, sirrrr."
Ottel too glared at the copter. "Don't want you getting your pristine uniform torn humping through these wait-a-minute bushes, Sir Morbid."
I too was just about to say something when I caught sight of Jonathan across the way, looking disapprovingly at the railing mockery against authority. Jonathan seemed to make it a point to intersect my path a few hundred yards further on. “Remember your faith,” Jonathan said, “like it says in Chapter nine of Acts, don’t kick against the pricks. Ask the Lord to give you strength, and walk with the love of Christ in your heart. By and by it shall be told you what you must do. Trust in God, and surely He will make your way easier to bear.”
O’Neal heard the exchange, and muttered a few choice swear words under his breath. “Pardon me, Sergeant," he said, "but aren’t you going to ask me to pray for God to pat my little behind and help me scoot on down the trail too?” he scoffed. “Or don’t you think I’m religious enough to suit your God? Christ, I can’t even get God to care for me.”
“The Lord hears and answers the prayers of all who approach him with faith and a sincere heart,” Jonathan said.
“Hell, I’m religious as the next guy,” O’Neal said with a scornful laugh. “Only difference is my Savior is my M-16, and its bullets sure do reap the sheaves and bring in the lost sheep. But of course when I bring them in they’re saved from this life of sin...they're dead...from lead poisoning,” he grinned sardonically. Then he turned and lengthened his stride to pull away.
All Jonathan could do was look and shrug. “It’s a sad thing to be so lonely, afraid, and angry. I doubt he trusts in anything or anyone. The spirit would have a hard time getting through that hard heart, but God knows, that’s just what he needs...if he only realized how much he needs it.”
“But it’s hard to keep strong, Sergeant, when everything and everyone about you calls you to do the opposite of everything you’ve been taught to believe and hold to so dear all your life.”
“Don’t let this war tear you down, Jacob. It's a blessing.”
“A blessing? I don't think I heard you right. Nam doesn't feel like any blessing I ever had before.”
“It can be...no need to look at me like that. I didn’t drink any of that funky water back there,” Jonathan said, grinning at me. “Nam can be a blessing, if you let it. It can make your testimony stronger too, or it could destroy it. Nam can strip you of false pride and ego, which are stumbling blocks to finding the true way. Nam can build you into a more dependable disciple before God Almighty.”
“But it’s kind of hard to believe in anything like God,” Ottel said with just a hint of a snicker, “when you're down and dirty in a stinking foxhole, cramped beside six other stinking men, men profane to the hilt. 'Bout the best you can do is, believe in God, but keep your finger ready on the trigger, ‘cause God helps those that help themselves.” He chuckled quietly to himself for a minute, then his eyes got serious. "It’s so difficult to know what God is all about in a foxhole...and even harder to fathom what the hell God wants of you."
“Of course it’s difficult.” Jonathan smiled. “It has to be hard to bring out the best in you. Otherwise it wouldn’t be a refiner's fire, now would it?
"What happens when Nam brings out the worst in you?"
"I can’t tell you what the Lord wants you to do. That’s between you and Him.”
“I was afraid you’d say that,” Ottel snickered.
“You have to keep yourself right with the Lord so He may strengthen your will, even in Nam. You see, one of the reasons God wants you going through this trial by fire in Vietnam, is He wants you to become something other than a puppet with a watered-down testimony that’s never been tested."
"Isn't there an easier way?" Ottel asked.
"Sure, there's an easier way...but not a better way. God wants it so that you can walk beside Him, having run the gauntlet of life with your puppet strings severed, living the righteous truth because you have seen for yourself that the gospel is a loving, eternal principle. Thus done, you will be a more valuable asset to the Kingdom than if you lived the gospel every day of your life, only because the Lord told you to, or because your parents taught you its ways.”
“Do you really believe what you’re saying?” O’Neal sneered.
Jonathan breathed a heavy sigh, then continued, “I know you all have a hurting in your hearts because of this war, but you must turn to the creator and know that He loves you. He has a love far greater than you can ever know. He wishes that he could walk beside you, stand beside you, protect you from the falls and scrapes that are this mortal existence...that are this war. He wishes that He could do everything for you so that you wouldn’t fail. He would that He could answer all your questions with a burning bush, like he did with Moses, or appear in a pillar of light, like he did with the prophet Joseph Smith. But if He did that you wouldn’t grow, not a whit. You would be dependent on Him for all eternity, and that is not what He wants the relationship between you and Him to be. He has greater things in mind for you, for the very keys to the Kingdom of Heaven are yours if you would just submit to Him and follow His Iron Rod...the straight and narrow path that leads us back to the Kingdom of God.”
I stuttered, “I just don’t see...”
"Jacob," Jonathan said, "look around you, and know that being here is part and parcel of His greater plan for you. Look around, that you may really see the beauty of creation here in Vietnam. Look beyond the feeling of tiredness creeping into your bones. See in God's creation more than just another hurdle between you and the end of the day? God doesn’t want you to just discard what you see and feel, brushing it aside with no more thought than you would give a mosquito on your arm. He wants you to learn to see with the inner eye that transcends common things. He wants you to see beyond your misery, to feel the compassion, to feel the true elegance. He wants you to stop and notice things that most men pass right by, never knowing, never understanding, never caring. He wants you to be in the world, but not of it, Jacob. To do this you must learn to see into the very base of things. You must humble yourself like unto a little child so that the pure magnificence in life can come through unfeigned. God has made you a master of a few things with what you have done back home, Jacob, but He wants you to be the master of many things in His eternal kingdom. For that purpose, Vietnam prepares you to fully serve Him. Now is the time, and this is the place you have to begin.”
It was then that the shelling started. Five mortar rounds whistled through the air, one after the other, sending us scurrying for cover, hitting the dirt with abandon. I found myself behind a termite mound, Ottel was in a ditch when it was over, and Sergeant Mulenburg took a head count. Seeing no one was hurt, he sent up some reconnaissance patrols to see if they could find anything. But Charlie had hit and run.
“It gets old, don’t it,” Ottel said, brushing the dirt off his fatigues. “Charlie figures the best way to win this war is to live to fight another day. But that’s just what Charlie wants. He knows he can’t take our mighty fighting machine on face-to-face and hope to win," he said smiling. “The numbers and firepower against him are too great. He knows his only hope of winning this war is in the minds and hearts of its soldiers, and in the staying power of the people back home. He hopes that one of these days the people back home will just get sick and tired of the whole mess, the casualties and all, and tell us to pack our bags and go.”
I thought about this, and what Jonathan had said, the rest of the afternoon. Thinking about it did help me keep my mind off my feet moving, and the blisters, as the company danced a mad square dance under the wilting Vietnamese sun. I almost imagined the fiddles playing as the First Platoon do-si-doed with the Second over a hill on the right flank, while the Third and Fourth Platoons promenaded the ring through the valley. Then the First and Third Platoons converged to the center, up a hill, around the side and back, squared through, passed through, and left allemande over a ridgeline. The Second and Fourth Platoons did a right and left thru, then a gents star right, splitting around a stand of bamboo, and meeting their partners on the other side. Then the First Platoon cross-trailed to swing through another valley with the Fourth Platoon, while the Second and Third Platoons weaved the ring on the left flank through ten-foot-high elephant grass.
Made me almost wish for contact so we could stop. It wasn’t that I didn’t fear contact, and fighting hand to hand with the VC, but at lest we'd stop for it. I had to get my mind off of the humping, so hummed the jingle I'd sung double timing around the company streets back at Fort Puke, uh, er, Polk, "1-2-3-4, I wanna stop, please God let me stop, but they won't let me stop...Airborne! Airborne! All the way! One way! Can’t stop! Won’t stop!"
I wondered how we could fight if we were “lucky” enough to run into those ornery VC. They just wouldn’t understand. How could we battle them when our feet felt like kegs of putty and our rifles all weighed 200 pounds. Nobody asked me though, and the Colonel in the air must not have been tired, though his chopper vanished, no doubt to take a piss break after all those Cokes he’d been drinking. Everybody in front of me, and behind me, was just slogging one foot after the other, just like me, up over hills that we never thought we’d scale, bulling our way through scrub thickets and wait-a-minute bushes in the valleys...all the time looking for the man who wanted nothing more than to kill us. There was no talking. Each man had long ago retreated into his own private hell. I just couldn't picture fighting with gusto when the simple act of moving took every last ounce of effort. Couldn't the man upstairs see that? The black water was long gone, leaving me dry and sweating. I sure could have used one of the Colonel’s Cokes.
Sergeant Mulenburg sidled up, and shared what he called, "Tidbits of Wisdom." He started philosophizing, saying, "You’re an earth mover, young troop. You’re a ground-poundin' soul-crunchin' infantrym'n, and youah rich Uncle Sammy done seed that. He don't need no mules no mo, young troop, ‘cause we be air-mo-bile, the baddest, meanes mother fuckers in the valley. No sir, Uncle Sammy don't be need’n' no muscles long’s he's got y’all grunts. Ground-pound'n, air-mobile, expend'ble grunts is the backbone of this here man's Army. That's a joke, young troop," he said when I didn't laugh. "If'n an infantry troop cain't laugh at his-own-self no time now and again, there won't be no laughin'."
Ottel forced a smile. "Sure can't laugh at the war."
"Y'all bettah laugh!"
I remembered in a kind of trance-like dream what Sergeant Mulenburg had said back on the tarmac as we waited to fly into combat. It seemed light years ago. "Travel light, cause what y’all girls take will be toted on your backs every blessed step." I had suppressed a laugh at the pride of Dreamlight, Arkansas then -- but now the laughing had stopped.
I traveled light all right. I carried only my rifle, three ammo pouches with 16 magazines and 200 rounds of ammo each, three canteens, an entrenching tool, bedroll, first aid kit, six C-ration meals, mess kit, eating utensils, pistol belt, one trip flare with ten feet of wire, three fragmentation grenades, one white phosphorous grenade, two smoke signal grenades, (one red and one green), two railroad flares, a claymore mine, a pound of TNT, and C-4 explosive (great for warming cold C rations), and my steel pot. Travel light...sure thing. That stuff weighed a ton. And my opponent, Mister Cong...who we knew better as Charlie probably wore nothing more than black pajamas and tire-tread sandals, carrying only an AK-47 and a smile. Who do you think would move faster...? Bingo!
"Don't worry your head none, PFC Fredericks," Mulenburg said. "If y’all have in-coming rounds, y’all will move fast enough. Be surprised how fast you move when the shit hits the fan."
"This is the life,” Ottel said. “Our illustrious Company Commander, Captain Thaddeus T. Trenery, is back there playing God with Alexander the Great, Platoon Lieutenant Joshua Pike. And every once in a while Colonel Slough swoops down to pick one of them up to better observe the view of the crazy patterns below.”
“Just so’s he can keep in touch, mind,” Snyder nodded. "Officers don’t carry anything but pistols, a couple’a mags of ammo, and a grin anyway, so they can't seem to get it through their heads why we're grumbling."
"Remember your place, girl," Ottel said gruffly in his best Mulenburg voice. "Y’all lower echelon troops are the bottom rung in this rusty chain of command. This er-y-u-dite war is all fought over your heads anywho, so it don’t be-hoove ya' none to understan’, an it don’t matter diddly-squat what y'all think anyway. Y’all’re nothin’ but mule-headed grunts in a soph-is-ti-cated war, boys and girls, where schol’rly pupils like Pike and Trenery polish theah skills and hone their crafts. It's like Ahab's quest to kill the great white whale, Moby Dick. It be quin-te-ssential, young troops, quin-te-ssential! Huntin’ for Vietcong be crucial to them boy's way of life, understand? And we," he spread his arms over the humping formation, "are but tools in the hands of these mast’r sculpt’rs.”
Mulenburg heard, but he only chuckled, and let it pass.
But O'Neal called back. "Shut it up back there, Jelly Belly...or if Mister Charles don’t cut your ears off, I will."
"Don't humor him," Snyder grumbled. “Just let it go.”
“Not to worry,” Ottel said. "He'd probably just cram my ears full of gung-ho talk about Nam being a schoolhouse fieldtrip war, designed specifically to educate the makers of war."
“Sure he’d say that,” I chuckled. “He’d probably just tell you how much he worships his gun. I really doubt O’Neal would think to say anything with that much thought behind it.”
"Now you're learning," Ottel smirked. "Rubbing shoulders with me has indeed borne fruit, boy. Pike and Trenery can play with their toys and games of war all they want. They can call in air strikes, artillery, fast flyers and napalm. They can mortar some poor sucker's village or dynamite his hooch, with the full knowledge they are safe. No way can Charles hit us on our home shores back in 'the world.' Vietnam's a safe, antiseptic war, where the hosts, politicians and corporations can play their war games from a sterile environment free from becoming infected by the war.”
"I see, the hosts are the politicians and corporations who started and manage the war, who are home free from stress and worry, really suffering from its effects."
"Something like that."
“What about us grunts?” I asked, laughing. “Ain’t nobody sterilized me.”
“Grunts are just laboratory rats in the maze. We're nothing but pawns used by the 'Big Boys.'"
"All I know is we're low man on the totem pole," Snyder muttered. "If Pike or Trenery had to carry this pack, we would have stopped ten miles back."
"The rats run the maze, my good man," Ottel nodded. "Don’t you know that? Pike or Trenery had to carry these packs...we would have never started in the first place.”
"You white breads complaining?" Nigel snorted as we dropped into a dry riverbed and pushed through the thorns and bamboo thickets onto the ridge. "This is just a breezy walk in the park for us boyz to lay out the hood. We brothers gotta establish our turf. We be the damned palace guard to make sure those f____s Trenery and Pike don't get their butts kicked by no home-boys."
"Now you're seeing the light," Ottel said. "We're nothing but pawns deployed ten klicks this way, or ten klicks that way."
"All I know is our butts are the pawns," O'Neal said.
"Cannon fodder," Snyder nodded.
Ottel whispered, his eyes heavenward, "How can you talk about our moral superiors that way? For shame! Ours not to reason why...ours just to do and die...in this damned obscenity!"
“Our superiors!,” O'Neal scowled, "I'll give'm a reason to crap out of a new asshole with my bayonet, they push me."
There was no shade, except for the ridiculous camouflage branches in my helmet. If the branches were meant to fool the VC into thinking I was a tree, they weren’t working. If any VC thought I was a tree, he would have to be one sick puppy. Only a few sparsely stunted trees struggled here and there, and none of them moved, at least so's you could see. So no self-respecting VC could be that dumb to think I was a tree. Probably the only dumb ones here are those who put the branches in their helmets, walk twenty miles up hill and down dale, banging packs, mess kits and pans, trying to "sneak up" on the enemy. Now that’s dumb! The noise of plodding feet sounded more like a herd of thirsty elephants charging to the river than they did stealthy warriors. Our best efforts at sneakiness were succeeding only in calling more attention to ourselves.
"Has to be a joke, right Sergeant?" I said when Mulenburg passed nearby. "Any self-respecting VC would've dee-dee'd out of here a long time ago."
"There y'all go thinkin' again, Fredericks.”
“Sarge, the only way we’re going to find them, is if they want to be found...and then God help us.”
“Whut'd ah tell y'all 'bout thinkin’, young troop? The army's goin’ to have to break y’all of that poor raggedy-ass habit, young troop. This be 'SOP' young troop...Stand’rd Op’rational Proooo-cedure fer ground pounders...straight from the boss man hisself. Now y'all jest keep humpin’ on line, Grunts," Mulenburg snorted. "Keep’m spread out...don't want one roun' tak'n all y’all girls. I'd be pit’ful sorry to see that, yes suh, pit’ful sorry."
"Can’t argue with that logic!" Ottel wisecracked.
We found numerous temporary foxholes and bunkers, but all seemed abandoned. When we
found one large underground bunker big enough to hold 25 men, and a large rice cache of thirty tons or so -- we promptly blew it up -- but saw no enemy. And I wondered if I should be glad, or feel bad about that?