Birthday Cake Goodbyes

     Four men were down. VC snipers had pinned the platoon down with automatic rifles, raking the hillsides behind us and picking us off one by one. The pointman, O'Neal, was the first man who caught the flak when the patrol was brought frighteningly alive. Riley was the second. Moments later another was picked off as he huddled behind some grasses that only partially concealed him, and another was hit as he looked over a fallen log.

     Jonathan scrambled for cover behind a bush on the left flank, and Sergeant Mulenburg found cover behind a termite mound on the right. Both actively directed the platoon assault with hand signals. Ottel was directed to a position on the ridge where his machine gun had a better firing line vantage point, where he could fire sporadic bursts at anything that moved. The rest of the platoon was spread out on the assault line behind a small ditch berm.

     I hit the dirt in a deep bog hole beside a stand of elephant grass. It was muddy and it stank, but it was low. I had been right behind O'Neal and Riley when they were hit. When I had a chance to look back, I saw everyone else had fallen further back to a line fifty yards behind me. I felt momentary panic at being hung out to dry, helpless, alone and vulnerable under enemy fire. So what else is new!

     Sergeant Mulenburg suddenly bolted through the withering fire to a tree root twenty yards to my right. A bullet hit him in the head, knocking his helmet spinning off and knocking him to the ground. I could see him shaking his head to settle the world spinning around, but couldn't see any entrance wound. I didn't see any blood, so he must be just dazed. "Going to have one hell of a headache," I thought, but he was up and storming the enemy again. He led a charmed life.

     An acrid smoke filled the air as the VC stopped firing, unnerved by the screaming banshee bearing down on them. Mulenburg paused by one of the downed soldiers, hoisted the bigger man on his shoulders in a fireman's carry, and sprinted back for safety, moving about as agilely as a deuce and a half truck.

     That's how it started. I didn't realize I was doing it, till I was doing it, but soon found myself crawling out into the open, inching up to help O'Neal and Riley. Maybe it was automatic...maybe it was reflexive...maybe it was adrenaline, I don’t know. I do know it was stupid! I do know I must not be thinking clearly, or I wouldn’t have gone there in the first place, content just to stay put...where it was safe.

     "But safety is overrated," I thought, as I crawled forward, cradling my M-16 in my arms, everything in me screaming to stay back. "Don't move! Go back," the voices in my head shouted. "Go back now before it's too late." But I've never been a very good listener, I guess, because it was already too late.

     O'Neal and Riley were my, not really. But they were my comrades...they were my brothers. We had spent every minute of every waking hour together for three months as if tied with a bond almost unbreakable. That's an eternity! Where they went, I went, and vice-versa. We had our differences, sure, lots of them...but we ate together, slept together, and hung together. We fought the beast of the jungle together. We even guarded each other's backs while we shit and peed. That had to be some kind of much closer can you get?

     O'Neal and Riley were more like family...brothers who felt some things in common, and some things different. Some brothers are black sheep, with a wild seed, and some are in a different generation. But you do for them, just the same, just because. They're brothers! They were part of me, and I was part of them. I had to get them back. I had to do it!

     I was doing it, that's what mattered. There was no turning back. I hugged the ground so tight my shirt buttons were scraped off, risking everything, but not thinking about it. It wasn’t that I was being brave...I just wasn’t thinking. I remembered the two laughing at a carefree joke just before we were hit. O'Neal had turned to tell Riley to monkey up that banana tree and bring him some breakfast. Now that moment seemed a long time ago in another world, far, far away.

     Suddenly, I felt a searing hot fire burning in my side, rolling me like a tin can blowing down the street. The sniper had found his fifth target. I suddenly couldn't breathe, gasping, choking, my shirt red and sticky. Everything went white, washed-out, as it does just before you pass out. I didn't look...couldn't look. My brothers were only a few feet away, but it was as if I was, as stated in the Bible, "Looking through a glass darkly." I was dazed. I didn't feel anything. Strange, I felt no more pain. I couldn't hear anything above the damnable ringing. But something inside kept me focused, reflexively, automatically moving.

     O'Neal had a belly wound, and a second bullet had creased his skull along the back of his head in a knockout blow...but he was alive. I couldn't help thinking, "His kind never die," and smiled in spite of myself, in some kind of wry battlefield humor, as I saw the ugly, red welt on his head. I couldn't help wondering why no blood streamed down his head. Perhaps the searing heat of the bullet cauterized the flesh wound, as it bounced off his thick skull. O'Neal would now have more "show and tell." That he might not be around to tell it never entered my mind. I was smiling again, kind of euphoric and light-headed, really starting to wonder if something was wrong with me.

     Riley had rolled over into some sheltering grasses out of Mr. Charles’s line of fire. I looked over to him, and saw he'd caught a round that had shattered his leg. Another bullet had caused a wound in his side. I couldn't tell how serious it was, covered with blood, dirt, torn fabric. For the first time I saw the kid in him, wide-eyed, panicked, groaning, screaming, half-crying. "Please don't let me die," he pleaded. "Don't leave me, I beg you, don't leave me...mother! Mother, don't let me die!"

     It's as if the real Riley had found release from the kid who had erected a stone wall of toughness around him, a wall to protect himself in a world where a teenager shouldn't ever have to go. Both were hurt bad, but not dead.

     Strange...I wasn't frightened by the danger as I alligator-crawled, pausing every few yards to test the air, probing with my extended eyes, my M-16 barrel. If I saw anything, I could shoot without thinking. The Nam had trained me that way.

     I thought I saw movement in the tree line directly ahead...only instantly, but in that instant as I crawled through thick grasses toward the spot, I thought of Alfred Tennyson’s poem, "Charge of the Light Brigade." I'd memorized it in college just before I was drafted, and couldn't now get it out of my head. I kept repeating it...

      Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
"Forward, the Light Brigade!
"Charge for the guns!" he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

      "Forward, the Light Brigade!"
Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldier knew
Someone had blunder'd:
Their's not to make reply,
Their's not to reason why,
Their's but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

      Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.

      Flash'd all their sabres bare,
Flash'd as they turn'd in air,
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
All the world wonder'd:
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro' the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reel'd from the sabre stroke
Shatter'd and sunder'd.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.

      Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro' the jaws of Death
Back from the mouth of Hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.

      When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.
Honor the charge they made,
Honor the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred.

     As I moved, I moved by instinct alone. A thousand thoughts phased through my brain, flashing electrical impulses, short-circuits to impede my thinking about what I was doing. I had been transformed by Vietnam! I'd lost the boy, and found the warrior. Perhaps that's what moved me, when moving was impossible. I lived with danger every day. I was on a first-name basis with death. I breathed it's evil in full when I woke for breakfast. I filled my lungs with it. I tasted it still on my tongue when my last thoughts at night came, pungent and sour, waiting for the death I knew waited for me, sure it was out there, but unmoving. Thoughts of death were thick and syrupy in my throat, as I lay my feet over the lip of the foxhole each night, combat boots still on, M-16 across my chest at the ready, and pulled the poncho liner around me. I felt death pricking at my skin every minute, but didn't think about it any was just there. Something you dealt with. "It don’t mean nuthin'. You don't want to live forever," my buddies used to say when they spoke of the life we lived, and the possibility of our oever imminent death. It was as if by just saying, "Dying don't matter," they could avoid death...or at least, the thought of it they dealt with every day wouldn't seem so terrible. I was trained to act without thinking...despite the fear, despite the pain.

     The front line infantryman's life is on the line from sunup to sundown in Vietnam. Danger is with you in the foxhole. It's beside you on patrol. You eat it with your C-chicken loaf. Danger is the rule more than the exception. It's something you live with! You're comfortable with it! It's just a roll of the dice whether you live, or whether you die, when the enemy is anywhere and everywhere. And the nights are worse. Vietnam imbeds a new set of senses on you that you either either learn to live with, or you die, or you go crazy. There are no other choices.

     Then I saw him, black tire-tread sandals, black pajamas, mostly hidden in the fork of a tree thirty feet to my left. He peered around the edge of the tree trunk, his AK-47 assault rifle seeming bigger than he was. Charlie didn't see me as I gathered him in the sights of my M-16, but in the flicker of an eye he turned to face me, and our eyes met.

     For a split second neither of us moved. Charlie fired first, and a chattering bolt of automatic fire pocked the earth yards in front of me, kicking up dust and rock chips into my face. But he'd fired too quickly. He had panicked. I could see his slight body in my sights. I saw the pain in his dark eyes as I pulled the trigger. My bullet found its killing spot between them, snapping his head back. I emptied my magazine at him, following him as he fell. I saw his black hair swell and wave with the recoil as the bullets smashed into him. I heard him crashing into the jungle foliage below, as the world went black...for him, and for me.

* * *

     "Would you like a piece of birthday cake son?" queried a kindly looking old lady who stood by my bedside.

     "How...what?" I tried to sit bolt upright, confused, still angry, still searching for Charlie. I had to get him. It was him or me. But a sledgehammer-like blow in the ribs laid me back, leaving me wincing with tears in my eyes.

     "They tell me you only just came out of the anesthesia, son...but they said it's okay for you to eat some cake. Can you hear me, son? You're probably not even sure of what I'm saying, or if I'm even poor dear."

     Strange, I heard, but couldn't answer. My surroundings were unreal, floating in and out, hard to get a handle on. Everything was too clean, too antiseptic, too white. And the cobwebs in my head...I couldn't see anything through the pulsing tangle of their loosely woven gauze. Frantic and frustrated, I tried to claw them away, but I couldn't. My arms were tied to the bed.

     I was outside myself, looking in at them, my arms secured to keep me from digging at my bandages. My mind was groggy, dizzy, nauseous, like when you wind yourself tight in a swing and spin wildly, careening, ears ringing, your stomach in your throat. But that's the good news. Things got worse when I came up out of the helter-skelter, confusing maze, and recognized the pain.

     "Son, would you like a piece of birthday cake?" the lady repeated her question, gently nudging my thoughts and returning me back to the real world.

     "Birthday cake?" I mimed, not understanding the question.

     "Yes," she smiled sweetly, understandingly. "The Red Cross here at Nha Trang serves cake to all the boys every month in honor of patients whose birthdays fall in that month." I didn't say more; I tried opening my mouth, but nothing came. When the words wouldn't come, she said with a sugary smile, "I'll just leave a piece then. You can decide later whether you want it or not." She smiled again, comforting with her soft, grandmother eyes. "There's no hurry, son...take your time." Then she was gone, turned to the next bed. After a long while I woke again. The cake was still there. When I took a bite, it felt strange, foreign. After one bite, I didn't feel like any more.

* * * *

     When the choppers set down back at LZ Virginia a month later, it was almost as if I'd never left...almost. Snyder was gone. "He won the lottery," Ottel said, "made it over the Army's ultimate obstacle course in its newest war. He escaped the madness to go back to the farm...back to 'the world.'"

     Dejesus 'Gutcheck' Gutierrez was Ottel's new ammo carrier, and unceremoniously I was given his radio to lug, the RTO following Lieutenant Reggie. I guess our green lieutenant had made it through more than "the week" he'd been given by the guys.

     "You can take over this soft duty while you mend your wounds, Fredericks," Reggie said matter-of-factly, as if doing me a favor. But I didn't see it that way. I didn't see the logic of how humping forty extra pounds over my thirty-five pound regular pack load would aid my recovery. The only advantage is that I would march into combat operations in the buffer zone that was the command center, when the platoon moved on patrol, shielded from action by a column of infantryman on either side.

     "Reggie's RA, regular Army," Ottel whispered when the lieutenant looked away, "so whatta you expect. That's the only explanation you need. He's SNAFU," he grinned.

     "Everything in Nam's SNAFU," I agreed. "Say, where's Jonathan...don't see him around. I..."

     Suddenly everything got deathly quiet. "I thought you knew, man," Ottel said, his eyes looking away, off at the South China Sea.

     "What you talking about...knew what?" My smile was suddenly frozen in place.

     "After that little flare-up where you got wounded, we found Jonathan behind a bush. He looked like he had just fallen asleep, or something. Then we saw it..."

     "Saw it...what?"

     "Jacob, I'm sorry, but Jonathan’s dead. When the firing first started...when I saw him jumping behind a bush...seemed OK, directing the platoon and all. When the shit was cleaned up we found him. He had a little red hole right in the middle of his forehead...didn't even look like it was enough to kill a man."

     My mind was screaming as I looked my buddy in the face, looking for that tell-tale grin that would tell me he was just joking. I couldn't comprehend. Jonathan couldn't be dead. He couldn't! He wasn’t! I half-smiled, sure that I must be the butt of a joke, albeit a bad one, but they weren't joking.

     "He was one of the good guys," Ottel was saying, but I didn't really hear him. "His death bummed us all out," he said, seeming to whisper.

     I couldn't speak to anyone the rest of the day. I just sat there, eyes glazed and listless, looking out...looking into nothing…staring towards the jungle, but past it, into nothing. For awhile I didn't care. If God would let such a good man die...why would he let me live? Why was someone like O'Neal alive, while a good man had died? It was all so damnably senseless! Somehow, it went against the order of the way things should be, the way God would have things go. It was insane. The worst part was the ringing in my head, "Why...why...why?"

     Everybody seemed to avoid me, skirting around me, leaving me undisturbed. Maybe it was the hard, "leave-me-alone" look in my eyes. Life seemed senseless...all life. Yet, all around it, it was almost as if life went on, like Jonathan never really existed. Nobody dared mention his name, as if talking about him would bring on some kind of bad luck, or awaken some demons, or stir some kind of taboo. It was profane. War was profane. Life...was profane. I felt the tears welling in me, suddenly about to cry. I wanted to cry, to plead with God above to wake me from this nightmare. But life went damnably on!

     The memories of Jonathan, and the others who received their burial from us, as life went on in this damned war, impacted my mind. They shook me to the core of my being. They made it impossible to think about anything else, impossible to go on. So I packed the memories down deep, buried almost out of sight of short-term memory…down in the depths of my psyche where I could pick them out and think about them later, sometime when I could deal with them. It ate at me that I had never said goodbye to my mentor...but I would always remember him...always! Just not now. The tears soon dried. I could no longer cry. I was afraid to, because I felt...I know it’s strange, but I felt that if I cried, I would have to own up to the fact that Jonathan was gone. And I didn’t want to accept that. I couldn't accept that...wouldn't... I wasn’t ready for it.

     But the Army moves without regard to pain, misery, or loss...just relentlessly on, and the next day we were airlifted by "Eagle Flight" out near a banana plantation. I almost had to be pushed aboard the chopper, but somehow I managed to stumble and clamber on. I thought to myself, “It's harsh, but it's good." I lost my damning thoughts making me crazy, scouting toward some hooches through tall elephant grass and bamboo. I just shoved bad thoughts back where I didn't have to deal with them anymore, and kept repeating, "It don't mean nuthin'." And when the patrol came under sniper fire, primal instincts took over.

     Bullets whistled over Reggie's shoulder and whooshed by my ear. Reggie ducked and ran through a small hedgerow opening three feet high in some towering "wait-a-minute" bushes, wearing only a side arm and a smile on his slight, willowy, bespectacled body, so he passed through like a whisper on a soft summer night. As his RTO, I was expected to follow closely behind, my six-foot frame and sixty-five pound pack with the three-foot antenna bulling through the bush. "No fair, no fair at all...SNAFU! The whole damned war's SNAFU!"

     I just closed my eyes, lowered my head in a crouching lunge and bellied my way through. My side hurt, my head hurt, and I was out of breath when I caught up to Reggie behind a deep furrow. It was some kind of canal -- but there was no water. He had a sight on the hooches, and was studying his map for coordinates. Reaching for the phone, he called in artillery.

     Sporadic automatic weapons fire continued from the hooches, returned by the patrol on the bank line, until the horribly beautiful whooshing sound of artillery shells sounding the size of Volkswagens came cutting through the sky from above. Then vboom, vboom, vboom, vboom. When we searched the area after its apocalyptic rain of fire -- nothing. But somehow I thought Jonathan's death had been partially avenged when I found a blood trail and a clump of tangled clothing surrounding what used to be a body. But my lips had grown hard, like barbed wire. Somehow I didn't feel Jonathan would be fully avenged until I felt someone twisting and squirming at the end of my really didn't matter much who. Somewhere in the back of my mind I wondered, "Is that what this war is all about...revenge?"

     We patrolled three klicks down a dry riverbed, over a hill, and along a ridge line, through lush fields and meadows that led to a vast network of rice paddies, and did the same thing the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that. Then it was over. Reggie popped a purple smoke grenade, and we were soon on our way back to LZ Betty.

     As we were making our sandbag bunkers more homey, Mulenburg walked over with two soldiers almost hidden under mounds of gear, "New," written all over them. Another followed reluctantly ten paces behind. The man dragging behind was a big, surly-faced, black man, and he was the one who caught my eye. He looked big and mean, one I'd sure hate to meet in a dark alley, one hell of a fighting man!

     "This here be Ulysses Schotfaust," Mulenburg gestured up at the big black man. "He be a transfer’n from A Company."

     "Call me Shoot...ever'body does...from Chicago, man," he threw his pack into the bunker. "Welcome, brother," Nigel gave him five, then turned his palm to receive five back.

     Ottel, Gutcheck, Nigel and I, we all smiled. We knew without saying that we had a new "meanest son of a bitch in the valley." We also knew there must have been some trouble in A Company for them to give up a grade "A" fighting man like Shoot, and send him packing here. I mean, just looking at Shoot would make the VC tremble, and get happy feet, ready to turn and run. I also studied the new recruits...twinks, green as grass in a hayfield. I wondered if four months ago I could have been that raw, that naïve, that gung-ho. In a past lifetime maybe. Maybe back in "the world."

     "Listen up, young troops," Mulenburg drawled. "Y'won't be seein' O'Neal and Riley anymore. They've done rotated back't stateside hospitals."

     I looked up. "Didn't think they were that bad off, Sarge."

     "They weren't! Month'r two in hospital'd suit'm jest fine to come back 'ere and sit with us a spell, but they were so close't their DROS...their end of their Nam tour a duty, that the man figured..."

     Ottel grinned. "Them boys done got outta the hospital just in time to be flown home."

     "But...I didn't figure O'Neal wanted to go home," I said. "Didn't he re-up?"

     "I reckon he didn't want to go...but he didn't have no choice in't matter."

     "What about me?” Ottel asked. “I want to go home too...won’t they let me go too?"

     "Chit," Gutcheck rumbled, in his thick Chicano accent. "You're the Army's boot, man...the Army don't throw away its boots."

     "They threw y’all back because y’all're barely wet behindst the ears," Mulenburg's eyes twinkled. "Y’all’re still twinks, don’tcha know!"

     "Nice of them to notice."

     "Oh, t'Army may miss a lot of tricks, but never...never do they lose track'a the tally of them contract-u-ally obli-ga-tory."

     "Chit, the Army don't throw way its boots, man," Gutcheck repeated, flashing a self-satisfied grin as he repeated the joke. "You know that, chit."

     "This'ere be their replacements. Boys, say your howdies to PFC Arthur Robbins'n PFC Davey Moline. I know y’all will make'm feel't home." As Mulenburg turned to leave, he grinned that bucktoothed grin of his, the grin Ottel said could shuck corn through a picket fence.

     But before he had taken two steps, he turned, his face becoming somber. “Oh, Fredericks, got word from I Corps’t they ain't no listing for a Quong Tri comin’t them from the ARVN interr’gation team.” He shrugged, then walked away.

     “You know what that means?” Ottel said.

     “Yeah, I know, but maybe...”

     “No maybe’s about it. Quong Tri’s more than likely dead, or I Corps would have a record of him.”

     “Yeah, I know.” I thought of the smiling VC who had surrendered to us, and shook my head.

     Robbins and Moline stood there with new olive green fatigues, spit-shined boots, eyes nervously wide as howitzers, trying to take it all in, curly headed and stateside pale, straight from “the world” naïve...trying too hard to look tough...but failing miserably.

     Ottel lit up a smoke as he leaned back into the sandbags. "My God look at those fresh faces...a new generation of twinks. Were we ever that young and naïve, Jacob?"

     “Don’t know...probably...I can’t remember that far back.”

     "Cannon fodder," Shoot walked up to the two new men and glared right in their faces, with a hard, mean snarl. "Just more cannon fodder for the big dog."

     "Chit, you think they weaned from their mamas yet?" Gutcheck chuckled.

     "Come over here and sit, Egg," Ottel gestured to Robbins. "You too, Georgia." Nobody knows how Ottel came up with the nicknames, but 'Egg' was to be Robbins' name for the tour. Maybe it was his burr-head we saw when he took off his helmet, wiping his egghead with his sleeve. Maybe it was a takeoff on robin’s egg. Georgia was probably inferred from Moline, Georgia, I figure.

     "I'm from Toledo," Georgia said. "Sure you are," Ottel puffed on a big cigar, but who was Georgia to argue? Georgia had been christened, and Georgia he was called from that point to the end of his tour.

     "I'll bet you're gung-ho fightin' men," Nigel said, bumming a cigarette and light from Egg. "You probably still think war's romantic."

     "Chit, " Gutcheck growled. "Romantic? Chit!"

     "I'm here to fight communism," Egg protested, "not because I like war. I don't want to fight...and...” his words trailed off softly. He reminded me too much of myself, that first night in the Le Hong Phong Forest.

     “Don’t go pussyfooting around the word 'kill,'” Shoot glared. “That’s what we do here, boy. And we gotta be good at it...damned good! Better than anybody else! You’d best not be shy about it, boy.”

     “Yeah, well, my country's given me a lot,” Egg said, trying to hide the tremble in his voice, “and I just want to do my part."

     “Chit,” Gutcheck said, “you’ll do that.”

     "I heard the communist terror is putting out the light of freedom here," Georgia said, as if he didn’t have the sense God gave little green apples. He didn’t know when to quit. Didn’t know enough not to dig his hole any deeper than it already was. "The VC insurgency is overrunning a brave young nation that called for our country called me, so here I am."

     "Chit, they done sent us a SNAFU," Gutcheck moaned.

     "Sure," Ottel shrugged. "Every generation that comes along says we need a war to end all wars," and we all laughed.

     "I think it's a rule," I nodded. "You know, war just kind of cleans the air...gets rid of the rubble, the sick and infirm."

     "Sure," Ottel said, "that sounds reasonable. Everybody gets all patriotic, 'my-country-right-or-wrong' gung-ho, filled with the romance of war, marching off, hands-over-hearts to greater glory, bound to put down tyranny wherever they may find it..."

     "Off to the crusades," I mimicked holding aloft my canteen as if it were a sword, "down with communists, Nazis, heathens, Christians, Catholics, socialists, fascists, Moslems, infidels, Mormons, atheists, Bolsheviks. Strike down whoever's different from you. It's never hard to find someone different to hate."

     "Chit, just hope they're littler than you..."

     Ottel grinned. "Yeah, when you twinks get a good taste of blood and death, you know, in a couple of days, when you get good and weary of the killing and the dying, you’ll begin to think twice about why you’re here. Someday, if you live long enough, you may become shell-shocked veterans like us...and like us, you may vow, 'never again.' But history has a way of repeating itself."

     "It always does," I nodded. "It always does. After a couple of generations macho boys see the glories of war on the big screen, and they hear the war stories told by old warriors, just maybe glossed over a little bit...even the horror of it...the fear in it...the overriding death in it. And a new demon to be vanquished rises up somewhere...they always do," I nodded.

     Ottel’s smile vanished. "Veterans find the sharp edge of painful memories dulled, and young boys shout for fame, honor and glory. A new crop of leaders is born, feeling righteous indignation, speaking with nationalistic fervor, their eyes flashing with the burning need to right the world’s wrongs. Suddenly, before anybody knows it, a new generation of sons are sent marching off to some foreign war."

     "Chit, we gonna save the world," mumbled Gutcheck sarcastically. "Chit!"

     Egg and Georgia looked at us with skeptical, unbelieving eyes.

     "I know what you're thinking," Ottel said sadly. "It can't be that bad. It can't be. The heat must have gotten to that guy." He turned away suddenly, and started looking for cleaning materials for his M-60, before we could see the tears.

     "He's right guys," I shrugged. "If O'Neal or Riley were here they'd tell you about it."

     "Chit, I just wanna get back to the barrio," Gutcheck sighed.

     "Well, whatta you think, kid?" I looked at Egg.


     "Your first impression. Got a bayonet caught up your throat?"

     Egg looked around. "Gunpowder. Does it always smell like gunpowder?"

     "Always...except when it smells like rotting forests sticky with blood...but you don't even wanna go there..." I knew from his leaden silence that he didn't understand. How could he understand? But he would. Oh God, he would.

     Ottel shook his head, his black eyes sunk hollow in their sockets. He looked old. "Twinks always think they'll do their part. They think they will rotate home to take up their lives...unchanged and unaffected. They come to the war for many reasons...with a truckload of doubts, but without protest, because they're tough, and war is romantic."

     "And because they feel strongly it's their duty," I said with a killing smile, “don’t forget that. Everybody tells you that you must do your duty back in ‘the world,’ parents, teachers, church. Just what is duty, anyway? Can somebody tell me...somebody?"

     "Chit, romantic...duty...patriotic, they just words to try and give reason to a man’s dying...chit."

     "You're not fighting to win, boy," Shoot scowled at Egg. "You best learn that lesson fast or your butt won't last an hour out here. You're fighting to get your butt home in one survive, man. You survive, and you’ve won!" Nigel and Shoot exchanged high fives. "Those big dog colonels flying around in their choppers, they don't care a frog's ass for you,'re monkey piss. They only care about the score...’bout lookin’ good for the boys in Saigon. You got to just survive the Nam."

     "The score?" Georgia's brow wrinkled.

     "The body count, man."

     "Chit, they're obsessed with it man; they don't care about you. We ambushed gook gunrunners in Tuy Hoa one night, trip flares and claymores going off like popcorn, man. Chit, after it was all over we heard sobbing and moaning on the trail...women and kids, man. Chit, the VC had been moving behind the shield of mamasans and babysans."

     "They do it all the time," Ottel nodded.

     "We were waiting for the sun, but they wouldn't stop groaning and wailing all night in the dark, man...we couldn't take it anymore, had to pop a couple of grenades over to shut the gooks up. Hell, when the sun came up we found three mama-sans, four little muchachos about eight years old, and a little girl...looked like my sister...chit. Colonel flew in to oversee the body count, and ordered extra ice cream for us because he said we did a good job...chit."

     "He wanted a fatter body count to brag about with the other bird colonels," I said.

     "Damn this crazy war," Ottel sniffed. "Damn it all to hell."

     "They give you that honky crap about no sacrifice being too great," Nigel says, "but you never see their whitebread butts on the line... Never since I been over here have I ever seen an old man in the foxhole."

     Ottel, looking profound leaning against a sand bag, said, "The way to end this damn war...any war, would be to give the men who started it on both sides bayonets, then tell them to charge. They'd find a way to negotiate better believe they'd find a way."

     "There's only one trouble with'at," Shoot chewed on the end of a cigar he'd saved for just such an occasion. "The boys at the top don't want this mis'ble war't end. You know I'm right. If'n they did, shit, with all our firepower, we could bomb the north into the ground...into the damned ground! Two weeks...two weeks, thass all it'd take, maybe less, 'fore ol' Ho Chi Minh pulled his raunchy butt to attention and said, ‘Let's talk ‘bout this,’ and there would be no more war."

     "The boyz in the hood could do a better job negotiatin' for turf than what them Pentagon mothahs are doing," Nigel nodded.

     "Demilitarized zone...what honky's idea was that?" said Shoot, as he spat some chew.

     Ottel leaned forward, "Yah, instead of playing patty cake and musical chairs with Charlie here in the woods, we could march right up to Father Ho's front door, and give him a party he wouldn't soon forget."

     Egg had been laying down listening, but rose on one elbow. "Make the bombs a little bit bigger...we have'm, use'm. Make ol' Daddy Ho put up or shut up."

     "I'll lay odds on what it'll be," Ottel declared. "I've had my belly full of taking meaningless hills, watching my buddies bleed and die for them, holding the hill a few days till the killing dies down, then leaving it like it don't mean nothing. Then a month or so later, we have to come back and take it again. What does it all mean?"

     "Even my high school football coach knows you don't play the other fellow's game," Georgia said. "That's what we're doing here, playing Charlie's game. He has the home field advantage, and we're playing by his rules, on his field. We've gotta take that away from him...we gotta take the fight to him...or we don't have a chance."

     "Chit, I think the twinks 'r' startin' to understan'."

     I looked at Ottel and laughed. "Where did you learn to bad-mouth the war so quick? I thought you newbies would likely have just kept your ears open for a day or two, rather than start off bitching about everything your first five minutes?"

     Georgia smiled. "When you train under Vietnam veteran drill sergeants that cuss the Nam almost every learn the lingo pretty damned quick. This war's been going on too long...people that have been back here for two or three tours, they talk about it. They know what's going on."

     "I suppose they do," said Ottel. "But if you want to live to bitch about it when you get back home, you better respect your strengths, know them, and use them...and try best you can not to think about the way it all went wrong."

     Nigel shook his head. "But, we gonna do that? Hell no!"

     "What makes you think the generals want to end this 'cash cow' war?" Ottel asked. "The corporations are happy as Guernsey cows in red clover at the chance of a long, drawn-out ground war, and the military lifers like it because they can hone their skills taught at the Academy, becoming better tin soldiers."

     "Some people just like to kill," Shoot deadpanned.

     "It's pathetic," I frowned; surprised no one had taken exception to Shoot's statement. I didn't see myself as a killer...yet. "The Pentagon isn't anything but a boys' clubhouse for the generals and politicians to plan war strategically, to send us to fight and blow up rice paddies and empty tunnels... Hell, why don’t they ask the grunts? Grunts have a stake in ending this war quick."

     "Just shoot all peasants in black pajamas," Shoot grinned.

     "If a few grunts die along the way," Ottel scowled, "those are acceptable odds, the way the rule-makers figure. I'm mad at the pretentious powers that draw little lines in the sand, that make war seem like a game. They draw boundaries called 'demilitarized zones,' that make it off limits for us to cross to end this damned war. What if we do cross? Is it a foul? Do we get suspended; get a yellow card, or what? And you don't see the demilitarized zone stopping the NVA trooping down here none..."

     "I'm mad at the officials back home, our ‘friends and neighbors,’ sending us on these crusades to right what somebody in Washington seen as wrong," I said, sticking my M-16 into the air like a sword. "This war’s senseless. Somebody should have known. Somebody should get us the hell out of here before...”

     Nigel shrugged. “Keep fuckin’ dreamin’.”

     “They won’t do that,” Ottel said, “Governments still got folks back home convinced we’re fighting for freedom.”

     “Christ!” Nigel said with a deadpanned, expressionless face.

     I stared at the dusty red ground, turning over a rock with my toe. “They have us tramp through klicks of back-country, weighed down like bloody pack mules. People are shooting at us, trying to kill us with a dedication you got to admire, especially considering the big advantage we got with air power, artillery and resupply. They hide things that explode and hurt and maim and kill at every turn. The big-wigs fly over us sweating below them, just wanting higher body-counts, so see nothing below them but expendable pawns in strategical maneuver, moving us around like markers on a war board.”

     “Look at the South Vietnamese government,” Ottel said. “The black market, rigged elections, dope dealing, power grabs….they’re about as corrupt as the Mafia back home.”

     “You mean they done been Americanized,” Egg said.

     I picked up the rock I’d been pushing around, and threw it as far as I could. “My draft notice said I’d been called by ‘Your friends and neighbors.’ They're the ones who put my friends in body bags. The generals and politicians are all about glory and numbers, and our families back home just have no idea!"

     Egg smiled. “A man came up to me before I shipped out. He said it’s a good thing we’re doing, fighting them over there, rather than fighting them on Main Street, America…said we were doing God’s work.”

     “They just have no idea,” I repeated.

     “You know, I'm sick of their games with my life," Nigel said. "We all been conned. Christ...should'a gone to fuckin’ Canada!”

     “If you were smart," Ottel laughed, "but nobody ever accused grunts of being smart."

     “That's why we're grunts!" Egg declared.

     “Most of all, we ought'a be mad for falling for the hustle," Nigel said shaking his head. "We all been had...but here ya are, so what ya gonna do?"

     "Just make the best of it," I said. "Just make the best of it...and hope to God you survive long enough to get back to 'the world.' But none of us will ever be the same. We’re already different, changed from the man we would be if it weren’t for this damned senseless war. They even got a name for it, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In the last war they called it ‘Shell shock.’ But what ya gonna do? I mean, what the hell you gonna do? It’s only a question of dimensions how much you change. You want your damned PTSD regular, filter tipped, or king- sized? It’s all up to the man."