I awoke violently, as a series of rumbling booms raced confusingly through still lingering dreams, and ear-splitting sounds like artillery explosions lit up the dreary night, lightning and thunder crashing and flashing in a luminous display. I didn't know what was real and what was nightmare, as I scrambled into my fighting hole with the rest of my squad, shocked by violent sounds of battle on every side. I felt ice-water flaring in my veins, as I struggled to make sense of the bedlam, to get it together, set to hold off the overrunning VC, steeling myself for a full-blown main force attack.
I couldn’t see anything in the darkness, so responded to the gunfire from hell I could only hear, firing at shadowy figures I saw moving out there as the flares lit up the jungle night, but I wasn't alone. The whole detachment was firing rapidly from all over, and all at once. I winced from the booming, thunderous sounds of VC satchel charges, which must have been thrown into the compound's ammunition cache. But after a few minutes of blazing demolition that turned the jungle night into day, the firing gradually stopped. Where was Charlie? Indeed, where was his attacking force that made my blood run cold?
Fully awake now, I appreciated Mother Nature’s fireworks display as I shivered in my foxhole. I had to sheepishly admit I had reacted to nothing more than her crackling night sky, charged with her electricity...her awesome firepower. But I wasn’t alone! Thunderous blasts rocked raucously through a darkness seeming to dance with shimmering light, again and again. Sudden flashing lights filled our sight; heart-stopping sound exploded in our ears, triggering gut-wrenching instinctual responses to combat. Nature’s blasts cut my raw nerves to the quick, running like cold steel barbs down my paltry infantry spine. Time and time again, I threw myself sloshing into the muddy ground. I cursed the knife-edge instincts with my brothers, high-strung, tense, and tuned to a fine edge of self-preservation by wearying battle. Thunderclap after thunderclap fired jagged shards that impaled our tired hearts every few seconds, firing automatic reactions that hurled us into the mud and water rapidly filling our foxhole.
As one, we swore at the cosmic firefight in the heavens; swore when provoked hair trigger fingers nervously sent bursts of M-16 fire into the maelstrom in answer to blazing lightning shafts and ominous thunder. Water that came down in angry, raging waves from a hateful sky, finally succeeded in driving us out of our foxholes for good. We looked for the high ground, as sheets of water made swimming pools out of our fighting holes. We felt naked and exposed, abandoning our foxholes' cover, shivering in the mud. Suddenly cold wind and rain drenched us like drowned rats, its wet and breezy fingers rifling our loose jungle fatigues...fatigues designed to protect from the jungle's heat, not cold wind and rain. I couldn’t even find my poncho.
I wonder what it would be like to die on such a night. I sure couldn’t get much lower. I wanted to get away. I didn’t want to fight...”God, I hope we don’t have to fight in this!” I muttered. Would Charlie come out to play in the rain, or should we all just pack up and go home? But where was home? The closest thing to it was now filed with water. My very orientation had been skewed by the sudden emergence of water everywhere. Nothing looked the same! Nothing felt the same! “God, get me out of this," I cried.
With the first light of day out of the east off the South China Sea, we slowly started moving around. Everything was wet, muddy and cold, including our spirits. Everybody felt about as low as a fish belly in the bottom of a well. Then a far-off small voice from the other side of the perimeter, squeaky, frail, distant, drifted gently on the morning air, "Good morning Vietnam!"
The monsoons had come. And they had come with a vengeance, suddenly and with a passion! Long months of thirst and drought during Vietnam's dry season had left the earth dry and parched. The grass was burned brown, helped by Uncle Sam and his operation called, "Ranch Hand," distributing Agent Orange. Even most of the rice paddies were dry, cracked and caking, baking under the Vietnamese sun.
After a particularly violent thunderclap sent me again diving to hit the dirt...dirt by this time rendered a soupy mud...I stood back up, tall as I faced the rain dripping down my chin. Inside me boiled a mixed rage, coupled with a morbid humor. Wet and muddy fatigues clung to my skinny body. My wet hair stood straight on end like a troll. My nerves popped like popcorn, and I was shivering! I spread my arms to the heavens. "And lo the Bible says, 'The rains came down, and covered the whole earth...and we were sore afraid.'"
"Better sit down," said Georgia, huddled behind a big rock that didn't give much more than the vaguest idea of shelter. "Somebody up there might decide to throw a lightning bolt down your hip pocket that blows up your shorts."
"Sit down,” laughed Autrey, “or some Charlie just swimming by might zap your sorry white bread ass...give you the true meaning of besieged, mothah. Don't you be lett'n your raggedy self draw no fire...not when I could get kilt in the crossfire."
"There ain't no Charlies out there," Chilcutt snorted. "Hell, they all done gone home with their warm mamasans. But if Charlie did shoot at you Jacob, I pray he'd be a good shot. It'd be just my luck Charlie would miss you altogether, and hit me."
Sanchez sneezed, "Now that would be a fuckin' shame. It surely would. But Charlie ain't as dumb as some people I know...don't wanna mention no names, but hunker down, Jacob!"
"I wouldn't mind finding cover under a tree...if there were a tree," Cutt looked longingly down the hill from the bare knob that had been defoliated and cleared by the Army.
"I think I'm unprepared for nature's 'weather war' from the skies," I said, feeling the understatement as I pulled my poncho liner tighter, for all the good it did, heavy and soaked with rain.
"When it comes to making war," Georgia shuffled around looking for someplace dry, "Mother Nature invented the game. She don't take a back seat to nobody. First she clubs you senseless with cold, driving, soaking rain that leaves you pathetic and freezing. Then she throws giant spears of fire that'll toast you like a large order of French-fries. Then the ol' gal tops it all off with thunder that'll leave what nerves you got left screaming."
"Bet Trenery's roughing it," Pathway motioned back to the tent in the middle of the perimeter. "Hope he doesn’t get ‘is socks wet."
"I don't think it's fair," Abercrombie sneezed, huddled up tight in his poncho liner beside an anthill, "his being toasty and warm while we're out here freezing in this slop."
"You want fair,” Autrey said, “go tell Trenerey you want to share his nice warm tent. I’m just sure he’d oblige ya, Turtle; he’s such a reasonable man. Give him a suggestion slip, you RA mothah...I'm sure he has a suggestion box right outside his tent, just for uncomfortable grunts like you."
Pathway shrugged. "Yeah...I'd wager he's just aching to help us be all we can be."
Turtle stretched out his long neck over the mound to look back at the tent set up beside the artillery tent in the center of the compound. "Think we ought to pay Trenery a visit...give him a dose of that understanding he's always talking about? He's always saying he wants to get closer to his men...now's his chance."
"Yeah, go right ahead," Pathway growled.
"That's just on sunny days, Turtle," Autrey cleared his throat. "When it's wet outside he wants us to keep far away...specially you!"
"In your case, Turtle, downwind will be just fine," Cutt said holding his nose. "You smell like a wet sheepdog."
"An I suppose you don't," Turtle whined.
"We wouldn't want our poor little Turtle should suffer," Sanchez threw a mud clod that bounced off Turtle's poncho liner, just as Mulenburg came up and caught the splatter.
"Abercrombie...get that rifle undercover. It already be so wet'n muddy, so that if Charlie waltzed up right now, you'd have nothin' more'n a billy club to greet 'im with."
"I didn't know Charlie could waltz, Sarge," I said, wiping water out of my eye. "If I had known that, I would have invited him to our next hop."
"He's coming for tea anyway," Georgia croaked, "he might as well stay for the dance."
"Oh yes, Mr. Moline,” I said, “let's do invite him to the dance."
"By all means, Mr. Fredericks. He can check his black pajamas at the door with his AK-47."
"He can go skinny-dipping after the dance in the nice pool we dug for him, Mr. Moline," I said, and plunked a rock into the overflowing foxhole.
Muley didn't see the humor in it at all. "Fredericks, Moline, you two be buckin' fer Section Eights? You're 'bout crazy enough to win the free ride home."
"Don't mind if I do, Sarge," Georgia said. "Take me ten seconds to pack, and I'm ready to go. When we leave?"
"Count me out Sarge," I growled, with a preposterous grin on my face. "I love the blood and guts! I love the feel of it in my teeth, especially the crunchy bone and flesh. I love killing babies and pregnant mamasans. I love this war! I don't wanna go. Don’t make me go! Say, you want I should go out and conduct a search and destroy mission now...I'm ready! Just say the word.”
"Pack smack," Georgia laughed half-heartedly, "I'm ready to go right now. Jacob can take care of the war here well enough. You think they can get me a chopper through in this mess?"
"You damned jokers. You're too damned crazy to go home." The pride of Dreamlight, Arkansas chuckled, muttering to himself as he splashed through the mud to the next foxhole down the line, wagging his head with his mouth wide open in a bucktoothed grin that Ottel had said stuck out so far his feet didn't get wet. But his eyes gave him away. He wasn't altogether sure if we were joking, or really honest-to-god, certifiably crazy. The war had that effect on some.
The rain was coming down steady when he returned in a few minutes with a surly-looking, pock-faced GI who seemed to have a permanent scowl on his face. He had an ugly-looking scar the size of a silver dollar that mottled the white flesh of his cheek an angry purple, and a jagged piece of a tooth stuck between his lips at an odd angle. "Looks like he caught a round through his face and gargled it before spitting it out," Autrey joked dryly aside.
"Reminds me more of a big, muscle-bound bulldog," Cutt said, shivering involuntarily. An awkwardness in the silence followed, caused more by an uneasiness in his throat than by the cold wet, when he saw the man's muscles flex tensely, still rippling underneath his soaked and clinging fatigues. His rifle was wrapped in green tape with the words "Cong Killer," inscribed on it.
"I heard that, punk. Don't mess with the man. I'll drown your mangy butt in your foxpit like a sack of polecat kits. I'm a short-timer with only a few weeks more in this screwed up SNAFU bullshit before I head back for 'the world,' so don't need none of your enlightened crap."
"This here be Mike Bartalow. He been in hospital in Yokohama fer six months. Don't know why they sent 'im t’us...should've been on 'is way home ta his fam'ly, but somebody done snafu'd big-time, so they send 'im to us. Now he's ours until his TOD. You girls make 'im feel t'home now," Muley said, but I saw the look as he wheeled and headed back, and heard him mumble as he went by, almost like he was afraid to stay longer. "Prob'ly shouldn’t unleash him on my girls like ‘at. They ain't ready for that shit. Hell, ain't nobody ready for that shit."
"Welcome to the squad, Mike," I extended my hand.
Bartalow scowled at it, staring like he was going to bite it. "Ah'm not looking for friends," he growled, "so just leave me be. Let me do my time in peace. That goes for all'a ya...you just let me be. And I'll let you be."
"Ain't he a ray of sunshine," Autrey whispered.
"You see any sunshine in hell, boy? Don't flap your damned jaws at me or I'll send you there looking." Bart took a step towards Autrey, then stopped still, deadly still, shaking like something was wrestling with him. Bartalow kept clenching and unclenching his fists and breathing hard, seeming to know if he took another step it would be into hell. His head was a battleground. The voices living inside screamed to grind Autrey’s black, smiling face into the ground. He covered his ears to muffle the screeching voices, pushing back the blood-red rage covering his eyes, but still he saw the eerie faces covered by red shrouds of death...laughing, cackling, demonic faces. He knew once they covered his senses like a red blanket; Autrey's face would smile no more.
His face was contorted in rage, as he fought demons inside that no one could see. "Y'got to understand, I can't help myself. Blind anger takes control of me from time-to-time, and I'm powerless to stop it. I just want to smash whatever's near...whatever's causing me torment. It comes with incredibly sudden swiftness, and when it comes, it gives me the strength of ten men. The demons in me often leave those who cross me just short of death before I can be pulled off. I see haunting faces I've pounded into oblivion paraded in ghostly military review, every one, every night, along with friends I've seen die and enemies I killed. They used to come only when I was tired, usually at night, floating by in my memory, keeping me awake. But now they come any damned time, and I don't have anything to do with it. The faces incite a rage in me, like a firestorm. I haven't killed anybody on our side... yet! But I know in my heart it's only a matter of luck and time before I can no longer control the rages."
Nobody here means you any harm, “I said.
"Like hell they don’t. O I hear you. I here every word you're filthy little mouth's be sayin', thanks to that present the gooks shot up my haid with. I know what you think of me. The jagged metal rattled around in my jaw for a spell, till the medics in Da Nang pulled out the spent round, but I can still feel it there. It jars my nerves somethin' fierce…still. It makes my hearing more intense, and every time you say something stupid, it rattles like a buzz saw in my haid. I can hear what you're thinking about me now. I know what you're gonna say before you say it. I feel it like an explosion, and I lose control. I got it handled now, but hear me…and hear me good! You don't eee-ven wanna mess with me! I can't stand it, boy, and I will stop it. So you best watch yourself. Be still! Don't rile me! You don't wanna see me mad. Trust me…you don't wanna see that."
"Fright Mike," Pathway mumbled.
"Bad Bart," Georgia whispered.
"I don't want none of your damned nicknames," Bad Bart whirled with sudden fury, glaring with pure, pent-up evil at the two. "I'm just this short, see," he said, holding up two fingers close. "And I don't need none of you damned screw-ups messing with me. Fair warning," he snarled, "anybody gives me even a hint of trouble that'll keep me from the date with that stateside plane...anybody even looks at me wrong, and by God I'll put a bullet between his sorry eyes. All'a you won't make me no difference. I'll just say it were Charlie. Believe it! It will happen," Bart’s voice snapped coldly. "So don't try your luck!"
None of us doubted he could. And none of us doubted he would. He would kill us with very little provocation. Bart was a real product of this war. He’s what the pentagon wanted us to be.
We thought we would be here holding off the storm for awhile, sitting tight, or flown back to Betty when the choppers could come in through a break -- but again we thought wrong. When the rain stopped in the afternoon, and the clouds lightened up just a bit, Lieutenant Riddick and Mulenburg came over. Muley had a guilty look.
"Captain Trenery wants a goat set up down in the valley," Riddick said. "We tried to talk him out of it, but...Fredericks, Moline, Chilcutt, Autrey, Bartalow...no, Bartalow, you stay here," he said when he saw the hard lines of Bartalow's lips, his eyes embers with a look that could kill. One look made him as quickly pass. He knew we didn't want Bartalow with us for good reason. He'd only hold us up when we had to move fast to get set up before dark. And he also knew, as sure as he sent Bartalow with us, somebody would die. And he couldn't send Abercrombie, because he couldn't, or wouldn't stop complaining, and he couldn't, or wouldn't stay awake to stand guard. No, if Abercrombie went he was as likely to get shot by his own men as by the VC, or he might get them all killed. "Hathaway, you and Gutierrez saddle up...you're goin' with Fredericks, Moline, Chilcutt and Autrey for a ride."
None of us complained about Bartolow being let off. We had enough to worry about with Charlie breathing down our necks, without having to watch our backs and fret about him too. And we were glad Riddick didn't make us baby-sit Turtle. But we didn't like having to go, as we humped into the tree line already locked and loaded, nerves on edge...not one little bit did we like it. We didn't feel right about it at all...but of course, when did we ever.
"No use fighting it," Cutt frowned, calling back as he led the way into the jungle down the hill at point. "It wasn't Riddick's call. SNAFU Trenery made the call."
Just then a tree limb popped back into my face when Cutt pushed it aside, spraying me with pockets of water from a hundred leaves where it had been stored, I supposed waiting for just such an occasion.
Georgia held back until the tree limb was again stable before pushing it aside with a thrust of his M-16. "Christian, God-fearing, screw-loose Trenery...bless him. He's the bastard that felt the need to send us out where angels fear to tread."
"Didn't want us sitting around too comfortable in our mud holes," I said, "and we are but emissaries of his will, carrying the message of war to the unsaved in the valley who have not yet heard its message."
"Emissaries...chit," Gutcheck rumbled, stepping over a fallen tree, carefully avoiding the punji stake hidden there. "Message...Chit!"
"Ain't no VC with an ounce of smarts gonna be down there when we get there," Autrey complained, "wherever there is. Trenery just wants to screw us, and screw us good."
Georgia's foot went out from under him as he stepped on a rock that lost its hold on the muddy hill. He fell hard and came up with grass and mud in his teeth. "He's just like all officers," he muttered. "Trenery don't like us sittin' on our butts...even in this slop."
"He wants to prosecute this war," I said. "We're his pawns."
Autrey nodded, then slipped. His knees and rifle butt were covered with slimy, black mud and grass. He tried to wipe it off with a big jungle leaf. "Least if we're away from the mothah...he cain't SNAFU us no mo...not tonight."
"Damn pawns," Hathaway growled as he slipped to a knee again and his rifle went up in the air. But he caught himself at the last second. "Jacob's right! We ain't nuthin' but damn pawns! When I get back to the world I ain't gonna be no mothah's pawn no more."
The rain hadn't hit as hard in the valley, only hard enough to settle the dust. We set up our ambush on a trail where we saw telltale signs of tire-track sandals leading from a small creek bed through a rice paddy. This is a killing zone," Cutt warned. "Shoot anything that moves."
"This here be the junction of Charlie Lane and Main Street Congville," Autrey nodded.
"I don't suppose there are any friendlies out here," Pathway agreed as he aimed the claymore at the muddy trail between us and the trip flare's piano wire stretched between reeds on either side. "At least they won't be friendly once they meet up with us and see our brand of welcoming. They come down this trail, they're dead meat."
"Must be VC supply runners," Autrey said, as he crouched in the trail, fingering a tire tread foot impression.
Then we had nothing to do but sit back and wait for the little marauders in the black pajamas. Darkness fell, and buckets of water fell with it.
By morning our rice paddy was a small lake with a foot of water in it. We had found a high spot, huddled up on an old grave mound next to our prone fighting hole. It was an island in a sea of mud. We looked like pictures we'd seen of flood victims stranded drenched on their rooftops. Our poncho liner bedding, packs and combat gear were soaked and muddied by silt and the constant hard rain.
"Better dee-dee-mau up that hill before some 'crazy to be out in weather like this' VC puts us out of our misery," I said shivering.
"Hope we don't meet Charlie," said Georgia. "After a solid ten-hour rain our rifles are screwed. I doubt they're anything more than rusty water pistols at this point. I'd fall over dead with surprise if I shot it and it went off."
"Just hold on to your rusty ass club," Autrey said through the drizzle, "thass all we've got. We see any VC now, it's hand-to-hand....so be ready."
"I didn't come over here to dance," Pathway growled.
"Or to drown either," I said. "Let’s get the hell out."
"Chit, let's dee-dee back up that hill to the guys."
"Don't think we'll be seeing any Charlies," Georgia said, as I picked up the trip flare and he got the claymore. "Charlie has more sense than to go out in weather like this."
"I'm with you...screw this," Cutt stepped off into the water of the rice paddy, both hands holding his M-16 high over his head. "I don't mind getting my feet wet and catching cold, but this's stupid."
"I'm too pretty to die," Autrey moaned.
"Pretty," Georgia splashed in, "let'm get in line. Could be a whole platoon in that fog up there, and nobody would know it."
"I think I'd catch on when the bullets start tickling my ribs," I said.
"This's Charlie weather," Cutt replied again, pulling himself up on the dike. "He sneaks in, cuts a few throats, does whatever harm he will, then dee-dee-maus."
"We can't move in this," I said, "that's for sure. We're moving like water buffaloes...carry too much garbage."
"Bet Charlie don't have no trouble movin' in this," Georgia scowled. "He's a water bug all right, skimming on the surface while GI Joe's up to his ass in mud."
As we were heading up the valley looking for the trail up the hill, remembering how we'd slipped down and wondering how we'd make it up, a burst of gunfire went singing by our ears and put us on the ground.
"Hold your fire, hold your fire...I think they're Americans," somebody from up ahead said.
"Americans! What's the damned password?"
"Advance and be recognized."
"What the hell they doing out there?" another voice said, then directed to us, "Who the hell are you?"
"Bravo Company, 2nd of the 7th, First Cav. Who are you?"
"Charlie Company...lucky you weren't shot. Come on in."
"Didn't expect friendlies out here," Autrey drawled, "but it do sound like you're Americans."
"Yeah, we're Americans," a voice laughed. "No self-respecting dink would let himself get caught out in this."
"You're Captain Trenery's boys aren't you?" an NCO barked. "What the hell you doing here? Trenery's on Lucky Strike."
"He is, but we ain't. He sent us out on ambush patrol," I said.
"Goats, huh. Company C's supposed to relieve him up there, but we're waiting for the trail to dry off a little before we pull up. We got him on the horn...told him our position."
"Well he forgot to tell us," I said.
"Didn't tell us about you either, but he should have," the NCO said as he motioned towards a couple of cans of C-rations. "Came pretty close to killing you. Chow's on, care to dine with us?
"Remind me to say thanks," Autrey beamed.
"Name's Sergeant Michael Konwhickie...you can call me Sarge," he said, with a grin that melted our hesitation. He turned to a trooper lying under a lean-to beside the fire, "Go tell the captain about our guests...suggest that he get on the horn to Captain Trenery and tell him what we found wandering around in the jungle...his lost Boy Scouts. Suggest politely that next time he keep a better leash on his boys."
"Wouldn't want him to worry, right?" I said.
"Right! Mind you I'm just a lowly sergeant in this man's Army, but he ought to worry a little more...needs to worry a little more. Have some coffee?"
We sat down by the fire, and I must admit, it sure felt good, and soon we're swapping yarns. He told us how he'd fought in Vietnam for two countries against two enemies.
"How so?" I asked.
"I'll tell you how so," Konwhickie said. "I was with the French Foreign Legion during the Indochina War in '45, fighting the Viet Minh at Tay Ninh, over near the Cambodian border. I fought off'n on till an old shrapnel wound I got from a German tank in 1941 in Poland started acting up.
"You're kidding! Man, you been fighting as long as the gooks," I said, but Sarge didn't say anything. "What's the biggest difference in this go-round with us and the Vietcong, and the French fighting the Viet Minh?"
He answered quickly, as though he had been asked this very question many times before. "The Vietcong are more afraid of the Americans than the Viet Minh were of the French. The Viet Minh just thought the French were an itch under their blanket they couldn't scratch."
"What'd I tell ya...we're bad." Autrey and Pathway high-fived.
"Also, the Vietnamese help the American soldier far more than they ever helped the French. Don't seem as afraid of the Vietcong as they were of the Viet Minh. The Viet Minh controlled the country, except for corridors along the major roads the French held open. They'd openly stand and fight, where the VC hit and run."
"I know that," Autrey boomed. "They know who's the meanest son of a..."
"One of the big reasons the Viet Minh stood toe to toe with the French," Konwhickie continued, "is the French didn't have the artillery, tanks and air support we do. The French couldn't move like we can today, what with our air mobility. Lack of firepower's the main reason the French didn't go on large-scale operations, and resupply and reinforcements were difficult to downright bad."
"Hell," I laughed, "now if we run low on ammunition, all we gotta do is get on the horn and ask for it."
Pathway gulped down his second cup of java. "I guess there weren't automatic weapons then either?"
"Wasn't exactly the Dark Ages," the sergeant said with eyes twinkling over his cup of coffee. "We had machine guns. We had automatic carbines, and the Viet Minh were only armed with spears, knives, bows and arrows, stuff like that. We had superior firepower, but our big problems were malaria, and a score of other diseases."
We spent the night with C Company. The next morning we hiked up the hill to Lucky Strike in their wake, and the choppers picked us up and dropped us back home on Betty. "No mo worry about mothah Charlie," Autrey laughed. "The little mothah's got more sense than to be out in weather like this."