The boxy, whitewashed stucco with the heavily shuttered windows looked like a fortress. Tien answered the door when I knocked. Her dimpled cheeks in a golden-bronzed, velvet face held a bright, attentive, disarming grin as she said musically, "GI...come in, long time no see. You one they call Jacob, yes?"
I stammered that I was indeed Jacob, Cutt’s friend, and the girl saw I was ill at ease. She signaled me towards a table where she poured out two Cokes in big, ceramic mugs. She produced ice cubes from somewhere and plopped them into the drinks, then leaned back in her rattan chair, watching me appraisingly out of the corner of her eye. "What you know?" she said softly, with a disarming smile.
Tien was always smiling, but the words I rehearsed over and over came hard, and stuck in my throat. I just stared at the ice cubes, mesmerized by them. Ice was so rare over here, and only the more influential homes have it. Then I looked up to Tien. Her hair was a lustrous jet-black, as an ebony sable cascading around her shoulders from a thick pile on her head. It flowed, shining with the luster of fine silk, playing coyly with the lights in the room each time Tien turned her head. Knowing the effect of it, Tien appeared to send the gentle coils of rich fullness bouncing to attract the shimmering light...to attract me. Her almond-shaped eyes were of a pleasing deep reddish-brown, with darkly mysterious mahogany edges hinting of secrets held there in calm repose. The eyes slanted down to perfect ivory teeth that by their brilliant contrast drew your eyes like a magnet to the target at the center of her universe, her vivacious, sensuously charming mouth, pursed ever so coyly with a flirtatious yet modest suppleness.
She wore a silky pants suit, navy-blue with white dots. It had a high, stiff collar surrounding her delicate neck, but it was short-sleeved, light and loosely blousing, seductively catching stray breezes moving randomly through the house. I wondered at it, was captured by it, so casually comfortable, but elegant and charming at the same time. It hung about her, unconfined and free, bespeaking of charms that were lying in wait inside shimmering folds. Seeing her this close, without the barbed wire between us to separate us, made it difficult to remember why I was here.
Somebody in the other room turned on a radio, and the wickerwork chair creaked as lovely Tien moved softly to an alien, singsong beat. She faintly swayed in the half-light, ignoring the flies buzzing around an overhead fan, stirring the breezes coming in off an open patio from the South China Sea. I was entranced by her movement, finding it bringing to bear a hypnotizing influence over me that fast eroded my will to stay at a distance, as I imagined the treasures swaying under her loose garment.
I closed my eyes and I was there. We were moving together in harmony, swinging back and forth, back and forth. Though it was a pleasant day, I found my breathing short and rough, but she seemed content to wait for me to catch my breath. A coquettish smile lingered ever so faintly on her lips, and I had to look away or lose it.
"Your home is nice and comfortable, Tien," I said, at once angry at myself for such a moronic comment. I was acting like a bashful schoolboy.
"Yes, we find it very nice," her voice shimmered like a mountain brook flowing gently out of the mountains above my home back in 'the world.' At once I was taken back, so far and away, again by that brook, sunbeams playing gently on the waters rippling over the rocks. Big mountain trout swam in the cold, dark pools like burnished chestnuts, as I sat under the shade of a giant spruce.
Suddenly I was staring into her eyes. I pulled away uncomfortably, but something I had seen there pulled me back, inviting me to bathe in their depths, to feel the clear coolness of her against my hot skin, to make the war go away...but again I looked away. For Cutt I looked away.
"You have been away from home a long time, yes?" she asked sweetly, cooing with the softness of a mourning dove, and I suddenly felt the wetness in my eyes. "Yes, a long time...a very long time." It had been a long time since I felt this much at ease sitting in a girl's parlor sipping Cokes. It was a long time since I had felt this right, this much at home. Home was so far away, but Tien was so near. Her tender smile melted the miles.
"You have not been with a girl in a long time, have you?" she asked. Her voice soothed my soul like gentle, massaging rains, bringing life to a parched land. "You are lonely, yes," she said melodically, ever so gently, as the gentle rains pattering against my senses became as a flood battering against my aching resistance.
She cupped my hands in hers then, pulling them to her heart. The sheer tunic was little more than a vapor, for I could feel her soft, supple body curves skin-close, bringing appetites I didn't want to get. But I lingered there. I didn't move, her sweetness dissolving my pain. I cupped my hands around hers, caressing them, as she leaned closer. I felt the rhythm of her heart quicken, joining with mine, surging through our two bodies in harmonious rhythm.
Suddenly as I looked down on her, I felt myself caving in...craving her...craving, I think, a release from this war. As my will collapsed, beaten and battered, my hot, searing brain burned with desire. It was more than physical. It was a very spiritually defining moment as our souls communed. There was only her. I could think only of her. She was my world. She was my everything!
I felt her coming nearer, but did not move. I envisioned the touching of our lips, though she was inches away, felt myself coming nearer, felt the release of her garments shielding her surrendered heart, felt the anticipation swelling inside. She gave herself to my arms, as my trembling eyes traced a line down her soft, smooth, velvety skin deep into her supple fullness. My probing lips found hers, willing and moist.
I drank from the fount of her, till suddenly I saw Cutt in her eyes. I pulled away, silently, quickly, cursing the apparition that doused my rapture like a cold shower. "I'm sorry," I stammered, "but I can't...I can't, not now."
"You not want me, GI?" she said, hurt mingled with desire so strong in her face that I almost lost it again. "You not like Tien? You not want love me?"
"Oh, I like you Tien, believe me, I like you. I can't remember ever wanting anything so much. I want to love you and hold you close until this damned war goes away, but I can't...I can't. Cutt...Pete Chilcutt, he loved you. He loved you so much. Couldn't talk of anything else but you, and taking you home with him. The reason I came here...was to tell you he was killed on our last patrol. I thought you ought to know."
"I know," she said sadly and looked away, but not before I saw a tear in her eye. I didn't dare ask how she knew. "He number one GI. He say he come for me...say he take me to Texas, love only me...but now he gone. Too many good people gone," she cried as she ran from the room. I bowed my head, picked up my helmet from the table and my M-16, shaking my head for what might have been, still not believing I was walking away from it...from Tien. But Cutt was still there. He looked more peaceful somehow. I paused at the door, hesitating, knowing that the war waited outside and I did not want to go back into it again. I wanted so much to run to Tien, to lose myself in her arms, to have her make the hurt go away.
I turned back for one last look at the door through which Tien had fled. Feeling cheerless and pathetic, I sighed, then turned the handle and took a step outside. "You come again, GI...Jacob," I heard her say from the doorway. "You number one fella... We forget about this damned war together. I make you forget...you come."
That night as I looked up at the stars back at LZ Betty, all I could see were the lights in Tien's shiny, black hair, the lights in her almond eyes. I looked at the stars, remembering how I used to look at them before the war had changed everything, wondering if someone back in the world was looking up at those same stars and thinking of me. The world was so far away, so very far away, but Tien was not. I remembered the promise of her and she was in my dreams that night -- this time I did not pull away.
The next day we were assembled on the landing zone on call, while the "eye in the sky" choppers were out somewhere looking for a place for us to assault. While they were out looking for an enemy for us to engage, the morning was already humid and hot. We sweated as we waited on the black tarmac, the black and green chalk camouflage on our faces held out beads of perspiration that the pores would not let in, coursing in dark rivulets down our necks and into our wet fatigues.
Some men were playing poker. Some were lying on the hot tarmac with a sandbag for a pillow, ignoring the heat, pretending to be asleep. Some were just standing looking at the sky, shoulder harnesses and packs on and M-16's cradled in the crooks of their arms, as if they had somewhere to go, but couldn't leave until their ride came.
Pathway was leaning on his pack reading a letter. He stood, crumpling the paper into a tight ball in his fist, hurt and anger flashing in his eyes, and threw the paper wad as far as he could. When he saw me, he angrily exploded, "God, I wish I was there. I wish I could talk to her...talk some sense into her. Dammit, Jacob, that was a Dear John letter...I guess. Annie says she doesn't like hearing from me so much anymore. Says every time she hears from me it's a bummer. She doesn't like me talking about the war so much, and friends dying...says it makes her feel bad, so she just doesn't want to hear about it anymore. Hell, Jacob, what else am I supposed to talk about? Says to look her up when I get back...if, I don't talk about Vietnam. Hell!" He walked to the edge of the tarmac, where he stood looking at the South China Sea, a sad and confused hulk, his fists clenched in a hard ball.
I followed his gaze out to sea, watching as the powerful waves pounded the shore. Brenda too had quit writing. Only an occasional letter from my mother let me know anyone cared. I found myself looking back in the direction of Phan Thiet, though I couldn't see it through the maze of helicopters and the artillery emplacements...but I could see her. I could see Tien as clearly as if I were inches away, though I was good as a thousand miles away.
That single moment when I relinquished all that made Tien and I individual, our souls merging into one being...one mind...one essence, hung like a hard, inflamed walnut in my heart. It was both an aching hurt and a lasting sweetness at the same time. For that one instant there had been no war. I could forget it in the natural act of a boy courting a girl, and I longed for such release again. It was such a simple act, the act of love...completely devoid of the hate that had been my diet for far too long. When I was with Tien, there were no threats of death hanging in the air like a stench I couldn't escape. There was only life...and love. There was only Tien. Yet in that moment, I knew I would never see her again!
Then the choppers started to whine, blades whirling to life, whump, whump, whump. "Here we go," someone yelled.
"Saddle up girls, let's go, go, go, go!" yelled Sergeant Mulenburg, pumping his fists. "Got a hot date with Mr. Charlie Cong."
The Huey's hovered in formation over the ground, filled with “boys next door” climbing aboard even before the choppers could touch down, then lifting off and away into the sky, soaring above the town and the hooches, and the villagers in their rice fields. The choppers angled away, over the coastal lowlands ringing by the South China Sea, over the killing ground of blood and tears to the Central Highlands rising in the distance like mists...away from Tien.
We seemed so far removed from the earth now, lost amid the noise and confusion, each again silent in the ritual of our thoughts, as if the skies were a surreal escape, but knowing all too soon we would be down in the thick of it. Each of us sat as unmoving blocks of stone. Each of us were fighting our own battles, psyching ourselves up for the hectic moment we knew was fated to be, preparing ourselves for the next few minutes...moments that could determine whether we lived to fight another day...or died. Who knew whether it would be into hell's frying pan of a hot LZ we jumped, or just another green field that marked the beginning of another long humping patrol. We had to be prepared for whatever was there. Somebody must know, but grunts don't know. We don't need to know. Ours was but to do or...
I stared at the other choppers in formation alongside, gazing into the faces of men I didn't know, replacements I didn't want to know, and saw them looking back. I saw some fear there in the twinks, some hatred, some anger, but mostly impassive, emotionless, blank stares numbed by too much horror coming too fast...too many bloody prospects. I saw faces of men who had made this jump into terror too many times, and were on the verge of not caring, and I wondered if I wasn't already there too. Soon I would join in battle, fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with these men, these gladiators waiting in their flying cages to be spewed into the arena of war. Some of them may be brothers making the long journey beyond this world, for the last time, with me.
For a minute I thought I saw Autrey there in a far chopper, then Ottel, then Cutt smiling back at me with his Texas-sized grin and his trademark blue bandanna...but no. It was the wispy clouds...they played tricks sometimes. I looked back as the choppers started to drop, my lips hard and indifferent. No, there were no friends there. I couldn't afford them.
I chambered a round in my M-16 and edged onto the struts where I could jump the last six feet and run, knowing if there were incoming rounds I would be better off to hit the dirt quickly and come up firing, getting away from the chopper ASAP. Choppers drew fire, and it didn’t pay to linger too long in the vicinity, as the big, green birds dropped, hovered and paused only for an instant, before they swooped away and were gone.
I saw specks of movement in the trees as I stumbled and fell into a small ditch and fired a burst into the moving color. I felt, more than heard, incoming rounds of automatic rifle fire over the roar of the line of choppers making touch-and-go landings. "The Jolly Green Giant" gunships accompanying us raked the tree line with blistering munitions, and the VC disintegrated into the forest. They left the ground littered with packs and a few mortar rounds in the mad scramble to get away, preferring to dee-dee rather than stand and fight.
"Those bastards can run, but they can't hide," Pathway growled, as Lieutenant Riddick and Gutcheck moved up beside me in a forward position behind an anthill. Riddick was on the phone directing the gunships banging at the trees.
Mulenburg circled his fingers above his head once, then motioned towards the tree line. We knew the silent signal to form up and move into assault formation to the trees, reconnoitering through and out to regroup at an opening on the other side.
I was running, and jumped into a ravine, and suddenly it was quiet. All sounds of the battle were gone. I would have gone on but something made me turn. There behind a thicket of dried brush was a pock-faced boy, couldn't have been more than twelve years old. I cocked my head, and paused, surprised to see him hiding there, but saw the fear in his eyes burning with hatred. He reached down into the undergrowth and pulled out an old musket. Time seemed to stop as my eyes went over every inch of the ancient and rusted piece. Yet I knew it could still kill. It sparked fire, and a ball ricocheted off a rock by my head. I was lucky it was probably so old it was inaccurate. I was dazed, like in a dream. Suddenly I knew this boy was trying to kill me, and emptied an M-16 burst into him. I watched him fall like a sack of flour, limply pouring to the ground in slow motion. I knew he was dead before he hit the ground. I just sat and looked at that boy for a long minute. “Incomprehensible,” I muttered.
As I pulled over the lip of the gorge, I had tears in my eyes, angrily shouting, "Why, why?" That boy wasn't the first person I'd killed, but he was the first boy my M-16 had cut down so close...so close I’d seen his eyes. I cried because I had fought the sudden impulse to put the ace of spades under his collar. I cried as I thought of O'Neal, and wondered at the tears.
Then I saw Pathway coming through the trees beside a straw, whitewashed mortar hooch, and was just lifting a hand to let him know I was there. As he turned to look at me, I saw the large bell-jar beside the hut explode into a thousand shards, as a Chinese claymore mine hidden booby-trapped inside almost cut him in half, killing him immediately. Maybe that is why I didn't see the booby trap tripwire strung in front of me as I ran to him, but suddenly, there was no more...
My next memory really wasn't a memory. It was more of an awareness...a feeling. I was suddenly peaceful, suspended in air, aware only that I was facing the clouds, so serene, so completely devoid of thought, in the realm of nothingness, filled with pure contentment...in a state of pure oblivion, hanging, dangling, floating. I was not thinking about Vietnam. There was no Vietnam. I was not thinking about anything at all, just taking it in, in restful, solemn peace. My mind was emptied. I had a complete vacuum of thought. I was just there, floating, not wondering why, not wondering anything...rising slowly, calm, relaxed, in pure bliss, totally released from all care. I was conscious of nothing.
My first conscious thought came from something below me, intruding on my senses, interrupting my reverie but for a fleeting moment...then it was gone. I was again in my reverie. Then, there it was again. Someone was groaning below, and I felt a strange curiosity, more almost an annoyance, wondering what it was. But then the annoyance was soon gone, and I was again in absolute, blessed, harmony and peace. Again I was contented. But then it again intruded...something disturbing me...something intruding on my peace. Several times I turned downward to look below me, but not directly below, not all the way. I did not see anything before I again looked back toward the sky. Then there it was again, something...something groaning, somebody groaning, more insistent this time, encroaching on my senses. "Somebody stop the groaning," I thought. I was in a world where there was no pain, so could not understand. I couldn't comprehend the groaning. I was drawn to the heavens and looked back into the depths of them once more to regain my peace. I was there, relaxing, when once again the moaning sound interfered. It did not trouble me, or annoy me at first. It was simply there, something to wonder at as I turned curiously to see.
For the first time I felt more than saw, a connection between that entity groaning below and me. Something...a cord, a tether, a silver thread, something...a force, connected me to it. There was no surprise, for I did not question it. I wasn't conscious of it...it just was...and I was hanging from it, dangling from it, or at the end of it. For the first time I was aware of the earth below, floating above it like a kite. The groaning came from a man...I couldn't really see him at first. I guess he was a man, lying below, surrounded by other men. I didn't recognize him...couldn't really see him, only mildly curious. I was not involved. He meant nothing to me!
Suddenly I saw the colors, the jungle, the earth, the platoon medic hovering over him attempting to stop the hurt, stop his groaning. The groaning and the voices of the others were like fuzzy static coming from an Army radio. I suddenly knew without thinking then, that the man groaning below was me. I was aware it was me down there...and as soon as I knew that, that he was me, I was there! I was back in my body. It was instantaneous. There was no movement from one place to another. I had simply been in one place, then in the twinkling of an eye, I was in another. I only wondered in a detached, impartial way, only slightly curious, if I had died, and simultaneous with the realization that wondering brought, suddenly I was in him. I was him...again. I tried to yell, but could not. I tried to get back to the blessed oblivion, that sweet place where there was nothing but oblivion...sweet oblivion. I must have died, because I knew no more, again at peace. But peace would not last.
"Would you like a piece of birthday cake, son?" a kindly, grandmotherly woman asked.
"What?" I mumbled, as I tried to clear away the cobwebs between us, to find her, to see where she was coming from.
"Birthday cake! Looks awfully good! I'm a rec cross volunteer. We give birthday cake to the boys who may have birthdays this month, and share it with the others...would you like some? When she saw I wasn't responding, she just put it on my bedside table. "I'll just leave it here, son, if you decide you want some."
I didn't say anything, still trying desperately to clear away the cobwebs.
And just like that, the war for me was over! Though it would take a long time to put the parts back together again, to heal...to come again to grips with my reality, and my values, the war was over for me. It was a bad dream, but now indelibly, forever part of me. After three weeks in a hospital in Nha Trang, and two months in a hospital in Japan, and 12 more to come in an Army hospital in San Antonio, where doctors would put a 3 by 4 inch plate in my head, I'd made that last big air assault in that big, silver bird on Landing Zone Travis. It seemed so surreal. My buddies and I had so often joked about it. I had come home full circle to the world I'd left, back to Travis Air Force Base where my odyssey had started so long ago.
Now, as I was carried by stretcher down the ramp, people moved around me as though I wasn't even there, moving me around like so much cargo...not making eye contact...and I thought about lessons I'd learned in Vietnam, wondering how long they would stick with me.
Simple things like life and death ceased to be things taken for granted. Vietnam has imbedded on me a new set of senses that are part of me forever, a new set of beliefs, that are sometimes disbeliefs in things that had been intrinsic to my soul, disillusioned, skeptical of a new set of hard-to-trust, bewildering confusions I'd for so long taken for granted. In my journey as a pawn in Vietnam, being carried about to and fro by the winds of war, never knowing what the next moment might bring, I had learned to hate, to kill, to survive, for myself...for my buddies...alone, with no will of my own, just moving here or there at the whim of somebody up the chain of command, who was taking orders from someone else a hundred miles away, who was taking orders from someone in some five-sided building throwing darts at a map in his war room.
No longer would I see a harvest moon in the same way. I'll always be looking for someone out there in the shadows of the pale moonlight waiting...waiting to kill me. I retain an anxiety I felt in "the Nam," always listening for sounds that don't belong...always hearing things no one else can hear, always distrustful of strangers...distrustful of authority.
Could I again learn to love, once war had taught hate so well? I mean, could I ever learn to love the world again? Could I overcome the bitterness that came after the shock, a shock so deep, so great, so beyond my understanding that for months after I returned on that big silver bird, I was going around not facing the reality of what I'd seen? I ignored things...ignored feelings, for I'd come to rely too much on the "grunt" still in me saying, "It don't mean nuthin'."
Could I love myself? That will be a hard one, considering what I'd learned...maybe something I'll have to work on for a long, long time. It won't be easy, because of what I'd become...what I was. My response to confrontation had by necessity been to act quick, without thinking about it...to kill! I had to kill, or suffer the alternative, to die! Could I now love at all? I was uneasy because I had heard the stories of Vietnam vets being spit on and called baby killers...condemned as if they had been the ones wanting this war, instead of the politicians. But after what I had seen in combat, I could take that, piece of cake...after all, I was a tough combat infantryman...so bring it on! I was in denial of what had gone on, just glad to be back, trying hard to pretend it had never happened...until I hit my own personal wall.
And that wall about buried me! Because I didn't care! I was a people person before, but now I saw the pettiness of people ensnared in a life of worshipping the "almighty me." I saw the better part of a nation who didn't care about what I'd been through...well, either they didn't care, or they hated my guts. There was nothing positive. They didn't care that I'd almost lost my life. They simply couldn't be bothered. It was meaningless. I saw how gullible they were, how empty, how ignorant, believing what anybody told them, following along after things they took for granted, like sheep. The world would have to be a life of new beginnings, for I was a different person from the boy who had left this place, this world...reacting patriotically to a call to duty. There was a part of me that hated myself...and that hated them who'd sent me to Nam in the first place.
Now that I was back home in “the world,” I saw the world through bitter, frustrated eyes. I found it hard to trust.
I found the people back here were basically in three different groups. There were the very few, like my mother, who really cared for me. There were the protesters who despised me, without taking the time to know me, without knowing who I really was, or where I was coming from. But mostly, there were the people who just didn't care. They just didn't want to hear about it, as if thinking in their apathy that if they ignored the war, it never happened, or thinking it would go away. How could they ever know of what war was really like unless they walked in my combat boots? I was an embarrassment to them. I was a reminder of their guilt for sending me, for not taking up the sword themselves. They didn't want to hear about it, and many still don’t want to hear about it, even today. But Vietnam happened! And the same story will be replayed again, and again in an endless series of wars-to-end-all-wars...for history does indeed repeat itself.
Vietnam was reality! They will hear about it! They will learn its story! They will!