Everything stopped for the most horrible split second in my life as three shots ripped the sweet and sour saturated air of the aromatic oriental night. My head filled with tangled cobwebs as I hugged the dirt at the bottom of the foxhole, listening to the sucking sound of hot lead fingers of fate whistling through the Le Hong Fong Forest, dispatched on a mission to kill by strangers I hadn't even met. I was sickened with a quiet horror, knowing just one bullet could determine by a touch whether someone lived or died tonight.
Perhaps what bothered me most was the helplessness. I could do nothing. A million thoughts swarmed in me like angry bees as I listened intently for the sound of men coming to kill me, men preoccupied with my dying, men with every fiber of their being dedicated to the precept of reuniting me with the dust from which I came. I trembled uncontrollably as the agents of death rode the perfumed jungle breezes, deadly assassins probing the decaying overgrowth, probing the darkness. They hovered maddeningly in the toxic vapor, slashing and nipping at leaves overhead, pocking the earthen bulwarks of my foxhole.
I could do nothing, and I felt like I was going mad!
I fought to contain the fears leapfrogging in me, each fear building on the one before it, panic growing worse and worse. I tried to shake it off, to look brave in front of the men huddled beside me, but the muscles along my jaw stood out like taut cords as my teeth clenched, locking tightly with every nerve and sinew strained to breaking. I must have looked like an idiot...a scared-out-of-his-wits idiot.
I struggled to keep a fainting, nauseous sensation aching in me at bay, but my head hurt as if pierced with a thousand knives. My legs cramped and burned from prolonged crouching in the hole. As my heart pounded in wild staccato rhythms, I hyperventilated in short, throbbing gasps. It was everything I could do to keep from jumping and running, but didn't, couldn't...my body stiff in a debilitating, paralyzing fear. I couldn't move even if I had wanted to. Where was there to run to, anyway? I laughed silently. As I peered into the night, I was convinced, despite all logic, that each breath would most certainly be my last.
What made it all worse was the lonely feeling...the feeling of not belonging. All around me were strangers. I really didn't know anybody...only joining up with the unit as a replacement a few days before.
I could think of only one thing to keep body and soul together. First, I looked around to see if anyone would notice. Seeing everyone preoccupied with their own little fears and demons, I bowed my head in silent prayer. "Oh God, if You love me as much as I have been taught to love You, be with me now in my hour of greatest need. Please, be with me...please, God, protect me." Abruptly I gasped an involuntary breath. I was surprised by this, because I was unaware I had been holding my breath. I looked sheepishly around. I was sure the soldiers around me must be in stitches at this ignoble fear in the face of impending danger...but nobody had noticed. Could it be that they too were absorbed with fears of their own, as they looked out on the dark jungle?
I felt great peace and serenity drop over me like a blanket. Calm and renewed, I steeled myself to await the charge I knew was coming. "Welcome to the Vietnam Hilton," someone alongside me in the dark hole whispered caustically. I could do nothing but nod at the shadowy figure crowded beside half a dozen others crammed into the depths of the hole.
My mouth was sticky-dry with cottonmouth, thick spittle swelling like a white mucous glue, and I couldn’t answer. Streams of sweat burned my eyes, flowing down my forehead in dirty rivulets from the oven-like heat of my steel pot. It blurred my vision, disorienting me with stinging, salty wetness. But I dared not remove it, convinced my very life depended on its hard, metal shield. I wiped my eyes with hands dirty from digging the pit hours before.
Sweat tickled my ears. My mind played wicked tricks on me. I questioned if I had been hit, wondering if it was sweat or blood oozing down my clammy neck. I felt the sudden urge to touch my face to check, to run my fingers through my hair to see if it was red and matted with sticky blood, but I dared not move. The reason was simple. I was even more sure any movement would attract the attention of dusky marauders of the night who would like nothing better than to slit my throat. So hot, tired, dirty, and consumed with a terror that got worse and worse, I remained stagnatingly still.
What bugged me most was my complete impotence, the inability to do anything at all about what was inevitably going to happen in this war. I could do nothing, only wait for what was to be...to be. Life or death was decided here with little more fanfare than the rolling of the dice. Suppressed anger welled in me, but I might as well stand naked in the middle of the forest with a target painted on my chest, for all that it mattered. I felt so very vulnerable and exposed. I had always thought of myself as a very strong individual...but now I was scared...more scared than I had ever before been in my life. I'd never experienced anything quite like this before. I was scared down to the marrow of my bones by the unknown out there in the dark night waiting to kill me.
Brrooom!!! Suddenly an abruptly ruthless sound cracked the perfumed jungle with the clarity of a thunderclap, by far the most frightening sound I'd ever heard. The horrid sound split the fragile night air with a savage thrust, echoing and reverberating in tremulous volume that blended high pitched tenors and sonorous basses in terrible harmony. The resounding cacophony shook the ground, jarring it like the whole world was having a seizure. The shock stunned me for what seemed like an eternity, but was actually a chillingly frightening second, in a way that totally disoriented and unbalanced me. It only provided surer-than-ever proof that the end was very, very near.
"Satchel charge, drop and cover," someone yelled. I buried myself into the deepest cranny of the foxhole, unashamedly covering my ears, pummeled by the pandemonium into submissive meekness, as for one awful moment night turned to grotesque day. Soldiers around me were instantaneously bathed in strobe-like light, resembling posed still-life caricatures clustered in a frightened heap in the bottom of the hole.
Someone in the dark void prayed desperately, rapidly spitting out the words as if firing a machine gun, as though each word might be his last. “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death, Amen.” The man repeated his supplication unashamed, over and over in utter despair, sometimes whispering as if talking to angels, sometimes almost shouting, competing with the loud sounds as the night erupted around us.
"Jesus Christ, Nigel...you want to live forever or something?" somebody grumbled profanely in the dark.
I suddenly found myself speaking. "Jesus Christ has nothing to do with this. Don't go blaming Him for what men do.” As soon as I spoke, my brow furrowed deeply in astounded surprise. I hadn't meant to say anything. I was in enough trouble as it was, without making more enemies. After the shock died down, nothing moved. The reverberating echo that shook the jungle like a bowl of Jell-O, stilled. The jungle grew perfectly hushed. Silent calm eerily replaced the night noises filling the jungle only moments before. No bird sang. No animal scampered in the thick undergrowth, or chattered casually in the trees. The stifling quiet, at once powerfully all-consuming, was like the lull before a storm...a most deadly storm, to be precise. Deep and utter stillness left a feeling of impending doom somehow even more frightening and disconcerting than the raucous noise preceding it.
I felt incredulous wonder, in awe almost…as a prickly, squeamish sensation raced down my spine. I could hear the silence. I could hear it! And it was deafening.
"It's the wait beforehand that wears most on you," someone muttered in the darkness, almost as if he could read my thoughts. "That happens when you think too much. You can't help it, because when the fighting starts there's no time for thinking. Things happen so fast you can buy it without even knowing you're gone, almost...”
“Yeah, almost. You might just have a sucking chest wound, or a bloody stump sticking out where your leg used to be..."
"Or an inconvenient hole in the head," someone else laughed.
I was amazed. I was amazed not so much by what was said, but the complete indifference with which it was said. The men chuckled and joked callously at grisly death, speaking of the horrors of war so casually, like they were passing the time of day at the local drive-in. Now and then they peered into the dark and foreboding jungle, oh-so-casually looking, relaxed as if enjoying an evening with friends on the corner as they leered at girls passing by.
"Dear God, this has to be a dream," I groaned almost to myself. "Why can't I wake up?" A sick feeling hit me deep in the core of my being. It twisted, turning in my gut like one of those curved Arabian daggers, gouging deep into the pit of my stomach. Vietnam was no dream. The Le Hong Fong Forest was no dream. This was as real as it gets.
"It's insane," someone in the dark foxhole beside me whispered. "But it's no dream." Again I had the feeling someone was reading my mind. For a moment our eyes met. All was silent. Then the man who looked more like a boy, sighed. "Don't worry. After a few days, somehow you get used to it. Everybody had that 'deer in the headlights look' at first."
"You get used to it?" I muttered, perspiring heavily, sweat running in smudged streams down my forehead, coursing into my eyes from the close-cropped thatch of dark dirty brown hair under my steel pot. "My God! Tell me, how do you do that?"
Gelare Ottel laughed with an easy, almost child-like demeanor that was unnerving. It was like two guys laughing and joking at a school dance. I had met Ottel earlier on the tarmac at Landing Zone Betty while we waited for the choppers to lift us into combat. Ottel had a scholarly mop of unkempt brown hair hanging impishly above a round face, and wore a perpetual grin of boyish innocence. Indeed, his whole appearance seemed an oxymoron to the bristling ammo bandoleers crisscrossing his chest, or the M-60 machine gun slung haphazardly across boyishly broad shoulders.
I felt like I was drowning. It all seemed like a dream. It had all happened so fast. It seemed only yesterday that I, Jacob Fredericks, marched in a stateside parade after graduating from Advanced Infantry Training at "Fort Puke," a nickname trainees affectionately gave Fort Polk, Louisiana. Then, quick as quick can be, I was suddenly on a plane to the Republic of Vietnam. Faster than you could whistle, "Over hill, over dale, we will hit the dusty trail..." my plane landed in Pleiku, and I joined my unit in An Khe, First Air Cavalry Division headquarters.
I was unceremoniously hustled into the field without briefing, without instruction, without direction, without advice, without inspection. It wasn't supposed to happen like that. It all happened too fast! This wasn't the way we were taught...but this was the way it was...no answers given, all questions neglected. It was just lock and load, and whoosh, you were launched alongside troops already mustered into battle. It happened too quick for me, as though I were riding alongside Alfred, Lord Tennyson's mystical six hundred into the sweltering valley of the shadow of death...in fact, Vietnam's Le Hong Fong Forest, "mine but to do or die!"
"You a religious man, Jacob?" Ottel asked suddenly.
"Guess you could say that," I mumbled. In fact, I had deeply religious roots which set me upon the pathways of righteousness and exaltation, having been taught by goodly, Christian parents. But the abrupt question caught me off guard. I blurted out, "I'm not ashamed to say, although I'm not altogether certain how you will take it, I try to keep Christ with me at all times."
"That's nothing to be ashamed about," Ottel said, as he leaned deep into the hole to light another cigarette. "No indeed, that's nothing to be ashamed of at all. Plenty of times out here...far too many times, I would have welcomed Christ by my side. Maybe He could have given me a little comfort and peace of mind. Peace of mind is a scarce commodity over here, you know Jacob."
"Christ can do that," I mumbled, but suddenly felt bad that I didn't sound more sure of myself. "Don't you believe in Christ?"
"Used to, but that was a long time ago," Ottel said, looking away into the jungle. "I believed in Him till I looked into the vacant eyes of my first dead buddy lying bleeding in the dust...and there was no relief. My belief in Christ dissolved as I pleaded with my hands stretched heavenward...‘Why?' I didn't ever get an answer. I'm still waiting, you want to know the truth of it, but there don't seem to be nobody home up there.”
“Not for grunts anyway," someone, a formless figure in the shadows, laughed.
“Now all I've had to look at for far too many months is O’Neal’s ugly puss,” Ottel said, flicking his cigarette ash at the shadow. “Let me tell you, that's a shock that'll scare the Christianity out of ya. It'll sure curdle your C-franks 'n beans."
The shadowy soldier sleeping beside the hole rolled over with an agitated growl. "I love you too, Jelly Belly. Just keep on blabbing. Just keep it up! You'll wake up one morning with my bayonet stuck in your ear, you sack of..."
"Don't worry about O'Neal," Ottel replied, his lip quivering with amusement. "O'Neal would kill anyone that gave him a moment of grief, no doubt about it, but he won't do anything as long as he needs your backup when the VC come calling. But Jacob, you don't mind me saying, the idea of Christ chaperoning you every second is rather hard to believe. How does He do it? I mean, don't you think the Son of God has too many more important things to think about than to notice some peon soldier way out here in the middle of nowhere? Even if you are a God-fearing peon, you're still a peon."
"Christ has a lot on His mind all right, but every soul is precious before Him...even a peon soldier's soul like mine," I said chuckling. "Christ knows everything I'm doing, and I'm not above reminding Him I'm grateful, and need His guidance and helping hand through constant prayer.”
“I suppose so,” Ottel mumbled quietly.
“I mean, I love my country...but I didn't expect this."
"I guess I didn't know what to expect."
"Do tell," Ottel said, lying back against fortifications of the foxhole, dragging on his cigarette. "Somehow I didn't take you for the crazy type."
I shrugged, feeling suddenly tired. "I’m not crazy...but this war is. I don’t understand it!”
“Nobody does. I’ve been here a long time, and I still don’t understand it. Now it’s only about the men next to me. It’s about survival...making it back to ‘the world’ on that big silver bird.”
I looked out into the darkness pensively. “I remember learning a saying in Sunday School as a kid, 'In the furnace God may try you, hence to bring thee forth more bright.' Ottel, this is my furnace," I said, sweat streaming down my face. "This is my trial."
"Vietnam’s sure hot enough to be a furnace," Ottel laughed, "but now I've heard everything. I have heard Nam called lots of different names...most of them you couldn’t repeat in that Sunday School of yours, but I don't recall any of them labeling it a furnace to...how did you say it, 'bring thee forth more bright?'" He puffed on his cigarette. "But the more I think about it, yes sir, the Nam certainly fits that bill. It's the hottest, scariest furnace you'll ever run smack dab right up to."
"That's the way I see it, Ottel."
"Fact is, you'll be damned lucky you get out of this furnace without getting singed around the edges a might. Yes sir, a lot of mother's sons get burned crispy and sent home in body bags...”
Even in the darkness I could see the pained, frustrated look in Ottel's eyes. "Guess I'll have to pin my hopes of someone watching over me on blind faith," I said.
"I guess you will at that! Nam sure WILL test that faith some."
"I guess," I said. I felt instant friendship for the easygoing Ottel, already forming a bond with the guy. Then I caught Ottel looking sideways at me.
"You didn't hafta come here, you know. You could have gone to college...or to Canada. Hell, you could have joined the National Guard. You too could have been a weekend warrior."
"Yeah I know, and don't think I haven't thought about those choices, but I was raised to face things head on, so here I am."
"Me too! Back in 'the world' they tried to offer me Officer Candidate School if I joined up, or the chance to pick my own job if I joined up, but I turned them down. It really pissed them off when I didn't take them up on their offer," he said with a smerk, "but I didn't want to do the extra time. So I thought I'd just take my chances...see where I ended up, ya know."
"It seems to be working out pretty well," I chuckled.
Ottel flashed me a hard look for a minute, then softened. "Don't mind me. I'm just making conversation, that's all...and I wondered."
"Ottel, for six generations my family has maintained a strong, unfailing faith in the Lord,” I said. “My Church gives me strength to..."
"What's your poison?"
"Your poison...your denomination?"
I nodded, "Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."
"Yeah, that's right. Reckon I'd be hard fetched to be anything else but Mormon. My father was first counselor in the bishopric when I left home, and my mother was president of the Young Women's Association. My grandfather was the first stake president in Oklahoma. But now..." A hot, scorching pain suddenly filled me. The aching originated in my heart, but emanating rays reached into every corner of my being. Life up to now had been lived within a shell of love, protection and devotion of church and family. Caring from all sides had kept me warm, secure and sheltered from the outside world. But now the eggshell had been broken, as I was yanked from my wholesome, nourishing atmosphere, thrust headfirst into a forbidding jungle. My faith would be tested beyond anything I had yet dreamed of. The realization suddenly hit me with all the gentleness of a sledgehammer between the eyes. Now I was on my own. Now, I was far from protecting arms concerned with my well-being for the first time in my life. The prospect stunned me! Would my testimony survive Vietnam? Would I?
Abruptly the words, "Gird up your loins," flooded my mind, flowing into my body like liquid fingers. I suddenly remembered in the "Book of Mormon," where a soldier prophet named Helaman led 2,000 "stripling warriors." In the name of God, these "stripling warriors" fought for liberty with the nation of Nephi against the Lamanites. These righteous, valiant soldiers, just young boys, as were we now, entered into a solemn vow to protect their beloved land, unto the laying down of their very lives. According to scripture, they feared not, showing great courage and strength against their enemies, but above all, they showed great faith and love of the Lord. They had been taught to keep the commandments of God and to walk uprightly before Him. Helaman recorded to his great joy, that not one soul among the 2,000 had fallen to the earth and been killed. They had fought as if with the miraculous strength, inspiration and mighty power of God, slept on their swords, and always kept constant guard. Because of their great faith and devotion, they were saved.
This was the marvelous work I hoped would happen to me here in Vietnam. I felt moved to offer silent prayer that I too, like Helaman’s stripling warriors, might fight the good fight, with a good spirit, and do all things my Heavenly Father would have me do, that the spirit of Christ might always be in me, to watch over and guide me. For I knew my belief in Christ was not only the key to the path of exaltation, but the path back home to family and friends.
“Yes, I see," said Ottel, blowing a defiant smoke ring, unaware of the turmoil playing out inside me. "I daresay the Vietnam War is no respecter of persons. Religious affiliation doesn't mean a whit around here. I’ve seen too many good people go down with a prayer on their lips and Christ in their hearts," he slurred between twisted lips. "No sir, religion don’t mean as much as a spent mortar round around here...I wish it did. Whether you live, or whether you die, no matter how good you are, or how tough you are, or how good a shot you are...it's all just a roll of the dice.”
I lay back into the hole, and thought to myself. "God willing, with Christ on my side, I suspect I'll do all right. Besides, I'd heard a sergeant back in Pleiku say the war would be over by Christmas. Then I'd march home a hero...then this would all be done."
Ottel somehow heard, I guessed with battle-trained ears that heard every little noise...or else I may have been muttering, without knowing it. "Bloody hell, Christmas..." He laughed, and said, "we'll see the end of you, before we see the end of this war. And you'll be doing better than, 'all right,' if you can keep your religion going through Nam's bottomless pit of hellfire and perdition."
"My religion's faced challenges before."
"None like this, Jacob. You haven’t faced anything anywhere near like this! Let's see if you feel the same after you’ve been here awhile. You’re gung-ho naïve now, Jacob, but Vietnam will make that life back home seem like a walk in the damned park. You’ll think twice when you see the blood and guts of your best friends spilled on the ground in this godforsaken park...I know I did. Wait till you see the gore that I have. Jacob, one word of advice,” Ottel whispered, coming close to be sure no one else heard. “You don't have to fear judgment from me for your Christian thinking, but best curb religious talk around O’Neal.”
“Yeah, O'Neal's not exactly what you'd call tolerant," Ottell laughed. "No, wouldn't say he's tolerant at all. But me...I can't afford casting stones. Like the song says, 'Before you misuse, criticize or abuse, walk a mile in my shoes.' I'd open my-own-self up for judgment I tried to disparage your testimony. Still though, I’m ready to look at something different. I listen. I'm ready for anything; but up to now Nam's showed me religion's nothing but a superstitious crock."
"Good to know," I mumbled. “Thanks for the warning...I guess!"
"Yeah, thanks for nothing...besides, it will be nice, a breath of fresh air even, to have someone trying to do the right thing for a change, rather than just shooting first and asking questions later. Still, a GI...with standards...that worries me. That worries me a lot. Aren't the words 'GI' and 'scruples' contradictory terms?"
"I think you can be in Vietnam and still hold a strong testimony," I mumbled, once again embarrassed that my words didn't come out stronger, with more conviction.
"Can you now?”
“I’m going to fight the good fight.”
“Well, I sure enough hope so! That sounds mighty purty in the telling, it surely does. If it's a good fight you're looking for, you came to the right place, 'cause good or bad, you will fight. Keeping Christian perspective might be a little tough though," he grinned, "but good luck. If you can keep your faith through this little adventure in the forest, when all about you are losing theirs, that will be something. Be warned though, war is different than anything you've ever faced, 'cause here in Nam we're trying to kill 'em, not be role models for 'em."
"I hear that," I said. “I trust my testimony and faith to be strong enough to survive the challenge. If I lose my testimony now, my faith probably wasn't very strong in the first place."
"I reckon," sighed Ottel.
"If my faith fails, it isn't God who's failed...it's me."
"If you say so," said Ottel. "But this is a God-awful place, Jacob."
"You don't say? I thought you said it was just a 'walk in the park.'" Even as I said the words, I felt a lump of fear again knotting in my throat. Perhaps Vietnam, and what's happening now, was more than even a strong testimony could abide. Yet, I went on, "My testimony is a mature thing, unlike a child's that can be tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness whereby they lie in wait to deceive. My testimony will survive, no matter what the uniforms or intentions."
"Sounds naïve...kinda gung-ho naïve, you don’t mind my saying...like a speech...or a scripture," Ottel said. "Those are very strong words, maybe just a little...no, tell it like it is, Ottel...ostentatiously innocent. What is it they say? 'I think the man doth protest too much.' I think you talk about testimony so much because you're worried about your testimony. You're worried what will happen when the talking stops and you have to face reality head-on. Wait till you look your first Cong in the eyes and have to kill him...see him bleeding on the ground. Wait till you see the light go out of your best buddy's eyes on some hot, dusty, bloody trail in the middle of nowhere. The mettle of your words may be tested sooner than you think, Jacob...not so much by the 'winds of doctrine,' you spout so pontifically about, but by the hot and dirty winds of war. Every single minute the sleight of hand Vietcong are going to do their level best to kill your righteous ass...down dirty in the mud and the blood kill you...and it won't be pretty. That's the bottom line. Cantankerous winds of death blow constantly here, you know, and they blow hard.”
“So I’ve heard.”
“You've heard, but you ain't heard nothin' yet. You haven't seen what you're gonna see. You can say now that your testimony will survive, no matter what...but let’s see how you feel twelve months from now, because you don't know the half of it yet. Nam's winds blow, day after blessed day, with an intensity that blows fine grit down your neck and down your fatigues. It mixes with your sweat. You can’t wash it off. Every day out here there's someone hiding close, someone that it would make his day if he killed you dead...it surely would! Nam's bloody sand blasts right down into your soul, and it turns your heart to stone. Nam’s a bad stench that covers you from head to foot. It inflames your very being with hate.”
“Isn’t that the way it always is...hate versus love?”
“Yeah, it's a battle, but here you have the hate living with you twenty-four hours a day...in the form of worldly, usually vulgar companions fighting alongside you that you're forced into friendship with...'compelled' is a better word.” Ottel cast a meaningful, disgusted look at O’Neal slumbering beside them. “There are pure killers here, Jacob...there surely are!"
"You're right," I mumbled, looking over at O'Neal, "sure you're right. I'd never thought of the fact I'd have killers living with me, as well as the ones trying to kill me."
"Another thought, addressing the immorality of killing going on in Vietnam...Where does Christ stand on that?"
"Ottel, my bishop gave me a passage from Ephesians in the Bible, and he asked me to keep it on me at all times. I always carry it in my wallet." I shoved a worn piece of paper at Ottel, and started to recite from memory. "Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all to stand. Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness; and your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace; Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the spirit, which is the word of God."
I put away the tattered paper, bowing my head in deep thought before I went on. I wondered if I should share my deeply spiritual thoughts with Ottel. I wondered if he could understand...or would he ridicule? But I felt a burning in my breast pushing me to proceed. I hoped Ottel would come to grips with the message, if not now, in the coming days. Taking a deep breath, I said, “Sometimes when I'm most tempted to join the crowd, I truly feel the armor of God like a shield protecting me...even here...especially here.”
Ottel replied with a cracking in his voice, a quiet reverence suddenly surrounding him, as he looked firmly into my eyes. “I don’t know what it is, Jacob, but I think you have something there. I wish to God I had it. Maybe if I did, I wouldn’t think about death so much. I surely do wish I had something to believe in, but I think I'm a lost cause.”
“Ottel, I believe God's power, the power that’s in my priesthood giving me the authority to act in His name, guards and protects His sons and daughters like an invisible barrier. I feel legions of evil spirits around this place, gnashing their teeth and tearing their hair..."
"Evil spirits, eh," Ottel said with a grin, "they call them Vietcong 'round here, the evilest damn spirits you'll likely knock up to here in 'The Nam.' And they really don’t have a lot of nice things to say about us either."
I smiled back at the sarcasm. "You know what I mean, Ottel. I know Satan’s disciples, my brothers in the preexistence that followed the Prince of Darkness, would give anything to have what I possess, even if it meant killing me to get it. I feel a sorrow for them, but I’m set apart from them because of the armor of Christ promised in the Bible to the Lord's faithful."
I read the puzzlement on Ottel's cherub-like face. "I wish I could believe in God that way. I wish I had armor to withstand Charlie Cong's bullets." So saying, Ottel turned away, wiping some unseen grit off his machine gun.
I watched him for a minute, knowing he only pretended to be busy, probably because he needed time to think. I felt so dirty; my olive-green fatigues were so crumpled and filthy as if I had slept in them, which in reality I had for four days and nights now. The humidity in the hot jungle breezes made sweat pop up on my skin in wet, clammy beads, as if I'd taken a bath. I wrapped my bedding, a thin camouflage-green poncho liner, around my shoulders, but I couldn't sleep. I had never felt death hovering so closely as I did now, facing that rotting tropical jungle. It was so thick in the air that I hardly dared sigh, knowing each telltale sound might be my last. Stark fear lay palpable on my skin. Every muscle tensed. It was so quiet. I was so alone. My only thought was an abiding fear of the Vietcong I was sure loomed scarcely a breath away -- maybe closer. Maybe they crouched there hidden in that wall of elephant grass. Did that shadow behind that tree move? Is that the wind, or is somebody moving out there? The pungent aroma of dread swelled ripe and putrid on the dank, sweaty air that hung over me. I could smell the anger, feel the scorching hot breath of men filled with smoldering, abiding hatred for me wafting in the shadows of the night. I felt their bitterness, their enmity. Bare-naked fear lay so profound on my skin it tasted thick and gummy on my tongue.
I fingered my M-16 tightly in my white-knuckled hands, working out in my mind fire angles, totally absorbed in the terrors of the night. My feet itched something fierce in my combat boots, but I didn't dare take them off, or even loosen the laces. Never can tell when you have to move quick, even if that meant sleeping with your boots on. I chuckled at the thought that life could depend on such basic things, like not stumbling around in the alien jungle with bare feet when the shit hit the fan.
The chalky green and black camouflage paint I’d applied to my face to cut the white shine of skin back on the tarmac, waiting for airlift into this hot spot, tingled on my sunburned face as I surveyed my foxhole home. There wasn't much to see. What can you say about a dirt hole dug in the middle of a jungle, filled with men preoccupied with your dying, that hasn't already filled copious volumes. I smiled at myself when I thought that. "Good," I mumbled, "at least I still have a sense of humor. I'll get by."
I heard the men shouting out there in the darkness then. Suddenly the night was filled with their shouts. You could feel them in the air, almost tasting the venomous curses, loud and passionate shouts of loathing, and unadulterated, all-consuming hatred. The men out there shot up the night with their bullets and their invectives. It was unnerving, but then, I suppose, that was the intended effect.
I wondered about them...the enemy. What were their lives like? What were their hopes...their dreams? Would I destroy their dreams this night, or would they destroy mine? Did they have wives? Did they have children? Did they love? It couldn't always be hate they felt. Did they worship God? And what of the Vietnamese children whose fathers were killed in this war...would they always hate Americans who had brought the killing home to them? Would there be perpetual war here, lasting long after I was gone? Would hate build on every action, leapfrogging persistently larger over the bodies of the fallen today? Would the children live to take revenge for past generations, the vile hatred becoming enormous, rising far out of proportion, escalating with every death at our hands?
Then, as things always seem to do in life, life got worse...a whole lot worse. It got deathly quiet. There was no more cursing. There was no more shooting, as the men out there listened for any response. It was a surreal void that seemed outrageously absurd. I pinched myself to see if I was dreaming, and was strangely disappointed when I found I was not. All the while, the men in the foxhole beside me slept through it all, as sound as babies, unaffected by the life or death dramas unfolding all around them. How did they do it? Didn’t they feel what I felt?
I wondered why Americans were the objects of so much hatred, as I too cursed silently. "A plague on all your houses," I muttered. I cursed the angry, fear-ridden thoughts so foreign to my very being which were coursing through my confused mind. I cursed the caustic hatred hanging over us like a malignant fog. I cursed those sleeping peacefully beside me in the fighting hole. I cursed myself, wondering at that which had caused me to curse.
"Don't let them get to you," the voice from the darkness again whispered.
"I thought you were sleeping," I said.
"Just pretending," Ottel replied with a tittering voice. "Who could sleep with all this racket? Seriously, Jacob, there's nothing to worry about.”
“Oh, sure…you’re not worried. The Vietcong only want to crush you like you would a cockroach invading your kitchen back in 'the world,' and you aren’t the least bit worried?"
“Well, maybe just a little.”
“This ain't nothing personal, understand. Charlie just hates your guts, that’s all."
"Is that all?" I nodded, in mock astonishment. "Well that's a relief. I thought it was something important."
It had been a long day, and it was going to be an even longer night. I rehearsed bayonet thrusts in my mind, preparing mentally for the human-wave assault I knew would come. There was no doubt in my mind it would come...no doubt at all. The only question was, when? How long will they make us wait before they come to kill us?
In the silent calm of the midnight hour I dozed, teetering on the edge of existence...falling, falling. Suddenly shocked awake I jerked back in dreadful panic. "Shape up, damn you," I cursed myself anew, silently. "Never again," I growled at myself, tightly jawed, resolved not to succumb to the narcotic night. I couldn't...I mustn't...sleep. This was important...life or death important. But still I saw the bullets coming at me through closed eyelids in my mind's eye. They came in the stupor of dreams, between sleeping and wakefulness...dreams I tried to avoid so hard it hurt. Logic told me there was nothing there, but who listens to logic when pungent, noxious hatred fills the senses? My reason felt the fickle fingers of destiny boring into my skin. I couldn't hide from the mad, hot lead spheres searching for me in the tepid skies, rolling, spinning, lapping at the humid Vietnamese air, darting like buzzing bees one moment, moving in awful slow motion the next. I wondered at the turmoil I felt inside. I tried to still the anxiety. But it was a maddening night. I still felt the bullets digging into me, gouging my flesh, like worms crawling in my skin, burrowing and squirming through my palsied brain.
Suddenly I again felt an inner peace come over me. I didn't understand. Was it an answer to the prayer constantly on my lips? But my stomach lurched once again as I looked up, again gripped by a panic attack when I saw a fist-sized hole suddenly torn in the bark of a nearby tree by an errant bullet. My emotions rode a roller coaster cresting in tremendous peace through the tribulation of the valley of the shadow one minute, violently plunging into heart-stopping lows of fear that ate at me the next. "I can't stand it," I shrieked inwardly, a silent, primal scream from a mind crazed by thoughts of grisly death that could come at any moment.
"I'm not ready for this. If that bullet had been a foot closer..." I looked around, wondering if anyone had heard the screaming. Lines of concern pulled at the corners of my mouth and eyes as I wondered what I was doing here -- what the hell was I doing here? I remembered the counsel of my father and mother, the sage advice of my bishop, the goodly teachings of the lower middle class conservative upbringing that had sent me here to defend my country.
I've been told I have a delicate cut to me like my father, lean and lanky at twenty-three. When I got out of basic training, try though I might to look tough, I was gentle and easygoing. Wrestling and football in school kept me in excellent physical condition, but I would rather talk my way out of trouble, even turn the other cheek. I always told myself I would fight for anything important, of course. I wasn't a coward, after all, just raised with a conservative sense of right and wrong. My belief advocated doing whatever necessary to preserve life and freedom. Till now there was no cause or reason sufficient to fight for, only ruffians strutting their stuff and acting macho.
When someone had wanted to fight, I always stood tall, facing my combatant toe-to-toe, but with hands to my side, trying to talk reason rather than fight. It wasn’t that I was afraid to be physical. Wrestling was my sport, after all. I wrestled on the varsity in my high school for goodness sake, and I was good at it. I had a quick, aggressive style utilizing leverage, speed, and balance. Many of my victims on the mat were bigger and stronger, but I preferred to outthink my opponent rather than grapple in a test of muscle where the outcome was a foregone conclusion based on sheer strength. “Brains always defeat brawn,” I was fond of saying. "Fisticuffs don't prove a thing. What does it prove if I knock a man down? Does it prove I'm a better man? Does it show I'm right or he's wrong? No, it only proves who is the strongest bully. Might does not make right." I wasn't afraid to stand up for myself, but I believed fighting was stupid. I was slow to anger. In fact, I had not struck a man in anger in all of my life. Fighting remained always a last resort.
Some things were worth fighting for, of course. There were lines that couldn't be crossed, battles worth waging -- wars worth fighting -- madmen worth stopping. I had always stood willing and able to put my life on the line to protect my country and freedom from tyranny and injustice. I was raised that way -- but Vietnam? Was this really a just conflict? There were no Vietcong armies storming American beaches. Papa Ho, Ho Chi Minh, wasn't marching down Main Street, USA, overturning borders and pushing a juggernaut's carriage with world conquest his goal. Vietnam was a political struggle of ideologies. This was a civil war, far, far from home, and without direct threat to anything I felt dear, or anyone I loved. I was fighting for the freedom of humanity, for a brave young nation oppressed and bullied by communism -- or so I had been told. That’s why I was here. That’s why we were all here. I was learning quick that Vietnam was totally unworthy of the sweat, blood and lives it took to prove a point, yet here I was, right in the thick of the conflict. I had been given no option to pick my battles...just given a weapon, and told to kill Charlies.
I really don't understand the Vietnam War. Neither did anyone I had spoken to. Congress hadn't even declared Vietnam a "war." Even those who should have understood, if anyone could, didn't. Even the drill sergeants and Vietnam vets in training camp couldn’t fully comprehend the war, or if they did, couldn't talk about it. I know...I had tried to find out when I learned I was coming here. They spouted vague military-speak of an undeclared police action. But I figured I would be just as dead buying the big enchilada in a police action as I would dying in an honest-to-goodness, officially sanctioned, certified and orchestrated war. Officers and NCO's were frustrated and baffled by Nam, where there were no neatly marked battlefronts or lines marking enemy and friendly positions. The government said the whys and wherefores didn't matter as long as you were doing your duty -- but to me it mattered. So how could I keep from making mistakes in a war I didn't understand?
"So, considering this, what am I doing here?" I asked myself. "Is this some kind of test God is giving me? The Ten Commandments say, 'Thou shalt not kill,' but what if I have to kill? Will I be able to kill when the time comes? Good God, what else can I do? And if I do kill, how will I feel? How will I face You, God? God...did You really send me here?" I prayed about all these questions, as I had been doing for months since I first learned I was coming to Vietnam, but I still did not know the answers. The hardest part of Vietnam was not physical; oh no, that was a piece of cake. The hardest part, the part I grappled with the most, was mental. And it was driving me insane.