I sat quietly, savoring the thought of better times and better places, looking up in the dark silken sky. The stars glittered like vibrant diamonds in the oriental heavens. They looked as if they had been laid out in a black velvet jeweler's display case. They shone so brightly, throbbing with faraway energy, that for a moment I lost myself in them, while all the world was hushed, run for cover, or huddled beside me in the foxhole.
But Ottel wanted to talk. I was quickly learning that Ottel always wanted to talk, though I was scared out of my wits that the slightest sound might call attention to us. We hadn't had time to clear away fields of fire in front of our position, and I imagined rifles pointing at me from every direction, fairly bristling from every tree, Vietcong only yards away. I felt the deep urge to scream at Ottel to be quiet, but Ottel seemed to feel the need to fill the empty, lonesome night with sound.
Ottel seemed almost impervious to the dangers of the night. "Sophisticated dialogue chases the shadows away, Jacob. It absorbs the night, don’t you think? Good conversation seems to make the apprehensive times go by just a little bit faster.”
“If you say so, Ottel,” I said, trying to hide my nervousness.
“Oh yes, I most definitely think so. If you fully engage yourself in deep discussion, one with stimulating repartee, before long you forget what’s lurking out there in the shadows, don't you agree? Discussion brings the light of day to men hiding in a burrow like some kind of primitive animals. It gives them their humanity back. Yes-s-s," he said, when he saw that I wasn't answering, "I do think cultured exchange brings modern civilization to a barbarously savage land where..."
"Damn...put a sock in it," O'Neal said, grinding his cigarette into the dirt wall.
"Better yet," Riley sputtered, "I'll put the butt of my gun in it. Fill it right up, you want me to."
“Yes, I think a rifle butt just might do the trick,” O’Neal grinned tight-lipped. “Fact is, a rifle butt's probably the only thing that would shut up that yap-trap. It sure would stop the caterwauling, and I think we all would feel a whole lot better.”
I couldn’t help but notice how much the impressionable youngster Riley, idolized the tough, cocky O'Neal. He actually saw the brash killer as a hero -- and O'Neal -- O’Neal ate up the attention. I figure it wasn't often he could be a role model.
"Jelly Belly, if I have to listen to the crap spewing out of your jelly mouth one more second, I swear, Charlie don't kill ya, I just might. Or I might just let Riley here play with your liver on his bayonet."
"That's a disquieting thought," Ottel said after being quiet only a second. "I know I might die here gentlemen, but I have the right not to rush towards it blindly." He paused, heedless of the cockfighter's furor, turning his undivided attention to opening a can of C-rations chicken with his bayonet, sticking his tongue out of the corner of his mouth as he worked on it.
"You ain't got rights, Jelly Belly,” O'Neal hissed, sounding a lot like air escaping from a punctured tire. "You're in the Army now, boy. If the Army wanted you having rights, they'd of issued 'em to ya, I guar-an-tee."
"au contraire," Ottel said, stabbing and fishing for the chicken with his bayonet, and sticking it in his mouth. "We have rights, yes we most certainly do...inalienable rights, the rights to freedom from cruel and unusual punishment. The right..."
"Inalienable eh? I'll give you inalienable, right between the..."
Riley snickered. "You have the right to kill or be killed in Nam...that's all the rights you got."
Ottel saw a mosquito drilling into his arm, and flexed his muscle to trap the blood sucking creature's appendage in the tightened muscle, smiling as the blood flowed unabated into the creature, who exploded with a gory pop. "Oh no, mon ami, I have the right to go back home when this everlasting tour is over but..."
"Yeah...they got your body bag all ready," O'Neal quipped. "I even got it monogrammed special for ya."
Ottel went on like he didn't hear. "...But that poses an interesting dilemma. How do we get home? And how do we even imagine where we are, or who we are?”
“I know where we are. I just wanna know how I can get the hell out of here,” Riley frowned. "And I'd sure like it if I could do that without getting killed first!"
Ottel ignored him. “How does knowing where we are, and what we’re doing, shape the way we imagine everything else? How should we act in our last minute on earth?"
"I don't know, what say we find out," O'Neal replied with a wicked grin.
"Who the hell gives a fuck?" Riley said.
O'Neal's smile turned hard. "I have to hear any more from you tonight, Jelly, your last minute on earth’ll come sooner than you think...like right now. And I'll be obliged for the silence."
Ottel paused. He carefully took another chunk of chicken from the tip of his bayonet with his tongue, fully aware that all eyes rested on him, but consciously ignoring them...particularly O'Neal. Ottel carefully licked the blade, turning it slowly in his hand. He took his own sweet time, but finally said, “You know, eating chicken off a bayonet is a real art. It takes...”
That act infuriated O'Neal. Intense hatred flickered in his pellet-like eyes as he swiveled his M-16 on line with Ottel's head. "Might just be worth a stint in Leavenworth to get some quiet here. Ottel, I’m warning you one last time. Don't push this too far."
Ottel acted for all the world like he didn’t hear a word. He angled for more chicken in his C-rations can with his bayonet, seemingly oblivious to the eyes boring a hole through him. “I’ve heard O'Neal's threats before,” he said to me. “He doesn’t mean what he says. He’s a pussycat...a big, lovable pussycat!”
Getting O’Neal’s goat was a game Ottel obviously enjoyed playing, I thought.
O'Neal was enraged, but Ottel was impervious to it, so he looked around for another outlet...and there I was. "What you looking at, Rookie? You want a piece of me, you fuckin' newby? Come on, you good-for-nothing sack of... I can sure give you more trouble than you can handle, and not break a sweat.” He glared at me. “Come on...you think you're tough? You can't handle tough. You haven't been here long enough to know tough. You're lower than the dirt under my boot, Tenderfoot.”
"Come on, I don't want any trouble," I said. "Sorry if I stared."
"Well if you ain’t looking for trouble, you done came to the wrong place,” smirked O'Neal, "'cause there's trouble all around."
“I don’t want any trouble. If it’s fighting you want, something tells me that at any minute we’ll be knee-deep in more fighting than we can handle.”
“Well la-di-da! You probably think everyone should look up to you, damned know-it-all college boy. What'd you study stateside, pussy courses like Basket Weaving? You probably called yourself an idealist back in 'the world.' You're a ten shades of naïve country-bumpkin, in this man’s war! You think you're smart? Just because you're twenty-three years old, older than most grunts here. You probably told everyone back home,” he said, as his voice became squeaky and his wrist went limp, “'I won't rush off to the recruitment office to join the Army, but when my country calls, I won't shirk my duty.' Well la-di-da, college boy, the war done called, and now you're mine."
Ottel smiled wryly at me. “O'Neal took a look at your records. He's tight with Top, so he looks at the records of all the new men in the platoon," he said casually, fishing out another chunk of chicken from his C-rations can with his bayonet.
O'Neal fairly exploded. "I know all about you, you lily-butt pansy genius. You think you're better than us, God-man?”
“Yeah, don't give me 'what,' you measly son-of-a bitch. You heard me. I read all about you hoity-toitying around England on some kind of la-di-da church mission. You think that makes you a better man than the rest of us? Just you don't try to convert me with your ‘do-gooder crap.’ I was born a sinner, I came to Nam a sinner, and I'm sinning here, by damn. Things work out right, I plan to die a sinner!"
Ottel said with surprise, "You were a Mormon missionary? Don't that beat all. That’s sort of like slipping in heaven on a banana peel, and falling into hell, don’t you think?"
"Something like that," I smiled. "I guess God thought I had it too easy, and had something else in mind for me.”
"I guess so!" Ottel whistled. "What a conundrum, Jacob. Your God sure is a stern taskmaster to put you through this just so you can have a look-see."
O'Neal grinned. “What’s that, condoms...talkin’ about condoms? Now that's something I know about...something I can relate to,” he said, nudging Riley in the ribs with his elbow.
"You are so profound," Ottel mused, with a twinkle in his eye, "in a profane kind of way. You're amazing! Simply amazing! Anyway, as I was saying Jacob, welcome to the Vietcong-a-go-go, where the action is.”
"You gotta' love the big lug upstairs," O'Neal said, feigning a tear in his eye, “bringing us to Vietnam, just to make us better people. I think I’m gonna cry." After a moment's silence, he shifted his attention back to the Le Hong Fong Forest. "Why don't Charlie come on?" O'Neal snarled, "What's he waiting' for? I hain't killed a Gook all night, and I'm getting' real antsy...and they don't wanna see Franklin O'Neal antsy."
Ottel licked another piece of C-rats chicken off his bayonet. "If the VC want to kill me, I wish they'd hurry and get it done. Nothing I hate worse than sitting in this foxhole waiting to die. I swear, the hardest part of dying in this disordered universe is the suspense and apprehension that comes before it.”
"I'll solve your suspense for ya," O'Neal growled. "Just step up to my bayonet, you piece of crap. Anybody...any takers...no! Well, I'm so disappointed. VC want to kill Franklin O'Neal, they better stand in the damned line. Hey Ottel, just stick your head up. Mister Charles will gladly oblige your suspense. You sure won't be bothered by that pesky apprehension anyway...and if he don't, I sure will be happy to oblige him."
"You won't be in no suspense no mo'," Nigel chuckled. "'Cause you'll be daid."
We hadn't heard from a sixth man who lay doubled in a heap, sleeping soundly in the corner of the hole. Hannibal Snyder hadn't said a word. Snyder was Ottel's ammo carrier. He snored as if the night offered nothing out of the ordinary...nothing new...nothing important enough to lose sleep over...nothing that couldn't wait. His Kansas farm boy features stood out among the others, the hawkish face, the stringy, yellow-straw hair, wrinkled, dirty, faded olive-green fatigues that spoke of being here awhile. He would have looked comical and out of place in most circumstances. But crisscrossing M-60 machine gun bandoleers across his chest made it look not funny, like he meant deadly serious business. They made him look tough.
"Nothing stirs Snyder," Ottel nodded when he saw me looking.
O'Neal patted his M-16 impatiently. "Come on, come on...got a little surprise waiting for ya here, Charlie."
The others grew quiet, waiting solemnly as they looked out into the blind night, to be, or not to be.
Suddenly, nightmare became reality, erupting with searing, white-hot flashes, which bored through me in an instant of sheer agony. I felt blistering molten metal twist through my quivering flesh like corkscrewing worms...a split second before the bullets cut holes in the night, thudding harmlessly into the abandoned village behind us.
I was peering into the darkness when suddenly it seemed like the bushes were changing shape and moving toward me. "We've got movement," I yelled, at the same time firing several rapid bursts at the camouflaged enemy. I shucked the empty magazine, then fired several more bursts at the moving trees, and saw several of them fall. I slipped the switch on my weapon into semi-automatic to preserve ammo, as the very bushes began firing back. A strange, hot exhilaration burned in my chest as the rush of adrenaline surged through my being, with the thoughts that I'd killed my first man, coupled with the fear that the enemy had taken the bait offered them by the brass upstairs. Our solitary platoon had been the carrot enticingly dangled on the end of a stick to draw the enemy out of hiding. "Well, here they are," I shuddered. "Now, they can just go back into hiding."
Bursts of fire slammed into the bulwarks of the foxhole, spitting dirt before my eyes, slamming into the ground around me. "Now, what are you gonna do about it, Charlie?" Bullets sung in the air all around, as from straight ahead in the jungle came the strange burping noises made by a Russian AK-47, firing in the night. I was convinced above all reason that I would die any second now, wondering only that it hadn't happened already.
"Hell, I hope the officers are happy about this," O'Neal snarled, as he emptied a burst into a nearby tree. "They hung us out to dry here, hoping for a battle just so they could advance their stupid careers. They knew what they were doing, but they don't care. They don't care about us..."
"Conserve your ammo," Snyder yelled to no one in particular. "Don't waste it on trees. Be sure you have a target."
Ottel was busy banging at his M-16. He had it torn down and was working on it, panic and agitation in his eyes. He was trying to force a jammed round out of the breech. "Yeah, those lifers relish these battles," he said weakly, forcing a half-grin. "They like them because they win them personal glory. Sure, losing men is a bloody bummer, but they view the grunts as pawns...what the hell good are they more than a necessary effort either as a first strike to engage the enemy, or to mop up the mess when the battle's over."
My whole side of the perimeter was firing, as I fought back both feelings of fear of being a heartbeat away from eternity, and the raw bloodlust that rose in me with surging energy from thoughts that I had killed my first man.
Boys from the adjoining foxhole popped several rounds at a shadowy form moving inside the perimeter. "Charlie’s in the compound. Watch your back," one of them yelled. While the others backed his play, a soldier crawled to the groaning VC and put him out of his misery, then crawled over by the CP to a weather-worn Buddhist altar with raggedy pictures and burnt candles. A second later I quivered involuntarily as I heard the sound of a grenade belching in the hole.
"The dinks were coming in through a tunnel under that Buddhist shrine," the soldier said as he crawled back. "I put a grenade cork in that hole," he snickered.
"That sure oughta ruin the whole day for anybody else in there," one of his buddies muttered as he crawled over the lip of the hole...but just before he slid from sight, a burst from the bushes hit him. I could hear it, "Phlop, phlop, phlop."
"I'm hit! Oh God, I'm hit...medic, medic...help me, help me!"
Another spray of automatic weapons fire hit the ground around our foxhole, and buzzed into the trees behind us. "I think I'm hit," I mumbled, shaking and cursing to myself, on the verge of tears. I checked for blood and felt for bullet holes in my fatigues...but nothing. An unsurpassed thrill rushed through me that this time death did not find me...anyway, not yet!
Gelare Ottel saw it all. "It happened to me too my first night. The imagination and fear get to you. The bullets might miss you by a mile, but you feel them, and they're real. They didn't get you this time, Jacob...but the night's young," Ottel whispered. "They'll try again."
I didn't answer, still amazed that I'd felt the bullets bore into me. I still wasn't wholly convinced they were just my imagination. I had felt them going through me...I know it! "God...is it like this every time?" I asked no one in particular.
"Yeah, pretty much every time," Ottel answered quietly.
A medic appeared out of the night, but just as he was about to drop into the hole to help the screaming soldier, a couple of deadly reckoned rounds tore into his face and chest. I could see him as he rolled back, groaned a couple of times...then died! I was sure he was dead. Most of the left side of his face was gone.
The firing subsided to an occasional smattering of a few sporadic rounds, an occasional explosion, and yelling...lots of yelling! I strained to see through waves of elephant grass into the thick jungle. Now as before, I could only curse the dark that hid my enemies, through a gloomy shadow of a night that had become my enemy too. The worst thing was, I knew if they had any idea of how small a force we were, they would try to overrun us.
In the lull, Ottel sighed. "You remember earlier when you tipped that big three-foot basket of rice into the dust? Remember when you said, 'This has to make them mad?' Well, they’re mad now, Jacob. Situations are right for us to die tonight. Only God and the brass upstairs know what the Army’s thinking, leaving us...one paltry platoon here blowing in the wind.”
"God and the brass," O'Neal twisted his mouth in a scowl. "Fuck! One of them won't tell why they left our paltry butts here, and the other don't care. But look on the bright side, Jelly Belly, we probably got eighty VC to our one. Them's good odds. Real good! I think we got Victor Charlie right where we want him.”
I sighed. "Unbelievable! You say we got them, right where we want them?"
"Sure! Couldn't wish for better odds," O'Neal boasted. "We are gonna whip some ass tonight, Jacob. We're invincible ... immortal ... we can't die. Now keep sharp, there'll be plenty of time for rest'n ... when you're dead and in the ground."
"Oh, that's comforting," Ottel muttered. "God, how can we die? We have to keep thinking we're just not going to die."
"What do you mean?" O'Neal grinned, his eyes shining incredulously. "Do you want to live forever, or something?"
Artillery shattered and pounded trees just a hundred feet to the front of our position. Some shells dropped as close as fifty feet away, and then suddenly the firing stopped. Sergeant Mulenburg suddenly appeared. "Get y'all's gear t'gether, girls, we be movin' back to the otha end of the ville. We be di-di'ing whilst ol' arty's coverin' our asses, so't Charlie don't know where we's at. Onliest way ta keep from gettin' kilt, ah reckon. Move quiet-like now...make as little noise as you can."
We didn't ask questions. All of us stood ready to di-di, to bug out. We'd all had it with the Le Hong Fong Forest, even if it was only a few hundred yards back. There wasn't time to dig in, so we formed our defensive perimeter around natural cover of rocks, trees and termite mounds. No sooner than we had dropped back, I heard what I took to be fast-fliers, jets screaming low in the moonlight, cracking and whistling out of the night. Just feet ahead of where we had been, suddenly the jungle bubbled in orange-yellow plumes of napalm boiling, rising and churning into the sky.
Hours later, again the night was quiet. There was no sound, other than the burnt-out hissing and smoldering. Then, another shot thudded into a nearby tree, and another whistled through the leaves overhead.
"Mister Charles is just scouting the defense," snapped O'Neal with a crooked grin. "He's just probing, puzzled-like that we aren't where he thought we was."
"I ax you," Nigel said, "what them mother fucks got to shoot at anyhow? They can't know where we's at. They just be shoot'n to coax us to return fire."
"Just might work," Ottel said, as he scrunched lower behind a tree. "Don't e-e-e-ven think about shooting back. We return fire now, it just allows him to pinpoint our location right down to the hair on your sorry head. Our position was compromised before, and I kinda like the thought of him not knowing where we're at now."
"I like hearing them out there anyway," Riley said. "Long as I can hear them out there, I know they ain't in here picking our teeth with their bayonets."
"By the way Fredericks," O'Neal said, "you're first guard!" O'Neal declared, his upper lip curled in a nervous tic. "You're a rookie, so you won't be sleeping anyway. Besides, you'll have company. We're posting half-alert till morning...that's half on, and half off."
"Thanks," I said sarcastically. I assumed O'Neal must be in charge, so didn't question the order. Besides, O'Neal was right...I couldn't sleep, and likely wasn't going to get much tonight. I didn't see how anyone could. Half the others sat beside the foxhole and went to sleep, dangling their feet in the hole so any action between waking and sleeping would jar them into the hole, and the other half were too much on alert to talk. I stared out into the bottomless night's suddenly silent abyss. I stared at O'Neal's boyish features hid behind a mustache that must have been meant to make him look manly, but didn't work! Funny how appearances can be deceiving. O'Neal looked like an innocent kid on a campout...especially asleep.
In the sudden and deathly quiet as I pulled guard into that forsaken jungle, I pondered the happenings of the day. Forced to pull back in what Mulenburg called, "a strateg'c retreat," not the route of wild animals it may have seemed like. I had seen how we staggered back. I had seen the look of despondency. I looked around and I saw the bloody dead, the maimed, and the shocked faces of men on the edge who had come within a gnat's whiskers of dying tonight. I saw the hard stares. I was beyond the horror of it, I thought, as I looked on the site with callousness of spirit.
I tried to compare the me now, to the me that had marched into this VC wasps' nest, and I couldn't. I couldn't remember that far back, back when I was naïve, just humping into the ville...so young...so fresh...so long ago! I now looked out with hard eyes, anger in my heart, frustration not just at Charlie, but at the stupidity of those who had sent us on this suicide mission just to tempt the VC out...just to advance their own careers. I felt the weariness of it weighing on my shoulders. I felt old. I was just a pawn...a damned pawn, and an expendable pawn at that. And God's name had been on my lips through the worst of it, and still they had come. I remembered someone earlier...maybe it was Sanchez, who said he was going to call on the big guy a lot tonight. "The big guy is wonderful," he had said..."wonderful!" Now Sanchez was dead.
"Uuaahhh, uuaahhh, uuaahhh," broke the spell, as an eerie cry shrieked through the jungle. A cold and calculating chill ran down my neck. Had a jungle bird made the sound, or a monkey...or was it a signal from one angry man to another for the VC to move in...to finish us off? Once again I had not the slightest doubt whatsoever that the Vietcong would overrun our position before this night was over. It was just a matter of time before their blood-thirsty screams again saturated the night air. Battle to the death was an inevitable, indomitable, unavoidable, foregone certainty. It was only a question of time...and I was ready for them to come...anxious for them to come. The only question remaining was would it be a shooting match, or bloody hand-to-hand combat?
It had all happened so fast, it was all still whirring in my mind...the gunfire, the explosions, the screams, the smells, the unmitigated horror, the stench of dried blood, the sense of power I felt when I killed, my all-consuming fear...the dying, all awash in my weary mind. I had to pack the sheer overload of thoughts away, or I would go crazy. Death and tragedy had become too commonplace. I saw it everywhere I looked, on the faces of the men...in the eyes. So my mental defenses made it all a routine...part of day-to-day war in the jungle.
Whatever it was to be, I was tired of the waiting to see if I was going to die tonight, or not. If it was going to come, let it come now,
I thought. But I was sure of one thing, the VC would show no mercy when they killed us -- and smile as we died.