It had been a long day, and was proving to be an even longer night. After Ottell went back to sleep I counted the minutes till I could awaken O'Neal for his turn to guard the platoon from Charlie’s invasion. O'Neal was a couple of years younger than I, and at first glance might look like any other kid on the block...but that would be a mistake. O'Neal was older in the ways of war...older in the eyes...older in the heart.
I had heard scuttlebutt making the rounds. O'Neal had finished his first tour of duty, cussing the Army in colorful language, constantly and with great gusto. Then without warning, O’Neal suddenly became quiet. He didn't talk about leaving the Army anymore. Several weeks later, after O’Neal’s tour was supposed to come to an end, the guys found out he had quietly re-upped for another year. Then when that one year tour was up, he signed on for a third...now it too loomed almost over, and nobody ever remembered somebody signing up for a fourth year in Hell.
"Only one month till I make that final air assault on Landing Zone Travis in California," O'Neal was fond of bragging to anybody that would listen. "I'll shoot anybody steppin' between me and that plane back to 'the world,' I surely will...so nobody better mess with me." He always punctuated that kind of talk with a whoop and a holler, "I'm a short-timer!"
O'Neal’s moods were a roller coaster. Often he was hyper. Most times he had a telltale gleam in his eye, and quivering, barbed-wire lips, showing a feeble attempt to contain an impending, emotional blowout. Just as often, O’Neal was quietly pensive, with a tense, tight-ridged jaw and deep, brooding eyes that said, “Don’t mess with me.”
That grim, brooding look was there when the squad had dug our foxholes earlier, and in a soft moment O'Neil told me, "One at a time, my best friends got themselves zapped by Victor Charles. I saw them go, one-by-one,” he said, "and there wasn't nothing I could do about it. First there was Ryan, then Poke, then Gentry, then Harris. Now they're all gone. Charlie sniped them from the trees...got them with booby traps. They were sacrificed to Nam, and there wasn't nothing I could do about it. Now I don't have any friends. When I was new in country...kind of like you, it used to bring tears to my eyes when my best friends got shot. At first I got frustrated when I couldn't do anything about it. I cried...oh how I cried, but it didn't do any good. Now, I don't cry, and I don't want 'em...I can't afford 'em."
"Tears?" I asked naïvely.
"Friends!" O'Neal's mouth grew hard and quivering, as darkness in his eyes rolled and bubbled like a boiling thunderhead. "I don't need friends. I got all the friend I need right here," he said, hefting his M-16. "I hate Charlie, Jacob! I hate 'em with a passion! Me and my friend here can't kill Charlies fast enough. They can't run. They can't hide. I hate 'em, hear? I'm a Cong killer! The only regret I have leaving this festering boil on my backside called Nam, is that I won't be able to kill Charlies anymore."
I suddenly came alert, ripped from my thinking as if someone dropped an ice cube down my shorts. I heard something in the brush. Something moved out there, rustling dry leaves and snapping twigs. I heard men from the next position behind a rock breathing, and fought the urge to yell, "Shut up...they're coming!" Minutes passed. And nothing.
The Boy Scouts beside me in the great adventure of war didn't stir. Some of them slept soundly, combat-ready, fully clothed, combat boots on, M-16's snugly across their chests, or clutched by their side, ready for fight or flight in a second. They were primed to kill at a moment's notice, some eagerly, even knowing they might die.
O'Neal looked peaceful lying there under his poncho liner, with his floppy black and green camouflage hat pulled over his eyes. He seemed too young to hate so much. I couldn't even picture the hatred that I had seen burning in him before, he looked so innocent, but I'd seen it earlier when the platoon had entered the village.
An NVA sniper had gotten a belly wound as they began the "Search and Destroy Mission." O'Neal stepped up to the groaning man lying in the blood-caked dust, writhing in pain. Nobody said anything when O'Neal stepped over the raggedy body, put his M-16 between the eyes, tipped his bush hat in a gesture of goodbye, and with no more thought than someone would give to cutting down a weed, clamly blew his brains out. He simply emptied his clip into the man's head. He looked around as if proud of what he'd done, with the gleeful smile of a cherub...but his eyes were stones.
It seemed like O'Neal very much enjoyed the cruelty of the killing feast spread before him. Too much! And the officers looked away as though they hadn't seen. "I had to zero in my weapon...at six inches," O'Neal had chuckled, as he delicately placed a card, the ace of spades, in the gory mass of the man's bullet-riddled brain. "The ace of spades is the 1st Cav's calling card," he said. "Charlie sees this, he'll know right away he's fucked! He'll know who done it," he gloated, as a veteran teacher would instruct a naïve pupil in the ways of war. "Yes sir, Victor Charlie knows Franklin O'Neal. They know me quite well."
"Mister Charles will learn not to mess with 'The First Team'," Riley said, reaching in to cut off an ear from the dead VC. After brandishing the souvenir high overhead, he stuck it on what looked like a rawhide loop on his belt, beside other grizzly trophies.
"Damn, I feel good! We're 'The Fuckin' Hard Corps,’ sneered O'Neal, “the 1st Cav!”
Riley plucked a letter out of Charlie’s breast pocket. He and O'Neal laughed at the strange writing, engaging in singsong mocking. They laughed at a picture of a young girl in a long flowing white gown...laughed at her smiling demurely back at them. "We sure as hell ruined her whole day," they laughed.
Wherever the jokes came from, I couldn't find such a place in myself, thank God, and turned away with disgust. Now when I looked at the two of them sleeping peacefully, I could hardly picture the scene I had witnessed earlier. I simply couldn't imagine it, they looked so innocent. I couldn’t begin to comprehend it, but it had seemed so vivid then, so brutal then. These innocent Boy Scouts now sleeping so serenely, these tranquil flowers of America's youth, did not appear capable of acting so savagely. How could they? What had happened to turn them? Surely they weren't like this when they had first come to Vietnam. Sure, boys will be boys, sometimes mischievous, sometimes even irreverently naughty devils...but how could they be so cruel? And above all, how can they ever extinguish that cruelty when they get back to the states.
I clearly, somberly, remembered their mocking faces now, when O'Neal and Riley had looked at the picture of the young girl and made lewd remarks. How could I ever forget that? It was indelibly etched on my memory. But though I would never forget that horrible look, at the same time I racked my brain with self-condemnation. Why had I only turned away? Why had I not said something? Perhaps it was because they had killed with the implied permission of the officers who were right there, but turned the other way. "If somebody was to say something, surely it should be them," I kept saying to myself. But Trenery was on the horn, and Pike was with a group of men, gesturing out into the forest. Both briefly glanced over, but turned away and made themselves busy. "Hell, it don't really matter!" I thought. "The man would have died anyway. He was dead! It would have been a nine-grand deal to try and save his life." Perhaps I was too afraid to be the only one objecting. Perhaps I was afraid of the ridicule that might be heaped upon me...the names I would be called. Perhaps, and this was the most damning thought of all, I saw in O'Neal and Riley what this war would make of me. Were they were my future?
As I stood watch now, I half-dreamed of them. I had seen the monsters in O’Neal and Riley. I had seen their sharply barbed teeth for tearing and holding their prey, their bodies covered with slimy scales, cold to the touch, cold to the bone. But the monsters weren’t just in these two Boy Scouts. The monster demons were working and eating inside us all. They were in everyone who aided, abetted, or let the depraved act of war go on without saying anything. War is profane! War is in fact hell! The whole concept of war is an atrocity...and both sides lived up to that fact.
"Am I the only human being in this place?" I silently screamed. "Are the others only savage animals pretending to be naïve Boy Scouts, but in reality selfish warrior gluttons satisfying themselves, engorging themselves on blood, on the misery of others? Will I grow to become like them before I leave the Nam? Will a year of nights in this killing field drive me too, over the edge?"
I renewed the resolve to keep Christ alive in my life, to fight this evil blight ever coming closer to me. I must win. I must survive. Next time, I vowed to speak...next time I would do something. Next time O'Neal did something crazy, I wouldn't hesitate. I would no longer be silent. I couldn’t be silent, for God's Holy Spirit could well be the only saving grace that could save me from becoming a hideous monster in a hideous war. Then I remembered Ottel. Ottel had said he too was getting to feel cold and hard...violent urgings in a violent war...but Ottel wasn't like O'Neal. Nobody was like O'Neal...or were they? Were we all really that much different? Ottel had said he tried to make the insanity sane, but was his struggle to maintain his humanity a losing battle? Could Christ make a difference in his life too?
What puzzled me most was how willing Riley and Nigel were to go along with O'Neal. They couldn't want to be like him, could they? O'Neal was a murderer to the core of his heart. Couldn't they see that? O'Neal was a casualty of war that could not be reckoned with. It hadn't taken long for me to recognize it, but couldn't others see it? These Boy Scouts emulated O’Neal. They looked up to him like they would a big brother...maybe because he got all the attention. People walked softly around O'Neal...even officers. It was a kind of grudging respect. He may have looked young, but O'Neal was a powder keg. And O'Neal had more time in-country than anybody, with all that implies. He could move through the jungle effortlessly, reading sign, and making combat decisions that even the officers used. The Boy Scouts wanted to be like him, rough, tough, ready for the killing that abounded here, unafraid of dipping their hands into the gore of it. Couldn't they fully understand the degradation of their actions? They were mere puppets at the feet of the man-eating ogre. It was insane. But then, war was insane. Couldn't people see this? Couldn't God see this?
O'Neal had seen me turn away in disgust. He had bent his lips into a crooked half-smile, but it was a false smile. O'Neal's lips were smiling, but his eyes were cold and hard. In his heart he wasn't smiling. O'Neal had gone after me, chastising me. "VC eats rooks like you alive, you puke, and when they've given you a good chew, they spit out the pits. Whatever are we going to do with a worthless, untrainable, impossible specimen of horseshit like yourself?"
Hours later, as I looked around the tree from where I had scratched a prone foxhole, I nodded sleepily, then sharply jerked erect. I'd dreamed I was an old man, with a young girl setting on my knee. We were watching television, when suddenly there was O'Neal, grinning widely, grotesquely, the hardness still in his eyes. He pulled the wounded VC to his feet before us, and once more put a bullet in his head, then just walked away as if it were nothing. I was there. I recoiled from it, but had done nothing to stop it. I tried, filled with remorse, to pretend it didn't happen. The little girl turned to the old man I had become, with the sweetest wonderment in her eyes. "Why did he do that, Grandpa? Why didn't you stop him?"
I had no answer then. I have no answer now.
Sergeant Mulenburg appeared out of the night, and slipped silently into the shallow foxhole. He saw me nodding, and struggling not to go to sleep. "Young troop goes t'sleep on watch out here," he said, without looking directly at me, "likely his pards'll give him a perpet-u-ally bay-onet-ed grin."
"Y'all gonna get plenty time t'sleep when you're in the ground daid, young troop. Y'all girls gots to watch each othah's backs, heah? Ya' gots to keep our perim'ter buttoned up tight."
"Watch y'all field of fire in front of your foxhole, young troop. Remember, each man's fire zone overlaps you’ahs neighbors, all the way 'round the perim'ter."
"I know, Sarge."
"Ever'body's countin' on you’ah, young troop. Ever'body's life depends on y'all...y'all heah me? Ever'body's see-cure if'n we all jest keep a tight watch."
"I know, Sarge. I'm OK."
After he left, I continued the fight against sleep until it was time for O'Neal's shift. I nudged O'Neal to take his turn at guard, but nothing. I nudged harder, then a little harder, hardly daring breathe for fear the Vietcong hiding in the bush would hear. "O'Neal? O'Neal, your turn to stand guard. O'Neal..."
O'Neal didn't move. But his lips snarled in a tight, curling, vicious snap, "Touch me again...and I'll kill you."
Well now, I hadn't expected that. I had one eye on O'Neal's prone form beside me, and one eye on the imposing jungle filled with men wanting to kill me. I didn't know what to do. Surely I had misunderstood O'Neal, so I nudged him again.
"Touch me again...I'll kill you."
Now I was tired...bone tired, and I was getting mad! I wanted to shake O'Neal awake...strangle him...anything not to let him get away with it. There was always a chance O'Neal was talking in a half-sleep, not fully awake, not knowing what he was saying. But he cuddled his M-16 with a hair trigger that might just go off and hurt somebody if he was shaken out of dreams that were surely of the enemy. But there was a bigger chance he was faking. That's what I thought. His was a ploy, so that the rookie would stand his watch too. I couldn't stand the thought that O'Neal could get away with this, but I didn't want to make a scene by rousting him out...not here! I didn't want to call in the Vietcong hordes, telling them exactly where we were. I didn't want to make noise...not here...not now. It won't matter a diddly who's right or wrong if we're all killed.
So I simply sat there, glaring at him, determined I would tell him off in the morning. What else could I do? I thought of waking him with a bayonet thrust. Oh, how I wanted to do that...and the thought brought me pleasure. But I did nothing. Fear of the malicious night, appalling death so caustic I could smell the pungent, tangy scent of it in my nostrils. That was the only thing keeping me from making a noisy scene.
I dreamed I was on the show, Candid Camera. Any moment now, someone would pop up and say, "Surprise! This is all a joke. There's really not a war. Did you think it was real? How quaint. How absurd. How utterly inane. This isn't real. Did you really think we'd leave you here alone? Really? How cute. Someone could get killed. Did you think we'd let you take a bullet. Really! How dreadfully amusing!"
Ottel woke for his turn two hours later, but I couldn't go to sleep now. Anger seethed in me! My anger had really stirred up a bad case of heartburn that kept me awake. Thoughts of O'Neal, and planning my revenge, kept me awake. I told Ottel about O'Neal and his threat, and he only said, again waxing philosophical, "What do you expect? We're just children fighting old farts' wars. It's bound to change some of us. War can warp soldiers whose sense of right and wrong isn't very secure in the first place."
I raised my eyebrows. "I think that's a giant understatement. I think Vietnam will change us all...some of us indelibly, irretrievably. I mean, look at naïve, impressionable kids like Riley. Vietnam is bound to change them.”
"Hell yes! The old farts count on that change transforming kids like Riley into some kind of mutant killers to fight their battles ad infinitum. We're nothing more than stock options as far as the corporate moguls are concerned. There wouldn't be an army without robots doing the block-headed, monolithic bureaucrats' dirty work. The old farts, the colonels, generals, politicians and Washington moneymen, look at war as no more than a job. War's nothing more than a world-class chess match to them, and we're just pawns in the game. The game gives them a reason for being."
I shook my head slowly. "It's a very sad commentary. Your 'old farts' distance the enemy from them in war rooms back in the Pentagon. They sanitize and dehumanize the war. They're not killing men, they're killing communists and saving democracy. They’re killing a communist conspiracy with expendable resources.”
"Now you tell me who's the naïve one here?" Ottel asked, pulling a face. "They're just killing pawns, bullcrap! Guess who the expendable resource is...gung-ho, and bound to do or die?”
"They're saving their pie in the sky," I added, "'cause without war they'd be bored out of their skulls, humdrum nothings. They're fighting for global power, but they're losing themselves at the same time. They're selling their immortal souls, bartering away their hereafter, and pushing the Savior from their sad, dreary lives."
"Hell, we're all losers." Ottel hunkered down beside the roots of a large tree, dragging on a cigarette where the flames glowing ash couldn't be seen. "We're all losers. Just talking about dying forebodes the worst that can happen. It means confronting the myths of war, and facing man's inhumanity to man. That's a lot of baggage to bear, and it is precisely that baggage filled with those realities that make so many returned soldiers basket cases."
I thought about it for a minute. "My dad wrote me that he heard they're already having trouble back home with Nam vets who still haven't recovered fully, mentally or physically. He says they bring nightmares of the war back home with them, and are causing quite a fuss.”
“Sad but true,” Ottel said, letting out a long sigh filled with weariness. “Nam lives on when Vietnam GI’s get back home. I've heard the stories from some of my buddies that had returned home too. The thoughts and attitudes beaten into a soldier's subconscious mind in Vietnam, take on a life all its own there. Like memories...hell, there's no getting rid of them. The memories will keep him fighting battles that will likely stay with vets for the rest of their lives. We change too much to go back to where we were when the war snatched us out of the cradle," Ottel said, taking another drag.
"I guess," I nodded.
"No guessing about it. Army hospitals are already loaded with Vietnam vets that have become too introspective, or disillusioned with life I hear, blaming the world...blaming the system...blaming the government. Why, they even blame God. They blame the ordinary people that sent us over here to Nam, who then cry foul when we come home to live next door, or date their daughters, having lost our innocence in Nam...having learned to kill. The ordinary people warn their daughters to avoid Vietnam vets like a pariah."
I stared into the wall of night. "It shouldn't be like that!"
"Well, that's the way it is...you gonna change it?"
"Cheer up! Charlie may put us all out of our misery. He might just kill us all before we make it back to the block.” I saw Ottel looking at me strangely. I just knew Ottel could see the embryo of the beast in me. I propped myself up on one elbow. "Ottel, what's your relationship with God like?"
"Whoa, that's a big question," Ottel said, taking a drag and looking around to make sure no one else was listening. "You know, there are some guys here would make fun of you for talking like that," he said laughing, "but I think...I think my relationship with God all depends on what day it is.”
“Yeah, so tell me.”
“You want to know seriously...I’ll tell you. I doubt a true God could allow something like this to happen...Vietnam, the violence. I mean, Nam's like nothing this all-American boy from a God-fearing family's ever seen. It’s really messed up my thinking, toying with all the things I thought were right. Vietnam has turned upside down everything I was taught, but you wanna know what really bothers me? The thing that bothers me most is that the VC are just as convinced that they're fighting for God...Him...you know, Allah, or Buddha, or whatever, as much as we do. We think God’s on our side, they’re just as convinced He's on theirs. They think God makes them strong, empowering them to resist the foreign imperialists. They think He’s helping them kill us, and drive us into the sea. They think God is on their side helping them to weaken the will of the imperialistic intruders. Who’s right? Hell...sometimes I wonder, you know. Who knows? Who the fuck knows? People have wondered why God doesn’t take more of a hand, ever since Cro-Magnon man took up his clubs and went to war against the Neanderthals. No, wait a minute. That’s not right. God often directed his people in the Bible to go to war against the non-believers...and sometimes to sue for peace.”
“I don’t know the whys or wherefores either,” I said. “This has got me all turned around. I just know that God is real.”
“Well, I only wish He was real enough for both sides to see which way was right, so then maybe we could pack up and all go home. You know, Jacob, it appears to me like God, if there really is a God, would stand up and say something...anything, just to let both sides know which way the wind blows. If He loves us, why would He let us go around messing up, killing each other, and making monstrous mistakes? Why wouldn’t God want us to know what He thinks? That's all! I just wanna know what He thinks."
“God lets us make our mistakes, even though it brings Him almost unbearable sorrow. He hopes we will learn from the mistakes. He hopes we will come out better than we were going in. It's like a child touching a stove for the first time. He learns emphatically, in a way he won't soon forget, that touching the stove is an unpleasant experience...an experience he doesn't want to repeat. He learns the lesson deeper, to a far greater degree, than if he was merely warned about it. War is like that. By going through this war the Lord ingrains lessons of life to those who would hear.”
Ottel nodded meditatively. "I see.”
Somehow I don't think he really did. “The Lord teaches us to value the light of righteousness by showing us the dark side."
"Well, I for one have seen all I want to see of the darker side," Ottel said, glancing at O'Neal slumbering peacefully beside him. "Some of us have never proven very good at learning what is sometimes too obvious."
I too, was introspective. "If we make it through this carnage alive, we should tell our war stories to our children and grandchildren. We should warn them to avoid war and bloodshed at all costs. Our children just can't repeat our mistakes."
"Lot of good that'll do," Ottel said. "That may sound good in theory, but most won't buy it!"
"You mean people like O'Neal?"
"Yeah, O'Neal would say there is nothing better than a war to bring out the full measure of a man's manhood."
"Ottel, I hope my kids enjoy that particular lack of manhood. I don't want them ever to have to pick up a gun in anger. I don't want them to ever have to kill somebody."
"By your analogy, Jacob, your children will never learn about the horrors of war sufficiently, unless they slog through it, experiencing the bloodletting firsthand.”
"A good father who has witnessed the evils of war can insure his children learn from history."
"Can he? Isn't history doomed to repeat itself? Doesn’t it say somewhere that the children are fated to repeat the mistakes of their fathers? If it isn't, it should! If the next generation doesn't learn from this, the next great 'war to end all wars' will inexorably come...on that you can rely!"
I leaned forward to better stress my point. "I hope not. Not if the children are properly taught. Sure enough, some will fall by the wayside. Some just don't, or won’t, pay attention, and some just don’t care. In every harvest some chaff falls by the wayside. As such, even some of our beloved children will fall by the wayside, just as some are lured and ensnared by the wicked temptations of Satan. But I guess lessons learned firsthand are the best lessons learned...and they are lasting lessons. I can see now the tremendous love the Father must have to sit back and let His children get hurt in order that they might better learn."
Ottel slumped back, sighing restlessly. "That sounds good in the telling, but Jacob, it only takes one madman’s finger on the button and our whole progeny are doomed to go to war...maybe to die, maybe to sit in foxholes just like us."
"But Ottel, the chosen few will find their faith fortified increasingly."
"Don't count on it!"
"They will remember the wise counsel of their youth, they just have to. They will learn to value their faith more than ever before. With the Lord's help, they will hold steadfastly to their faith and knowledge, through constant prayer, as we must now. They will use the power of God to neutralize the evil power all around them."
"I think you're dreaming," Ottel looked astounded. "That sounds profound...too profound, and I think too easy for you to say, but this is the real world, Jacob. Reality has a tendency here to reach up and bite you in the rear. You have to give all your attention to escaping without getting your head blown off, and that doesn't leave time to concern yourself with a little thing like your values getting altered...until it's too late. They'll be gone, and you won't even know it."
I agreed. "I know the way is hard. But for those willing to look for His guiding hand in things, simply to reach out, we have His promise. The light of Christ can become as a beacon to the beleaguered soldier. It shows us the way out of darkness, corruption, and away from the foibles of men."
"Might be, but I think you're putting way too much on the man upstairs' shoulders," Ottel said, looking slightly bemused. “What if the foibles of men are caused by their officers? Can God buck the chain of command? He sure hasn't shown any desire to do it up to now!"
I couldn't help laughing at him. "Then you have a real problem, Ottel. I have complete trust the Lord will lead me through this conflagration of hate and killing, and that I will come out a better man for it...thereby of greater worth to the Lord...if I don't die first."
"Well you just might, at that," Ottel looked faraway. "But don’t worry about death. Jacob, after awhile you get to where you can lie down right beside it, snuggle up to it, and sleep like a baby...like them," Ottel said, pointing to the Boy Scouts fast asleep around our position.
"Who'd know to look at them, what they've seen." I paused for a minute to think. "You see yourself as a killer, Ottel?"
"Me...naw, I'm just shooting to miss," he chuckled, then turned serious. "Hard to say," Ottel said, taking a drag. "Sometimes it feels like it. I've shot at men shooting at me. Some of them went down, but then others were shooting at them too, so I just don't know if I’ve actually killed. I don't know if it was my bullet that got them or someone else’s. I wasn't shooting to miss, but...I think it’s better if I don’t know. War's planted a terrible seed in me. It's changed my psyche, coached me to kill, given me the omnipresent fear of being killed. I do what I have to do, but I fear what the seed's dark harvest might bring...but that's something to worry about tomorrow." He plunged his cigarette into the dirt of the foxhole and turned away. After a moment, he said, "In my heart I know I'm forever changed. I can't go back to the innocence. It's forever lost."
Sergeant Mulenburg broke up our conversation, making another round, dipping into my prone foxhole behind a tree, just as another bullet also made its rounds. "Afraid Fredericks?" he asked. I noticed him staring, and wondered if the sergeant could read my thoughts. I wondered if he thought I was going to break and run at any moment?
"No Sergeant. Should we be?"
A bullet thudded into the dirt piled around the foxhole, just on the other side of my head, and I shrunk deeper into the hole.
"Hell no," Ottel smirked, "what is there to be afraid of?"
Mulenburg chuckled, "Them unfrien'lies don't know nuthin' 'bout nuthin', I reckon. They're shooting up the night’s jest probing, young troops, thass all."
"The Vietcong know we're here, don’t they?" I asked.
"Charlie knows't we're heah all right. Hell, young troop, this 'ere be Charlie’s backyard." He nodded in the general direction of the thousand dugouts and underground homes our battalion had rifled, pillaged and blown up that day. "Do they know'at we're here?” he chuckled softly. “They sho'nuff know, but they don't rightly know 'zactly where we be. Lord, I be hopeful by the time they figure't out good, we'll be long gone. They thought they knowed where we was, but we hain't there no mo', an that's got 'im puzzled"
"Anyway that's the plan," mumbled Ottel, "even if the plan is a paltry one, vastly ill-conceived."
"Ah swear, young'n, you sure do come up with some notions," he chuckled. "Now Ah don't want any' a y’all return'n fire at noises,” Sergeant Mulenburg warned. “Heah me, young troops? Y'all see somethin', anything 'sides shadows out theah, y'all have my permiss'on to open up on it. But y'all bettah be sure, young troops, of what y'all be seein’. Ah'll hang you up by you’ah's balls my-own-se'f, iffen ya' bring'm down on me'n my girls."
Mulenburg stared into the night for a long minute. "Wish y'all could'a strung out claymore mines'n sech-like. Trip flares too. Claymoors’d go a long ways t'wards making me feel a whole heap safer."
"Gotta' go with safety," Ottel quipped.
Mulenburg didn't catch the wit. "Yeah, but nev'r mind...forest's too damnable thick."
"Yes, Sergeant," I said, looking into the blind night of a thousand eyes. "Why don't they attack, sir?"
Mulenburg turned and stared, boring a hole in me with his eyes. He didn't say anything for a long minute. He didn't have to. I had heard the cliché hourly since first getting off the boot camp bus, but I was about to hear it again.
Ottel chuckled. "Now you've done it."
"Don't be call'n me 'sir,' young troop," Mulenburg said with irate feeling. "Ah'm no off-y-cer...ah'm a sergeant, young troop, 'n don't y'all ferget it. Ah work for a livin'. Besides, off-y-cers'r too high on the Vietcong kill list fer Mrs. Mulenburg's baby boy."
"Who would kill you?" Ottel quipped.
"Oh they sure try, all right, but Ah don't hanker to be here to find out, no how, no way. But if'n Charlie can take out the author'ty figure, and that would be me, young troop...well, then he supposes it would plumb make his whole, cotton pickin' day, it sho'nuff would!"
"We wouldn't want that," Ottel quipped.
"VC kills an off-y-cer, he reckons he's gutted the unit entire. Ah swear Ah'd come close to shooting any young trooper that tried saluting me out here."
"Nobody'd salute you, Sarge," Ottel boyishly grinned. "They know how it makes you."
"Y'all better know," Mulenburg drawled. "Salutin’s a death sentence. Thass why's Ah done got my stripes blacked, so unfrien'lies cain't see 'em.”
"Neither can we, Sergeant,” Ottel smiled, "neither can we.”
“Well, best be stand'n ready, girls, Ah’m here to tell ya'. Scuttlebutt says theah be nigh onto two thousan’ Charlies hidin' out in these heah woods, and I reckon it's God's honest truth, young troops. Poop's usually key-rect...'ceptin' when it's wrong sometimes, an then it's jest wrong. But hell, what do Ah know? Ah'm just a sergeant. Ah don't reckon to know any more'n y'all girls. But look at it this way. Y'all razed nine hun’erd hootches...and somebody out theah got a mad-on seeing y'all do it."
"I'm thinking somebody is just a tetch per-turbed, maybe," Ottel smirked, as one of Mulenburg's somebodies fired two shots two hundred yards to our right, right on cue. That cut the sergeant’s words short.
"When do you think they'll attack?" I asked again.
"Could be close't hand," Mulenburg drawled, "or Charlie might jest wait till first light so's he can see us better. Onliest thing stoppin'm, is they haven't quite got us figured out, and don't you’ah go tellin'm our se-crets, young troop."
After Mulenburg left, I asked, "What am I doing here Ottel? I'm not a killer. Or am I?"
"You may not be a killer per se...not in the heart, but you're getting there," Ottel joked, "yes, you're getting there. I think maybe you'd best pray about it."
I laughed. "You really think so?" Ottel was joking, of course, but Ottel didn't know how
right he was. Prayer was my best insurance to keep from slipping into the dark side. I remember how we used to joke that prayer was our fire insurance. I remembered two large billboards in "Tigerland," Fort Polk, Louisiana's Advanced Infantry Training
camp, that had set the tone for my whole Army life. One showed a Vietnamese in black pajamas, looking through the elephant grass. Above it were the big, bold words, "This is your enemy...learn to kill him." Another billboard showed a large tiger, with the words, "To be a tiger...you must kill like a tiger." I looked away, gazing out into the lethal night. Part of me felt like I'd been pole-axed. Then my mind cleared. "Trust your heart, Ottel," I finally said firmly. "Put your faith in the Lord, and He’ll guide you to do what’s right. He’ll be your friend and guide in the darkest hour."