At first light the helicopters dropped in Charley Company. Mulenburg announced in a graveled voice, "Time't saddle up, girls. Lock and load! Put on them pack saddles y'all darlin's love to wear. Time't take a walk in the park, young troops."
And just like that the horrible night was over.
I could scarcely hide the puzzlement, wondering why the VC hadn't attacked like expected. I felt an empty, sick feeling...baffled somehow. Something totally expected, something my whole being steeled itself to accept as inevitable, had not happened. I hated it when it was like that!
When I told Sergeant Mulenburg I wondered why the VC hadn't attacked, the sergeant got this shit-eating grin. "Y'all wonder’n, grunt? My, my, my, whatever will ya think of next. You’ahs rich Uncle Sammy don't pay y'all none to wonder, young troop. Next thing ya know, y'all be sayin’ that y'all have minds of yer own. Pre-pos'trous! We cain’t have theat...noooo siree! If’n you’ahs rich Uncle Sammy, the man at the head of y'alls chain of command, drafted y'alls behinds for walkin'...thass good enough fer this old war horse. Y'all best preee-pare to walk, young troop, cause walkin' thru the park is what y'all do best...and thass all ya gonna do, y'all heah me, young troop? Get it through that thick infantry brain."
"Jacob hears ya," Ottel chuckled, as he hefted his machine gun on his shoulders and prepared to move out. “Walkin' the park's what we get paid the big bucks for, eh Sarge."
"Thass right!" Mulenburg said. "Infantry's r-r-rich on tra-dition. If’n the brass wanted y'all young troops to go cog-i-tat'n y'all brains on strat-gy, they'd of issued y'all off-y-cer brains stead'a infantry ones."
As we headed out on a trail through the brush we saw a dead VC that the Boy Scouts had blown away. I had heard the firing. I had heard the bloodcurdling screams shattering the night; screams that went on for hours as the man died, and then suddenly someone had mercifully ended it with a shotgun blast that reverberated through the night. The screams had lent a certain unique ambiance to the terror trilling down my spine that had kept me awake...but the horror of the silence that followed was almost, somehow, worse.
The lifeless VC didn't even seem human now. He looked like a clump of someone's red-stained laundry. Unable to take my eyes off the faceless pulp of the brain-splattered body, I was mesmerized by it. I wondered where the life had gone. I sensed the fingers of terror snuggle around me like a too tight suit, as a cloud of fear wafted like a red smudge on the already hot jungle air. I scanned the nearby undergrowth for the dead man's friends who I knew had silently watched the gruesome spectacle, and now were just waiting for the right moment. How they must be infuriated with maddening desire to avenge their fallen comrade.
The Boy Scouts walked around the dead body with no more expression than they'd give an empty ammo canister. Except O'Neal. "Nice to do business with you, Charlie," he laughed, kneeling over the broken, formless mass. "Remember me to your friends, won't you fucker?" he snickered, as he stuck an ace of spades prominently in the grayish-red, matted brain of the dead VC. O'Neal took exasperating minutes to position the ace of spades just right, adjusting it amid the gore so it couldn't be missed by friends, loved ones, and family . Then he stood back to better admire his creative handiwork, totally devoid of visible emotion. It was as if he had staged this tragic scene countless times before.
When I passed by, I was disgusted, and made no attempt to hide it. I brought up last night. "O'Neal...got to see you."
"So...I'm just giving this boy his proper send-off. Besides, I see you, Jacob. Hell, I see too much of you."
"I want to talk to you now, see? You’d best give a listen."
"What's so fucking urgent? Whatever you got to say will wait."
“No it won’t! About that matter of threatening to kill me when I woke you for guard last night...remember?"
"Did I do that?" O'Neal flashed an impish, crooked grin. "That's so unlike me. Maybe I was asleep."
"And maybe you were playing a con game for the rookie. O'Neal, you better know what happened last night...well, it better not happen again -- or else."
"Oh yeah!" O'Neal said smugly, standing nose to nose with me, "or else what?" He tried to puff himself up to look bigger, but he still only came up to my chin. He looked like a spoiled schoolboy caught throwing paper wads.
I was just revolted enough to give O'Neal his lumps. For some reason I wasn't scared of him. I felt no awe. He wasn't such a formidable presence...just mean. I felt the urge to strike out at the bully, but at the last second, better judgment caused me to reconsider. “You don't want to test me, O'Neal, believe me you don't. If you want to keep it up we can talk to Sergeant Mulenburg or Lieutenant Pike about it, but I don't want it happening again! That's my first and last word."
"How far you willing to take this, Joe Smith Mormon?"
"Well, I hadn't planned to kill you but..."
"Well that's good to know," said O'Neal, laughing a nervous laugh. But he saw the look...saw the clenched fist...and knew enough to back off. He screwed up his face with a hard look I interpreted only one way: the battle would resume when something more worthwhile was at stake.
"Mov'm out, girls," Mulenburg commanded. "Y'all keep 'em spread out now. Don't want one round gettin' all y'all darlin’s."
I glanced back at the alien village as I stepped into formation behind O'Neal and Ottel going into the thick jungle. I still wondered why four platoons had dropped in during the day to relieve the platoon that had stood a solitary guard through the more perilous night. As the last vestiges of the village vanished in the thick jungle, I mumbled, "Divine wisdom from up the chain of command, I suppose."
Ottel, pushing aside a palm frond, looked back. "Rookie, when you get to be a veteran...if you live to be a veteran...you'll learn wisdom has very little to do with anything anybody does in this man’s Army."
My platoon of grunts at first moved stealthily through the thick forest, straining our eyes warily in a sweeping search from side to side to spot VC lurking in wait to kill us. We glanced furtively around every corner, acute, razor-sharp fighting machines, totally absorbed with moving quietly, covertly, anxiously humping through the jungle, intensely hunting for an elusive quarry. We were loaded like pack mules, sticks of dynamite, pots and pans and entrenching tools banging and clanging, but each man was alone in his thoughts as if in the eye of a hurricane.
But over time, after hours of hard sweat and withering intensity, the mental and physical sharpness dissipated. The well-oiled combat machines began to sputter and grind. All attempts of trying to move with stealth evaporated, as sheer exhaustion set in. We lumbered obtrusively through the serene and heretofore quiet jungle silence, like intruding elephants crashing through lush bamboo thickets. We were drained and haggard grunts, plodding tediously along the jungle trails, just going through the motions, seeing nothing beyond where the next foot would fall. Charlie could have hid completely undetected only a few yards away. We laborious grunts focused on just moving one leaden foot at a time, one after the other, hoping someone would look after us when we were beyond looking after ourselves.
So when the platoon came to an open clearing, finally, Mulenburg called out, "Spread'm out, girls, 'n take five. Y'all can smoke'm if'n y'all got'm."
My squad had no sooner flopped down under a banana tree to establish our section of the perimeter defensive position, than O'Neal spoke. "Tell me, Mormon," he asked, grinning like the proverbial Cheshire cat, "what does your God think about all this? You correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't your God say killing was wrong? Maybe I'm in error...it has been known to happen before," he said, looking around, smiling at his little joke, "though I can't for the life of me remember when. But aren't we supposed to love our neighbors?"
Ottel looked back when I started to speak, and spoke first. "Vietnam is a moral and ethical dilemma, O'Neal. It’s the great cost of living in a society with morals that you have to defend...but all this killing! We should love our neighbor, right? God, if there is one, should stop the killing, right? God should at the very least give some kind of divine, moral imperative to guide us. He should give us notice of where He stands on the issues, but the heavens remain silent, and we foolish mortals are left to our own devices to muddle around this moldering graveyard.” He paused, looking bewildered. “I can't believe it, Jacob...I just agreed with O'Neal!"
The whole squad turned and looked...even O'Neal. Ottel grinned sheepishly, "You don't have to say it. My siding with O'Neal surprised the hell out of me too."
O'Neal looked back at me, flashing an insolent smile. "What say, holy roller? Isn't God's way just smack dab full of peace doves, love thy neighbor and all that kindness crap? Or was I sleeping in when they renounced that?"
"Well, God is..."
"No, no, no, I'll tell you where I think God is on this one," O'Neal proclaimed. "I think God is in His heavenly courtside bleachers, somewhere up there," his hand swept across the sky, "and He's cheering on this little bloodsport, violence and destruction, as we puny piss-ant humans trip grovel in the muck through this dirty business. I can see it clearly: God's on his throne-side seats on high, with a heavenly snicker on His holy face, watching as we play smash-mouth with Charlie, trying our best to kill one another. I think God enjoys this whole damned circus, don’t you?"
"O'Neal, God has given mankind his free agency that we..."
O'Neal gave a puzzled look. "You say what...Free what? Come again?"
"Free agency is what it sounds like, O'Neal, the freedom to accept or reject God's word. Humankind has the option to live God’s word or not, by his own free choice, determined by the dictates of our own conscience and sense of right and wrong. God has not yet imposed an absolute rule over the world. His divine will, principles, and commandments are not now mandatory."
"Fuck you!" O'Neal exclaimed. "Don't give me no pontifical static, boy," he grunted, snorting in delight like a hog rooting in a turnip patch. "You mean we can do what the hell we want?”
“That’s a crude way of putting it, but yes. God pretty much let's us do what we will, good or evil...but then there comes the judgment, when we have to pay for our actions.”
O'Neal totally enjoyed the thought. “Hey, that's just swell! That's all we need...a lenient Supreme Being, with a liberal outlook on this human condition."
“God gives us commandments, and He wants us to obey them, but he wants us to live them because we love Him, not because we're coerced into it."
"Oh, that's nice," sputtered O'Neal, elbowing Riley in the ribs. "God is my kinda guy. Don't you just love a liberal deity."
"Men will be men, my grandmother used to say...and they will reap their reward," Ottel chimed. “I think some of them need to change before it's too late." He eyed O'Neal, obviously suppressing a grin.
"And some of them are bumbling fools," sneered O'Neal, "dangerously close to buying it. Jacob, your great and magnificent God, if there is a God, somewhere, is just looking down on us inconsequential humans like...like ants in an ant farm. God's just entertained by us as in some cosmic moral play. Sometimes God's interested in His paltry human subjects, sometimes He's entertained, sometimes He's not...and sometimes God forgets all about us. Quite often He's distracted, looking away for millenniums at a time.”
"So the ants in God's ant farm get squashed...so what! So they fight...how entertaining! So they get their feelers gnawed off by enemy ants...how interesting! But does God really care? No...hell no! God don't care a lick! Other than experiencing an observational interest, God could care less what ants do."
O'Neal reached out for a piece of dry grass, and began shredding it slowly, almost as an after-thought, but soon he became more violent before my eyes, tearing the shoots off, recklessly, wildly, with vicious abandon. "The way I see it," O'Neal said, his eyes a little crazed, "God, if there even is one, controls our behavioral standards as no more than a hobby. Vietnam is God’s recreation. This is His holy rumpus room. It’s a release from the tedium of ruling the universe, nothing more. God's commandments are simply hoops and obstacles for us expendable human ants to jump through for God’s viewing pleasure. This is all just for His amusement! And when God gets really bored, He puts us in harm's way to see what we’ll do. A little blood and dying is just interesting entertainment, far as God is concerned. He pits us together with different enemies, playing with us, antagonizing us, pushing us, manipulating the combinations, hoping we will fight...all for His glorious entertainment."
"We're no ants, O'Neal, and God doesn’t just humor us for his own entertainment." I looked into O'Neal's eyes, and with passion in my voice, declared, "When men become warlike, and take by force the rights of the weaker of God's children, God permits the righteous to protect the weaker peoples tormented by bullies. That is why we are here in Vietnam."
"Christ, you really believe that, don’t you? You talk about bullies, Jacob. Hell, we're the bullies here. Ol' man Lyndon Johnson just wants any war that's handy. My man just wants to boost his standing in the polls to insure he gets a better place in history, and makes his mark. His generals and lifers, hell, they just want someplace to play their war games. Charlie’s the patsy here, Jacob...there he was, just going along tending his rice paddy with his water buffalo, minding his own business, when some bad armed-to-the-teeth dudes from some distant superpower came knocking at his door with rockets in their teeth. They spouted words like democracy and freedom, dropping bombs and ripping apart Charlie’s whole life with better-than-thou superiority and high-handed firepower. You see any Vietcong tanks or airplanes here? No, an you won't neither...because the only tanks, planes and 'copters you see are made in the good old USA."
"Abuses of power do take place," I agreed, “no doubt about it. Large nations like ours command great firepower and massive logistical support. Nations wield a long arm to implement their policies abroad, and why?"
"Simply because they can, I'd guess," Ottel interjected, smiling.
"That's about right," I said. "Sometimes they do it justly, and sometimes greed is the major motivation. History shows plenty of times when the mighty nations use force for selfish gain, fomenting wars, rebellions and suffering for the almighty dollar. Might does not always make for right, but sometimes the mighty are called on to defend a weaker nation. That’s what's taking place here."
“Is it?" Ottel asked, pondering the question. “I don't like the idea of agreeing with O'Neal...'specially not two times in a row, but let me try to understand. Are you saying there are such things as good wars?"
I nodded. "Yes, there are righteous wars."
"That's a crock of bull," O'Neal shouted.
"I'm not the one to say if Vietnam fits into that pigeon hole, and I can't be the judge if God approves of the Vietnam War," Ottel said. God only knows, I'm no a prophet, and I don't read minds!"
"Well, at least we can agree on that," O'Neal snickered. "You ain't much of anything."
I laughed in spite of myself. It was funny! "Thanks for your support, O'Neal. I can always count on you to keep me humble.”
O'Neal snickered, “If pigs could fly, the big guy upstairs would give them wings. You people who think God is watching over us little old peons here are fools! You know that, don’t you? If it looks like shit, and smells like shit, then by damn, it probably is shit."
After the platoon started moving again, Ottel pulled up a few yards behind me down the trail apiece. "Don't let O'Neal get to you. You know what they say about casting pearls before swine."
I smiled. "It's like throwing ten balls to a man standing in a corner, each ball representing a point of great truth. It's very unlikely anyone can catch all ten balls at once. I mean, it's almost impossible. You want him to catch them all, but know realistically he'll do well to catch one precept, maybe two... Well, O'Neal's dropped all his balls."
For hours we did the Boy Scout hike thing under the hot, afternoon sun, but Charlie was nowhere to be found. Oh, he was probably there all right, sitting in the cool shade with a tall drink, or hiding in some elephant grass as we passed. I felt his cross hairs zeroed in on me. There was no contact, only because Charlie didn't feel the time was right. The decision was totally up to Charlie...and for now, Charlie simply chose not to dance...make contact, for whatever reason. Maybe he waited for us to break into smaller patrols that were easier to handle. Maybe he lay in wait where the trail turned sharply around a bend, to pick us off one by one. Maybe he would take us on when it got cooler -- or darker. Maybe he would ambush us when we moved through a washed-out ravine, or when we got next to that hill so he could have the higher ground.
Then the patrol passed through a riverbank into a deserted village and my heart skipped a beat. Mulenburg passed down word from Pike that my squad was assigned to secure the right flank of the village. As we moved into place an explosion ripped into the squad twenty-five feet ahead. Instantly everybody hit the dirt, weapons searching and probing for something to shoot...but there wasn't anything, just leaves and dust and bits of clothing floating down.
Someone had triggered a mine buried in the trail, and when the dust cleared, four bodies lay seeping blood. They were full of holes and shrapnel, but the first man I could see seemed still alive...barely, though in shock.
Mulenburg popped a purple smoke in an open area for the medevac Hueys, grunts called them "dustoffs," to land.
"Fredericks, need a hand here!" said Frank Patricks, the platoon medic, one hand desperately applying pressure to a hole dripping blood in one soldier, while trying to wrap a bandage around the head of another soldier with the other hand. As I crawled over I felt my stomach turn. One dead man had no face, just a puffy gray-pink mushroom remained amid crusty black ridges seeping blood. Patricks quickly signaled a nearby soldier to zip him in a body bag.
The man I helped lay distorted in pain. The booby trap had left him a bloody, dusty mass of burned black and angry-red flesh that crumbled like charcoal in my hands. I hoisted the unconscious remains onto the stretcher, thinking the man was a goner sure, but when Patricks took the man's pulse he had faint life signs. "This one might make it," he said grimly, "he gets aid quick."
His legs were blown away. Somebody found one of them and laid it beside him in the stretcher. It looked strange and grotesque sitting there, his boot and pants leg intact, but separated from the body. I had the strange compulsion to just plug it in like my little sister did when her Barbie lost an arm. The other two had only superficial wounds, as it turned out, though when I'd first seen them they looked much worse. They were able to walk to the dustoff choppers.
In the quiet after the dustoff left, I knelt close to the blood-caked ground where the bodies had been, close to losing my guts. I felt an empty sickness of emotions welling inside me like a bubbling pot ready to boil over. I don't know which was strongest, the emotions, or the deep anger, with its accompanying buddies, fear and frustration. I didn't understand...God, I didn't understand! I couldn’t understand. It was all so senseless. The tears in my eyes were real. Horrible, bloody death was real, so close and personal. I smelled it saturating the air. It was nauseating. I wanted to pound something...to shoot something. I wanted to strike out, to pulverize somebody to smithereens. But the Charlies who had laid the booby-trap were long gone...or maybe they were hidden close by, still watching. God knows, there's cover everywhere. God knows!
Ottel set beside me. He too had helped with the evacuation. He too had tight, rigid lips and tears in his eyes from the repugnant terror. "Too bad about Turner and Richardson," he said somberly, picking up a rock and hurling it at a hooch. We both watched, as if hoping it would explode...needing it to explode. God, why didn't it explode?
"I helped on-load Turner onto the medevac...dead and bagged. He never knew what hit him. Richardson's the one you helped."
"Richardson," I mumbled numbly, trying to put the man’s face with the gory mess. "I traded Richardson a can of C-franks and beans for C-chicken and gravy at lunch," I said. "He was showing off his biceps, proud of his muscles, blonde and good looking...about to recycle home. He talked about his girl waiting for him. He was God's gift to women."
"Not any more!"
I tried to shake off the memory of Richardson laughing and telling jokes, but couldn’t. I turned away as a tear built in my eye, but rubbed it out, saying something about the dust. All I could see was his freckles, and his blonde hair. I went behind a nearby hooch and threw up.
"Soldier, front and center," Captain Trenery called, signaling me back as my squad moved away. The captain stood peering inside the door of a hooch. "Clear this place for me."
"Get in there and search for booby traps."
"Who the hell you think I'm talking too, soldier. I want it done now, not next week...you're wasting my time!"
I thought strongly of doing more than wasting Trenery's time. At the very least I thought of telling Trenery exactly where he could search for his booby traps, wondering how high I could stick the bayonet before Trenery's entourage stopped me. But I reconsidered. I took a deep breath, the last I recall taking for the longest ten minutes in my life, and reluctantly, with a whole lot of apprehension, stepped into the dark hooch.
I knew if I tripped a booby trap that would be all she wrote, so warily began to turn things
over. As I looked under bed mats and tables, my mind spun with snarled webs of fear. I tried to recall all the trip wires, springs, prongs, switches and buttons that might set off a booby trap. But there were so many kinds. I poked, oh so carefully, at every inch of the straw walls with my bayonet, then thrust it ever so cautiously into the dirt floor. I thrust my bayonet in time and again,
each time expecting an explosion to rock my world, poring over every inch until I had tilled the hooch floor like a garden. By the time I gave the "All clear," I was white as a ghost twice warmed over, and saturated with sweat.