The noonday sun was a blistering ball beating unmercifully down with unrelenting heat, making my boots sink in the sand like glue, each step becoming progressively more difficult. My steel pot was like a portable sauna, making my march to the next mission, which started out at a quick pace early in the morning, deteriorate over the afternoon. Our battle formation was now a plodding shuffle, with each step a task of will.
Richardon's memory I'd shoved back into the dark of my mind, tamped down with all the rest I needed to forget...had to forget...for now. But I would never forget. God, I can't afford to think about him...not now...not and go on. Maybe when this was over I could again think about him. Maybe then I could mourn...but not now. The memory of Richardon's face was indelibly etched on my soul. He would always be with me. Always!
By the time Sergeant Mulenburg finally said, "Take five girls...spread out'n smoke'm if y’all got'm," our platoon had become a rag-tag, motley crew. We looked withered, grimy, and dried out, and we felt worse. We were a caravan of stragglers, wayward gypsies noisily clanking along under heavy packs loaded with instruments of war, three canteens of water, mess gear, c-rations for four days, mosquito repellant, dynamite, grenades, claymore mines, entrenching tool, pancho liner, beaucoup ammunition...about fifty pounds...weapons ever ready...completely battle unready.
Ottel, Riley, Snyder, and I formed our perimeter of defense at the nearest shade, a five-foot termite mound, dropping our pack loads and unceremoniously plopping down. But O'Neal kept walking past us, a hundred feet beyond. Every eye was on him as he marched by. His eyes were glazed, unblinking, looking neither left or right. It was as if he said, "I don't need no damned break," only stopping on a small rise so he could have a better view of the incoming trail.
Snyder lifted a grayed, dirty finger and pointed to O'Neal standing lone sentry ahead, barely silhouetted in a rocky enclave against the brightness of the sun. "O'Neal's off by himself again?"
Ottel leaned forward to look. “Yea, I’m worried about the boy. He seems to be spending more and more time by himself lately. Maybe he just wants privacy.”
“Yeah, why’s that?” I asked.
“Pointman's life expectancy's not too great, you know, but O’Neal’s not complaining. He's not afraid of the perils. Au contraire, monsieur, hazardous duty appeals to O'Neal's tortured soul. The greater the danger, the more that killing machine in him that used to be human likes it.”
“O’Neal would kick if he couldn’t be there at point," Riley chuckled irreverently, displaying just a hint of pride. "He has to be where the action is most likely to happen, so Charlie better keep out of his way today if he knows what's good for him.”
“Yes sir,” Ottel said chuckling, “O'Neal's a bona fide Cong killer. The man's got skills...considerable skills, and he isn't exactly in a very friendly mood today."
“When's O’Neal ever in a good mood?" Snyder asked with a laugh. "He has that same scowl on his face that he had when I met up with him couple hundred years ago. I think the sun has just brought him to a boiling point that's ready to explode in somebody's face.”
Ottel took off his steel pot and fanned himself with it. “I think his brain’s just addled by too much time in too much heat. I wouldn't want to be the one gets in his way today...not when he's like that."
"O'Neal loves it out front because he can get off the first shot,” Riley said, sincere admiration curling his lip, "and his kill ratio of dead Charlies to killed friendlies goes up."
Ottel agreed. “O’Neal does love his violence. The man worships it, it’s that simple! A passionate anger was bred in him a long time ago. I don’t know, it must have been born somewhere at an early age, but violence begets violence," Ottel said. "O'Neal may bitch about war, but he lives for it...he was made for it...bred for it...and the Army just gave him more, and taught him to like it."
Mulenburg drawled, "Ah be thinkin’ maybe theat boy likes this war a tetch too much. Ah'm worrisome 'bout the young troop, Ah surely am. He once tol' me his pap beat him with a shavin' strap reg'lar like, and for no good reason. Tol' me, 'If you're whipped till ya whine, might's well go ahead and do the crime.'"
"It’s for sure the Army fine-tuned and honed the moral instincts of a rattlesnake in O’Neal," Ottel said with a grunt, "but it would seem the serpent already was carefully nurtured and developed before Uncle Sam got him, taught in the proverbial woodshed at his father’s knee."
"Well, y'all know what they say 'bout theat," Mulenburg said, "If'n y’all spare the rod, ya jest might spoil the chile."
“That what they say in Dreamlight, Arkansas, Sergeant?" Ottel grinned.
"Somethin’ like ‘at,” Sergeant Mulenburg drawled. “O'Neal was brung up with crime and pun-ish-ment an ever-y-day happ’nin’. But a strong right arm up the backside nevah hurt no-buddy.”
Ottel retorted, "I’d say that's a pretty good recipe...if it’s a dog you’re teaching obedience. If a dog needs housebreaking, you punish him right away to get his attention, or you'll only confuse the dumb creature so he doesn't know what he's being punished for. Rubbing his nose in it is the right thing to do...for a dog, so he knows what you're disciplining him for. He doesn't understand any other way...because he's a dog! O'Neal is not a dog. He's human, after all, a reasoning, thinking, sentient being. At least, he was once."
"O'Neal was human at one time?" Snyder said, laughing. "I guess...if you say so."
"Yeah, that he was....but now..."
“You say he was sentient?”
Ottel nodded. "I can't believe I'm saying this, but even O'Neal deserves better than he got."
Sergeant Jonathan Wright ambled over, nudging into the shade beside me. "How do, men? You looked like you were having way too much fun over here, so I just thought to myself, 'self, you'd best mosey over there and investigate...see if you can't spoil the life of that party before they get to having too much fun.' Can’t be having too much fun in Vietnam, you know."
"We were talking about dog training, “ I said as I moved over to make room, “and O'Neal."
"That so," Jonathan chuckled. "I see the connection."
"Well now, I used to show Samoyeds," I said. "They sure were beautiful dogs, with the longest, whitest hair...just elegant animals. I worked obedience training with them, and I’m here to tell you, no matter what you do, you can't instill justice and moral discipline into a dog...unless you first give him some kind of motivation to go with it. It just can't be done. A dog can be trained to do what you want him to, just because he wants so bad to please, or to get that treat. He does what you want him to, because you want him to. He doesn't know or care if it's right or wrong...just that you want him to, and he’ll get rewarded for it, either by affection, or something good to eat. A good dog man gets his dog to respond to physical or verbal signals, repeating them over and over and over again, to communicate simple commands and concepts like yes and no, pleased or displeased, to let the dog learn what the action is that gets the reward. But mankind is a higher sort than animals..."
"Some of them are anyway," Ottel snickered.
"Most loving parents want their children to understand the concepts behind their orders," Jonathan said. "Good parenting is teaching children to think and act by conscience, doing what's right or wrong not only because of their love for you, but having knowledge about the rewards and consequences of their actions."
Jonathan continued, "The trouble with that is most parents don't have the inclination or time to patiently use justice and moral discipline to deter their children’s violation of values, principles, ethics and laws."
"That's right," I agreed. "Good parents reason with their children. They don't just beat the crap out of a child, and they don't just use mere signals to get obedience."
"God wants parents to lovingly explain errors that hinder the child’s growth and development," Jonathan said, "to define for the child what is expected in the future, and what will happen if the child doesn't obey. Good parents want their children doing what's right, not just because someone commanded them to do it, but because the child knows it's right.”
"You mean, God wants us to let the little buggers off with just a good scolding like, and a slap on the wrist?" Ottel quipped.
"Hardly," The sergeant chuckled, "being a good parent isn’t that easy."
"Somehow I didn't think it would be," Ottel snickered. "Being the right kind of parent scares the bejesus out of me."
"It's not really that hard to be a good parent," Jonathan smiled. "The main ingredient is love. When you truly love the child, moral discipline comes naturally. It simply means wanting to instill in your children discernment of good and evil. Most adults know right from wrong without really thinking, or they learned it from their parents, and can easily convey that lovingly to their kids. Moral discipline does take a caring hand, and thoughtful preparation, not just taking out the belt and whaling away. Good parents shouldn't have to beat the child to get a positive response like more primitive peoples do."
The conversation lulled, and everyone started getting listless and laid back. I was busy rigging my poncho liner together with Ottel’s, as a lean-to to protect us from the sun, using a length of rope running a line from the termite hill to a straggly, leafless bush. I had hesitated to put up my poncho liner though, as I only had it to sleep in tonight. "A tough infantryman knows not of such finery as beds and the like," my first sergeant told me when he handed me my fatigues and jungle boots. "Soldier, your bed for the duration of your stay here in our little part of 'the park,' is the hard ground beneath and the stars above...that's all."
"There are well-meaning, but misguided parents," I said, "that use the shaving strap to instill fear into their kids. Their parents probably used a heavy hand on them, so they figure that’s the best way to foster discipline."
Jonathan nodded. "Sometimes people don't stop to consider that humankind has a moral instinct, a higher plane in the eyes of God, than the animals."
Still rigging the poncho, I stopped to take a breath. "I believe in swift and effective discipline guys, but within reason...reason being the key word. There must be punishment for wrongdoing, of course, but..."
"Of course," agreed Jonathan, "but punishment must be delivered with love, and administered with constructive wisdom. Certain blessings require certain actions, and we only get the blessing when we perform the action supporting it. If humans do something unacceptable to parents'and family standards, the laws of the land, or the eternal laws of God, they reap the affliction that arises from that disobedience. That comes in the form of disapproval, or suspension of certain entitlements or privileges...blessings if you will."
“I wholeheartedly agree...I think," quipped Ottel with a sardonic look. "This is a most absorbing conversation, but kinda hard to follow, specially when you're beat-down, and tired-to-the-bone by Vietnam, and sitting under a withering sun. Now, that's not to say what you say doesn't have merit. I seldom received a spanking at home,” he said, “and many are the times I would have welcomed a simple, cut-and-dried spanking, rather than what I got. A good paddling would be welcome relief from the true mental anguish I sometimes felt seeing the hurt look in mother's eye when she sent me to my room. Her discipline made me think about what I'd done. After I'd had a chance to sulk, and the ill-tempered deed had really sunk in, she would come into my room with pure love in her eyes to talk things out..."
“I'll bet that wait was the harshest agony of all, and thus the greatest punishment,” I said.
“Yes it was.”
“I was raised the same way,” I said. “There was no violence in my home. Just knowing I had brought anguish to this good woman, my mother, was the harshest kind of punishment. I loved her with all my heart, and knew she loved me...purely, unconditionally, but she let me know she expected more from me to earn her trust. Her trust was important, because trust is confidence, faith and assurance rolled into one. It’s the defined derivative of purest, fulfilled love. In truth, I knew when I had crossed the discipline line without ever being pounded over the head with it. Even to this day, I can still see my mother's eyes. They make me want to live right, even when she isn't here."
Jonathan took a clod out of the termite mound, and shifted it from hand to hand as though weighing it. "Exactly...well spoken! That is the way it is with Christ. He bears us an unconditional love. He offers us divine grace and blessings, but like He says in the Bible 'If ye love me, keep my commandments.' Those who truly love Christ, we who are His earthly brothers and sisters, strive to live His commandments completely...simply because we love Him. Those who don't try with all their might to live Christ's holy ordinances inspire the question, do they really, truly, love Christ in the first place?"
Ottel looked confused. "I thought we were saved by the grace of Christ, simply by believing in Him, despite what we do...aren't we?"
"A testimony of Jesus Christ is fundamental, but that’s only a start. Christ said in Matthew, 'Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of his Father which is in heaven.'"
Ottel shrugged, "But if a man truly believes..."
Jonathan smiled patiently. "Again I refer to the Bible, for in it all can find the truth. The Apostle James said, 'What doth it profit, his brethren, though a man say I hath faith, and have not works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: show me thy faith without thy works, and I will show thee my faith by my works. Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well; the devils also believe and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead." (James 2:14-20)
Suddenly Riley sputtered, and sat bolt upright, his M-16 barrel looking large, as it pointed at each of us in turn. It looked like a cannon when he pointed it my direction. “Good Gawd,” he exclaimed, “I was sleepin’ so hot I was swimmin’ in sweat. I dreamed I was stokin’ the fires and brimstone of perdition. Then I wakes up...and glory be, here I am sittin’ in Sunday school.” Then he rolled over and appeared to again be sleeping.
“Now that was scary,” Ottel looked dumbfounded. “I’ve never heard that boy speak so forceful...must be in the midst of a bad dream.”
"Is there any other kind in Nam,” Snyder quipped.
“Nam must be making Riley come of age,” Ottel whispered, with a smile on his face, “and his M-16 is his great equalizer.” There was little more than a moment’s silence until Riley was again snoring. Then Ottel said, “Riley is right about one thing though...have you memorized a lot of scripture? A Sunday school lesson was the last thing I expected out here in Nam."
Jonathan tossed the clod in his hands at a scrub brush, and I was kind of struck by the nonchalant way he acted, as if Riley’s little outburst wasn’t unusual at all. "Sorry!” he said, “ I try to learn a new passage every day, even out here, and they add up.”
“Oh, that’s OK...I don’t mind your quoting the Bible to me. I just didn’t expect it, that’s all.”
Jonathan smiled. “The bottom line is, Christ won't force anybody to heaven. Because He loved me enough to live for me, and to die on the cross for me, you're durn tootin' I'm going to try to please Him by doing all He asks...wouldn't you?"
"I guess I would at that," replied Ottel.
Jonathan smiled. "Then you are given a great promise."
"Oh yeah, what's that?"
Jonathan shot me a quick wink. "For Christ said to those which believed on Him, If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free." (John 8:31-32). That is celestial, divine discipline, my friends, bound with justice and morality. It’s an irrevocable law outfitted in heaven to guide us with love and compassion along the pathway to exaltation and righteousness...right back to our Father in Heaven."
Riley squirmed uncomfortably from where he had again fallen asleep, but this time he had a totally different demeanor. "Jeez, no offense Sergeant, but I've enough on my mind without having to think about God."
Jonathan smiled tenderly, which seemed very strange out here in this world of unfriendliness, from a man bedecked with implements of war's destruction, plucking a straggly piece of saw grass, and smoothing the rough blade between his finger and thumb. "Then what do you think about...way out here? The scriptures give me solace and comfort I badly need, especially way out here. I feel the Spirit of God walking with me...even way out here, giving me a peace that helps me through the hard times, and suddenly, I don’t feel so alone. I need God’s presence with me every hour...even way out here. I like to share that warm feeling whenever I can, that’s all, because it helps me no end. But if you don't want..."
"No," Ottel smiled, "that's all right." He shot a scolding look at Riley, who responded by laying back and putting his soft cap over his eyes as if to shut out the talk. "It's kind of a nice change to talk about the scriptures. Maybe I can even hear something in them that will explain Vietnam."
"That's a whole other story," Jonathan chuckled. "To understand Vietnam takes a lot of reading the scriptures, and a whole lot of powerful soul searching, just between you and the Lord."
I closely watched the kind-eyed man sitting against the termite mound, amazed that a career Army man could have such passionate, religious feelings that transcended the military. But Jonathan's words were wasted on those that could not hear. Mulenburg sat upright, but asleep and snoring. Snyder looked wide-eyed and open-mouthed as if he had seen an alien spaceship, and Riley blocked everything out under his soft, camouflage hat.
Jonathan's intense gaze locked into my eyes. After a long minute, he sighed, "Can anyone tell me what the moral of Christ's request to live His commandments means to us here in Vietnam?"
After a long drawn out silence, I spoke. "I guess, that Christ holds us accountable for our actions wherever we are, even here."
"Even here?" Ottel murmured.
Jonathan said, "Particularly here! Showing faith by our works is relevant, especially here. Though our government officially called us, the righteous are here in the name of God. When I first received my orders to come to Vietnam, I prayed about the orders. I really wanted to know if they were right. I wanted to know if this is what God wanted me to do."
Ottel was gawking despite himself, and chuckled. "Did you get an answer?"
Jonathan smiled serenely. His words were soothing, given with an infectiously pleasured beam of sincerity and conviction from his eye that made the tired aching leave my body, and caused me to forget as naught the hours of marching in the hot sun. There are some people whose voice resonates down your back, sending little shivers down your spine. Jonathan’s voice had that effect on me. I could listen to him for hours.
Jonathan said, "What I got was a warm feeling of peace and contentment filling my heart. The hundreds of nagging doubts tugging at my brain, and plaguing my very soul, were suddenly stilled, and as nothing. I knew what God wanted me to do."
"All I got was heartburn when I got my orders," Ottel griped. "It's not fair."
Jonathan looked skeptically at Ottel, but smiled, and continued. "I committed long ago to not just believe in the gospel from afar, but to get down into it...to really live it...to immerse myself in it like when I was baptized. I committed to make Christ part of my everyday life. I gave myself to Him totally, to do with as He would. We have been called to smite the oppressor, the Vietcong to you and me, but we should do it with love.”
“Love,” Ottel's brow crinkled. "Am I supposed to love Charlie? I can't fathom that one for the life of me."
“Yes Ottel, the Bible tells us we should love...even our enemies. But be wary you do not get caught up in this war. Do not let its acts infect your heart and change your spirit."
Ottel gestured at O'Neal. "It's too late for some of us."
Jonathan's eyes followed the pointing finger sadly. "We should not revel in the hatred, nor glory in the killing, lest we become the shriveled, used-up products of it. Killing for killing's sake sucks the very essence of life from us. We should regard ourselves as laborers in God's orchard. We are workers pruning the decayed and harmful limbs, that if left unattended will corrupt and defile the entire tree of life. It is said, and it is true, one rotten apple will destroy the whole bunch in the barrel, if not plucked out and discarded. If we are prudent and faithful workers, wielding our swords steadfastly in the righteous cause, doing the will of the Lord, we should not hang our heads low. We should rather walk in righteousness, yet not too softly. There are times requiring toughness, and in those times usually there will be much sorrow and fear attendant, yet we must not let sorrow or fear keep us from our duty in honor. The sorrow will be there! Fear will be there too, but we must not yield to them. We must not dwell on sorrow, nor shrink from the fear, lest the despair in them infects our hearts. Our hearts determine if we do our duty for the right or wrong reasons. If we have Christ in our hearts, then indeed are we his right hand in righteousness, and we shall carry out in strength of heart the business at hand, bearing the conviction and forthrightness inspired by the Lord, yet also keeping a meekness, humility and love for all mankind. The Bible says: 'He who loveth God, loves his brother.'"
"Love them suckers to death," snickered Snyder, who had suddenly turned his attention to us.
I whistled. "Love the Vietcong with our hearts but kill them with our hands? That's hard to comprehend. I had even thought of becoming a conscientious objector at one time, just so I wouldn't have to kill."
“I considered sneaking into Canada when I first got my draft notice,” said Ottel. “I still wonder why I didn’t.”
I nodded, but something troubled me. “The Bible talks about wars, some righteous, some not. Some were fought in the name of God, some weren't. It's confusing, and I’ve never been able to get a straight answer. They say we’re fighting for liberty, but does God really want us here? Is this the kind of liberty He wants?”
Ottel nodded too. "When you've been here long enough to see the politics guiding South Vietnam, and how truly corrupt many of the politicians and generals are, it's hard to conceive that God would consider this as qualifying to be a war fought in His name. I mean, I don't mind fighting for right, but sometimes I think we're fighting on the wrong side."
Jonathan traced figures in the sand with a long straw. "I really don't know God's complete plan on this...but I do know that liberty is an expensive commodity, that’s never free of cost. Liberty must be rescued often, typically nourished with the blood of patriots, or it always evaporates. But I fervently believe if a man obeys his country's call, with God in his heart, everything will work out all right in the end. God didn't start this war, but you have to believe He wants you here to bring liberty to His children." Ottel looked not only confused, but confused and frustrated. "I don't understand that,” he said shaking his head. “I don't understand that at all."
"Of course you don't. Never underestimate the teaching power of pure terror. Vietnam will vex you with more complex emotions in a year than you will face in an entire lifetime back in ‘the world.’ The choices here are not only life and death ones, but determine whether your testimony burns brightly, symbolic of your faith, or whether it withers and dies for lack of nourishment. The choices here clash between good and evil, within you as well as without. They will either bring out the good in your soul, or destroy you. All the precepts and ideals you learned from your parents, teachers, community and church will be tested to the utmost here, to see if the precepts have become truly your own, or just idle thoughts left in repository to be winnowed by the winds of war. Choices made here may thrust you into exaltation in Celestial glory, or secure your spot in the more base Kingdoms without the presence of God. God is here for us all, for you. He's reaching out His hand, but it's up to you to take it...to conduct your war inside the greater war in Vietnam, according to His teaching."
I stared hard at a palm tree in the distance, but didn't really see the palm. "Yeah, it’s 'the refiner's fire...'"
Jonathan nodded, smiling. "The refiner's fire...that's a good analogy to what's in essence the most important event in your life so far. What is done here will quite possibly shape your entire existence on earth, and in heaven. Well, I think I'd best get back to my squad. I see Trenery moving about making moves like it's time to go," and so saying, he rose and walked away.
Riley turned his head and watched as the sergeant departed. He hadn't at all followed the crux of the dialogue. "I don’t know about commitment, other than that walking point gives O'Neal a chance for more killing, and he sure is committed to that," he said, steering the conversation back to the point where he had lost track of it five minutes before. "Manning point gives O'Neal a chance to put more notches on his M-16."
Ottel just smiled.
I swatted at a fly digging at the corner of my mouth. I couldn't help but wondering about O'Neal's killing instincts when he was sent back home. "The world" wasn't ready for Franklin O'Neal. I thought about war, and the history of war. What would it have meant to the world if Hitler had drowned? What if Hitler had died of a childhood disease? What were Hitler's parents like? Did they love him? Did he love them? What would it have meant to the world if truly evil men were stopped in their infancy? I wondered how it might change the world if O'Neal was to catch an exploding mortar round full in the face?
Later in the day, after we had saddled up and resumed the march, the land changed -- and changed again. We passed from our desert through jungles of thick, hanging vines and elephant grass, and coming out of the jungle moved into a lush banana plantation, with palms, rose bushes and bamboo thickets. We dug our foxholes in dark, sandy loan soil that night...soil as rich and vibrant as the land around us. It seemed strange setting up our claymore mines and trip flares in that surreal place. But the stay here was short lived. Mulenburg came along and led our squad into a spot a couple hundrred yards from the main unit, along a trail that looked like it had a lot of traffic, and set us up in an L-shaped ambush, at a point where the trail turned to run beside a little gully.
There was no action that night, and I was struck with the divergence of the land the next day, as we hiked into rain forests with high-topped canopies, and large, fast running rivers lined with house-sized boulders.
During a river-crossing, out of sight of the lieutenant, a lone voice wailed, "I wanna go home...I wanna go home, please Lord, I wanna go home." The voice was caught by the misty breezes, and hovered hauntingly overhead.
We played war games most of the day, sashaying here and promenading there, but come the evening hour, the brass had to make a choice to either dig in for a bivouac, or call the choppers to take us home. We grunts were left but to wonder what would be our fate, till Captain Trenery radioed the base for pickup.
Sarge popped a green smoke grenade for the helicopters to key on, and the grunts formed a defensive perimeter around a good sized opening in the trees that was to be our landing zone. It wasn’t long before the sky was filled with Hueys that swooped down and picked us up, six bristling infantrymen to a copter.
But if we thought the helicopters would fly us to our base camp, again we thought wrong. "Doesn't pay to take too much for granted in this man's Army," I mumbled.
"That would be giving the Army too much credit for good sense," Ottel snickered.
Sergeant Mulenburg cheerfully reminded us of the age-old fact, "If the Army wanted y’all young troops thinking, they'd of issued y’all in-sightfulness to lug up inside youah steel pots...but in theah great’n in-fi-nite wisdum they didn't. So let the Army do the think'n, while y’all do the marchin’."
I had only known Mulenburg for a few days, and was coming to the conclusion that he was much smarter, in a hillbilly sort of way, than might first appear. I figured Mulenburg was a smart enough man to change his strange speech patterns if he wanted, but he didn’t want to, because then, somehow, his words wouldn’t mean as much. There was special meaning in his homespun words just the way they were spit out, though sometimes already his adages were getting old.
The copters set us down on a desert. There were even sand dunes, as the chopper rotors beat the sand into our boots, fatigues and eyes as we jumped and ran to form a defensive perimeter when we touched down.
"You're learning, grunt," Ottel smirked, as we hastily dug temporary fighting holes in the sand, watching the tree line at the other end for unfriendly Cong. We passed an uneventful night there till we heard the grating call at first light, "Saddle up, girls. Youah rich Uncle Sammy don't pay y’all none't sleep. There be plenty e’nuff time to sleep, when y’all pansies be daid."
In the late afternoon sun we were dragging again. I emptied my canteens, but still needed more. I was so thirsty I couldn’t think straight, much less think about fighting. Still, I humped, weak, sweating, trudging one foot in front of the other, dehydrated, forever plodding on, on, on.
The heat beat down oppressively, as our platoon pushed up and down hills and through valleys, looking for our friends in the black pajamas. Nobody talked...too tired to talk...too numb after hours of walking, and walking. Each step loomed more impossible than the last...throats bricky dry.
I had no idea where I had come from, or where I was going. I had long passed the point of caring. I guess we grunts weren’t important enough to be let in on the strategy, but we couldn't stop...they wouldn't let us stop...and it was a long way to swim home, so I just took each step without thought of the next.
"There is no way but on," Mulenburg kept saying encouragingly. "So, y’all keep'm swing'n, girls."
The procession stopped on a partially paved road by a banana grove. We grunts didn't know why. We knew better than to question why, so didn't ask. Just grateful to stop, we automatically moved out into a perimeter of defense. Soon there was the familiar thump-thump-thump-thump of helicopter rotors, dropping out of the sky, and we soon scrambled for a drop of C-ration meals. "Bad sign," said Ottel.
“How’s that?” I asked.
"Their resupplying us means we won't come in soon."
Almost immediately, four ten-twelve-year-old girls appeared as if magically out of the brush, pushing a wheelbarrow with an ice chest filled with beer. They promptly set up a stand beside the road under a faded poncho liner. I didn't know where they came from, or where they got the ice...but I was quick learning not to reason why... Though we hadn't seen anybody for hours, here they were, selling ice-cold beer in the middle of nowhere, and miles from anywhere else.
"Isn't the entrepreneurial spirit great," Ottel said.
"Boggles the mind," I replied, "it truly does."
O'Neal was first in line, of course. He stepped forward and thumped me on the shoulder with a hard, resounding whack, and thrust a cold beer still dripping icy frost down the sides into my hands. "Go ahead,” he smiled. His seeming sincerity gave me pause. But I didn’t have to think about it.
"I don't drink," I said, “but thanks!”
"It's good stuff," O’Neal leered. "Well, OK, it’s Vietnamese piss in a beer bottle...but it’s cold! Go ahead. Throw off the shackles of religion for just a minute. Won't nobody tell, and your overseer ain’t lookin’."
"I can't, but like I said, thanks.”
"Oh, go ahead,” he cooed. “You drink enough of this stuff and your cares will all go bye-bye, and it will seem for one single twinkling that not one thing in the world is out of place...you'll see. Even the war will fade away into obscurity ...or at least you won't care about it," he laughed.
I rolled my hands around the bottle, flicking off frosty beads of moisture. I felt the delight of the cool glass radiating through me. I held it tightly to my forehead, closing my eyes. Its invigorating chill traveled up my arms, tingling along my senses, refreshing my hot and weary body. I held the cold bottle to my cheek. I could almost imagine the cool liquid going down my parched throat. It would feel so refreshing. It was starting to get tempting.
"I can't," I said, thrusting the bottle back at O'Neal, chagrined that the allure of it had tempted me, if only for a brief second. "If I took that beer, I'd know...and God would know," I finally said. "That's why I can't do it."
"Oh come on," O'Neal hissed, "just a little sip won't hurt none, will it?" His mouth pulled back into what was half-grin and half-glare. "It's been a long hot day, Jacob...come on, relax a little. If you're like me, you feel as used-up as spent brass after a firefight. Why, if you're like me, even your blisters have blisters."
I stood toe-to-toe with the leering man. "A soda pop would do me better. Do you have some soda...or cold water?" I asked the girls, but they just shrugged and shook their heads. “No can do, GI...have a beer. Beer numbah one.”
"Oh come on, Joe Smith." O'Neal's face wrinkled with an annoyed look. "Let your hair down a mite, and forget your rules in that golden Bible of your'n. What you afraid of? Besides, ever'body knows religion's rules are just mumbo-jumbo. Why religion's only superstitious clap-trap sacrifice made-up by the ruling class to control the masses. Ever'body knows it!" he sighed with a sweeping roundhouse gesture. "Live a little, m'man! The arbitrary dogmas of religion are just ruses conceived to get you to deny the desires of the flesh that make you forget a dreary existence of pain and sorrow."
“What are you talking about?" I scoffed.
"Religion's a scam, Jacob. Don't you know that? It's nothing but a whimsical, capricious sacrifice. Its penances are quaint, if not laughable. Everybody knows the sanctimonious injunctions are just blueprints used by the divine corporate conglomerates in power, to get you to pay tribute." O’Neal asserted himself in a voice bearing a suddenly embittered bite. "The fat cat captains of industry make up imaginary gods that rely solely on men's fears of things they do not understand, to make them do their bidding, and not complain a whole hell of a lot. They conjure up false deities and graven idols for the peasants to fearfully glorify to take their minds off their hard lives."
"Christ loves us," I declared.
"Well, He's got a funny way of showing it," O'Neal replied, his barbed wire lips trembling with a snicker.
"I can't drink beer. It is harmful to our bodies. Our bodies are the temples of God. It's against my church's 'Word of Wisdom', a health law given to edify us, so that we may be worthy to live with God once again."
"Oh come on, you don't believe that malarkey, do you? It’s only by religion and sacrifice that the corporate chiefs have dominion over the Indians in this world. Take the drink, their words of fallacious wisdom be damned," O'Neal growled as he downed his third bottle, half-leaning against my shoulder, scowling and leering into my face. "Theology's nothing but a game, Jacob. It’s a damned sacrifice...and no sacrifice is worth that much. And no huckster with a golden Book of Mormon is going to tell Franklin O’Neal what to do," he said, slurring the words, pausing to snap the cap on his fourth bottle.
I caught a whiff of his polluted breath, and involuntarily drew back.
That infuriated O'Neal. "Good god, man," he continued, ramming his finger rigidly into my breast, "they ought to call the religious game 'Sorry.' Just being here should be sacrifice enough for you la-di-da 'do gooder' saints." He again forced a dripping wet bottle at me.
"Don't do it, Jacob," whispered Ottel, though his own bottle of beer was almost empty. "Remember your standards."
With forced casualness, I handed the bottle back again to O’Neal.
O'Neal just stood there, his eyes steely-hard, his jaws working, grating his teeth as he clenched and unclenched his jaw. "If you ask me, it was the Devil, not God, gave you all those holier-than-thou rules. Fuck you! Take my damned word for it."
"Thanks anyway O'Neal, but I’m not thirsty right now," I lied, then turned to walk away. I went to the perimeter guard outpost, and plunked myself down beside Nigel, positioned there on guard duty. I knew debating with O'Neal would do no earthly good, and quite possibly could further inflame the man's distorted rumblings.
The march soon resumed, and after hours of humping through the dry, searing sands, still hot
and muggy, parching thirst nagged at my brain unmercifully. The platoon came to a cliff with a stagnant pool of murky, muddy water at its base. It was green-black around the edges. Thick, spongy pond scum floated on the surface of the liquid gold, Vietnam-crude, black at its base water. It moved, it was heavy, and it stunk. But like it says in Rudyard Kipling's poem, Gunga Din, "Of all the drinks I've drunk, that one tasted best."