An old withered man came toddling out,
In wonderment at confusion's hue and shout,
While his hooch walls
Grim-faced soldiers bayoneted.
He bobbed his head
With high-pitched alien words fretted.
“Old man, be nice,”
A grunt shouted,
As he turned over papasan's basket of rice
Searching for booby traps, weapons, something,
Decked for war, I stood a solemn guard,
Hovering over this old Montagnard
Standing forlorn in his yard.
For papasan had no right
In this unfortunate plight.
Not in the killing zone.
Not out here all alone.
This was a “Search and Destroy” mission,
And if papasan gave us half a reason
My platoon spread out waiting on the fighting line
Without compunction would kill him today
Blow his miserable hide away.
Why did he have to live here,
Didn’t he know Charley loomed near?
Knew he no fear?
Didn’t he know there would come this day,
If in the killing zone he chose to stay?
As he toddled towards me,
A GI standing strong and tall,
With wrinkled brow and grayish pall
I leveled my M-16 on this old Vietcong so frail.
Wondering what he held in his hand to hail,
A knife to cut me?
A gun to wound me?
A grenade to blow up in my face,
Splatter my brains all over the place.
Motioning with M-16 barrel menacing
I tried to signal papasan back,
But weaving and wobbling,
Papasan continued the frontal attack.
Ortel laughed from under a tree.
“Papasan’s up to no good that I can see.”
“Better watch that old VietCong brigand.”
Then I saw what he held in his trembling hand.
Papasan held a small glass of steaming tea,
Which bowing, he tried to give in honor to me.
In polite courtesy
In this impolite world of uncivility...
Stretching to reach again with a polite little bow,
Papasan proffered his herbal brew now
And yet again.
“Don’t dare take it,”
“What’s in that brew you never can tell.”
“Probably poison,” snickered Snyder.
“Papasan wants to send you straight to hell.”
I tried to explain to Papasan why
I couldn't drink his cup of steaming tea,
Not with everybody watching, see.
But papasan, not understanding me,
Just kept offering me his tea.
Papasan couldn’t understand why
We bayoneted his hooch.
Why we poured his rice in the dust?
Why we rousted him out
With angered, murderous shout?
Why the men swarming around him cussed
Glared with eyes filled with hatred,
Deep embers burning with distrust,
For a harmless old papasan
Showed flagrant disgust.
His ancient eyes questioned why
I dishonored him by not taking his brew.
It was the gracious, oriental thing to do.
Papasan whined in a sing-song
That made some men laugh,
Tho he’d done no wrong.
Rather, to him was done wrong,
But what was a GI to do?
Papasan was out in the killing zone,
Out with the Vietcong all alone.
Then my platoon moved on
Continuing our “Search And Destroy” mission,
But papasan had made a deep impression.
I still hear that old man’s sigh,
See confused hurt welling in his eye.
But I wasn’t about to wait.
Who was I to tempt cruel war's fate?
I was just one man,
Couldn’t he understand?
With agonizing guilt from time
I think back on papasan,
Tho 33 years have come and gone.
We’d with war’s incivility abused him
And then in destitution left him
To be in the killing zone,
Old and so all alone.
But then I remembered a battlefield
Called the "Rockpile,"
My good buddy Jim,
Brawny face covered by a perpetual smile,
Killed by a papasan just like him...
Click the Combat Infantry Badge
to go to my Vietnam Poetry index, each poem
with more action graphics and Pictures
CLICK FOR RETURN TO... from the lens and poet's pen of a combat infantryman!