|C O M B A T|
|the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones ™|
|ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 02 Number 04 Fall ©Oct 2004|
In the midst of this our life, I found me in a dark wood, gone astray. How rough and savage that wood was. Just to think of it summons up the old shadows and horrors, nearly more bitter than death itself. But so that I may tell you of the good that happened there, I shall tell the rest, the evil, along with the good.
The Great-Green swallows me again, and I'm humping the Purple Heart Trail to Bhum Phuc. Through the triple canopy the sun splinters into shards. They shimmer, but their brilliance only deepens the damp murkiness of this green sea-like world — emerald green, jade green, loden green, and flecks of phosphorescent green. Though I'm Acid-free, my eyes filter light like a Starlight scope. Heel-hard ground and terra firma have all become, in this muck, nothing but words in a dead language. My Jungle blouse with its subdued insignia is plastered to my back, and salt patterns are transforming it into a Hippie's tie-dyed shirt.
When the trail curves, I lose sight of Blake, and my spine jellifies. Down here I need someone in front of me — anybody — Donald Duck'll do — just so I don't become Miss Lonelyhearts imagining "It" coming from every direction — from ahead, a decoy for an ambush or a charging Bo Doi army, from above, a mantrap or a sniper; from below, a booby-trap or bamboo viper; from behind, a sudden burst from a trigger-happy FNG's M-16 — a Cherry who'll stick his head into the yawning hole ventilating my back and say, "Sorry about that." Meanwhile, Yours Truly, or better my ghost, is gibbering like a bat and heading for the Underworld: "Yeah, a double xin loi to you too, Greenie."
I'm the imaginative type, a man of learning, college-educated, but imagination on the trail makes you multiply possibilities, and ten times infinity — that's a lot of ways to bite the dirt. I could put together a Sears, Roebuck Catalogue, Nam edition, with 10,549 new ways to get your ass dusted, your Christmas canceled, and your chips cashed in, complete with color photos and ordering information, straight from Mr. Charlie. Out here, sometimes you're better off dumb like my sergeant. He's not an absolute moron, but he is the original inspiration for that old joke: "That guy's so dumb he has to pull his pants down to count to twenty-one."
But if I see someone else in front of me, I sweat less, because I reassure myself if It happens, Donald'll be ground zero. He'll be the one wearing the startled "Why me?" look, holding a billboard-size Ace of Spades, on his way to the Great Duck Pond in the Sky, quacking all the while, "The mouse, the mouse. Take the damn squeaking mouse." Yours truly? I'm gonna be Mr. Innocent Bystander, Mr. Man in the Crowd: "Saw it all, officer. Shrapnel — took his kazones right off. Me? No, no, not a scratch. Lucky I guess. Ain't that a shame. Nice duck like that. Neighborhood's going to hell."
Survivor guilt? Why-Me Syndrome? I'll dust his feathers off, go see the chaplain, be all weepy-eyed, then get my TS-card punched. After some di lai, boom-boom, and Scotch, I'll be sleeping nights and in my dreams murmur, "Them's the breaks, Mr. Quack-Quack. Hump the trail. Lose your tail." And there I am, snoring away, manifesting all the classical symptoms of Why-Not-Me Syndrome. Yeah, that's what I keep telling myself.
Sometimes I eye the rucksack of the guy in front of me. If the mortar rounds are chthunking and the AK-47's lead is whistling round my head, I'll John Wayne it. I'll blast away with my M-16 on full rock-and roll, toss some pineapples, might even yell, "Remember Pearl Harbor," just like Dad on Guadalcanal with his Tommie. After eight months, I've seen the Elephant. From a distance, the view is just fine, but once you get up close — I'm talking up his bunghole — well let's just say that gives you a whole different perspective. Still I've toughed it out.
But if things get too hot, I'll shrink and hide away in the guy's ALICE until the kiddies are done playing. No toepoppers, punji stakes, Bouncing Betties in there.
Finding a hideaway — played that game a lot as a kid, because when the banzais started phonating in Bronze-Starred Dad's head — but that was ages ago. We've come a click down the trail, and my anatomy is still symmetrical. There's a rice paddy on my left, and in it a solitary farmer, in his reed conical non, is tilling with his pants rolled above his knees. Sarge calls me up. "College boy, go speakai Dinkese with Slope over there. Ask him if he's seen any Charlies around."
I cross the paddy, heel-to-toe, cautious-like. If there's anything down there, I pray it's a Soviet TMB. I'm partial to the idea of being shredded by a mine designed for a tank. I don't want to come out of shock screaming, "Where's the rest of me?" like that Ronald Reagan character in the old movie Kings Row, after Psycho-doc amputates both his legs. When I wake up, I don't care if I'm strumming a harp or keeping company with a horned demon ramming a pitchfork up my ass. Just no halfway stuff.
Old McDonald is grinning like a Pepsodent commercial, only his teeth are stained reddish black with betel nut juice. I greet him respectfully and tell him I'm honored to meet him. "Chao ong. Han hanh duoc gap ong," he reciprocates.
"Toi la nguoi My," "I'm an American," I say, and he still grins. Of course he still grins, because he's thinking, "Oh, what good news, indeed, sir. I thought you were a Martian who landed his saucer down the road. Then you and your fellow beings changed into those American uniforms to deceive me and drag me back to your ship. What was your name again, little cousin? Mr. Dumb Mo-Fo, was it not?"
I'm thinking I should have said, "Toi la Bozo," "I'm Bozo." So I cut to the chase and pop the 64,000-dollar question: "Have you seen VC around the last few days?" His smile never changes, and he says, "Toi khung biet," "I dunno." I say, " We've had reports of VC activity in this area. Are you sure you haven't seen anything?" He smiles and says, "Toi khung biet."
I'm a patient man, a man of learning, but my lucky towel is marinating my neck, and the jungle rot in my crotch is burning like some gentle soul lit a sliver of C-4 down there with a butane lighter. So I get pissed, and I say to him, "We have a radio with the patrol. We could get on the horn and call in Heap Big Strike and Palm your little Nguyen Corners over there back to the Paleolithic Period. Good idea?"
He smiles and says, "Toi khung biet."
"Look, buddy, I ain't the kind of guy that blows his jets. Nobody ever called sweet little ol' Davy boy Mr. Hardass. So maybe for a starter, a little icebreaker, just to get the chitchat rolling, we could violate all the women hereabouts? Good idea?"
He smiles and says, "Toi khung biet."
Sarge yells out, " Private Numbnuts, you ain't over there for a love-fest. Move it."
I realize my mistake. I was trained to speak Vietnamese with six tones, especially in the northern rural villages. But there are actually twelve tones, though these are not in standard grammars. Vietnamese is a language of densities. The smile means everything and nothing: joy and anguish; amusement and horror; hate and love.
To get the subtle distinctions right, you have to stare at the person's whole body, and then peer into the guy's eyes, in the back where the optic nerve enters the globe. There, a screen displays True Meaning in luminescent letters. After another VC question, he smiles and says "Toi khung biet" and I peer deep inside to see what he's really saying. After a look-see, I make deductions and hear his words in my head.
"The VC were here three days ago, elder brother. They took my father into the woods down the road, hung him up in the vines, and cut him to pieces. They made us all watch. They told us not to bury him, to leave him there, or they'd be back and do likewise to everyone in the ville.
"My father was just a simple farmer. He was not a brave man. At first he screamed, and all the birds screeched with him. After a while, he was still screaming, but the birds fell silent. Maybe they were being respectful. Maybe they were just tired. Toi khung biet. He's still down there, and the birds linger on the branches as if to decide what manner of creature he is. His soul is restless, and at night there is a sound through the shivering leaves that is not the wind. The people in the ville now call that place the Clearing of the Screaming Man.
"You appear to be a man of learning. Toi khung biet. Perhaps you noticed I strike the same piece of ground over and over. I do this not to till, but to provoke an earth spirit. I hope to enrage one, who will come to drag me down alive to Lakes-of-Fire. That will probably be better than living here. Toi khung biet."
My eyes tell the farmer I understand. His words evoke a passage from Isaiah: "In medio mearum dierum vadam ad portas Inferi," fancy Latin for "In the midst of my days I shall go to the gates of Hell," the source for the opening of Dante's Inferno. "In the midst of this our life I found me in a dark wood, gone astray." Poet and prophet bridge a cultural divide, and the farmer's passion for death troubles me.
But I'm playing Bad-Ass Dave, and the boys are laughing behind me. I tap the magazine on my M-16 and say in pidgin, "All come out plenty quick. Fullie Rockai 'n' Rollee. Me Big Bopper. You get bopped beaucoup." The phrases rollercoast since I impose my own up-and-down tonalities on them. To drive my point home, Bopper even gyrates his hips like Elvis. I am conflicted. No. As I said, toi la Bozo. Sarge, my straight man, shouts, "You trading him your scrawny ass for intel, Numbnuts? We ain't gonna get squat for that."
Call me Professor Ishmael Really Pissed-off. I'm growing grim about the mouth. It's drizzly November in my soul, and I'm ready to methodically knock conical hats off in the paddies. I'm feeling like that 1920's actor Lon Chaney in Man of a Thousand Faces. I'm playing one role for Farmer Slope, another for Sergeant Fuckface, and another for my pals who are supposed to be the Greek chorus in this pathetic little tragedy — supposed to be, but right now they're more like a pack of hyenas with enemas up their tails, and I'm on the receiving end.
So I figure I'll try a new gambit, an approach sort of like Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People, but with a little extra twist. I jam my M-16 practically into his mouth and say, "Perhaps if I stick muzzle in and pull trigger, it will clear your memory. Or perhaps you will die. How do you like them apples?"
He smiles and says, "Toi khung biet." I peer into his eyes, but now I only see reflected a puzzled Bozo, and I shrug my shoulders and say, "Toi khung biet either, buddy." "Me no know too, kima sabi." His life, my life, Sarge's, the guy's ass next to mine in the foxhole — after the shit I've seen out here, I'm not sure these days what anything's worth. We aren't the Chosen Ones any more. Welcome to Camp Nineveh. We're the doomed Babylonians, and the handwriting's on the wall for all of us. We've all been weighed in motherfucking balances and found wanting.
I retrace my steps across the field. Something hard and stubborn from my boyhood awakens inside me.
Sarge is immediately on me. "What did Luke the Gook say? Quit fucking around, college boy! What did Luke say?"
He's all over me like a cheap suit. No, that's a cliché. He's actually "carelessly" waving his M-16 in my face, and acting like one of those South-Korean-interrogator types who gets right to the point with a few terse questions. When Kim Chi no like answers, Kim Chi commences to shoot pieces of you off. "You VC?" Kim'll ask'll laconically, in a way that makes the ancient Greek Laconians look like big fat blabbermouths. And you say, "No!" and before you can say "Jack Robinson" or "Ho Chi Minh" or "I wished I'd stood in bed," there's an empty space where your right big toe was parked. And "Yes" is starting to look like a mighty smart answer because that way you'll get your brains blown out quick-like, without a world of pain. Also you're remembering that old joke, "He's so dumb, to count to twenty-one he has to ...", and you're figuring you don't want to be around for the long count, when Kim starts fiddling with your belt buckle.
But Sarge could ram his M-16 right up me, and I wouldn't give a flying hoot because that stubborn little streak that's been in me since Day One is still there. And so a smile creeps across my face, like a hungry VC slinking through barbed wire for a can of franks and beans, and I say, "I dunno."
"What do you mean you dunno? You practically got a degree in Dinkology. You've studied that shit so much you're lucky your eyes don't slant. What'd he tell you?"
Still smiling, I reply, "I dunno."
He sticks his Widow Maker close to my nose. "I never liked you, college boy. Shitass intellectual type. When we get back to camp, you're gonna do Chinese pushups till daybreak, Private One-Hung-Low. The boys'll work you over if you stop for a minute. I'm gonna appoint you Professor of Shit Burning. You'll be smelling shit and diesel fuel till the day they put you to bed with a shovel. Wipe that damn frozen Dink grin off your face. What's that for? I'm staying close by you. Maybe the two of us'll settle this out here, clean-like, Bright Boy. How's that sound?"
I smile an inscrutable smile that bears witness to my expertise in Dinkology, and I say, "I dunno." But I do know. He's booking passage for me on C-141. I saw in his eyes some dark bottomless pools, the Starlifter, and me in an OD green trash baggie, complete with convenient handles and a stylish central zipper. And Dave boy is the spitting image of yesterday's mess hall leftovers.
We're humping the trail again, but now Sarge, not Blake, is in front of me, and I'm eyeing his butt, and, imaginative man that I am, I'm working out another little fantasy. There's probably a vine along the trail somewhere that I could trip over. If my finger hits the trigger on my M-16, I could expand Sarge's asshole by a factor of five or six. When my swell Mattel goes off, I'll be the first one up there, wailing, "Xin loi, xin loi, Sarge. Hey, but look. You ain't never gonna be irregular again." But I'm a learned, rational man, and for now I just hump ... and smile.
And now Private Learned turns Shakespearean, and puts Mercutio's curse on the lips of the farmer's father, against the VC and us: "A plague on both your houses! They have made worms' meat of me."
Father, son, filial piety, ancestor worship — what does it all mean out here now? How do you pray for good harvests to a father whose supernatural moniker is Screaming Man? An old paternal mantra starts to play in my head, one whose words are fixed, as though on a mausoleum's door: My father was a soldier, a brave man, Bronze-Starred, who fought many years in the Pacific, and, though he survived, he never completely returned from there. He brought the War home with him, and sometimes the two of us fought it again, together in the same foxhole. And other times we fought on opposing sides, usually to a draw, because he had taught me every jungle trick, mental and physical, he had learned on Guadalcanal, New Georgia, and the Philippines. And we lay in ambush for one another for nearly two decades, until one day we counted our wounds and realized we had long ago earned our discharges. But it was too late for me, a soldier heading to another war, in Nam, to fight without him.
When I was twelve, I read a comic book about a grunt using a flamethrower to clear caves of Jap soldiers. Suddenly, Mr. Imagination, steel-helmeted, is in the backyard with plastic Marx soldiers, lighter fluid, and matches. I put the Japs in a cave of stones, douse them with fluid, toss a match in and yell, "Iwo Jima's now ours, you Nip bastards." And they burn, but the grass and the November leaves burn with them. And I'm ripping my jacket off trying to put the fire out, when it starts to rain. Only it ain't raining. It's Dad with a hose. After he puts out the fire, he says to me, "You wanna play Iwo Jima? Okay, buddy. We'll play. You've just been captured, and I'm a Jap taking you to my cave on Suribachi for some fun and games. Get in the house." His familiar faraway look tells me what I'm in for.
Ma had nothing made of bamboo around. Lucky. Otherwise, after all these years, I still wouldn't need nailclippers. When game time is over, the carpet and I are playing kissy-face. I look up into his eyes and I swear I see not my reflection, but a small Jap's, the sort that would have fit neatly into a midget sub. Now I know what's going on in his head, and for one mad minute, I want to yell fifty banzais at him. If I had, aw Jesus .... Funny, though, somehow or other that's when I first got the gift of reading eyes, that time with Dad, as though he knocked something loose in my head.
"Stand up. You gonna start any more fires, Numbnuts?"
To his surprise, I shove my blond pompadour out of my hard blue eyes and reply, "Yes, sir. Right now, sir." I wipe a trickle of blood from my mouth and kick him in the shins with my official hard-toed Hey-boys-you-can-have-just-like-your-veteran-Pop-wore combat boots for the mere price of $5.78, Sears, Roebuck Catalogue, Fall 1957. I delivered papers at 4:30 AM for those boots, shot rats in the dump with my BB-gun to collect soda bottles for deposit, for two bits hauled ashes out of neighbors' coal furnaces, hauled them until my skin turned a mottled yellow-gray like the stiffs I see along this trail that call out to me, Hey Sonny, I'll sell ya my boots cheap. One of them even comes with my foot inside. No extra charge.
I saved every penny I earned for those combat boots, just so I could be exactly like Pop. And when I see the pain in his face — the pain I've given him with my boots — I say to myself, "Got my money's worth. I'm just like Pop. Thank you, Sears, Roebuck."
Before he can recover, I crash through the backdoor, and slip through a hole in the fence. He hollers, "You come back tonight, buddy, I'm gonna cash your chips in."
There was a place I stayed down by the river when his rages boiled over. Where the bank cambered slightly, there was a grove of willow trees, and against two, closely spaced, I had leaned an oak door that had drifted in one day. Below the trees a soft river grass luxuriated. I had hung on the door an old moth-eaten Army blanket.
On the bank, dead fish reeked, deoxygenated by the factories upstream. The nuns told us the fish was the symbol of Christ. I kick one of the rotting specimens. "Been more than three days, buster. Time for you to rise and shine." A nun's voice inside my head yammers, "Oh sweet Jesus, you're gonna burn in Hell for that crack, buddy boy." Been there, done that, Sister.
I was imaginative, and I called the place the New Caledonian Inn after the French island east of Australia where war-weary fighters, like my father, withdrew for R&R and retraining. I even created a Gallic innkeeper named Pierre, a guy with handlebar mustache, black slicked hair with central part, and a white apron.
"Monsieur Dave, from the looks of your puss, I'd say you saw the Elephant up close and personal."
"Saw? Jeez, Pierre, he stomped on me, and then he squatted on what was left. Room for the night. Anything to eat?"
"The usual. Blackberries out back."
"When's this dump gonna get room service?"
"There's room service at home, Dave, but you ain't gonna like what's on the menu."
"When you put it that way, this shithole looks like the Waldorf."
"Oui, Monsieur, and we even throw in a free case of jungle head."
I cocooned myself in the Army blanket as though I were waiting to be reborn. What I was supposed to be reborn as, I hadn't the slightest idea. I felt I was in a multi-leveled Hell that spiraled infinitely downwards, a place like the nuns described and embellished in terms so graphic they made Dante sound like an unimaginative hack. All I knew for certain was that I was dead in some way, but not yet eternally damned. Change was a-coming and, Jesus, if my old man didn't initiate it, I would, and I didn't mean with combat boots.
I heard Pierre's voice behind me. "Monsieur Dave, you're scaring Pierre. You sleep here tonight, Pierre sleep with one eye open."
"Scaring you, Pierre? I'm shaking like somebody rammed my ass into an ice bucket."
A few hours before sunrise, I checked out. Up the trellis clinging to our rear ramshackle shed, like a dry leaf I skittered across the corroded galvanized roof to my bedroom window, which Dad left unlocked.
The next morning I sat on the edge of my bed, hurting all over and chain-smoking candy cigarettes. Dick Tracy came by, dressed for work — brilliant white shirt, silk tie, and .45 automatic tucked into his shoulder holster. "Things got a little Daffy-Duck around here yesterday, eh kid?"
"Gee, Dad, I dunno. Just another day in the funny factory to me."
"I've been talking to the shrinks down at the VA. Got me some crap from the War in my head. They dunno what to call it exactly. Things come back, and I go coconuts for a while and take it out on those in my immediate perimeter. Trouble relating to people, they say."
"Oh, when you were trying to shove my head through the stair railing yesterday, we were just having trouble relating. I feel better already, Dad."
"Look, kid, those flames were a trigger. They made me flashback to the Islands." His eyes told me he was somewhere in the Pacific Theatre. "I was assigned to a flamethrower squad to clear caves. I had turned the valves on for my buddy Jack, and he told me to stand away and watch for Japs coming out.
"So out comes this Nip general, all on fire, yelling banzais. For a second I froze ... one lousy second. I was only nineteen ... seven years older than you. I'd never seen a guy all on fire before. Jesus, I was owed a gawk, one little gawk. But he got off a shot at Jack, hit the tanks, blew him to Hell.
"He kept coming right at me, waving a samurai sword in his left hand. Out of ammo I guess. My Thompson nearly cut him in half. There were Japs and there were Japes out there. A Jap you could kill. A Jape, like this bird, just kept coming after you. He cut my arm good. Then he finally collapsed. Jesus, I must have emptied my Tommie's whole drum into him. Too late for Jack though. Now I see fire, and I get angry, telling myself if I hadn't frozen .... Everything's a white ball of fire, and I want to strike out ... make someone pay ...."
He pinned his Combat Infantryman's Badge on me.
"Jeez, Dad, your Badge!"
"Yeah, kid, I guess you've seen the Elephant too. Damn trouble relating ...."
My cigarette dangled from my lips at a 175-degree angle. "So we'll work on relating." In our working-class neighborhood the War defined Manhood, his and mine. Whatever he had done, I loved him and every motherjumping thing that had to do with that damn War.
I rubbed the Badge's blue background, chipped in places like him, and all the hurt in me disappeared, as if Oral Roberts or Christ Himself had laid hands on me. However messed up he was, he was my father. It was that simple ... back then, back there. Hey, son, mind if I cut your throat? War fucked me up a little. Sure, Dad, let me unbutton my collar. Just don't scratch my Badge with your Kabar, will ya?
Father cult? Ancestor worship? All that was missing was some burning incense and a shrine, next to the Blessed Virgin's inverted bathtub in the backyard, with Dad's image carved out of volcanic stone.
Life with Father — that was my early training for Namspeak, when you've got a knife in your guts, but all that comes out of your mouth are hard one-liners: when the mail chopper doesn't come in, or you hear about a pal losing his legs, you learn to say "It don't mean nothin'." Or when you rocket a friendly position, "Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke."
I slugged him in the arm, and he returned the favor. We were buddies again. And there was always New Caledonia for tactical withdrawals and strategic refits.
"What you did to me yesterday, kid, that took brass balls."
"Around here, with that belt of yours, I'd be better off with a brass butt."
"I did the same thing to my old man when I was your age. Only he wasn't war-nuts, he was just shit-faced on some panther piss. Took me out to the shed and worked me over good. When he was finished, he said, 'We all done in here, boy?' And I said, 'Not nearly.' And I kicked him good and took off. That night when I came back, he collared me in the hall, slammed me up against the stairs. But then he just laughed and said, 'You got brass whirlygigs, kid.'"
I laughed. "Whirlygigs?"
"That's what we called them back in those days.
"Sounds like something a clown would have."
"You calling me a clown?"
"If the whirlygigs fit ...."
In the door, my mother, in a turquoise chenille robe, curlers, and white-creamed face, like the Ghost of Christmas I-hope-it-never-comes, puffed on a Lucky Strike. "The Rover Boys, home from the War. Now a girl can get a little shut-eye around here." Turned out he'd been out half the night calling me, begging me to come home. We were the Rover Boys all right, but home from the War? Not a chance.
Not "In medio mearum dierum ..." but "In initio mearum dierum vasi ad portas Inferi," that's to say, "In the beginning of my days I went to the gates of Hell." Still I don't judge my father. My pain was nothing compared to what he inflicted on himself. He slipped deeper and deeper into depression till one day he just faded away like MacArthur's Old Soldier.
His .45 in his mouth did wonders for the bleach-out. Maybe he heard his buddy Jack calling for help in clearing caves on the other side. Or maybe seeing me in uniform heading for Nam did it. I dunno. I dunno. Toi khung biet. Toi phucking khung biet.
"Tropic Lightning," Dad said that morning I left as he ran his hand over my 25th Division patch. "That's what they called us after Guadalcanal. We got there early in '43, and we shoved those bastards off Mt. Austen in less than a month."
"We call it Electric Strawberry."
He laughed. "Sounds like one of those damn drugged-up Hippie-Ass bands you listen to."
It was just a joke. I wanted to laugh and have a last drink with him. But Little Private Fatherfucker was there in the living room with us, and he had to get the last fuck in. "Don't forget the 1st Marine Division. They softened those Nips up for you guys."
He stared through me, as though he were scanning terrain thousands of miles away, then took a long drag on his cigarette and spoke in measured tones, "Softened up? There were 127 men in my company when we hit the beaches west of the Tenaru River in January '43. In November, after the Solomons campaign, twenty-four of us got to take the good ship Lollipop to New Zealand for R&R. Those other guys — they just got R. The Matanikau River Pocket, Doma Cove — nobody knows those places anymore. They're not exactly Gettysburg and Shiloh, but they're all in my head, every blade of kunai grass, the mud, that slimed-over water." He pressed his finger against his temple. "I can still smell the stench of that jungle, and I can still hear the way the birds chattered before the dawn came up. And I can tell you the names of every one of my buddies who fell in those hellholes.
"Every name — as though I were holding their dog tags right here in my hand. But where they died out there in the 'boundless Pacific' — some of those places still don't have names. 'Boundless Pacific' — we learned that phrase in a poem in school when we were boys. Most of the men in my company came from small towns in the mountains. We dreamed of traveling, going out there some day, but when we crossed those waters, we'd never seen space like that — a vast emptiness stretching on and on.
"And when it came time to die and see others die, that space started to haunt us. It wasn't the dying. It was the dying out there in that endless space. Maybe in those jungles some native superstitions crept into our heads, but those of us who were Catholic already thought of dying as a journey. We were afraid our souls would be restless, wander out there forever, never find their way home, or wherever we were supposed to end up. The nuns used to tell us Hell was a terrible cramped place where you couldn't move — way below the earth. But now we saw it as a space that ran in every direction — whose limits you could never reach. We created and shaped our own Hell out there, and it was the 'boundless Pacific'. We got to saying to one another before battle, 'Die in a small place, buddy. Hope you die in a small place.' 'You ain't kidding, brother. Nice little shithole for both of us.'"
A door had opened between us. I wanted to tell him about my Hell, those nights down by the river when I was cut off and bunked with dead fish. But the Little Private had shoved me aside, gutted him with my Kabar and then turned it on me. "Sorry" was a word that didn't exist in either of our vocabularies. I came behind his chair, put my hand over his shoulder and said, "I gotta move out." He stared straight ahead, but his hand came up over mine, for just a moment. Then I went out the door. Two weeks later, he followed — feet first — on an early Sunday morning, in December, just before eight. Kapow! — and then Farewell to Arms.
Ma said an ice storm had swept in the night before. "Howled all night. Bowed down all the willows out back. They reminded me of those palm trees in the Islands, but they were all glassy and deathly still."
His war ended at the same point it began. Toi phucking khung biet. At least he died in a small place, his own little living room. He was owed that. He was goddamned owed that much.
Yeah, toi phucking khung biet on my father. But I do know some things now. I know how war can burrow into your head — how old shadows come alive and stalk you at night.
I dreamed one night, after a vicious firefight somewhere in the Ho Bo Woods, I was with the old man again in my room, after my War. I pinned my CIB on him, and, without words, we sealed our understanding and peace.
And I've dreamed other dreams, too, of the smiling kids over here trying to souvenir me metal pineapples. Yeah, and I've got another little nocturnal number about my own kid, still unborn. I'm back home again, stateside, upstairs in my bedroom, and I look out the window, across the galvanized roof, and there's my son, wearing my old Jungle blouse, and starting a fire in the backyard. And I call out and he turns and waves at me, with a plastic grenade in his hand, and, on instinct, I reach for my rifle and .... So who am I to judge my father?
Another few months over here and I'll be dien cai dau, "off the wall". Hear ye, hear ye. Court is now in session, Judge David Dinky Dau presiding. I'm not that different from a lot of guys over here who are starting to feel dien cai dau. We're all working night and day on our degrees in the Inhumanities. But I will not judge ... nor will I be judged, not by anyone who hasn't walked the jungle.
And maybe I am a clown, but I'm a clown with whirlygigs. Mess with a clown, get a few laughs. Mess with a clown with whirlygigs, watch out. Mess with a dinky dau clown with whirlygigs, aw Jesus .... I've been fighting jungle-style since I was eight, and shit ain't on the menu after that.
But Sarge, he never looks in people's eyes, so he doesn't see, because if he did, he'd be crawling in a hole right now. To him, everybody's a dink, a slope, a gooner, a numbnuts.
Rich college boy — that's what Sarge thinks. We had nothing. It was all scholarship money, and when it ran out, Uncle Sugar came calling.
We'll walk half a click down the trail. The old man'll be there in the vines. I'm certain. Then I'll decide whether to have an accident or not. Maybe a sniper'll take care of business for me. If I waste him, two hundred years from now, the peasants of this ville will take their children there and tell them, "This place is called the Clearing of the Screaming Man. And right next to it is the Place of Him-Who-Took-It-Deservedly-In-The-Asshole."
I'm not sure what I'll do yet. Sure, I'm a man of learning, but the problem for Sarge is that not all my learning came from books.
If we countermarch this trail, the farmer will be waiting. We'll sit and talk and touch each other's arms and shoulders, because we'll be friends then, and that will be one good thing in these dark woods.
He'll tell me more about his father. And when he asks about mine, I'll smile and say, "My father was a soldier, a brave man, Bronze-Starred, who fought many years in the Pacific, and, though ...."
My learned mind rushes ahead, wondering what antiquated Vietnamese word I'll use for "whirlygigs." I shall choose it carefully so that, as night falls in these dark woods, the farmer and I, together like Homeric gods in banquet, will share laughter that is "unquenchable."