Christmas in July
“I ain’t a-going tell all that happened — it would make me sick again to do that. I wished I hadn’t ever come ashore that night to see such things. I ain’t ever going to get shut of them — lots of times I dream about them.”
For two weeks, like red squirrels foaming at the mouth, we had scurried up and down Ford Street shooting and stabbing each other with no sense of direction or purpose. Now we were bored. So we decided, that July afternoon in 1953 when I was eight, to re-enact the September ’42 Battle of Bloody Ridge. Old man Flynn’s garage, which adjoined the rear of our yard, was to serve as Henderson Field, the Allied “unsinkable aircraft carrier” on Guadalcanal and prime Japanese target. The garage’s alligatored green paint skinned my hand as I scrawled “HF” on it in coal.
Ten feet to the south, our yard swelled mysteriously upward and then down again. My brother Pete and I used to joke the knoll was where our father had planted some Jap corpses he’d hauled back from the Pacific. That day, it would be Edson’s Ridge, defended by two Raiders of B Company, my friend Frank and myself.
To mark out a defensive perimeter with a warning device, we needed tin cans. So, for an hour, I had been dumping garbage pails in the ramshackle shed at the back of our house. The windowless shed’s swelter had plastered my blonde pompadour to my forehead, and my father’s old Army shirt pricked my back.
I had slashed my fingers, and they were throbbing and generating a blood-splatter pattern, Jackson-Pollack-like, on the fractured concrete. I came upon a corned-beef can half filled with maggots. These were the larvae of enraged bluebottle flies that buzzed around me like A6M2 Zero-Sen fighters at Pearl attacking the USS Arizona. Even with my precocious passion for naturalism, the squirming maggots were too much. I hurled them, with some moldering chicken-soup cans, into the corner where they fell like 60mm mortar rounds on two squeaking field mice.
The stench of decay was now pervasive, but my father had taught me a trick he’d learned in the War. “I was on detail on the ’Canal, Dave, and I had to handle some things that smelled worse than you-know-what. We stuck cigarettes up our noses. Worked like a charm.”
“What were they, Dad?” He stared through me as though his gaze were fixed thousands of miles away — the Island Look. In time, I came to understand he was back there, seeing something or someone he had tried to forget. In Nam, after a guy’s been out in the boonies too long, we call it the thousand-yard stare.
I tugged at his sleeve and asked again. He changed the subject. I figured he was talking about coconuts gone bad.
Everything he learned in the War as a jungle scout, he shared with me. Some fathers were teaching their kids to swing a baseball bat. I knew how to cut someone’s throat — but just with a rubber knife and quickly — not the slow way that a few of his pals in the Tropic Lightning Division endorsed after losing buddies at Pearl. “One slash like this, kid, and he’s on his way to Hell in a handbasket. Then get out. None of that local stuff. Strictly express. We ain’t savages.” The nuns were always telling me I was going to Hell; so the prospect of dispatching someone else there was irresistible.
Other fathers were teaching their sons fly-fishing. I knew mind techniques to render myself insensible to pain if my leg fell off in a brawl; or, in the equally likely event it were blown off by incoming mortar fire from the shade-roller factory up the street. I learned to cock my ear for 81mms when I rode my bike. “You won’t feel much at first, kid. Shock. But later, you’re gonna hurt like hell. So stop shooting that damn Thompson squirt gun and pay attention.”
His jungle-scout senses became mine. Other boys looked north and saw smoke from the paper factory’s stack. I saw airburst. The pungent smell of hydrogen sulphide from the factories across the Saint Lawrence transformed, in my nostrils, to cordite.
At first light, I delivered papers, whistling When the Lights Come on Again All Over the World; or singing Oh give me something to remember you by when you are far away from me. One morning, Detox Mitchell charged out onto his porch with a baseball bat. “I’ll give you something to remember me by, you little shit! Who the hell do you think you are, the bastard son of that warbler Vera Lynn?”
Detox — that’s what we kids called him because that’s where he spent most of his time after returning in ’43 from service in New Guinea. My squawky warbling reminded him of the jungle birds that screeched out just before sunrise and let the grunts know that another day in Hell was dawning. Five years later when the white coats came for him, he was no longer hearing bird sounds; he was making them. The other half of his mind lay on some jungled slope of the Papuan Lizard Tail where the 32nd Infantry had suffered a 90% casualty rate.
Sometimes in Nam, at night, I hear in my head sounds that I imagine leeches make sucking blood. Then Detox appears at the door of my hootch and says, “Room for one more, Dave,” and right then and there I’m humping the straight-and-narrow again.
Never called him Detox around my father. Just that one time at supper, and then he reached over and slapped me across the face hard — Jap military style. “What was that for?” I hollered. He remained absorbed in slicing the meat loaf, as though he had just swatted a bug. Then he spoke quietly, “Some day, boy, when your butt’s been through the fire like Mitchell’s, you’ll answer that question for yourself.” I know the answer now, Dad. Found it one night in my hootch, etched in glass — right on the bottom of an empty bottle of Scotch. Now it’s etched in my brain. But I’ve still got a question, Dad. “How come you only slapped me once?”
Just how the Mark III A2 grenade differed from the German Potato Masher as well as the Jap Type 97, the slower chatter of an American machine gun against the faster clatter of a German — all this I knew back then. The big picture I didn’t know from shinola.
That morning, I had swiped two of my mother’s Lucky Strikes, and when the smell got mephitic, I rammed them up my nose. Suddenly, a screen door slammed, and my mother, on recon, materialized, like one of the Greek Furies, so enraged at the mess that her lips simply trembled. When she saw her Lucky Strikes up my nose, she jerked her thumb toward the kitchen. She was doing the hitchhiking sign; I was the one about to take the ride.
I paraded past her into our lemon-yellow kitchen, across battleship linoleum that looked like it had seen action at Midway and the Coral Sea, past our chipped porcelain sink. In the corner projected the ironing board, which I was trained to lean over. From a green Bakelite radio, Tony Bennett was belting out Boulevard of Broken Dreams. The song was a big hit that year. Right up there on the Lucky Strikes Hit Parade.
It wasn’t the only Lucky Strikes hit belted out in ’53.
When she had finished pressing my pants, with me still in them, I asked her if I could still use the cans. “We’re re-creating the major land battle of Guadalcanal, Ma, and we need those cans to set up our perimeter so we can hear the Japs coming.”
She was hanging the strap up behind the cellar door, and she whirled around in a turquoise polka-dot shirtdress. “Jesus, you’ve got a crust on you. Okay, but you leave one can out and you’re gonna re-enact the Bataan Death March, all one hundred miles of it. Capiche?”
“Capiche, capiche. And, Ma, the March was fifty miles to San Fernando, then they took a train, and finally they walked eight miles to Camp O’Donnell.”
She choked back a laugh. “The only train you’re gonna take is the Midnight Express, one-way, buster. And throw those cigarettes out. I sure as hell ain’t gonna smoke them after they’ve been up that snot-nose of yours. That’s one of your father’s damn tricks I bet.” I was halfway out the door when she said, “Did you bamboo-zle the LaDuke twins into playing that loser Major General Kawaguchi and pal?”
She was a class act — Draconian in meting out punishment, but afterwards, everything was honky-dory again — if you could still walk.
She was in Honolulu, not far from my father, when the attack came, and, as a nurse, cared for the wounded. In my War scrapbook, I had a tattered photograph of them together in front of the Ala Moana Hotel, dated November 1941 — her in a ’36 Lafayette with its swept-back die-cast grille and him with his foot on the running board. He was handing her one of those orchids that bloomed wild on the lower slopes of the Koolaus near the passes, the Nuuanu Pali and Waimanalo Pali.
Even back then I sensed that she too was part of a history that was slipping away, being replaced by jukebox-like cars with fins, scratchy Herculon sectional couches, and drive-in hamburger joints.
I always had a sense of things slipping away, sort of a born historian. But it was the War that I obsessed about, dreamed about, and wished I’d been in. People were forgetting. It never occurred to me that people like Detox needed to forget.
Something dark touched both my parents in that War and, on a gene encoded War or Death, they had passed it on to me. They had both danced with death, and I knew, as their flesh and blood, my turn was coming. My older brother Pete had already had his. Only, he wasn’t dancing anymore. The polio had paralyzed his limbs, and he lay motionless in an iron lung that summer. The following summer, he lay motionless in a box.
Maybe even back then I was looking for my number to come up. When I played Gunfight at the OK Corral, I always insisted on being Doc Holliday. I’d run around with a black hat, vest, white shirt and bowtie, and just when I was drawing a bead on one of the Clantons, I’d pull out a handkerchief and start hacking a bloody cough into it.
The blood was saliva, reddened by an atomic fire ball. While I was coughing my lungs out, a Clanton would empty his revolver into me. I’d drop in a heap. The White Death and six shots from a revolver. Romanticism and Realism in one six-slug package. Pure ecstasy. Jesus. Why didn’t the white coats catch me in a net back then? No Romanticism here in Nam. Just Realism — Realism, up the ying-yang.
I sometimes had nightmares that I had been born into the Cleaver family. June was 1950’s conformity incarnate: “Oh Ward, what will the neighbors think?” And Ward? He was a SeaBee in the War. Those guys had guts. Their Latin motto was Construimus Batuimus, “We Build, We Fight”; but old Ward was a non-combatant SeaBee — turned out he never touched a gun. His motto was Construimus Shovelimus Shitam. He never even banged a single Jap with his shovel.
Like Ward, my old man sat around in a white shirt and tie, but he was in law enforcement. Tucked under his left arm was a shoulder holster with a .45 automatic in it. Put one of those heaters on Ward, and he’d be whining to June that he was developing a lymph-node problem.
The TV shows were trying to teach us ways to prove our manhood other than by killing. We weren’t buying it. In our working-class neighborhood, where practically all the kids were sons of veterans, there was unanimity on Ward. Who’d want a father who never dusted anybody? That wasn’t natural, in our worldview. When your father made less than $2000 a year, your sense of worth came from your old man’s body count.
Once I went to school wearing my brother’s hand-me-down sweater. At recess, a kid came up behind me and jabbed his finger into a moth hole ventilating its back. “Is that all your old man can afford?” I whirled round and collared him. “What’d your old man do in the War?” He couldn’t look me in the eye. “Yeah, that’s what I thought, you mug.” I just walked away. I didn’t even waste a punch on a crumb-bum like that. That day, at least, my ass could have been hanging out the rear of my shiny $2 Sears, Roebuck gabardines, and I still would have held my head up.
As for body counts, luckily, nobody else’s old man in our neighborhood had flown on the Enola Gay. My father had carried a Thompson, at 750 rounds per minute, with drum magazine — gangster-style — not one of those wussy box magazines. When it came to kills, that gave me bragging rights.
The War hadn’t just touched us. It had manhandled us. Our views of masculinity were as circumscribed as the perimeters we marked out in our backyards.
There were only five feet of lawn to our yard, and then the high grass began. In my bellicose imagination, it became the kunai grass of the South Pacific my father had spent years crawling through. The way kunai grass really feels, the way it cuts and slices skin, the way your hide swells up in the tropic heat it entraps, what you encounter in it that infects your dreams, the microcosm of terror you create for yourself alone in there at night — well, what did I know? I hadn’t seen elephant grass. I hadn’t Seen The Elephant — up close and personal.
It had rained the night before, and, though we were in a mill town in northern New York, with the smoke from the nearby factories, a stifling humidity had wool-khakied our neighborhood. Frank, who was a few years older, showed up decked out with a Marine cap, two ammo belts, a Prince Valiant shield, and a Land-of-Tomorrow ray gun. With a frown, he suggested the movies. Problem was Frank always frowned. “Hey Dave, coal truck ran over my dog.” Frown. Okay, perfectly normal. “Hey Dave, Ma gave me two-bits and said we could each get two ice cream cones, two Cokes, and use what’s left for penny candy.” Frown. Not normal.
The sweat streamed down my face from my father’s M1 helmet, minus its insulating shell, but I turned on him as if his roof were leaking. “It’s perfect weather, just the way my old man describes the Islands. We can’t waste a day like this. If we’re lucky, we’ll get heat exhaustion and have to take salt tablets.” My logic was irrefutable.
We had strung the cans together and were driving stakes into the ground, when the Laduke twins reported for duty. They always played the Japs, because they had four strikes against them. They were buck-toothed, wore Coke-bottle glasses, and after some liver problem, had a yellowish complexion. We had seen every racist propagandistic war movie made since 1942, and so we had fixed in our minds the Platonic Ideal of Japness, and they were it. The sockdolager was their old man had been 4-F.
We were just kids. There were guys older than us in the neighborhood, guys who had come back from the War who had bought into those distortions. Mike Taylor up the street told me how stunned he was when some Jap nearly blew his head off with a Nambu Light. “Damn, he wasn’t even wearing his glasses. I didn’t think those bastards could see without them.”
That day, Georgie and Joe were contentious. “We’re sick of being the Nips. We always lose, then we gotta scream like sissies when we get bayoneted.”
Sensing an impasse, I went to a stump, removed moss, and mixed it into some dirt and canteen water. “Roll up your pants.” I smeared the mixture on their legs. “Jungle rot.”
Two big bucktooth grins appeared. Then one disappeared. “I’m tired of getting killed,” Georgie said.
“I can make gangrene. It smells like copper pennies. If I just add a few pennies to the jungle rot mixture ....”
My alchemy of morbidity was usually irresistible, but Georgie was unmoved. “Look, just for today, Frank and I will be two Raiders who get dusted. Okay?”
“How many of our guys got it there?” Georgie asked.
“140 of the 1st Raider Battalion alone were killed or wounded.” A respectful silence ensued. Frank’s dad had gotten it along with 6800 more on Iwo Jima — right through the pump — while digging a foxhole in that sand that turned out to be Mount Suribachi’s volcanic ash.
Once, he and I had caught some guys throwing snowballs at Mrs. McClellan’s window. When her kid Tom left in ’42 she put a blue star up there. When he came home in ’43 in a box, she put up a gold one and left it there.
“Don’t you bastards know what that star stands for?” I yelled. Whether they did or didn’t we never could figure. Their responses were muffled — probably because we had shoved their heads deep into a snow bank and were slugging them in the kidneys. “What you gonna do for a curtain-call? Come down to the Church and spit on the Host?”
Frank kept windmilling his guy until I dragged him off. “That star’s for my Dad too.” There was a bond between all the military families on the street. If anybody monkeyed with anything sacred, they paid quick, cash on the barrel — or head in the snowbank.
“Yeah, about 140 casualties for the Raiders alone. But some guys got captured, and they got it worse. The Japs tied them up, used them as women, and then stuck bayonets up their butts.”
“You’re making that up,” Joey said.
My best friend Frank rushed to my defense, “He’d have to be one sick twisted bastard to make up something like that.”
Georgie chimed in, “Bingo! That’s Dave!”
“No guys, I read it in a library book. Something like Untold Stories .... That old fart Mister Jackson, wouldn’t let me take it out, so I sneaked it back into the Men’s Room and read it.”
“Jeez, Dave, you mean ....”
“That’s right, Georgie, used them as women. Probably made them cook for them, wash all the burnt rice out of their mess kits, and then do their stinking laundry. After that, they bayoneted the poor guys right up the tail.”
“Damn bastards,” Frank added. “At least my Dad got it clean. Didn’t have to handle any of that yellow underwear. Those guys must have been really something to do all that stuff tied up.”
Just as we began to re-negotiate terms of battle, seven-year-old Mary Clark, whose Dad had served on the Arizona. showed up in a Navy cap and asked to play. Nobody was crazy about the idea, but when Pete got sick, she had brought over two packs of candy cigarettes and chained-smoked them with me under the lilac bushes in our backyard. So I handed her some white tape. “You can be a nurse, but you gotta bandage up the Nips as well as the Yanks.” She owned as she didn’t mind taking care of the Yanks, but the only bandaging she’d do on Nips would be to wrap the tape around their scrawny yellow necks and strangle the bastards. She had a good attitude and her old man’s mouth to match, so we let her join our side.
I repeated my offer of death to the twins, and the grins reappeared. They headed for the high grass, muttering banzais and “Tonight you die.” I yelled after them, “When you cash in my chips, I ain’t screaming girlie-like.”
Georgie said, “We’ll see about that, Dave. We might even have some laundry for you.”
Frank shook his head. “If that ain’t Tokyo Rose and her sister.”
I took a drag on my candy cig. “They’re ok guys, but you could smear shit on ’em and tell ’em it was suntan lotion, and they’d be out playing in the sun all day. Say, Frank, mind moving away from me, five feet in that direction?”
“Listen, Trashboy, it ain’t exactly a picnic being downwind from you.”
“That ain’t it, Frank. My old man says the worst thing you can do in combat is bunch up. And he knows everything. That’s why he came home and some other guys ....”
Mister Frown became Sorrowful Jones. I stared into his right pupil. At first, I thought the midget reflected there was Howdy Doody, but it was a helmeted clown, Clarabelle, clutching a bloody bayonet he’d just plunged into his best friend. “Frank, I didn’t mean —”
“He wasn’t bunching up that day. When he got it, he was way in front, trying to dig his hole in that loose shit.”
“Yeah, Hollywood should have called that John Wayne movie Volcanic Ash of Sulphur Island instead of Sands of Iwo Jima.
He drew out a rubber knife. “Even Wayne couldn’t sell any tickets with that title. If I get my turn over there, I’m gonna do every guy I see with funny eyes. If I get off the boat, and somebody cross-eyed comes up to me or just winks at me ....” He drew his knife across his throat in a zigzag, the slow way.
“I’ll be with you,” Frank.” He just stared ten-thousand miles through me — the Island Look, in training.
The battle progressed with the twins shouting Totsugeki, “Charge”, which sounded more like “Tough Spaghetti.” I yelled, “Don’t shoot till you see the slant of their eyes.” We lobbed grenades, cans filled with loose stones. A mosquito bit me. I started to shake. “You turning yellow, Dave?” “Naw, Frank, damn malaria.”
Georgie grabbed Mary’s legs and tried to drag her off the knoll. Said he had some laundry needed doing. I tossed her my .45 and she pistol-whipped him alongside the head. He ran into the lilac bushes and started bawling. I yelled at her, “Jesus, take it easy, Mary. That .45 cost me $1.59 at Woolworth’s, and I ain’t gonna be none too happy if you bust my pearl grip.” She crawled off the knoll towards the garage and picked up a small piece of two-by-four. I nodded my approval.
At three, she and Frankie had to leave. The history books say just before the final assault, the officers told their men not to move, just die in their holes. I envisioned some big Raider, raising his hand. “Jeez Sarge, I’d like to stay, but I gotta go to my sister’s birthday party. Ma sez so.”
The twins came through the cans, their mouths clenching rubber knives and producing distorted banzais. The water in my Thompson was gone now.
Georgie, with outspread arms, shouted he was a kamikaze. I was about to point out the anachronism — the first suicide planes, as deliberate strategy, appeared in ’44 in the Battle for Leyte Gulf — when he landed on me. “Die the Death of a Thousand Cuts, pig.” “That’s Chinese, you idiot.” “We ain’t particular.” Then they started whacking me around — punches kicks, slaps — the whole ball of wax.
We were used to taking our knocks back then, from our parents, the nuns and each other, but when Georgie stuck his knife in my crotch, I blew my jets. “Can that shit, Georgie. Guys don’t do that to guys. That ain’t dignified.” There I am envisioning my noble death in battle — maybe a nice sucking chest wound — and suddenly Georgie Boy is fixing to lose my huevos. No way.
“Okay, okay, don’t blow a fuse. Yell girlie-like for us.”
“How about some Kool-Aid, guys?”
“Sure, Dave, sure, but first you gotta squeal.” He slapped me, three times. Slapping, we knew, was part of Jap military discipline, but they also used it on the Filipinos because they knew it de-manned them. He then jabbed his knife into my throat.
“Not like that, like this, Georgie.” I guided his knife in the precise arc my father had described.
“Let’s have that scream,” he said. I gurgled. “That ain’t good enough, Dave.”
“You cut my throat. I’m in Hell. That’s all, folks.”
Joey jumped Georgie. “He tricked you, you damn fool.” While the two of them pummeled each other on the Ridge, I headed for the kitchen for the Kool-Aid.
I slammed the screen door; she didn’t flinch. She was immobilized at the sink, staring out the window, her cigarette dangling. Stage three now. Explosive rage, honky-dory, then catatonic stupor, induced by time and circumstance: Happy Hour and War. My Davy Crockett glass was on the counter, half empty. I reached for it.
Without a glance in my direction, she slapped my hand. If the defenders had had the A-Bomb juice in that glass at the Alamo, Houston could have halted to play Tiddlywinks every five minutes. When he got there, Davy and company would still be Tennessee-waltzing on the ramparts.
“Hey Ma, how about some Kool-Aid?”
She tractored a rose Fiesta pitcher from the cupboard, ripped open a package, then turned toward my smashed-up face. “I thought our side won that one.”
“Our position was flanked.”
She turned away, twisted the porcelain spigot as though it were someone’s neck, and stared out the window, as if trying to glimpse something or someone ten-thousand miles away — the Island Look again.
She brushed her prematurely streaked hair back from her eyes, and when it was already back, she brushed it again and took a long drag. “The War’s been over for eight years now, Dave. It wasn’t all fun and games. There was bad stuff over there.” Her fingers drummed the red Formica countertop.
“Your damn father’s always filling your head up, crowding out everything else decent. Do you even know who Joe Di Maggio and Mickey Mantle are?”
“Di Maggio was in the War, but that other bird, I don’t know about him.”
She was tapping the formica now as though she were searching for a pulse. “Sometimes I don’t think Mike got his fill over there. I think he’d like to be in Korea right now, right in the middle of it. I saw enough of it ... Jesus, enough to last me till the day they put me to bed with a shovel.” She slugged Davy down to his buckskin moccasins. “Why don’t you guys cut the grass back there and build a baseball diamond?”
Too late. My Field of Dreams was already out there.
She was flashing back. Maybe my puss reminded her of some kid hit by shrapnel — whose face was slipping off with every ragged breath. Or maybe the cuts on my neck reminded her of an eighteen-year-old spouting blood out of an artery, a kid who’d pissed himself and was crying Momma. And how she held a compress to his wound, and the blood seeped over her hands, and her back was on fire from stooping.
She’d now brimmed the pitcher, and the red water flowed over her hands. Maybe it was blood she saw in the sink instead of red Kool-Aid. I don’t know.
All that came into my boyish mind was a part of the Latin Mass before the Consecration. The priest would go to the right side of the altar, and, as a server, I’d pour water out of a cruet over his hands while he declared his innocence of sin, Lavabo inter innocentes manus meas, “I shall wash my hands among the innocent.”
Maybe that’s what she was doing, declaring her innocence. She wasn’t guilty of anything, but then neither is a rape victim sitting in a tub, feeling contaminated and haunted by guilt. Ma had been brutalized, assaulted by something inhuman, evil, without form.
Or maybe she was praying I’d remain one of the innocentes, untouched by realities that haunted her.
I don’t know. I just don’t know.
These days, I hear that phrase often in Nam. I ask a peasant if he’s seen Charlie, and he says “Toi khung biet” grinning a shit-faced grin. And when I stick my M-16 into his face and ask him if he’d like to die, he still replies grinning “Toi khung biet.” And I just walk away and mutter, “Jesus, buddy, I don’t know either.”
Back then, I sensed something was bothering her, but I figured it was the hooch. I tugged on her frilly apron, the kind women wore back then that looked like the topping on a lemon meringue pie. “How about that Kool-Aid, Ma?”
Shakespeare had it right, “He jest at scars that never felt a wound.” In time, I’d know wounds and scars — some scars not physical, but so deep, if you tried to cut them out of my head, you’d be out the other side before you knew it.
But all that happened later, only after fifteen years glided away, like a brown krait snake into the high grass — the high grass of Nam.
“I found a skull by the shore
In July of ’68, I was in a swamp in the Mekong Delta, south of Vung Tau, on a three-day search-and-destroy patrol. I was walking point, about ten meters ahead of the others. The day before, I had been back one position, shouldering an M-60. Now O’Donnell was walking slack. So far we had dry-holed.
It was the rainy season, but there had been no rain for two days. In the two-hundred percent humidity, the M-60’s twenty-four pounds with ammo belts had ulcerated jungle rot on my shoulder. I now had it on my crotch, arms and legs. I recalled the afternoon I smeared moss and dirt on the Laduke twins. How’s that song go? ...“Ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby ....” And the flies — well, they were all abuzz about a new four-star restaurant that had just opened for business, Dave’s Place.
Most of our stroll we’d been up to the armpits in Vietnamese Miracle-Gro, buffalo shit and water. Told myself the shit was strictly buffs variety. Otherwise I would have gone dien cai dau crazy and started leaping skywards trying to catch a Jacob’s Ladder that wasn’t there, dropped down by a CH-47 whose flight had originated in the Land of Oz.
Yeah, good old Miracle-Gro — the secret formula works wonders on jungle rot, especially when you’re immersed up to the armpits. Up to the armpits — Ma used to say that to me when I got in dutch. “You’re up to the armpits in it now, buster. I ain’t gonna do you. I’m gonna let your father do you when he gets home for supper.” I’d sit on my bed all afternoon with a pain in my stomach thinking about getting done. Then after a while I’d think how funny her expression up to the armpits was and start giggling and smoking my candy cigarettes. I still think it’s funny. Only I ain’t gonna start laughing out here because once I start, there’s no way I gonna stop. If I started laughing, I’d make Jolly Old Saint Nick and his merry band of elves look like Gloomy Gus and his troop of professional mourners. And I just might start reaching around for that Ladder. And what’s scarier, I just might find it.
Georgie didn’t have to worry about getting the rot on his legs anymore. In January, a mine in the Badlands north of Khe Sanh solved that problem . And Joey got it in an ambush on Highway 14 driving convoy to Dak To.
Frank was SF in the Central Highlands. Mister Science Fiction was still frowning and pretending every Charlie he sent to Sliceville was one of the Japs who dusted his old man on Iwo. I sent him the news: We were returning the island to the Japs who planned to remilitarize it. I figured he’d start cutting throats overtime, and we’d all be home in a month.
Sergeant “Sam”, short for Samaritan, had commiserated with my discomfort by kicking me up to point. To mark the occasion, he presented me with O’Donnell’s M-16, the swell Mattel Toy model which had the nasty little habit of jamming just when your ass was up for grabs. I had slipped a ribbed Trojan over the muzzle to keep dirt out of the barrel — ribbed because it gave it a Flash Gordon ray gun look. Now if the skank M-16 jammed, at least I’d know the barrel was clean.
That put a song in my heart, made me real happy. Why, if it jammed, I might even be so happy I’d be whistling zippity- doodahs out my butthole — just before Charlie emptied the clip of his AK-47 into my brains. Even without the weight of the M-60, the jungle rot under my salt-rimmed shirt had started to burn. Burn as though someone had lit up a sliver of C-4 back there with a butane torch — in the presence of pure oxygen.
I was advancing heel-to-toe, cautious-like, worried that Charlie would hear me and scared shitless that some Step-and-a-Half Snake wouldn’t. I came to a slight open area. That’s where I first saw him. He was hooked up by vines, and his testicles weren’t in the anatomically-correct position. They had taken a trip north. A scratchy 78-rpm was playing an old tune sung by an eight-year-old, “Guys don’t do things like that to guys, Georgie.” New neighborhood, new rules, Davy boy — according to Ho, not Hoyle.
What I thought were vines around his body turned out to be his small intestines, spiraling from his neck to his feet, festooned like Christmas garlands. Charlie had taken his time here, a real Picasso, but with a better sense of craftsmanship.
He was one of ours, a kid about eighteen. His skin was mottled yellow-gray — the color of ashes I used to shovel out of our furnace on chill December mornings. His ears — well, some Charlie was now somewhere sporting a necklace with what looked like two dried apricots on it. His blond hair hung over his eyes, or where his eyes should have been. The red ants had been — red-anting. Rats had exposed his ankle tendons. In his nose were the spawn of blowflies who, possibly not more than four hours ago, had smelled his death a mile and a half away. Estimating time of death out here — yours or a body’s — isn’t a science; it’s an absurdity.
The stench pried its way into my nose and down the back of my throat until a taste kicked in that made me feel like an honorary member of The Maggot Club. Dad’s cigarette ploy would have worked well out here — with slight modifications — lighting the cigs up first and then ramming the lit ends up my nose into my brain.
I halted, hand-motioned for Sarge, and waited on one knee.
“Hey, college boy, you got you a fucking Christmas tree there.”
“Yeah, Sarge, Ho-Ho-Ho shit.”
Behind us somebody screamed, like some clown in a ’50s EC Tales from the Crypt comic book, who’s murdered somebody and now the somebody’s coming back for him, in the form of a rotting corpse: “Aiiieeeeeeeeeee!” We slammed earthwards.
It was the FNG Johnson. Had gotten himself tangled up in vine and apparently thought Charlie had him by the nuts. Blake, a short-timer muzzled him and held a knife to his crotch while whispering sweet-nothings into his ear.
“Shortie” Blake was a Single-Digit-Midget, so short he was sleeping in his helmet. He had royally pissed off somebody on top, and so he was still out in the boonies. The last few days he had been as edgy as a hophead getting his first taste of cold turkey. Though he was without medical license, apparently he was offering Johnson a free nutsectomy because Greenie’s eyes bulged out like he had a thyroid condition, and he clammed up pronto. Shorts are inclined to non-elective surgery on guys fixing to add a terminal B, for “in box”, to their DEROS.
“Dumb fucker. At least we know Charlie ain’t around or we’d all be fruit salad. Ever see one of these jobs, kid?” I didn’t answer right away, because I was engaged in a mental calculus. Some unkind soul had shoved an unpinned grenade up my ass and another one into my stomach. I was pondering which was going to go off first. I was scouting a nice little spot on my right where I could squat with my shovel, but I also was eyeing an attractive piece of real estate on my left — nicely landscaped, some shade plants. Kind of place where a guy could say a farewell to arms, settle down and shoot his doughnuts with a modicum of dignity.
The sneer on Sarge’s puss was a chops-buster, so I played Sergeant Rock. “Sure, Sarge, me and Ma put one of these up every Christmas, on my birthday, December twentieth. The neighbors got a hoot out of it, called us the Addams family. We had to stop after five years. The police were putting two and two together: the milkmen were disappearing every year, right on little Dave’s birthday.”
“You’re one funny cocksucker, Dave. Since you’re so experienced, Jimi Hendrix, I’m gonna let you put Kris Kringle back in his box or, better, poncho. Pretend it’s after Christmas. You and Ma are taking the tree down. She’ll say, ‘Put the red ball in that box, honey, and the blue one in that one over there. Don’t bust ’em. The garlands go in here.’”
“You’re A-1 in my book, Sarge.”
“I guess I know what “A” stands for, huh Dave?”
“I got fifty guys in that book, Sarge. You ought to be proud to be numero uno.”
“I’ll get Johnson and Brown to give you a hand.”
“That’s about all I’ll get from those two FNGs, because, after they see Father Christmas, they’ll be busy slapping the monkey with the other.”
“You paralyze me, kid.”
“I already got enough screwy ideas about you in my head, Sarge. Don’t be planting any more.”
“Don’t fiddle with him till I’m at least twenty feet back. Sometimes these fuckers are wired. Last thing I want is some college-boy shit on my jungle blouse.”
I put my hand on a grenade. “Sarge, if you ever need an enema ....”
“You’re Doctor Kildare, huh, kid?”
“Yeah, but with two l’s.”
“You got me in stitches, Dave.”
“Now that’s a real pretty picture, Sarge.”
Two years of college and I was still talking like a yegg out of a pulp-fiction magazine. Eight months in Nam was solvating my brain cells as quickly as the Scotch under my bunk.
Yeah eight months, four days, three hours, and six minutes, but who the hell’s counting? Sure, Dave, sure. All that’s missing on your helmet are the tally marks for seconds, but maybe they’re just hidden under the insect repellent.
Before I shipped out, my old man had come up from Washington where he was flashing the badge as a Federal Marshal during Civil Rights demonstrations. As Boys’ Night-Out devolved, we ended up in a seedy wharf-side bar with a Treasure-Island theme.
The barkeep was dressed as Captain Kidd; the waiter, as Blackbeard, but I called him Bluebeard. We were ushered into a booth shaped like a wine cask, three men in a tub. By then I was seeing double. Dad had shoved aside some of the fake rigging that webbed us. “This shit’s like mosquito netting. All that’s missing are the rats, and they’re probably gonna be the floorshow at one.”
After four Scotches, we reached the stage when the old Latin adage kicks in, In vino veritas, “In wine there is truth.” In this instance it was In Scotcho veritas, but the general principles still applied.
“You’re gonna see some mothergrabbing shit over there. I did. Christ, I did.” Mothergrabbing played quaintly in my college-educated ears, trained now in historical linguistics. He pulled a Lucky Strike out and twirled it like a Tibetan prayer wheel. “You remember when you were a kid, and I told you about sticking cigarettes up my nose? That detail —”
“I know, Dad, I know. It was a body detail. I’ve been around the block.”
He slammed his glass down. “Around the block? Jesus Christ, you dumb cocksucker, you ain’t even on your tricycle yet.”
It was git-down time, as the hookers say. Stakes had been announced and the house was open for business, wide open. Veritas was a-fixing to be in full bloom that night. I had parachuted into the Garden of Veritas, and smack in the middle of it, the god of booze, Bacchus, was throwing one Hell of a party. It was the old game — transactional analysis. I never played the wussy-ass version: “I’m OK, you’re OK”. With the nuns it was, “I’m OK, you’re going to Hell!”. With my father it was “I’m OK, you’re Numbnuts!” and similar variants, Shit-for-Brain, Dilbert, Sad Sack, and so on and so forth. Gentlemen, start your engines.
“Until ’44, we didn’t have enough official graves registration units. They were packing them off to Europe. So shit-birds with fuck-luck like me got volunteered sometimes. I had to pull guys out that were half buried in the ground for four days. In that stinking heat, they just came apart like pieces of overcooked chicken. You think cigarettes are gonna kill that smell?
“I go to the refrigerator, and your mother’s left something in the back too long. The smell hits me in the face, and I’m back hauling pieces out of that damn mud, pieces of guys I knew. I’d be holding an arm with a Betty Grable tattoo, and I’d be saying, ‘So long, Sean buddy.’ Or a hand with a sterling skull ring. ‘Nice knowing ya, Jim.’
“You know what it does to your mind when you start talking to body parts? I was barely nineteen. Never owned a car. Had real pussy only twice in my life and then it cost me two bucks a throw. The rest of the time I was dating Mother Thumb and her four daughters. And there I was on that goddamn island, the Clean-up Crew from Hell.”
“I ran out of water playing Tiddlywinks with those guys. There was a pool nearby. The rule book said, ‘Fill canteen with water. Add Halizone tablets. Wait at least thirty minutes. Then sip slowly.’ I crawled over and lapped it up like a mangy mutt.
“There were maggots in there. I said, ‘What the hell, those guys gotta drink too.’ After I drank for a while, I found fingers down there. Never did figure out whose they were. You ever notice how I always stir a fresh drink with a swizzler, careful-like? You know why I do that?”
“I don’t know, Dad. Maybe you’re scared shitless at the bottom you’ll find some guy’s di —”
“You got it, Bright Boy. Jesus Christ, that shit happened over twenty-five years ago on the ’Canal, and I still dream about it.” He leaned forward and tapped his nose. “I could have rammed my own shit right up here, right up to the back of my brain and out, and I’d still have that smell in me. It gets down in your throat so bad you can taste it — so bad you can’t taste nothing else.”
Now this was Veritas usque ad yingum-yangam, all the way up there. I positioned my Scotch glass over my nose and mouth as though it were an anesthesia mask, inhaled deeply and waited for the Sandman. I had counted backwards to ninety-three when the waiter returned. Mister Around-the-Block mumbled an order: “Four more Scotches. And a basket of pretzels.”
“On the pretzels, straight or twisted?”
“Double-twisted.” The choice was contextual and, given our conversation, as obvious as white wine with fish.
The waiter gave us his mountain-trout-on-a-hook look. “Who’s driving?”
“We’ll pitch pennies for it.”
“But the rules —”
“Listen Bluebeard or Bluebird or Blueballs or whoever you are, you don’t want to mess with us. Aw Jesus, no. Not us. My partner is packing heat.” My father patted the bulge under his left arm and grinned the grin of a psychopathic killer — as natural to him as the smile on a baby with gas. “He’s back from the War, and he’s one mean SOB.”
“Yeah? Which one, Spanish-American?”
I started to get up, but the old man put his arm across mine. “Sit down, Peter Pan. Score one for the Pirates.”
Bluebeard withdrew, smiling like he had just offed another wife.
“You’re a good kid, Dave, but you think too much on your own. A soldier needs that if his leaders get plugged. Take the Japs. Great on defense. Code-of-Bushido tough asses. On offense, knock off their leaders, Code-of-Butt-Shitto. Banzai this, banzai that. I could have handed some of them my Tommie and pointed out my CO, and they would have said. ‘So sorry. No orders. No shoot.’ Scary-wary bullshit, not a lot of independent thinking. If a Nip came yelling banzai, I blew him away yelling bull’s-eye. They learned. On Iwo, they stuck to those damn caves, and we paid in blood for that real estate. Suribachi my ass. By the time our guys were done, they were calling that pile of rock Mount Plasma.
“But you — always in your own playpen. You wouldn’t know Standard Operating Procedure if it jumped up and bit you on the ass. That’s why the nuns worked you over in school.”
“Hey Dad, remember the time you explained snowbird to me in the squad car? “Two weeks before Christmas I go to school and the nun says, ‘Boys and girls, draw snowbirds to hang up under the chalk tray.’
“So the good boys and girls draw tweetie birds and sprinkle on the white dust she gave them. She comes by me and says ‘What’s that? It looks like a man with white powder on his nose.’
“‘It’s a snowbird, Sister, a guy who took a ski trip, the white powder, coke, up his nose.’ I put my hand under my nose and waved my fingers up and down. Next to the next thing I know I’m standing in a trash basket. Which is just fine with me because, after my visit to Mother Superior’s office, I’d lost interest in sitting down.”
We laughed like two hyenas sharing an enema. It was an old joke, but we were imbibing out of the Scotch Fountain of Youth, and even old jokes were shedding the wrinkles and liver spots.
But then his pupils constricted, the way they do when alcohol irritation is setting in, and Doctor Doom was back. “In school that got you the strap. In combat, too much thinking on your own can slow you down, permanently. Smart is one thing, wise is something else. In combat you can’t hesitate, you need instinct. Synchronizing was never your strong suite. How the hell did you get through Basic?”
“I set a new record for Chinese push-ups.”
“I figured. Private One-Hung-Low. Remember when you were nine and I was teaching you to shoot my .45? You kept asking me questions about range and the sights and wind velocity and knowing just when to pull the trigger. You had a stack of books sitting on the shooting bench. You wanted to work it out like a mathematical problem.
“I finally clobbered you in the back of the head with one of the books. ‘Shut that damn noggin of yours down for once, Numbnuts. Just aim, hold your breath and squeeze so even you don’t know when it’s going off. Instinct, kid, instinct. You gotta become one with the gun. It’s a lot like taking a piss. You don’t think about that, do you?’ ‘Well, Dad, have you ever noticed that piss curves like a stone does when you throw it? The name of the curve is a parab —’ ‘Oh Jesus-on-a-crutch, oh Jesus-on-a-motherjumping-crutch, come for me now, right now. You want me to put you down, don’t you, boy? You figure I’ll feel bad afterwards and pull the Dutch Act on myself. Look, Piss-on-the-Brains, just take the .45 and shoot before your head goes off on a curve.’ Instinct I kept telling you. Took me a long time to pound that into your head. Then you kept blowing out the center of that target, every time.”
“You’re lucky, Dad, on instinct, I didn’t blow the center out of something else if you had smacked me one more time. Some times when you were down at that fifty-yard line bent over changing the target — I can still feel the serrations on that trigger.
He shaped his hand into a pistol and aimed at me. “Real killer, huh kid? It’s in the blood. You think I didn’t know. Sometimes when you’ve been in war, you just know when someone is drawing a bead on you. Should have taken your shot, blown my ass off. All I would have done is turn around, wave and yell ‘Nice shot, son. Boy, did I need that.’ Daddy D.I. — that’s what I was. I guess I knew somehow you’d end up in shit some day, and I wanted to make it easier for you than it was for me. That’s why I was always on you, pushing you and roughing you up. I wanted you to be hard and ready for anything. Your mother used to blame me for how you were turning out. ‘Damn you, Mike,’ she’d say, ‘if I could beat some of that war stuff you stuck in his head out of him, I’d do it, but it’s too damned late.’”
“It ain’t like she didn’t try. Jesus, I’m lucky I can walk.”
“I dunno, kid. Maybe I did fill your head up too young.” He shoved back his Stetson and stared into his Scotch as though he were peering into a time scope. “You were so damn smart. All those scholarships, and now you’re headed into major shit. It’s my fault. Maybe we should have played catch sometimes.”
“With what, Dad? A grenade, or a Jap skull? I never owned a baseball.”
He swirled his Scotch in his glass. “We weren’t exactly Ward and the Beaver.”
“Sure we were, Dad — The Twilight Zone version. By the way, who’s that Mickey Mantle that Ma was always yammering about?” He laughed. “And, Dad, Bright Boy made his own decisions. Khe Sanh, Bien Hoa — those names were like the music of the Greek Sirens to me.”
As though he were drawing back a curtain, he reclined into the seat and stuck his hand into the rigging. “Boys of my generation lay in beds and listened to train whistles in the night. One night during the Depression, Pa shuffled home from the shade-roller factory with his slouch hat pulled over his eyes and his collar turned up. He told the eight of us his pay was cut from twenty-three dollars a week to thirteen — a lousy sawbuck. Then he slumped into his overstuffed chair and cried. I was eleven, and I’d never seen him do that before. I just stood there with my hand on his shoulder, and he wouldn’t stop shaking and hoo-hoo-hooing. I had to slip my hand under his suspenders because he was shaking so hard it kept falling away. I could feel all his sorrow and shame coming right up into that small hand of mine. It was like what made him a man was just leaking on out. After a while, I wanted to take my hand away, but I couldn’t. It was all tangled up in there.
“That night I sat on the edge of my bedroom window smoking a Camel and peeling the flaking white paint off the sill, and I listened to train whistles in the yards behind our shack, to their long low mournful whine. They sounded a hell of a lot better than that choked sobbing I’d heard from Pa. And I swore I’d leave. I was never going to be shamed like Pa.
“Before I knew it, I was seventeen and down to the Post Office enlisting — no work at the mills even if I wanted it. I took a train south and then a boat through the Panama Canal — a boat called Liberty — and there I was at Schofield Barracks. And one Sunday morning in December, some birds with funny eyes and an attitude flew over, and I was out on the second-floor balcony firing a Tommie, and I wasn’t a kid anymore. In the War I heard a lot of crying — a guy a few foxholes away who got it in the belly and cried all night. I used my hand plenty to shove guys’ guts back in — all that shit and blood. But by then I was hard. That business with Pa — never got that sobbing out of my head and how my hand felt, caught against him and all that sadness and shame just a-pouring on out.
“I never had your fancy education, professor — flunked out of high school — but those Greek Sirens you heard — well, the nuns told us all about those bitches. They'd get you jazzed up with hootchy-kootchy music so you’d jump ship, and when you got to shore, they ripped you to pieces. Nam’s like those whores, with the Clap thrown in. Something special too called the Black Syph. There’s a story going around that they send guys who get it off to some desert island. You better watch where you’re poking around over there, kid.”
“You think they’re still charging two bucks over there, Dad, like in your day.”
He flushed. “Yeah, well that was a lifetime ago. You have to allow for inflation.” We giggled like two eighth-graders who’d just discovered the double-entendre. He took a long swig and spoke. “I dunno, kid. After you’ve been in combat for a while, some guys start to get a feeling behind their eyes, a funny feeling ahead of time when something bad gonna happen. I look at you and .... Some day, some motherjumping day, kid, you’re gonna take a bullet right between those eyes.” He reached over, marked a cross on my forehead the way a priest marks somebody with ashes on Ash Wednesday so he’ll be mindful of death. I intoned my own liturgy into my glass: Memento mori, David, anus enim tuus mox erit in linea, “Be thou mindful of death, David, for thine ass shall presently be on the line.”
Dad was now a priest, my own personal padre, but he was a priest of the war god Mars, of Death, pronouncing my doom — Father Bringdown.
We drank our Scotches, and he put his hand over my arm. “I’ll be there for you, kid. Always.”
“Jesus, Dad, next thing we’ll be singing that old Vera Lynn War song. We giggled and sang, “Oh give me something to remember you by ....”
Bluebeard and Kidd gave each other the wink. So that’s what it was all about.
Some kind of invisible webbing now existed between us. He had once told me the time his kid brother got it in the gut at Munda, his mother had awakened with a terrible pain in her stomach. If some day, in some distant jungle, I got it between the eyes, my father would awaken, just as the bullet was tumbling into my brain, and he’d have one mothergrabbing headache.
There were times we would have gladly taken turns on each other’s throats with a dull Kabar, but between us there lingered “the old fierce pull of blood” and love of the military.
That was eight months ago. Before Johnson and Brown moved up, I scrutinized the body for wires. My mind was protectively transforming the horror before me. The kid was turning into a statue, an ancient Greek one, that I had done a paper on years before while in college.
In Greek mythology there was more than one god of time. In any New Year’s cartoon you find the degenerated form of Chronos, Father Time, who yields to an Infant New Year. But there was another god, far more mysterious, who surfaces only after Greece declines before the military power of Rome. His name was Aion, which meant life itself, and his origins were probably eastern. In the hymns he’s addressed as a god “ever remaining the same through his divine nature.” The few surviving statues portray him as a lion-headed human around whom, from neck to feet, spirals the Serpent of Eternity.
As I stared at the kid, he became Aion. The out-of-place anatomy in his mouth became a muzzle; the coiled intestines turned into the encircling Serpent of Eternity. On impulse, I poured out water, a libation to this strange god whose cult I was resurrecting after two-thousand years.
Brown and Johnson, shooting their cookies, drew me out of my theological musings. Some speck of decency in me wanted to say, “Why don’t we gather around him, join hands, and sing Gumbaya?” All that came out was Sergeant Rock. “Newbie brothers, meet Mister Tannenbaum. When you Cherries are done decorating your shoes, take him down.” Their eyes probed mine, in vain, for a spark of human feeling.
An old Bogart scene rolled into my head, one Frankie and I played out endlessly as kids. A guy’s on his knees, begging Bogie for his life. “Ain’t ya got any compassion? Ain’t ya got a shred of human decency left?” Before plugging him, Bogie, grinning like a crazed greengrocer, says, “Sorry, pal. Fresh out.”
Fresh out, Cherries. Then I did a funny thing. I poured water over my hands. Only, I wasn’t a priest declaring my innocence, or like Ma in the kitchen that day. I was the other hand-scrubber who says, in the non-King-James version, “This is your shit. You handle it. I ain’t responsible.” Lavabo inter innocentes manus meas. Screw the innocentes. We were all fucking damned, polluted, contaminated by the evil that encompassed us.
And it was total damnation, for which there is no penance to be said or absolution to be given, since no sin had been committed. No transgression — just wrong place, wrong time, and you are there.
Stateside, a year ago, this Hippie Annie smiled at me. When I sidled over, she spit in my face. “Babykiller!” I leaned in close. “First gook kid I do over there, I’m gonna dedicate to you, Peggy Sue.” Who was that talking? Not me, but some psychopathic persona out of a Film Noir I had seen when I was in diapers.
A Vera Lynn, tripping on acid, was singing in my head on a scratchy 78-rpm: “Oh gimMe somethin’ to remember Me by, when I am far away from Me.”
Who was I? I was as empty inside, as eviscerated, as this shell before me. At his moment of death, was someone there for him on the other side or did he just pass from one solitary obscenity into another, even more profound? All my childhood the nuns had instilled in me a fear that some horned fucker lurked on the other side. I entertained now a worse terror — there would be no one, nothing there, eternally, an LZ where purple smoke dissipates onto lunar emptiness. “And Death Shall Have No Dominion.” Right, but in a way the poet never conceived, and therein lay the horror.
But in that void, electricity was arcing, a small discharge, but one that flowed from the same pool that impels a disemboweled VC, berserk with pain, to crawl twenty feet to cut your throat. Some Charlies, I was determined, were going to pay for this shit — going to motherfucking pay. Some ugly, feral thing stirred inside me. No more Mister Nice Guy. No more heads in snow banks, heads-on-poles shit now ... well, maybe ears to start with. I wasn’t Frank ... not yet.
That night, back in my hootch, snuggling with my Scotch, I dreamed a strange dream. I was a boy again and it was after Christmas and my father and I were taking the tree down.
We were removing intestines from the tree. He was hanging on a Jacob’s Ladder that dangled from the air like in the old Indian rope trick, and he was telling me the Latin origin of the anatomical names. “See this part up here, kid. It’s the jejunum, usually more vascular and thicker than the part you’re holding. The name means ‘the empty part’.”
I dropped my part and looked up. “Jeez, Dad, if your part is the empty part, my part must have the shit in it.”
He came down the Ladder, knelt by me, and gently held my head in his hands. “Your part’s always gonna have the shit in it. Problem with you, kid, you think too much. You’re gonna get yourself killed out there. You’re gonna die out there, and I ain’t never gonna see you again.”
“Out where, Dad? Out where?” But now he was staring through the Amazing Transparent Boy — the Island Look.
I awoke to metal clanking. At first I thought rats. I had put out peanut butter laced with C-4 after Jonesy got bit and went for the twenty-in-the-belly cure.
I was reaching for my M-16 when I saw the kid in an army shirt and steel pot, stringing an endless row of cans.
I sat up, watched him for a while, and then spoke, “I didn’t know, kid. I didn’t fucking know.”
He smiled the smile that beguiled the Ladukes into being Nips for the day. “That’s okay, mister. But don’t be using words like that around here. If my old lady hears you, she’ll give it to you, trousers down.
“I got it that way once. Skipped Mass to play guns in the park. I was gonna cancel Georgie Laduke’s Christmas with my .45, when Ma drives up. Doesn’t say a word, just pulls up to the curb and gives me the look. I stared back, took my .45 and stuck it in my mouth and pulled the trigger. She smiled and nodded her head. Ma and me, we don’t need words sometimes. I was saying to her, ‘I’m cooked brown, ain’t I, Ma?’ And she had replied, ‘Yes, yes, you really are.’ Then she gave me the sign.”
“You mean like this?” I asked, moving my thumb in the hitchhiking position.
“Jeez, you’re a queer duck, mister. Kinda seem to get into a guy’s head. That’s right. It meant, ‘Get home. I got something sweet waiting for you. Fresh from the Kraft Candy Kitchen.’ So she gave it to me, trousers down. Said she wanted me to know what Hell felt like, because that’s where I was going if I ever skipped Mass again. When she got done, I was ready to make ten novenas, twenty Stations of the Cross, and a pilgrimage to Lourdes.”
“Yeah, I remember that, kid. Little Saint Dave, boy saint of the neighborhood. Lasted about a week, didn’t it?”
He nodded with a puzzled look on his face and then said, “Hey, mister, do you believe in Hell, a place where guys are on fire and always screaming?”
A month ago, I had seen an eight-year-old whose skin was bubbling with napalm. The boy and his screams were still bouncing off my parietals. I laughed, sickly-like. “You bet your sweet bippy I do.” I tapped my head.
“Sometimes I think it’s just bunk. The nuns are always telling me that’s where I’m gonna end up. What do you think, mister?”
“Better make that pilgrimage to Lourdes, kid. Who knows?”.
“Hey, we’re gonna play Bloody Ridge. You wanna play?”
“Later, kid, later.” Oh yeah, Dave, you bet your sweet bippy you’ll play later.
I smoked some Laotian Gold and watched him assemble his cans. Their shape was changing from cylinders to spheres, then beads in a giant rosary. I thought for a moment we could both get down on our knees and pray, pray to the Blessed Virgin to preserve our sorry asses. Where I was raised, the rosary was heap big medicine. And a rosary this size, just imagine its mana! “Ave Maria, gratia plena ....”
Memory fails. Altarboy days are over. Mary is now Mary Jane, full of purple haze, not grace. All I could say was, “Hey kid, Merry Christmas.”
“It’s only July, mister. You ain’t one of those guys who plays a section-eight to fly the coop, are you? That quitter stuff don’t draw water with me and my old man.”
“Ain’t you ever heard about Christmas in July,
buddy?” He shook his head. “Well you will, kid. You
will.” I fell asleep drunk, but that was just fine. Lines
of some Vietnamese poem, whose author eluded me, came back,
“Is not the earth a drunkard,
I woke up at four when the mortar fire started. A guy outside was screaming, “Where’s the rest of me?” I thought Ronald Reagan, as the character who gets both legs amputated in that old movie Kings Row, was paying me a personal call.
The kid was gone, long gone, playing night-patrol on a starry July evening in the days of Dick and Jane.
That was Aion’s gift. I knew part of me would always be back there, living in some Peter Pan innocence, though one year had passed into another, though each decade would pass into the next. And that fragment of me would never know Christmas in July.
But what’s that line from Vergil? “Timeo Danaos etiam ferentes dona”, “I fear the Greeks even when they come bearing gifts.” I know now too that part of me will always be here in this Hell. The long- distance stares of my parents, home from the War — it wasn’t just the horrors they had seen. It was parts of themselves they were looking for, fragments they would never unite with again, but needed to glimpse from time to time.
“How about that Kool-Aid, Ma?” She had died three months after I shipped out — UnLucky Strikes. Maybe my new pal Aion would grant me five more minutes with her by that kitchen window. We’d sip some Davy Crockett together, and I’d tell her, “I know what you see out there, Ma. A piece of me’s out there too, and it ain’t never coming home either, not even in a tight tidy box.”
In my youth I had been the alchemist of morbidity; gangrene, jungle rot, malaria — take your pick, kids. Then I became the Great Tree-Taker-Downer. But that had just been a stepping stone. I am now the high priest of Aion and, in some measure, will serve here eternally in this Hell, watching forever things, and people, slipping away. Slip sliding away.
And War — War was like the whale in Moby Dick. Few escape whole to tell their story. Many, like my parents, lose part of themselves to the Beast. And some, like that kid in the vines, lose everything, and still, in the end, the Beast draws us all downwards, even the dead in its wake. The Evil has no bottom.
Jesus, I’m in high form, waxing poetic. Is it me, the booze, or Aion possessing me? I’ve been thinking, reviewing everything, back to the Ridge that July afternoon fifteen years ago when I was a kid.
My M-16 and I are outside the hootch now. There’s still incoming. And now there’s an added attraction — a pajama party — lots of Charlies in black pajamas and our guys shooting and yelling. Fun for the whole family, as the announcer used to say at the Drive-In, way back in the days of Dick and Jane.
But Bright Boy’s brain is lava-lamping, and now some lines
from the Bhagavad-Gita flicker in, the words of
the god Krishna to the warrior king Arjuna the night before the
“I am time in all its fullness,
One generation of Charlies cometh and another goeth — even without me. Yea, but war abideth forever. But I intend to accelerate the process. Payback time’s a-coming. Did I change my 20-shot clip for the one with 30-shots I rigged up with duct tape? I’m thinking.
No, I’m hesitating, ain’t I, Dad? And just now I’m getting the worst headache I ever had, splitting my skull. Probably the booze. But something wet, maybe just sweat, is streaming down my forehead, and now I’m watching a movie, a miniature command performance, Dave’s own personal Bijou, right in front of my eyes in black-and-white.
I see my old man in a hotel in Washington. To his right, in a window, is the Capitol. He’s on the edge of the bed, holding his head like he’s got a motherjumping headache. He’s shaking and he’s crying. But maybe I’m wrong. Dad ... he ain’t never cried long as I ... long as I can remember ... and I’ve been remembering all the way back to that afternoon on the Ridge when I was a kid.
Bright Boy could be wrong. Maybe all this is in his mind or it’s a flesh wound or maybe a bird just shit on me. Yeah, that sounds like my karma. Or maybe I’m going to finally dance that dance I’ve been chasing all my life, ever since I was Doc Holliday. I don’t know ... never did really know ... not one mothergrabbing day of my whole damned life.
Jesus, who does know?
But if I’m booked on a C-141 through KIA Travel Bureau, I’m taking Charlie along. Soldierboy has wised up and is shutting the brain down, Dad. Squeezing the trigger. Don’t know when it’s going off. “Here’s your hat, Charlie. What’s your hurry? Chao Domommie ong. Rat han hanh duoc gap ong. Chuc di choi vui ve! (“Howdy Mister Mo-Fo. Pleased to meet you. Have a nice trip!”) Memento mori, Mister Do-Ma, Mister Fo-Mo.”
How about that Kool-Aid, Ma? Yeah, how about that Kool-Aid?
by David J. Ladouceur
... who is a teacher and historian, and has previously published creative writing in this magazine, as well as non-fiction in professional journals. He is currently working on a novel, After the War, set in the early 1950's which deals with a veteran who returns from the conflict and shares not only his stories but his ghosts with his son. Born into a military family, Dr Ladouceur is the son of a jungle scout who served in the Pacific Theater from Pearl Harbor through the end of World War Two.