The year was 1982, and I was fortysomething. Another autumn and the cooling weather had turned the trees outside my office window pale yellow. The leaves trembled in a breeze fresh off the Pacific, blowing down from Point Loma toward Baja.
Through my window I could see the curve of the Coronado bridge and glimpse part of the Navy hospital above the freeways that circle Balboa Park. A friend who had spent several months in that hospital 13 years ago had called last night from Texas.
He was doing great, he said. The shrapnel seemed finally to have settled into his body, stopped moving around, and his pain was less than before. He told me he’d quit taking painkillers sometime ago, although it had not been easy. As he talked, I noticed his speech was much clearer than it had been, and he now remembered names of our friends. Forgetting names had always upset him. Thirteen years ago, after the mortar round burst in the branches there in the swamp southeast of Saigon, he could not even remember his own name.
The call I had received an hour ago was much different from my friend's call, yet it summoned the same memories. This one came from a colonel at the United States Southern Command in Panama. The colonel sounded as If he never had trouble remembering anything, but his remarks were cryptic until I identified myself to his satisfaction. He then told me to call him back on the AUTOSEVOCOM — a secure phone system that scrambles conversations as they are transmitted.
The AUTOSEVOCOM had worked its magic, and I talked with the colonel as easily as I might talk with my wife ten miles away in Chula Vista.
‘‘You,’’ the colonel said, “will be having cocktails with me next week in the Quarry Heights O Club.’’
"Colonel, I have my retirement orders."
"When is your date?”
"June. I'll have 20 years and a wake-up on 7 June.”
“Super. That gives you plenty of time. You should be in-country by 1 November and out by Christmas.”
In-country. We always referred to it that way, regardless of the country we were in. In-country. “When are you going incountry?” "How long you been incountry?” A convenient term, easily transferred from one country to another, a nonspecific term, like nonspecific urethritis. Incountry this time meant Honduras.
"Why me, Colonel? I can’t be the only officer in the Navy who speaks Spanish, and badly at that. Why not use one of those hot runners we took on after the Bay of Pigs? You know, the tractors.” "Ask the general. I'm just the messenger. We got a computer printout from the Navy for this job, and you got elected. We need someone with Nam experience in the bush like you had with the SEALS. And you know Latin America.”
I thought: Know Latin America? Not even Simon Bolivar, the Liberator, knew that chaos. They say on his deathbed he declared that one who serves the revolution plows the sea.
Choosing not to share this thought with the colonel, I said, "I've had nothing to do with Latin America or the SEALS for two years. I’m a protocol officer. I show VIPs around Southern California. Take ’em to Sea World and the zoo. Last week I took the British Minister of Defense and his wife to Disneyland. Their favorite ride was It’s a Small World.”
For the first time I sensed uncertainty in the colonel’s voice. "Well... I don't know about that. Time is short. We got to cross the line of departure soon and get finished before the gents in Congress get wind of this like they did in El Salvador and maybe ax our funds.”
The AUTOSEVOCOM suddenly made the colonel’s voice seem as if he were speaking through a tunnel or from the far side of an enormous room. Then the echo faded and the colonel continued: "Listen. After this assignment you'll pull your papers. You are going to be on the cutting edge of policy, big time. You are going to be the Navy representative on a very high-level strategy assistance team. You are going to help the Hondos build a brown-water navy with SEALS as the main operational force. Forget about the zoo and Disneyland.”
The Hondos? In the coming weeks I would once more hear places and people reduced to catchy abbreviations, as if this shorthand were a means to quick understanding and control. Before, it had been Nam, slopes, the Cong, Charley (Clyde if you’re up North), the ARVIN, the Ruff-Puffs, the Plumbers. Now it would be Hondo, Tegoose, El Sal, Guat City, the Contras, the Boys in the Band.
These and other terms, such as quid pro quo, popped from the colonel’s mouth like toads from the mud after a rain, and I took notes. I knew orders would soon arrive, and I would be "headed south" within a week. The colonel finished, and I put the red phone in its cradle and left the communications center.
Now as I peered across the bay toward the hospital, I began planning my predeployment briefings, my friend from Texas momentarily shunted aside.
I would need to spend a morning with the SEALS, an hour or so with their senior command, Special Warfare Group One, and of course talk with the Seawolf helo pilots. I would also have to talk with the boat squadron, the P-Bars in Vallejo. And perhaps it would be useful to get on the horn with Spanky Schaufelberger in El Salvador.
I returned to my desk, drafted the necessary messages, left them with the duty officer to release, and began the drive home to tell my wife the news.
An accident on the bay bridge had slowed and then stopped traffic as I approached the bridge summit. The day was dazzling. Rain the night before had washed the air clean of smog, and the lowering sun sparkled off the city. To my left I could see the Navy hospital, its salmon-pink buildings contrasting sharply with the park greenery.
As I waited for the traffic to start, I again thought of my friend in Texas. The last time I had seen him in the hospital, he was there because they were worried about a tiny steel splinter extruding from his eye. For a long time after his wounding, shrapnel had worked its way through and out of his body. I had been amazed that a piece of steel could enter his eye without blinding him. But as this microscopic splinter channeled its way out, my friend was indeed going blind.
For the first time in a long while. I also thought of other friends: some who had made it back to the hospital and some who had not. I thought of Jack Starr wounded and dying near the Cua Viet, hero and victim of the Vietnamization era, hauled to sea and safety by Pat Fox, who got the Big Blue for that one.
Jack’s surgery had apparently done the trick. They said he had a plate in his head; when last I saw him, he was cancer thin, and his artificial eye gleamed like agate from his face. But that was more than three years ago. He’d come a long way since then, they said.
Willy Lump-Lump, whose greatest desire was that he win the Big Blue posthumously for his wife, didn’t make it back to the hospital. The claymore blast caught him thigh-high and cut him in two. All his wife got was a bronze star with combat vee.
Rick Trani, the Annapolis graduate, also got hit by a claymore. Lost his legs. But he made it back to the hospital at Bien Hoa. Then he died when they gave him the wrong blood. I try to remember Rick as he was in training, before we went to Ranger school, the Rung Sat, and the Delta. He was a trainee who suffered and endured: a poor swimmer. We had this underwater swim test of 50 meters, the length of the pool. Most of us made it no sweat but not Rick. He’d pop up at about the 40-meter mark, gasping like a speared kelp bass. After two failures, the instructors told him if he didn’t make it on the third try, he was out of the program. Would never be a Frogman or a SEAL.
We watched Rick drive his stubby body through the water, down on the bottom of the pool, aqd thought: he’ll never make it. But he.did. He smacked his head into the end of the pool and bounced back, smacked again, bounced back. The instructors jumped in and pulled him out. He had been unconscious from the 40-meter mark yet kept going, the mind unwilling but the body strong. Not strong enough, however, to withstand that mis-matched blood.
Then there was Mike Collins. Mike was an exceptional swimmer. He swam for the academy. They named the Amphibious Base pool for him ten years after he was churched in the Delta near Ben Tre, I believe. But I'm not sure. I wasn’t with him.
The last time I was with Mike, we were chasing Southern snap through the bars of Phenix City, Alabama. Mike had just finished jump school at Fort Benning, and I was a new Ranger eager to live my life in danger. We got along. We were SEALS and we were jocks.
I sat behind his mother at the pool dedication on a sun-filled day in Coronado. I heard her softly crying for a son ten years dead. I concentrated on the 50-meter lanes stretching before us, imagining Mike powering into the far wall, exploding out of a flip turn, pulling hard toward us. Then all I saw was empty water.
Of course, I remember Neal at the hospital in Bien Hoa. The first man I watched die. Most of us talk not about the first man we watched die but the first we killed.
I sometimes do that. He was a courier sliding along in a sampan on the Upper Dong Tam, and I brainshot him with a CAR 15, a weapon that looks like a toy. I was close enough to see blood and bone spray when the round struck.
But I usually remember Neal more clearly than the courier. Neal took a lot longer to die, and I knew him. Neal was 17 when he got hit; he’d enlisted on a "kiddie cruise.”
I have no idea how old the courier was.
Neal’s stomach lining was perforated by a Chicom grenade that exploded in the well-deck of a Mike boat on the Vam Sat river. After the dustoff helo took him to Bien Hoa, I thought he would be okay. I continued to think that until my third visit. On that visit, I saw they had moved him away from the other patients in the Quonset hut to a small room behind a partition. He was alone in the room, except for a nurse. As I approached his bed, the nurse cautioned me that he was very weak. "He’s a guarded case,” she whispered. “He has peritonitis.”
At the time, I didn’t know what peritonitis meant; and I was 26, which was not young in that war, or perhaps in any war.
I have run the Neal movie through my brain so often that the setting and dialogue remain as clear now as on the day I stood by his bed, looking at his pale, slender body covered from the waist down by a sheet. Neal's eyes were closed, his head turned so that I could see the crescent on his scalp where they had shaved his thick, black hair to get at the shrapnel. His arm stretched out to receive the trickle of clear fluid coming through a tube from a bottle above the bed.
"Neal,” I said softly. "Neal.”
He opened his eyes and turned his head toward me. His eyes were dark and seemed too large for his face, like the eyes of a child in a Betanzos painting.
"Oh, what? Oh, I thought you were somebody else.”
"It’s me,” I said. “How you feeling?”
"Not bad, sir. But I can’t move. I mean, I got so many tubes in me that all I can move is this arm and my head. Used to have a tube up my nose and couldn't even move my head then.” With his free hand he grasped the sheet covering him and pulled it farther down. "See all those tubes?" A T-shaped bandage stretched across the boy's stomach and down his groin; two plastic tubes extended from beneath the bandage to a pair of bottles placed on a table below the bed. "Well, those things are so I can shit and piss, see? But I never know when I’m doing it, except the nurse empties the bottles, so I guess everything still works. Then there’s another tube under the bandage that you can’t see. It drains pus outta my gut. They change the bandage a lot, and Christ, does it stink, like something rotten.” The boy began to breathe heavily, as if he were unused to the effort of so much talking.
I said, "You look good. Just take it easy. Don’t talk so much if it’s a strain."
"Oh no, no. I like to talk."
"I brought you some letters. I'll put them on the table, and you can read them later or have the nurse read them to you.” "Thank you, sir. Who are they from?”
“Two are from your parents and...”
"Yes, from Virginia.”
"Oh, there must be some mistake, sir. You see, my parents are in Saigon. My mother visits me every day."
“I see. How are your parents?"
"Very fine, sir. Except my mom doesn't like being so far away from me. It’s a long drive from Saigon.”
"Yes, it is.”
The boy started to speak again but coughed, then gagged on some sputum. He coughed the sputum onto his chin. I untied the olive-drab bandana around my neck and used it to wipe away the sputum.
The nurse heard the gagging and came to the bed. I said, ”I have to go. Take it easy. I’ll be back soon.”
The boy, exhausted from coughing, nodded and closed his eyes.
As I walked away with the nurse, I asked, "What's it look like?"
"Bad," she replied. "But he's in no pain.”
Neal died shortly after I left, and I knew then what peritonitis meant.
The cars in front of me on the bridge had started moving again, and I drove past the remnants of the accident: broken glass, bits of metal, rubber-scorched pavement. No bodies. I drifted down the off-ramp, eased in behind a truck with a faded blue place from Tijuana, inhaled a lungful of Third World exhaust, and headed south.
As I followed the truck in the rush-hour traffic on Interstate 5, I glimpsed the Chicano graffiti I had read many times on the pilings of the bridge: Yonkes No. Varrio Si.
I had been with my wife when I first saw the slogan. I remarked that the author had misspelled Vbnquis and Barrio. My wife, who is Bolivian and teaches Mexican children in Southeast San Diego, enlightened me. Yonkes, she explained, meant junkyards; as for Varrio, the b and v in Spanish sound the same, so who cares how you spell neighborhood?
But the slogan still reminded me of other slogans I had read on other surfaces: Fuera Yanqui on the wall of a pueblo oven near Jorge Chavez Airport in Lima; Que Mueran Los Yanquis on the side of a mining shed in Cerro de Pasco, Tierra O Muerte on the back of a truck rumbling through La Convention, Che Vive on a boulder blocking a dusty road near Valle Grande — the Bolivian pueblo where Che got his.
What took me from Southeast Asia to South America?
Well, it began because I’m a moviegoer and a dreamer — like all sailors. One of the first movies I saw after I returned from Vietnam was Lawrence of Arabia. As I watched Lawrence and his ragheads, I considered how useful it must have been to know the language and culture of the place where you fought. In Vietnam I had been hard-pressed to order a beer correctly and never could stomach nuoc mam, that nauseating fish sauce the VN poured over everything.
The heroics of Peter O’Toole made the military benefits of acculturation obvious. I resolved to be a latter-day Lawrence, but Latin America would be my turf. Like most schoolboys, I had learned something of the Monroe Doctrine and was convinced, by God, that we wouldn't be a Good Neighbor forever. Latin America would be our next battlefield, no doubt about it. The clarity of the vision overwhelmed me. When the time came, I’d be ready as I’d never been in Nam.
I convinced the Navy of my vision; they first sent me to study Spanish at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, where I took a wife, mi profesora, la zorrita. Next, the Navy gave me a full ride to graduate school at the University of Florida to learn what made Latin America tick.
Finally, I began the lengthy journey that lasted most of the ’70s. Doing various chores for the Navy and others, I traveled from Panama to Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatamala, Colombia, Chile, and Bolivia. I remained for quite a spell in Peru.
I learned firsthand — well, almost firsthand — the reality behind the alphabet and nomenclature of revolution: FMLN, FSLN, M-19, FARC, MIR, Tupac Amaru, Sendero Luminoso, and so forth.
I learned how the macheteros in Colombia named their handiwork according to how they applied the blade, how they sliced the skin, how they laid back the flesh to expose the bone. The macheteros favored such cuts as the "necktie,” the "necklace,” and the priestly "dog collar.” They turned out an artistic product; after all, they’d been at their craft for some time. The Colombians referred to the endemic butchery by a simple, generic term: La Violencia.
The Colombians were not alone in the revolutionary arena of Latin America, but they had been at the game longer than most. New to the game but with impressive moves and a hard-nosed style were the Peruvian Senderistas.
Regardless of the country, our competition was a curious mix of players: peasants, miners, intellectuals, disaffected priests, and the children of oligarchs — nihos bien gone bad, so to speak.
I was only marginally in the game, really more of an equipment manager than a player. At times, however, I did coach a little from the sidelines.
But two tours in Nam and too many years looking into the twisted face of revolution and reaction finally took me out of the arena. One morning I awoke as if from a dream and cleaned out my locker.
Why, I wondered, had I taken so long to quit? Indeed, why had I become a SEAL in the first place? Lord knows I knew better. After all, I was graduated from a liberal arts college. Whether I liked it or not, the college had required that I demonstrate at least a passing familiarity with philosophy, religion, art, and literature: the l-Thou of Buber, the humbling Void of Niebuhr, the compassionate Catholicism of Pope John, the scientific humanism of Hook, some measure of the horrors of war through the paintings of Goya, the poems of Sassoon and Jarrell, the novels of Crane, Hemingway, March, Mailer, Vonnegut.
Of course, this was indirect experience, but I did not have to be hit by a train to have a good idea what such an event would entail. Furthermore, I was disgusted by the patriotic flatulence that permeated our adventure in Vietnam. Nonetheless, I couldn't wait to take up the weapon and to take it up with men who knew how to wield the weapon better than most.
But Nam and Latin America finally taught me the lesson my tweedy professors could not. I had at last seen what Marlon Brando s Colonel Kurtz saw in Apocalypse Now: "The Horror ...The Horror...” I acted before I stepped over the edge.
I uprooted a Navy career in full bloom. Ignoring the consternation and at times outright hatred of senior SEAL officers, I seized a billet meant not for warriors but for blackshoes who couldn’t tell a Honeywell from an ADM: I became a protocol officer to finish my 20.
At first the duty had been a little trying. But I got used to the demanding bitchiness of a few admirals’ wives — not the wife of my admiral, thank Christ. Also, my chest full of ribbons and the gleaming SEAL trident gave me a certain status as I made the rounds with VIPs in tow.
I even came to enjoy some visits, particularly that wonderfully cool encounter with the penguins at Sea World. My very favorite.
Yet something remained. I would find myself calling old friends in the Teams, taking in a drunken businessman’s special with them to watch the Padres and be brought up to date.
Even now, as I considered absently how I might escape my orders South, I felt... what? A thrill at the prospect of a final trip to the field? The feeling, the urge, whatever it was, had stirred many times before. In fact, I came to view it as something alive, a presence deep within. When had it first entered? During one of those frenzies in the swamp? Was that its genesis? Or had it been born long before in a higher, dryer place — perhaps an ancient grassy plain aglow with menace?
The traffic on the interstate was stop-and-go as we approached the bottleneck where four lanes became three and crossed the marsh separating National City from Chula Vista. I enjoyed gazing at the marsh from the dry comfort of my car, especially at low tide. The small, serpentine watercourses with their slick, muddy banks reminded me of the Rung Sat, where I had spent much of my 26th year with three SEAL platoons. The marsh was a Lilliputian reminder of the immense green man-eater that slumbered fitfully in my memory.
The Rung Sat was bounded on the northeast by the Long Tau River and on the southwest by the Soi Rap. The rivers merged at the top of the Rung Sat some 20 miles below Saigon. The Long Tau was fairly narrow and deep; for this reason, the river served as the shipping channel between Saigon and the South China Sea. The Soi Rap was a monster river, wider than the Mississippi yet too shallow for deep-draft ships.
On a map, the two rivers appear as opposite sides of a deformed wishbone with the open end facing the sea and the joined end pointing toward Saigon. The 500 square miles of primeval slime between the two rivers form the Rung Sat Special Zone, known to the Vietnamese as the Forest of Assassins.
The Rung Sat had harbored pirates for decades; these pirates, the Binh Xuyen, would raid commerce on the Long Tau and loot villages bordering the Rung Sat. The Binh Xuyen had been replaced by the Cong, who now ambushed freighters bringing war supplies to Saigon.
The Cong also used the Rung Sat as a rest area for main force units and as a depot for food, weapons, and ammunition. It was said the Cong even had a fully equipped hospital tucked somewhere among the mangroves.
When the tide was flooding from the sea, the Rung Sat became a vast saltwater lake with floating islands of green mangrove and nipa palm. When the tide ebbed, the islands joined, and small rivers or rachs appeared in a network that connected the Long Tau, the Soi Rap, and a large interior river, the Vam Sat. It was along these rachs that the Cong moved their troops, supplies, and ambush parties.
We were told SEALS drew the Rung Sat for operations because of her maritime character, but we knew better: she was ours because no one else wanted her, or if they wanted her, their desire waned after a patrol or two.
The Army, for example, once mounted an ambitious, brigade-sized operation to destroy what they could find among the rachs. After three days, so many soldiers had been Medevaced that one would have guessed a great battle had been fought. Fact is, the soldiers had not fired a shot in anger. Mother Rung Sat just ate those grunts alive: heat stroke, malarial fevers, drownings, croc attacks, fire ants chewing on eyeballs, and exhausted men shooting each other by mistake. The Army scurried for higher ground with their flak jackets and steel helmets.
The Rung Sat was left to us, and our mission was simple: turn the ambusher into the ambushee. Mission execution, however, was seldom as simple as mission statement; unexpected results sometimes issued from even flawless execution. I recall one such mission particularly well.
Twelve of us had struggled all day through five klicks of mud to reach our ambush site, a rach that connected the Long Tau shipping channel with the Vam Sat River. We arrived with barely enough light remaining to prepare our firing positions. We burrowed into the mud at the stream’s edge, behind a screen of swamp grass and just in front of the mangroves. The site was a good one: we had a clear view beyond both flanks for some 50 meters and the rach was no more than 60 meters wide. If they came, we would hear them and we would see them.
We rigged the claymores, one on each flank and one to the rear. We would crank the claymores on the flanks to initiate the ambush. We angled the claymores inboard so that when they detonated, we would get a cross-blowing effect with the steel shot throughout the kill zone.
The radioman put the waterproofed handset to his ear, came up on our freq and broke squelch three times. After he heard the echoing response from our relay on the Soi Rap, he switched off the Prick 25. We were in deep, as usual. No artillery fan, no resupply, no comm without a relay. No one talked.
We checked our weapons to make certain the rain plugs were still in the barrels and the water had drained from the chambers. We loaded and inserted fresh magazines, then ate for the first time that day. We spooned our meal from plastic bags filled with a water-soaked gruel of dehydrated fish and rice. Most of us added Tabasco sauce to the mess. After we ate, we popped our government-issue dex. No one talked.
The sun set at 6:05 as it did virtually every day of the year along our brief minute of latitude near the equator. And with equal regularity, the mosquitos commenced their frantic song, which they would hum in our ears ’til dawn.
The usual noises began: small creatures settling and shifting in the mud to sound like footsteps behind us; the unmistakable snorting and strangled roar of giant crocs who called the Rung Sat home; a keening cry as if made by a woman. Perhaps the cry came from a bird or a monkey.
Then, when darkness had truly arrived, the mysterious blue light began to dance around and among us. For those who had been Midwestern farm boys, the light recalled electric charges that flashed across dark summer skies; for one who. had gone to college in upstate New York, the light conjured a dream of the Aurora Borealis flickering along the northern horizon; for those who had passed their youth setting trot-lines in the black water of Southern swamps, the light appeared to be merely what it was: marsh gas — ignis fatuus — methane manufactured by decaying vegetation and rotting carcasses of one sort or another.
Throughout the night, the tide followed its 20-foot range, one of the most dramatic in the world. As the tide flooded, we felt the water at our ankles become water at our waists and then water at our chests. We clambered like apes onto the flying roots of the mangroves, seeking at least enough height to keep the overflowing stream from reaching our weapons. No one talked.
We remained clinging to the mangroves for much of the night, until the ebb began. Soaked through as we were and lighted up on dex, the night breezes cooled, then tormented us. During the day we had baked, now we trembled with cold and could not still our teeth. But we could hack this Rung Sat cold. Rung Sat cold did not compare with the cold of freezing winter surf we had endured to the point of hypothermia and beyond during our training off the Silver Strand. Cold was our meat. Screw it on. Hoo Yah!
As the water receded, we followed it down from our perches back into our original firing positions. The sun eased above the rim of the earth, and we once again checked our weapons and the claymores to ensure they were ready to crank and that the side reading “toward enemy” was in fact still turned toward where we hoped the enemy would be. No one talked.
A few of us ate our miserable gruel again, but most simply took a pull or two from the Tabasco bottles. We settled in to await the heat. We did not wait long. The sunlight roasted us like so many peanuts. Mud dried on faces, hands, clothes We began to look as if we were just another bizarre species of plant taking root in the Rung Sat. No one talked.
Thirst accompanied heat, although not with such force as when we had been moving. We resisted the growing urge to drain what little water remained in our two-quart collapsible canteens. We were another 24 hours from extraction, unless we got a hit sooner. We would need the water on the way out. Besides, the warm water really did very little to check our thirst, but it could give us energy for a time — perhaps the time it would take to break contact and hoist ourselves aboard a helo or a P-Bar.
The sun blazed its way above us as we waited, sweated through our Elizabeth Arden camouflage grease, and labored to breathe. The air was so still and humid it seemed almost solid. No one talked.
Then we heard it: the low stuttering of a Kohler outboard, throttled back. We watched as a sampan appeared on our right, cautiously making way toward us along the far bank.
We saw four people in the sampan: one in the bow, two seated low in the open center, and the coxswain. The man in the bow faced forward, a rifle across his lap that appeared to be a Chicom SKS. Both he and the coxswain wore khaki shirts and wicker sun helmets with narrow brims.
The two in the center of the sampan wore the conical straw hats and black pajamas of peasants. The sampan was heavily loaded and showed less than six inches of freeboard. Perhaps it carried a mortar concealed beneath bags of rice.
The sampan continued its approach, maneuvering to avoid clumps of mangrove and small trees awash in the rach. The platoon commander showed a clenched fist to our VN SEAL; we would not hail. The platoon commander grasped the firing assembly for the claymores. The rest of us had already eased our selectors from safe to either automatic or semiautomatic.
The buffeting explosion of the claymores made us flinch despite ourselves. We saw the man in the bow rock ever so slightly and turn toward us. His face was a leaking red mask torn by steel shot.
The coxswain had slumped sideways, and during that suspended instant before we fired, we saw the two VC with the conical hats slip into the rach.
The chaos began, but with a certain order: M16s firing on full automatic yet squeezing off aimed bursts of four; Stoners cycling through their 150-round drums at a measured pace; M79s plooking HE rounds along the far bank; concussion grenades making waterspouts as they hammered the guts of swimmers.
In the midst of the fury, our radioman spoke quietly as he called for P-Bars and Seawolfs.
The rest of us were like monks released from vows of silence. We screamed: "TherelTherelThere! Onthebank! Onthebankl Smoke-themotherfucker! GoodIGood!”
The sampan turned in the current to reveal a VC who still gripped the gunwale. The sampan was coming apart beneath that grip, planks splintering under the assault of .223 rounds, the Kohler outboard blasted off the transom by a 40 mike-mike from an XM 148.
Still the VC held with what by now was surely a death grip. Our fire found the hand, severed it from the body, which drifted downstream to snag on a root and hold.
The conical hat had been swept away, and we saw for the first time the long, black hair jerking and bobbing in the muddy current.
"Jesus! We shot a co."
"She had a weapon, I seen it!”
The coxswain and the man with the red mask had disappeared beneath the waters of the rach; the remaining VC in the black pajamas was half buried in the mud of the far bank. But we saw enough to know we had in fact shot two cos.
The platoon commander popped green smoke, the firing stopped, and two of us entered the water to retrieve the sampan. When our swimmers caught the sampan, we heard the cries and knew then why the co had clung so desperately to that boat.
The babies were newborn and still wore what served as swaddling clothes in VC hospitals. A tiny shard of wood or metal had struck one baby’s plump arm. The shard had burned a jagged path through the arm before stopping at the shoulder. The shard looked like a black insect burrowed beneath the baby's skin.
The corpsman saw what appeared to be a bloody bone protruding from the baby’s eye. He used tweezers to remove the thing, then staunched the ooze from the eye with a battle dressing.
He examined the bony object and declared, “Piece of a finger, probably Mom's." He tossed the finger into the mud.
Soon we heard the diesel roar of P-Bars closing our position, their twin Jacuzzis sucking up the rach. We knew there would be two boats, followed by two more ten minutes behind, doing 30 knots, their crews praying the flimsy Fiberglass hulls would not shatter on a submerged stump, yet flying nonetheless, balls-to-the-wall, because those sailors feared B-40-fucking-rockets more than stumps.
As the P-Bars heaved into view, we heard two Seawolf gunships beating their way overhead, and we were once more engulfed in noise.
The platoon commander popped another cannister of green smoke and told the assistant platoon commander to throw red across the rach. He called for a rocket run beyond the red smoke. The crump-crump of rockets and the retch of mini-guns punctuated the sound of rotor blades and Detroit Diesels.
We watched carefully as the helos pulled up to see if they drew fire. When we confirmed they had not, we broke our perimeter and hauled aboard the P-Bars. put the babies on first, before climbing up; the platoon commander and radioman boarded last.
We churned down the middle of the rach to the Vam Sat and then out to the comforting width of the Soi Rap — a different route from that taken by the boats to our ambush site.
Once on the Soi Rap, we secured the babies in a box meant for C-ration cartons; then we transferred the babies to a dustoff helo. The last we saw of the infants, they were headed toward Long Binh.
Afterwards, we reflected on the hit as we swilled gallons of that wretched VN beer, Ba Moui Ba, in our whorehouse below the Nui Khan Bridge.
"Did you see how she hung onto that boat? Boy. that ..as something.”
"Goddamn, I hate shootin' cos."
"What do you think will happen to them babies?”
"Aw, somebody’ll adopt them. They’ll have a better life than if they'd stayed in that fucking swamp."
“I still hate killin’ cos.”
"War is the province of chance," said our smart-ass college boy, who we knew would someday write a book filled with this kind of erudite bullshit.
"VC women make VC babies," said our VN SEAL.
A few of us took no part in the conversation. We simply relaxed over our beers, content to have a wet tongue in the ear, a soft tit in hand. After all, hadn’t we cheated Mother Rung Sat again and earned our ease?
The interstate was now behind me as I drove up the ridge southeast of Chula Vista. I parked in front of my house, took a quick look at the distant Pacific, and headed up the sidewalk. Suddenly my yellow lab bitch leaped through the open front door and quivered toward me, her alpha male.
I resisted her joy and noticed my son's Big Wheel trike overturned on the sidewalk with the wheel still spinning, a field indicator of his recent presence.
I approached the door, looking carefully for movement in the hedges. With a shriek, he was upon me- from his hiding place behind the birds of paradise opposite the hedge.
"Oh, Mark! You scare me, you scare Daddy!”
I hoisted him above my head and whirled around, while the bitch, Sandy, went wild beneath us.
I put Mark down and followed him into the house; Sandy trailed behind. I went to the kitchen, opened the reefer, and took out two cans of Tecate. As I was taking out the saucer with the sliced limes, my wife called from the patio. "Keep Sandy in, mi amor. The rabbit’s loose."
"Okay. Want an escarchada?" "No thanks, I’ve got a drink.”
I pushed Sandy into the garage and joined my wife. I kissed her on the cheek and sat across from her at the patio table.
She asked, “Easy day, mi amor?”
"Hey, you know the only easy day was yesterday.”
I felt the cool wind from the ocean on my face as it rustled the Indian laurel beside the patio. The swimming pool glistened in the slanting light of the decaying sun. Far off, near the horizon, I saw the dark shapes of the Coronados; the islands looked like a half-submerged sea monster from some prehistoric moment.
I told my wife about the call from the Southcom colonel. “You told him no, didn’t you?" “I suggested he get a tractor.” "What do you mean, a tractor?”
"One of those Cubanos who couldn't get beyond the highwater line at the Bay of Pigs. Kennedy bought their freedom with tractors. Fidel got 600 John Deeres, and we got a few hundred instant officers, not all of whom spoke English very well.”
"And the colonel didn’t want a tractor?”
"No, they want me.”
“Why now? You’ve got your retirement orders."
"Past is prologue,” I said cleverly. My wife was not amused. Although she was Bolivian, she had left the altiplano years ago, had graduated from two Stateside universities, and was perhaps more a part of modern America than me. She was a mother and a bilingual schoolteacher before she was a Navy wife. She had her shit together, which was more than I could claim at the moment.
"You don’t have to go. You’re too old. You're too fat. Talk to the admiral, talk to his wife. I’ll talk to the admiral, I’ll talk to his wife."
"No, don’t do that.”
"Then talk to those boludos in Washington, the detailers.” Boludo was a strong term for my wife to use. She seldom used anything more powerful than burro or idiota. Boludo was quite a nasty expression, coming from her.
I squeezed a lime onto the top of my fresh Tecate and watched Mark chase the white rabbit into a bougainvillea thicket. Our son crouched patiently beside the bougainvillea, hidden from the rabbit’s view. His patience was rewarded. The rabbit poked her head through the red blooms, and Mark seized her by the neck. She twisted and turned, pawed the air until Mark squeezed her to his chest. She went limp, stared with large pink eyes, a thousand-yard stare.
"Mark, let the bunny go. You’ll scare her to death."
Mark released the rabbit, and my wife turned to me: "Tell your detailer you won't go. You've done it before."
"I know, but not this time."
"I’m not sure. Maybe I’ve fallen into a dream I can’t climb out of."
"You and your dreams. Eras un boludo tambien”
"That’s a fact. I’m a boludo and worse, no doubt.”
As we sat there looking at each other, I was again struck by how Oriental she sometimes appeared because of her eyes and coloring, I suppose. I had mentioned the resemblance to her once. She had stiffened slightly and said: "My ancestors were Indians, not chinitos."
Who was I to argue with that assessment? She certainly had the straight, narrow nose and high cheekbones of many Quechua. And now as I peered into those eyes that seemed without pupils, I could tell my wife was calling on her Quechua stoicism to halt the tears.
I said, “No te preocupes, mi amor. Don’t worry, they always bring the troops home by Christmas."
Across her silence, I heard the percussive rhythm of a border patrol helicopter clattering above the canyons near Tijuana. I am a door gunner checking the feed of my ammo over an empty C-ration can fixed to an M60; I search for movement along the trails and up the draws.
"You know, we used to set up on illegal aliens in those canyons during the ’60s, before we went in-country."
"The border canyons, where the helo is flying. I’d take a platoon down there in full combat gear at night, with starlight scopes. When the illegales came by, we'd trigger the ambush."
"Sounds like fun."
"We didn’t actually shoot them. But when we leaped out with our weapons and painted faces, they acted as if they'd been shot. Not unusual to bag 50 or so a night. Good training. Great body count.”
The helo had turned west, toward the ocean. The thrump-thrump of the teetering rotor drummed through my skull. I thought of the opening scene in Apocalypse Now: Martin Sheen stretched out on the bed in a Saigon hotel, staring into the ceiling fan that becomes a rotor blade.
Why do I sometimes think of movies rather than Vietnam itself? I’m like Girardin on our snatch op in the Hon Heo Secret Zone north of Nha Trang. The night is moonless, dark as tar, as the four of us move up a tidal stream away from the South China Sea toward the jungle. Girardin is on point, I’m next, my radioman behind me, and Black Mac with the Stoner is rear security: four men crawling out of the sea into the tightening night of Southeast Asia.
While we move through the warm, thigh-deep water of the stream, all I see is the luminous glitter of plankton scattered by Girardin's legs. Girardin stops. I move close to him. He whispers, "Gee, Lieutenant. This is just like that movie Ambush Bay.”
My wife interrupted: "It’s getting cold, mi amor. Mark and I are going inside."
I was left alone to watch the sun drop beyond the Pacific like a lopped-off head.