View Full Version : "The Phantom Blooper"
01-31-03, 08:32 AM
By Gustav Hasford
This book was actually completed before Full Metal Jacket was released in 1987, but for some reason not published by Bantam until 1990, at which time Gus put out a press release, wildy attacking his editor. An excerpt of the novel was printed in the January 1990 issue of Playboy. It is a more powerful, more personal story than The Short-Timers, in its description of life among the Viet Cong and how that affects Private Joker. If The Short-Timers details the making of an American solider, this book shows the unmaking. In Hasford's original draft, Joker's conversion was so complete that he became an active VC, going out and killing his fellow Marines. As the inside cover says, "Here is another major novel of the Viet Nam experience from one of its most startlingly able chroniclers... Joker's personal odyssey exposes a searingly honest, tragic, and brutal truth about the war that damned a generation and the betrayal that scarred us all." This was supposed to be the second volume of Gus's Viet Nam trilogy, but the final novel was never finished. The Phantom Blooper is currently out of print, but you can download the entire text right here!
This book is dedicated to the three million veterans of the Viet Nam war, three million loyal men and women who were betrayed by their country.
Last week members of a Marine reconnaissance patrol told of a skirmish fought with an enemy unit near the town of Phu Bai. Among the Viet Cong killed was the apparent leader of the guerrilla band—a slender young Caucasian with long brown hair.
The young white was wearing a shabby green uniform with a red sash tied across the chest. In his hands was an AK-47, the Soviet-designed automatic weapon used by North Vietnamese regulars.
The Marines are convinced that the guerilla leader was an American, a Marine enlisted man who has been carried as missing in action since 1965.
In the past few months, they add, they have received a number of reports of Americans operating with Viet Cong units in the Phu Bai area.
August 12, 1968
Somewhere out behind a black wall of monsoon rain and beyond our wire, the Phantom Blooper laughs.
I laugh too.
Naked except for a pearl-gray Stetson bearing a black-and-white peace button, I rise up from my bed of wet clay in the bottom of a slit trench. I climb, scuttling like a crab, to the top of a sandbagged bunker. Mud-soaked and shivering, I hunker down. I listen. Holding my breath, I listen and I wait, afraid to breathe.
I grunt. I stand up, ramrod straight. I tuck my chin into my Adam’s apple and I strut to the edge of the bunker top, fists-on-hips like a Parris Island Drill Instructor.
I say, “LISTEN UP, MAGGOT!” I do an about-face. March back, about-face again. Looking sharp, standing tall, lean and mean. “DO YOU WANT TO LIVE FOREVER?”
I’m a stone-cold comedian yelling punch lines into No Man’s Land. It's a midnight comedy show in the last days of Khe Sanh. I am show business for the shadow-things that crawl and slither out in the darkness beyond our wire. At any moment forty thousand heavily-armed, opium-crazed Communist individuals can come in screaming from out of the swirling fog.
I say, “DAMN THE TORPEDOES, FULL SPEED AHEAD! I HAVE NOT YET BEGUN TO FIGHT! GIVE ME LIBERTY OR GIVE ME DEATH! DON'T TREAD ON ME! SEND MORE CONG! SEND MORE CONG!”
I wait for a reply. I listen. But nothing happens.
I pick up a broken broom handle. On one end of the broom handle is nailed a ragged pair of red silk panties—Maggie’s Drawers. I lift the broom handle and I wave the red silk panties back and forth like a battle flag.
The only sounds from beyond the wire are creaking frogs and the drumming of the monsoon rain.
I throw down Maggie’s Drawers. Then, with both hands, I give the Phantom Blooper the finger.
Midnight. The hawk is out. Ghosts are out.
The winter monsoon is blowing so hard that it is raining sideways. Meanwhile, the silence beyond the rumble of the rain is growing larger.
I sit down in an old aluminum lawn chair on top of an abandoned perimeter bunker at Khe Sanh. Cold bullets of monsoon rain wash mud from my body. With my battered pearl-gray Stetson shielding my face, I lean back and get comfortable. My right hand is touching the wet metal of a field radio under my chair.
Between my bare feet is an M-60 machine gun set up on its bipod legs. I pick up my long black killing tool. It makes me feel less naked when I hold it.
A smooth feed might save my life, so I adjust the heavy belt of clean golden bullets. Every fifth round is a red-tipped tracer. When I am one hundred percent satisfied that there are no kings in the belt, I slam the feed cover down hard and jack a round in the chamber. Happiness is a belt-fed weapon.
The Phantom Bloopers laughs, a cold black laugh.
Maybe if I ignore the Phantom Bloopers he'll go away. If you try to debate philosophical issues with the Phantom Blooper, and lose the debate, well, he just comes right up and kills your ass. The Phantom Blooper has never talked to me and I am very disappointed. I could use the distraction of stimulating conversation. Life at Khe Sanh has always been tired but wired. Now that the siege has been lifted we need something to keep our mind occupied because boredom makes us think too much.
Meanwhile, the Phantom Blooper comes every night and the suspense is killing me.
At Khe Sanh Combat Base in Quang Tri Province in the Republic of Viet Nam, the United States Marine Corps has sometimes lacked grace under pressure, but we have stuck it out, just the same. We have burrowed into this dead hill like maggots. We have clung to the burned edge of reality and we have not let go.
This is it, the big game. The championship. The Super Bowl. This is the biggest game of your life and you're playing it for keeps. You're playing with the black ball. A sudden move at the wrong time could be your last. A slow move at the wrong time could be your last. And not moving at all could be fatal.
The grunts of Khe Sanh hate the Phantom Blooper but we need him very much. In Viet Nam you've got to hate something or you will lose your mind.
There are a lot of stories about the Phantom Blooper.
Below Phu Bai the Phantom Blooper is a black Marine Lieutenant who inspects defensive positions at bridge security compounds. The next night, they get hit.
North of Hue City the Phantom Blooper is a salt and pepper team of snuffy grunts who guide the Marine patrols into L-shaped ambushes set by the Viet Cong.
Force Recon claims a probable kill for shooting the Phantom Blooper in the Ashau Valley. The Phantom Blooper was a round-eye, tall and white, with blond hair, wearing black pajamas and a red headband, and armed with a folding-stock AK-47 assault rifle. Recon swears that—and this is no ****—the round-eyed Victor Charlie was the honcho, the leader, of the gook patrol.
The Phantom Blooper started visiting Khe Sanh the night after the siege was lifted by Operation Pegasus. But only one Marine at Khe Sanh has ever seen the Phantom Blooper's face.
There was no moon that night, but one of our scout snipers had the Phantom Blooper targeted in a starlight scope. As he sighted in, the scout sniper described the Phantom Blooper's face to his spotter. In midsentence the scout sniper went plain ****ing crazy.
When they medevaced the scout sniper at dawn the next morning, he still had not said another word.
The Phantom Blooper has many names. The White Cong. Super-Charlie. The American VC. Moon Cusser. The Round-Eyed Victor Charlie. White Charlie. Americong. Yankee Avenger.
But whatever name we use, we all know in our hearts the true identity of the Phantom Blooper. He is the dark spirit of our collective bad consciences made real and dangerous. He once was one of us, a Marine. He knows what we think. He knows how we operate. He knows how Marines fight and what Marines fear.
The Phantom Blooper is a Marine defector who deals in payback. Slack is one word the Phantom Blooper does not understand.
Like his Viet Cong comrades, the Phantom Blooper is a hard-core night fighter. When the day turns black and the sun goes down, everything beyond our wire is overrun by the Viet Cong, one more time. Every time the sun goes down, we lose the war.
Every night, the Phantom Blooper is on deck, armed with a “blooper”—an M-79 grenade launcher. The Phantom Blooper attacks without warning from out of the darkness, the one incorruptible bearer of the one unendurable truth.
“Go home,” the Phantom Blooper says, every night. And we want to go home, we really do, but we don’t know how.
“Go home,” the Phantom Blooper says, without mercy, over and over, again and again, punctuating his sentences with explosions.
01-31-03, 08:36 AM
hit from an M-79 is just the Phantom Blooper’s way of telling us that we are running out of slack.
During the past week the Phantom Blooper has wasted Lieutenant Kent Anderson, Funny Gunny Bob Bayer, and that skinny New Guy, Larry Willis. And he killed Ed Miller, Bill Eastlake, and that corpsman everybody loved, Jim Richardson. Then he killed Berny Bernston, my friend. He probably even killed Animal Mother, the meanest, hardest Marine I ever knew.
Every night the Phantom Blooper comes into our wire and talks to one grunt. There are no philosophers in a foxhole. Any dumb grunt who starts to think too much becomes dangerous, both to himself and to his unit.
While I wait for the Phantom Blooper to attack, I keep my eyes turned outboard to avoid looking at the damage we have inflicted upon ourselves. For months we have been shelled, shelled every day, shelled by the numbers, sometimes as many as fifteen hundred incoming round per day. Rusting shrapnel lies scattered across this wire-strapped plateau like pebbles on the beach. The rinky-dinks beat on us with their hard enemy metal and we give the finger to the big guns in Laos and we say: “They can kill us, but they can’t eat us.”
What bullets coming out of the dark and one hundred thousand rounds of heavy ordnance Chi-Com incoming have failed to do, we have done to ourselves. We are blowing up our bunkers. We are tearing up our wire.
Last week a secret rough rider truck convoy rolled out of Khe Sanh carrying a garrison of five thousand men eleven miles east to Landing Zone Stud, leaving behind only a few hundred Marine riflemen from Delta, Charlie, and India companies as security for the Eleventh Engineers Battalion and their heavy earth-moving equipment.
In two days the flying cranes will carry off the last piece of expensive American machinery and the last of the Marine grunts at Khe Sanh will sky out on gunships. Then, when night falls, the jungle will emerge from out of the darkness and will move like a black glacier across the red clay of No Man’s Land and will silently consume our trash-strewn fortress.
And back in the World, no one will ever know about our self-inflicted Dien Bien Phu.
Cold and wet, holding my M-60 machine gun in my lap, I wait.
At zero-three-hundred, prime time for a ground attack and our peak killing hour, the Kid From Brooklyn, our radioman, hops over the sandbagged trenchline along the perimeter and slides down into the wire while heavy monsoon rain slants down, battering him in translucent sheets.
Down in the kill zone, the Kid From Brooklyn dittybops through budding gardens of metal planted thick with deadly antipersonnel mines. Stepping cautiously through Claymores, trip flares, and tanglefoot, the Kid From Brooklyn quietly and efficiently robs dead men of their postage stamps.
Communist grunts hang in our wire all the time, little yellow mummies who have paid the price, enemy military personnel who got caught in the wire and gunned down, their moldy mustard-colored khaki shirts and shorts splotched with brown, their nostrils clogged with dried blood, bugs crawling on their teeth.
Enemy sappers crawl into our wire every night. Your basic operational model gook will take six hours to crawl six yards. Sappers cut attack lanes in the wire, tape the wire back, then smear the tape with mud. They turn our Claymores around. Sometimes a gung ho sapper will get close enough to heave a fourteen-pound satchel charge into a perimeter bunker. Those who don’t blow themselves up on an antipersonnel mine get hung up in the wire or trip a flare. Then we demonstrate leatherneck hospitality by grenading them and shooting them to death.
Incoming patrols sometimes bring in confirmed kills and throw them into the wire as war trophies.
The North Vietnamese Army likes to probe us with ground attacks. They drag their wounded off to tunnel hospitals. They bury their dead in shallow graves in mangrove swamps. Wasted gooks unlucky enough to get left behind hang in the triple strand concertina wire until maggots hollow them out from the inside and they fall apart.
Rotting corpses can get to smelling pretty bad sometimes. We really should bury them, but we don’t. Nobody likes to police up dead gooks. You grab confirmed kills by the ankles or by the wrists and their arms and legs come off in your hands like sticks. If you try to pick up what’s left of the torso sometimes your fingers slip into an exit wound and then you’re standing there with a handful of maggots.
Besides, we enjoy throwing dead gooks into the wire. A dead gook hanging in our wire in less than mint condition is a handy audio-visual aid to keep our enemies honest. We want everybody we do business with to know who we are and what we stand for and take seriously.
Now down in the rain in the dark the Kid From Brooklyn is digging into mildewed pockets for colorful bits of gummed paper.
It all started when the Kid From Brooklyn pulled an R&R in Japan. He took the bullet train to Kyoto, scarfed up beaucoup sake and Japanese bennies, and took long hot baths with slant-eyed naked jailbait.
“I’m a salty Lance Corporal who is short, short, short,” the Kid From Brooklyn said when he came back from Japan. “I’m so short, I could fall of a dime. I’m so short the gooks probably can’t even see me.”
In Tokyo the Kid sourvenired himself a small black stamp album. Now he’s back in-country to pull his tour of duty in a world of ****. Only he’s different now. He has changed. Now the Kid From Brooklyn is a dedicated stamp collector.
Enemy postage stamps depict exciting scenes of war and politics. North Vietnamese troops shake hands with smiling Viet Cong under a Communist red star and wreath. Columns of ragged and forlorn American prisoners of war are marched off to Hanoi prison camps. A helicopter gunship with an over-sized U.S. on its side plunges to earth in flames to the cheers of an all-girl peasant militia crew behind the village anti-aircraft gun. An old papa-san walks along a paddy dike, a hoe in one hand and a rifle in the other.
I watch the Kid From Brooklyn, hunched over a suspended carcass, indulging himself in his grubby hobby. I know that it is my job to climb down there and drag his section eight ass back behind the wire where it belongs.
I know that I should do that, most ricky-tick, but I don’t. I need him as bait.
“Damn,” the Kid From Brooklyn says, gently shaking his leg loose from a wild strand of tanglefoot that has caught him in the ankle. He bends down to another shredded lump of shadow and frisks it for diaries, wallets, piasters, love letters, and crumbling black-and-white photographs of gook girlfriends. Everything that looks like it might have postage stamps in it gets stuffed into one of the cargo pockets on the front of his baggy green trouser legs.
In the monsoon rain the Kid is a black silhouette. His poncho is outlined by silver blips. He is a perfect target. Gook snipers in the dark can hear the rain bouncing off the Kid’s poncho. The Phantom Blooper can see the black buttplate of the Kid’s M-16, slung barrel-down to keep the rain out of the bore.
I should try to save the Kid From Brooklyn’s bacon, but I won’t. I can’t. Marines are not elite amphibious shock troops anymore. We have been demoted to expendable seafood. In Viet Nam we’re only cheap live bait, impaled on an Asian hook, wiggling until we draw fire and die. Dying, that’s what we’re here for, our Parris Island Drill Instructors would say: “Blood makes the grass grow.”
I pick up the handset to the Kid From Brooklyn’s field radio. The handset has been taped up inside a clear plastic bag. I whistle softly. I grunt. I say, “This is Green Millionaire, Green Millionaire, First Platoon Actual. I want illumination, ladies. I want illumination and I want it immediately ****ing now.”
First Platoon is sleeping, totally exhausted after an eighteen-hour day of loading six-bys.
An endless convoy of trucks has been hauling off live howitzer shells, wooden pallets stacked high with cases of C-rations, mountains of plywood and building beams, and tons of sheets of perforated steel planking torn up from the airfield.
First Platoon is cutting a few well-earned zulus. Time to wake them up. Time to wake the whole base up.
The handset sizzles with static and someone says, “Rog. Pop one. Shot out.”
I heft my M-60 to port arms the way they do it in the movies and I squint harder and harder into an expanding darkness. But my night vision is not what it used to be. There’s no movement. No muzzle flashes. No sound but the rain.
One word from me and the Phantom Blooper will be in the bottom of red-mud swimming pool ****ting Pittsburgh steel. If a frog farts I will bury that frog under a black iron mountain of American bombs. And even if this dirty zero-zero weather keeps the big birds grounded I can always get arty in. One magic set of two-word six-number map coordinates spoken into my radio handset and the cannon cockers get wired and in forty seconds I can crank up more firepower than a Panzer division.
Somewhere in the rear a mortar tube fumps.
My finger squeezes up all the slack on the trigger. I take a deep breath. I’ve got the jungle covered. I’m looking forward to working the 60 and cutting up the black night with red lines of bullets.
Five hundred yards downrange and moon high, a mute pock. Light, vast, harsh, and white, spills out across the black sky, melts, then floats down with the rain. An illumination flare sways under a little white parachute, squeaking and dripping sparks that hiss and pop.
I hold my breath and freeze. Now is not the time to make a wrong move. The Phantom Blooper is just waiting for me to do something stupid like a New Guy.
01-31-03, 08:37 AM
Down in the wire, the Kid From Brooklyn stops and looks up at the light. Near Sorry Charlie, our pet skull, the Kid hunkers down, pounded by cold gusts of wind and monsoon rain.
Black laughter drifts in from No Man’s Land. The Kid turns outboard and slowly unslings his rifle. Behind his rain-fogged glasses his eyes are big in his face.
There is the sound of a metallic wine bottle popping open and there is the moment of perfect silence and then one M-79 blooper fragmentation grenade hits the Kid From Brooklyn and the Kid From Brooklyn does a very bad impression of John Kennedy campaigning in Dallas and in silent slow motion the Kid From Brooklyn’s head dissolves into a cloud of pink mist and then bam and the Kid From Brooklyn falls in pieces all over the area, blown away, killed in action and wasted, shot dead and slaughtered.
The Kid From Brooklyn’s headless body is a contorted blob of wax in the ghost light of the illumination flare. One arm gone. One arm converted to pulp. Legs bent too far and in the wrong directions. Ribs curving up incredibly white from inside a glistening black cavity which, as though on fire, is steaming.
Abruptly, illumination fades. Night falls on my position. A shadow walks across my field of fire.
I cling to the cold metal of my machine gun, my mouth dry, teeth gritted, finger aching, hands white, knuckles bleeding where I’ve bitten them, sweat stinging my eyes, stomach pumping in and out, and I’m shaking.
The Phantom Blooper knows where I am now. He knows where I live. Out there beyond the wire in that deep black jungle the Phantom Blooper can hear the sounding of the gong that is the beating of my heart.
I try to let go of the machine gun, but I can’t let go.
Hunkered down, I hold my breath, afraid to fire.
Beaver Cleaver, who likes to tell people who don’t know any better that he is our Platoon Sergeant, is cutting himself a big piece of slack up in his luxurious bunker. The bunker was constructed to the Beaver’s precise specifications by the Seabees in exchange for six Willy Peter bags full of marijuana. No doubt the Beaver is sitting on his rack, drinking cold beer, and watching Leave It To Beaver reruns on his battery-powered, Thai-subtitled Japanese television.
I wait until dark, pull on some rotting jungle utilities and some Ho Chi Minh sandals, and crawl out of the rat’s next of crumpled body bags and parachute silk I’ve made for myself inside a Conex box. The time on deck is oh-dark-thirty. Time to walk lines.
I have walked lines hundreds of times at Khe Sanh. Tonight everything is new and strange. I feel like a blind man after some sadist has moved all the furniture. In the moonlight I’m falling down all over the place like some kind of ****ing New Guy. The bulldozers of the Eleventh Engineers have definitely wasted my area. Even the bunkers are not where they are supposed to be. I feel lost. My hometown has been taken away, stacked, burned, or evacuated.
The Marine Corps moves in mysterious ways.
Every twenty meters I stoop down and tug at the barbed wire with det cord crimps to see if the wire has been cut. The tugging scares up bunker rats big enough to stand flat-footed and butt-**** a six-by. I scan the tanglefoot to see if it looks tight enough to hold the weight of falling dead men. I check the position of each Claymore mine. We paint the backs of our Claymores white so we can count them in the dark and see that they are still facing outboard.
I keep one eye on the darkness out beyond the wire. While fireteams of highly motivated mosquitoes try to scarf me up as their midnight chow I wait for the shadows beyond the wire to turn into people. At night we enter that world where all men are phantoms.
There are things out there in the dark, things that move. Maybe a torn and decaying sandbag being blown around by the wind. Or a stray water buffalo. Or a patch of night thrown down by a cloud passing in front of the moon. Or maybe those black dots shimmering out there at five hundred yards are cold and hungry Viet Cong troopers silently colliding and massing for a ground attack.
Or maybe the Blooper. The Phantom Blooper could be out there, sighting me in.
Tomorrow we blow the wire. Growling green bulldozers will plow down the last of our bunkers and Khe Sanh Combat Base won't be here anymore. The Marine Corps won't be here anymore. Until then, the hills are full of gooks and Khe Sanh is their hobby. Enemy recon teams eyeball us from the ridgelines, probing for any sign of slack. They still want this fog-cursed place.
Life in the V-ring:
Inside the only guard bunker still standing in our area, our New Guy is busy choking his lizard. The New Guy's teenaged horny brain has left Khe Sanh and has gone back to the World and has wrapped itself up inside Suzie Rottencrotch's pretty pink panties. He groans, abusing government property, polishing his bayonet, just a little early-morning organ practice to cut the edge off the cold; the Marines have landed and the situation is well in hand. What is the sound of one hand clapping?
I hop down into the bunker.
A field radio buzzes. I pick up the handset while the New Guy fumbles frantically with the buttons on his fly.
Some ****ing pogue lifer standing radio watch in the Sandbag City command post demands a sit-rep, then yawns out loud.
Instead of saying "all secure" in a mechanical monotone, I say with an exaggerated gook accent: "This is General Vo Nguyen Giap speaking. Situation normal, all ****ed up."
The ****ing pogue lifer on the radio laughs and says, "Wait one." Then he says to someone in the background, "It's Joker. He says he's a Jap." Both pogues laugh and talk about how crazy I am and then the radio voice says, "Affirm, Joker. Roger that," and I put down the handset.
The New Guy is waiting for me, standing almost at attention.
Since the Phantom Blooper started wasting the white grunts with the most T.I.--time in--all I've got left are New Guys. The replacement pipeline pulls cherries out of high school and ships them to Khe Sanh. Half of my people are salty black grunts, but Black John Wayne has ordered the bloods to stand down and to stand by for mutiny. The Grim Reaper, Major Travis, chooses to pretend the mutiny does not exist.
Meanwhile, New Guys have to be watched. Along about midnight, when the Phantom Blooper walks and talks, New Guys wet their pants. Nobody wants to die alone and in the dark.
I try to scare the living **** out of New Guys. The wrong kind of fear can kill you but the right kind of fear can keep you alive. New Guys do not see with the hard eyes of grunts. Not all grunts see those black facts that are as hard as diamonds, only the quick. The dead are kids who can't get wired to the program, and pay the price. Here it's grow up now, grow up fast, grow up overnight, or you don't grow up at all. There it is. The usual ration of civilian bull**** is poison here. Bullets are real metal. Bullets don't give a damn that you were born stupid.
Only in Viet Nam is hypocrisy fatal.
New Guys will bore you to death if you give them half a chance. They tell you scuttlebutt. They complain. They pop up with platitudes they've found on bubblegum cards, silly **** about the origins of the universe and the meaning of life. They tell you where they went to boot camp, about thigh school athletic awards they've won, and they show you pictures of teenaged girls they claim are their girlfriends. They tell you what they think they've learned about themselves, God, and their country, and they tell you their opinions about Viet Nam. That's why New Guys are so dangerous. They're thinking all the time about how light refracts through water to create rainbows and why a seed grows and about how they used to cop a feel on Suzie Rottencrotch and so they don't see the trip wire. When they get killed, they have so many things on their minds that they forget to stay alive.
"What's your name there, dip****?"
"Private Owens, sir." He steps forward. I shove him back.
"Been in-country long, hog?"
"All week, sir."
I turn away. I don't laugh. After a few cadence counts, when I trust myself, I do an about-face.
"The correct answer to that question is 'all ****ing day.' And stow the Parris Island 'sir' ****, lard ass. Shut your skuzzy mouth, fat body, and listen up. I am going to give you the straight skinny, because you are the biggest ****bird on the planet. Don't even play pocket pool when you're supposed to be pulling bunker guard in my area. You will police up your act and get squared away, most ricky-tick, or you are going to have your health record turned into a **** story. In Viet Nam nice guys do not finish at all and monsters live forever. You got to bring ass to get ass. A few weeks ago you were the hot-rod king of some hillbilly high school, stumbling around in front of all the girls and stepping on your dick, but be advised that Viet Nam will be the education you never got in school. You ain't even born yet, sweet pea. Your job is to stand around and stop the bullet that might hit someone of importance. Before the sun comes up, prive, you could be just one more tagged and bagged pile of nonviewable remains. If you're lucky, you'll only get killed."
The New Guy looks at me as though I've slapped him, but does not reply.
01-31-03, 08:41 AM
I say, "We are teenaged Quasimodos for the bells of hell and we are as happy as pigs in **** because killing is our business and business is good. The Commandant of the Marine Corps has ordered you to Khe Sanh to get yourself some trigger time and pick up a few sea stories. But you are not even here to win the D-F-M, the Dumb ****er's Medal. The only virtue of the stupid is that they don't live long. The Lord giveth and the M-79 taketh away. There it is. Welcome to the world of zero slack."
The New Guy swats away a whining mosquito, looks at his boots, says sweetly, hating my guts, "Aye-aye, sir."
I don't say anything. I wait. I wait until the New Guy looks up, looks at me. He snaps to attention, a ramrod up his ass, his chin tucked in. "Yes, SIR!"
I stroll down the muddy catwalk of rope-handled ammo crates. I pick up a short black cardboard cylinder from the firing parapet. I tear off black adhesive tape from around the cardboard cylinder until it breaks open. An olive-drab egg drops into my hand, hard, heavy, and cold. There is tape around the spoon; I tear it off.
I say, "I know you've seen all of John Wayne's war movies. You probably think you are in Hollywood now and that this is your audition. In the last reel of this movie I'm supposed to turn out to be a sentimental slob with a heart of gold. But you're just another ****ing New Guy and you're too dumb to do anything but draw fire. You don't mean **** to me. You're just one more nameless regulation-issue goggle-eyed human ****up. I've seen a lot of ol' boys come and go. It's my job to keep your candy ass serviceable. I'm the most squared-away buck private in this green machine lash-up, and I will do my job."
I hold down the spoon on the grenade with a thumb and I hook my other thumb into the pull ring. I jerk out the cotter pin. I put the pull ring into my pocket.
The New Guy is staring at the grenade. He thinks now that maybe I'm a little dien cai dau--"crazy." He tires to move away but I punch him in the chest with the frag and I say, "Take it, New Guy, or I will get crazy on you. Do it now."
Awkward, stiff, and scared ****less, the New Guy touches the grenade with his fingertips to see if it's hot. His trembling fingers get a grip on the spoon. I let him breathe his bad breathe into my face until I'm sure he's got control of the spoon, then I let go.
The New Guys holds the grenade out at arm's length, as though that will help if it goes off. He can't take his eyes off of it.
I say, "Now, if you need gear, do not go to supply. They sell all of the good stuff on the black market. Supply will not issue you any gear, but they might sell you some. No, what you do is you wait until you hear an inbound medevac chopper or until somebody says that some dumb grunt has been hit by incoming. They you double-time over to Charlie Med. Outside of Charlie Med there will be a pile of gear the corpsmen will have stripped off of the dying grunt. While the doctors cut the guy up, you steal his gear.
"After that, the first thing you need to know is to always tap a fresh magazine of bullets on your helmet in case it's been in your bandolier long enough to freeze up due to spring fatigue. The second thing you need to know is this: don't even **** in my bunker. You need to pee, you just tie it in a knot. And the last piece of skinny I've got for you, New Guy, is this: don't ever put a Band-Aid on a sucking chest wound."
The New Guy nods, tries to talk, tries to pull some air down and cough some words up at the same time. "The pin..." He swallows. "Do you want me to be killed?"
I turn to go. I shrug. "Somebody's got to get killed. It might as well be you. I'm not training you to keep you from getting killed. I'm training you so you don't get me killed."
I look down at the wristwatch hanging from the buttonhole of the breast pocket of my utility jacket. I say to the New Guy, "I will inspect this position again in two hours, you gutless little ****ant. You will not even fall asleep. When I give you the word you will return my personal hand grenade in a serviceable condition. You will not even allow my personal hand grenade to blow itself up and hurt itself. You will not even mess up my favorite bunker with horrible remains of your disgusting fat body."
The New Guy swallows, nods. "Aye-aye, sir." He's really scared ****less now. He's scared of me, scared of the frag, scared of everything and everybody on the planet.
I say, "When the Phantom Blooper comes, do not work the 60. Pop a frag. Or call in for artillery support. Pop frags all over the area if you want to, many, many of them. When you're standing lines you frag first and forget about asking the questions. Keep your **** wired tight at all times. But do not work the 60. The tracers in the 60 will give away your position."
But the New Guy is not listening. He's distracted.
Down in the wire a squad of Marines is coming in off a night ambush. Somebody pops a star cluster flare and five glowing green balls of beautiful fireworks swoosh up and sparkle down. A bone-weary squad leader issues a military order: "Hippity hop, mob stop."
I say, "What is your major malfunction, numbnuts? How long will it take me to forget your name?" Without warning I get a firm grip on the New Guy's Adam's apple and I slam him hard into the bunker wall. Most of the air is knocked out of him. I choke out what's left.
I get right up into the New Guy's face. "I can't hear you, you spineless piece of lowlife. Are you going to cry? Go ahead--squirt me a few. You better sound off like you got a pair, sweetheart, or I will personally unscrew your head and **** in your shoulders!"
His face red, Private Owens tries to speak. His eyes are bulging out and he's crying. He can't breathe. His eyes lock on me, the eyes of a rat in a trap. I stand by to make my hat most ricky-tick. The New Guy looks like he's just about ready to faint and drop the grenade.
"AYE-AYE, SIR!" he screams, crazy, desperate. He shoves me back. He makes his free hand into a fist and hits me in the face. His eyes are turning to the dark side now; he sees himself in my face as though in a mirror. He hits me again, harder. We're relating now, we're communicating. Violence: the international language. The New Guy glares at me with pure uncut hatred in his puffy red eyes.
The New Guy shoves me back again, sneering at me now, daring me to stop him, inviting me to get in his way, meaning it, not afraid now, not caring what I might do, a little crazy now, nothing to lose now, nothing standing between him and that one short step into the Beyond. Nothing but me.
"I'll kill you," he says, and cocks his arm, threatening me with the frag. "I'll kill you," he says, and I believe him, because, finally, the New Guy has become a very dangerous person.
I can't keep the smile off my face, but I dot try to make it look like contempt. "Carry on, Private Owens," I say, and I let him go.
I do an abrupt about-face and dittybop down the catwalk. I pause. I dig the pull ring from the hand grenade out of my pocket. I flip the pull ring across the bunker to Private Owens, who actually catches it.
"Don't play with it anymore tonight, Private Owens."
Private Owens nods, looking glum and totally confused. He brings the hand grenade up to the tip of his nose and picks at the firing mechanism with a fingernail, then pokes around with the cotter pin on the pull ring, trying to reinsert it into the grenade.
"Carry on," I say, aiming a forefinger between his eyes. "After I'm gone."
Private Owens nods, stands still, and waits, a human Marine monument to an ignorance hard as iron.
When you're a New Guy, and the first shell falls, you're a man, but confused. When the second shell falls, you're still a man, although you're probably soiling your underwear. By the time the third shell falls, fear, like a big black rat, has gnawed clean through your nerves. When the third shell falls, you, the New Guy, like a mindless, terrified rodent, are digging a hole to hide in.
You've got to keep New Guys alive until they realize that we're not going to win this war, which usually takes about a week.
I've walked twenty meters away from the guard bunker when there's the hard thump of an explosion to my rear.
For one second I think: tough titty, grease one New Guy.
But Private Owens has not blown himself up with personal hand grenade.
Another shell booms in. Then another.
"INCOMING! INCOMING!" Teenaged voices echo the word.
Incoming means jagged steel screaming through the air, sizzling hot and invisible, hissing and smoking and searching for your face.
An old deuce-and-a-half horn nailed to a dead tree bleats; too late. Somebody didn't get the word. Most days we get ten or twelve seconds' warning in which to cover our asses. Marine forward observers on Hill 881 South see muzzle flashes on Co Roc ridge across the Laotian border and radio in, "Arty, arty, Co Roc."
01-31-03, 08:43 AM
I double-time in the mud, mumbling an obscene grunt bunker-prayer. I'm just about read to bend over and kiss my ass goodbye when I stumble into a flagpole bearing a tattered American flag and a crudely stenciled sing: ALAMO HILTON.
I dive in headfirst. Someone says, "Hey, you ****ing *******, get your ******* ****ing elbows out of my ****ing balls."
The air inside the bunker is hot and thick. The bunker stinks of sweat, ****, ****, rotting feet, wet canvas, vomit, beer, C-ration farts, mosquito repellent, and mildewed skivvies. But then since I became a night person I've had the body odor of a ghoul, so I can't complain.
It's black in the bunker; you can't see your hand in front of your face.
Cooing over Armed Forces Radio, the sweetest little blond wet dream this side of heaven: "Hi, love. This is Chris Noel. Welcome to a date with Chris. Now here's a song for First Platoon, Deadly Delta, at Khe Sanh, County Joe and the Fish with 'I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag.'"
The men in the bunker listen to the song in silence until the chorus, then every man abruptly bursts out singing as hard and as loud as he possibly can:
And it's one-two-three what are we fighting for?
Don't ask me--I don't give a damn
The next stop is Viet Nam
And it's five-six-seven open up the pearly gates
Well, there ain't no use to wonder why
Whoopee, we're all gonna die.
After the song ends someone turns down the radio and someone says, "We need us a jarhead song. The Green Beanies have got their own song, and they ain't ****. What we need is a Marine song. A song for grunts."
BOOM. "**** this incoming," someone says, then laughs.
"Yeah. Yeah. That could be the title!"
A chorus of "****ing As" and everybody laughs.
Outside, a hard rain falling, enemy shells, 147 pounds each, heavier than the men who are firing them. First, a long, long whistle, then the rush of air of a falling freight car, then boom. The deck shivers, and hot shrapnel sings its mean little song. Most of the shells just bang in and miss. They move the garbage around a little bit and scare everybody and then they turn into paper and somebody puts them into history books.
Listening is a waste of time because you never near the shell that hits you; it just hits you and you're gone.
Anyway, we're thinking, it's a known fact that incoming artillery shells always kill somebody else. Every single time we've been shelled, the shells have killed somebody else. Not once have the shells killed us, not even one time. That's a proven scientific fact. No ****.
So we ignore the incoming, without forgetting that while our bunkers can take a hit from a gook mortar, a direct hit from one of those high-velocity 152 mike-mike flying demolition balls will knock this bunker right off of the face of the earth. Even the dud shells go four feet into the ground.
What's left of First Platoon's black street bloods hunker down in total darkness smoking Black Elephant marijuana and giggling like schoolgirls and telling sea stories. I smoke my share of the dope and somebody else's share.
"Listen up," I say, doing my famous impression of the voice of John Wayne. "This is no ****, pilgrim. The true story of the War for Southern Independence. So your Yankee auto workers up in Motor City were all heads, right? And all of the good marijuana plantations were in the Deep South."
My invisible audience of black Marines groans, then cheers.
"In Detroit, grass was five hundred dollars a lid. In Atlanta, it was free. To the northern heads, this was incredible."
Someone says, "Hey, man, keep on the grass!" and the bloods laugh.
A shell comes in squealing, squealing like a stuck pig, a fat iron Communist pig bred in Moscow to have a thirty-second hard-on for Americans. But instead of boom there's only a silly whomp as the shell detonates in a mud hole. Concussion shakes the bunker. Sand falls from the ceiling of perforated steel planking, logs, and sandbags.
Someone coughs, then chokes. I shake sand out of my hair and scrape damp sand from the back of my neck. Someone pounds the choker on the back. The choker hawks up a loogie and spits it onto the back of my hand. "****," I say, as I wipe off the back of my hand on somebody else's leg.
John Wayne continues: "So this guy named Lincoln came onto The Tonight Show, see? He was a basketball hero and a celebrity rail-splitter who got--no, listen--who got himself elected President, now, he was elected President because his face--no, really, this is no ****--because his face--yes, his face--accidentally got engraved on all of the ****ing pennies!"
The bloods laugh, howl, and beat on sandbags with fists and rifle butts. They tell me how full of **** I am and they threaten to pee.
Whomp. Shrapnel bites into oil drums, sandbags, and wood.
John Wayne says, "Jefferson Davis got elected President of the Confederate States of America on a platform of a chicken in every pot and pot in every chicken.
"So the DamYankees loaded up with rolling papers and pistols--yeah, yeah, that's right--their pistols were all really big--and they put these really big dope fuses into their cannons and then they all rode on steamboats down to New Orleans, Louisiana.
"Down in the French Quarter they scored about one ton of Acapulco Gold from some black jazz musicians they met in a strip joint on Bourbon Street."
We toke in silence but with enthusiasm.
Finally, someone says, "Okay, man, so what happened then?"
John Wayne says, "What happened then? Well, let's see...The Civil War soldiers all got hammered out of their minds together and then the war was over and everybody got laid. Of course, the DamYankees lied about it and told Walter Cronkite that they won and so that's what they put on TV."
The black grunts laugh and laugh.
Someone says, "Hey, Joker, do your Charlie Chaplin! Yeah, that's it! Do Charlie Chaplin in the dark!"
Someone says, "Charlie got a bloop gun!"
Black John Wayne says, "Joker, m'man, you are a humorous person. So tell us the rest of it, man. What happens next?"
"How the **** do I know?" I say in my own voice. "I'm just making up this bull**** as I go along."
Black John Wayne laughs and Godzilla's paw pounds me on the back in the dark. Black John Wayne says to someone, "Shoot me the handset, blood." Then he talks in a very low voice, calling in his November Lima, his night location, which is at an ambush site outside the wire, and his Papa Lima, his present location, which is about three hundred yards east of Hill 881 North. He gives the grid coordinates and a sit-rep of all secure, grunts, and drops the handset.
I say, "Pulling another hairy mission, J.W.?"
A booming laugh, then a pause. "Yeah, man. Life is real hard out here in the bad bush. We pulling a definite number-ten hump. Transmission ends." Another laugh. "I wish I was president and Nixon was a grunt."
"You have got to belay all this 'Black Confederacy' bull****, J.W."
Pause. "Sergeant Joker, you got a personal problem? Hey, bro, what evil lurks in the hearts of men, I do know. You got a problem, m'man, run it by me. I will reach out and make it good, because Black John Wayne is a problem solver."
"LPs, J.W. I need LPs."
"Hey, man, don't even talk to Black John Wayne about no Mickey Mouse listening posts and none of that other gung ho Audie Murphy whitebread ****. I no longer choose to participate in the mindset of morally disoriented bloodthirsty chucks. Black John Wayne has smoked more than his share of little gold ******s, from Con Thien to the Rockpile and down in the Arizona Territory. But no longer do I desire to relate to this oppressive and corrupt environment."
The black Marines cheer while Black John Wayne continues, talking with the tone of a backwoods preacher delivering a fiery sermon: "Black Confederacy secedes from your Viet Nam death trip."
With one voice the men in the bunker say, "Amen."
Black John Wayne says, "Guilty rich kids marching for peace just wasting they shoe leather. Dumb grunts is stopping this evil war, a--men, and they won't never know the truth back in the World, the truth that the grunts have the power, the real power, because the ****ing pogue lifers and the corrupt politicians are not even going to admit the facts, not even."
Black John Wayne waits for the "Right ons" to die down, then continues. "This heavily armed and highly motivated reinforced rifle squad of homeboys will go back to the block. We be tin-starred marshals of revolutionary justice. With my squad back in the World I could take over half of Brooklyn. Peace through superior firepower! Firepower to the people! History is not over yet! History collects its debts!"
The squad cheers so loud and claps so hard that for a few moments even the banging of the shells outside is drowned out.
I grunt. I say, "We got to have LPs. We're light. A ground attack could walk right over the wire. The gooks know that something is going down and until we sky out we're wide open to get hit. I got no time for your bull**** political rap, J.W. I'm not interested in politics."
Black John Wayne says, "Joker, m'man, you may not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in you. Or maybe you be here as a tourist?
01-31-03, 08:44 AM
Politics is not hard to understand. Politics is somebody's nightstick upside your head. Hey, man, can you dig my progressive talk? Don't you know why the Phantom Blooper is here, man? The Phantom Blooper has come to take your white ass to school. Bone Six, that bad ol' Blooper, he everywhere, man. He maybe sitting in this bunker with us right now."
I say, "J.W., I'm sick of listening to your race-war movie."
Black John Wayne says, "Why, you silly Alabama white trash, you are misinformed. The white man is not the enemy. One day, by and by, you will see the revolt of the Uncle Tom white people. That's some cold ****, man, but there it is.
"The devil is a green man, the money man. They tell us we are small. But we not small, we tall, we be kings, and the President is not God in a black limousine. They calling you '******' too, Joker. You just ain't got the word."
I say, "Sounds like a giant liquor-store robbery to me, J.W. Rich people got all the money. You take the money away from them. Then you got the money."
"We won't fight for money," says Black John Wayne, "we will fight to say that Uncle Sam ain't no damned uncle of mine. Uncle Sam he say to these Vietnams, you can live, but you can't be men. Dance and sing for us and be little yellow ******s, Mr. VCs, and we might be big-hearted and let you live. Uncle Sam say, 'Stick 'em up, your balls or your life.'"
Black John Wayne's voice booms inside the bunker: "Whitebread America find it impossible to relate to why these Vietnams stand up and fight. The green man don't care about nothing that much no more, he fat, he forgot what it like to fight. They traded in they balls for a split-level house, a ****** maid, and a lifetime supply of TV dinners, a long time ago. Dignity, m'man, that's what the Vietnams want, and that's why my homeboys want. I'm a black man with a brain, a black brain, and I am a very dangerous person. We are men! We want our dignity! If they **** with us, they are going to die. Nobody ever calls me ****** when I'm carrying my grenade launcher."
"RIGHT ON!" someone says, and the bunker shakes with shouts of "RIGHT ON! RIGHT ON! RIGHT ON!" until everybody is hoarse.
I say, "I want LPs. Get me some warm bodies that can move like they got a purpose, J.W. All I got standing lines are New Guys. Name your price. Six cases of beer, next resupply."
A shell hits very close to the bunker. Whomp. The bunker trembles.
"What's wrong with these zips?" someone says. "Can't they take a joke?"
Black John Wayne laughs. "Mr. Charles ain't even about to waste a pretty homeboy like me." He laughs again, enjoying himself. "Joker, you are a real bone-headed box of rocks. I ever tell you that?"
I say, "J.W., I am not the Virgin Mary and you are not the baby Jesus. I want three LPs out, most ricky-tick. That's immediately ****ing now. Do it now, J.W. or you will wake up with a piece of the world nailed to the side of your head."
Before Black John Wayne can reply, we hear Beaver Cleaver's loud mouth at the bunker entrance. Beaver Cleaver never stops talking; sweet-talking everybody on the planet is Beaver Cleaver's hobby.
Everyone relaxes. If Beaver Cleaver has left his personal bunker it means that he has received an all-clear from Hill 881 South and the incoming is over. For now.
"Is Black John Wayne here?" says the Beaver's voice in the dark.
Black John Wayne says, "Get out of my face, punk."
"Sergeant, I've got orders from the X.O. I'd like to have a word with you in private if I could."
"Sergeant, it was the Major's understanding that you and your squad were out on a night ambush."
Black John Wayne says, "You been misinformed."
The squad laughs.
"Sorry?" says the Beaver. "What did you say?"
"It don't mean nothing," says Black John Wayne. "Not even. You must have me confused with somebody who gives a ****."
The Beaver says, "Well, that's not why I stopped by. Actually, we need to discuss an operation. The Major has decided that one last search-and-clear sweep, on the last day of the evacuation, would be a nice addition to First Platoon's already outstanding combat record. If your people score a good body count, there might even be a promotion in it for you."
Black John Wayne laughs. "****. The Reaper he want to run up a body count of black men. Want to counter-frag me. LBJ he say we be the anchor of the northern defenses. We be the gallant little band holding the pass at Khe Sanh. So if we be here to fight, why we bugging out? This my last opportunity to be the black Davy Crockett. Pardon me if I just hunker down here until somebody inspires me with leadership."
The Beaver says, "Sergeant, the Major has issued written orders--"
"Decent. I'm all out of Sears and Roebuck catalogs to wipe my ass with. Dig it, chump?"
"Sergeant, the Major is your commanding officer."
Black John Wayne says, "The Reaper's Mickey Mouse orders don't mean **** to me, Jack. He a ****ing pogue lifer the other other ****ing pogue lifers left behind to ****can him. Now he laying bad paper discharges on every black man that leave Khe Sanh alive. I'm ready to bust caps on his ugly ass."
"Respect the rank, Sergeant, not the man."
Black John Wayne says, "Beaver, you are tedious."
I say, "Beaver?"
"Yes?" says the Beaver. "Who's there?"
"It's me. The Joker."
"Excuse me, Private Joker, but this is between me and the Sergeant. Official platoon business. Now, I realize that as the former Platoon Sergeant--"
I say, "You got Eddie Haskell and Lumpy with you?"
"Your bodyguards. That little skinny skuz and the retarded fatbody."
From out of the dark comes the voice of Eddie Haskell, "Hey, go **** yourself, Joker. That's not my name."
"We never did anything to you," whines Lumpy.
"Good. I just wanted to know where you were."
The Beaver says, "Sergeant, you will saddle up and stand by for a movement order."
Black John Wayne laughs his big booming laugh. "Beaver, you like one of them ol' bizarre ****-eatin' alligators we got back in New York City, man, crawlin' 'round down in the sewers. You some kind of mu-tant. You adapted to this world of **** and you thriving on it, you just love it here, you can't get enough. You be prayin' that the war don't never end. You the little-boy king of Fat City in Viet Nam, you livin' off the tit. You like some kind of back-shooting pink spider, man, and you do scare me. Deadly poison taste like fine wine to a mean little mother like you, because you are the product of a diabolical mind."
The Beaver says, "I don't mean to be critical, Sergeant. But, after all, I am the Platoon Sergeant. Is that not correct?"
"On paper," someone says.
The Beaver says, "But, Major Travis--"
"Shut up, Beaver," I say. "Stow it and belay it and you can just dee-dee the **** out of my area. The Grim Reaper can sit up in Sandbag City in starched skivvies, scratching his balls and playing war with his grid maps and his grease pencils and giving himself the Navy Cross every time he gets a mosquito bite. That's just ****ing outstanding. That's far out. But his area is off limits to that ****ing pogue lifer and his brown-nosers until we give him a First Platoon passport, and we are not going to give him one. You want something from First Platoon, you don't even talk to Black John Wayne, you talk to me. I may be a slick-sleeved buck private to you, but I'm still H.M.I.C. around here."
"Head Mother****er in Charge."
"Is that a fact?" says Beaver Cleaver.
I say, "Be advised, nobody from First Platoon is going to run any more of your dumb-ass sweeps. We will not pull patrols. We will not set ambushes. We will not go out on ops.
"Animal Mother took his squad out to waste the Phantom Blooper. Against my orders. They've been missing in action for a week now.
"No way I'm going to **** away any more of my people defending a position that the lifers have already decided to ****can," I say.
Eddie Haskell says, "What's wrong, Joker? No balls for a fight?"
I say, "I'm holding myself in reserve for the ground assault on Hanoi."
The Beaver says, "And what about the Marines in your platoon?"
I say, "I'm holding them in reserve too. How can I be a hero if I can't have my fans?"
"Joker," says the Beaver, "I am not your enemy. Why can't we work together and try to get along. For the good of the platoon."
I say, "Beaver, the only reason you like to get close to people is so that you won't miss when you decide to **** on them."
I say, "You're a slick little silver-tongued monster, Beaver, and you are on my list."
Eddie Haskell says, "Joker, you're paranoid."
I say, "That's a rog on your last, scumbag. It's only after you stop being paranoid that they get you."
"Now, Joker," the Beaver says, "let's be reasonable. You are entitled to your opinion, of course. I can respect that. But you and I can work together. I mean that. I'm being sincere now."
I say, "Like you worked with Mr. Greenjeans?"
Pause. Someone moves in the darkness. "Who?"
"Mr. Greenjeans, mother****er," says Black John Wayne. "Remember Mr. Greenjeans? You should remember him. You had the man iced."
01-31-03, 08:45 AM
Beaver Cleaver says, "If you're talking about some kind of fragging incident--"
"He was an outstanding company commander!" says Black John Wayne, almost growling. "The skipper was one hell of a decent man. He was people, you son of a *****. Captain Greenjeans was people!"
Someone says, "That's affirmative. He was a good Marine and a good officer. And the skipper had more balls than he knew what to do with."
The Beaver says, "I'm sorry, but I don't know what you're talking about. I've never heard of the man. He sounds like--"
Someone says, "You never heard of him?"
The Beaver says, "It never happened. I don't believe that there ever was any such person. Can anyone prove that this so-called Captain Greenjeans ever actually existed? Maybe you're just a little bit confused on that point.
"Anyway," the Beaver continues, "he had it coming. We've got an important job to do in Southeast Asia, an American job. Sacrifices have to be made. We've got to keep our head until this peace craze blows over. It's a hardball world and Communist aggression must be defeated at any price. What's wrong with spraying a few people with napalm if it makes the world a better place to live in? We are killing these people for their own good. Inside very gook is an American trying to get out."
Black John Wayne spits. "America invented Communism when they ran out of Indians."
The Beaver says, "But let's not worry about the past. What's done is done. That's blood under the bridge. Let's try to be constructive. There's no point in our talking in circles about unpleasant things which may or may not have happened."
"You murdered Mr. Greenjeans," I say. "Nobody gives a **** about your black-market deals. You can sell fake NVA flags and chrome-plated shrapnel and you can flog off photographs of Ann-Margret's crotch in tight yellow capri pants. You can run watered-down whiskey and stepped-on dope and nobody cares if you trade off military equipment to the Viet Cong by the truckload.
"But Mr. Greenjeans caught your ass in the ville. Inside that steam-and-cream full of twelve-year-old *****s that you own with that fat Gunny from Arkansas.
"You were trading a six-by loaded with crates of hand grenades for a seabag full of raw heroin. I wasted your customer. Remember? The gook cyclo driver who had a Viet Cong officer's credentials sewed up inside his hat. Then the Captain dragged your ass up to the command post and turned you in to the Grim Reaper. I was there, Beaver. I saw the whole thing."
Eddie Haskell says, "Joker, you're just a cynical misfit with an overly active imagination. So where's your evidence? Are those just words, or do you have some coonskins on the wall?"
Every man in the bunker can feel the strain in the Beaver's voice as he struggles to maintain his self-control: "Private Joker, I can certainly understand your resentment of me. You've got more time in than I have and you've been busted in rank. You've been under a lot of pressure, I know. I understand."
Beaver Cleaver pauses, then continues: "No one here believes that you wanted to kill your own best friend. What was his name? Cowboy? It was harsh of the Marine Corps to strip you of your stripes for failing to recover his body. I constantly reassure those who fear you because you have blown away a round-eyed Marine. And I do not believe the reports that you run around naked, that you sleep in mud, or that you are afraid to come out in the daytime. These stories are exaggerations, I'm sure."
The Beaver's voice drones on in the dark. "We have had honest differences of opinions in the past, Private Joker, but I do want you to know that I have always had a lot of respect for you."
I say, "Talk smack to me."
Someone says, "The Beaver sells roger copy smack!"
Black John Wayne says, teasing, "Hey, Beaver, when we be talking about the bounty you got posted on the Joker's head?"
I say, "J.W., don't argue with the little puke. He's not even there."
"You right," Black John Wayne says. "Yeah, you right. He not even there."
The Beaver says, "Look, guys, I really do want to get to the bottom of this problem. It would be productive if we could clear it up once and for all. But I guess we'll just never know for sure. I only wish I could be more helpful. Maybe this Captain you're talking about was killed in action. Or perhaps the Phantom Blooper got him."
Someone says, "Bull****. That Claymore was set up inside the skipper's bunker. That means that the Phantom Blooper can walk on wire."
The Beaver says, "I don't know all the facts of this case, but I am going to find out. I promise you that. I'll file the papers to request a CID investigation. They will file an official report of the alleged incident."
"Just shut up," I say. "Just shut the **** up."
"What?" says the Beaver. "I'm sorry, I don't understand what you mean by that."
Black John Wayne says, "The man say for you to shut up. You do what the man say or I will beat the white off your ass."
The Beaver makes another speech: "Now, Sergeant, there's no reason for anyone to get upset. Let's all try to stay calm, okay? You may be right. Maybe if we can all just relax and think this thing through, we'll be able to find a logical explanation. But I do think we should at least try to get all the facts before we start jumping to any hasty conclusions."
The Marine in the bunker are silent, waiting.
On Armed Forces Radio, Billy Joe is throwing something off the Tallahatchie Bridge.
Suddenly the bunker is half filled with half-light from illumination flares popping outside.
Frozen in the cold magnesium light, Black John Wayne's face is a hard mask of ebony. He's glaring at the Beaver.
Black John Wayne wears jungle utilities dyed black. Around his neck hangs a heavy necklace of grenade pines. He's big. Black John Wayne started out in life as a black giant and monster, got tough on the streets, grew strong enough and tall, then took up body building.
The Beaver is pale and innocent, with a pug nose, chubby cheeks, and freckles. He's wearing a football jersey, blue jeans, tennis shoes and a blue baseball cap with NY in big white letters on the side. The Beaver, unlike the rest of us, is not carrying a weapon. The Beaver is slapping his palm with a bamboo swagger stick. The swagger stick has a Brasso'd .45-caliber shell casing on the tip.
Eddie Haskell sits on a bamboo footlocker in the corner of the bunker, poking at a ringworm scab on his ankle with the point of a bayonet. He's a skinny red-haired little rat-bastard with a face like a hungry weasel. He looks up, stabs the bayonet into a sandbag, shifts the pump-action shotgun on his lap to port arms.
Lumpy is near the bunker entrance, cringing into a shadow.
Black John Wayne gets up and walks, stooped over, stepping his way through a dozen black Marines in black jungle utilities. He leans down into the Beaver's face and grunts. "The Joker knows that you the beast because the Joker is a blue-eyed soul brother."
From a scuffed orange jungle boot with a dogtag in the laces Black John Wayne produces an ivory-handled straight razor. Snick. Out flashes six inches of fine surgical steel of the sharp shiny kind, for freelancers only.
Black John Wayne's Godzilla paw twists into the Beaver's football jersey and jerks the Beaver forward like a doll. The straight razor whips up to the Beaver's pink throat.
Black John Wayne says to the Beaver, "You want to belay them lies, or do you want a glass eye?"
Eddie Haskell makes his move. I dive across the bunker. I grab his collar and pull him down. Before he can get his shotgun out of the mud I lay my Tokarev 9-millimeter Russian officer's pistol hard upside his head.
Eddie Haskell slumps, groans, starts up again. I admire him for a cadence count, then I beat him unconscious with the butt of my pistol. His head is as hard as a shell casing.
The squad does not move.
Someone says, "Violence party! Violence party!"
I cock my arm to souvenir Lumpy a love tap across the face.
Lumpy drops his M-16 and slides on out of the bunker.
I can hear him running away, slogging through the mud.
Locked in Black John Wayne's grip, the Beaver struggles desperately. When he sees that his bodyguards are gone, he starts bawling and lunging. Black John Wayne has got the Beaver in a death grip and he won't let go.
Light from illumination flares continues to be reflected into the bunker. Something very hairy must be going down outside. There's shouting, movement, and scattered small-arms fire.
Here inside the bunker the only sound is the Beaver trying to whine and breathe at the same time. His face is twisted into a spasming mask of stark terror.
The Beaver beats Black John Wayne in the face with his swagger stick. Black John Wayne shakes his head to clear his vision, as though annoyed by a fly.
Black John Wayne presses the blade in just under the Beaver's left eye. "Gonna cut him!" he says to me. Then to the Beaver: "Make you a believer!"
I do a chin-up on Black John Wayne's arm, which is about the size of my thigh and as hard as a boulder. "Negative," I say. "Stand down, J.W. We can't waste him. You're not back on the block doing your thing with a razor."
Black John Wayne looks at me. "Sure we can kill him. Who's going to stop us?"
I dig into my thigh pocket and pull out my det cord crimps. "Here. Take these."
01-31-03, 08:47 AM
I say, "Come on, bro. Cut me a huss."
Black John Wayne shakes his head. "No. No way. Bull****. Later for that."
"Do it, J.W. Trust me."
Black John Wayne groans and says, "Joker, m'man, you better thrill me." He hands me the straight razor and takes the det cord crimps.
The Beaver's bulging eyes follow the movement of the straight razor from Black John Wayne's hand to mine. The Beaver is bucking against the sandbagged bunker wall in a sort of spastic seizure of terror; he is going out of his mind with fear.
"Choke him," I say to Black John Wayne, and Black John Wayne chokes him.
Beaver Cleaver gags, moans, slobbers, and spits. His tongue sticks out, a slimy red garden slug.
Black John Wayne looks at me, then at the Beaver, then back at me again. I nod. "Get his tongue," I say, and Black John Wayne digs into the Beaver's mouth with the crimping pliers and clamps a grip onto the Beaver's tongue.
The Beaver's eyes are bulging out of their sockets. I hold the blade flat on his tongue and he gags and I smile and say, "Are we communicating?"
When the Beaver whimpers and his eyes beg, I say, "Sin Loi, Beaver--tough ****. Be advised, mercy is not what I do best." I pull the razor and the blue blade slices smoothly through the Beaver's tongue an inch deep, splitting the tip. Blood squirts out with such force that it shoots all the way across the bunker and splatters in a shiny wet pattern across the gray wall of sandbags.
Black John Wayne releases his grip on the Beaver and the Beaver drops to his knees. Blood pours out over the Beaver's lower lip and drips down his chin like drool. The Beaver makes a horrible nonsound, with his hands in front of his face, afraid to touch.
Someone says, "Charlie got a bloop gun!"
Eddie Haskell moans, rubs his head, tries to get up.
Outside the bunker, small-arms fire pops up urgently a hundred yards down the perimeter and incoming mortar shells start falling.
I step outside in time to see Private Owens, the New Guy, waddling past the bunker at a double-time, squealing in his high-pitched voice: "SAPPERS IN THE WIRE! SAPPERS IN THE WIRE!"
As the scattered small-arms fire is picked up all along the perimeter, Black John Wayne's people double-time out of the bunker and we all haul ass into the ****.
Howitzer shells arc out over our heads. Recoilless rifles belch flechette darts in murderous prickly clouds. Claymores explode, raining deadly steel balls. Blips of red light blink across the fields of fire and interlace into wavering hypnotic patterns.
Ignoring the fact that our supporting arms are slaughtering them, crack assault troops from the 304th NVA Division, the heroes of Dien Bien Phu, men harder than grenades, pour into attack lanes blown in our wire by the Dac Cong, elite sappers teams, crawling naked and greased through our wire under fire.
The sappers shove bangalore torpedoes--bamboo packed with TNT--into the concertina, tanglefoot, and mine fields. The sappers detonate the bangalores by hand, blowing themselves into bloody chunks of meat so their friends can get at us.
As I double-time along the perimeter I check the slit trenches for non-hackers, juice freaks, and heads. I drag out the sleepy, the confused, and the angry. Every Marine at Khe Sanh is bone tired, fed up, and wasted. But they are United States Marines. So they get their heads and asses wired together, grab their pieces, and double-time toward the sound of the guns.
I ignore the Beaver's junkies. The junkies don't even carry weapons anymore. Three heroin addicts have climbed up onto the black metal carcass of a burned truck. With faces like empty rooms and eyes like slivers of egg white, they watch the battle.
Bullets bounce off the deck.
I dive into the guard bunker in the First Platoon area, twisting my ankle in the process and knocking a chunk of skin off of my damned knee.
Thunder and Daddy D.A. are already on deck. Daddy D.A., honcho of Second Platoon, is manning the field radio, calling in close air support. He says to me, "The birds are in the air. Phantoms and B-52s."
Thunder stands on a firing parapet of dirt-filled rope-handled artillery shell crates, calmly sighting in with the Redfield sniper's scope on his Remington 700 high-powered hunting rifle.
On quiet days when NVA grunts with a piece of slack sit swapping scuttlebutt and scarfing up a few bennies, a thousand yards downrange, sometimes bang, their commanding officer's brains come out, leaving the NVA snuffies squatting in the treeline with mouths open because they never even heard a shot.
"Thunder," I say. "Want some, get some."
Thunder looks back at me, grins, gives me a thumbs-up.
I should remind Thunder that this is not the time to be an artist, and that he should bust caps. But I know that Thunder has his own style. Thunder has said many times, "I am the aristocrat of snipers--I only shoot officers."
Thunder's Remington kicks, crack-ka, and somewhere in beautiful downtown Hanoi there's a gook mama-san who does not know that she no longer has a son.
First Platoon is on the firing line, selector switches on full automatic rock and roll, putting out the rounds, chopping brass, breathing through their mouths, eyes big, necks way down into their flak jackets like muddy turtles, *******s puckered to the max, balls up in their throats, slapping aluminum magazines into their black plastic rifles with a jerky rhythm and holding the triggers down.
"R.P.G.," I say--rocket-propelled grenade. Beaucoup pucker factor.
"Son of a *****!"
"Where?" says Thunder, scanning with his sniper's scope. "Come on...come on..." He adjusts his sling for a tighter grip. "Come on, baby..." Ignoring the AK fire punching holes into the outboard side of our bunker, Thunder sets the dope on his weapon and squeezes off a round. Crack-ka.
Thunder looks back at us, grins, gives us a thumbs-up. "Grease one. Ah, be advised, Khe Sanh Six, that's one confirmed on your R.P.G." He wiggles his eyebrows, makes a face, and laughs, a dark-haired handsome boy with perfect teeth. He leans back into his sniper's scope, laughs, and then, crack-ka, shoots somebody else.
M-16s are whacking and whacking and AK-47s are popping and popping and the two sounds collide, blending together in an unending roar like the passing of a train on a rickety track.
On the perimeter to port, Black John Wayne's squad of street Marines is making a stand. Sappers are heaving in satchel charges and laying bamboo ladders on top of the wire. Hardcore NVA grunts hit the wire running. And as fast as they come up, Black John Wayne and his men kill them, chop, chop, blood on the wire.
Gray smoke from our 105 howitzer drifts over our position. The smoke stinks of cordite and smells like the sulfur that burns in hell. Sand fills the air, a fine red mist. Our bunker is shaking nonstop now as the sandbagged walls absorb incoming small-arms fire and the thud of grenades.
"****," says Daddy D.A., dropping the field radio handset. "The zoomies say E.T.A. two-zero minutes."
Thunder squeezes off a round, crack-ka, and says, "They're coming through the wire."
The whole base is lit up now, with dozens of illumination flares wobbling down under small white parachutes, leaving faint luminescent worm trails. Everything looks phony, lifeless, stark, and stagy, like an abandoned set for a low-budget monster movie. The battlefield before us is a noisy, black-and-white outdoor classroom for student gravediggers. Cold white light of abnormal intensity casts shadows that are dark, deep, and deformed.
I look to port. I say, "D.A., call this in to the C.P.--reaction force to Sandbag City. I want them to set in and stand by for a movement order. Tell the cannon cockers to stand by to fire on Black John Wayne's position at my command. Black John Wayne is going to be overrun."
Daddy D.A. grunts. "You got it, Joker."
The gooks are coming at us in a human wave assault, a swaying wall of massed men, pouring into our wire, spilling into the gaps blown by the sappers. When they're hit, dying enemy grunts remember to fall flat across the wire so that their friends in the next wave can use their dead bodies as stepping stones. They come in through automatic rifle fire, mines, grenades, and .50-caliber machine guns. They come in through salvos of artillery shells that weight ninety-five pounds each. The human waves come on in, crashing into the thin green line, soaking up all of our ordinance and our anger and hit by so many shells and bullets that they can't fall down.
An ocean of highly motivated yellow midgets ready to pay the price is flooding up the hill, bringing beaucoup pain for grunts.
As I burn up magazines in my M-16 I feel proud to be attacked by these brass-balled little hardasses, and proud to be killing them. The most inspiring thing I've seen around here lately are these NVA gooks and the way they attack. They come in lean and mean, the best light infantry since the Stonewall Brigade.
Thunder looks back at us and says, "Black John Wayne is being overrun."
Black John Wayne's squad of black Marines is standing tall in the perimeter trench.
Black John Wayne stands flat-footed above the trenchline, bigger than King Kong, and fires his M-60 machine gun point-blank into a rolling wave of about one million NVA gooks. Black John Wayne and the bloods fight hand to hand until they are cut off and surrounded.
Thunder, Daddy D.A., and I are all out of the bunker quicker than a gook can **** rice, hauling ass down the slippery catwalk, jerking New Guys to their feet.
01-31-03, 08:50 AM
By the time we double-time to Black John Wayne's position there are fifty Marines with us, from four different platoons, and we're pumping, pumping, a little adrenaline cocktail to cleanse the blood, pumping on wild animal anger and righteous indignation, pumping, pumping, we are United States grunts and we have come down to battle, and by God we can't wait to kill anybody who ****s with our friends, we're running into the black metal whirlwind like big-assed birds, we are all going to die and we just can't wait because life in the **** is a rush and we feel alive and perfect and ******* beautiful, because we are being who we came here to be, and we are doing what we came here to do, and we are doing it really good, and we know it.
Black John Wayne hangs tough, firing his M-60 until the barrel glows red and white. But an NVA flame thrower roars across the trenchline and then Black John Wayne is a black man wearing fire as formal attire and his bulky body jerks like a puppet and he dances as M-16 rounds in his bandoliers cook off, and then the M-60 in his hands blows up, and Black John Wayne is still standing, while advancing NVA troops move around him and out of his way. He holds on to his throat with both hands, like a man trying to strangle himself, or like a man trying to pull off his own head. And he falls.
We hit the rice-propelled Communist gooks in the left flank and we cut them up good. We pop their arms and legs off. We spread out above the perimeter and isolate each pocket of NVA grunts inside our wire and we blast them until they are unrecognizable chunks of dead meat wrapped in dirty rags. We shoot them at such close range that powder burns set fire to their khaki shirts.
We jump down on top of them in the trenchline and we beat them to death with entrenching tools and we stab them in the face with K-bar knives and we chop off their heads with machetes.
Then we stand up in our perimeter trench and face outboard and fire a blinking stream of hard red iron into balls, bellies, and thighs, and we cut them down as they come up the hill.
Somewhere someone is swearing at God and somewhere a chorus of November Hotels, non-hackers, begs, "CORPSMAN! CORPSMAN! CORPSMAN!"
We don't care. **** the wounded and **** their candy-ass personal problems. We don't have time to listen to their crying. The flood of little yellow soldiers is falling back, out of our reach, and this drives us crazy.
We climb out of the trenchline and slide on our asses into our own wire and we climb over dead gooks piled three deep and we kick tangled, blasted strands of barbed wire out of our way and we chase the retreating wall of noise and muzzle flashes, and at every movement, scream, and sound we fire our hot rifles blindly until we run out of ammunition. Then we rob ammunition from our dead.
By battle magic a gook pops up in front of me. He runs at me, firing as he comes. Magic jerks my M-16 out of my hands. The gook is busting caps with a full banana clip, spraying the area with thirty rounds of AK to cut himself a path.
Dirt jumps up off the deck and hits me in the face.
I draw my Tokarev automatic pistol from my shoulder holster and I shoot the gook in the chest. He comes on, firing, bayonet fixed. I can see his clean-cut teenage face, his flat nose, his crudely cropped black hair, his black gook eye. I shoot him in the chest twice and the rounds jerk him up, but he's still coming.
Fingers of hot air tug at my jungle utilities like magic. I feel like a clown without any lines to say in a slapstick comedy war movie. I'm expected to stand here and look tough while this gook magician guts me with a bayonet. The situation is pretty damned embarrassing. How far can dead man run?
I don't know what I'm supposed to do, so I shoo the gook four more times before he slams into me like a miniature linebacker and knocks me down and runs over me and then I'm falling and when I hit the deck with my face a major earthquake hits Khe Sanh and my eardrums burst.
After the blackness fades to sunlight and the earthquake is over, I'm sitting on the deck among butchered things, works of the black art I have helped to create. The NVA dead all look like failed contortionists. Stretcher bearers and corpsmen are picking through the dirty red driftwood of battle, gooks, half-gooks, and pieces of gooks. The stretcher bearers load up with friendly wounded and carry them away, leaving behind dead Marines wrapped in muddy ponchos.
Grunts walk by without speaking, their eyes locked on the horizon but not seeing, eyes rimmed with red, eyes locked inside sweaty faces caked with dust thrown up by the shells, the unfocused eyes of the half-dead staring in astonished disbelief at the strange land of the half-alive--the thousand-yard stare.
Daddy D.A. is standing over me, yelling, but I can't hear anything. I put my hands on my ears.
Dead on the deck beside me is a gook with pink plastic guts piled on his chest. The guts are crawling with black flies. On the dead gook's ankles are loops of comm wire his friends would have used to drag his dead body off into the jungle.
A squeaky elf's voice real far away says, "You shot his heart out! You shot his heart out!"
I say to Daddy D.A.: "Huh?"
Suddenly my field of vision is invaded by the ruddy face of the Grim Reaper, the dumbest twenty-year Major in the Marine Corps and the biggest ****bird on the planet. He's yelling. His voice fades in and out, which is okay with me, because judging from the scowl on the Reaper's face he's not saying anything I want to hear.
"I'll run your ass up on charges!" the Reaper says to me. He leans down, thumbs out his collar, taps his gold rank insignia with a bony forefinger. "I will bust you below private!"
Smiling, I say, "You're on my list, Reaper."
The Reaper snears, struts away.
As my hearing returns, Daddy D.A. gives me the straight skinny. The Reaper is going to write me up on an Article 15, office hours, because the Beaver told the Reaper that the reason we were caught off guard by the ground attack was because I was sleeping on guard duty. But I won't face a court-martial because the Beaver, as my Platoon Sergeant, stood up for me and asked the Reaper to go easy on me because I'm crazy.
The ground attack was only a probe in force. Our gungy counterattack was a waste of time and good grunts. The Reaper had already issued the order for the rifle companies on our flanks to retreat. Khe Sanh would have fallen on its last day in existence if the B-52s had not arrived. The bombers dropped a tight pattern of two-thousand pound blockbusters one hundred yards outside our wire, saving our asses, one more time.
The Beaver, D.A. explains, is being put in for the Silver Sat for heroism under fire because he claims he personally led the counterattack. And the Beaver will be awarded a Purple Heart for a painful mouth wound he received during brutal hand-to-hand combat with elite North Vietnamese troops. Finally, the Reaper plans to recommend the Beaver for promotion to Staff Sergeant due to meritorious service.
Daddy D.A. is asking me if I feel okay and am I sure I'm not hit when the Reaper and the Beaver dittybop by. The Beaver glances over at me, preens a little, and smirks a lot. Eddie Haskell and Lumpy follow three paces behind. Eddie Haskell gives me what is supposed to be a real mean look, then gives me the finger.
The Reaper puts his arm around the Beaver's shoulders and says, "I do like to see the arms and legs fly!" The Beaver nods and nods, tries to smile, tries to speak, winces in pain, and Daddy D.A. and I get a quick glimpse of the heavy black thread knotted through the tip of the Beaver's tongue. Daddy D.A. is confused when I start laughing hard enough to crack a rib.
The Beaver looks over at us, puzzled, and I roar.
Some salty Corporal from Third Platoon souvenirs us a couple of warm beers. There's mud in my beer but I don't care; there's mud on my teeth. All I can think about is how the rising sun hurts my eyes. I want to crawl up into my Conex box and sleep for one thousand years.
Daddy D.A. helps me to stand up. But before we climb back up to the perimeter, Daddy D.A. and I drink a toast to the Viet Cong grunt dead on the deck at our feet, an enemy individual so highly motivated that he KO'd my fat American ass even after I dinged him and zapped him and waste him and killed him, in so many, so many times.
I say, "We can't beat these people, D.A. We can kill them, sometimes, but we are never going to beat them."
Daddy D.A. crushes the empty beer can in his hand and throws it away. He looks at me and says, "There it is."
Somewhere a corpsman says, "This one's still alive. Stop the hemorrhaging and clean away the mud."
After the battle I strip naked and curl up inside my Conex box and I have nightmares about the Viet Cong.
All Viet Cong are press-ganged at the point of a gun, brainwashed, shot full of heroin, then taken to the basement of the Kremlin, where evil Communist scientists insert tiny control monitors into the backs of their heads.
Viet Cong farmers are like the land itself and their bodies are made of earth. The Viet Cong have magic powers which allow them to sink into the soil and disappear.
Like yellow sharks the Viet Cong glide through an ocean of brown Asian soil. With cold lidless eyes, with predator's eyes, the Viet Cong swim silently just under our feet, preparing to strike.
01-31-03, 08:52 AM
The Viet Cong hump away from Khe Sanh carrying their heads and arms and legs. Back in their villages they will sit in shadows while their pretty Viet Cong girlfriends sew the shrapnel-torn extremities back on with oversized needles and heavy black thread, and apply leaf-bandages. During the night the pretty Viet Cong girlfriends will heal the red-edged and black-stitched wounds with herbs and the root of the wild banana tree and hot bowls of rice and lots of kisses.
The Americans fill up the soil with Viet Cong bones, really fill it up, totally, so that the Viet Cong farmers can't find one ounce of earth in which to plant a rice stalk. The Viet Cong refuse to surrender, and choose to starve. The bones of the staring Viet Cong stack up and cover the surface of Viet Nam and pile up higher and higher until they blot out the sun.
Americans fear the dark, so they leave Viet Nam and call in victory.
On a night when there's no moon to shine on their magic, the Viet Cong bones reassemble themselves into people. Finally, talking and laughing, the Viet Cong are free to walk hand in hand across the surface of their own land, the land of their ancestors.
In my nightmare my friend Cowboy is down, shot through both legs, his balls shot off, an ear gone. A bullet through his cheeks has torn out his gums. Cowboy is being shot to pieces by a sniper in the jungle. The sniper has already zapped Alice, the big black point man, and has mutilated two Marines who went out to save Cowboy--Doc J., and Parker, the New Guy. The sniper is shooting Cowboy to pieces so that the rest of the squad will try to save him and then the sniper can kill us all, and Cowboy too.
One more time, in my nightmare, Cowboy stares at me with eyes paralyzed with fear, and his hands open to me like language and I fire a short burst from my grease gun and one round goes into Cowboy's left eye and rips out through the back of his head, knocking out brain-wet clods of hairy meat. And Cowboy is dead, shot through the brain.
What is that sound? I wake up. I grab my piece. It must the Phantom Blooper. The Phantom Blooper has come to gut me.
I track the clicking sound until I find Daddy D.A. inside an empty Conex box a few boxes down from my next. Daddy D.A. is hunkered down in the dark, dry-firing his .45 automatic into his head.
I climb into the four-by-four-foot gray metal air-freight container. I squat down into a shadow. I don't say anything.
I don't look at his face. Daddy D.A. is a recruiting poster Marine, with a square chin, steel-gray hair, and a neatly trimmed mustache. But now his face is oily with sweat and contorted. His eyes are wild. He looks like a drunk who's about to cry. But he won't.
Daddy D.A. is a lifer, a career Marine, but he only just decided to be one, so he's still almost human. And since Donlon rotated back to the World and I lost my last link with reality, Daddy D.A. has been my best friend.
I'm afraid to die alone, but even more afraid to go home.
About a month ago, D.A. and I were riding security for a convoy of Coca-Colas. I was hitching a ride with D.A. and one of his squads in a six-by mounted with a 50.
We were rolling through one of those jampacked cardboard villes that straddle Route 1. The gooks were picking through garbage piles to find something to eat.
We saw this little gook kid trying to eat a piece of Styrofoam, and it made us laugh, because the little gook would take a bite, make a face, spit it out, then take another bite.
The squad was cutting Zs, lying on the double layer of sandbags in the bed of the truck. Daddy D.A. and I were standing by the 50, eyeballing the gooks.
Going by like a Technicolor movie was a parade of skinny gooks in white conical hats and squares of rice-paddy water and half-ton water buffaloes with brass rings in their noses and Arvin Rangers in red berets and firetearms of teenaged *****s who flashed bee-sting tits at us, and we watched farmers hunched over, knee deep in paddy water, pulling at rice stalks.
I was eating fruit cocktail out of a gallon can with my fingers, pawing through the sticky fruit, picking out the cherries.
The convoy slowed down in the ville, and this ugly gook kid with a cleft palate comes running up, selling pineapple slices on toothpicks. "You give me one cigarette! You give me one cigarette!"
Suddenly the ugly good kid swung his cardboard box full of pineapple slices up into the truck bed.
Daddy D.A. was the gunner in the 50 mount. He swings the 50 around and his whole body shakes boom-boom-boom-boom-boom-boom-boom and the kid exploded and was splattered all over the side of the road like a butchered chicken.
Then the six-by came apart and D.A. and I floated up and squad was sucked into a vortex of translucent black fire and then as suddenly as that it was all over and Daddy D.A. was trying to help me up out of the road.
My head had hit the road hard. Daddy D.A. lifted me p and I spat out grit and on the deck all around us were pieces of men. Some pieces were moving, some not. All of the pieces were on fire. The six-by was on its side and on fire and every one of Daddy D.A.'s people was a legless ball-less wonder.
"You're plain ****ing crazy," I say to D.A., trying not to think about the painful past.
Daddy D.A. looks at me, then looks at the gun in his hand. "There it is."
I shrug. I say, "Sorry 'bout that."
Daddy D.A. says, "I'm a lifer, Joker. Hell, I love this damned Marine Corps an' ****. But Khe Sanh was never a battle: it's been a publicity stunt. And green Marines are not elite troops; we're movie stars. The Marines at Khe Sanh were just show business for Time magazine. We're straight men, feeding lines to the gooks. The brass has demoted us to being live bait for supporting arms. We're nothing more than glorified forward observers, recon for an avalanche of bombs and shells. Guns have made war less than a gentleman's sport. Modern weapons are taking all of the fun out of killing. We might as well just prop up some wooden Marines like duck decoys and dee-dee back to the World and get pogue jobs and make lots of money."
I don't say anything.
"Hunker down, they say. Dig in. But Marines are not construction workers. We don't dig. We get wired. Dee-Dee Mao is not part of our creed. We are stone-hard kickers of enemy ass."
I say, "I heard that."
"Last week there must have been two platoons of civilian pukes in spit-shined safari jackets strutting around Khe Sanh, making exciting TV shows, telling the civilian pukes back in the World that we'd won another big victory and that the siege of Khe Sanh had been broken and how the American Marines had held Khe Sanh, blah-blah-blah, but how it sounded was that somehow the TV viewers at home deserved to take a bow for what Marines did alone."
I say, "That's affirmative."
Daddy D.A. looks up at me. "So now we're sneaking out the back door like hippies who can't pay the rent. The evacuation of Khe Sanh is a secret back home but it's not a secret from Victor Charlie."
"There it is."
"So whose side are we on?"
I say, "We're trying to be the good guys, D.A., but we're trying too hard."
Daddy D.A. says, "Before we came to Khe Sanh, the VC slept in the old French bunker. Tomorrow night they'll be sleeping in it again. What goes around comes around. But what about the twenty-six hundred good grunts that got hit here? Do you think those guys will ever forget the price we paid to hold Khe Sanh? And what about the guys who died here? What about Cowboy?"
"Well," I say, "if I felt that bad, I wouldn't kill myself. I'd kill somebody else."
"Get out of my face, Joker. *******."
"You're short again, D.A. Don't extend this time. You're short. Rotate back to the World. Cut yourself a piece of slack. You owe it to yourself."
"Hell, Joker, I wouldn't know what to do with myself back in the World. The only people I've ever understood and the only people who ever understood me are these hard-headed raggedy-assed grunts."
"So stand on the block and count the women."
He looks at me, almost laughing. "****."
I grunt. "****."
Daddy D.A. says, "Remember back when Cowboy was our squad leader in Hue City? Remember the baby-san?"
I look at my boots. "Yeah, I remember. That damned Hue City."
"She came right up to us in the middle of a firefight," says Daddy D.A. "Inside the Citadel. She pushed that little cart up and was selling Cokes with ice, under fire."
"'Where are the VC?'
"And the girl said, 'You VC.'
"We said, 'You baby-san VC.'
"And she said, 'No VC. VC number ten thousand.'
We said, "'Baby-san, you boom-boom?' And she giggled, remember? She said, 'You give me beaucoup money.'"
I say, "Let it go, D.A. That's ancient history."
But D.A. is already running the Hue City movie in his head: "Some dumb grunt was crying. I don't know his name. Just some dumb grunt with a personal problem.
01-31-03, 08:53 AM
"The baby-san squatted down in front of the grunt. She was so cute. She picked up his helmet--she could hardly lift it--and put it on. The helmet completely covered her head. She looked funny. The grunt laughed. He stopped crying and lifted the helmet off of her. She giggled.
"The little ***** ran over to her cart and got the grunt a cold bottle of Coke and opened it an' **** and ran back and gave it to him. 'I souvenir you,' she said, 'Marine number one!'
"The grunt laughed again, leaned back, and was chugging the Coke. The baby-san pulled a Chi-Com frag out of her ice bucket, jerked out the pin, shoved it under the open flap of the grunt's flak jacket and held it on his bare chest as he finished chugging the Coke.
"Then the grunt looked down, remember? Remember that look on his face? He looked down and then the grunt and the baby-san melted into a ball of smoke and then noise turned them into ****."
"I know," I say. "I remember."
D.A. says, "Joker, when babies blow themselves up to kill a grunt, something is definitely wrong with the program. I came here to Viet Nam to kill gooks, not little kids. Little kids don't become gooks until they grow up. But even zip babies come out of the womb armed to the teeth and hating Marines, Joker, and I don't know why. How can we wean them from the propaganda printed in their mother's milk? I'm supposed to be a professional fighting man. How is it going to look on my service record if I get killed by a little kid? It's not dignified. Who are we, Joker? We're grunts. We're supposed to be the best. What's wrong with us?"
I stand up. "I got to go police up some dead gooks."
Daddy D.A. looks up, surprised. "But you can't just go off somewhere and police up dead gooks. Now now. I'm going to kill myself."
I say, "Without any bullets?"
"I was just practicing. I got bullets."
I say, "Okay, so what am I supposed to do?"
"Well, you know, you're supposed to talk me out of it, an' ****."
"Oh yeah? Like what?"
Daddy D.A. thinks about it. "Well, you know, you say, 'life is good.'"
"Life is good."
D.A. says, "No, it's not."
I say, "You're right. It sucks. Life is crummy."
Daddy D.A. is not sure what to say next. Then: "Why don't you tell me how much I'd be missed?"
I nod, thinking about it. "Yeah, okay. Well, I'd miss you, D.A. And Thunder. Maybe. I mean, Thunder never liked you, but he'd probably miss you. The New Guys won't miss you because they're too dumb to know who you are. Black John Wayne would miss you, but he's off on a one-way tour with the KIA travel bureau. And even if Black John Wayne was alive he'd probably just say Sin Loi, tough ****, sorry about that."
"There it is." Daddy D.A. nods. "There it is. Sorry 'bout that." He laughs.
I say, "Want a cold beer?"
"That's affirmative on your last," says Daddy D.A., looking up, brightening. "I sure could use one."
I say, "Well, when you find some slack, D.A., you be sure to souvenir a big piece for me."
I leave Daddy D.A.'s Conex box and march back to my own. The sky on the horizon is turning pink and pale blue.
Dawn at Khe Sanh. As the day suddenly turns real, dew glistens on a shantytown of tents built with shelter halves and muddy ponchos. From the last of the decaying bunkers still standing and from the mouths of manmade caves, hard reptile men poke steel-helmeted heads out into the cold morning air, squinting, their faces stubble-bearded, bulky in their flak jackets and baggy jungle utilities, with weapons growing out of their hands like black metal deformities. They walk hunched over and fast in the Khe Sanh quick-step, humping ankle-deep in red mud, grunts, skuzzy field Marines, slouching half-awake toward burlap-wrapped **** tubes that no longer exist, scratching their balls.
A sky train helicopter lifts a howitzer off the deck and whack-whacks into a sky the color of lead. The howitzer dangles like a big toy on the end of a steel cable.
I crawl up into my gray metal hole and I try to sleep.
Outside, an engineer yells, loud and bored, "FIRE IN THE HOLE! FIRE IN THE HOLE!"
Thuds and thumps are doing what enemy gunners have been having wet dreams about doing for months. They are tearing up some of the perforated steel planking from the airfield and loading it onto trucks. They use burning brooms to set fires. There are so many fires that most of the guys are wearing gas masks. The engineers are blowing up the last bunker with blocks of C-4 while working parties of tired grunts chop into sandbags with E-tools and machetes. Growling bulldozers bury any remaining trash beneath tons of red mud.
I curl up into a ball to hide and wait for darkness. I close my eyes and I try to dream. If I'm going to go one on one with the Phantom Blooper I need my beauty sleep.
If I don't kill the Phantom Blooper before we leave Khe Sanh, he will live forever.
Sometimes my dreams are too noisy, and sometimes my dreams are too quiet, and sometimes I can hear the sound of shrapnel going off in my mind.
Do you remember coonskin caps? Be sure you're right, then go ahead." Your mother bought you a pair of Davy Crockett socks and you rode to school in a big yellow bus and you sang, "The King of the Wild Frontier."
When was the last time you made a shadow monster on the ceiling of your bedroom by making your hands into a claw and holding it over a flashlight in the dark?
Do you remember Old Maid and jug-roller marbles and jawbreaker candy and prisms that made rainbows on the wall and Red Ryder BB guns and baseball cards in your bicycle spokes and how you sold flower seeds door to door?
Do you remember when Annette Funicello was a cute twelve-year-old Mouseketeer every kid was in love with and arrowhead hunting in cornfields after a rain and how to pump your arm to signal train conductors to toot their air horns and the Johnson Smith Company of Racine, Wisconsin, and *PRIZES* in Post Toasties and how you pretended to have the power to cut down telephone poles by holding your arm straight out while riding in the pickup truck with your father (carefully avoiding metal signs that might dent your blade), and do you remember the man who came to your high school and made pieces of Africa with air-filled rubber--do you remember the man who made balloon giraffes?
The monsoon rain is coming down hard and cold and the New Guy I put through Grenade School is falling asleep on guard duty, hunkered down in a hole where the guard bunker used to be, a poncho liner wrapped around his shoulders like an Indian blanket.
Cutting zulus, the New Guy nods forward, pulls himself a little rack time, then jerks his head up, opens his eyes, and looks around.
Within two minutes the New Guy's eyes narrow down to slits and his head nods forward again. When you're on guard duty, sleep is the most valuable thing in the world.
Staring into a night as black as hell's steel door, I slide past the dozing New Guy and down into our wire.
I salute Sorry Charlie, a human skull mounted on a stake in the wire. The napalm-blackened skull is wearing a pair of felt Mickey Mouse ears.
Naked except for a beat-up old Stetson on my head, and armed with an M-79 grenade launcher, and with the Kid From Brooklyn's prick-25 field radio on my back, I double-time into No Man's Land across a post-atomic dark and bloody ground.
Stars & Stripes says that the brass have been debating about using nuclear weapons to protect Khe Sanh, which has already been the target of more bombs and shells than any place in the history of warfare. The zoomies, on average, fly bombing missions within two miles of Khe Sanh every five minutes and and drop an average of five thousand bombs a day.
From sterile red soil which has been blasted with more firepower than a six-pack of Hiroshima bombs, dragons of ground mist rise up to swallow me. Gigantic bomb craters pockmark the deck. If I fall into a shell hole I'll either break my neck or drown.
Mud sucks at my naked feet and slows me down the way it always does in nightmares when the monster is chasing you. The sucking of the mud is embarrassingly noisy.
A star cluster flare shoots up, to the north. I squat and freeze. Somebody on a night ambush is coming in early. They must have wounded.
I wait until No Man's Land is silent, so silent that even the frogs have shut up. Then I hump, and every piece of darkness has something mean and ugly hiding in it, and every shadow is full of ghosts with iron teeth, but I don't care.
Somewhere to the north, up in the black and green silence of the Dong Tri Mountains, in a small clearing in the jungle in a place without a name, Cowboy is dead where I left him. Cowboy is dead from the bullet I put through his brain.
Doc J.-for-joint is there, and Alice, and Parker, the New Guy. They're all up there somewhere, men who died not at a place but at a grid coordinate, scattered bones now, torn apart by tigers and eaten by ants. I want to live with the tigers and the ants. I want to be with my friends.
01-31-03, 08:54 AM
The Phantom Blooper laughs.
I stop and listen. The Phantom Blooper laughs again.
The grunts standing lines on the perimeter hear the Blooper and get wired. There's shouting and movement. In ten seconds illumination flares are going to be popping up all over this A-O.
I get a feeling that tells me I am in the process of becoming someone's favorite sight picture.
The Phantom Blooper starts talking but I can't quite hear what he's saying and I hope that the grunts on the perimeter can't hear him either because the Phantom Blooper's grasp of the situation is too damned precise and if we listen to him we'll all go plain ****ing crazy.
Using my ears like an animal, I stalk the Phantom Blooper. My ears pick up each dot of sound.
Bam. An M-79 grenade lifts a chunk of the deck in front of me, splattering me with mud and shrapnel.
Dark shadows danced and turn into monsters and larger, darker shadows swallow them.
Someone screams into my ear: "MORE ILLUM! MORE ILLUM! GOD DAMN, MORE LIGHT!"
In the Marine Corps a mine detector means that you close your eyes, put your foot out, and feel around. As I probe for mines with my toes I have a fantasy in my brain housing group in which my battle tactics turn out exactly as planned.
My fantasy of how I can be a hero begins like a movie inside my mind.:
...I have talked tough to the Phantom Blooper and I have debated, and because I am so interesting the Phantom Blooper has listened, and because I am so clever I have kept the Phantom Blooper stumped on complex philosophical questions. In fact, the Phantom Blooper is so determined to win the debate that he fails to notice that the sun has come up.
From a cloudless blue sky four First Marine Air Wing F-4 camouflage-painted Phantom fighter-bombers on Tac-Air standby slide in low and booming, locked and cocked and bingo on fuel. In my fantasy I speak the magic secret formula of numbers into the Kid From Brooklyn's field radio. I say, "Watch my smoke to target and expend all remaining."
Flames shoot out of the tails of my fantasy Phantom bombers as they hit their afterburners and roll over, banking gracefully. Marine pilots perform a ballet of aircraft and boon in to give the Phantom Blooper a taste of the only true American art form, the surgical air strike.
Fantasy silver napalm canisters and fantasy black bombs tumble down from the aircraft. Hell in very small packages. Napalm canisters tumble down two at a time, end over end, floating, glinting in the sunlight, followed by a pair of Xs on black dots--snake eyes and nape, want some, get some.
The sky opens up and a piece of the sun breaks loose and falls down through airless space to the earth and the piece of sun hits the earth and splatters sacred gold fire across No Man's Land, a world of hurt coming down, rolling flames and thudding explosions.
Inside the boiling rage of the orange and black fireball the Phantom Blooper and I die horrible deaths as all of the air is sucked out of our lungs by force and we suffocate and in the next red moment our bodies are burned to the bone and beyond and we are two nameless Crispy Critters trapped forever inside a red and black daytime nightmare...
But that's only a fantasy.
One moment I'm trapped inside a piece of the sun, and the Phantom Blooper and I are getting payback for burning Viet Nam alive, and four Marine pilots are radioing in, "Ah, roger that. Two confirmed, K.B.A., Killed By Air." And the next moment my beautiful happy fantasy is over and I'm abruptly back in the real world. It's dark, I'm cold, and it's raining.
Hunkered down in the dark, butt-naked in a bombed-out wasteland. I'm muddy and stung by shrapnel. And my feet are cut all to ****.
A lone illumination shell from the 81 mike-mike mortars section hisses up in a high arc, pops, burns, pours down a football field of harsh white light.
The air I'm breathing turns into bullets and angry blips of red neon try to find my eyes. I know that the New Guy was sleeping, woke up when the Blooper laughed, got scared enough to shoot his own shadow, started working the 60 without remembering that I ordered him to use a frag or call in arty so that he wouldn't give away his position.
The New Guy, Private Owens, has just fired a shot in anger; he's not a New Guy anymore.
I hear footsteps.
A hot sledgehammer hits me and knocks me down. I try to get up. My mouth goes dry in an instant and my stomach turns sour. I can't breathe. I've been shot. That ****ing New Guy has shot me and I try to say to him: "You're in the hurt locker now, sweet pea." But all that comes out is a cough.
I lift myself up onto an elbow and I hold my M-79 in one hand and I fire, bloop, at the expansive target of the New Guy's ignorance. There's a silence and then the New Guy's area comes all to pieces in slow motion. A cadence count later, the fragmentation round thuds.
The whole perimeter opens fire. Tracer rounds probe the darkness.
I think maybe I'm dying.
Cold hands grip my ankles. I kick. I try to kick the hands away but they are too strong. The field radio on my back snags on a root and is pulled off. I'm being dragged away, toward the jungle.
Struggling to stay conscious, I try to talk tough to the Phantom Blooper. I want to see the Phantom Blooper's black bone face.
My head bumps on a rock and I drop my M-79.
While my mind drowns in a red and black river, the Phantom Blooper is dragging my body off into the jungle to bury me alive in a Viet Cong tunnel as a wire-strapped fetus stuffed forever into a damp silent wall hundreds of feet beneath the impenetrable rain forest.
I can smell the moist black stink of jungle and I think, halfheartedly, So this is dying, it don't mean nothing, not even.
Suddenly the darkness is cold, solid, and total.
I see a floating light. But I am a United States grunt and I know that what I am seeing is a false light, a phosphorescent glow imprinted upon the jungle floor by the decayed remains of some animal that has died there.
In the glow of the false light I can see where I've been hit. My naked shoulder looks like an old piece of saddle leather after a maniac has worked it over good with an ice pick. The skin is hard, dry, yellow-brown, and stretched too tight. In the center of the ice-pick holes is one big hole, angry red and moist.
As my eyes focus I can see that deep down in the bottom of some of the little holes are hard brown eggs. My shoulder is hot and itchy. I can't stand it anymore. I scratch hard, digging into brittle flesh with dirty fingernails, exposing the tunnel system constructed under my skin by Viet Cong worms.
Maggots come out of the holes. Maggots as white as egg flesh crawl out of the holes. Blind worms with shiny brown heads burrow beneath the thin yellow surface of my skin. Maggots crawl out of my skin through the tunnels they have made. Maggots pour out of the holes by the hundreds, wiggling wildly and squirming.
The jungle gets lighter and lighter and then brighter and brighter until the jungle is as lit up as a nighttime carnival. Every tree trunk and every plant and every leafy vine begins to radiate a strange green-yellow phosphorescent light.
Elephant grass and creepers and each leaf and gnarled root and even the interlocking triple-canopy roof of the jungle glows with light. All around me are living jungle plants full of a perfect wondrous green, and I am bathed in a warm green light of blinding intensity and everywhere I look I see jungle vines and ancient trees with light glowing deep down inside them and I surrender to the hypnotic enchantment of the world of green light and the Phantom Blooper drags me deeper and deeper into a vast and beautiful forest of green neon bamboo.
The Phantom Blooper laughs.
I laugh too.