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. <br />
During the past week the Phantom Blooper has wasted Lieutenant Kent Anderson, Funny Gunny Bob...
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...
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." <br />
Black John Wayne shakes his head. "No. No way. Bull****. Later for that." <br />
"Do it, J.W. Trust me." <br />
Black John Wayne groans and says,...
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,...
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.