My Big Fat Beautiful R&R

Not really. Not in the least. More like a stalemated scarecrow trapped in a sun bleached field. More like the head of a wild animal impaled on a flat trophy wall. Here is how it happened:

After eight months, I say good-bye to men who will soon walk into a perfect ambush. “Don’t leave us,” they say, “Don’t leave the platoon.” A coveted rear job beckons. I clamp my jaw tight, crush the tears in my throat. Break in my replacement, an awkward man who will clip the medivac D rings backwards, the wounded hoisted upside down, their bleeding made fatal.

A month prior, during a mortar attack, battalion medical officer Lt. Noble is killed. We field medics take his loss hard.

In the rear, I don’t like the blonde-haired-blue-eyed-ninety-day-wonder who has replaced him.
The new Lieutenant demands clean uniforms, strac hair cuts, polished boots, he announces unannounced inspections.

After an uneasy month at a desk job I take R&R. Boarding the plane I feel strange in civilian clothes. I feel naked without an M-16, forty-five, frags, helmet, bug juice, D rings, ass wipe, all the things a good grunt carries.

During the long flight I sit with a Japanese American clerk from the Big Red One. Samuel is fresh faced, up beat, his thick black hair swept back; it is neatly parted down the middle. His polite voice is self assured, strong, encouraging. I have never met anyone in Vietnam who does not use foul language. But Samuel is happy, pleasant, well mannered. The slight absence of epicanthal tissue hints at honor and ancestry.

We make small talk, eat, sleep, wake up in Japan, find our way to the Star Hotel, recommended by Kiefer, medic for second platoon. “Can’t miss it,” he’d said, giving me the card. “Directions on the back. Good women. Good dope. Good times.”

Samuel is agreeable, but not really.

Past the white painted foyer, past the well kept bonsai garden, past a white marble Buddha, there are long hallways with many rooms but most are empty. We are the last official customers. The owner, a plump middle aged Mama san knows it but remains cheerful.

"Welcome. Welcome." she says.

Her thin gaunt husband smiles frequently. He tells me he fought in W.W.II. A machine gunner, he says, between bursts of smiles. They make a lovely couple. They’ve made good money on war.

Mama san leads us through a ghost town of vacant chairs and tables.

“Sit,” she says in her plump Buddha way. “Sit.”

So Samuel and I sit on a black leather couch facing the bar as Mama san exits through an arch curtained by colorful glass beads.

Samuel uncrosses his legs, leans forward, drums his fingers against his thigh. I get up, walk to a large chrome plated juke box, scan the play list, drop in foreign coins. I press the piano-like plastic keys, watch the thin robotic arm do its dirty work. There is a scratching sound, then the first chords of Black Magic Woman rise from the cloth covered speakers. As Santana's' quick riffs fill the room I hear the spiraling screams of men, of women after an ambush. But I pretend I’m happy. So does Samuel. Then the glass beads part as Mama san re-enters with rum and Coke, gin and tonic.

“You pay later,” she says, setting the drinks down.

In this low lit merciful room there is no one on point, on slack, no one on guard, no one to break squelch twice, take five, saddle up, move out. No one calling in grid co-ordinates, no one shouting to lay down suppressing fire, no one calling ‘medic...medic...’ No one. There is only the fizzing of froth, the clinking of cubes, the scent of imported liquor.

We raise our tall thin glasses; we bring them close.

“Cheers,” I say.

“Cheers,” says Samuel.

We drink and drink until the ladies of the night make their entrance. Only it’s 10am in Yokohama, Japan and good looking, well mannered, well educated, Japanese American Samuel says, “I’m going for a walk. I’m going to visit places. May I borrow your camera?”

The delicate long haired girl next to him, picks lint from her mini skirt, shrugs, makes a pretty face, says, “You no like?”

Samuel presses his ancient lips in perfect apology.

I’ve never seen a perfect courtier in action before. “Yes,” I say, and hand it to him. He smiles ‘thank you,’ then disappears.

Her name is Yukio. We’re sitting on the hard square bed in a small square room, surrounded by the simple decor of sink, towel, soap. Yukio is slender: her ivory face is framed by short black hair, she has high cheek bones, she has red painted lips and crowded white teeth, her flimsy blouse contains inviting curves. She uncrosses her enchanting legs in a manner which excites me. I have helped to kill and care for men but I am new at this and do not know how to do it.

“Can you help me?” I say. “I’m nervous. Vietnam. You understand?” I raise my arms as if aiming a weapon. “ Bang Bang. You understand?”

She nods without mercy.

I give her money. After we undress her ivory hips rotate round and round and the circles of pleasure she makes and makes are not pleasant.

The next day I walk in the city. I play pachinko. Bing... Bing. Bing... Bing. I give money to white gloved taxi drivers. I get lost riding the air conditioned subways. Giggly school girls wearing blue striped sox and black uniforms point the way to the street. In vast clean malls an army of jackets and dresses, tidy rows of perfume bottles, shiny utensils, electronic gadgets, all manner of things, stand or squat in permanent parade. “Buy me...” they scream. I cannot wait to exit.

Another day, another girl. I want to go back to Vietnam.

On the return flight, Samuel shows me photographs: magnificent parks with great green lawns, elegant spiraling trees, blossoming flowers; portraits of ancient temples, their modern occupants; a museum dedicated to the making of silk. There are no tell tale souvenirs. There is only the storied gift of his culture.

“I’m glad you had a good time,” I say.

When Samuel asks me how things went I lie with all my heart.

In Saigon we shake hands, go our separate ways. I take a fleet winged Caribou back to red dirt Quan Loi. But at battalion I’m no good with rules and regulations. No good. No thank you.

I volunteer to burn shit on LZ Green. Everyday I drag brim filled barrels from mortar box shitters, pour in diesel fuel from jerry cans, toss a trip flare into the awful soup; over the hours stir the ignited sludge till it burns to a fine white ash. Then drag the empty barrel back. Pull out an overflow. Push in the empty. Begin the burning.

Every day, the gun crews watch and whisper, “Is he fuckin crazy? How the hell can he do that?”

But who cares what they think? In monsoon, burning shit keeps me warm. Keeps me safe. Twenty five and a wake up.

Contact. Bravo has contact. They’re five clicks out but we can hear the chatter of AKs and 16s. The mortar pits open up; the gun crews go into action: they lift, push, ram the heavy rounds home, insert powder bags, slap the hammer at the back of the locked breech. The cannon roars and the shells cut silver arcs through infinite blue sky. BOOM...BOOM...BOOM.

A first sergeant approaches me.

“They’ve lost a medic,” he says. “Go out for a couple of days. Then we’ll bring you back.”

I say, “Sarge, twenty five and a wake up."

Is he out of his fucking mind?  If this were my company, my platoon, my squad I would do it.  But these are not my men.  This is not my platoon.  There’s no one I know, no one I care for, no tell tale voice that’s shouted the startling word, the pulsate battle cry, the blood stained honorific men who wield bandages and morphine cannot ignore.  Look: The days of my life are notched on a cardboard square kept in a black waterproof wallet.  Eleven inked diamonds encircle my mud stained helmet band.  One for each month in this god forsaken war.  I’ve done my time, seen my share.

Fuck Bravo company.  Fuck them.


I refuse to go out.  A captain gives a direct order.
Quietly, I gather my gear, trudge to the chopper pad, watch the white flames of morning mist rise from the tarmac. Quietly, I’m melting down.
When the bird lands the excited gunner motions ‘Get in...Get in.’  But I signal ‘no’ and they lift away. A second bird arrives. “Are you going to the rear?” I shout. My words are lost in the whirl wind of prop wash and rotor blades but the gunner yells ‘Yes’ and I climb aboard. There are three new medics in the rear; I know whose ordered me out. I’m locked and loaded and melting down.  I’m locked and fuckin loaded.
After the ten minute flight, I trudge one click to battalion.  From thirty meters I spot the new lieutenant as he exits the aid station.  As I walk forward, my weapon aims itself on his chest.
In an ice cold volcanic voice I yell, “Are you sending me out, you motherfucker?  I said are you sending me out?”
The blonde-haired-man has been caught off guard.  Dumbstruck, he raises his arms in perfect blue-eyed surrender.
“You don’t have to go," he says.  He's trembling. "It was a mistake.  I’m sorry.  I’ll send someone else.”
I lower my weapon, walk past him, find an empty bunk, thumb the selector switch to Safe, throw down my gear, and weep.


Click Images to Enlarge
All Photos by Marc Levy

Marc Levy    Then  and  Now           
D 1/7 Cav '69-'70
Read More of Marc's Stories



(All content and photos on this site are the property of their named owners and may not be copied or used for any other purposes without permission. Please contact webmaster for permission)