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
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...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
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
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
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
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.