PHOTO JIM DUMB
|It’s early morning in dry season. Third
squad sits cross legged on a carpet of crisp dead leaves in the quiet bamboo
forest. We boil water with pasty thumb sized chunks of C-4, mix in the C-ration
powdered coffee, drink and savor the synthetic brew. We kid and joke amongst
ourselves, toss C-ration cigarettes to our Kit Carson Scout. His name is Diem
Diem but we call him Jim Dumb. He is seventeen years old, dark complected, quite
thin and smiles often. A former NVA, he surrendered and now works for us. He is
not very good. Walking third or fourth in line more than once Jim has pointed at
fresh foot prints made by Ho Chi Minh slicks and gushed in authentic wonder, “NVA.”
He is in fact useless, but we trust and humor this caramel skinned, black
haired, mustacheless, dark eyed, former enemy, young man. He is one of us. Likes that we treat him with respect.
D’wee was better. Hard core. No talk, all business, he walked point quick step only looked back to signal danger. D’wee knew where things were, where they weren't, knew the jungle’s secret sounds and ciphers, breezed through places we’d take years to pass.
But D’wee is dead. For now there’s Jim Dumb, who likes to smoke and smile and wouldn’t know a bunker complex from a white walled, leather upholstered, two door, chrome plated, V-8, fire engine red Chevy convertible.
Jim drops the slender five-butt-boxes into a large clear plastic bag containing dozens of two tone packets of Newport Menthols, Winston Filter Tips, No Filter Camels, LSMFT Lucky Strikes, and five green colored U.S. Army matchbooks. ‘Close cover before striking,’ the green cover says without a hint of irony. Jim Dumb crinkles the bag shut, shoves it in his pack, plucks the cigarette he keeps behind his ear, lights it. He takes a long leisurely drag, spews out smoke, strokes his hairless chin, looks at me.
“Tanks Duck,” he says.
He means ‘Doc.’ How can you not like this harmless young man?
I take my camera out of a water proof sack and shoot him. For an instant the flash creates a story book of shadows and silhouettes. I crawl over to Jim Dumb, teach him how to work the magical box.
“One finger here. Other hand there. Look through here. Press button,” I say, narrating with my hands.
“OK. OK, Duck,” he says. "Now I take you pik ta.”
From the way Jim Dumb holds the camera, angles, toys and tilts it, it’s clear he’s quite lost.
The lieutenant, who sits with us says, “You can do it, Jim! You can do it!”
I smile a Jim Dumb smile and the respected, unreliable Scout presses the shutter button exactly right but something is wrong. A moment later Jim is the first to slam his body flat to the ground. In the distance, a hissing noise, dazzling light, shots fired, the entire forest shakes when the mines explode. We grab our weapons and hug the earth. A hundred meters away, as first platoon lays down murderous fire, the trip flare’s bright magnesium kiss permeates every inch of the forest. The Lieutenant leaps up. He grabs his gear commands us forward.
“Let’s go,” he says. “C'mon, let’s go.”
The ten of us run, crouch, run, push, sway, step quickly, quickly. We do not feel the razor-like bamboo cuts slitting our skin, the sharp thorn claws of wait-a-minute vines tearing our flesh, we ignore the leeches that drop from trees. We are running and running and then we see it.
Three NVA, legs blown off by the blast, scream in the secret language of desperate men. Each has poked his AK from beneath a rotted log. They are shrieking because they cannot aim or shoot their weapons. They are shrieking because soon they will be dead. From close range GI’s take pot shots. They take pot shots from close range at men without legs.
I kneel down. Salty tears streak my face, collect at my chin, drip to the earth. It’s only my second time in combat. Soon I’ll be different. Soon revenge for our dead and our wounded will meld with fear and I will help with the killing and the killing will help me. We are just regular grunts, we make too much noise, we are not really a team, we’re not sophisticated, we’re not elite. But after a time we become part of the rhythm of this war. This war dance. Wait. Engage. Disengage. The men call it contact or movement. The men psych themselves up. “Time to kick ass and take names later,” they say. And between contact and kicking ass or having our asses kicked there’s tension. It starts small, then builds and builds until we secretly pray it will happen. That we walk into them or them into us, or we mortar them or they rocket us, then the tension explodes like perfect sex, and afterwards...afterwards we’re spent. Days, weeks, nothing happens, then terror, instant and deep, then relief, like paradise, since the killing is done and the living have buried the wounded and dead. Until it starts all over again.
But I haven’t reached that point. I look in wonder as the bodies are scavenged and stacked one atop the other. Look in awe as someone slips a short fused grenade beneath the hideous pile. Listen as insects drawn by the awful scent swarm down to the awful feast.
Then we march past the unblinking eyes, the open mouths, the purple patched heads, the stiffening limbs sprawled at spectacular angles. Ten minutes later the grenade explodes, and Jim Dumb instantly smiles. Our enemy have attempted to retrieve the corpses.
“NVA,” says Jim, slitting his neck with an index finger.
We stop, listen, then continue forward.
D 1/7 Cav '69-'70
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