The Most *%&%#@# War Story of All *%+&&^#% Time

Every third day is log day. Huey’s jammed with cardboard crates of C-rats, ammo in wood or metal boxes, precious mail, giant rubber barrels of water slung beneath their bellies, spot our popped smoke, dip down, swoop in, frantically unload, then they are gone.

Our mail is stuffed in a red nylon sack tied shut with thick cotton rope. The Lieutenant unties the bag, reaches in, carefully hands out letters that bear names, rank, serial numbers, unit, APO.

Abbott receives a Dear John and goes quietly berserk. Cleland is ordered home on emergency leave. Jack’s wife sends bad news. “Shit,” he says, putting the letter down. Ernie opens a small flat parcel; he reads the hand printed note accompanying the cassette. “Train Station Sounds. Train Entering Station, Train Departing,” he says. “Always love my choo-choo’s. Can’t live without’em.”

Jim receives an Easter Basket filled with artificial grass and little yellow eggs of soggy marzipan. He offers them round and we eat them.

“Nothing for you, Doc,” says the Lieutenant.

What remains in the red sack are books and magazines donated by publishers. We pilfer the bag for Time, Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, Reader’s Digest, a trove of paperbacks on various topics. I grab two glossy magazines. I grab a book written by Jan Yoors, who has lived with gypsies. Check my watch. In an hour we’ll move out, march through the jungle. Set up an NDP. Send out patrols. Set up an ambush. I reach into my pack, snare the blue lined Red Cross writing pad, a cracked Bic pen, write to the company which makes our salt tablets. I’ve written many letters of inquiry; it helps pass the time.

Dear Sir or Madam, Did the artist Gervasio Gallardo draw the cover art for Peter S. Beagles’ latest book?  It’s very beautiful. I intend to read the story. Your reply is most appreciated.

Dear Sir or Madam, I would like to know what is meant by ‘processed cheese’. This term appears on the list  of ingredients of your dairy product, which I enjoy immensely when I am not otherwise engaged.

There is time to write to my parents. I’m stupid. Still seeking the impossible.

Dear Folks, Today we killed five. Actually they were dead before we killed them. They had walked into our booby trap. They scream a lot. Then they are dead. The lieutenant says I’m doing a good job. The others do the killing. I’m the medic, remember? So far I’ve patched up six of my guys. We’re so lucky. We’ve been killing them more than they kill us. No one understands why they don’t bleed. We just can’t figure that out. Oh well. I’ll be sending you something I took from a dead man. Put it in a safe place. More when it happens. Love.

After an hour's march we stop, set up the perimeter. String the trips and claymores. Dig foxholes. Soon the skin mags begin to circulate.

“Captain, isn’t she beautiful?” I say, tearing the centerfold from its stapled spine. “I mean isn’t she fuckin gorgeous?”

The shapely all American blonde is smiling and freckle faced; she has inviting sexy legs, she has perfectly pouting lips; as she leans forward her full round breasts spill from the page.

“Whatever you say, Doc,” the Captain replies. He grabs the handset from the RTO. Calls in our grid coordinates. Our casualties. Our body count. “Whatever you say.”

It’s my fourth month. Patrols, jungle, ambush, monsoon.  Letters from home, holiday cheer, the glossy escape into fantasy, these are the things that mock the clockwork of killing time and killing people; they blunt our fear of dying. 

There are not enough machetes in third platoon. Each night we must take turns at clearing a patch of jungle. Each man cuts, rips, stabs the earth then hunkers down ‘till guard. Soon men write home for machetes, survival knives, K-bars as the Marines call them. And some men write for pistols, and some men write for liquor, and some men who have given up on going home do not write at all.

I tear out the coupon from a page of Popular Mechanics. Beneath the black and white photograph the advertisement screams its headline in boldface letters: ARMY SURPLUS KNIFE AND GENUINE LEATHER SCABBARD $4.95 + SHIPPING AND HANDLING. SUPPLIES LIMITED. THIS OFFER WILL NOT BE REPEATED. Which of course it is. Every month. Like clockwork. So I clip the coupon and write a letter.

Dear Mom and Dad, Today the Captain gave each medic in the company a Bronze Star. He said we did good. He said we’re gonna win this war and that we are good soldiers. I need a favor. Pay these people. Send me the knife. I’ll pay you back. Do it now. It’s important. Love.

But they didn’t. I know they’re crazy. I know that. When I was ten years old she had her first nervous breakdown. In broad daylight I watched it happen. She is screaming and running until the police arrive and pin her arms behind her and she goes quiet. In high school I watched him fall apart, become a human puddle, all but inert except for his shallow breathing and equally shallow self. Yet I need them to help me. Help.

It’s been three weeks. Why haven’t you answered my letter? Here’s another coupon. Just send the knife. Just send the fuckin knife. Your son, the medic.

Each day, as we march and hunt for humans I learn to Increase My Word Power. Solve Brain Teasers. Join the Rosicrucians. I receive the cover art of The Last Unicorn and a handwritten note from an editor which says ‘Yes, it was Gervasio Gallardo, you are a very observant reader.’ I receive a typed answer on official stationery regarding the process of processed cheese. At long last the Lieutenant hands me a letter.

Everyone here is fine. The weather is wonderful. Your Uncle Bill says hello. We’ve thought about the knife and don’t think it’s a good idea. You might hurt yourself. Write to us soon. X X X X X Mom and Dad.

Now it's my turn to go crazy. Later I will take a hand forged machete off an NVA, strap it to my pack, use it each night. And later still I will sleep with a loaded .25 automatic; my college roommates will say I’m disturbed. And later, in Brooklyn, NY I will visit Chinatown, purchase a block blade Chinese meat cleaver; for six years keep it beneath my pillow. If there is noise I will rise up and walk the perimeter of each room, ready to cut, slash, stab. And much later, I will buy a Guatemalan peasants’ machete, carry it through Mexico, spirit it through Customs, tuck it beneath my New England mattress, the exposed black handle within arms reach. But for now it’s my turn to go quietly berserk, to hate, hate, hate them.

Winter: I’m home and Uncle roars as he sits at the Thanksgiving dinner table. We have finished the meal, and I have told the story. Uncle roars. He roars great gales of laughter. Salty tears tumble down his gravy face. It’s the stupidest, funniest, most absurd war story of all fuckin time. Yet Mother and Father are quite perplexed. Why is he laughing? Uncle wipes his mouth, his face, his weary brow and tells them what I must tell myself in order to survive this tale, which I do not often tell.


Marc Levy        Then  and  Now           
D 1/7 Cav '69-'70


Also Read Marc Levy's 1995 Travel Journal Entries with Photos  - Song Be to Breakdown  -  A Grunts Life Around Quan Loi - Quan Loi to Cambodia - Song Be Patrol - Bunker Complex Return to Quan Loi - 1995

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