Relief flooded through me. It was over. I’d survived another of what my team called ‘fire fights’. There was no way to adjust to the change from combat to whatever this was. It was still dark. My ears still rang. But with my night vision returning, I could vaguely see a moon above the ever-present clouds. There was no rain or mist. Just the quiet after the raging sounds of screaming combat with tracers, bullets and explosions blasting the air everywhere. I hadn’t lain in the muck watching for movement, or looking for an enemy who might be attacking at any second. I’d lain face-down like that very first night, my eyes squeezed shut and my face buried in jungle debris and mud. But it was over. I got to my feet and unkinked my shoulders, hips and knees.
The scout unit formed around me, Fusner standing at my side and Zippo moving around absently trying to clear his ears by sticking his fingers in them and shaking his head. I looked up, wondering how to spend a night in the bush with nothing. I’d left all of my stuff back up on the ridge. I wasn’t at all ready, physically or mentally, to be struck by a fast-moving freight train of a Marine Gunnery Sergeant. I flew through the air, the Gunny’s shoulder buried in my right side as he dug his boots into the cloying muck. The weight of his body drove me down hard onto a bed of fern fronds and rough-edged branches. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t breathe even when he sat back and stared down at me, his anger all but paralyzing. Holding my sides I waited, panicked that I would never get my breath back.
“You dumb fucking new guy asshole,” the Gunny hissed at me, his face coming down to only inches above my own. “This is the same goddamned move you pulled when I saw you get off that chopper. I knew you were bad news then and you’re bad news now. You think this is over? Nine or eighteen holes and we all turn in our clubs and get showered up for the drive home?”
My chest heaved and I got in one sucking breath. It was enough to stay conscious to hear the Gunny go on.
“We’re not fighting gooks, VC, or the wooden soldiers in some toy movie. We’re engaged with the North Vietnamese Army and there’s no quit in these assholes. I wish they were Marines of mine, for fuck’s sake.”
The Gunny jerked back and up, bouncing to his feet. I noted that the whole scout team was back to being buried as deep as they could get in the mud, more to avoid the wrath of the Gunny than in fear of the enemy.
“That battery might not be able to do much for us, but they can sure as hell give us some illumination for what’s coming,” the Gunny said. “Get us some light and get the mud cleaned out of your weapon. This fucking night is a long way from over.”
“Sorry, Gunny,” I whispered hoarsely, finally getting my breath back but still trembling slightly at the likelihood that the enemy was nearby.
“They got hit hard,” the Gunny said. “When they get hit hard they counter attack, so get ready and get the goddamned place lit up.”
I rolled over and reached out for where I thought Fusner had to be close by. He was there. The handset was in my muddy fingers. I still held my .45 in the other but it was a black mass I couldn’t really see. I clicked it on safety and jammed the muddy thing into my holster.
“Fire mission, over,” I called, hoping Fusner had the frequency right and that the Army battery would recognize who was calling and not require all the registration crap again. I knew Illumination rounds were the most restricted fire missions because of where the uncontrollable canisters might fall.
I oriented myself. I didn’t want to take out my map because the little pencil of light might give away our position. I took a few seconds to think and try to approximate our position. We’d come pall mall down the slope, heading directly north about two thousand meters, maybe a bit more. We were not on the gun target line anymore so it didn’t matter where the canisters holding the little burning parachute loads might land.
I asked for an adjustment to the last round I’d called in. I moved the round two hundred meters right, which would be correct from where we were the last time I’d called in. Two hundred meters should be close to the edge of the clearing but it was anybody’s guess in the dark. The Starlight scope was useless amid the dense foliage and nobody was going to head into the open area in the dark.
The round came bursting above the jungle, completely visible in all of its amazing technicolor splendor. The explosion went off, and then the white phosphorus draped down like the tines of a giant umbrella. The night sparkled with the sound of the round going off, booming seconds after it exploded.
I called for illumination up and down the edge of the clearing, figuring it was about a thousand meters from one end of the saddle to the other. One round every minute every hundred meters. The shells started coming in and Kilo company opened up from far in the distance. I hugged the mud, pressing myself into it, the sounds of distant small arms different than it had been. I realized that Kilo was firing directly at us but the rounds were impacting the thick jungle between the company and the clearing. Most of them. The sounds were sharp cracks instead of what I had become used to. The few rounds that got through were enough. They sounded like fast moving slivers in the night. No ricochets from the movies. Just hyper-fast flying and invisible snakes going by above my head. I realized then that the illumination rounds had not been for our company. They were to illuminate the open area so Kilo could see the working, withdrawing or reforming enemy before they could get under proper cover and concealment again. I hoped fervently that Kilo was killing them all.
And then I remembered my Colt. I pulled it out and checked it as carefully as I could. The muzzle was jammed with mud. How the hell was I supposed to clear that? My little finger would barely fit into the very end of the barrel. I could not field strip the weapon in the dark. There was only one thing to do. I removed the magazine and stuck it into my pocket to keep it clean, and then ejected the round from the chamber. I took out my pen and began pushing it through the barrel from the tip. A minute later I thought the thing was probably clear enough. I put the extra round in my mouth and swirled it around. It tasted awful. I pulled it out, spit deeply and took out the magazine. I pushed the wet round into the top of the magazine, reinserted it into the butt, chambered the round and clicked the safety on.
A running shape appeared before me. I didn’t recognize what or who it was although I saw the faint light gleaming off a pair of shiny rimmed glasses. I drew the gun smoothly and aimed the Colt .45 at his center of mass, and pulled the trigger. Nothing. I tried pulling harder but the shape disappeared. I heard shots nearby but concentrated my attention on the gun. I realized that the gun was on safe. I clicked the safety off and thought glumly about the apparition that had appeared before me. If it had been the enemy, and who else could it have been, then I was more than lucky to be alive. If I’d been killed, I wondered if anyone would have taken a few seconds to figure out that I’d been killed because I was too dumb to click my own safety off.
I waited. My scout team, nearby, waited with me. The illumination rounds continued until ten had been delivered, the whirring of the canisters eerie in the night. There would be a sudden pop, and then the whirring would start and run for a few seconds until a thud indicated that the forty-pound metal container had hit the mud. I yearned for daylight or a Starlight scope I could wear like a pair of glasses. Waiting in the dark for the enemy to come was painstakingly awful — second by second, minute by minute, with only the mild wind sweeping the tops of the trees to pass the time or make any sound.
After what seemed like hours the Gunny found me. How he knew how to get around in the mess of night combat, jungle and cloying mud was beyond me. I could read a map like there was no tomorrow but I had no idea where I really was in the company.
“We’ve got to form a perimeter for the night,” the Gunny said in a low voice. “They’re done. Kilo ripped them a new asshole. They’ll be back though, and they know right where we are. We can’t stay in a line with our tits and asses hanging out all over the place.”
The Gunny was right. I couldn’t believe how slow my mind was working. The Gunny had told me on that first day, after the first night, that I’d be able to function but nobody would listen to what I said. I now understood. I was caught seconds behind the real world cascading in front of me. I had to somehow catch up. Perimeter. Dig in. Night defensive fires. Ammo check. Commo check. I knew that without the Gunny I’d have laid there all night, waiting for the comfort of a coming dawn that had every chance of never coming.
I got to my feet but stayed hunched over. I followed Stevens with Fusner just behind me, as usual. After twenty yards of bulling through heavy brush it became easier going. Stevens ran into the Gunny’s back and then I ran into Steven’s back. Fusner was quicker and stopped in time.
“Here,” the Gunny said. “Just hunker down. We took some casualties and the docs are hauling one over. He’s hit bad. Take a look at him. I’m going to check the line.” The Gunny was gone for several minutes before a group of men came out of the brush nearby. I realized I had no protection at all except the .45 still gripped so tightly in my right hand that my whole arm ached.
I forced my hand to relax a bit. My whole body seemed to sag with the arm as it relaxed. My holster, filled with dirt, would have to do. I plunged the Colt .45 into it, feeling the squish of it adjusting to whatever muck was pushed into the leather with it. If Jurgens or Sugar Daddy were coming in this night, then I was a dead man for sure, and my Colt .45 wasn’t going to change anything. I squatted down from fatigue, my body a mess of pain. My side hurt like hell where the Gunny had struck. My legs ached from the forced march and I could not get rid of the hand shake that had come back. At least it was night, I thought, and nobody can see the shaking. I massaged some nearby branches instead of my hurting thighs.
Two corpsmen laid out a poncho. The poncho contained a Marine. One of the corpsmen knelt down on his knees beside me. “No chance, sir. Won’t be a medevac until dawn and this is a zero life situation.”
I stared into the corpsman’s eyes but he said nothing further. After a few more seconds he got up to leave. “Might want these,” he said. “The kid got him but then the grenade went off. Spoils of war, if you want to record them.”
I accepted the bandana of goods, reminded of the woman’s face looking up at the chopper and the bloody mess of her stuff right afterward. I handed the goods to Fusner and approached the Marine. I knelt beside him on the poncho liner before realizing he wasn’t all there. Half his body was gone. He had no legs or anything legs might attach to. I looked up to try to catch the attention of the corpsmen but they were gone. The Marine had to be dead.
“Who are you?” a raspy voice asked.
I sucked in my breath. The words had come from the body.
“Ah, I’m ah, Junior,” I blurted out, wanting to curse myself for saying the word.
“The crazy man,” the voice said. I leaned down toward the Marine’s face to listen more closely, and not look at his lower body.
“Can you fix me up, crazy man?” he said. “Can you put me back together like Humpty Dumpty?”
I didn’t know what to say. “What’s your name?” I got out in desperation.
“Alfonso, Lance Corporal,” he said. “But they call me Alfie.”
A moaning sound came low from Alfie’s throat. I waited half a minute for him to say something more. “The pain,” he gasped out. “So bad.” Another long moan.
I didn’t think about anything. All thoughts of waiting the night through with Alfie disappeared from my mind. I eased my right hand from the butt of the Colt down to the outer pocket of my right leg. As if on its own, my hand pulled the morphine packet out and joined my other hand in getting the syrettes unfolded and revealed. I was more watching myself work than thinking anything through.
Alfie started to talk again, so I waited, kneeling and patient, my own pains forgotten as I listened to the story of the boy’s life. How his mother, father and cocker spaniel dog were waiting for him to come home a war hero. He was from a farm in California. A wave of pain overwhelmed him for a few seconds before he went on. He played the piano and was so happy the wounds had not hurt his hands. I waited for the next excruciating wave of pain to come over him, while carefully removing four syrettes from the pack, feeling each one to get it right.
When Alfie stopped moaning again I squeezed the first into the muscles under his right arm. And then I just kept going, The boy recovered again, and then continued his story about how hard it was to do farming chores and go to school at the same time. The fourth syrette was in and yet the boy talked on. I stopped listening to him, instead drawing myself closer until I was lying beside him and hugging him with my head buried in his neck.
“Thanks, Junior,” he said, his voice very faint. After a few more breaths he went still.
I backed away and sat with my butt flat in the mud, looking at what I could see of the boy’s unmoving body in the mud. I looked around but there was nobody there. For only the second time Fusner was gone too. I was alone. With the boy. I moved to wrap the remaining supply of morphine up and tuck it back into my special pocket. I wondered, if I got back to the Basic School, if I could tell them that a short course in teaching what I’d just experienced might be in order, but then I gave that thought up. I was never going back to the Basic School and I knew it.
I rose to my feet and moved to the little open area where the Gunny had led us. My team sat in a circle, smoking cigarettes. Fusner handed one up to me and I took it.
“Is he gone yet?” he asked.
I slid down next to him, inhaling the cigarette without coughing for the first time. I handed it back to him. “Yeah,” I said.
Fusner handed me the little bag of personal stuff taken from the NVA soldier he’d killed before the soldier killed him. I slowly unwrapped it, wondering what the enemy carried with them. I didn’t get far before a pair of glasses fell to the mud. I plucked them up and examined them. Pointed gold rims gleamed out.
“Oh, Christ,” I said, feeling like I’d been hit in the chest, and then the head, with a brick.
“What?” Fusner asked, with a tone of concern in his voice.
I couldn’t say anything. I couldn’t tell the truth and I couldn’t think of a lie. I’d killed Alfie when I’d failed to get the safety off of my .45. The soldier had moved by and then tossed the grenade at the kid. Then I’d killed Alfie for a second time with the morphine. I looked around at my team in the dark, ignoring the mosquitoes that were biting me in the face and on the backs of my hands. I could feel nothing, and I could never tell a living soul about killing Alfie twice.