“There’s a lesson to be learned from this and I’ve learned it oh so well,” was coming out of any number of small radio speakers when we marched across the perimeter and into the temporary encampment Captain Casey referred to as his command post. I walked in the lead with the Gunny behind me, feeling like, but not resembling, the much taller and hugely more elegant leader of the Marine Corps band. The music wasn’t marching music, and I somehow felt the part of the song playing about a mythical non-existent red rubber ball might prayerfully apply: “I’ve bought my ticket with my tears, and that’s all I’m going to spend.”
The captain had somehow offloaded some version of real shelter from the chopper, and set it up in the very middle of the open area of the sand covered river bank. As I approached, it looked like nothing more than a bullseye in the middle of a large target.
I looked back over my shoulder. The company followed in the first semblance of any kind of order I’d seen since dropping into its midst so few days before. The Marines did not march to cadence or with the parade ground precision the corps was known for all over the planet. But they walked with order, their loads shifting, machine gun belts swinging and bodies leaning forward into the task of moving heavily loads. I checked my Omega, and the little hand was on the three. There was plenty of daylight left, which meant plenty of time to get off of the exposed open area and safely set up in inside the brush and under the hanging eave provided by the near base of the cliff we’d just descended. I knew instantly upon seeing it that the flat sand bank was a killing zone.
I tried to straighten myself up, as our tattered and dried mud mess of a company snaked out onto the packed sand clearing. Captain Casey waved the side of his tent-like structure aside and stepped out, with Billings behind him. Both men were angry about something, from the expressions on their faces. Red Rubber ball finished playing from behind me on Fusner’s radio. I stopped when the Gunny, off and just back of my left side, touched my elbow.
“Company, halt,” he ordered loudly and unnecessarily, using a deep D.I. guttural growl. The silence and sudden stillness was filled with Brother John’s deep comforting voice. Brother John didn’t normally comment that much between songs, so I was vaguely surprised as I tried to meet Casey’s and Billing’s baleful stares. “It’s fixing to be an interesting afternoon in Vietnam,” Brother John said, but he got no farther.
“Turn that God damned thing off,” Casey screamed at the top of his lungs, before breathing deeply in and out to get control of himself.
Fusner fumbled and got the transistor radio shut down.
“Who in the hell do you think you are, Lawrence of Arabia?” Casey said, his voice deep, and filled with a seething anger.
I looked away from his accusing eyes downward. My eyes focused on his feet. He and Billings were wearing their new jungle-issue oil-soaked green socks, but no boots. I looked away, past Casey’s tent toward the turgidly moving brownish waters of the nearby river.
“No, sir,” I replied, formally. I had automatically assumed a position of attention in reporting to my commanding officer but was having trouble holding it because I was so tired. My thigh muscles ached from the climb down, and the rest of my body felt like a beaten piece of meat from the fearful tension that hurt all the time. Strangely, it also seemed to hold me together like some form of biological epoxy.
“He’s Junior of Vietnam,” I heard come whispering gently from someone behind me.
“Who said that?” Casey screamed again. “There will be no more radios turned on while I’m commanding officer of this company. Anyone violating that order will go on report or be demoted on the spot.”
Casey breathed deeply some more, while everyone waited. I had nothing to say and still had no idea why the captain was mad. My eyes focused on a slight movement from the cliff side of the tent. Rittenhouse poked his head out. I stared into his eyes. He immediately looked down at his clipboard and appeared to make notes about something.
“Mudville,” Captain Casey hissed out. “You think I’m deaf? You think I’m not up on the command net? You think I didn’t go to school? “Mighty Casey strikes out? You think that’s funny?”
I physically rocked back at every verbal broadside he launched at me. His emphasis was so harsh and driven with slight delays between each sentence, that I was shocked. I wondered how I’d created so much enmity in such a short period of time? I also realized that I wasn’t afraid. Not of Casey or Billings.
“We need to break down the tent and get off this open area,” I replied. “They have 82-millimeter mortars down here waiting, I’m sure.” I looked quickly all around us. “Maybe not while the suns still up, but later for sure.”
Casey leaned forward, bending slightly at the waist, before standing up straight again, his facial features smoother and not giving any more emotion away.
“It can’t be you,” he finally said, softly, ignoring what I’d said about the real danger of imminent attack. “You’ve been here less than two weeks, Rittenhouse tells me. There’s got to be a darker force at work here opposing my command. A more experienced evil force.”
I moved my head slightly until I could see the side of the Gunny’s face from the corner of my left eye. I watched his eyes get bigger but he made no move to say anything or react in any other way. He didn’t look back at me, although I was sure he’d seen my glance.
“Where’s that black sergeant?” Casey asked, suddenly. “Sugar, whatever. I want him up here now.”
“Sugar Daddy, front, and center,” screamed the Gunny over his shoulder.
This time the Gunny met my eyes, and I wasn’t surprised to see a slight smile cross his lips. Sugar Daddy came lumbering up from the back,
wearing his usual flat bush hat and horrid purple sunglasses. His two Marine flunkies flanked him.
“I asked for the sergeant, not you idiots,” Casey said, pointing at the two Marines, who promptly turned and ran back into the mass of the company.
Sugar Daddy sidled over next to the Gunny’s left side. “Sir, reporting as ordered, sir,” he said, the sing-song words rolling out with about as much sincerity as a man trying to entice a dog to come forward with a snack of raw meat in his hand.
“I’m not going to take any more nonsense from you, and the resistance I’m getting from the rest of these Marines,” Casey said, pointing his finger at Sugar Daddy’s chest. “I know what’s going on. The Gunny’s going to supervise your every move from now on until I can get a real platoon commander to take over. You make one false move and your ass belongs to me.”
Sugar Daddy was about to reply but couldn’t because the Gunny had hit him in the side so hard with his left elbow that the wind had been knocked from his lungs.
“I’ll get right on it, sir,” the Gunny said. “There’ll be no more of that Mudville kind of stuff. I’m gonna be all over him.”
I looked back and forth from the Gunny to Captain Casey and wondered just where I was. The A Shau valley had been touted to me as the most dangerous place in all of Vietnam but no one had mentioned that it might also be an alternative form of the known universe or some kind of fantasyland.
“You’re dismissed, sergeant,” the Gunny ordered loudly, using his D.I. command voice.
Sugar Daddy pulled his sunglasses off and then turned to trundle back to the company. His eyes caught mine as he went around. A look of befuddled shock was in them, with his forehead wrinkled up in question. I knew from experience that the killing anger would come later.
I turned my gaze back to Rittenhouse, looking up from his clipboard at the scene. The Gunny had willingly thrown Sugar Daddy under the bus, but I knew he hadn’t been the one to point the black sergeant out, as the evil force in the company. That had been someone else. Someone close to Casey. Rittenhouse looked away again, a move I was getting used to. I hunted for Jurgens, who had to be somewhere on the perimeter he’d set up to ‘protect’ the command post. Jurgens and his men were experienced and seasoned enough to not be stupidly exposed out on the sand surface like they’d left the captain and lieutenant.
Nguyen’s face appeared from the brush, only a few feet from where the edge of the sand encountered the jungle growth. He looked back at me and and then looked along the line of bushes we marched past. I followed his gaze. Jurgens stood out of the line of my sight, unless I turned my head to the right. I could only glance over at him. This time he wasn’t laughing or even smiling. My look must have signaled my intent. Jurgens was a bit of vermin that needed to be dealt with very soon. His glance met mine with equal malevolent intent. I’d not forgotten the conversation he’d had with his men when I was nearby, so many days ago. The die had been cast, but I hadn’t really understood that at the time. I did now.
“About your boots,” I said to the captain, trying to bring the subject back to the dangers of having long conversations on top of a mortar registration mark.
“I want the corpsmen, all of them,” Casey said, looking briefly down at his feet. “There’s some sort of foot infection going around in this company. I’m sure someone must have seen it before. Billings and I can barely walk.”
I thought about the chopper ride both men had commandeered from the LZ above down to where we were. Maybe the captain had a point in doing that. If he thought he couldn’t walk the distance, then it all made sense. I was beginning to feel sorry for the man.
“And I don’t know what in hell you’re doing with this screwed up unit lieutenant,” he said to me. “You’re not the company commander. You’re the forward observer, and that’s it. You don’t have any plans. I have plans. I make and approve plans. Do you hear me? Do you understand?”
“I’m trying to keep you alive,” I blurted out, regretting the words as soon as I uttered them.
“I’ll keep myself alive,” Casey said, calmly, having regained some kind of emotional control of himself. “Billings and I will do just fine as long as you and the Gunny do your jobs. We inherited this mess from the previous company commander, and that would be you. We didn’t create it. You did nothing to fix the Sugar Daddy mess and now I have to. And I’m God damned tired of calling that man Sugar Daddy. I want his full name.”
“I’ll get that for you immediately, sir,” Rittenhouse said softly from behind him.
I stared at the scene in front of me. The captain stood in front of a tent that might have come out of some thirties African safari movie, set up in the very center of an obvious enemy target area, in his stocking feet almost unable to walk while talking to the company about how he was the leader and they were just going to have to do what he said. My comment had been the truth but, in review, I also saw that I wasn’t going to be able to manage to save his life. I couldn’t even save my own life, except for the last few days, only because of the hand of God or blind luck.
Four loud and distinct “thups” echoed back and around the sunken area of the sandbank.
“Incoming,” shouts came in from all over.
I raced forward and grabbed the captain by his new jungle utility blouse. I dragged him, hopping and staggering, across the sand to the edge of the jungle near where Nguyen’s head had appeared. I punched both of us into the harsh sharpness of the wet leaves, bamboo and fern morass, stumbling over old downed branches not washed away in past floods. We hit the rough mat of broken painful foliage together, me on my right side and him on his back.
“About twenty seconds left,” I whispered into the eerie silence. I pressed down into the mess of vegetative matter, covering the back of my neck with my hands. I’d never received mortar fire before but I was terrified because of how close we had to still be to where the rounds were likely to impact. The only good thing about mortars was the extended flight time between hearing a launch until the round arced high, and then returned to earth. The seconds passed. I thought about the injustice of being in the field and getting hit every damned night, although this time it was before the night even came. I’d heard four distinct ‘thups.’ I waited for the four explosions that had to come.
The four came in, one after another, seemingly faster than the ‘thups’ had been when the rounds were launched from the tubes. It wasn’t like receiving artillery shells. The rounds only weighed in at about six pounds, instead of forty-five. The earth did not shake and debris was not tossed about to land like a great fiery rain of potential death, as had happened up atop the cliff. And then it was over. I let go of the captain and moved to a sitting position.
“I guess you were right,” Casey said, trying to get up and brushing himself off at the same time. “Like I said, you know your artillery.”
“That wasn’t artillery and no, you never said I knew my artillery, sir.”
The captain staggered to his feet, righted himself and departed back out onto the surface of the hard sand without further comment. I followed, with Nguyen appearing near my elbow. He looked at me quizzically and I read the message in his expression. If we went back on to the sand, then there would be more mortar fire to follow. I wondered in the back of my mind if there were marks on the surface of the sand like the ones he’d found up on the rock surface above. I increased my pace to a run.
The scene in the center of the sand would have been funny in an Oliver and Hardy film, because the tent had not been knocked down by a direct hit. Instead, the canvas had been torn into strips that blew about in the mild wind sweeping down from further up in the valley. Two corpsmen worked on a body lying on the bottom remains of the tent. Dread overcame me, as I approached, hoping against hope it wasn’t Fusner or the Gunny. Fusner had not followed my move to rush Casey out of harm’s way. He’d gone in a different direction. The call of “incoming” was always greeted with a fair bit of panic, so everyone had run everywhere to find cover.
“Pull up the canvas and get him off the target,” I said, wondering when we’d hear the sounds of mortars being launched again.
“You heard Junior,” the Gunny chimed in, leaning into what was left of the inside of the tent.
“No need,” one of the corpsmen said, “he’s gone.”
“Into the bush,” I ordered both corpsmen. I didn’t have to look. I knew who it was. Billings had dived into the tent for protection instead of running for the cover of the jungle. His body was there, but I knew it wasn’t shaped the way it was supposed to be shaped.
Casey stood behind me, looking down at his executive officer, saying nothing. The corpsmen moved off, pulling the I.V. they’d started and wrapping it up as they went. I took Casey by one arm and began walking him toward the jungle we’d come out of. The Gunny followed.
“We’re going to need more officers,” Casey said, his voice muffled and low.
“Yes, sir,” I responded, guiding him to the trunk of a large tree about twenty feet into the bracken. I helped him seat himself on the back side of the trunk for maximum cover. Pilson appeared out of the jungle to join him.
“Down,” the Gunny yelled, his order coming less than a second following another mortar launch.
I plunged to the jungle mat once more, face down, my mind unable to get the image of Billings’ torn apart body out. I closed my eyes. It was only one round. This time I knew from placing the sound of the launch that it had come from somewhere upriver. The explosion was no surprise, in either timing, amount of sound or where it struck, which was almost exactly where the others had come down only a few minutes earlier. One round, following four, meant that two things were occurring. The first was that the enemy didn’t have an observer nearby, so the mortar itself was probably a mile or less away. The second was that the mortar team didn’t have much ammo or the second volley would have been greater than the first, and it would have included some adjustment around the registration point to maximize casualties. None of that had happened.
I stood up and moved to the edge of the clearing. The remains of the tent canvas smoked, but there was no more damage that could be done to Billings that mattered. I turned to look at Fusner. The rest of the team had found him and gathered around and down, waiting for more fire. I crunched and slushed through the bracken to my pack and retrieved my binoculars, before turning around.
I stood at the edge of the sand clearing and stared up along the river. Both banks of the slowly moving water were about four or five feet high, and fairly flat. Low jungle growth covered these ‘plateaus’ of land until the areas began to ease upward toward the canyon walls. The left, or east, canyon wall was a long distance away, that section of land climbing up all the way to an escarpment. Beyond that everything else was covered with huge trees and isolated giant boulders along the way. I pulled out my map. The fire had to come from that area. Either we sent a couple of squad or platoon-sized patrols in that direction to drive the mortar team back or attack it. But there was no way to tell if that enemy mortar team was attached to a major military unit or not. We did not have the strength to back up a patrol in trouble, unless Kilo and Mike companies were headed upriver behind us.
I went back to Captain Casey and asked him about the movement of the other companies in the battalion, but it was useless.
The man had to recover. Battalion was not going to tell us where the other companies were unless we needed support because we were under attack. We’d been attacked but it was over, at least for the time being. I called Americal at Cunningham on the arty net.
After a short discussion, I knew the call was fruitless when it came to putting down artillery on any target. There was no target. Even though Cunningham had the capability to use high angle fire to reach many parts of the lower valley it did not have the ammunition assets to blindly zone fire up and down an area the size of Cleveland.
“What about air?” the Cunningham battery X-O asked.
My mind immediately went to Cowboy. If he was somewhere around in his Skyraider then he might be able to see fairly well through the lower thinner parts of the jungle.
“What’s up there right now?” I asked, hoping the X-O knew something I didn’t.
“There’s a gunship rotating out of Hue airfield looking for work I heard,” he answered. “Give me your position and I’ll fill him in so he doesn’t dust you.”
I read out our real position, repeating it twice. We’d lost Billings, our second officer in twenty-four hours, and I hadn’t checked or heard yet if anybody else had been hit by the mortar fire.
“Okay,” the X-O said. “I reached him. You can come up on the air net and he should be around in about half an hour. He said he’ll cruise down the valley toward your position, do a flyover, and then look for targets of opportunity upriver from you. He goes by the call sign Beowulf.”
I went to Fusner and had him bring the air radio up, although there was no traffic on it.
The Gunny was down by the side of a bamboo stand, having cleared a small area with his E-Tool and brewing a canteen holder of coffee.
I joined him, although passed on the inhaling from his already lit cigarette.
“What was in those boots?” I asked him, “because it sure as hell wasn’t oil.”
“Mosquito repellant,” he replied, in a tone like everyone put repellant in their boots. “Makes the sensitive wet skin form boils after a few days. Used by some of the guys in trying to get shipped to the rear.”
I heard a propeller airplane in the distance before my water was hot. I tossed the water, and put my canteen outfit back together. “Gunship coming in,” I said. “We take any other casualties?”
“Only the useless lieutenant,” the Gunny replied, blowing smoke into the bamboo stand to watch it rise among the stalks.
His tone was hard and calloused, which I expected, but also didn’t in some way. Billings had been useless but he’d also not been given a chance, like Keating. I couldn’t figure out why the Gunny had given me a chance, and I wasn’t going to ask.
The light was beginning to go when the plane came flying over. It was a big supply plane, the kind that flew in and out of airports all the way from the states. What help it was going to be I could not figure out.
All of a sudden some of the Marines were running into the flat sand area that had been mortared. They were waving and yelling up at the plane as it flew over. The plane waggled its wings twice, then banked steeply, and flew back over a bit lower, before heading upriver.
I called up Beowulf on the air radio, feeling strange. What kind of radio name was Beowulf? The man who replied indicated that they had some activity about a mile upriver and in toward the far escarpment.
I didn’t know what to reply except “Roger.” The man in the plane was another southerner with a heavy accent. He’d referred to the company as “you boys down there,” in the most drawling of accents.
I watched the big plane bank and begin to slowly turn toward the embankment. The side of the plane suddenly lit up, and a huge tongue of fire spit out from the side. The tongue lashed down, and then seemed to gently sweep back and forth over the jungle below. The roar that followed was like nothing I’d ever heard before. Like a trumpet section of an orchestra combined with that of an approaching train. It was wonderful and horrible at the same time. The tongue of fire continued to sweep around and down for half a minute before the plane abruptly pulled up and banked back toward the way it’d come.
“A little quiet in your valley down there, boys,” the aircraft voice said.
“What in hell was that?” I whispered to Fusner.
“That’s why the guys were all yelling and cheering,” Fusner replied. “Everyone loves Puff, but at the same time they want to make sure it never shoots at them.”
“Puff?” I asked, having heard the name vaguely.
“Puff the Magic Dragon, like in the song,” Fusner said, laughing. “Only the second time I’ve seen it. You never forget. I wonder what it’s like down there where all those rotary machine gun rounds went. Thousands and thousands of them. You can only see the tracer rounds, as the dragon spits fire, and tracers are only one in five rounds, of those fired.”
I walked back over to the bamboo stand the Gunny was still crouched under.
He’d pulled out another cigarette and was lighting it. I stopped to finish a thought. I finally got it about Beowulf being Puff’s call sign. It was the dragon thing.
“Quite something, that Puff, eh?” he smiled.
I wondered if I would ever be able to disassociate the gunship with the song, if I lived long enough to hear the song back in the real world.
“Find somebody to clean out the captain’s boots, and he’ll need some new socks too,” I said, looking twenty feet away, where the company commander still sat with his back against the tree trunk as Pilson, Jurgens and Rittenhouse gathered at his side.
“He’s an FNG shithead,” I said, taking a single puff from his offered cigarette, “but he’s our FNG shithead.”