I felt a large hand grip my left bicep, as I stood gazing with Fusner down into the hypnotic A Shau Valley below. The hand gently guided me backwards. I didn’t resist, turning to see the man I already knew the hand had to belong to.
“Why do you suppose this clearing is left alone on the edge of the jungle, as cleared and clean as it was when it was created?” the Gunny asked, pulling me slowly back to where the jungle smoked, and would continue to smoke for days as the white phosphorus I’d brought down in the night would continue to eat its way deep into the muck under the vegetative covering above. I knew the answer but didn’t answer. When we were back among the bodies and piles of blackened debris the Gunny answered for me.
“Artillery registration point,” he said, squatting down to begin work on one of his coffee concoctions he’d addicted me to, as well. I took out my canteen, poured it half full and squatted down next to him, both of us working our small metal pots over the single burning chunk of explosive he’d lit. I looked back across the bare rock area. The Gunny was right. I wondered how I’d forgotten the danger of being exposed anywhere upon it, and exposing Fusner, as well.
“Your first real combat,” the Gunny said, softly. “It’s like that. Always like that. The grand symphony of God plays with all its crashing percussion, drums and whistles. And then it’s over and you walk around like you’re walking around. In a daze. Your brain so disconnected that you end up becoming the perfect target for anyone across that valley who might have binoculars and even a bit of your ability in calling artillery fire. Remember what it’s like for next time, so you won’t get killed right as you’re thinking you can’t be killed.”
My brain began to think again. The Gunny was right, and I was embarrassed. How dumb would it have been to live through the horrendous night, call all of the supporting fires with some accuracy, and then die because my deadened mind was off in some sort of mental fantasyland.
“So what do I do now?” I asked.
“You be the forward observer you’re supposed to be,” he answered.
“Okay,” I replied, after taking a swig of the coffee that was too hot to drink. I grimaced, but didn’t spit, preferring to burn my lips rather than lose the life-assuring coffee. “What about when we’re in deep shit again?”
“Then you become whatever that other thing is again,” the Gunny replied, sounding like he knew exactly what he was talking about.
“What other thing?” I said, surprised.
“I don’t know,” the Gunny replied, after almost full minute, which he passed sipping away at his own hot coffee. “Maybe the best I can describe it is of another officer I had in that Korean mess. He was a shitty commanding officer but the best leader I ever fought with.”
“How can anyone be a shitty commanding officer and a great leader at the same time?” I asked, my surprise holding.
“You tell me,” the Gunny replied, shaking his head. He said the words like he didn’t expect an answer, and I had none to give him.
“I’m supposed to be a leader when needed but not get the credit or respect,” I said, not intending to sound disappointed or angry but sounding every bit of those things to myself.
The Gunny finished his coffee, drinking his last dregs down, and then rising to stamp out the burning embers of the small fire.
“If you want respect then get yourself some merit badges,” he said before turning to walk away. “If you want to live then do what you have to do. I’m going to have some of this debris shoved around to make a decent landing zone. We don’t need to lose any choppers, and we need the FNGs to replace what we lost.
“What we lost,” I whispered to myself, still squatting by the extinguished fire, nursing my own coffee. The Gunny hadn’t said ‘who,’ he’d said ‘what.’
I wondered at what point of mental deadening the Marines became ‘what’s’ instead of ‘who’s.’ The only satisfaction I got was in thinking that if I could reflect on it then maybe I’d not gotten to that emotion deadened point yet.
Fusner was right at my right shoulder, like a pirate’s parrot, but not actually on my shoulder.
“Did you hear that corporal?” I asked. “I’m a shitty commander but a great leader, according to the Gunny.”
“Ah, I don’t think you’re a commander anymore, are you, sir?” Fusner replied.
“Out of the mouths of babes,” I whispered.
“Sir?” Fusner asked, but I didn’t bother answering.
When I was ready, a few minutes later, we made our way back to the command post area. I noted that everyone was packed up and sitting around eating C-rations. Dawn had come while the Gunny and I had been having coffee. The jungle had become a different place. Except for the stinking smoking mass the kill zone had become, the double canopy jungle looked bright and inviting, with the first rays of dawn shining upon it.
Keating’s hooch was gone and so was his gear, like he’d never been. Marines had come and carried his body to where the Gunny was having a detail form a landing zone, I guessed. Captain Casey and Billings were sitting on their packs. They both had their boots on. There was so much oil on and in them that they’d turned dark instead of the light greenish camouflage they’d been. The oil mystery was a small one, but one that nagged at me because of Keating’s death and the likelihood that his not having boots possibly contributed to that.
Casey waved me over, just as I’d taken a can of ham and mothers from my pack and settled atop my poncho to relax for a bit. I was still not over recovering from the combat of the night before. I was trying to do ‘normal’ things to help get by the hangover it had left behind. I dragged myself back to my feet and walked over, with Fusner, my ‘parrot,’ at my side, but back a few feet.
“Sir,” I said, formally, making no move to hunker down with them, however.
“You can come with us,” Casey said, “since you’re an officer too, Junior.”
I wanted give him a nasty comeback about the 'officer too' comment but held my tongue.
“Where are you going?” I asked instead, wondering both men looked like they were ready to depart immediately.
“Down into the A Shau, when the choppers come,” Billings said, with a laugh, like I was the outsider in the command post that I was.
I looked at both men and wondered if they were in some sort of shock. They didn’t seem to be making sense. We were all going down into the A Shau.
“Keating’s dead,” was all I could think to reply, wondering why the loss of one of their own was not impacting on them emotionally.
“No thanks to who or what?” Billings asked, his tone indicating that the words were not delivered as a question.
“That would be the Kamehameha Plan, I believe,” Casey said, responding to Billing’s question.
“We’re heading over to help clear the LZ,” I said, using any subject to get away from where the apparently shell shocked officer’s minds were going. I gently clutched the three letters I’d written home with my left hand, so I wouldn’t forget that there was sanity in some part of the universe, and that I was still linked to it, no matter how tenuously or distant. Captain Casey didn't respond. I didn't know what our orders were about heading down into the valley but felt it wasn't a good time to ask. I backed away slowly, and went back to collect my things.
I arrived at the jungle clearing scene, looking more like a set from some WWII island hopping movie than anything else. The Marines had already cleared a section almost a third the size of a football field. Several were cutting down bamboo stalks with knives and a couple of machetes.
The Gunny stood supervising. There was no place safe for Fusner and my scout team to drop packs and lay in wait for the helicopters, not without going deeper into the bracken, and that wasn’t going to happen.
“Flank security out?” I asked the Gunny, wondering if whatever listening post we had out currently was manned by Sugar Daddy’s men. I didn’t ask about that, however. I analyzed the potential of the LZ for artillery. There was no possibility of using counter-battery fire because we had no idea where the enemy artillery was set up. The open rock area at the edge of the cliff was only a hundred meters in the distance. The choppers would have both concealment and a bit of cover but if the enemy had any kind of decent forward observation post the adjustment of fire from the already recorded and again proven registration point would be child’s play. There was nothing to be done so I squatted down and made coffee, joined by Zippo and Stevens. Nguyen hung out near the fringes of cleared area but not so far into the bush that he might be taken for the enemy or become a victim of it. The man’s ability to travel light continued to amaze me. He carried no pack, no poncho and wore no suspenders to hold up a heavy belt with a lot of stuff attached to it. He carried an M-16 in one hand and a canvas sack in the other, and that was it.
“Flanks are out, north, south and back to the west,” the Gunny reported, tersely, as if I was going to bring up the subject of the previous night’s failure.
I heard the choppers before I felt the vibrations of their spinning blades. It took only seconds to figure that An Hoa had sent a big twin-engine Ch-46, a slick, and what seemed by sound to be a couple of Cobra support craft. In only ten days I’d somehow acquired the ability to tell all helicopters apart before I saw them, and recognize any weapon at night using only my ears. I stared over toward the edge of the jungle where Nguyen had posted himself. I watched the Montagnard but thought about myself. I was changing and I didn’t like it. My memory skills, the map reading and instant talent with the artillery were more than I’d had before arriving in country. I was becoming some other form of man, or creature, as the Gunny had said, and I’d yet to even enter the dreaded valley below.
The big chopper came skimming in, causing the burned top of the artillery shredded bracken in the clearing to blow about like black snow. The smoke blew with it and the smell was awful, somehow the newly dead strewn about able to begin the process of decomposition early. The C-46 touched and boxes and slings of supplies were disgorged from the back ramp at an incredible speed. I though the chopper would be gone in seconds, as I hunched down with my team not far from Nguyen, trying to shield ourselves from the savage wind-blown debris. My helmet proved invaluable. Tipped slightly forward, I felt and heard a couple of more substantial objects bounce off it. The Phrog didn’t pull up and out to allow the slick to come in and collect the body bags, however. It just sat there with its giant blades spinning.
I looked around to see the Gunny escorting Captain Casey, Pilson and Lieutenant Billings toward the back end of the chopper. A line of Marines streamed by behind the two bent over officers, and disappeared inside the big bird. The last man I recognized as Jurgens. Our eyes met just before he turned to get up the dropped ramp. And then he smiled a nasty smile and waved. He disappeared inside with the rest, avoiding a flock of about a dozen FNGs surging down the ramp and spreading out as they were to be attacked or had to set up a perimeter.
I stared at where Jurgens had disappeared. What was Jurgens doing with a full squad of Marines taking off with the company’s officers? I couldn’t figure it out, as the pilot put full power to the huge turbines and the giant machine first shuddered into the air, and then tilted toward the lip of the valley and took off.
It was gone in seconds, to be immediately replaced with the more familiar Huey slick, or utility chopper. The helicopter landed and a bag of bags was tossed to the ground. The Gunny supervised half a dozen Marines as they dragged the black bags out of he Huey’s prop wash and began unfolding them. I didn’t want to watch so I turned back to the body of the waiting bird to see Macho Man step out. His ridiculous costume was fully intact and possibly even more squared away than in the past. My left hand shot down to the external pocket stitched onto the outside of my thigh trouser leg. I reached in and crushed my three letters into a ball before pulling them out and taking off and running full tilt to where Macho Man stood in his usual parade rest position, his Thompson still looking extremely well cleaned or never fired, or both. I pushed the letters out. Macho Man dropped his right hand from the receiver of the Thompson and accepted the letters, shoving them into his breast pocket, before returning to his rigid guard position.
“Thank you,” I said, cupping my hands.
“Welcome, Junior,” I thought I heard him yell, as I turned and retreated back from under the blades to where Nguyen stood unmoving, with my team hunched down nearby. The name ‘Junior’ was getting around, and both the use of it and the unlikely places I was hearing it made me uncomfortable. In seconds, the bodies of the company’s losses were tossed aboard the Huey before it lifted off. Macho Man hopped aboard with one fluid jump, finishing the move by rotating mid-air, like a gymnast finishing a routine. The door gunner, his black helmet and dark glasses making him look like a giant insect, swept his door-mounted M-60 back and forth across the clearing, as the chopper surged into the air, following the same flight path as the bigger 46, that preceded it. The airborne Cobras closed in behind the departing choppers, flitting about like the big dangerous predators they were. Silence again reigned down across the dying battlefield.
The Gunny came down the path to join me. We stood watching the distant tiny dots of the now distantly silent helicopters gaining altitude for their return flight to the air field at An Hoa, except for the big 46. It began a slow spiral down, until it was lost to sight, as it plunged down into the A Shau.
“A landing zone down there somewhere near the bottom of the path?” I asked.
“You guessed it,” the Gunny replied. “They’ll be down there with a perimeter set up when we finish the climb.”
“Nice example,” I said, wanting to add expletives but stopping myself. The rule in training was never to criticize leadership decisions made above your own rank in front of enlisted personnel. “Casey invited me along,” I added, not mentioned that I hadn’t understood what the offer was when he made it.
“If you'd chosen to go then you'd be a good commanding officer, Junior,” the Gunny said, turning to look me in the eyes. “Like I said.”
“I’m not a commanding officer at all,” I replied, putting some bite into my words. "And I don't like the fact that Jurgens went with them. We've got enough racial problem without Casey and Billings taking sides."
“True, but that's about a future problem. We've got a more immediate one,” the Gunny continued. “That problem is getting down the path leading across the face of this cliff without losing half the company, or more.”
“Too bad we can’t use the escape routes I laid out,” I said, not prepared for the Gunny to break out in laughter.
“You’re going on report for that one, according to the real company commander,” the Gunny said, still laughing. He then reached out his right hand toward me. “Your watch,” he said, his expression once more returning to seriousness.
I looked at him for a few seconds before unstrapping my ruined combat watch, and then handed him the tattered item, wondering why he wanted the thing. It was a useless piece of junk.
The Gunny heaved the watch into the bracken. He looked back toward me and reached down to his pocket. Pulling his hand back out he pushed it toward me opening his fingers to display an object held atop his open palm.
I stared down for a moment. The object was a watch.
I took the watch, and then marveled. A small smile came to my lips.
“Gus Grissom,” I whispered. I was holding an Omega Speedmaster watch, the favorite watch worn by my favorite astronaut. “Fuck’n A,” I breathed, quoting the great man. I stared across the small space between the Gunny and I, the watch hanging from my left hand by the end of one strap.
“Keating?” I asked.
“He’d be proud,” the Gunny replied, looking off toward where the cliff above the edge of the valley was located. “Besides, no watch that good would ever make it back to the world without getting pinched.”
I strapped the watch to my left wrist, covering the dead white band of skin that had been protected by the old strap. I stared at the face of the watch, which had one big dial and three smaller dials. I saw that it was just before seven in the morning. I’d never had or handled a real chronometer before so I didn’t really know how everything in it worked but was becoming excited about finding out. A pang of regret over the loss of Keating shot through me.
“If we go home, I’ll return it to his parents,” I said, holding my wrist up to keep looking at the beautiful watch.
“Or his wife,” the Gunny answered.
“Wife?” I asked, in surprise. “He had a wife?”
“Just guessing,” the Gunny answered. “Didn’t know you had a wife until Nguyen showed me.”
I was rocked back a bit by the Gunny’s revelation. I hadn’t expected Nguyen to show anyone anything. The enigmatic man seemed to be totally self-contained and private. I looked over toward the bushes he’d been standing near earlier but he was gone.
“Let’s take a look at the valley,” I said, changing the subject. I wasn’t ready to share my family with anyone, in the hell I’d been dropped into. It just felt wrong, even with the Gunny or any of my team. I left my pack, after pulling out my binoculars, and headed for the edge of the cliff, although this time being careful to head for the jungle covered northern edge of the exposed rock clearing. The Gunny, Fusner and Stevens followed.
Once near the edge I steadied myself against the trunk of a large tree that overhung the abyss. Using the binoculars, I followed the narrow path that worked its way back and forth, first across the bare stone face, and then down into the jungle below. Off in the distance I saw the white color of the landing zone Casey had landed in. Even through the powerful lenses the Marines left behind after the big chopper’s departure looked like small ants setting up a perimeter. I checked my map and found the LZ right where it was supposed to be, not far from the river. The whitish appearance of the small LZ patch was sand, according to my map. The words ‘destroyed landing zone,’ were also typed across that same patch.
“What’s a destroyed landing zone?” I asked the Gunny. I stepped back from the edge and pointed out the words on the map.
“Means it was once important but got overrun,” he answered. I noted that some fire bases were listed with the same words, further up the river. In fact, almost everything along the bottom of the valley heading upriver read the same.
“Which means it’s probably registered, like the clearing up here,” I added.
“Mortars, though,” I said aloud, but mostly to myself. “Artillery would have to be howitzers and they don’t have howitzers. Guns won’t do indirect fire at high angle in order to get rounds down there. Casey’s in deep shit from mortar attack unless the NVA are willing to wait until the whole company’s down there with him.”
“What about their artillery hitting us up here and while we’re climbing down?” Stevens asked. “Why couldn’t they have used the helicopter to fly us all down there, too?”
“Would have had to make about a dozen or more trips back and forth,” the Gunny said, reaching out his left hand for the binoculars.
“That’s the plan,” I said, handing the binoculars over, my eyes going back and forth from the valley below to the map resting against the bark of the overhanging tree trunk. “The No Joy in Mudville Plan,” I said.
“Mudville?” Fusner asked. “Where’s Mudville?”
“Right here,” I replied. “There’s a story back home about a small town baseball team. The big hero of the team steps up and every ball thrown at him turns out to be a strike. Every ball thrown is a big swing and a miss. And that’s what we’re going to do. Every artillery round they throw at us will be a miss because we’re going to give them targets too small and moving too fast to hit, especially since they’ll be trying to adjust up and down against the face of a rock wall.”
“One at a time down the path?” the Gunny asked, handing back the binoculars with a grin on his face.
“Maybe three at a time,” I answered, once again surprised at just how quick and bright the Gunny was. “We’ll delay and stagger departures from the brush here. The only downside is that the move will take most of the day and I don’t know what the mission is. We’re going down into the A Shau for some reason we don’t know.”
“Let’s get started,” I said. “Using that path isn’t going to be possible at night. Also, the lower we get the safer it gets. No snipers have anything that’ll cover the range to the other ridge and their cannons can only depress so far unless they’re mounted on the lip of the canyon, and that’s unlikely. If your Marines follow instructions, they’ll cross back and forth across the face unpredictably. When called in, and saying the 122’s are pretty distant across the valley, it’ll take the rounds almost twenty or thirty seconds just to travel through the air.”
The Gunny took out a cigarette, had a little trouble lighting it with the mild wind coming up over the lip of the abyss, and then coughed and laughed after exhaling the first puff of smoke.
“What’s funny?” Stevens asked, the Gunny’s laugh seeming out of place.
“That story, about the baseball team,” he laughed again, before going on. “No Joy in Mudville. The last line in that poem.”
“The last line,” the Gunny repeated, blowing out another puff of smoke before finishing, “mighty Casey has struck out.”