There was no hooch for Captain Casey. The remnants of his tent lay scattered about the sand, a testament to the power of the Chicom 82mm mortar rounds that had impacted, taking Billings’ life with them. Only Billings’ bloody poncho survived, along with some items from Casey’s pack. Pilson scrubbed the dead lieutenant’s poncho near the edge of the sand, occasionally stopping to look up, as if to assure himself that no additional mortar fire was forthcoming, before going back to work. Night was coming, which would bring its own form of concealment but no cover. The jungle trees and other growth were the only covering protection available to any of them.
There was a loose perimeter the Gunny had put together after Billings’ body had been dealt with, and the effects of the mortar strike were over. I helped Fusner find a place for my hooch twenty feet deep inside the jungle bracken, backed up to a stand of old bamboo stalks. The rest of my informally reassembled scout team was nearby, set in around and under the same overhanging fronds of the stand. The Gunny made his way through the path we’d worn over to the sandy area. He squatted down, but made no move to make coffee.
“Where is he?” I asked, sitting comfortably as possible in the center of my poncho liner, preparing to write another letter home before I lost the light entirely. I was greasy again from covering myself with the repellant. The mosquitos in the valley were large, and their bites painful.
“Checking the perimeter and probably looking for you since he has no minions left,” the Gunny said, his tone one of mild disgust.
“We’re backed up to the river with the perimeter?” I asked, not giving our hastily erected defenses much thought, at first.
“That’s the captain’s plan all right,” the Gunny replied.
“I wonder how deep the river is,” I replied, absently, my mind forming the letter I was going to write about the beauty of the river and the sand. I would change the color of the river to a sort of clear blue, or maybe aquamarine. If the river was to be considered a defensive barrier, then it couldn’t be easily fordable.
“Hell, I don’t know,” the Gunny said, “I’ve never been this far downriver in the valley. Last time I came straight over from Hue. Pilson’s scrubbing out the captain’s boots. I told him to check the depth of the river, while he was at it.”
I knew Hue to be well north of our current position. I also knew a river’s breadth wasn’t always a good indicator of its depth, and what could be shallow in some areas could be relatively deep in others.
“Fucking Bong Song, or Song Bong,” the Gunny went on, his tone becoming one of derision. “They’re all the same names. Different rivers but same names, and they all suck.”
I didn’t mention that the word ‘song’ in Vietnamese meant wave, as in river wave. The real name of the river that flows through the A Shau, now our river, is the Rao Lao, often referred to as the Song Lao.
“We can’t have the river at our back unprotected if it’s shallow enough to cross,” I said, trying to figure out how to write my wife about what the words bong and song meant.
It was interesting stuff to write about, and nothing like what had happened to Billings earlier. Or what his body had looked like. Or the expression on his face and in his open staring eyes. He’d looked at me with a grim understanding acceptance. It was a dead man’s expression, but I knew it would live on with me, although probably not for long. It was like the man had known he was going to die. I knew I was going to die but I prayed there would be no acceptance of my facial features when I went. Angry as hell, maybe. I’d have liked to write that in my letter to the only confidant I could trust. She was four thousand miles away, though, and she was a confidant I couldn’t say a word to, even in a letter that probably wouldn’t reach her for weeks.
“Can Pilson swim?” I asked, putting an exclamation point on my river description sentence in the letter with satisfaction.
The Gunny didn’t answer me. I looked up and our eyes met.
“Shit,” I said, jamming my unfolded, and barely started letter into my left thigh pocket.
I quickly got to my feet and then trotted down the path toward the sand and the river. I heard the Gunny leap up after me. I knew without looking that Fusner wouldn’t be far behind.
Captain Casey stood at the edge of the sand, studying a section downriver where the slow-moving water ran under a huge overhanging tree, and then disappeared around a sharp bend.
“Where’s your stuff?” he asked, as I stopped right next to him, shading my eyes against the sun’s fading reflection off of the water.
“Shit,” I said again, dropping to the sand and working as fast as I could to get my boots off, wishing I had a pair of zippered paratrooper boots I’d once seen at a PX.
Pilson was in the river all right and coming downstream faster than the current seemed to be flowing. He wasn’t swimming. He was struggling to stay on the water’s surface and stay alive, and he was losing the battle. I took it all in with one glance. He was not only drowning. He was drowning without letting go of his rifle. He was also conclusively proving that the river was too deep to wade across.
I hit the Song Lao with a surface dive, my background as a surfer in Hawaii, a one-meter diver in high school and two years of lifeguard training all finally coming into play. I’d sat in lifeguard chairs thru two summers and never saved anyone. The dive was perfect, my head barely went under before I was breast-stroking gently, watching Pilson come right to me, down the very center of the moving water. I didn’t like the fact that the end of his M-16 barrel was swinging and plunging all over the place. Just before we made contact, I went under. I took him at the waist and then swung around to my right, crooking his torso with my open left arm until I could grasp him by the material of his utility blouse. Because of his kicking and carrying on with the gun I could not get control of him or move him through the water toward either bank. I thrust myself upward above the surface and took a huge breath, before sinking down. I pulled Pilson with me, both hands entangled in his uniform. I found what I was seeking. The bottom. It was sand. I pushed Pilson upward without letting go of his uniform, once, and then again. I began bouncing him toward the near shore. It took two more surfacings and innumerable bounces before I had him in water shallow enough to walk him onto the lower bank of the river.
The Gunny and the captain were there to haul him in. I crawled out of the water and sat on the bank. A life-sucking fatigue had come over me, as soon as I touched the sand. Fusner brought me my boots and helped me get to my feet. I walked in my socks back to my hooch, making sure to put my boots on and lace them up first thing after sitting down. I was soaked with river water. I went to work rubbing more repellant onto all of my exposed skin.
All I wanted to do was lay down, but I realized immediately that that wasn’t going to happen because the Gunny was back, a soaked Pilson plodding behind him. Pilson hadn’t come to thank me, however. He’d come because he had his radio strapped back on and was accompanying Captain Casey. Rittenhouse straggled behind the small party, swinging his ever-present clipboard and wearing a sharpened pencil behind his right ear.
I pulled the partially written letter from my pocket. It was so much mush. The government pen marks were indelible, but the paper itself had turned to a blue pile that looked like a soggy stack of used Kleenex. I tossed the mess off my poncho liner into the brush.
“Leave nothing for the enemy,” Casey said. “Field strip your cigarettes. You learned that like I did back at Basic School.”
“Cigarettes?” I asked, in surprise. I wanted to ask him what cigarettes he was referring to but decided to ignore the comment instead.
Fusner gently retrieved my letter of mush, and put it into his own trouser pocket, like the wet paper held dog poop or something at its center.
“What did we learn here?” Casey asked, when the rest of us were down, with him trying to pace in front of us but having a tough time because it’s hard to pace in the jungle foliage. Rittenhouse hung back deeper in the bracken until he saw Nguyen come out of the bush near to his side. He moved closer to the captain’s back, looking to see where Nguyen was but the Montagnard disappeared again, like the silent leopard he was.
Nobody said anything back in reply to the captain’s question.
“I’ll tell you what we learned, Junior, and the rest of you,” the captain began. “We learned that you don’t send Marines into deep water unless they can swim and all Marines can’t swim. We all go through drown-proofing in training but that’s not the same.”
I looked over at the Gunny but he looked away. Rittenhouse was taking notes, probably about my sending Pilson into the water without checking to see if he could swim.
“And, for anybody else in this company, Junior, saving the man would earn a decoration. But, since you sent him in and since you are something of an officer, saving him was what you had to do to balance the scales and it’s also your job to take care of my men.”
I looked at the Gunny again. This time he met my eyes and smiled. I smiled back, although mine lacked his depth of meaning. A decoration. The word made me think of something that went on top of the frosting on a cake. I knew the Gunny felt the same way. I was, however, a little tired of the Gunny pulling every stunt in the book and getting away with it at my expense.
“How are your boots, sir?” I asked, in the most innocent tone I could manage.
I watched the smile disappear from the Gunny’s face in an instant.
“Funny you should ask,” Casey said, continuing his ragged pacing, trying to overlook the fact that although he was attempting to pull off a parade ground swagger the jungle wasn’t cooperating.
“Rittenhouse tells me that sometimes the men put a repellant in their boots to give them lesions so they can get to the rear. Apparently someone put a repellant in my boots. The Gunny here is looking into who might have done that.”
Captain Casey stared unblinkingly into my eyes, stopping his pacing to wait.
I knew once again that I was not the Gunny’s equal when it came to playing mental games in the running or leading of the company. Somehow, everything negative that happened twisted about and came right back at me.
“They always hit us at night, sir,” I said, hoping to veer away from the subject I’d opened up. “I’ve heard that our mission is to head upriver to secure an old landing zone and hold it so the South Vietnamese can build a firebase there.”
“What does that have to do with being hit tonight?” Casey replied, suddenly remembering where he was.
He removed his eagle-like gaze from me long enough to take a look around, although there was nothing but jungle to see.
“We always move in the day,” I answered, relieved that I was able to steer the conversation into an area I had some knowledge about. “Tomorrow’s move is about ten clicks. That’s only six or seven miles. Why don’t we move tonight? We’ll surprise the enemy if they’re planning something and as long as we stay on this bank of the river we’re protected by the river on our left flank and the cliff on our right.”
I knew we could be shot at from the other side of the river, or even from high atop the cliff, but the risks seemed smaller than just sitting where we were with an enemy that not only had the position registered for mortar fire but also likely knew that the company would be headed upriver the next day.
“We’re just getting set in here,” Casey replied.
I waited, trying to get to know the man. Casey made almost instant decisions, but then almost invariably changed his mind after thinking about the decisions he’d made. The man used decisions like they were flexible experiments only thrown out to see how they’d be received.
“I suppose you have some silly name for this new plan, Junior?” he mused, rubbing his chin with his right hand, and staring off into the bush like there was something to see.
“Night and Day,” Stevens said.
I looked at my Scout Sergeant in surprise. I’d just thought of the plan a few minutes before. ’ had shared those thoughts with no one.
“I see there was a planning meeting that I missed out on,” Casey said, amazing me with the accepting tone of his voice, like having a meeting behind his back to apply company tactics was quite okay.
“Gunny, I presume you’re in, or Junior wouldn’t be presenting this Night and Day plan to me?” Casey asked.
I watched the Gunny’s face break from its usual expressionless series of facial planes into a frowning mess.
“Well, sir, we don’t move much at night because friendlies that do usually get ambushed. The gooks are out there everywhere.”
I stared into the Gunny’s eyes like Casey had stared into mine about the repellant. The Gunny looked away first.
“But I have to admit that Junior’s strange plans have worked okay so far,” the Gunny squeezed out in a voice that seemed to be more in agony than agreement. “But I don’t like the name. It’s too tacky and it’s the name of a song I don’t like.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. The name of the plan? We were hours from getting hit in the night with mortars, and maybe more, and the seasoned Gunny I knew was quibbling over a dumb name Stevens had come up with?
“We’ll call it Night Moon then,” Casey said, with another of his experimental decisions.
“Fine,” I said, more in exasperation than anything else.
I was going to have to talk to Casey about calling me Junior. He quoted the dictums learned at the Basic School but then didn’t follow them himself. The nickname was not a good thing. At the same time, it diminished me it made me into a sort of Junior of Vietnam. Lawrence had not fared so well with his fame. I knew my life might be a whole lot shorter but I didn’t want my slimmest chance for survival to end up with going home as Junior anything for the rest of my ill-gotten fame-abbreviated life.
“We’ll kick off from the line of departure one hour from sundown,” Captain Casey said, holding up his left wrist. “We should synchronize our watches.”
“Fine,” I said again, in defeat. None of us knew what time sundown was going to be but that didn’t seem to matter. Maybe I’d find out if Casey’s watch kept as good a time as Gus Grissom’s Omega. We synchronized our watches.
I retreated back under my poncho before taking it down. I wanted to get the letter ready for home. I was going to write about the river and the valley but I also wanted to write about Casey because I might read the letter one day, if my wife saved it, and be able to laugh myself into old age when I could laugh again.
I worked on the letter for half an hour. It was getting too dark to see when the Gunny appeared outside the open vent.
He squatted down in his familiar pose.
“Are we square?” he asked, and then waited.
“Of course,” I replied, telling the straight truth. Crooked, conniving and feral as he was, I knew the Gunny was why I was still alive and why I might have had any shred of hope in living to go home.
“Casey,” I said, and then smiled my best fake smile.
“Casey,” he repeated, waiting.
“The Night Moon Plan,” I said. “There’s no moon tonight.”
The Gunny started to laugh and, although I didn’t join him in that, his laughing made me feel good.