The Gunny and Sugar Daddy looked at me when I approached, but neither man stood up. I hadn’t expected them to. I was becoming fully adjusted to life beyond Marine training and stateside barracks behavior. I dumped my supply of C-rations, and other stuff I’d gotten from the re-supply piles, on my poncho liner before turning to squat down and join them.
“Fourth Platoon has a problem with the new guys,” the Gunny began, his coffee steaming up out of his canteen holder held right next to the dying chunk of composition B he’d used to heat it.
I looked around. Once again Fusner, Stevens, Zippo, and Nguyen had somehow managed to blend back into the jungle, taking Pilson, the Gunny’s radio operator with them. Both Prick 25 radios left behind continued to comment and his meaningless transmissions through their small speakers.
“The FNGs can’t read or write, and that’s a problem,” I said, taking my time in pulling my own canteen holder out from under my small stack of junk at the poncho’s edge.
“Fourth Platoon’s all black,” the Gunny said, looking directly at me, a bit of anger making its way to the edge of his facial expression.
“That’s another problem,” I replied, “but the times they are a changing.”
“Funny,” Sugar Daddy noted, speaking for the first time.
“Things have worked that way for some time,” the Gunny said, looking away to cover his growing frustration.
“Yeah, I noticed how they’ve been working. What’s our body count going to be tonight? We lost seven last night and we didn’t even attack the hill.”
“Under your orders,” Sugar Daddy said, his eyes invisible behind his gold-rimmed purple sunglasses.
“Beside the point,” the Gunny cut in quickly.
“The point’s that those white honkey mother fuckers aren’t coming to my platoon at all,” Sugar Daddy spit out, his voice low and challenging.
“I don’t see how we’re going to avoid that, Daddy,” I replied, not meaning to bait the man but not really caring, either.
“It’s Sugar Daddy, not Daddy,” he replied, his voice more heated. His body started rocking slightly back and forth. “And we can avoid it if you’re not here anymore.”
I stared across the six or seven feet of space between our positions. I took everything in, from the mud on the Gunny’s boots to the nearly invisible face of Nguyen in the low jungle growth. My holster had no cover, mounted down low on my right hip. The .45 canted backward from my squatting position with the safety off. With a round in the chamber, all I had to do was cock the hammer back as I drew and the Colt would be out and ready. I slowly put my canteen holder down in the mud and eased my right hand down to my side. I smiled as nicely as I could while I did it.
“Take it back,” the Gunny said softly.
I didn’t move, my entire body beginning to relax, my right hand feeling like it was hot and tingling.
“What?” Sugar Daddy said, looking back and forth between the Gunny and me.
“The threat,” the Gunny said, almost imperceptibly, moving a little back and away. “Don’t threaten him. Take it back.”
I stared at Sugar Daddy, the embodiment of everything that was wrong about Vietnam, the Marine Corps in Vietnam and my being forced to endure both. I knew Sugar Daddy had to die. I felt it in my very core. There was no better time. None.
“Okay,” Sugar Daddy finally forced out. “We’ll sort it out some other way.”
“You heard him,” the Gunny said, still inching away, “no threat. We’ll work it out.”
The words ‘work it out’ reverberated back and forth in my mind. Where in hell was ‘work it out’ in any Marine manual of operations or organization? Work what out? The horror of the whole nightmare? A Marine Corps company that thought it was living out Golding’s “Lord of the Flies?” A murderous race war going on inside the cover of a merciless guerrilla war? A bunch of brain damaged kids who couldn’t read or write wandering about a combat zone, and we were supposed too help them! Work it out my ass…
“I think I’m going back to my unit,” Sugar Daddy said into the silence that had begun to stretch from seconds into minutes.
“Wait for a bit,” the Gunny said to me, his voice soft and convincing. “Let it go. Just this one time. Let it go, for me.”
“Let what go?” Sugar Daddy asked, looking from the Gunny to me and back.
“Shut the fuck up,” the Gunny hissed, without turning to him, his eyes locked with my own.
I could not go against the Gunny. Seeing the doubt in his eyes surprised me. Didn’t he know how I felt? I thought about Fourth Platoon’s position. I’d registered it earlier in my tour of the area. Could I overlook the killing of so many of his men simply to assure that Sugar Daddy didn’t shoot me after dark, or find some way to have his men ‘ambush’ me in the future? I decided that I could. I eased back and started breathing normally again, realizing that I hadn’t been. My hand still rested on the warmly satisfying butt of the Colt.
The Gunny turned to Sugar Daddy. “Take the new guys for now and we’ll talk about this at our next position,” he ordered.
Sugar Daddy frowned, removed his specially made and flattened bush hat, fanned himself with it, and then slowly stood up.
“I’m not afraid of him,” he said, talking to the Gunny and ignoring me. “Officers come and go out here, none of them lasting very long.” With that, he tossed the remains of his own coffee into the jungle not far from where Nguyen lurked and walked away.
“I’ll handle him,” the Gunny said, staring after the disappearing Marine who looked more like a character out of some eighteenth-century poem than a modern combat outfit.
“What’s his rank,” I asked, looking in the same direction.
“Buck sergeant,” the Gunny replied. “Can you believe we’re reduced to running platoons with buck sergeants?”
“Stay away from his area,” I said, knowing I’d made a mistake in not killing him on the spot, and wondering how long it would take to rectify that mistake.
It was coming down to who was going to kill me first, Jurgens or Daddy, or some of their Marines. It was as if the North Vietnamese Army wasn’t even playing in the same ball game.
“So, we’re moving out?” I asked, having caught the inflection in his nuanced exchange with Sugar Daddy.
“Yeah, looks that way. We’re headed into the A Shau at first light.
I waited out the day in my hooch, Fusner nearby, finally able or willing to access the real combat net frequency. I waited for the order to move on. The Gunny talked back and forth with Battalion Command, and the fiction of our taking Hill 110 would go on until we moved out in the morning. Rittenhouse transmitted the fiction of the number of enemy killed in action by the company. There were no wounded, of course, because there were no casualties at all, and a wounded enemy might have to be turned over to be taken for ‘retraining’ in the rear. I lay back under the poncho cover, the sun making it too hot to be exposed directly to its rays. I kept my helmet, with the cloying fiberglass undercover, on my head, along with my long-sleeved utility blouse. I hated the bugs more than the heat. I hated the leeches more than the bugs. And I hated being afraid all the time more than any of it.
I thought about Macho Man back at the re-supply LZ earlier. He looked so much like I wanted to be. Solid, steadfast, clean and ready for anything. We’d only exchanged looks, because of the noise of the rotor blades. He’d twice stood tall under them while I’d pitifully crouched before him. But he’d brought my boots special. Somehow, he’d read the manifest and seen the request. He’d had to go to Supply and get the right size, and then carry the pair especially aboard the chopper, separate from everything else. Why had he done that seemingly tiny chore himself? It was a thought that would have made me smile in my former life. I wanted to grow up to be just like Macho Man. He was real, living a real life, moving back and forth across a death strewn battlefield, taking it all in without having to be terminally afraid or attacked by bugs, leeches, and mud, or even other Marines. Maybe he took some incoming up there in the cool air, but I wasn’t sure. When his time was up he’d go home with tons of war stories and war souvenirs, like my uncle in WWII had done. I’d be dead. Maybe I was the only emotional connection he gave into, between our distinctly separate and different worlds.
Stevens and Fusner held the heavy five-gallon plastic bottle high in the air for my shower as I stripped and washed my entire body under it’s splashing flow. Fusner contributed an unopened brown box that said: “soap, surgical” on the outside. It was a substitute for something else but the printing about whatever it substituted for had worn off the box. It was strong stuff and I relished in its nasty cleansing aroma. I used up the whole five gallons, the last to wash my feet. Water filled my little moat when I was done. I dressed, wondering if I’d ever wear clean clothes again. Maybe I could get Rittenhouse to requisition the new jungle utilities later in the day for next resupply. Nobody around in the unit had them yet.
Unbelievably refreshed, I started my next letter home, writing the same mundane stuff to my wife as I did to my parents. There was nothing in either one about Sugar Daddy or any of that. Two letters. Both free. No need of stamps that wouldn’t have worked in the moisture-laden heat anyway. I could write all I wanted. I saved a nickel every time I mailed a letter, the thought somehow comforting. I wrote about my new boots. They weren’t really new. Macho Man had gotten them from somewhere strange in Supply, or maybe not there at all. Used boots in Vietnam. I pictured a little stand set up in the rear and staffed by some capitalistic Vietnamese urchins with a homemade crooked sign: “Quality Used Combat Boots.” Used boots were better, though. Perfectly broken in and conforming to my feet like glue, since I didn’t have any more socks. Tons of green socks in training but none to be found in Vietnam.
The Gunny returned as the day came to a close. I presumed he’d spent plenty of time discussing Fourth platoon with Buck sergeant Daddy, or whatever his real name was. I realized that Rittenhouse would know, but then, it didn’t really matter. We only needed real names for body bags and medevac.
“Where does Rittenhouse set up?” I asked Fusner, wondering why his hooch wasn’t near that of the Gunny and Pilson.
“Wherever the LZ is,” Fusner replied. “He checks everything in and out, including whatever we’re short on. Then he has to dispose of what’s left behind whenever we move.”
I was familiar with the logistics of combat units in action. That part had been in the Quantico training courses, although only at the platoon and squad level. Supply was a constant prodigious undertaking. Ammo, batteries, medical supplies, food, water, tools, explosives, flares, grenades, clothing, boots, and what they called ‘sundries.’ The sundries came in sealed packs to everyone every day. Soap, toothpaste, shaving cream, throw away razor and cigarettes, came in a sundry pack. I hadn’t gotten my first sundry pack yet because Battalion had taken longer than usual to find out I was assigned to it.
Jurgens showed up, looking uncomfortable as he approached, probably because Nguyen was unaccountably right behind him and making no secret of it.
I stopped what I was doing and stood up. The Gunny sidled across the short distance between us.
Jurgens looked back and forth at both of us and then squatted down without comment. I went down with him, the Gunny following suit. Nguyen stayed behind the man, but only a few feet away. I frowned at my Kit Carson Scout, but he gave me no expression back. The man was as inscrutable as was most of his language.
“First Platoon wants to set up an ambush along our course of travel on into the Oh Shit Valley tonight,” Jurgens said.
He used a stick he’d brought along to draw a crude mud map of the company’s presumed path of travel. I wondered if the pasted together part-time replacement for a real platoon commander had a real map. The one to twenty-five thousand quarter maps issued were inlaid with satellite photo enhancement and gave a pretty good representation of the area, albeit without many contour intervals for positive position placement.
“Why?” I asked, fully recalling every word of the conversation I’d overheard in the bush earlier.
“Why what?” Jurgens said, looking over at the Gunny for some explanation.
The Gunny remained quiet, making believe he was studying the few lines Jurgens had drawn in the mud.
“Why are you here in front of me about it?” I rephrased my simple question.
“Because…” Jurgens replied, obviously becoming flustered, “the rules of engagement say that we have to clear all ambush set ups with the CO, that’s why.”
“Gunny, you want to handle this little operation?” I said, looking the Gunny straight in the eyes. I knew the Gunny could not be a part of the little deadly game being played in front of me, but I didn’t know if he knew and was simply avoiding or ignoring it.
The Gunny didn’t answer, as if he were trying to make believe he wasn’t there. This told me he had an inkling of what was going on, and I wasn’t comfortable with that revelation at all. I fought to control my temper. Why was it that every time I faced any of my noncoms, other than the Gunny, my right hand started to tingle and my whole being began to shift its attention to the Colt on my waist. I resisted the temptation to rest my hand on the weapon for reassurance, and preparation.
“Setting ambushes is a command authority thing,” Jurgens said. “It’s in The Rules of Engagement.”
The Rules of Engagement, I thought… The six-inch book that sat on its own pedestal back at Dwyer’s Division office. Like a valuable old Bible, only the head preacher was supposed to read it, although everyone in the ‘flock’ was subject to it.
“What’s the difference between killing and murdering?” I asked him.
“What?” Jurgens replied, a strange expression on his face.
“Killing is terminating human life while you’re obeying society’s rules, where murdering is termination outside those rules,” I informed him.
“What are you talking about?” Jurgens asked, obviously baffled.
“Last night,” I shot back, staring right into him. “You lost three men last night. The guys with the foot problems. It’s all there, the difference between killing and murder. Rules of Engagement.”
“Are you accusing me of something here?” Jurgens asked.
“You can set up your ambush,” I said, ignoring the man’s question. “I’ll send the scout team here to check the position. You might want to stay in position because I’ll work the artillery night defensive fires around your unit, in case things go the wrong way. We’ve got to make sure the artillery comes down exactly where its intended to come down.”
“We don’t need any artillery at all,” Jurgens responded, “It’s just a simple roadside ambush.”
“It’s my job to make sure the men are as secure as we can make them, like you took care of your platoon last night,” I replied, my voice going lower by the word.
“You sent them back to the platoon, not me,” Jurgens forced out.
“And I lay down the registrations and fire of the artillery to take care of the company,” I responded. “Rules of engagement, as you say.”
“What do you say?” Jurgens asked, turning slightly to face the Gunny.
The Gunny looked back at him and then over at me, his expression flat, unreadable and as inscrutable as Nguyen’s.
“I think in some circumstances, a man’s got to do what he thinks is best,” he finally said after a minute had gone by.
Jurgens stood, messing up his little makeshift map in the mud with a stick.
“I hope the ambush goes well tonight,” I said, getting to my feet. “I’ll be up checking out the position. Tell your men not to shoot me by mistake. I’ll be sure to do the same thing for them with the 105 registrations.”
Jurgens turned and walked away, looking at first like he might walk right through Nguyen, who gave him no ground at all. After he eased around the Montagnard, Jurgens disappeared into the jungle. Nguyen nodded to me ever so slightly and I nodded back, not having any idea why. Nguyen then went off in the same direction as Jurgens. I stood thinking about how I had a thousand times more confidence in a foreign scout who didn’t speak English than I did in one of my own Marine platoon commanders. It wasn’t right but I didn’t know how to fix it.
“You’re playing with fire,” the Gunny said, staying squatted down and working to get out a cigarette and light it.
I hunkered back down to join him.
“You think so, Gunny?” I replied. “And here I thought we were playing with high explosives, grenades, machine guns and a bunch of damaged children.”