I lay prone on the jungle mat of fallen leaves, fronds and smaller branches. I couldn’t tell how deep the mass under me was, although back at the hole we’d blown earlier, the jungle floor mat seemed like it was almost a foot thick. It was better than the mud. We had to be ready to retreat back over the lip of the cliff at the right time so I’d placed my full pack between my head and the likely direction of the enemy, not that the pack would stop anything more powerful than a Daisy air rifle BB. I realized it might also give away my position, even though it was green. It was the wrong green. There was no right green in the jungle of Vietnam. Everything that was supposed to be there blended in. The Bamboo Vipers were yellow but they blended invisibly. The only thing that didn’t blend in was Marines. I wondered if our faulty ability to blend in was responsible for the high casualties we took. There was no way to tell how we really stacked up against the NVA. We made up their casualties to please a demanding command structure. Our own casualties were evident every day by counting the wounded going out on medevac and the body bags, but then the friendly fire dead weren’t listed as being from friendly fire. Were those Marine dead from such friendly fire really the result of that, or was Vietnam simply killing them in a different way?
My plan became more questionable the longer we waited. If we’d simply run down along the cliff we might have avoided detection, and be sitting at the A Shau Landing Zone by nightfall. Instead, we weren’t going anywhere for the rest of the light, and on into the dark. There had been no contact from Kilo when we’d failed to show up. The Gunny said, before he moved up and down the line to make sure everyone was attentive and waiting instead of asleep at the switch, that Kilo wouldn’t really care whether we showed up or not as long as they got our resupply and added it to their own.
“What time should we expect to get hit?” Stevens asked me. I knew he was speaking for my whole scout team. I made believe I could read the time on my watch, although I couldn’t see through the damaged crystal anymore. I would have smiled at that point, thinking about enjoying the new Rolex I could buy when I got to the rear, but all I felt was smoldering anger at the stupidity of it all.
“Eight,” I said, presuming it was about five o’clock. “About three hours from now, although they could wait until just before dawn. They like that just before dawn shit.”
I looked up and could see that the team was buying it. I didn’t have a clue about the time, or what time we’d get hit, if we got hit at all. There were so many ways for me to come out of the whole thing looking like an idiot or, at the worst, not come out at all. I knew I was feeling anxiety and deep fatigue at the same time. If I could only call Cunningham to find out if they had the fuses and the rounds I needed, I’d feel a whole lot better. But I couldn’t do that. I suspected the NVA were lying in wait only a few hundred meters away and if they had Prick 25s, they’d be able to hear our communication. If they heard us begging for ammo, we’d be dead very quickly.
“It’s Sunday,” Fusner announced. “Maybe they won’t come on Sunday.”
“It’s Sunday?” I replied in complete surprise. I had lost all consciousness of time when it came to days of the week. I knew it was the ninth of the month because I was on my ninth day and I’d come in on the first day of the month. Maybe the mythical Mertz Rolex would have the day of the week as part of its expensive movement, I thought.
“Are you Catholic?” Zippo suddenly asked me, the others looking at him expectantly when he said the words.
“Well, yes, although I’m not a great one,” I answered, wondering why he was asking that particular question. I felt he was serious about something. I couldn’t just blow him off, although I wanted to. Officers were supposed to remain aloof and remote from the members of enlisted ranks to preserve command ability. My shoulders slumped to the bracken beneath me. All I wanted to do was lie and rest. Everything ached. And, for the second or third time since my arrival in country, I didn’t really want to be a Marine Officer anymore.
Fusner waited without replying. He stared at me, and then blinked like Nguyen when he was buried in the bush.
“What is it?” I asked softly, trying to keep the exasperation out of my voice.
“We wondered if you’d say something,” Fusner stammered back. “You know, like a priest or something. We’re going to get attacked and we don’t have any ammunition, and its Sunday, so we thought…”
I looked at the three of them. Nguyen hung back, remaining just beyond the rest, in his normal place. I glanced at him but got nothing back from his flat expression and obsidian eyes.
“He’s Catholic too,” Stevens said motioning toward the Montagnard, having watched me closely while I was looking at Nguyen.
The last Catholic mass I’d been to was in Virginia to get married. My wife had insisted on the full mass because her Catholic parents attended. The priest at Quantico would not marry us because my wife was pregnant, even though we had both gone to all Catholic schools all the way up through college. I’d heard about a Catholic priest in Fredricksburg though. It was said he’d marry anybody for two hundred bucks and a bottle of Jamison whiskey. I’d gotten hold of a bottle of the whiskey but could only raise a hundred dollars in cash. After four shots of the Jamison though, Father O’Brien agreed to do the wedding.
“Just a few words,” Fusner said.
The request came out of nowhere. I thought about the fact that I didn’t know any services or the words to go along with them. I’d been an altar boy, so I knew responses to the priests in Latin. I didn’t think Latin would work.
“Okay,” I said, lifting my torso up on my elbows. The team gathered around, even Nguyen coming in to hang just outside our small circle. I looked around to make sure we were far enough away for any regular Marines so I would not appear even more idiotic than they already thought me to be.
I told them about what I knew of Paul in the Bible. How he’d gone through all kinds of misery and tribulations not believing in the Lord but finally when he’d come to his knees and see the light, his life turned around and he found safety and peace, and the calling to serve the Lord the rest of his life. I didn’t mention Paul being beheaded by Nero because that small detail hadn’t been documented in the Bible anyway. I finished the little ‘service’ by reciting one of the few poems I knew by heart. It was called “Footsteps in the Sand” and I’d always loved it. The last words came out of my mouth in a whisper: “My precious, precious child. I love you, and would never, ever, leave you during your trials and testings. When you saw only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”
I made the sign of the cross, keeping my expression blank, like Nguyen’s. My lack of a solid belief in a supreme being didn’t bother me, but I knew it would bother them if they knew it. We were all very likely to get killed. It was pretty obvious, just in doing any counting of the daily death toll. I couldn’t save myself, much less any of them, except maybe for the shortest periods of time. I’d been stringing those short periods together like the sewn patches on blankets put together in old grandmothers’ quilting bees, but the end result could not be put off forever. I knew those ‘footprints in the sand’ weren’t there because God wasn’t there. “Footsteps” was a great poem but the reality was right in front of us, and if we lived through what was in front of us, then the A Shau awaited, to claim those of us who might survive.
The Gunny crawled up next to me, with Pilson at his side. I noted that Pilson pulled the big heavy Prick 25 off his back and used it as a barrier between his head and the likely position of the enemy. The Prick 25 radio body would stop about as much as my pack, which meant almost nothing, but I liked his gesture, so similar to my own. The company’s position along the lip of the cliff was not a defensible one, without actually going over the edge, and even then the distance down precluded having secure cover to fight from, even if ammunition had been more plentiful.
“Are they out there, or not?” the Gunny asked, keeping his voice low, looking straight ahead instead of at me.
“What about air-dropping in a pallet of ammo and water?” I asked back, ignoring the question both he and I knew had no answer.
The Gunny turned his head to look over at me. “If they aren’t there, then an emergency airdrop would make all the sense in the world. If they’re out there, and we think they’re out there, then the first sign of a resupply-loaded slick will cause them to attack. In which case we’re dead.”
“I’ll get some coffee,” the Gunny said, after a few silent moments. “I’ve got water,” he finished, somehow knowing I was dry. He went to work getting some stuff out of his pack.
We hunched low together near the lip of the cliff. I noted that some of the company were already over the edge, setting stones atop one another to form a step up from the eight-foot face. The light was beginning to wane, causing the Gunny’s lit ammo to form a small glowing bulb under his canteen holder.
“Will anybone see them?” I asked him, working on getting my own water hot.
The Gunny glanced over the edge and saw the Marines silently working away. “Everything’s a tradeoff,” he replied, mixing his coffee powder into his boiling water with the end of his K-Bar. He handed me a packet.
“When it gets dark, should I call in the mission whether they hit us or not,” I asked him, bringing my water to a boil. “We could all jump down to the ledge and run like hell toward the A Shau.”
The Gunny sipped his coffee, making a slurping sound like he always did, but he didn’t answer.
“Well?” I finally inquired, impatiently.
“And here I thought you had it all planned out,” the Gunny finally said, his voice so expressionless that I couldn’t tell whether he was entirely serious or not.
I wanted to share my angst about whether the American battery would be able or willing to support us but I couldn’t because it didn’t make any difference. If I called in fire too early, I might stop the enemy from attacking if I was able to hit their exact position, which was unlikely. If I called fire in early I might also exhaust the limited rounds stored at the battery, if I was going to get that fire at all. If I waited until we were being attacked, then I’d have the NVA exposed and pinpointed up and down the line. Our return small arms fire would probably be enough to hold them off for a bit, given the company was so oversupplied with M-60 machine guns, and then I could make the artillery effective enough to allow us to head out east toward the A Shau without fear we’d be taken out along the way. I was about to sip my coffee when my hands started shaking again. I put the cup holder down. My hands went to my thighs and I massaged them deeply.
“Long day,” the Gunny noted, observing my movements.
I was almost sure the Gunny did know about the shakes, but I knew it was wise to keep my little secret as long as I could. There was nothing to be gained by showing weakness, even though the Gunny knew I was anything but strong command material.
“We wait until they hit us,” I said, sounding as confident as I could. “It’s likely they’re coming back to the tunnel complex we found further back, or something like that. Obviously, we’re in their way and also a target of opportunity that they can’t ignore, plus they’re probably really pissed that they lost so many men.”
“See, you’re learning,” the Gunny said in his best aged and wise voice. “We wait, which is always hard, and then we hit them where it hurts again. Unfortunately, the prize is the A Shau and that kind of sucks. But we’ll deal with that tomorrow.”
I stopped massaging my thighs and picked up my canteen holder by its big U-shaped handle. No shaking. It was either the massaging or the seeming confidence the Gunny exuded. I drank some coffee and then set the holder down next to the tiny dying embers of the Gunny’s Composition B fire. I pulled some paper and an envelope from my pack and went to work writing a letter home. I described the mythical tunnel complex I knew had to be underground if the NVA unit we were about to come into contact with was coming back to it. I left out the enemy attacking part. To explain how I knew what was down there, I made Fusner into a tunnel rat when he was not operating my radio. Fusner was way too big, even at his young age, to fit inside one of the poorly dug tunnels but she would not know that. If we made it to the A Shau and then got resupply and medevac to come down in the morning, then my letter would go out. I paused in my writing. I could not remember how many letters I’d written. I should be on my ninth or maybe tenth but I’d been backed up in getting them out.
I lay behind my pack and next to my letter, which was too moist because we couldn’t take out our hooch-building material without giving away our positions when the fighting got close if it got close. I could start numbering the letters going out but then I’d possibly be letting my wife know that I could not remember. “Why can’t he remember,” might be a phrase she could not explain or get over. I wrote on about the cliff and the kind of rock making up the mountains of the highlands. I also wrote about the Montagnards thinking I might be okay. I didn’t mention that it might be the enemy thinking I was okay. How could I explain that to anyone?
The light was fast disappearing by the time I finished my letter. I made a few notes for myself and then pulled out my map. I reviewed the number I would use for the registration round, which I’d call in using a Willie Peter round, just in case. I worked to formulate where our own unit would be registered so I would not be limited on how close I could call the fire. Even as ‘danger close’ fire mission could not be fired within two hundred meters of the company’s imaginary perimeter. I needed a real imaginary registration position because we might need some rounds to fall a helluva lot closer than two hundred meters. That wasn’t a problem. The problem was that I had to have our position firmly in mind for adjusting fire. From where Cunningham was located, and firing up and down the line along the ridge, I would be adjusting using left and right instead of up or down. If I screwed up about the lie of where we were then friendly losses, quite possibly with me among them, would be substantial. VT fuses were brutally murderous and completely careless when it came to who got taken out under their umbrella of death.
The night set in. The wind died down and there was no rain or mist. The moon came out just north of due east. It was near full, although it wasn’t high enough early on to see that. The clue was in the amount of light that penetrated the jungle and beamed down on the visible valley behind us.
“Starlight scope,” I whispered to Fusner, who slithered away to find Zippo.
Although the double canopy jungle we were in was fairly dense, there were patches through the bracken and tree trunks that extended out thirty meters or more in the direction I suspected the NVA regulars would be coming from. For the first time in many nights I felt no fear from either First Platoon or Fourth. The company’s differences were temporarily put to rest until the bigger threat could be dealt with.
Zippo appeared, crawling on his hands and knees. He said nothing, although I could see big white teeth exposed by his big smile. He unloaded the scope and went to work setting it up. He’d brought his own pack to rest the barrel across.
“It’s good, sir,” he said. “You want to see?”
I didn’t answer right away, instead I leaned over toward Fusner.
“Nudge Stevens,” I ordered, not raising my voice. “All of us are going to spell one another in looking through this thing.”
Stevens came out of the murky darkness seconds later, with Nguyen at his side.
“Focus that thing on the end of one of the open areas,” I told Zippo. “We’ll scan from open area to open area as long as it takes.”
“What are we looking for?” Stevens asked as Zippo worked to focus.
“Footsteps in the sand,” I replied, in a whisper.