“Crimson and clover, over and over…”
The song played from Fusner’s tactically stupid, but achingly home-calling radio. The song’s lyrics just repeated with no actual meaning, like the days and nights of my life in Vietnam. Brother John came on after the song to introduce “Eight Days a Week”, by the Beatles. I liked that song, although, until I got out in the bush, I’d never put much emphasis on listening to rock and roll. For some reason being amerced in the wet-heated jungle, waiting for some gruesome death that might come at any minute, made every song burn itself into my brain. I understood why the men played their radios all day long, and why Armed Forces Radio shut down at night. It was worth the risk to all of us to be able to listen during the day. And Headquarters knew we’d play the music all night, too, if we had the chance.
Two choppers came in before sunset. Whatever Pilson said when he called for the medevac must have mollified Marine Air Command (Vertical) because the birds landed without Huey Cobras to fly their usual support. Either that or word had gotten back that the Army would fly in support of Marines in trouble, when the higher ranking Marine chopper pilots would not.
The Hueys came down close to where my scout team had set up their hooches. As soon as I’d heard the first vibrations of the helicopter’s blades, my brain tuned out the Beatles and homed in on the medevac landing. My left hand clutched my two letters home. I could not forget to get them aboard, again.
The lead chopper took three Marines on IVs. They looked like anonymous slugs, folded and crumpled down in their poncho covers. There should have only been one. With no updates since the shots in the smoke screen, I didn’t know where the other two casualties had come from. The Gunny was nowhere to be seen. I moved toward the loading chopper, the door gunner swinging his M-60 from side to side like the approaching Marines might be the enemy. He wore an air helmet that looked like it had been poured around his cranium, with bulges for his ears. He also wore large sun glasses so dark I couldn’t see his eyes. If the man was trying to look intimidating, he’d succeeded.
Macho man stood beside the open door in his usual pose. Parade rest combined with port arms, so he could best show off his Thompson. For the first time I noted that he carried no canteen, bayonet or any other clip or junk on his belt like the rest of us did. All the pockets of his utilities were pressed flat and obviously empty. The Thompson had one stick magazine loaded into it. Twenty rounds, I presumed. What could you do with twenty rounds when all of them came out together in one burst? Maybe he had more ammo inside the chopper, I thought, but then doubted it. Macho man held down an extremely dangerous job and had probably been shot at a whole lot more than I had. He was doing his thing and in doing it, proving he was at least as looney as I was. I gave him my letters home. He released one hand from his beloved Thompson and took the letters. Surprisingly, he accepted them very gently, and then carefully placed them inside one of his flat chest pockets.
I backed away far enough from the still turning blades of the chopper to hear Fusner’s civilian radio behind me. “We gotta get out of this place,” squeaked out of the speaker. Probably the last song of the broadcast, I realized. Brother John’s end-of-day humor.
The second chopper unloaded supplies by dumping the boxes and bags into the mud, unlike the careful placement and stacking the Army had provided earlier in the day. Rittenhouse scurried about after making sure the Marines going out were properly noted, recorded and whatever else he did to make sure the identities of dead and wounded were established and maintained. The chopper dumped five of the plastic water bottles. I made a note to try to get one for my second shower if at all possible. I knew I’d never get rid of the white oil patina that covered my skin without soap and water. The water couldn’t be carried in jugs because of the distance we’d be covering the next day, which would be long and hard. It made sense to lighten the load.
The first chopper, the one with Macho Man and the wounded, took off. I moved over to the supply pile and gathered in some boxes of Ham and Lima’s. For some reason Rittenhouse seemed intent on trying to inventory with his little note book. What was that all about, I wondered. He didn’t try to stop me but I could tell he was displeased about what I was doing. I shrugged. There was, no doubt, a set of rules I knew nothing about because nobody else was going through the supply pile. Rittenhouse walked over to me and I got ready to take some heat for my behavior.
“Here,” he said, pushing a cardboard box at me. It was a little larger than a C-ration box. Even before I took it I knew it was a care package sent from the states. My hopes soared, although I knew I had not been there long enough to get a box from my wife. I read the name on the box, but it wasn’t mine. I looked up into Rittenhouse’s eyes in question.
“From the tough guy with the Thompson,” Rittenhouse said, raising his voice to be heard over the rising whine of the departing Huey’s rotor. “He said to give it to Junior, the guy with the shoe button eyes.”
I took the box and backed up. I got the rest of my stuff together and moved to my hooch. I wasn’t able to get inside my tent-raised poncho cover before being surrounded by my scout team and the Gunny.
“Care package from home?” the Gunny asked, his tone light and casual.
“Says Waldo Vanilli on the box,” I said, reading the name written in cursive on a white label across the top.
“But he gave it to Rittenhouse for you,” Fusner said, as if he’d been right there, which he hadn’t. He added; “The guy with the shoe button eyes.”
My shoulders slumped a little at the phrase. I changed the subject by tearing the weak cardboard apart with my hands. Chocolate chip cookies began to fall out. The box was loaded.
“Cookies from home,” Stevens exclaimed as everyone grabbed for the breaking and falling pieces. Not one crumb hit the mud. I ended up with part of the torn box and two cookies. I knew I’d just learned another etiquette rule of combat. Care packages from home get shared, even if they don’t come from your home and aren’t addressed to you.
Fusner sat nearby eating cookies and reading off a torn piece of flimsy cardboard that the cookies had come in. “Waldo,” he read. “You think the box belonged to him, or maybe was supposed to go to someone else?
“Nah,” Zippo said, “he looks like he’s Italian with that Vanilli name and all. ‘Sides, it’s bad luck to give out packages from home where you can’t find the guy. If he’s dead, then what?”
It surprised me to hear so much come out of Zippo. Other than Nguyen, who never spoke at all, Zippo was the most silent of the team. But they both ate chocolate chip cookies just like the rest of us.
“What are shoe button eyes?” Fusner asked.
The group became silent as I thought about answering the question. I knew what Macho Man, or Waldo, meant, but didn’t want to say it. He meant that my eyes looked like those sewed-on button eyes found on a teddy bear or in a plastic or ceramic doll’s head. Dead eyes. Eyes that gave no expression at all.
“Blue eyes,” I finally said. “My eyes have always been bright blue. I’ve heard the expression before but not in a long time.” I didn’t mention that I’d never heard the expression used on me, or to describe my eyes. I wish there had been a mirror in the sundry packs we got all the time. If I ever got to the rear area, I tucked away the thought to look at my own face in the mirror. My wife thought I had nice eyes. A lot of people thought I had nice eyes. I couldn’t have lost my nice eyes in only a week’s time! But I knew the thought of that happening wouldn’t leave me until I found a mirror.
Once again, the scout team erected our hooches touching one another. The proximity of my team made me uncomfortable at the same time it made me feel somewhat accepted. The men around me in combat seemed to more resemble predator cats in their physical behavior than human beings. They moved sinuously like Nguyen, winding, slipping and sliding their way through the jungle. They came close to one another but did not touch. Captain Morgan, with the Americal unit, was the only man in Vietnam who had touched me except for the Gunny, and the touches of the Gunny had been much more predatory than friendly.
The Gunny came out of the undergrowth and plopped himself down on my poncho liner. He went to work making the fixings for his habitual Coca Cola coffee. The sun had set below the edge of the west facing mountain ridge, with darkness fast closing in upon us. No more transistor radio music played, and my usual fear of the night began to creep into my stomach and up and down my back. I reached for my canteen holder to extract my canteen and join the Gunny, but my hands started to shake again. Instead of having coffee, I sat with my knees up and massaged both of my thighs. The deep muscle movement would eventually stop the shaking while at the same time, hiding my fear.
Soon, I knew, the Gunny would leave to set up his own hooch and my hands would be good enough to write another letter home. My daughter would be two months old soon. She’d been born as the most beautiful little creature I’d ever seen. I’d never seen a beautiful baby before had been been shocked not to find some red-faced crying thing. There would be no news from home, but I could write about my lovely daughter instead of talking about what went on around me — certainly not that I was deathly afraid of the coming night.
“Not a soul and not a shot fired,” the Gunny said into the rising steam. He dumped two green foil packets of the black powder into the water, using his right index finger to stir the near boiling mixture. Impressed, I found the Gunny tough as iron with hands as steady as those of a carefully moving robot.
“Not exactly,” I replied, quickly regretting the comment. The Gunny had tried to keep me alive and I now owed him, even if the wrong Marine got shot.
“What do you think?” the Gunny asked, ignoring my snarky remark.
I felt more than saw Fusner’s head bob up in surprise from behind him. Did the Gunny really ask me what I thought? I was as surprised as Fusner but didn’t let on. I took a moment to think, wondering if the Gunny was asking me about things in general or about the fact that we’d crossed the open area unopposed. I assumed his question pertained to our tactical situation.
“They’re out there and they’re waiting,” I said. I pulled out one of my new maps and spread it between us. With barely light enough to read, I took out my taped up “one-eyed flashlight”, as Fusner called it, and turned it on.
“Here’s our position,” I said to the Gunny, pointing with my right index finger. “And here’s the saddle nine thousand meters away. After we cross that depressed area, (I tapped my finger on it), it’s a straight climb through heavy timber to the lip of the A Shau ridge. The saddle’s where they’re setting up. I mean, if I were leading their forces that’s where I’d set up. Plenty of time to dig in, lay fire base positions, walk off registration distances and set up incoming artillery fire. By the time we hit the saddle we’ll be under their fire capability.” I stopped and looked at the Gunny. In the flickering light from the burning composition B and the slight beam of the flashlight, his eyes looked like black glittering onyx.
The Gunny took a few long seconds and a couple more swigs of his coffee before answering. “They teach you that shit back in Quantico?”
“No,” I answered with no derision in my voice. “I learned it from Nguyen. It’s the way he thinks so it’s the way they think. Nguyen wouldn’t have attacked where we were today. The gunships, air, artillery and a world of reinforcements would have arrived here in no time at all. The NVA are not stupid. But at the saddle we’ll have almost no support. They want to hurt us. The war is about hurting us, not just stopping us…when we’re not busy hurting ourselves.”
I waited again, noting thankfully that my hands stopped shaking, at least for the time being.
“What about your artillery just leveling the place, like you did with it right here and over at Hill 110?” the Gunny asked, peering down at my map.
“Firebase Cunningham can’t use plunging fire,” I pointed out, running my finger from one small peak to the saddle ten clicks or so away. “Their rounds won’t cross the peak between us firing as cannons, and they don’t have the range to point the barrels up like howitzers and fire at high angle.”
“Great, just great,” the Gunny said, shaking his head and then sipping more of his strong coffee. “So what do we do, General Patton?”
“We don’t go,” I answered without any delay.
“Don’t go? Then how in hell do we get to the A Shau? This isn’t Hill 110. We can’t just report we’re there, because everyone in the world knows damn well where we are and where we have to go.”
“We go up,” I said, after the Gunny wound down. “No matter how thick the trees and brush, we go up to the top and then follow that wooded ridge all the way to the valley.”
“Just like that,” the Gunny said, his tone one of exasperation. “That’s a hell of a hump up that slope to start with, and then along that high ridge? That’s it? That’s your lieutenant-type shit solution?”
“No, it’s not my solution,” I replied, as calmly as I could. “It’s from the ‘Frozen Chosin’. It’s what they did. The Chinese thought the Marines would go down into the valley and follow it all the way to the sea, but Chesty Puller didn’t do that. He took the ridge and followed that down, killing about four Chinese divisions along the way. They won’t expect us to do this and we’ll have the high ground.”
“I was in Korea,” the Gunny said. “It was damned cold.”
I said nothing, wondering what he would say and do.
“Won’t work,” the Gunny finally concluded. “Can’t work. The men aren’t going to like it. Hell, fucking Jurgens is dead set on killing you, and Sugar Daddy isn’t far behind. Like they’re going to do what they say and if it wasn’t for the snakes, they’d probably be on their way right now.”
“Snakes?” I whispered, wondering if I’d heard right. But I had to go on with selling the plan instead of asking. “Artillery at Cunningham can fire all day long along our right flank, the machine guns cover our left and you can say it’s all your idea, like before.”
“Like before,” the Gunny breathed. “Chesty Puller? You sure that was his plan and that’s what did it?”
The name had an almost magical aura around it. Somebody on the plane coming into Da Nang had said that Puller’s son was serving as a lieutenant with a Marine unit out of An Hoa, too. I fervently hoped he was doing better than I was. I waited, the idea of snakes haunting my thoughts. The Gunny hadn’t sounded like he was kidding.
“If Puller used that then maybe we can, too,” the Gunny finally said. “I’m going to call a powwow tonight and discuss it. Puller’s got five Navy Crosses, you know.”
I didn’t care if Puller had eight medals of honor, and I wasn’t at all sure how the fateful and famous retreat at the Chosin Reservoir had really been accomplished. I just knew that I needed something because if the company just hiked up the trail, it would arrive at the A Shau a shattered, mostly dead wreck. And I would be, no doubt, one of the shattered or dead along the way.
“Snakes?” I asked softly, while the Gunny tossed the remains of his coffee into the mud and got up to go assemble his own hooch. I turned to look at my own team in the almost dark background and saw Pilson chewing away. The cookies were gone, regretfully, but I’d put my two broken small ones in my breast pocket. I couldn’t wait to consume them, even though I’d probably get maybe four bites combined.
“Fucking Bamboo Vipers,” the Gunny said, replacing his canteen holder and inserting the canteen into the opening. “These NVA assholes probably brought them in by the bushel. They wrap them around the bamboo about head high. You can’t see ‘em. They’re the same color as the bamboo shoots. When you walk close they strike. The poison goes straight to your heart if you get hit in the face. And that’s it. The other casualties… they were from the vipers. They say you don’t die but you want to. Took two morphines to sedate both of them. It’s why your guys are all clustered around you. For protection. Nobody will be moving around tonight.”
The Gunny started to walk off, Pilson getting up to follow behind.
“How in hell can I protect them from poisonous snakes?” I said to the Gunny’s back.
“By getting bit instead of them,” the Gunny replied, his voice fading in the distance growing between us.
Poisonous snakes in Vietnam… I’d never thought about it. The Basic School didn’t have geographic training for snakes, and certainly nothing about the related flora or fauna of Vietnam. Were there other poisonous snakes in country? Did they crawl in with you at night like scorpions in the desert? I had no clue. I moved to my pack to write my letter home. If the Gunny put the plan into action and it worked, then the company would be at the edge of the A Shau by sundown of the following day. And that meant I could mail the letter on a resupply or medevac chopper. If I did not die from a snake bite in the night.
I took my flashlight and shone it around my little area. Maybe a deeper moat, even empty, might be better than what I had. I wondered if I should tell my wife about the snakes but quickly got that idea out of my head. I’d write about Captain Morga, and how cool the Army food had been and how they’d come in to resupply us because the Marine Air Wing wouldn’t fly through the bad weather. It was a good story. It would be a good letter. I got my stationery out and went to work.