The rain came and the smell came with it. The temperature dropped, our altitude reducing the steam heat to an oily cloying mass of moving air that felt so intensely like spider webs that I constantly brushed my hands across my face to get rid of them. It was full dark and Stevens manned the Starlight Scope, relieving Zippo from scope tripod duty because the team had fashioned our half full packs into a sort of raised mound for the Starlight.
“What in hell is that smell?” I asked no one in particular. “It’s like the mosquito stuff, but worse.”
“It’s snowing,” Stevens whispered, looking through the scope.
I moved to his side, all of our ponchos and whatever bound together to form a lumpy inadequate roof against the rain. The Gunny had returned with Pilson. They’d set up a few feet further down the small slope, close enough to overhear the rest of us.
“Rain looks like snow in the Starlight scope,” he said, not bothering to whisper. “It’s because of the way it magnifies light. There’s three intensifiers in that thing. Each one adds fake photons to the real ones until it looks like there’s more light than there really is. And that smell is something called “Agent Orange.” Don’t know what’s in it but that’s why the clearing is there — why all this is somewhat clear. Without spraying every couple of weeks, this place would be impenetrable jungle.”
“Is it dangerous?” Fusner asked.
The Gunny laughed first, and then the others. I stayed silent. It was funny. Was the stuff dangerous? We had all been sent out to die, and dying we were. What possible greater danger could some oily crap sprayed from the air be to us?
“Oh,” Fusner said after a few seconds, finally getting it.
“The only good thing is that the gooks don’t like it,” the Gunny said. “They don’t like storms either because they can’t hear. They don’t like the rain for the same reason. And they don’t like the night even if they have to fight in it all the time or be chopped to ribbons. Get some sleep if you can. I don’t think those clowns from the First and Fourth are coming in the rain, but Charlie probably will.”
“I thought you said they don’t like the night, the rain or that oily stuff,” I replied.
“They don’t,” the Gunny said. “But they’re also tough as hell and they’re not killing one another to stay alive, they’re killing us.”
Nobody laughed, although I saw the analytical humor in the Gunny’s remark. Killing to stay alive. That was funny, too, in a way. A standup comedian would be able to make something out it after the war.
I crawled back to my hooch, or what part of the big hooch we’d jammed together belonged to me. I took out my flashlight and wrote a letter to my wife. I started it out with killing to stay alive, but then ran into trouble when I could not give her a rendition of what had happened earlier. She was smart. After a bit my descriptions of the fauna and flora were going to tip her off that I wasn’t telling her anything at all. I wrote of the men around me. Real Marines who acted more like shape-shifting pirates, with a good bit of Peter Lorre and Burt Lancaster thrown in. Difficult men to predict and nearly inscrutably impossible to form any kind of relationship with. Dying together was not a group thing. It was a bunch of lonely men moving in mass who found it impossible to share anything, especially death.
The Gunny came across the little distance between us, his bare torso turning shiny in the pouring rain. He scrunched in beside me.
“Who you writing to?” he asked, sitting his butt next to me, with his knees drawn up and his big solid arms wrapped around them.
I finished the letter, folded it into an envelope and turned off my flashlight. I tucked the letter in with the morphine packet. I didn’t want to share my wife with anyone, not anyone in the company I no longer hated, but certainly didn’t love, either. I didn’t answer the Gunny’s question. I knew he didn’t care about who I wrote to and besides, he came in to sit with me so as not to be alone,
“The 81s are gone,” the Gunny indicated, after he realized I wasn’t going to answer the question he probably knew the answer to, anyway. “We got two 60mm mortars on the last resupply with some ammo. They’re okay but they won’t drop stuff down through this kind of heavy cover. The new super-quick fuses are just too sensitive.”
I knew the Gunny made sense. The 105 fuses were the same way but the huge size of the rounds made them effective, even if they went off up in the tops of the trees. Shrapnel moving at about twenty-thousand feet per second showered anything underneath. The 60 mike mike rounds only weighed a couple of pounds, however, most of that weight in the shell casing itself. They would be effective targeting the open area between the company position and across to the ridge tree line. But not at night. The rounds gave off too little indication of where they went off to be adjusted effectively in the dark, not to mention in heavy rain.
“Are they coming?” I asked, finally saying something.
“Is who coming?” he asked back
“Across that mud flat. Will they attack tonight?” I repeated, knowing that he had understood me the first time.
“That’s the question,” the Gunny answered. “It’s perfect. We’re out here near the very edge of our artillery, it’s raining like hell and dark as a cesspit. Night vision is all but useless and so is air illumination. Yeah, I think they’ll come and that will be almost as big a problem as what’s going to happen in the morning.”
The Gunny was right. I couldn’t call for illumination because the battery knew where we were, right on the gun target line. They wouldn’t fire. With the tree line so close, we couldn’t get them to fire high explosives or white phosphorus unless we were in direct contact.
“What’s the tomorrow trouble?” I asked, wondering how our rotten exposure in an unfortified position could get any worse.
“Tomorrow we have to cross that open area to get to the valley,” the Gunny replied. “The last time we were up here we took a lot of casualties in exactly the same place. There’s no way around it. We don’t usually come into contact during the daytime hours but they’ve had a lot time to get ready, and that ridge is snaked through with spider holes, tunnels and underground hideaways. Indian country.”
The Gunny eased out of my hooch area and slid across the mud back to his own. In spite of the pounding rain, enough moonlight streamed through the black clouds to see shadows moving. I ordered Fusner to let me know if the Starlight scope showed anything before laying back myself, the rain making everything wet even though it didn’t come down directly on me.
I didn’t remember sleeping but what seemed like a few minutes turned into three hours, according to my illuminated combat watch face. I must have slept but didn’t have time to think about it. We were in contact. Strafing fire, probably to make sure nobody in the company got any sleep, came out of the opposing tree line in multiple bursts. The good news: It was AK and not heavy machine gun fire. I pulled myself out from under my poncho cover to find that the rain had stopped. The smell of mud, mosquito repellent and the oily mess of the Agent Orange cleared area permeated everything. I breathed lightly, trying to avoid taking in a lot of air. A dumb idea that couldn’t possibly work, but it made me feel better. I crawled up the small incline to find Fusner and the rest of the team gathered together with the scope, but they weren’t using it. They stared out into the night directly in front of them, toward where the tree line had to be in the distance. I could see occasional muzzle flashes, followed by the whine of bullets passing overhead. We couldn’t overcome the urge to duck every time.
All of a sudden the company’s perimeter defense opened up. Five M60 7.62 caliber machine guns and about twenty or thirty M16s began to fire into the tree line. It looked like someone pouring an avalanche of white Christmas tree lights across the open area. An avalanche that seemed to rush right into the opposing line of forest. What an unbelievable show!
“The tracers,” I breathed out. The machine guns had tracer bullets loaded into their belts fairly sparsely, at one tracer and then four regular rounds, and then another tracer. The M-60 tracers came out as yellow glowing objects while the M-16’s burned white. And then everything stopped as fast as it had started leaving a strange silence. The faint ringing in my ears returned from the close distance of the guns and the volume of fire they’d put out.
“How do you like them apples, Charlie?” a voice cried out into the night.
I waited, but couldn’t detect any further fire. I dreaded calling artillery so near to the end of our circular area of probability, or in other words, the maximum effective range of the guns. Being on the slope of a mountainside, as well as directly on the gun target line, made range estimations very difficult. The word difficult likely having a lot of blood and gore attached to it if fire had to be called.
I settled back into my hooch. With no more fire from the tree line, I tried to imagine the enemy commander attempting to figure out where all the machine gun fire came from. I knew it would take him a while to figure out that the company had fired all tracers, possibly explaining the silence.
The Gunny scurried up behind me.
“What have we got through the scope?” he asked. “It’s stopped raining,” he went on, as if to indicate that the rain being past would bring on the expected attack.
Stevens swept the scope across what he could see of the clearing and then slowly brought it around to cover the broken forest area between our position and the rest of our unit.
“We’ve got company coming in,” he whispered.
“Shit,” I whispered back, not liking the direction the scope pointed. I gently moved him away from the reticle and pressed my right eye into the rubber cup. The world turned green. In the distance I could see three figures approaching, each wearing a rain shiny rubber poncho. I knew Jurgens led from his size and his strange John Wayne kind of rolling gate.
“First Platoon,” I said, back to the Gunny, “but coming in vertical and seemingly in the open.”
“Welcoming party?” Zippo asked, the first words he’d spoken in some time.
“Okay,” I replied. “Fusner, you’re with me at my hooch. You other three make yourself scarce and take your weapons off full auto. Don’t shoot everyone in the dark if things go south. Shoot the right ones. Take your time and lay back, and pay attention to Kit Carson there – this is his kind of shit.”
“They’re not coming to fight,” the Gunny said, Zippo, Nguyen and Stevens ignoring him and fading into the night on my orders. “They’re coming to talk, although I don’t have any idea about what. I’m staying right here with you.”
“Thanks,” I replied, relieved to have the Gunny at my side but having no reservations at all that Jurgens would take both of us out if he felt threatened. And he wasn’t coming alone.
They didn’t come in out of the night trying to hide anything. All three Marines moved out of the brush, making no attempt to hide their sucking footsteps or quiet the swishing and crackling undergrowth. I smelled them before I could see them and I hated the fact that I was beginning to be able to smell human beings around me so well that I could tell their identity by their particular smell. And then they emerged out of the dark and into the relative light of our small clearing at the bottom of the swell we inhabited. The two Marines stopped behind him as Jurgens moved forward and squatted down just outside my part of the combined hooch area. The Gunny and I stood to meet him, before squatting down ourselves.
“Fuck this shit,” Jurgens said, without preamble. “We’re not going out there tomorrow. We’re not leading the company and taking all the hits anymore. Send the other platoons. We’re going to sit back and lounge around like Fourth Platoon does all the time. It’s our god damned turn.”
“We can’t just stay here,” I replied.
“Who the fuck is talking to you, Junior,” Jurgens shot back.
I hadn’t thought about my Colt but my hand had. It rested on the butt of the weapon making me feel better. I knew in my center of centers that I could not continue to survive under the current circumstance of being prey for any and all would be authority figures in the company.
“So,” I said, as casually as I could, the Gunny remaining silent, “What we’ve got here is a bunch of ‘shake-n-bake’ noncoms who’ve taken over a Marine company and are going to decide to do whatever it is they want to do even if the whole outfit gets killed,” I said, looking through the gloom behind the men to see if my team was in place to back my play.
“Who gives a shit what you have to say. You’ve been here less than a week,” Jurgens answered. “The only reason we’ve not had our ass shot off tonight is the Gunny’s decision to go to all tracers. You don’t learn that shit from books.”
My eyes flicked over and back at the Gunny’s. I couldn’t see well enough to make out his eyes in detail but I got enough to guess that he looked away in another direction. He’d taken my idea, actually the German’s from the book, and he’d made it his own. I’d have worn a real smile if I could smile anymore. The Gunny had to survive, too.
I made a decision. I reached my Colt .45 hand back and held it out toward where I knew Fusner had to be behind me. The handset filled my hand in seconds. I pulled it up to my face, hit the transmit and said: “Fire mission, over,” hoping Russ was up and waiting. I shifted the handset to my left hand and let my right naturally fall back to the automatic.
“Fire mission,” came right back, the small speaker sounding like it was a home stereo boom box in the silence of the night around us.
“What’s he doing?” Jurgens said to the Gunny, half climbing to his feet.
“I don’t know,” the Gunny answered.
“Where are you directing fire?” the Gunny asked me.
I reached into my front trouser pocket, the one without the morphine pack, and pulled out my folded map. I made a show of unfolding it, and then taking out my rubber UDT flashlight with the paper over the front light. The little brilliant hole lit up part of the map.
“One round…” I began, before the Gunny cut me off.
“Stop,” he said, moving to my side and gripping my right bicep with one of his powerful hands. “Don’t. Let’s talk this through.”
I turned off the flashlight, rested it atop the map and looked over at Jurgens. My right hand automatically returned to the butt of the Colt.
“He’s calling that shit on my platoon, right now, I fucking know it,” Jurgens said, pointing down at me.
He stood fully erect. Both of the Marines with him stood with their M16s roughly pointing in my direction. I saw Nguyen’s eyes behind them in the gloom. I would probably not survive the coming confrontation I knew, but they would not either, and what did it all matter anyway.
“Tell him you’ll lead the crossing in the morning,” the Gunny said, his grip on my arm not lessening at all. “We don’t’ have anybody else. Sugar Daddy’s platoon is useless and the other two are disorganized messes. You’ve built the only effective combat platoon we have. But if your guys won’t go then nothing matters anymore. They’re better off dead here than lying in that mud out there for the NVA to come finish off.”
“Comm check,” came out over the radio, as I’d stopped transmitting in the middle of a fire mission.
I stared into Jurgens’ eyes, the whites of them and the surrounding tissue making them fully visible even in the low light. I held no animosity for the man. I wasn’t angry. I truly did not care whether he died or not or whether I died or not, except I could not shake the literal terror of having to go through the process.
“Comm check,” Russ said through the speaker, his voice as uncaring and unemotional as my own.
I waited. If I drew and shot the men, then who would lead First Platoon? And then where would we be?
“Alright,” Jurgens said, finally. “Tell him to check fire.”
“Just get back to your men and be ready at first light,” the Gunny said, his grip on my arm finally starting to loosen. “I don’t tell him anything. He’s the company fucking commander.”
“I don’t care what he thinks he is, he’s nuttier than a fucking fruitcake,” Jurgens said, suddenly turning and walking off into the bush, his two Marine guards disappearing with him. My team came in a few seconds later.
“Do you really have to check fire?” the Gunny asked, letting my arm go. “I thought you said they wouldn’t fire on us because they know our position.”
“True,” I said. “That grid number is at the top of Hill 110.”
“So you were bluffing?” the Gunny said, getting to his feet and exhaling deeply.
“About the artillery,” I said, my hand still gripping my .45. “Thanks for calling me the company commander.”
“Did I actually say that?” the Gunny said, moving back to his own hooch and slipping inside.
“Check fire,” I said into the handset.