I finished my letter home, the light of dawn sufficient to allow me to see the paper almost as well as the lousy black ink from my cheap government ballpoint. I had already decided earlier, if I lived, that I would be buying a watch that didn’t have a plastic crystal, in case I ran into Agent Orange back in the world. I added a quality pen to my imaginary collection. The moisture always present, even up in the highlands, made every other letter of my writing almost indistinguishable. I called Fusner over, as he returned from dividing up the ‘spoils of war’ he’d likely be sharing with the others.
“Rittenhouse won’t send the papers,” he complained, before handing me the artillery net handset.
“Why not?” I asked, in surprise, before accepting the mic.
“Because everyone says that the guy on the chopper with the Thompson shot those women.”
“What?” was all I could say, my face no doubt a study in consternation.
“They said you could never have made those shots with a .45 automatic,” Fusner said. “The range was too great and each woman took a hit in almost exactly the same spot. The Thompson would have made that pretty easy, since it fires so many rounds, and it’s got a lot more range.”
“Ah, you were right there Fusner, and you saw it all,” I said, raising my voice a little.
“Yeah, I know, but there was a lot of noise and the guy from the chopper might have been firing from the back side of the Huey. He’d just lost one of his crew and all.”
The Gunny came walking out of the brush nearby. I presumed he’d arrived to announce our coming move.
“Who told you Macho Man shot them?” I asked Fusner, still in shocked wonder.
“I did,” the Gunny said, hunkering down to make another of the instant coffee preparations he was obviously addicted to.
I just looked at him in disbelief, unable to say anything.
“They were women,” he said, getting his canteen out. “The men hate the female NVA worst of all because if one of us gets captured the women do the torturing, and they seem to enjoy it a whole lot. But they’re women, so you’d eventually look bad for shooting them, in the unit’s way of looking at things. Don’t forget to reload your .45, since you seem to know how to handle the thing.”
My hand slid down to the comforting butt of the Colt. The Gunny was right. I’d forgotten to reload, and that failure shook me more than the strangeness of once again giving whatever credit I got for anything to someone else. I pulled open one of the dual magazine carrier covers I had snapped to my belt, took out a spare magazine and exchanged it carefully with the half expended one. I’d left the single round in the chamber so I was loaded with that, and five more in the fresh magazine. I clicked the safety on and re-inserted the gun back into my holster.
The Gunny watched my every move, while sipping away from his canteen holder.
“Had to be sixty, maybe seventy yards,” he said, as if he was talking to himself instead of me. “Didn’t think a .45 would shoot that far, not accurately at least,” he went on. “You got one of those expert badges in training, I’ll bet.”
“Yeah,” I replied, taking my own canteen out. “I had enough points to make master though, when I was going to Camp Perry, but I was too young to be awarded any. Slow fire was my favorite. Ten minutes to fire ten rounds. With a good Colt I could put every round in the black, and quite a few in the X ring, at fifty yards.”
“I guess calling artillery and map reading aren’t your only skills,” the Gunny said, after a moment, while he extinguished the little fire he’d built. The Gunny got up and headed for his hooch, not far away.
“Let’s get ready to move out,” he said, with Pilson running to catch up to him, after slinging his radio onto his back.
I leaned back onto my dry poncho cover, the microphone Fusner had passed to me still in my hand. I looked down at it, thinking. The only three guns I’d fired in my life were my Dad’s .45, his accurized .22 Ruger and the M14 rifle I’d qualified with in training. The crummy worn .45 I’d been loaned at the Basic School I’d left in my locker until the shooting qualifications were over. I’d taken my Dad’s worked over professional piece and shot the course to not only get my Expert Badge in pistol but clean the course with all bullseyes. My instructor there had been very surprised. I was sure he would have been equally surprised at my success in shooting the two women. I tried to feel something. I felt nothing. Shooting the women had been just like shooting the course. Breathe and squeeze. The horrid bunched together bloody blouse of the women’s belongings hadn’t been so easy, but I was dead set on forgetting that, just like the girl’s faces.
I could use Russ and the battery fire, at maximum charge and elevation, to safely clear the way, or terrify the way, for the company to force march up the side of the mountain. It was a nothing mountain with no name, or even elevation listing on my map, so it wasn’t likely to be defended. And for the first time in days we would not be on the gun target line.
I had Russ give me a couple of zone fires along the way on up to the summit, but I didn’t complete the fire mission. I motioned for Stevens to approach, and then instructed him to go to the Gunny and the platoon commanders to let them know arty was going to be coming in.
I waited for Stevens to return from his mission, packing my stuff together and dumping what I could from what little pack material I had. The mountain was steep and the company was going to go up the slope hard and fast. There was no other way, and I and every Marine there was supposedly in shape and trained for just that kind of a challenge.
Fusner’s little transistor radio suddenly blossomed alive. Brother John and his soothing voice from Nha Trang came out of the tinny little speaker like poured molasses. The first song of the day was by a group fittingly called Truth. And then the song began. “In the year twenty-five twenty-five, if man is still alive, if woman can survive…”
The song’s lyrics had some strange bite to it and it was a bite from an unlikely glum future. I didn’t care. Any future was fine by me.
When Stevens and Nguyen didn’t return, and after waiting for what I thought was long enough, I executed the fire command with the battery, figuring anyone who hadn’t got the word would figure it out when the shells screamed in so close to the ground. Less than two minutes later the usual “Shot, over,” radio message came in, and in seconds the “Splash, over.”
There was no screaming of shells overhead because the company was no longer under the gun target line. A crumping series of explosions indicated that the shells had landed. It took me a few seconds to figure out that Russ had decided to hit the peak before rolling another zone or two down the slope in our direction.
The Gunny and Stevens came back, Nguyen hanging back in the jungle growth, visible but not really. He reminded me sometimes of one of the jungle apes stalking Tarzan in the movies.
“Let’s head out,” the Gunny said, tossing some of what he was leaving behind into a small hole he’d dug with his E-tool folding shovel.
I shook my head, when he looked over in my direction. “Let’s wait a few minutes.”
The Gunny finished his work, threw his pack up and strapped himself in, before walking over to where I and my scout team stood waiting. His look was one of impatience and question.
“They’re walking the shells down the slope toward us in a few minutes,” I said.
Just as I mouthed the last word the first of the descending shells went off, and then the others, with the sound of explosions growing stronger as they came down the slope toward where we were. We all ducked down, including me, although I thought it unlikely that Russ would fire outside the safe distance I’d given him from the company’s position. When it seemed like the last of the patterns was done I called in to Russ to make sure.
“See you on the flip side,” Russ replied to my inquiry. No matter how good Americal was, I knew I was going to miss the rather sad care and concern Russ and the battery back in An Hoa had showered us with, even when the rules had to be stretched.
“What did you do with the stuff?” I asked Fusner, as I handed the microphone back to him.
“Stuff?” he replied, looking genuinely surprised.
“The girls’ stuff,” I whispered.
“Oh, we’re dividing it up and sending it home, anyway. Screw Rittenhouse. There’s some neat things in there. Wanna see?”
I shook my head; a shudder I was unable to conceal running through my whole body. Fusner looked at me funny, but said nothing further. I didn’t tell him that everything we sent out of a combat zone was searched, and anything like those girls’ effects would be tossed or confiscated, and likely sent somewhere else. I’d learned that fact aboard the airliner I’d come in on, although I wasn’t sure whether there was any truth to it. Combat zones had their own rules, I was rapidly experiencing, and there was no training manual. Marines coming out of combat zones were so happy to leave they said nothing to the guys replacing them. My mind went back to that first night, when nobody would talk to me. I knew that if I got to the rear I would be the same way. What was the point in telling anybody coming into hell that he was coming into hell? No new person from the States would believe a word about what it was really like, and anybody who’d been there for a while wouldn’t be asking any questions.
“Any more death from above coming in?” the Gunny asked, sticking his thumbs into his suspender straps and leaning forward.
I shook my head. In seconds everyone was moving, as if by a silent radio command I had no receiver for. We started in, the sun no doubt above the horizon but invisible to us because of our position behind the mountain. We slogged into the jungle growth between bamboo stands, every Marine aware of the vipers now known to inhabit them. The going was faster than I thought and it got faster still when the heavier trees overhead sheltered the jungle floor to the extent that little could grow under their sun-blocking umbrellas. I’d never humped a load as heavy as the load I carried, and the pace was starting to take its toll on me, even though I knew I was in tip top shape. I looked back and forth from Fusner on my left to Stevens and Zippo on my right. They were all chewing gum which didn’t make any sense. There was Wrigley gum in the sundry packs but I’d not seen anybody chewing it since I’d been in country.
“What are you chewing?” I finally asked Fusner.
“Betel Nuts,” he said, smiling and showing teeth that seemed stained a bit red, as if he’d been drinking some Kool Aid that was too strong. “Helps with the humping.” He pushed a little folded packet of brown paper over toward me. I took it and opened the flaps. There were no nuts, just some twisted black vines.
“Try it. The mountain people use it all the time when they have to move fast with heavy loads,” Stevens said.
I took a few strands and started chewing. I didn’t like the idea of chewing something I knew nothing about, but the brutal forced march was beginning to exhaust me, and I didn’t want to call a halt or show weakness. I refolded the package and handed it back. I chewed for a while and then swallowed what was left, but felt nothing.
“You didn’t swallow them, did you?” Stevens said, stopping for the first time since we’d started the hike an hour earlier.
Before I could answer I threw up down my front. I didn’t even know I’d thrown up until it was over, and I was a bit of a mess. Fusner moved to wipe me down with C-Ration toilet paper.
“What the hell?” I exclaimed, surprised that I felt no nausea.
“Your system overloaded and you had to get rid of that stuff,” Zippo said. “Happens to me all the time. You get used to it.”
We began the march again. I tried to clear my head but to no effect. It was like I was a bit detached from myself. Then I noticed that in my detachment I felt no pain and no exhaustion. In fact, I felt great, except for the fact that when I turned my head to look at anything or anybody it took about a half second for my eyes to catch up. I smiled over at Fusner, which I must not have done before, because his brows knitted into a deep frown.
“It’ll wear off pretty quick,” he said. “It’s just the narcotics that help.”
Narcotics? My brain spun for a second. I was on a death patrol in a combat zone surrounded by the enemy, and Marines that didn’t particularly like me, and I was high as a kite. “Shit,” was all I could think to say, striding ahead, hoping that I could wear the drug off by moving faster up the hill.
We reached the peak just before noon. There had not been one weapon fired, explosive ignited or booby trap tripped during our whole journey up the side of the hill. The company had already formed a perimeter roughly around the open ground on the very top. I looked at the torn open space. There was debris everywhere. The zone fire on the mountain top had created the open area.
I threw my pack down, opened it and pulled my poncho cover and liner out. Without saying anything to anyone I laid down on my stomach and passed out.
I came to with the sound of a huge nasty fly buzzing in my ears. I turned over and looked at my melted watch. I could make out the little hand and saw that it was nearing mid-afternoon. Apparently, we’d been on top of the mountain for two hours. I sat up and then looked up. There was no fly. Rotating around and around our position was a big piston-powered aircraft. I couldn’t believe my eyes, as I got to my feet. The plane was mostly white with blue or black lettering on the side that read NAVY. I followed the plane around one full circuit, like I was standing at an aircraft show watching a WWII plane orbit the crowd.
“Flying dump truck,” the Gunny said, who’d somehow come from somewhere I hadn’t noticed. Fusner joined him, watching the plane too. My head was fuzzy. The Betel Nut still had a hold of me but not so badly.
“A-1 Skyraider,” the Gunny said. He can stay up there all day and look at that payload. Sixteen five hundred pound bombs on those pylons, just waiting for some gooks to land on. That thing carries more ordnance than a B-17 did during the real war.”
“How does he tell us from the enemy?” I said, shading my eyes, as the big noisy plane came low out of the sun.
“Like this,” the Gunny said, with a laugh. He waved at the plane. An arm stuck out of the side of the Skyraider and waved back.
I couldn’t believe it. It really was a like an air show back in the States.
“What about placing the bombs?” I asked. If we had air power, and it was there and accurate, only a few hundred yards up in the air, then the limited capability of Firebase Cunningham’s artillery might be held in reserve instead of used up.
Pilson walked around the gunny and handed Fusner a black box, mostly concealed in a brown canvas rucksack. “AN 323,” he said. “Frequency for support is on it. Frequency for fighters is on it. Frequency for B-52s, forget it.”
Fusner took the new radio. I wondered about my training again. Nobody, not one soul, back at the Basic School had mentioned that air support could not be reached on the radios we had for just about everything else. I wondered what radio was necessary for Naval Gun Fire.
“Ask him how long he’s going to be on station overhead, because we’ve already been here too long,” I said, my head beginning to clear. Fear was rapidly replacing my earlier euphoria. We had to get along the ridge and head toward the A Shau immediately. The NVA had been fooled by our change in direction but they’d figure out what we were doing and make their own interdicting moves pretty quickly, I knew. Or I thought I knew. I shook my head again.
Fusner fiddled with the new radio. He spoke into the handset and then handed it to me. As opposed to the Prick 25 microphone, it was a small round black disk with a little white button on one side.
“His name is Cowboy,” Fusner said.
“He told you his name?” I asked, taking the dainty little thing handset.
The Gunny pointed up, as the A-1 Skyraider was passing close overhead with its fat fuselage banking into a turn. Just under the big raised cockpit side window the letters “COWBOY” were written in bold black paint.
“How fitting,” I said, before keying the mic button.
“Cowboy, do you copy, over?” I asked.
“Five by five, Flash, over” a southern male voice said back. The 323 had a better speaker, I realized, because the pilot sounded almost human.
“Who’s Flash?” I asked Fusner, before continuing.
“He’s into Flash Gordon,” Fusner whispered. “This is all Planet Mongo down here and the bad guys all work for Ming. You’re Flash.”
My shoulders slumped a slight bit. Was nothing real? Yet, I knew, it was all real. Deadly real. I didn’t bother to ask how Cowboy had become Cowboy in a science fiction series that had no cowboys. Like it mattered.
“You can see us down here?” I asked, pushing the button and holding it so I could go on. “We’re heading due east down the ridge until we get to the A Shau. Charlie’s going to be coming up on our left flank, or he’s already set up ahead of us. You can see us good enough to tell the difference from up there I presume.”
“Roger that, Flash,” Cowboy radioed back, dropping the ‘over.’ “You would be the little white apes wearing those funny green outfits sometimes referred to as Marines.”
“Roger that, Cowboy,” I replied, thinking fast, not caring what he called us as long as he stayed up above us so that the NVA would know he was there. His presence might give away our position but it didn’t matter. It was going to be a race to the A Shau ridge I’d pinpointed on the map, and the loser was going to take some serious casualties.
“We’re shoving off in a second down here,” I said, tossing the little Oreo cookie of a microphone back to Fusner. I turned to Stevens.
“Got any more of that Betel Nut shit?”