No light meant it wasn’t yet morning. Not even moonlight under the broken bamboo and soggy brush that cascaded down and over almost everything under it. I lay there, disturbed by the fact that I'd lost the ability to determine if I was asleep or awake. Had I slept or been awake for the whole night? Humans had to sleep. I’d read somewhere that the world’s record for going without sleep was only four or five days -- about the same time I’d been in country. I didn't feel rested or experience any of the relief I would have felt if I'd actually slept. It seemed that the night had been filled with one volley of green tracers after another plunging down on our position from the side of the untaken hill, followed by mortar rounds sent back by Lima Company’s on-loan mortar team.
For some reason the mosquitoes had let up. Had they taken in enough of the repellent to cause them to go soggy and inert? I wondered. I thought about the jungles of Vietnam -- how they were nothing like I’d been led to expect from Tarzan and other Saturday morning shows from my youth. There was no “triple canopy” stuff, rising hundreds of feet into the air, with vines and liana strung everywhere. Tarzan would have had to walk like the rest of us in the lowlands of Vietnam, where lush green shoulder high brush and bamboo groves were interspersed with only an occasional large cypress, and there was plenty of mud everywhere. Reed clumps permeated every open area and allowed for hooches to be inhabitable with the monsoons approaching. The reeds could be easily cut and then laid under ponchos or the few air mattresses that weren’t filled with holes. I had no mattress since I’d never made it to supply.
My letter home was ready to go although I wasn’t sure I should send it. My wife was back home in San Francisco, waiting. My parents were in Florida doing whatever they were doing, what with my dad being a warrant officer in the Coast Guard. My brother was an army officer tanker serving in the Big Red One down South in a place called Bien Hoa. My letter detailed what was to be done when I didn’t come home. Ever. There was the government life insurance, the six month’s pay, a small private policy with a company called Mass Mutual and the pay I was owed but hadn’t been paid out yet. My list to Mary was eleven items long. I couldn’t believe that everything I had ever had could be easily described in eleven entries, wherein about six of them were rather meaningless.What to do with my Ace Double Science Fiction collection of books seemed idiotic. Would my wife react badly or understand that she had to do certain stuff without me in order to take care of herself and the baby? Would the contents of the letter be too much for her emotionally?
Dim first light allowed me to see the ground around me but not much farther. As the mist slowly lifted, I could make out where the incoming bouts of small arms fire had died out. The enemy entrenched on the sides of Hill 110 were probably wondering why no artillery had been dumped on them, I thought with a frown. The whole idea of making believe we’d taken a hill, lying to Command and then trying to survive nearby was so unlike any Marine operation that it was simply too much to take in. I wondered if I was a better more experienced officer whether I would have been able to actually command the unit and effectively take the required objective.
I struggled up and got my stuff together to make coffee. The Gunny came over, Pilson crawling behind him. Fusner appeared at my shoulder with Zero and Stevens not far behind. Only Nguyen hung back, barely visible behind everyone, his gleaming black eyes meeting mine. It was like seeing a leopard in the bush and like a leopard he disappeared after only a few seconds.
“Your nickname’s not Zero anymore,” I said to him, and the group in general. “It’s Zippo, like the lighter. Every time someone calls you Zero you correct him, and so will everyone else. Zero is a put down and you don’t have to take that here or anywhere.” I looked around but no one met my eyes except Fusner. He smiled. My first commands to the unit were about seemingly nonsense items, but where was I to start? I wasn’t even the real six actual.
“How many?” I asked the Gunny, over the too-hot lip of my canteen holder, the liquid slightly burning my lips.
“Six and three,” he answered, making his own fixings.
Stevens, Zippo and Fusner munched on crackers from the C-rations issued the day before. I accepted a cracker. Fusner handed me a tin of Peanut Butter (fortified) from somewhere in Georgia. I wondered what ‘fortified’ meant but gouged some of the stuff onto my cracker without comment. I took a few seconds to eat the whole cracker down. The peanut butter was some of the best I’d ever had in my life, although I knew some of the flavor might be enhanced by where I was and what was happening. The stuff was called Cinderella. I also wondered about why it had any name at all once packaged inside one of the rather anonymous looking ration tins.
“Six KIA and three wounded,” I noted, trying to get my tongue straight after clearing the peanut butter from my mouth. “All by small arm injuries I would presume. And why are there always more killed than injured. That doesn’t seem right.”
“The way it is,” the Gunny replied, his tone revealing a little exasperation.
“I’d like to see the bodies before they go on the chopper,” I responded.
“Sealed up, tagged and clipped,” the Gunny came right back. “Tomorrow, if we have any, maybe.”
I stared at him until he focused his eyes on mine. I waited, neither of us taking in any of our cooling coffee. I didn’t know what I was after but I knew I could not go on as the Fucking New Guy (FNG) who does nothing, yet doesn’t get sent out to be the point. The dead and wounded were my men, my responsibility, and there wasn’t much getting around that. Why there was any discussion about it at all surprised me. Not totally, because of the friendly fire casualties I knew we were enduring, but there was something more. I felt it.
“Fine,” the Gunny said, putting his coffee down and reaching into one of his cargo pockets on the outside of his right leg. I thought he was going for a cigarette but he wasn’t. He pulled out a small rubber-banded white paper package and held it out toward me with is left hand. With his right he picked up his coffee. It was his turn to wait.
I stared at the package. I’d gotten through the night frightened but not terrified. I’d gotten rid of the shakes. I wasn’t used to the dirt, grime and smell, but I had a feeling I was never going to get used to those. While I stared at the unwavering package held out before me, I vowed to never ever start another day, if I made it back to the real world, without taking a hot shower. The thought of such a shower made my mind waver a bit. Enough to make the Gunny comment.
“Well? he said, “you wanted this.” He shoved the package out a few more inches.
I took it into my right hand. The package was about the size of a child’s fist. My peanut butter fingers, undercoated with layers of grimy bug juice and dirt, made smudges on the outside of the paper. I looked over at the Gunny, who seemed positively clean and crisp compared to the rest of us. I wondered how he did it but brought my mind back to the package without asking him anything.
“What’s inside?” I asked, my eyes going back and forth between the Gunny’s and the package.
He didn’t reply. I noticed that the tableau had become frozen. Nobody was moving, eating or even breathing around me. They were all waiting. I looked over the Gunny’s shoulder, past Pilson, his radioman. Nguyen’s eyes looked out from low down inside a nearby bamboo grove. His head slowly nodded. I looked back down at the package and then back, but the inscrutable Montagnard was gone.
I slowly removed the two rubber bands, being careful not to break them. I set them gently down on my poncho cover. I unwrapped the paper. Nine morphine curettes fell into the palm of my right hand. I struggled a bit to hold them without dropping any. I looked closely. Each small lead curette was partially covered by a white label. Written in red on each were the words: “solution of morphine ½ grain .5cc"
“Morphine,” I said, feeling rather stupid. “Morphine, like with the corpsman.” I’d never seen morphine in any container before. I was surprised that the most effective and wonderful painkiller on earth came in such small packages. Each curette was no bigger than my little finger. I worked to get the package back together while my mind went into overdrive. What did the morphine, intended to be carried and applied by the corpsmen alone, have to do with being now in my possession and somehow associated with the dead and wounded?
I looked up when I was done, not sure whether I should hand the package back or hold on to it as I was seemingly intended to do. I noticed it was lighter around me. The resupply would be coming and it was an important one. The Gunny looked around at the Marines surrounding us. They all got up and left, as if he’d given them an order. But nobody had spoken. In seconds we were alone, only the faint chatter of birds starting their day sounding in the distance.
“What’s the mystery?” I asked. The Gunny said nothing.
“What is it, God damn it Gunny?” my voice rising slightly.
“When they’re hit bad enough and no medevac can come in because of the night or weather, then you have to do something,” he said, like saying the words was difficult for him.
“Yes?” I replied, not getting what he might be talking about.
“Company commander. It’s part of the CO’s job,” the Gunny went on.
“It was my job. Now it’s yours. I don’t know what to say about it. You’ll know when it’s the right time.”
“What?” I said, stated in more of a demanding tone than a question.
“When they’re too badly wounded to make it through the night you punch in three curettes, unless the Marine is really big, then it may take four,” the Gunny said back, forcefully.
I looked down at the package. I got it suddenly. My hand opened and the package fell down to the poncho cover, resting against the side of my old leather combat boot.
"You’ve got to be kidding me,” I finally said, in a whisper. “What in hell is this? Where is this? I’m supposed to what? Kill one of my men? Make the decision that he can’t make based on what? I’m the company commander, not God.”
“I did it last night,” the Gunny replied, his voice so sad sounding I didn’t know what to say back.
“Did it?” I uttered, not knowing why I said the words because I understood all too well what he’d done.
“How did you know?” I asked, for no reason I could think of, my mind in complete turmoil. I couldn’t believe we were having the discussion at all. I’d shot the Corpsman. I’d called in artillery dangerously close. I’d even targeted First Platoon and thought about dropping a battery of six down upon them, but the thought of injecting of an overdose of morphine into the agonized body of a living Marine kid hit me hard.
“Do the men know?” I asked.
“Please,” the Gunny answered, his voice almost a snarl. “The corpsmen tell you when it’s okay to do it. The men know. You think they want to hear one of their friends scream, cry and talk about his family while he’s dying through the night? You think they want him crying and attracting more fire that might kill them?”
I looked around. There was no one, not even Nguyen nearly invisible in the brush. No wonder, I thought to myself. No wonder no one was around. Who wanted a part of this? Maybe they’d go home one day. Maybe I’d go home one day. How was I going to tell anyone about this? What kind of war story would this be, and how many of them would there be? I thought of my Uncle Jim in that attic and I pitied him. He’d probably never told a soul on earth about what he’d done. Only a teenage kid in an attic once. Was that going to be me someday? Telling some kid in an attic about killing my own men to stop their suffering, to keep them quiet, to make an absolutely unbelievable and hellishly unexplainable situation somehow limp along and work?
“I don’t think I can do it,” I finally said, staring down at the deadly package.
“You ran from combat that first night,” the Gunny said, softly. “You haven’t run since. You learn out here or you die. You can do it. I did it. You have to do it. I had to do it.”
“Like we’re going to live anyway?” I said, shaking my head slowly, my tone bitter.
“I can’t fault your logic there,” the Gunny replied. “Pick up the package. It’s your package. You’re the company commander. You wanted to know. Now you know.”
I picked up the package. The Gunny was wrong. I’d pick up the package and carry it with me but I wouldn’t use it. I couldn’t use it.
“What were his injuries?” I said, more to cover the fact that I was not going to use the morphine than because I wanted to know.
“Private First Class Thomas Haxton from Toledo, Ohio. His dad’s running a coal hauler out of there back and forth to Taconite, Minnesota. He had three brothers and a sister. One of the grenades you might have heard in the night landed in his shallow hole. He was blown in half. Everything from his belly button on down was there but not connected anymore. He couldn’t live. He couldn’t really be alive but he was. He told me about his family, what he wanted to be, his girlfriend and even his dog. It’s a….”
“Stop,” I said, raising my left hand palm up. “Please.” My first emotion since landing at Da Nang coursed through me. Tears ran down my face. I was glad it wasn’t lighter yet. The Gunny could see them but maybe nobody else around. And then I felt worse. I realized I wasn’t crying for Haxton; I was crying for me. I was feeling sorry for myself while my men were dying like flies all around me.
“What was I supposed to do?” the Gunny asked.
I looked him the eyes. He hadn’t asked the question rhetorically, I saw. He was really waiting for some sort of answer from me. From me. I gripped the package in my right hand so tightly I was afraid morphine would squirt out all over. I brushed my face with my left hand as best I could. I felt a slight breeze. The resupply chopper would be coming in real soon. The medevac would be going out with the bodies and the wounded. A slight breeze swept some fresher air across my face and body. I was alive. Somehow still alive. The Gunny in front of me was alive too. And waiting.
“You did the right thing,” I said, forcing my voice to be flat and sincere. “You did the only thing. Nobody’s coming for us. You gifted Haxton out like a Marine instead of a weeping child.”
The Gunny’s shoulders slumped slightly. “Thank you, sir,” he said, his voice almost a whisper.
It was only the second sir I’d managed to collect from him and it was one I would rather not have had.