The sun was low enough to allow for some cooler air to flow among the bamboo and cypress jammed jungle around me. Low enough to allow the mosquitoes to begin to form their more than annoying small clouds, as if they possessed group minds in search of evil-conceived targets of evening opportunity. I rubbed the never-ending supply of repellent I carried all over my exposed parts, still trying to get used to the strange smell. It was like my freshman year in college when I learned to accommodate the lousy taste of beer before coming to like it. Maybe the repellent would work that way, too.
“Chickenman” played on Fusner’s small radio. Chickenman had boarded a jet liner in mid-air on his way to Minneapolis to be the guest speaker at a chicken and egg convention. I didn’t find the plot funny except for the part where Chickenman presents his Chickenman identity card to the stewardess to get her to let him onboard.
“What kind of super hero shows an identity card?” I asked absently of Fusner, sitting right next to me.
“I wonder if Chickenman wears dog tags,” was his response.
I looked up from working on my letter home — the follow-up to the one I’d written the day before telling my wife I would not be coming home. Chickenman was a welcome interruption, revealing the rather obvious fact that Fusner hadn’t even heard my question. It reminded me of the exchange I’d had earlier with Sugar Daddy. Only the Gunny had figured out that I was going to shoot the man right where he squatted. Sugar Daddy hadn’t had a clue. He hadn’t picked up on a thing, like Fusner with the Chickenman question. Maybe under extreme tension, anger, despair and fear, people didn’t really understand much of what’s said to, or around them.
“Chickenman wears dog tags,” I answered. “He’s Army, so of course he wears dog tags.”
“Army?” Fusner replied, looking over at me intently.
“Yeah,” I said. “No Marine would ever wear feathers.”
“Hmmm,” was Fusner’s only reply.
I wrote to my wife about the possibility that the company would come together and I would be alright. I wrote about the Gunny being the wonderful father figure I sort of believed him to be. I wrote of Fusner, Stevens and Zippo, hoping that she would not take the previous day’s letter too seriously, although I was glad I’d written about the things she’d have to do. That I wasn’t coming home, that part, would only reveal itself on a later day.
Brother John came on, from Nha Trang, with the final musical piece of the day. Fusner’s tinny radio pumped out a song called Holy Moly, by “Quicksilver.” Brother John, announcing the title in his comforting baritone, sounded better than the song itself.
I finished my letter and then thought about the coming of night. The night before I’d lain in fear of Jurgens and his angry Marines coming to do me in, while I’d also twisted and shuddered from the plunging small arms fire intermittently raining down from high positions on Hill 110. What had changed? Now fear chilled me to the bone that Sugar Daddy and his Marines would come in the night to take care of what Jurgens’ men had failed to do, although First Platoon was obviously not out of the ‘kill the lieutenant’ game with its ambush plan. I could think of no other reason for the ambush. The only road leading between the peaks and running half the length of the A Shau valley was Highway 49, but that road ran directly inland of Hue, many miles to the north. With no road, where was the ambush supposed to be set up? In spite of what I’d said about sending my scouts to check out positioning, I couldn’t. I wasn’t going to risk them getting caught in the net Jurgens intended to pull over me.
I got up and walked toward the Gunny’s hooch. The Gunny would know what to do. He came out from under his poncho cover upon my approach. I waved off Fusner, ever attached to my right shoulder. He backed off, but not far. I straightened my shoulders. A very few of the Marines around me were caring and protective, while almost all of the others were uncaring or murderous. It wasn’t right but it was the way it was.
I’d brought a block of the Composition B. I tore off a chunk, lit it with safety matches from a sundries pack, and settled down to heat the water I carried in my canteen cup holder. The Gunny sat on the end of his poncho. I noted that his exposed skin didn’t seem to be sodden with repellent, like mine. A crazy thought flashed through my mind about the possibility that his being Hispanic gave him some sort of extra protection.
“The ambush,” I finally said, since he obviously wasn’t going to mention it.
“First Platoon,” he replied, answering without telling me anything.
“Yes, First Platoon,” I said. “What happened a while ago, with the ambush that killed First Platoon’s lieutenant?”
“Who told you about that?” the Gunny asked back, confirming everything I didn’t really want to know was true.
The discussion back in the bush hadn’t been my imagination, or slanted the wrong way.
“What was the lieutenant’s name?” I asked, trying to draw him out.
“Harrison,” the Gunny replied. “I’ll join you.” He moved over to his pack and combat rig to get his own cup and coffee. I knew he was stalling for time, so I just waited, stirring my own coffee, which was more than hot enough.
“Was he a good man?” I asked, when he got settled in. I pulled my cup aside so he could use the still-burning explosive.
“Yeah, he was okay,” he answered. “Like you. He could read a map and call artillery.”
“So, what happened?” I said, going for broke.
The Gunny made his coffee, ignoring the question. I waited.
“You think they’re connected?” he finally got out.
“There’s no road,” I informed him. “There’s probably a path not far from here leading up between the peaks. The last time they pulled this stunt there was a road. Jurgens didn’t know he was giving anything away when he mentioned it.”
“That’s it?” the Gunny replied, taking a sip of his steaming coffee before going on. “You figured all that out from his using that one word?”
I didn’t reply. There seemed no need to. I might have shared the story I’d overheard in the bush with the Gunny but what was the point? Nobody in the entire company was coming clean about anything, at least not where I was concerned.
“What are you going to do?” he finally asked.
“Oh,” I said, pausing, and then faking a laugh. “I’m just going to slither around in the mud tonight wondering if I’ll somehow end up inside an ambush intended to kill me, or maybe run into one or two of Sugar Daddy’s Marines trying to cut my throat sometime before dawn.”
“That’s not what I meant,” the Gunny said, “and you know it.”
“For one thing,” I said, thinking while I talked, “I’ve got to move us off that hill to some supposed nearby position so we can suppress fire that’s going to come down from there again. And this is our second day in this position. They haven’t been asleep up there.”
“Heavy machine gun,” he replied. “Yeah, I was thinking about that, and maybe RPGs and some other junk too. We could move out.”
“Can’t move out until they tell us,” I said, pulling out a map from inside my right chest pocket. I unfolded it. “Here’s where we are, exactly. The river is there, at our back, too deep to cross. Hill 110 is right here, and there’s only steep paths on each side of it starting the climb necessary to reach the A Shau.”
I pointed at each place.
“There’s not only no place to go but there’s also the fact that the NVA commander’s probably going to figure out we’re headed into the valley. Those paths will be littered with booby traps when we start the climb tomorrow.”
“Okay,” the Gunny finally said, after staring at the map for a few minutes. “What are you going to do?”
He’d returned to his earlier question. He’d told me about Harrison. I owed him something for that, although not the whole truth. Nobody was owed that where I was.
“I can’t call artillery on our own position because the battery won’t fire, and in order to fire on the hill, I’ve got to report our new position as being right where we are, so you can stop worrying about that being an option.”
“This can’t work for long like that,” the Gunny replied, dumping the remnants of his coffee onto the still burning explosive. The coffee had no effect, however, and the Comp B burned on. “It won’t work if everyone in the company’s afraid of being killed by artillery or in some other manner.”
The Gunny stared at me intently. “By you.”
The Gunny raised his voice in saying the last sentence. Fusner openly laughed. I turned to glare at him. He immediately retreated back to Stevens’ hooch, where Zippo and Nguyen sat working on their short-timer’s calendars. Almost universally distributed and carefully maintained by nearly everyone in the company, the calendars were all similar in one respect — each had a full page frontal nude drawing of a woman, her body divided up into 395 tiny blank pieces, all numbered. The number one was always printed on the small triangle of the bottom of the figure’s pubic region. One day and a wake up, when that box was filled in, was all you had left in the Nam, given that tours were all thirteen months long.
“I’m going to suppose that the men here were all frightened to death of the other sets of officers who served here before me and went home in body bags.” I stared at the Gunny after falling silent.
“There’s that, but still…” he commented.
“Those officers are all dead, but here you are,” I said. I realized my error when his expression changed. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that to come out that way,”
I followed up at once. I needed the Gunny desperately. I couldn’t hold him to any moral standard because there were no moral standards where we’d found ourselves. That the Gunny was still alive after surviving with the company in continuous combat for over a month was surprising, no matter how he accomplished it.
His features softened following my apology. “So what about Jurgens and Sugar Daddy, and all of that?”
“I think we may have bigger problems tonight if they’ve brought in heavy stuff up on that hill, and then there’s the trail we’ve got to climb up tomorrow. We don’t have many 81 mike mike rounds left. I’ve got to suppress fire all through the night and then put one round every fifty meters up that trail until we’re out of range of the battery. But that part’s for the morning, if you’re still worried about First Platoon’s ambush.”
“There’s no ambush,” the Gunny said, his voice dropping to just above a whisper.
“True,” I replied.
The ambush was a façade to be used only as a device to lure me into some killing ground. It wouldn’t take much of the night for Jurgens to figure out that a repeat of the Harrison murder wasn’t going to work.
“So, what about First and Fourth in the night then?” he went on.
“I need the Starlight scope,” I said. I’d thought of telling him he could move his hooch further away but bit my tongue in time. It would have been a snotty emotional comment. And, I didn’t want him to move away.
“For what? The damned thing’s near useless,” he replied. “We can see them running around like wild chickens across the barnyard but can’t use the scope to aim or shoot them. By the time we look up from the thing our night vision’s gone and so are they. And it doesn’t magnify anything either, so anybody more than a hundred yards away is invisible.”
“I don’t need it for range.”
“Then what,” he asked.
“All of that, as you said,” I replied.
“Rittenhouse’s been hauling it around on his back,” the Gunny mused, almost to himself. “He’ll be happy to part with it. Maybe your scout team can hump it from here on. That Zippo’s huge. Useless, but huge.”
Zippo was perfect for my needs, however. I could not use pre-registered fire to protect us from a heavy machine gun position on the hill. The NVA regulars weren’t stupid or inexperienced. They’d been fighting for longer than I’d been in the Corps. They’d simply move under fire. Which meant the artillery rounds had to move, too. I would have to adjust fire and I could only do that from moving positions close to the base of the mountain. I needed to see where the artillery rounds I called in were impacting. I’d need Zippo to haul the stuff, Stevens to be the lookout, Fusner on the radio and Nguyen for the other stuff. The other stuff being those Marines from First and Fourth who would be out hunting for me while I was trying to save them from the NVA.
I moved back to my hooch in the waning light, darkness closing in on me. I’d never been afraid of the dark growing up but now it terrified me. I promised myself that if I lived, I’d never spend another night without light. I couldn’t help but wonder what my great Fort Sill instructors would have thought about the real job of an artillery forward observer in the combat world I’d dropped into. Of course they’d have trouble believing it. I sat with my envelope home, wondering if this would be my last letter telling Mary everything was going to be okay.