“You want wet or lurps,” Captain Morgan said, holding the radio handset to his right ear.
“What are lurps?” I asked, vaguely having heard the word but not understanding what it meant.
“Long range patrol rations,” he responded. “They’re dried. Light weight. Just put water in, heat and there you go.”
“Okay, lurps then,” I said, wondering about what the “u” might stand for but not enough to ask.
I watched him call it in. It would be good to lessen the load in all of our packs if the mountain we were climbing was any indication of how tough it would be to scale the cliffs of the coming A Shau Valley.
“Water,” the Gunny whispered to me. “A gallon weighs eight pounds.”
We'd been hauling almost all of our own water between air drops. I hadn’t thought about that. Were C-Rations heavier than lurps, after adding water? I was willing to bet that the whole thing was a wash, just like everything else I’d so far discovered in Vietnam. For every First Platoon there was a Fourth Platoon.
“You have any racial problems in your company?” I asked the captain, my own problems on my mind. And then, suddenly, even before he answered, I knew I’d made a mistake asking.
I felt both the Gunny and Fusner shrink back from where we stood. The light was good enough to see the captain’s full face and read his expression. Or the lack of it. His facial features instantly changed from the smiling Army ambassador of good will into one of the Washington Monument stone things.
“Okay then, lieutenant, your medevac, resupply and dustoff will roll in fifty minutes, he said, hesitating, making a show of looking at his watch. “Just give the hot chow container vats to the Huey crew. Good luck.”
He smiled again, but not like the smiles he’d graced us with before. He held out his hand, again, a strange gesture because we should have been saluting for any kind of greeting. He was a captain and I was a second lieutenant.
I shook his dry, crisply powerful hand with my small oily one, and like wisps in the night, he and his radioman were gone, slipping away into the still dark jungle. I squatted back down, reached over and loaded some of the spaghetti into my unwashed canteen holder.
“Try this,” Fusner said. Grabbing some metal implement, he scooped into the other container and dumped a big white glob onto the top of my spaghetti.
I stared down. Ice cream. Fusner had dumped a load of ice cream on the still warm spaghetti and it was melting away. I exhaled deeply, took my dirty metal spoon, cleaned by rubbing it with my oily hand, and dug in. After a few seconds I could only smile and dig ever deeper into the red, white and whatever mess he'd piled into my holder.
“Told you,” Fusner laughed.
It felt like home. Hot spaghetti and ice cold vanilla ice cream. Mixing it didn't matter. It wasn’t canned ham and lima beans put together in rusting old tin cans during the Korean war. I regretted asking the question about the racial thing. I could have talked to the captain all day long about so many things but I’d driven him away.
“Where do you get those big black rank markers the captain wore? I asked the Gunny, between massive mouthfuls of the food.
“I’ll take care of that,” the Gunny said, between spoonfuls from his own canteen holder. “Sugar Daddy said his platoon won’t cross the open area, that there’s no reason to go into the A Shau. He says we can just wait here, like we did below Hill 110.”
I stopped eating. My shoulders slumped a little. I chewed on what I had in my mouth, my mind racing. I was still a Marine. We were all still Marines; animal and jungle Marines but Marines nevertheless. As long as I breathed, I knew in my heart that I would never go around a Hill 110 again. Not in the jungle, Vietnam, any war or even back home.
The Gunny stared at me over his food, his spoon paused in mid-air. I could not hear Fusner breathing near my right ear, or the soft gentle sounds the other scout team members usually made nearby. I said nothing. I looked intently into the Gunny’s eyes, not really waiting so much as not having any reply to make.
“Yeah, I kinda thought so,” the Gunny finally said. “Me neither.”
He went back to eating while I tried to figure out what his laconic phrases really meant. The sounds and Fusner’s nervous breathing came back.
“Fusner,” I began, but he'd already held it out right in front of my face. “Americal?” I asked.
Fusner nodded. “We’re Tango Tango Deuce, and I think the officer there is Lieutenant Howell but they call him Lieutenant Howler, because he’s kind of loud.”
“Why deuce and not delta?” I asked, delta being the proper alpha-numeric for the letter ‘d,’ but he didn’t answer. I went on, “Since you’ve been gossiping a bit, can you tell me if they’ve been in contact with Captain Morgan and his company?” I held the mic in one hand and my canteen holder in the other, sipping from it between phrases.
“Who?” Fusner asked, looking befuddled.
“Army artillery,” I replied.
“I don’t think so, not that I’ve overheard,” Fusner said.
I turned back to the Gunny. “I’m going to register our current position as a night defensive fire location. Hopefully they don’t know at Bravo Battery where we are. Once we clear here and get across onto the ridge overlooking the A Shau, I’ll zone fire this whole area. The battery back at An Hoa, the 155s and the Army outfit, if they’ll fire for us. Whoever stays back here can either run all the way back down and across the Go Noi to be court-martialled, or be shot or die right here.”
“Kinda thought,” the Gunny said, after scooping more ice cream into his mouth. “The knuckle-knocker’s won’t fight.”
“Crap,” I replied angrily. “Jurgens and First Platoon won’t lead the attack and that threat came first. It’s not totally about race. It’s about who the hell is commanding this outfit and, if that isn’t you or me, then we’re all dead anyway. It’s just a matter of mathematics and time.”
“Want me to give him the bad news?” the Gunny replied, not sure whether he was talking about Jurgens, Sugar Daddy, or both of them.
“I don’t really give a shit right now, Gunny, whether they stay or leave with us. In fact, if I could order it, which we both know I can’t, I’d order First and Fourth to squat right here. They can both meet their maker on their own terms. I’m sure they’ll have an appropriate nickname for him, too. I want to see the kid with the Blooper round in him.”
“That shouldn’t be a problem,” the Gunny said, washing his canteen holder out with what was left of his own water. “Nobody’ll get within ten meters of him.”
The Gunny handed me my helmet, which I hadn’t seen him take. I looked at the front of the ‘green side out’ cloth cover. The Gunny had used a magic marker to color in a single large black bar on the front. Underneath, in smaller letters, he’d printed “Junior.”
I put my canteen holder down on the poncho liner and accepted my helmet back.
“That’s so everyone will know you’re rank,” the Gunny said, no expression on his face.
“A junior lieutenant,” Fusner said, with a laugh. “Second Lieutenant, junior lieutenant.”
I glanced at my radio operator. He stopped laughing. I put the helmet on, realizing I really didn’t give a damn anymore about what anyone called me. The difference one week made.
I called the registration mission in to Bravo Battery of the Americal outfit. Using the Tango Tango Deuce identifier was laborious compared to simply directing Russ to fire at my own battery. I hoped using the Army battery would be somewhere close to being as effective as my own had been. I registered the tree line on the opposite side of the Agent Orange oily open area, as well. I had to use Russ very sparingly because of our position on the gun target line, and being at the end of charge seven (maximum) range inaccuracies.
The Gunny guided Fusner and me back through the jungle to a position not far from where I’d killed the three enemy approaching in the night. It disturbed me that only hours later, I didn't have much memory of the when and where of the event. The first men I’d killed, and I couldn’t remember them well. Not what I’d been led to believe from friends, family, movies, television and even the higher officers at The Basic School. I wondered if I’d recall the incident in more detail later on.
We came upon another of the strange small clearings that appeared like some kind of tiny oasis in the heavier wooded mountain jungle. A Marine lay on his back with one of the company corpsmen bending over him. I squatted down next to the corpsman, meaning to ask how his patient was doing but the wounded man spoke before I could.
“The crazy lieutenant,” he said, his voice a raspy whisper.
I leaned back a few inches, surprised to identify the Marine from the sniper incident.
“Don’t worry lieutenant, I’m not going to explode, or anything,” the Marine continued, laughing gently.
I could see that his throat was wrapped in combat bandages, like the rest of his torso. I couldn’t tell where the M-79 round had gone in and, short of an X-ray, nobody would be able to figure out exactly where it had come to rest until they cut him open, if he made it that far.
“You’ll be on the medevac in a few minutes,” I said, recovering.
For some reason I felt close to the man, and a regret I’d not experienced since before arriving in county. Outside of the mixed acceptance I’d received from my scout team, the first platoon grunt had been the first, and possibly only, man to find my presence in the company acceptable at all.
“Doc told me,” the wounded man said, "the Army guys are coming, thanks to the Gunny. Stick with him, sir, and you’ll be okay.”
I gripped the Marine’s hand and wished him well back home. I stood looking down at him and thought about my own situation. If the chopper didn’t blow up and they got that grenade out of him, he’d be out of Vietnam and back in the world, while I’d remain behind or be dead. All I had to get me through was a completely broken down and dysfunctional company, my small strange scout team and the Gunny. First the tracers, and now the Army warrant officers coming in at the Army captain’s orders. The Gunny had done magnificent work, I thought grimly. I'd spoken to my own battalion commander exactly once since I’d been here, the XO never, and I had no idea what the other Marine Companies around us had in the way of orders.
I moved to the position I’d occupied to call in fire the night before, hoping to find the Army’s Bravo Battery at least the equivalent of the Marine outfit firing for me out of An Hoa. Stevens, Zippo and Nguyen came out of the jungle behind Fusner and me, as I prepared once again to rain down hell on the tree line across from our position. Knowing they had my back made a big difference, with Jurgens and Sugar Daddy still seething and convinced that my removal from life would improve their situations.
The very edge of the sun rose above the jungle horizon. In the far distance I could hear the familiar sound of Huey chopper blades, but the sound of the coming medevac and resupply seemed different from before. The choppers sounded more like a flock of Huey bees than the distinct whooping of blades I'd become used to. The reason for that became apparent only a few minutes later. Three utility Hueys came up into view along the open area that flowed north from our position. Above them flew five Huey Cobra attack helicopters. The attack helicopters swooped ahead of the regular Huey delivery birds, a sight to behold. Black instead of Marine Corps green, they had giant shark’s teeth painted on their noses and looked ferocious. Three came in low and two wound back and forth above the three. Without taking any fire, they opened up on the jungle behind our opposing tree line.
The utility choppers landed in a clump close to one another, and the crews went to work. I realized we weren't going to need any artillery support. The Cobras were tearing up the same area I would have called fire into, and the artillery rounds would have endangered the choppers themselves, anyway. The Marine with the grenade was whisked aboard one of the machines while boxes and bags were dumped from the other two. Three body bags went aboard the chopper that took the wounded Marine.
I looked at the black bags being loaded aboard like stiff bundles of covered fire wood. I could not dredge up any emotion at all.
“They put on quite some show,” a voice behind me said.
I put down my Japanese binoculars, having checked the cockpits of the Hueys to assure myself that the pilots really were little more than kids. With helmets on and through the low light penetrating the windshields, I couldn't make out much but their laughing smiles. They had to be what they'd been described to be, I knew. I turned to find the Gunny and Pilson behind me. The tone of the Gunny’s voice hadn’t been positive, but I ignored it. The Army was doing the Marine Corps a big favor, not in simply providing a vital medevac our own service would not provide, but in supporting our coming high risk crossing of the Agent Orange sodden expanse of open ground.
In what seemed like only seconds the Hueys pulled out, leaving two stacks of supplies behind. I waved at the choppers, although I could only see the machine gunners stationed just inside the wide open sides of the machines. The one Marine who’d said I was "his crazy fucker" was going home, leaving me in hell with a bunch of Marines, most of whom probably felt they’d be a lot better off if I'd been on that chopper carrying a grenade in my chest.
Full dawn lit the open area as I studied it, slowly sweeping the tree line back and forth. In spite of the volume of rocket and rotary machine gun fire it absorbed only moments before, it looked untouched, except for a few lingering wisps of rising smoke. There had been no enemy firing when the choppers were so highly exposed. I pictured the NVA forces lying in wait, crouched down inside their fabled, but as yet unseen, tunnels and underground quarters. They'd be waiting for the real enemy that they had to know would come. Waiting for us.