The sounds of the Bong Song’s nearby rushing waters, the whap whap whap of the descending chopper’s supersonic blade-tips rotating, and the rest of the valley background sounds all faded into non-existence, as four Skyraiders came down the valley from the north, no more than fifty feet off the surface of the river. It was like the jungle peeled back to let them pass, the deep quaking thunder of their huge radial engines spitting out life-threatening noise even a close-mounted fifty caliber machine gun could not compare to. When the Skyraiders were on top of us and the thunder didn’t seem like it could get any louder, Cowboy and his wingmen opened up with their twenty-millimeter cannons and swept the A Shau’s lower surface like four brooms shaking the sawdust to pieces on an old saloon floor. Dust, dirt, and debris sprayed from one side of the narrow valley to the other before the monster planes were gone. There were no Marines still standing when that occurred.
I stood up and brushed myself down, knocking the crap from my helmet with one clenched fist, but avoiding hitting the sharp chunk of shrapnel that was sticking out of it. I still didn’t like having the word “Junior” written under the single magic marker black bar on its front surface, but there was little I was willing to do about it. What was, was, and if I’d learned anything at all it was that the only way I had any chance at survival was to go along when I could, and adapt at every opportunity I was given, and forget about the fact that I was a valuable or a valued human being. I was just another jungle creature trying to get by, no better or worse than a venomous viper, the crocodile we’d killed earlier, or even the leeches and mosquitos I’d so hated in the beginning, before life had changed.
The sound of the chopper blades grew and grew. I looked up to see the two big birds orbiting at about five hundred feet. It was a sight I was becoming used to. I looked lower down near the top edge of the jungle. They came right over that fake green horizon. Six Huey Cobra gunships. They didn’t come like the Skyraiders, lined up and delivering a wall of rolling fire. Instead, they came as an ever-changing interlace of dancing dark creatures. No fire came from their machine guns or cannons. They were clearing the landing zone by observation and reconnaissance. They’d only fire if they needed to or if they were fired upon, which wasn’t likely, and that fact was the only reason I wasn’t back face down on the vegetation with my chest pressed into the mud. It took several moments of intricate weaving, and near-magical flying, for the sleek predator choppers to assure that the supply ships could come down. There was only one regular Huey, so I knew it had to be flown by Blackbird, which meant that Captain V.C. had to be aboard. My replacement officers would be in one of the 47s.
I crept closer to the only clear area of the river bank that adjoined a slight bend in the river. The Huey dropped out of the sky but pulled up abruptly just above the mud. It then gently and brilliantly settled on its long tubular skids onto the surface, like a giant dragon faintly brushing the earth.
Macho man stepped out, turned, brought his Thompson up to parade rest and faced me. I could not help smiling. The unreal character was still alive, and so was I. I hunched over under the blades, and scuttled forward to deliver my two letters. He let his right come down from the Thompson’s forward barrel guard to receive them. I could tell he was working hard not to smile and possibly fall out of his combat imaged role. I nodded, and he nodded briefly in return, the chopper’s turbine howl making it too loud to speak over or through.
The two big 47s came skimming in behind the Huey, dropping the rears of the aircraft down to touch before the fronts settled into the mud. I knew their turbines would remain spooled up, just like the Huey’s own. Even though there was no enemy fire, the only kind of landing zone in the A Shau was always to be considered a hot one.
V.C. crouched next to the machine gunner, just inside the Huey’s side opening. Instead of jumping down and out of the machine, the Army captain dropped onto his butt, bounced once on the flat aluminum surface of the chopper’s floor, and then landed to stand fully upright in front of me with a smile on his face. I liked him. Without a word, and not knowing a thing about the man, I liked him. His clean pressed and starched utilities, his bounce, his smile…all of it reminded me immediately of the kind of hard but clean and fair training I’d left behind forever.
Taking one last passing look at Macho man, for my memory banks, although I knew I would never forget him, I turned, and crab-walked back in the direction I’d come, hoping V.C. would follow. As soon as I was out from under the blades, Fusner, Zippo, and Nguyen joined in close at my side. I stopped when I thought we had enough jungle cover and distance from the Huey to talk. The Gunny, whom I’d thought would have been greeting the new officers bound to be aboard the 47s, appeared, as if out of nowhere. I was surprised, but I had no time to ask him anything.
“I’m reporting in,” Captain Victor Chase said, his voice overly loud, even respecting the chuffing and whispering sounds of the Huey’s spinning rotor blades. “Where’s the OIC?” he asked, as I turned to take him in.
He stood with his right hand out. I moved forward immediately and shook his hand. I wanted to say the words: “welcome to the Nam,” like I’d first heard that day so long ago, but it wasn’t appropriate, I knew. And “welcome to the A Shau,” didn’t have the same cachet.
“OIC?” I asked, feeling stupid.
“Officer in charge,” the Gunny whispered into my left ear. “It’s an Army thing.”
I liked the captain even more. He had to know I was Junior. They would have told him, like everyone else who came to our company in the field. He’d chosen to ‘report in’ to an officer he knew was lower in rank, and he’d chosen not to call me by my nickname.
“They’re going to be unloading the supplies and getting the hell out of Dodge, sir,” I said, recovering myself.
“You came down here instead landing up on nine-seventy-four,” the Gunny interjected, letting me know right away why he’d been waiting back with me instead of with the Marines unloading the choppers.
“Setting up a base for ingress and egress from that hill,” the captain replied.
“And how in hell, sir, do you expect to get up and down that hill without a chopper?” the Gunny asked, surprising me by the cutting edge of his tone and in the nature of the question.
“Climbing gear,” V.C. answered, his demeanor remaining one of openness and good humor, in spite of the Gunny’s aggressiveness. “Two of my guys are with your incoming Marines. We’re going to scale the face of this wall. I’ve brought in three small teams but we won’t operate independently on this one.”
I looked over at the Gunny, but he simply stood there. I wondered if he was too dumbstruck to respond. After a few seconds, he shook his head once, bent down and lit one of his cigarettes before walking away toward the waiting more distant choppers.
“Climbing gear, they brought climbing gear,” I heard him whispering to himself as he went.
My own mind roiled. The thought of being five or six hundred feet up on ropes against the face of the bare cliff, with only a single sniper, like we’d had the day before, over on the top of the opposing ridge, made me feel a bit queasy. But my feelings about that were overshadowed by my sadness. I knew there was no chance that the wonderful-seeming young captain in front of me was going to live out the week, and then an ever-deeper sadness overcame me. I didn’t want to die with him, near him or around him. I wanted to be away from him, for all the right survival, but wrong disciplinary reasons.
“You know, they all call me Junior, sir,” I blurted out, trying to think of something substantive or clever to say.
“Yes, I heard that,” V.C. responded. “A term of endearment. I wonder if my men will give me a nickname too. And, I heard that out here in the real shit you don’t have to call me sir, either. I mean, if you’re another officer.”
The man’s discomfort was palpable. I knew he knew that my name wasn’t a ‘term of endearment,’ but I much appreciated the blasé ornateness of his lie. Mostly, my Marines didn’t like me at all, any more than my fellow officers in the Basic School had. I’d spent many useless hours trying to figure out why that was but had never reached any acceptable or substantive conclusion. It was the way it was.
“It don’t mean nuthin,” I said, giving the captain as genuine a fake smile as I could manufacture.
“I’ve heard that expression too,” he replied, “but I don’t get it.”
“That’s easy, sir,” Zippo unaccountably broke in. “It means everything’s cool unless it sucks. And that’s okay. It’s just the way things are.”
The captain looked away. All I could do was stare at Zippo and try to reflect on his comprehensible comment.
The Gunny came back through the low-lying jungle bracken, leading four Marines. None of the four wore the spotless gear the captain was wearing but all of them looked even younger than he looked.
“The new officers, ready to take command,” the Gunny said, but in a tone that made it sound like he was saying anything but that. He backed off to light up another cigarette. When it was lit, and just before I introduced myself to the new officers, he added, “and I’ll be right here if you want to have a smoke when you’re done.”
With that, he squatted down to begin brewing a cup of coffee.
I looked at the four young officers, knowing something was wrong, but not quite able to immediately place what it was. I looked at the rank designations on their collars, to determine which of them might be commanding my own company and Kilo, and then I got it. They all wore black single bars of cloth. They were all lieutenants.
Young lieutenants. New lieutenants. Brand new lieutenants
“Tell me you’re not all second lieutenants,” I said, the left side of my lips going upward in an uncontrollable tic.
“Same Basic Class,” the leading lieutenant said. “Just graduated. Came in the country together. We’re all MOS infantry and it’s amazing they’d let us come out to the field together.”
I looked at the black printing on the front of his blouse. The letters read: “LIGHTNER” on the small canvas tag.
“Truly astounding,” I whispered, turning away to face the Gunny.
The Gunny worked with one hand to light his small deposit of composition B. He used his left hand only because his right was extended upward, holding out the burning cigarette he’d mentioned, toward me.
I slowly took a couple of hesitant steps, until I was close enough to take the smoking tube with my own hand. I inhaled deeply, and then coughed like I hadn’t done since my earliest days in the country.
“Is there a problem?” the leading lieutenant asked from over my shoulder.
I shook my head, handing the cigarette back down.
“Coffee?” the Gunny asked, beaming up at me as if the universe had just played another of its tragically hilarious jokes on us. Which it, apparently, had.
I nodded but had to make sure about the seniority of the new batch of officers.
“Dates of rank,” I said, “I’m going to presume that all of you are junior to me?”
“Junior,” now that’s funny,” the leading man with the blackened name of LIGHTNER printed on the front of his utility blouse replied.
I squatted down by the Gunny, my back to the officers, and pulled the canteen rig from my belt. I took the thing apart and waited with my holder in one hand like I had all the time in the world. I didn’t need their basic class or their dates of rank. It was all too obvious. I was still company commander of our company. All that could be done was to appoint one of the new guys to take over Kilo.
“Whichever one of you is senior by number, you get to take over as the C.O. of Kilo company, or whatever’s left of it,” I said, not turning to face the officers. “Take your friends with you. I’m doing fine here. Divide up the fucking new guys and take half over there, and don’t forget to pair up the Project Hundred Thousand Marines. They can’t read or write so you’ll know them right off the bat.”
“What’s that project?” one of the new officers asked, but nobody answered.
Zippo, Fusner, and Nguyen took off and began digging holes in the mud behind small chunks of the scrub jungle cover that grew close to the river. I watched as they worked, knowing they’d be careful to dig as far from the cliff wall as they could but not so close to the river as to have the mud around the holes cave in. None of them were going to forget the cliff coming down in huge chunks when my artillery call came in short earlier.
The Gunny poured half his hot water into my own cup holder, then threw down some sugar, creamer and coffee packets next to his small fire. I looked into his eyes. He said nothing, and all I could read from his barely expression-filled facial features was wry humor. I understood. The rear area was either laughing at our continuing deadly predicament or it was so out of touch that it had no idea what it was doing or why it was doing it.
“Ah, how do you tell who’s who and in what company out here, Junior?” one of the officers, I presumed to be Lightner, asked.
“You don’t call me Junior, lieutenant,” I whispered, not caring whether the collected group of officers-waiting-to-be-dead behind me heard or not. “You call me sir. And you find out who’s with Kilo by asking around. Everyone’s all mixed together right now. If you want to make your company fall in then you better do it pretty quickly because we’re about to take some enemy fire at any moment.”
“How do you know that?” Lightner asked, his tone indicating his lack of belief.
“Mind if I join you?” the Army captain asked, squatting down next to my right side.
“Of course, sir,” I responded. “If you want some coffee we’ll have to boil more water though.
“You don’t have to call me sir, and no I’m fine,” V.C. said. “I won’t call you Junior either, but I don’t know your name.”
“Hell, Junior’s fine, as long as you say it with a laugh.”
“Ah, okay, Junior,” he got out, hesitantly, and then paused a few seconds before going on. “You think it’s a bad idea to scale the wall?”
“Okay, V.C. here it is,” I replied, after taking a long deep drink of my hot coffee. “We wanted as few of you up there because you’re all going to get killed. Hill 974 is completely run through with tunnels. NVA tunnels. It’s a beehive but a bee’s sting is nothing compared to what those clowns deliver up there. They killed a whole brigade on top of that same hill a few days back. We wanted as few of you hotshot recon types up there again because we have to go up and get your bodies ready for medivac. You can climb that wall and probably get shot on the way up or you can call in a chopper and reach the top alive only to die in the night when the vampires come out of their coffins. Take your pick.”
“Wow, that’s pretty hardball stuff, Junior,” Lightner said.
I turned my head to look back at the lieutenant. There was no use correcting his use of my nickname I knew, so I didn’t bother.
“If I was you I’d get hold of an E-Tool and dig in like you see my scout team doing over there,” I motioned toward the river with the cup holder, causing some of my coffee to spill over the lip.
“I’ve got orders,” the captain said, his apparent enthusiasm not seeming to be one bit diminished by my lengthy and brutal comment.
“Do you have orders also, Lightner?” I asked of the lieutenant, who I knew had remained close behind my back.
“Kilo’s supposed to move north,” Lightner answered. “Kilo’s eventually supposed to work its way over to the Rock Pile, but I didn’t know I’d be commanding it. I’m supposed to be a platoon commander, not a company commander. I don’t know how to be a company commander.”
“Welcome to the Nam,” the Gunny said, blowing out a puff of smoke from a newly lit cigarette.
“Welcome to the A Shau,” he finished, putting the cigarette out in the mud with a flourish next to his small composition B fire.
“Sir?” I heard Fusner say in the distance.
I looked up and out toward the rushing water of the river. Fusner and the other members of my scout team were standing in their holes and looking up and back toward the cliff face. A light wind had picked up, and a drifting cloud of rain pattered down, making the cliff face look nothing more or less like just another cloud, albeit much thicker and grayer. Down the side of the face extended three bright yellow lines, running vertically from the top to the bottom.
“My Romeo must have called them to make the drop,” V.C. said, climbing to his feet and gazing back through the misty rain with his left hand held up to shield his face from the rain.
“Romeo? Drop?” I asked, not understanding anything of what the captain said.
“Romeo Oscar, radio operator,” he replied, surprise in his tone. “My guys up top dropped the climbing lines down so they can pull us up.”
I looked around. I couldn’t see any radio operators, other than the Gunny’s and Fusner’s digging away by the river. I wasn’t fully conversant with the Army’s military jargon or many of its other ways. In the Marine Corps, at least in my field experience, a radio operator was worn like a second skin, and he was called a radio operator, not by the alphanumeric of his title. Fusner was always in sight and hearing of my presence and it wasn’t something I controlled. It was just the way it was in the Corps.
“They didn’t have some ropes that were a bit darker?” the Gunny asked, taking it all in, as I was.
“I’ve got to get back to the LZ and get my stuff together to get up there with my men,” the captain said, “with your permission, and all, Junior.”
The smile on the man’s face was difficult not to smile back at. I smiled. I liked the man and I felt bad for him. I wondered if there was the smallest part of God’s heart that might be open to letting him live through the next twenty-four hours, but I didn’t wonder for long. I knew deep down that God, if he was there at all, wasn’t making his presence felt in the A Shau, except to take souls up to his side in great numbers.
The captain walked into the brush and was gone.
“You can’t stop him, you know,” the Gunny said.
“You stopped me,” I replied, hopefully, but defeat coming through with a sigh at the end of my words.
“You’re different,” the Gunny replied.
I was afraid to ask him any questions about such a strange comment, so I changed the subject.
“Everyone needs to dig in,” I said. “They need to make sure they’re covered when those Army types head up that cliff wall. I can get some arty on top of the other cliff, and Cowboy must be out there somewhere orbiting and waiting for the LZ to clear. The Ontos is no use at this low angle.”
I listened to the varying whines of the distant turbines. The choppers were lifting off, and that meant the wonderfully deadly Huey Cobras would be leaving with them.
Once again, the capricious Skyraiders, what we could get of artillery support, and the Ontos would be all we’d have to hold back the NVA. My stomach churned as I recalled my conversation with Lt. Lightner. Kilo was going north where life would be found, while we were going back down into the south of the A Shau, where life flowed out and away from everyone like the water coming through the valley bottom sluice of the Bong Song River.
It was mid-day before my team finished the holes, and we set up close to them. The bottom of my hole was covered in three to four inches of water, coming up from the low water table so close to the river. And it was moving. The water was alive with leeches. I knew that there was no way any of us were getting in the holes unless enemy fire required it. Then Gunny, Jurgens and Sugar Daddy reported in. They were trailed by what I presumed to be squad and platoon leaders I didn’t recognize. I hadn’t seen the new lieutenants since I’d set them off to try to form a new Kilo company from the remains of the old one, and a good number of the fucking new guys. The lower clouds circulating through the valley abated, but higher darker clouds, dropping more water than the low little one, formed high above and slowly rolled across the distance between the two valley cliff faces.
A Marine crept close from the brush to drop off an envelope. At first, I thought it was one of the letters I’d given to Macho man for my wife. But it wasn’t. It was a letter from the captain to be mailed home at the next resupply.
“He didn’t seal it so you can read it if you want, Junior,” the Marine I didn’t recognize said, before trudging off to head back upriver.
I dried my fingers on my blouse and tucked myself back under the poncho cover Fusner had set up for me by my hole. I opened the flap of the envelope and pulled out three sheets of flimsy paper.
“Dear Alice,” the letter began, “I met this really great Marine Officer. His men call him Junior. I haven’t got a nickname yet….”
I jerked the letter down, slowly refolded it and carefully put it inside the envelope. I sealed the envelope before folding it and putting it into my special trouser pocket I usually reserved for my own letters home. I felt like I’d jinxed myself. I wasn’t sure how. Reading the letter suddenly made me feel like I was reading a letter written about me after I was dead. I crouched inside my poncho, shivering, while the hot rain beat down on everything around me.
“Sir?” Fusner asked, holding out the Prick 25 handset.
It was time. I had to call in the defensive fires atop the far ridge, which wasn’t that far away at all, as we’d discovered.
“Air?” I asked him, before taking the instrument.
“Rain’s too heavy and the winds aloft too strong, sir,” Fusner replied, turning on his tiny Armed Forces radio.
I realized for the first time that Fusner didn’t use the radio to remind him of home so much as he did because it helped with his own fear. The situation was making Fusner nervous, and I felt it through my own bones. It was the feeling of being among good and capable men but trapped inside a cage where the good and capable men could only run in place, keeping the cage going, with the cage always only going nowhere.
Cowboy and his magic wonder ships of ruin and destruction had gone home.
I called the first artillery mission using Willy Peter at altitude, in order to creep the fire back toward me, before calling in ‘fire for effect’ with high explosive super-quick fuses. I wanted to take no chances that there might be a short round, or a series of them, again. The first rounds exploded but their effects were blunted and invisible by the fact that the rounds were going off back from the lip of the wall, which was just the way I wanted to keep it.
I heard Fusner humming to whatever song was playing. I couldn’t hear it well with all the other noises reverberating back and forth across the valley. I finally caught a stanza: “Come a little bit closer, you’re my kind of man, so big and so strong. Come a little bit closer, I’m all alone and the night is so long”
I smiled a cold smile to myself. It was Bad Man Jose again. One of my favorites. “Come a little bit closer,” I whispered out to the falling artillery rounds. Not too close, but a little bit closer.
I’d given my own Marines no warning, as to the barrage. There was no sense in everyone getting into the holes unless it was absolutely necessary. Secretly, deep down, I also knew that I wanted to prove myself to them again. I could call the kind of fire they needed to stay alive, and therefore they would consider keeping me alive, at least for another day. The drums started after the third series of fires for effect. The NVA was letting us all know, down below them, that they’d moved the drums and, therefore, probably everything else, to a more secure, or at least unknown new location. I knew that news was bad, but there was nothing to be done for it.
“They’re going up,” Zippo said, pointing at the wall with the yellow ropes hanging down.
I came out of my poncho cover into the rain in a hunched over position, putting my helmet back on and easing toward my hole. The cliff face was at least thirty meters away but that didn’t seem far enough if any real fire came in. Fusner stayed with me, as I called in the zone fire I’d planned to run along the entire distance of the other wall’s high ground.
It all happened in many slow seconds, or so it seemed later on. I brought the zone fire from three batteries at two firebases accurately in, glancing from the exploding top of one wall of the valley over to the other where the two men and one supply bag were being hauled up by the Army troops already stationed atop the hill.
The rain fell harder, and the drums seemed to beat louder, as their sounds interspersed themselves with the heavier thumps of 105 rounds going off, one after another, in rapid synchrony. Three fireworks arrows shot out from atop the far wall, somehow their launch points spaced perfectly between the exploding artillery rounds. It didn’t seem possible, to my stunned eyes and brain, and my sinking heart. RPG round tracks across the sky were definitive and there was no missing what they were. The fireworks arrows arced silently across the valley, seeming to move in slow motion, the sound of their passage cloaked by the artillery explosions above and the drums reverberations everywhere. Whatever NVA ballistics expert was in charge of launching the RPG rounds knew his business. Three explosions impacted on the closer wall, as one, not a few feet from where the men and supply bag were being dragged upward. Rocks and debris rained down, but neither I nor any of the Marines around me, sought cover in our holes. We simply stood and stared upward in shock, watching what was left of two Army troopers, and their supplies, as they came plummeting down the side of the stone wall, like so much meaty confetti.
I sank back onto my poncho, not bothering to crawl under the edge of it to get out of the rain. The final rounds of my ineffectual barrage kept coming in, blowing the hell out of plenty of mountaintop foliage in the distance but accomplishing nothing.
I let Fusner pull the microphone from my hand. I turned into my poncho cover pulled it over me and removed my helmet. Very gently, I retrieved the letter V.C. had given me for safe keeping. I’d sealed it. I couldn’t read it without opening it, and I just couldn’t do that. I unfolded the letter and saw that the captain had used a Marine Corps envelope instead of some other. Maybe it was all he could get, I thought, but then thought again. The Army troops who worked with Marines had an inflated sense of how great the Marine Corps was, and I knew I was very likely seeing an indication of that again. I pulled my helmet slowly apart, placed the flattened envelope carefully against the helmet liner, and then slid the helmet over it. I put the helmet on and felt something better for having the letter right there right next to my face. I wasn’t better. I knew I wasn’t better because that would have required being better than something, and I wasn’t something. I was Junior, a monster survivor at the bottom of a swirling pit that consumed everything around him, like the circling Coriolis water at the bottom of a bathtub. Alice’s wonderful loving husband had just died before my eyes, as I knew he had to.
The very last lyrics of the Bad Man Jose song purred out of Fusner’s radio nearby: “…I still hear her say…I still hear her say…” What would Alice say? What could Alice say?