I stared at Jurgens, waiting for an apology I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear, and damned well knew I didn’t want to accept. The man was the epitome of a phrase I’d never used in my lifetime and had only heard about in occasional passing while I was in college. White trash. The phrase fit, even if only in the A Shau Valley the color part of the insult really mattered. And it mattered because Jurgens made it matter, not me. My own father was a racist, born and raised down in Texas, but the word trash didn't fit at all with respect to him. The only exhibition of his prejudice I’d ever witnessed had been to ask my fourth-grade black best friend to get off our property in Michigan, which was terrible for me, but not a violent or killing move on his part. Trash, however, was a choice of lifestyle, and I’d never been forced to think about the applicability of the phrase until I was dropped into Jurgen's life.
“For better or for worse,” the Gunny said, “we are all we have.”
“It don’t mean nuthin.’” Jurgens said, quietly, his eyes meeting my own with a mirrored distaste.
“Apologize,” the Gunny said, his voice rising, but only slightly.
I knew the Gunny wasn’t going to let it go, and I knew I wasn’t going to let it go either, no matter what happened.
“Why can’t we just go back to the way it’s been?” Jurgens asked, avoiding looking at me by deliberately turning his head to speak directly to the Gunny.
“Because I can’t afford to go back with you in a body bag,” the Gunny replied, motioning toward me.
“I apologize,” Jurgens finally said, his voice so quiet it was nearly impossible to hear him out from under the mild hissing sound the tiny drops made when they hit my helmet cover. “That doesn’t make it right, Junior,” he went on, his voice growing louder and more powerful.
The Gunny looked at me, as if asking whether I was accepting the apology, but without saying anything.
There was no way around the fact that Jurgens was a vital member of the company, damaged as he was, racist as he certainly was, and disciplined only in accomplishing what he either agreed to or might serve him best, regardless of the rest of the company. But his value wasn’t the issue if I was forced to decide between that and the continuance of my own life. My hand started to shake ever so slightly, which hadn’t happened in days, but I noted that my right hand, the hand on the Colt .45, wasn’t shaking at all.
There was nothing to be said. My hand stayed on the butt of my Colt. All I could do was remain very wary, intent and prepared for any eventuality, but nothing happened. Jurgens retreated backward slowly and the Gunny with him, both of their radiomen waiting until their principals moved past before following. The Gunny waved both hands low, across one another, as if cutting the air down below him where he walked.
I knew the gesture, which was similar to the gesture dealers in professional gambling institutions used to show when they were leaving a table.
Nguyen appeared out of the bracken and into the darkening mist between us. He’d been there all the time, I realized, just like he’d been very closely around and through every other incident of high threat I’d experienced since joining the company, in what seemed like many months in the past.
Fusner and Zippo worked to set up the Starlight Scope, while Sentry did whatever he did inside the Ontos to ready it for action in case it was needed in the night. The tracked machine was not running, to save fuel, but it could be started in only seconds if the turret needed adjusting or the tracks themselves had to be used to maneuver the small but heavy machine around into a better firing position.
Nguyen closed the distance to me but squatted down before reaching me. He was chewing slowly, and I knew what he was chewing. I didn’t want to use the drug again, so I didn’t approach closer, instead making for my temporary lair under the edge of the cliff.
I crawled from the berm backward, moving slowly but deliberately under the protection of the overhanging cliff face. Every inch brought more protection until I was finally pressed back into the narrow but manageable thick crease where the rocks came together like the base of two giant clam shells. The advantage of being in the cave-like protection was warmly obvious. Almost nothing the enemy could throw or shoot or launch through the air could effectively reach me when I was inside. The bad part was isolation. The same isolation that protected me also caused most of the remaining risk and fear I was never without since I’d arrived in country. I could not see and observe the outside world. I could not see or observe what might be coming. I was dependent on others to tell me from their own positions outside along the berm, and my trust of others, especially most of the Marines around me, had been nearly terminally damaged. I’d been led to believe that there was almost complete trust forced upon all allied forces engaged in real combat. The combat band of brothers. I’d found out that just the opposite was true. People, Marines, the NVA, almost every being in the A Shau Valley trusted in themselves to ensure their own survival, and anything living that stood in the way of that unwavering cold-blooded mission stayed in the valley, forever. Only the survivors lived to tell the story and the story they would tell would have no bearing on any combat truth.
Zippo, Fusner, and Sentry stayed atop the berm, with the armored vehicle backed into the front side of the slope. Although the 106mm recoilless rifles had no flechette ammo left, the high explosive rounds were also very deadly against ground personnel, especially at the close range, they might be called on to fire into or across. I knew I had to go down for a short period. I’d had nothing to eat or drink and, although sleep did not overcome me, I knew I was running on empty when it came to having enough energy to properly and quickly respond to whatever the NVA was going to come up with next. But, above all, I had to write a letter home to my wife.
Once again, I’d lost Marines, and I knew I was going to lose more, and I also knew I was not handling the losses well. I didn't see their faces and that I could not see them was both a deep relief but also a deep concern. I didn’t have trouble sleeping because I never really slept. I had trouble trying to feel anything that was not just awful, dark and dead-ended. I needed to go down, even if for the shortest of times.
I rummaged through my pack for Jurgen’s flashlight, finding it but also discovering the batteries were all but dead. Again. Would the hazy yellow glow be enough? I brought my tattered stationary pack out of my trouser pocket. The plastic bag had held through the river crossing, I noted, pulling it open and extracting two sheets of the small stationary and one Vietnam envelope. Only the distant rumble of heavy water passing by between the river banks and the incessant patter of monsoon rains penetrated back and down into my small refuge.
I wrote my letter about Tex, but I didn’t write to my wife about his death. I pictured him, although I couldn’t make out his face in my mind, as being still with me, an Army officer of higher rank who served in a lower capacity. It was an unlikely interesting story but one I thought she’d be okay with because she might understand that I had some companionship when, in reality, I had little or none that wasn’t made up by my own imagination. Fusner was devoted to me, but he was a kid, and barely a corporal at that. Zippo was older but younger in many ways. Nguyen was like a brother in arms but only like one. It was impossible to have a dialogue with a man who almost never spoke at all or when he did, spoke using an incomprehensible language. The Gunny was like a mix of my father, my mother, some Maryknoll nuns along the way, with maybe a decent demanding college professor thrown in.
I pulled out Tex’s .45 when I got to the second page. I inhaled the Hoppes #9 I had massaged into the metal earlier. I had no gun oil so the single small bottle of Hoppes I had served as the automatic’s cleaner and lubricant all at the same time. I’d always loved the smell of the solvent, way back to my shooting days as a kid with my dad’s NRA team. Now, the Hoppes smelled like Tex or at least brought him to mind. I wondered if I lived, whether it would always be that way. Hoppes was made in Overland, Kansas, I knew because it had said so on the label before monsoon moisture ate it up entirely. The smell was so distinctive, like that of the Safesport mosquito repellant. Attractively awful, Zippo had said about both one morning, and that had been a perfect description. Safesport was made in Denver. Denver and Overland places I’d have to visit one day if I lived, but in that thought crossing my mind I could not fathom why visiting them would mean anything at all.
I wrote of the sand and mud by the river and the beauty of wet bamboo groves, with their individual tubes blowing in the mild wind, like waving strands of stiffening but not hard spaghetti. I finished the letter, writing about Hawaii and how R&R would be there after I’d made it six months in the field, even though I knew I’d never make it that long. There was just no way. Finishing the letter, I backed out of my cave, the flashlight still giving out a slight glow, but not enough to write another letter without new batteries coming in on the next resupply, and only God knew when that event could possibly take place.
Crawling out to the berm where Fusner hunched over Zippo’s back looking through the Starlight Scope was quick and easy. The rain and long exposure to the moisture made sliding anywhere much easier than walking, especially if walking crouched over to avoid being hit by an attentive distant sniper. For some very relieving reason, the leeches had retreated back underground.
“It’s just getting dark enough now,” Fusner said, laying the scope down between Zippo’s shoulder blades, and then backing away so that I could look if I wanted to.
“Jurgens is coming back with two snipers to use it,” he continued. “He says the enemy is probably going to slip out of the jungle to get their dead and wounded after what the rotary cannons did to them.”
I looked through the scope, after settling in and making sure my envelope home was safely back inside the plastic bag I carried in my right thigh pocket. For whatever reason, I thought about the necessity of somehow getting a resupply chopper in at first light just so that envelope could go out, and I could assure myself that I’d made it another night in something resembling the hell often described to me in my Catholic childhood but really more like Dante’s Inferno.
It was still too light for the scope to work properly. I had enough light to read the silver letters written on the side: “Night Vision Sight, Subassy. MX-7833/PVS2.”
For some reason, the scope had a range focus ring at the front of the thing and then an eyepiece focus ring at the back. I knew how to focus the front ring but Zippo and Fusner both insisted that I not touch the eyepiece focus.
Jurgens was coming with two of his snipers. I’d been with the unit for over three weeks and I remained unaware that the company had any snipers, much less that two of them were in Jurgen’s platoon.
“Last song of the day, sir?” Fusner whispered into my left ear.
I said nothing, aligning the scope and trying to see through it. It was still too light, however, so I rested it again wishing I had something dry to take the spots off the shrouded lens. There was no protecting anything for long against the pitiless moisture and rain.
“It’s a good song, sir,” Fusner said, his voice still a whisper, giving me the decision one way or another.
“What the hell,” I replied without whispering. I didn’t really care about the song as much as I wanted to listen to Brother John tell me good night.
“Here she is,” Brother John said from Fusner’s crummy little radio speaker. “The one and only Gracie Slick.” Somehow, even through such a tinny filter, Brother John’s voice remained deep and that depth resonated inside me.
“One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small…and the ones that mother gives you don't do anything at all…go ask Alice…when she's ten feet tall…”
I could not help but smile coldly at the idea of taking a pill for escape, although I knew full well that the only pill I was likely to get from the Marine Corps in my situation was one like the mother gives you in the song. White Rabbit the song was called. I’d first heard it the year before, staring across the street at the beautiful Italian college girl my brother was in love with. White Rabbit we’d laughingly called her behind her back. Now, I reflected, I was the white rabbit gone down the hole in Alice’s wonderland.
The Gunny showed up as the song ended and Brother John signed off. He was followed by Jurgens, with both of their radio operators. Four Marines accompanied them, all sliding into the mud and undergrowth to maximize the cover the small berm provided. I noted bolt action rifles carried by all four. I assumed from training that I was looking at two snipers and their spotters, although the spotters were equally armed. I also knew that the PVS-2 scope came along with a special rifle attachment so it could effectively be attached and sighted in for the accuracy of fire in the darkest of nights. How the snipers might attach our scope to one of their rifles, and then get their aiming dope down good enough to hit anything, I had no idea. But it wasn’t going to matter.
“No, we’re not going to fire out there,” I said, making the decision while I talked. “The NVA’s going to come out to get their dead, not us. We’re going to let them. I’ll man the Ontos with the scope in case they decide to take advantage of the situation. We’ve got plenty of high explosive rounds, and God knows the kind of bloody nose they took earlier from the flechettes and the gunship.”
The Gunny slowly and carefully lit a cigarette into the silence, the sound of his lighter ringing loud into the darkening night.
“Bull shit, Junior,” Jurgens said, his voice a more a loud hiss than anything else. “They get no quarter, just like they give no quarter. If those were our Marines out there they wouldn’t be letting us get our wounded and dead without giving us more wounded and dead. We’re going to hit them and hit them hard.”
“We have no supporting fires in the night,” I replied, my own voice low and controlled, although my right hand was once again on the butt of my Colt. I knew Jurgens was also trying to recover the male macho image he’d lost earlier on, and therefore felt he couldn’t back down.
“The Ontos is all we’ve got, but it can’t do a damn thing if it can’t see. We need the scope for that. Also, the enemy gets to collect its dead. I don’t care one whit about the NVA sense of honor but this is the United States Marine Corps and Marines let the enemy tend the wounded and collect the dead, or at least this element of the Marine Corps does.”
Jurgens moved from his stomach up to a crouch.
“Screw the scope,” Jurgens said. “The damned thing only works some of the time anyway. We’ll go back to our perimeter and pick off what we can see from reflections in the rain hitting the little gook’s backs.”
“I wouldn’t do that against orders, Sergeant Jurgens, and I’m ordering you to stand down.”
“Screw your orders, Junior,” Jurgens replied. “Our platoon does what it thinks is best when it comes to fighting the enemy.”
I stared at the impossible man. He didn’t move, and the failing light would not let me read his eyes. No one moved, so I did.
I rose up slowly, crossed the berm and hopped up into the back of the Ontos, where Sentry sat waiting.
“Start it up,” I ordered.
The loader turned the key and the Ontos kicked into life after only a few seconds.
I stepped to the controls, hit the turret swivel and began a slow winding move until the front of the turret and the six guns pointed at our own lines. I turned the key off myself, and then hopped down and re-crossed the berm to where the other Marines all sat or lay waiting.
The Gunny held out his cigarette. I took it, inhaled deeply while managing to avoid coughing before I breathed the smoke out.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Jurgens asked,
“I don’t know,” I responded, wanting to cough but fighting the reaction back. “What do you make of it?”
“I think you’re threatening me and my whole platoon, that’s what I think, Junior.”
“The NVA get their wounded and dead this night,” I repeated. “If they attack then I’ll turn my attention back to them. If your platoon breaks fire control and disobeys my order then the chips will have to fall where they may.”
“Gunny,” Jurgens said, a tone of desperation entering his delivery, “are you going to put up with this crap? Those aren’t ‘chips’ he’s talking about. Those are 106 H.E. rounds.”
“Nothing’s happened yet,” the Gunny said, snapping his cigarette out into the mud toward where the river still ran in a noisy flood.
“Let them get their people out of there. It’s harder to take care of the wounded and the dead than it is to leave them to rot and die. Make it harder on them, not easier. And Junior’s the company commander and battalion hasn’t relieved him with any success I’ve been able to witness. It’s for better or for worse down here, and, so far I think it’s been for the better.”
“So, that’s just it?” Jurgens said, his voice rising. “We’re supposed to go back to the platoon position with our own 106 guns pointed at us all night?”
“Junior?” Gunny asked gently. “You’ve made your point. It took five seconds to turn the turret. It would only take five seconds again, if that became necessary, which I don’t think it will.”
The Gunny turned his gaze back to Jurgens.
“It won’t, will it?” he said deliberately and slowly to the sergeant, not stating the question as a question at all.
I slid back up over the berm and re-entered the Ontos. Restarting and returning the gun turret to its former position, aimed at the distant edge of the jungle back from the river, was done in seconds, as the Gunny had predicted. In no time, I was back at Zippo’s side, ready to begin observing the mud flat with the Starlight Scope. I knew my night would be one of doing that, again and again, and then making certain the Ontos was ready to fire in the least possible time necessary. The time it might take for a charging enemy to reach across the distance from the jungle’s edge to where we were ensconced was less than three minutes at a run. That time period would not leave my mind until dawn finally appeared.
Jurgens said no more, waving his barely visible hand in the growing darkness for the others to follow. The snipers, their spotters, and the radio operator disappeared into the misting rain, leaving Zippo, Fusner, and the Gunny and I alone in a clump. Sentry was barely visible hanging out the back of the Ontos, smoking a cigarette. I knew that I’d be on call all night, moving from the berm to the Ontos and back at the slightest provocation. Sentry could load and fire the rounds on his own but nobody was going to be able to replace what I could do with Zippo and Fusner’s help, slaving the Starlight Scope’s ability to see in the dark with that of the 106 rounds terrific power. There was no way for the NVA to know we were out of flechette rounds until resupply, either.
Once it was dark enough to see clearly through the scope I began sweeping slowly back and forth across the mud flat. I kept the fingers of my left hand grasped lightly around the big front focusing ring near the very tip of the device. The focus was very sensitive but it was vital to minutely adjust to pick out any detail worth seeing.
Stopping to examine one particular spot I was finally able to see the enemy soldiers. They moved across the mud on their bellies. Right away I saw that they appeared to be unarmed. They pulled small packs behind them instead of wearing them on their backs. It took a few minutes to realize what they were doing. They weren’t attacking. They were pulling bodies and parts out of the mud holes or from the beaten surface of the mudflat itself.
I’d been unsure about going against Jurgens in not allowing him to use the snipers to take down any enemy moving in the night out on the mud flat. That it was more cumbersome for the enemy to tend to wounded and the dead had been an accurate statement by the Gunny, I knew, but the Gunny had neglected to mention just how many, and how easily, the NVA would be able to get the wounded and dead underground for care in the many deep clefts and caves they had peppered through the jungle area in front of us. I hadn’t made the decision strategically or tactically. I’d made it out of humanitarian necessity. It was personal, I realized. I felt so little like a human being that I was forced to participate in doing something that had at least the vestige of humanity left in it. Jurgens had been right to go after the enemy under any and all circumstance. But what was the ultimate result of doing right, in combat terms? The NVA had honored the company by not violating the packs and supplies left behind earlier up in the highlands. The NVA was capable of proving it could also be humanitarian under combat conditions, even if the NVA unit at that time had to have been a different one than we were facing down here by the river.
Nothing changed for hours. My watch told me the time, which seemed to pass in flickers instead of minutes or hours. I knew I was ‘flicking’ in and out of consciousness.
I was low on food, water and sleep was some strange mix of messed up consciousness and dreams, much like the weather constantly waving and wafting among us all, exposed as we were. Only the cleft under the cliff face offered any solace, safety and real comfort away from the rain and the real danger of getting hit in the night, but it might as well have been miles away.
The enemy worked doggedly and determined to slide the bodies and body parts back and away from the middle ground between forces. I became more and more satisfied with my decision not to shoot the rescuing enemy soldiers, particularly because they all appeared unarmed, something I’d not known when I’d made the decision. Jurgens remained true to his word, and there was no fire at all from the perimeter. I wasn’t certain, if that changed, whether I could muster the courage, rage and insanity it would take to fire the 106 against my own Marines, and the further the night progressed the more relief I began to feel.
Everything suddenly changed. Everything was wrong. I was staring at the working ant-like creatures the enemy resembled out on the flat when the night was broken open with the sound of helicopter blades.
“What the hell?” the Gunny whispered, appearing out of nowhere to throw himself down beside me.
Nguyen had moved just as the Gunny descended, in order to avoid being struck. I flicked my gaze toward the area of the night he quickly disappeared into, realizing I’d not known he’d been right there at my side all along.
“We don’t fly choppers at night, not in this pea soup and not with the likelihood of incoming fire,” the Gunny said.
But the sounds of spinning Huey chopper blades only increased in volume. There was no mistaking what they were and that there was more than one of them. I glanced back through the scope but the mud was now empty of all humanity.
“What is this?” the Gunny asked, shocking me.
If the Gunny was surprised by the chopper blade sounds then all bets were off, and I had no idea what might be coming. The only reassurance I had was that the enemy possessed no Huey choppers of its own. Whatever was coming in without advanced contact or warning was our own, but what hell was its arrival going to cause to be brought down on our heads?