by Richard Alexander
Derek Holmes still expected to wake up and find himself sitting on the back flap of the personnel carrier as the convoy headed down Highway 13 toward Xuan Loc, his buddy Steve alive and sitting next to him, sucking beer from an ice cold can of Hamm’s. Sergeant Mosley, also alive and sitting up in the turret. Evans sitting up in the driver’s compartment, driving. Roger Miller singing the song “Trailers for Sale or Rent” on Evans’ transistor radio.
There was no music now, though. Only a blackened village and the burnt boy.
The boy – oh my , oh jeez – he had no…where was his face? Blackened and swollen and covered with welts, from the balls of fire that had swept through the village and enveloped him and his friends as they’d tried to make it to the entrance of a nearby tunnel, it looked as if the flesh from his nose, forehead, mouth and around his jaw had melted, then hardened into the hideous mask he seemed to be wearing. And yet – could this be? Was this possible? From within this grotesque rearrangement of what Derek assumed had, less than an hour ago been a normal fourteen, fifteen-year-old Vietnamese boy’s face, the boy’s big, dark eyes were gazing up at him.
Derek turned away, and then looked back. His heart was pounding. It hadn’t stopped racing since peering out from behind one of the trees at the edge of the jungle he’d realized that one of the airstrike victims was still alive.
Derek glanced at the boy’s dead pals. His comrades. Already swarms of flies were hovering thickly above them. Listening to the hum, Derek breathed the fetid, chemical smelling air in through his parched mouth in order to keep from gagging—from retching—and losing whatever liquid he still had left inside him.
The boy. In his mind, as Derek ran his eyes over the raw, painful looking welts on the boy’s thin, naked body, the flaming red patches where the boy’s skin used to be, he watched himself thrashing through jungle as he worked his way down the side of a ridge and came to this bombed-out village.
Lost, ravaged by thirst, the swollen bump where he’d been struck on the back of the head by one of his captors throbbing, he’d stood on top of a hill watching the airstrike and hoped he might find Americans in the village – US soldiers come to count the kills – but all he’d found were scorched ruins, and the boy.
Kneeling beside the boy, peering into his eyes, he found himself haunted by the distant memory of his mother laying on a hospital bed dying of cancer. Oh, Ma, he remembered thinking, an eight-year-old boy standing at his mother’s bedside. But there was nothing he could do – him or anyone else. Just stand there and watch. Be with her. Hold her hand and—
Derek blinked, his eyes stinging with sweat. Although the sun’s rays were blocked by a thick tangle of leaves that left them in a wide pool of shade, the steaming heat still made Derek feel as if he was inside a sauna. Once again, Derek reached for an end of the towel draped around his neck, but as had been the frustrating case hundreds of times during the past four days, the towel wasn’t there. Soaked in Steve’s blood, it was on the floor of the personnel carrier Derek, Steve and Nguyen had been on when the second platoon convoy came under attack. It was thick, rich blood that, using the towel as a bandage, Derek couldn’t stop gushing from two bullet holes, one on the side of Steve’s neck, the other on the side of his head.
Blood. From Derek’s buddy Steve and from Sergeant Mosley and the two NVA soldiers who had fallen on Derek. Blood that had been on Derek for four days now, on his skin, the skin of his hands and forearms, and on his fatigue shirt and pants. Blood that was rotting, decomposing and that along with the rank, fetid smelling odors his grungy, sweat-soaked body was releasing into the hot, moist air was becoming increasingly…strong, malodorous.
But his rankness was still not as powerful and pervasive as the stench from burned flesh and rotting corpses of the boy’s dead friends. Derek was certain that his captors, who he’d managed to slip away from somehow, were out there trying to differentiate Derek’s scent from the stench of their dead, unlucky pals that was all-too-familiar to them. Continuing to breathe in slowly through his mouth in order to keep the stink of death from further invading his nostrils, Derek imagined his captors sniffing the air outside the village somewhere, trying like bloodhounds to find or hold onto his scent. Their superiors were obviously not pleased when they learned that the blindfolded, hands tied behind his back prisoner they were leading up north had gotten away, vanished somehow.
The towel. That bloody towel. The last time Derek had seen it, it had turned purple and was covering Steve’s neck.
Steve had looked up at Derek – Derek thought he had, at least – and then his body had twitched, and his eyes rolled back inside his head.
The boy blinked. Watching him and imagining him during better days, Derek wondered if the boy had grown up nearby. Did he know Derek’s friend, Nguyen, the South Vietnamese scout who rode with Steve and him on the same personnel carrier? Did he know Nguyen’s sisters, May Lin and Lei? Did they all grow up around Xuan Loc and go to school together? If they did, it was obvious that they’d gone their own separate ways when the war started.
Derek remembered sitting inside a bunker with Steve and Nguyen. Nguyen had told them about how his father had been dragged out of his family’s hut, blindfolded, and executed in the street in front of him, his mother, and two sisters. It was before he’d been sent to Fort Bragg to learn to be a scout, before he was assigned to the second platoon. Before Steve met Nguyen’s sister, May Lin at the Playboy Bar in Xuan Loc.
Flashing on Nguyen’s pleasant, smiling face, Derek wondered what happened to him after they both left Steve lying dead on the floor of the carrier. Had he survived? Hope you’re not running around out here lost like I am, thought Derek. Hope you weren’t captured. Hope you’re not being led up north, blindfolded, by angry enemy soldiers the way I was. Hope you’re not…
By now the grisly scene following the ambush had been cleaned up. The charred wreckage of the carriers that had burned, plus the five trucks that were in the convoy and the two jeeps, had already no doubt been lifted from the ambush site by helicopters and carried back to base camp. The Cav’s brass – who had to be somewhat embarrassed by the whole episode – would’ve made sure that by now the enemy no longer had such obvious symbols as still smoldering personnel carriers and jeeps and trucks to rally around and gloat over.
The stricken vehicles were most likely gone. The strewn bodies of second platoon soldiers, Steve’s among them, had certainly been placed in body bags and removed by now. And except for the shot-up trees and blackened areas where napalm had struck, the site probably didn’t look much different than it had just prior to the ambush.
Napalm. As he was walking along the jungle trail with his captors, blindfolded, before his escape, Derek had heard the unmistakable roar, then thunderous crack of diving jets close by. He figured that since whoever was left defending the convoy was probably still being overrun, airstrikes had been called in.
Wiping sweat from his eyes, Derek realized that the sooty material clinging to the boy’s badly burned body was cloth from his singed pajamas. Besides covering portions of the boy’s wounds, pieces of the charred cloth were scattered in the dust and ashes next to him. And half-buried and interspersed among the pieces of cloth were what appeared to be the charred remains of the boy’s cartridge belt. Black cartridges that had most likely been in pouches attached to the belt the boy was wearing now lay scattered in the dust like chunks of slate. And several feet beyond the boy’s head, what he thought was a piece of debris from the destroyed huts or a limb from the still-burning trees was, in fact, an AK-47. Derek imagined the boy and his friends clenching their rifles as they ran desperately in front of the pursuing firestorm, their rifles flying from their arms as hot flames overcame and enveloped them, knocking them down.
Leaning forward, Derek grabbed the rifle and shook off the dust. Except for the damaged stock, it seemed in good condition – ready to fire! “How many Americans you kill with that?” Derek mentally asked the boy.
He envisioned the boy aiming his rifle at Steve’s head, his freckled face, dust-covered beard, and bushy hair in the boy’s sights as Steve stood inside the back of the track firing his machine gun.
Once again Derek’s eyes met the boy’s – Does he have any idea how badly off he is? Then he moved to the blackened metal object lying next to where the rifle had been. Canteen?
Derek cautiously picked up whatever it was. Canteen, yes. He glanced at the seared, sooty material lying next to what was left of the boy’s pistol belt, probably residue from the pouch the canteen was in.
Derek jiggled the canteen back and forth. He listened to the liquid inside sloshing around. Remembering how he’d licked dew from leaves that morning, before the sun had once again risen in the sky and burned the dripping moisture away, Derek ran his parched tongue back and forth over his upper lip, savoring the warm, salty liquid running down his face in streams and collecting above his mouth. He peeked inside the dark cavity of the boy’s mouth. It had a rim of swollen, pale grey flesh that seemed to have melted and then hardened over the boy’s gums and teeth. It looked like the mouth of some primitive sea creature opening and closing at the bottom of the ocean. Overwhelmed with pity, he noticed the boy’s long, thin tongue darting back and forth.
“You thirsty?” Derek whispered.
The boy tilted his head back.
“Okay,” said Derek, unscrewing the canteen’s cap. He imagined the boy earlier in the day dipping the canteen into a polluted river or stream and filling it with water – water that had likely been shat or peed into.
Derek remembered the remarkable sensation of swallowing even tepid water from his own canteen while on patrols; or swallowing that marvelous, thirst-quenching concoction of squeezed lemons and oranges that Sergeant Gonzalez sometimes prepared; or the ice-cold grape drink that Derek had prepared in a plastic drinking bag by mixing water with one of the Kool-aid packets his wife, Janet, had sent him and from which he’d taken a long swig moments before the ambush. He remembered swallowing those liquids and then having it flow soothingly down his throat. Ah!
Again, Derek used the back of his hand to wipe sweat from his face, and then holding his hand above his mouth, licked the thick, salty liquid dripping from his fingers. Agonized by thirst, he raised the canteen to his mouth and threw back his head, but as soon as the foul liquid touched his tongue and lips, he spat it out, heeding Janet’s warning. Janet was right. He was already dangerously dehydrated. The last thing he needed was a knock-down, drag-out bout with dysentery.
He held the canteen’s opening over the boy’s mouth and let water trickle into it. A chill ran up and down his spine as he imagined himself increasing the flow making the boy feel as if he was drowning. He could do that. By rotating his wrist. Thinking of his own fear of drowning – of being trapped under water unable to breathe (information the North Vietnamese would surely be interested in should he be recaptured), Derek shuddered imagining the boy gasping for air and looking up at him with bewildered, panic-stricken eyes.
The boy held his head back. He was swallowing. Derek watched his Adam’s apple moving up and down. His eyes widened. Water was going down his throat. Derek swallowed with him. The extreme dryness inside his mouth made it difficult. His mouth felt chalky, as if it had cotton balls in it.
“Oh Janet,” he cried out to himself, remembering standing outside a village thirstily gulping down ice cold Coca Cola.
The boy arched and lifted his thin, frail arms. They were naked and burned like the rest of him. They looked like the limbs of some alien creature. The tiny hands, which had somehow managed to get through the firestorm unscathed and were incongruously still attached to the boy’s thin, blackened forearms, were almost dainty looking. Was the boy from a family who were not peasants? Who weren’t farmers? He held his head back. Two large, shiny black eyes peered up at Derek from within the middle of the boy’s face. They seemed strangely content.
And just as the boy was raising his head, indicating that he’d had enough and needed a moment to catch his breath, Derek saw something move out of the corner of his eye. Feeling exposed, the spell that had come over him broken, he turned and watched whoever was climbing out of the tunnel scramble back inside. Setting down the canteen, Derek grabbed the boy’s rifle and hurried over to where the boy’s pals were. Staring eyes, swarms of flies pouring in and out of gaping mouths. The stink of rotting flesh. Holding his breath, Derek examined the rifles and ammo clips scattered among the corpses. He set down the boy’s rifle, shoved an ammo clip into another, and fired into the air. Then with the tested AK-47 and the ammo clips he’d gathered, he scurried over to the tunnel’s entrance. Wriggling forward, he thrust the rifle into the hole and fired. The noise was deafening. He retrieved the rifle, slapped in another magazine, shoved the rifle back inside the hole, and fired again. Withdrawing the rifle, he sat up and glanced around. No one was behind him. He shoved in another magazine and stood up.
Granted, the only way of knowing if the bullets he’d fired had killed or at least maimed whoever was hiding below was to crawl down inside the hole and find out. “But I’m not going to do that,” he reminded himself, “remember?” Even if it was true – which it was – that he’d rather end up being recaptured than crawling down into that hole, it made absolutely no sense for him to go down there. The enemy soldier had likely planted booby-traps, expecting Derek to come after him. Not to mention the fact that without a flashlight Derek wouldn’t be able to see anything. Whoever was down there would have a field day. Oh, we’ve got him where we want him now, they’d be thinking. Yes! They could set up a special gauntlet. You got away from us once, had yourself a nice little run, but—
Derek imagined whoever he’d seen disappear into the tunnel and several of his buddies, holding their rifles, as they hurried through one of the tunnel corridors. He imagined them popping up, one by one, from another entrance and cautiously moving toward him.
Derek leaned the rifle on a rock and swept up the remaining clips, stuffing them into his pockets. He snatched up the rifle again and placed it on automatic before pointing it toward the village.
Oh shit! His boots were leaving foot prints!
He looked around. He spotted a branch at the edge of the jungle and picked it up. Though partially burned, it still had small leaves on it. Mentally catching a whiff of pine needles and hearing the comforting sound of water lapping against the rocky shore of a lake, he crept backward, sweeping the leaves of the branch back and forth as if it was the inside of his and Janet’s tent.
When he’d finally plodded his way to the clump of trees that was going to be his lookout (my blind, he thought), he slipped behind a tree. Running his eyes back and forth along the ground between the entrance to the tunnel and his position, he searched for even the slightest evidence that his handheld broom might have missed something, some line or indentation, but his eyes detected nothing. The ground looked exactly as it had before he set out.
As Derek moved back further into the trees, he remembered his favorite hunting blinds in upstate and western New York. Janet had sat with him in the blind near Willow Creek several times. He remembered peering out at the field in front of them at dusk, suddenly realizing that there was a large buck with huge antlers standing next to the woods close by. With his arms shaking and heart pounding wildly, he’d raised the rifle, aimed it, and—
But that was a deer I was waiting for, he thought, Not—
He glanced over at the boy and then let his eyes wander over to the wall of trees on the other side of the village. He glimpsed the two blackened rocks at the entrance to the tunnel. If they survived, he thought, if whoever is inside that hole over there survived my attack and isn’t lying in the dirt, bleeding, riddled with bullets, then they will be doing some recon soon. In that case they would enter the village from somewhere along that wall of trees over there.
Derek eyed the long, leafy branches of the tree that provided him with cover. He was thirsty. The back of his head hurt. He reached up and touched his wound. It was infected and scared him. He’d seen what untreated infections could do in this part of the world. He wished that his buddy Doc was there to examine it for him, to apply some of that antibacterial goo he carried around with him.
Doc. Scotty. Scotty Hanlon. Dead now, cut in half by machine gun fire as he jumped down from the flaming wreckage.
Derek lowered his head, tilting it sideways so that Janet and Doc, who he imagined were standing there beside him, could get a better look. His status report to them was…well…the swelling had gone down some. It was no longer the golf ball it had been two days after his escape, when he’d heard voices one afternoon and had stood frozen like a frightened animal at the edge of a sea of elephant grass while a patrol of VC had crashed through it.
Derek removed his hand from the back of his head. The blood that had gushed from the cut after he’d been struck – probably by the butt of an AK-47 – had soaked the blindfold. It had dried, giving the back of his head a strange, crusty feel, but around the gash at the top of the swollen knob was a gooey substance that was sticky on his fingers now. The blood that had spouted like a fountain had soaked his thick hair also, leaving it feeling stiff and matted when it dried.
He tore off another piece of one of the gigantic leaves dangling from a nearby branch, shoved it into his mouth, and began chewing. He chewed until he had a mouthful of liquid. The juice was foul and bitter tasting, and he had to swallow deeply in order to get it down. He placed his hand over his stomach and breathed in steadily.
“See Ma,” he cried, desperately trying to keep from puking. “I…” As his eyes wandered over to the boy, he remembered how his mother had stood next to him by the kitchen sink in the house in Utica and shoved a spoonful of thick, syrupy liquid into his mouth. “I took my medicine just like you asked me to.”
Derek thought of Janet, and how miserable she must be worrying about him. “She knows I’m alive,” he said to himself, imagining her in their apartment thinking about him. “She can sense it, I know. I know this. Isn’t that right, babe? I don’t know what the Army told you, sweetheart, that I’ve been classified as an MIA, of course, but…” Derek forced down more pieces of leaf – his afternoon snack. “I’m trying to eat as much of this shit as I possibly can,” he said, “have to keep up my strength. Keep from becoming dehydrated, so . . .”
In his mind, Derek saw Janet leave their second-floor apartment, walk down some steps, cut across a lawn to the parking lot, and get into her Camaro to head out onto Merchants Street. “Be careful, baby,” Derek said. “Drive safely. I want you in perfect condition for when I pull myself out of this mess – which I’m going to do, I promise – and we get together in Hawaii or some such place.” As he imagined Janet, with her hair up –”you have your hair up, baby?” reaching forward and nervously turning on the radio, the song, “Baby Love,” by the Supremes, began playing inside his head. Baby love, my baby love, you know, you know how I need your love . . .
As he mimicked the words, moving his head up and down to the song’s rhythm, he wondered if by some coincidence Janet was sitting in her car singing along with the Supremes the way he was, right then. He hoped so. It was a song they both liked and had sung together and danced to, many, many times – and made love to! Oh yeah! He remembered hearing the sweet sound of Diana Ross’s voice in the background as Janet and he took full advantage of some glorious, wish this would never, ever end moment. Baby love, my baby love, you know, you know I need your love—
He thought of Janet sitting in the car listening to the radio. All he knew was, she was there, somewhere in western New York, and he was…here, hiding behind some trees, getting ready to —
He looked around. “How long should I stand here?” he asked himself. “At what point do I assume that whoever was down inside that tunnel is dead, or at least wounded – hurt badly enough that they won’t be able to come after me?”
Derek thought of himself standing there in his blind and remembered how the “escape and evasion” instructor at Fort Carson had scolded Steve and him for talking during class. He’d told them, “You two had better hope to God that neither of you ever ends up . . .” What, Sarge? Being in a situation like the one I’m in right now? Well…
It was time to move on, get the hell out of there. If whoever was inside the tunnel was going to come after him, they would have showed up by now. But they hadn’t. And he was glad.
He scanned the village. He would be leaving it the same way he entered. Over by that break in the trees. But first, the boy! What about the boy? He was still…Jesus. He was still breathing. His chest moved up and down, up and down.
Derek thought of his mother, who he was told had begged the Lord to end her suffering. She hadn’t voiced that sentiment to Derek, though, he was too young. But Derek knew by the look in her eyes what she wanted.
The boy. Flies covered his mouth. Derek could feel them brushing against his own face and tried to spit them out. “I can’t just…” A chill ran up and down his spine. “I can’t just go off and leave him like that, can I, Janet?”
Derek looked into the boy’s eyes. He was watching him. His breathing quickened. Derek’s breathing quickened also. The two of them stared at each other.
“I wish,” Derek whispered. He grabbed hold of the boy’s hand. “I wish.” He glanced over at the boy’s dead friends. “I wish”—
Derek would look back on his ordeal many times; in the hospital following his rescue; in rice paddies and jungle; inside bunkers and during fire fights and dust-offs; during memorial services; and then, after he was home. He did so many, many times while lying in bed with Janet or lying in bed alone after Janet had left him. He thought of it while riding in the police cruiser with his partner.He’d remember that while holding the boy’s hand, he’d moved the lever on the side of the rifle to semi-automatic. He’d raised the rifle, and, holding it so it was straight up and down, he’d placed the tip of the barrel into the boy’s mouth. He’d closed his eyes and placed his finger on the trigger. He’d said a prayer to ask for God’s forgiveness, then pulled his finger in toward him. He’d done for the wounded Viet Cong boy ten-thousand miles away what neither he nor anyone else had been able to do for his ailing mother twelve years ago.