by Eddie Jeffrey
“Shit, LT,” Sherston said. He was the RTO. Tall and awkward and looking like he’d been ill-fed as a child, he slouched heavily under the strain of the added weight of the field radio. “We should don’t and say we did.”
They’d been traipsing around Gia Lai going on a month now and nothing. Not even a case of heatstroke. Guys were getting spooky. Super-superstitious. There wasn’t a scrap of wood for twenty miles around they hadn’t knocked on, and when they crowned the last hill overlooking the last village they had to check out before calling in the choppers and heading back to base camp, they just knew something was going to go down.
“I’m with Sherston,” Rubeiro said. He was their good luck charm, their rabbit’s foot. He’d written ACE OF QUEENS across the front of his helmet because that’s where he was from. An aura of unassailable cool emanated from the ever-present smile that beamed from his broad, sunburned face. “That village is bad news, LT. Know how I know? My crotch rot sense is tingling.”
That got a laugh, even from Lieutenant Prescott, who quickly coughed to stifle it. He thought going down into the village would be pushing their luck, too. But, it wasn’t even a question. They had orders and that was that.
“You know as well as I do we’ll end up right back out here one way or the other,” Lieutenant Prescott said. “As for your tingling crotch, Rubeiro…that sounds like a personal problem. You should get that checked out.”That got a laugh, too. Lieutenant Prescott couldn’t help himself. He was a human being, after all.
“Besides, what if the VC are here and we just pack it in without checking it out? What if some other guys come out here and get into trouble? Are you honestly telling me you would be okay with that?” Lieutenant Prescott asked. He’d put his professional mask back on. He wasn’t a West Point man, and he let his guard down more than he wanted to admit, but he was an ROTC grad. He cared about his men, but he cared about rules. Responsibility. The Chain of Command. He cared about The War.
“If it’s between my conscience and my ass,” Sauer chimed in, “I’ll take my ass every time. Sir.”
“Maybe you and Rubeiro ought to pay a visit to the aid station together when we get back,” Lieutenant Prescott said, glaring at Sauer.
Nobody thought it was funny.
He hated the man. Everyone knew it. There was something about Sauer that scared him, too. Something off kilter way back behind the big man’s sapphire blue eyes.
“Sgt. Eppes,” Lieutenant Prescott snapped. He could always take it out on Eppes. Eppes was like some kind of masochistic, redheaded stepchild.
“Take one of your men down there and get a closer look.”
“Seago, you’re with me,” Eppes said, dropping his gear without hesitation or complaint. Seago dropped his pack, cursing under his breath all the while.
“I think he likes you, Seago,” Rubeiro said.
Eppes was always picking Seago for these details because he was half Navajo on his mother’s side. Eppes thought it made him stealthier than everyone else, but Seago had lived most of his life in South Philly.
“Fuck off, Rubeiro,” Seago said, and he stalked off reluctantly down the hill after Eppes.
“I had a job painting houses and this one place, man, you wouldn’t believe the broad who lived there. She looked like Ann Margaret. Aw, man, redheads just make me wild! And this one had hair down to her ass almost and all she was wearing was her housecoat, you know, and it wasn’t tied up real good and I could see right down the front. Fucking Cleavage City! And skin so creamy but all freckled up like she’d been rolled in cinnamon. Shit, man. We played our parts long enough for me get the ladder and my gear set up so it looked legit to the neighbors and then she called out asking if I wouldn’t want some coffee and I said sure and she was naked as Eve with that big old red flaming bush giving me the COME HITHER QUIVER when I went inside. Just standing in the doorway to the hallway off the kitchen and she didn’t say nothing, she just turned and walked down the hall and her dimpled ass sashaying side to side and bouncing there at the bottom with every step she took and it give a little jiggle…hot damn! And then she went into the bedroom. You can guess how long it took before I was stripped down and giving her a taste of the old T-Sow Pow Pow, you know what I’m saying? And we’re just going at it and this broad is filthy, man, the stuff she’s saying, and the raunchier she got the hotter it got and right when I’m about to blow my load I heard the front door slam and before I could get out of there her husband’s there in the doorway blocking me. Now I’m no Tom Thumb myself, but this motherfucker is huge. Like The Giant of Metropolis huge. And he’s got a bat. I didn’t have no choice but to jump out the window. About broke my damn ankle and before I can get to my truck, her husband makes it outside and cold cocks me upside the head. Next thing I know I’m in the klink. Her fucking husband’s brother’s a goddamn cop and they fixed me up for a B and E and the judge said it’s the Army or jail. That’s how I ended up over in this piss pot.”
“Okay, asswipes. What’s the hold up? The Old Man wants a SITREP ASAP,” First Sergeant Carmichael said as he came crashing out of the trees behind them. He had just come up from the end of the line on the reverse slope where 3rd Platoon was waiting. His jaw was so filled with tobacco he looked like a white, lopsided Dizzy Gillespie.
“I’ll radio the Old Ma—I mean Captain Wheeling–as soon as my scouts return from reconnoitering the village, First Sergeant,” Lieutenant Prescott said. Carmichael had been in Korea. He had a string of North Korean and Chinese ears he liked to scare all the new guys with. Prescott got jumpy whenever the man was around.
“It’s okay, Sir. We’re all equally fouled up in the eyes of the Lord,” Carmichael said.
It wasn’t a minute later that Eppes and Seago made their way back up the hill.
“Speak of the goddamn Devil,” Carmichael said. “Where the fuck have you two pole bangers been? The LT won’t say it, but I will. The Old Man’s about to shit a whale, for Chrissakes.”
“Thank you, First Sergeant. I’ll take it from here,” Lieutenant Prescott said. He was determined the man would learn his place, even if it was all just for show.
Carmichael spat out a huge gob of tobacco juice right between the lieutenant’s feet. “It’s your shitshow,” he said, and turned and crashed back through the trees like some monster receding from a dream.
“What a lunatic,” Lieutenant Prescott said once he was certain Carmichael couldn’t hear him. He was hoping at least one of his men would pipe up and agree with him. When he was roundly ignored, he turned on Eppes. “What the hell took so long?”
“You ain’t gonna like this, Lieutenant,” Eppes said.
Seago grabbed a seat with Rubeiro and the rest while Eppes briefed Lieutenant Prescott.
“You hear that, fellas? For once, Eppes ain’t got his head up his ass,” Seago said. “Looks like they seen us coming. They’re waiting for us. Ain’t nothing in sight. Not a water buffalo. Nothing. We could see smoke coming from one of the hooches, though. They’re down there all right. Probably all underground by now.”
“Forty-two and a wake-up,” Rubeiro said. “It was all hear no evil, see no evil this whole goddamn time and now this?”
“Ruby, my man. You’re so short you’re practically invisible,” Sauer said. “Old Charles can’t hit what he can’t see, can he?”
“I bet this place is tunnel city,” Seago went on. “I bet they even got their water buffalo corralled down there with them. Got a buddy in Delta Company transferred from Cu Chi says he seen it there. Tunnels like you wouldn’t believe. Whole hospital wards and shit. I bet half this country’s underfuckinground.”
“You are some kind of goddamn hemorrhoid, you know that, Seago?” Rubeiro said.
“Hey, man. I’m just laying it out for you. Trying to paint a picture,” Seago said.
“It’s just another lovely fucking day in the Nam, Ruby,” Sauer said. “Ain’t no sweat.”
“I get it now. Rubeiro forgot to put on his bulletproof underwear this morning,” Seago said.
Rubeiro chucked the can of beans he had been eating at Seago’s head and then launched himself at the little man. They rolled in the dirt, trading punches here and there, and everybody just sat around and laughed and spurred them on until Lieutenant Prescott finally broke them apart.
Everything Leonard Eppes, should have been he wasn’t. He was no rock. He should have kept the men in his platoon grounded, kept their heads screwed on right and tight, and no matter how many 2nd Lieutenants came through and tried to get them all killed just so they could fill their body count quotas, punch their tickets, and trade in their butter bars for nice shiny silver ones, Eppes should have been right there to shield them from the worst of it. Instead, he was an even bigger bungler than the most incompetent ninety-day wonder and a kissass of the worst stripe. How he ever made sergeant boggled the minds of everyone who came in contact with him. His men hated him, and his officers did, too. The only one who had ever had any patience for him had been Lieutenant Prescott. If he hadn’t been so much of a worm he might have gotten somewhere, might even have found his ass a nice REMF gig polishing a chair behind a desk with air conditioning and no shortage of ice cold sodas to sip and a different hooch maid for every day of the week to polish his desk and lollipop for him. Eppes being who he was, the thought probably never even occurred to him.
“Enough, goddammit! Enough!” Lieutenant Prescott said. “Napier. Monroe. Take up a security position on one of the paddy dykes with a clear field of fire on the village. The rest of you, square yourselves away and follow me,” he said and marched off down the hill.
No one said a word. They just rucked up and moved out.
The silence was a physical, palpable presence. It bore down on them like an extra dimension of gravity. It was as if the release of their tension moments ago had only been a downshifting of gears in preparation for the big rev up to high speed.
A light breeze kicked up.
“Aw man,” someone at the end of the line said, “it smells like the ass end of a stuck hog.”
“That pork loaf will get you every time,” someone else said.
They could have filled the air with jokes and curses forever, but an explosion to their rear sent them sprawling. Later, some of them would say they felt the ground shake a split second before they heard the rigged 105 go off that killed Napier and Munroe. Munroe must have tripped it. They couldn’t find enough of him to fill a helmet. Napier was all there except for his left arm below the elbow. They never found it. Not that it mattered. He bled out before anyone could get to him.
No one had even stepped foot in the village yet.
“How’s your conscience now, sir?” Sauer said.
“Stow it, Sauer,” Lieutenant Prescott said. “Sherston. Get that radio over here.”
“No. I want to fucking know, sir. I really fucking do, sir. How’s your fucking conscience, sir?”
“This is the last time I’m going to warn you, Sauer. Get out of my face, or I swear to God when we get back I’m going to court-martial you for insubordination.”
“Come on, T-Sow,” Rubeiro said. “The man takes himself just serious enough to do it.”
Twenty days later, Rubeiro was dead. Before the short round that whistled down out of the sky killed him, he’d survived life as a frontline infantryman in Vietnam for 343days.
It was an accident, a mistake, the result of fouled up coordinates shrieked into a squelchy field radio during a firefight. They had been pinned down. It hadn’t been Eppes’ intention to kill any of his men. It had been his intention to save them, and, naturally, himself. Himself most of all. Eppes survived his error and Rubeiro paid the price for it. It was that simple. That random. If the war had been a pinball game, Rubeiro’s death would have had it flashing ‘TILT.’
When the shooting stopped, one by one the men shuffled by and paid their respects to Rubeiro’s remains and then formed up around Eppes.
“It’s all just one big fucking ‘TILT,’” Eppes said, as if that would suffice as explanation, as if to say there had been some unfortunate misunderstanding and I’m sorry, so sorry you can’t believe it, but there’s nothing I can do. “A fucking ‘TILT,’ the whole goddamn thing,” he said. “The whole thing! Don’t you see?”
The men didn’t, especially Sauer.
“You and your fucked up fire mission,” Sauer said. “You wasted Ruby, you dumbfuck.”
“Stand clear,” Eppes said. He drew his sidearm.
Sauer didn’t budge, not even when Eppes drew a bead on his head.
“You better mean it, Eppes. You better not miss.”
Eppes pulled the trigger. Nothing happened.
“Fucking dud,” somebody said. “You believe that? I fucking seen it, I don’t believe it.”
“Shit, I bet he ain’t even take the motherfucking safety off,” somebody said.
Sauer spat in Eppes’ face. “You’re dead, asshole. Hear me? You’re dead.”
They dispersed and spread themselves out along the tree line at the edge of the clearing, waiting for the choppers that would take them back to base camp.
It began to rain. Sauer sat with Rubeiro’s body and cried. Those that cared to donned their ponchos.
“This ain’t over. Sir,” Sauer said.
“Rubeiro. Get this man out of my sight, or you’re going to get the same,” Lieutenant Prescott said, and then he bent over as if he’d been pushed in the back. He crumpled to the ground as if all the bones in his body had suddenly turned to sand. Sauer and Rubeiro registered the report of the sniper’s rifle just as the ground around Lieutenant Prescott’s head began to turn red.
Everybody hit the deck again.
“You see that muzzle flash, Sherston?” Sauer said.
Sherston was clawing at the ground. Between shots when they weren’t squeezed shut, his eyes were boring holes in the earth.
“Sherston!” Sauer said. “Goddammit! Get that radio over here!’
Sherston didn’t move. Sauer didn’t, either.
“Fuck it,” Rubeiro said, and snatched the map from Lieutenant Prescott’s lifeless hand and eased over to Sherston on his belly.
“The LT’s gone, Sherston. Eppes wouldn’t come over if he could. You’re it, Sherston. You’re our goddamn Knight in Shining Fucking Armor. What say we get some Willy Pete on that tree line, huh? Make that sniper disappear.”
Sherston couldn’t stop shaking, but he managed to turn his head toward Rubeiro who grabbed the handset from the radio and held it up to Sherston’s head.
“I’ll give you the coordinates. You just say the magic words.”
Sherston nodded and between the two of them they got the fire mission called in.
The first round they called was smoke. It went well long.
“It’s okay, man. Long as it ain’t short,” Rubeiro said.
Two more tries and then it was fire for effect and the tree line was crawling with giant, white-legged spiders.
“Great daddy-long legs, you did it, Sherston!” Rubeiro said. “You just painted a fucking masterpiece with a howitzer.”
“Check this shit out,” Sauer said.
There was a hole in the back of Lieutenant Prescott’s helmet. Sauer took it off.
“Don’t,” Rubeiro said, but Sauer had already turned Lieutenant Prescott’s body over.
There was no exit wound. The round was still in his head. His face was smeared with blood and grit and dirt. Blood trails streaked from his ears, eyes, and nose.
“Leave him be.”
“He don’t mind,” Sauer said. “You don’t mind, do you, LT? Nah. You’re going to get yourself a nice open casket funeral. Just a few wipes with a warm wash rag, you’ll look good as baby spanking new, won’t you? You’ll be laying there with all your medals and you gung-ho motherfucker, I bet you’ll have your combat boots on, too, won’t you? And your mama and your papa and all your family and friends, they’ll get to see you one last time and kiss and stroke this pretty little face of yours, huh? Ah, it’s going to be a beautiful goddamn Blaze of Glory funeral with a twenty-one gun salute and everything, ain’t it, sir? A-Number One, sir, ain’t it?” Sauer said, and then he bent down and spoke directly into the hole in the back of Lieutenant Prescott’s head. “Still got to ask, though. You know me, sir. How’s your conscience now, sir?”
Sherston didn’t say anything. He just got up, lit a cigarette, and walked away.
Sherston finally worked up the courage…no. That wasn’t it. It was something else. He couldn’t explain it. To himself. His wife. His kids. Nobody. It was impossible. You can’t explain what you don’t know yourself. So Sherston, like so many survivors, was at a loss to get across why he was picking at old wounds.
Unlike most, though, Sherston’s wounds had transcended mere physical and emotional scars. There was a place set aside he could go, a thing he could see and touch, the world could see and touch, a totem of sorts, a giant middle finger to forgetfulness, that V-shaped scab in DC that still hadn’t healed. And one day, Sherston found himself at the Vietnam War Memorial looking for the names he knew were etched into it. Rubeiro and Prescott for starters. He found some others he thought he’d forgotten about, too. No. Not forgotten. Some of their faces, maybe, barely discernible now through the washed out watercolors of faded memories. But, no. He hadn’t forgotten them. How could he?
You don’t forget the swamp-gurgle sound of a perforated chest or a whole squad wasted all in one go when their chopper was blasted out of the sky by an RPG or how a guy looked after a cobra bit him in the face. No. You don’t forget. Even though all you want to do is forget. But deep down, you really don’t want to. It’d be like losing a leg. It’s The Great Tragedy of The Self. The Great Paradox. So you just go on living. Or at least not dying. Not yet. You don’t let on. To friends. Family. Even yourself. Yourself most of all. You save the biggest lies for yourself. You keep busy, distracted. Stay on the move. Keep the memories from waking moments. Box them out. That’s how you make it. Wake up. Do it again. And the next day. And the next day after that for the next ten, twenty, thirty, forty years. As long as it takes. You hump that shit. Hump it like some extra, disfigured phantom limb. Hump it like you humped that ruck. Until it ain’t nothin. Not a thing.
All he could see after a while was his reflection staring back at him from the polished, black granite surface of the wall. Like he was the ghost. He instinctively recoiled from that all-too-familiar feeling, like hitting the deck under a mortar barrage, and in the process, stumbled. He thought he was going ass over tea kettle, but managed to right himself at the last second. He forced a laugh, a bit of sheepish bravado for anyone who might be standing nearby, as if to say “The old man’s just a little clumsy today,” but he was all alone.
He squared himself away and took his bearings. He bought a cup of coffee and a pack of smokes from one of the vendors scattered about the area and staked out a seat on the stairs of the Lincoln Memorial with his back to Arlington National Cemetery, which lay just across the river behind him, and gazed out over the Reflecting Pool toward the Washington Monument.
Shit, he said.
He brought out the cigarettes and his old Zippo. He studied the faded words, but he didn’t even have to look. He knew them by heart. One side said: THE ONLY THING I GET OUT OF KILLING A PERSON IS THE RECOIL OF MY RIFLE. The flipside said: KILLING FOR PEACE IS LIKE FUCKING FOR VIRGINITY.
Sherston fidgeted with the cellophane wrapper and tore out the paper liner from the pack of smokes and finally managed to get one out. He was anxious. His hands shook. He hadn’t touched a cigarette in fifteen years.
He flicked the battered Zippo open, cranked the wheel, and…nothing. He tried again. Same-same. He sat there and worked that wheel over so many times his thumb started to bleed, but all he got were impotent sparks and acrid smoke.