by Jerry Wade
The refreshing mist that was falling earlier had turned into a steady drizzle. Kelly pulled the hood of his poncho up over his head, annoyed by the patter of the drops on it. He sat behind the big machine gun with his elbows on his knees. Curled under his poncho at the opposite end of their fighting hole slept Dupree, Kelly’s assistant gunner. Whiz, the radio operator, was a few yards away under a lean-to made from his poncho.
Straining to see in the near total darkness around him, Kelly imagined how large his pupils must be. He blinked, testing if he could see anything at all. He moved his head slowly from side to side using his peripheral vision the way he’d been trained. His right hand touched the detonators for the claymores. They were right where they should be.
Unlike time, which was crawling, his mind leapt from subject to subject so quickly he had trouble keeping up.
Kelly loved his mind. “Keep me sane,” he whispered to himself, “and I promise to nourish you and protect you.” He often spoke to himself that way. He had no fear that he was crazy or deranged. He knew that the way his mind worked was what made him different from everyone around him. At nearly twenty-four, he was older than anyone in the unit, even the lieutenant. He lied about his age, though, telling everyone he was just a little over twenty-one. A difference of a few years, at that age, was huge. He remained calm and articulate even under fire. His fellow grunts called him The Professor.
He sat in the darkness reviewing the conversation about music he’d had earlier with Whiz. Whiz had just heard a new album by Jimi Hendrix and he was in awe of the way Hendrix played guitar, especially when he was improvising.
“Can you dig it?” Whiz had grinned at his own pun as he shoveled dirt from the bottom of his fighting hole with his entrenching tool.
Kelly nodded. “Mozart was like that. They say he could play for hours without stopping. Think of that. Genius stuff, all of it lost now.”
“I’ll bet Hendrix does that, too. He’s amazing! They say he burned his guitar on stage at Monterey.”
“I saw the pictures,” replied Kelly, swinging the big machine gun from left to right on its tripod, checking his field of fire.
“Man,” said Whiz. “I could never make music like that. And then burn the guitar? No fuckin’ way!”
“It’s just part of the show. Those guys, the rockers, they’re not like us.”
“No shit,” said Whiz. “It’s because of the drugs they take.”
Kelly imagined the conversation in his head, how he wanted it to go. He would tell Whiz a little of what he knew about drugs, like LSD, carefully, so as not to make him think they were too “cool.” He’d point out how, if properly used, they might facilitate creativity. It was something he did, anticipating and editing conversation before he spoke. He’d started it when he was a kid in parochial school, a defense to avoid the verbal traps the priests and nuns would try to set for him. But Jesuit priests were fairly predictable. A nineteen-year-old grunt in Vietnam might say any kind of weird shit and expect an answer. He was constantly surprised where someone like Whiz might take the conversation.
Kelly had been telling Whiz the history of LSD in preparation for a whole long discussion about mind-altering drugs. Whiz wasn’t supposed wander off into Jimi Hendrix or music. He was supposed to listen, not ask questions, especially not a personal and direct question.
“You sound like you’ve tried it,” Whiz interrupted. “Did you take LSD?”
Kelly had. But he couldn’t just say, “Yup, I sure did.” He preferred not to lie, but he wasn’t prepared to get into a long explanation about his personal spiritual quest, or the part LSD was playing in it. He was in pursuit of a way to transcend the mundane, to see something beyond normal. So, he changed the subject, an old but useful device in his conversational tool bag. He waxed poetic about the altered state that they were living in at that moment, two guys sitting on a hillside watching the war like a couple of spectators at a ballgame. He even did voices, characters from Alice in Wonderland, to entertain and distract Whiz.
“My reality is very different from yours. It’s all about transcendence,” he allowed. “Do you understand transcendence?” He said it in the purring voice of Cheshire Cat as covered the machine gun with a piece of transparent plastic taken from his pack.
Kelly wondered what Father Conway would say about all of this. Father Conway was the head priest at the parochial school Kelly had attended. He was Kelly’s mentor and friend, and at the same time his nemesis. Theirs was a difficult relationship. The Jesuits have a reputation for scholarly consideration of all points of view, but Father Conway was a strict traditionalist when it came to Kelly. He wanted him to be competent and conversational in all things Catholic. Kelly learned from their discussions that his only and best arguments were always “why” or “why not.” Father Conway couldn’t resist telling him. If Kelly seemed to be winning a point he’d simply change the subject. “Keep up or fall out,” he’d say with a laugh, waving a hand over his head as he walked away.
Kelly admired Father Conway’s breadth of knowledge, and even his unwavering faith. But his mind itched. He craved new experiences, different points of view, untraveled avenues that would lead him to the personal revelations he expected to find somewhere out there in the larger world. He longed for knowledge that would change everything.
Kelly graduated prep school and enrolled at the University of Michigan. He let his hair grow. He discovered the joys of the opposite sex and indulged himself frequently. He was tall and lean, and when his hair fell down over his eyes, quite sexy, he thought. He discovered, and almost immediately rejected, alcohol. He studied philosophy and political science. He read voraciously. He joined discussion groups. He marched against the war in Vietnam. Still, enlightenment eluded him. It seemed impossibly far away.
There were students on campus who were using drugs. Most of them smoked pot. That bored Kelly. One night he read an interview in Playboy magazine. He learned that, like him, Timothy Leary was a Catholic. Leary recounted his first experience with LSD, describing it as the most religious event of his life. He said that his purpose for using LSD was to find God and to make love with Him. That sounded to Kelly like something he might want to try. He set out to find someone on campus that had some or knew where he could get it. He had some catching up to do.
The rain had stopped. Kelly reached out to wake Dupree for the second watch.
“I’m awake,” whispered Dupree before he could touch him. He climbed out of the hole and stretched mightily in the darkness. Then he slapped Kelly on the back. “Get some sleep,” he said.
Dupree was the perfect assistant gunner. He never forgot where they were. He was fast on his feet. He stayed close when they were moving and he was always ready with the reload or barrel swap when they were “workin’.” But he wasn’t much for conversation.
Kelly stood and shook himself. He spread his poncho on the ground beside the fighting hole. Sleeping in a hole in the soggy ground did not appeal to him. It was too much like a grave. He would risk the extra few seconds it would take to get to it if the shit hit the fan. He wrapped himself in his poncho, put his pack under his head, and stared into the darkness of the night sky.
Kelly came awake to sound of low conversation and weapons being cleaned. In the thin light of dawn the Marines around him were preparing for the day ahead. He rolled to his side and saw that Whiz was already up. Whiz grinned at him.
“Mornin’ sunshine,” he said.
Kelly sat up.
“Another day, another…”
Kelly raised a hand. “Stop!”
“Hmm. Somebody got a rough cob this mornin’. You have a bad dream, Professor?”
Kelly raised his hands in surrender. He struggled to his feet and walked away in search of a quiet place to piss.
Whiz watched him, then he nudged Dupree with his toe. Dupree’s eyes opened.
“Mornin’ sunshine,” said Whiz.
“Don’ start, I’ll hurt ya,” grumbled Dupree.
Whiz grinned and pulled a crumpled pack of Pall Malls from his pant leg pocket and went through the process of lighting one. He dug into his pack. “What’ll you have? I’ve got ham an’ sons a’ bitches or pound cake and peaches?” he said, holding up two cans.
“I got PB an’ crackers,” said Dupree. “Gimme a smoke.”
Within half an hour they were strapping on gear, getting ready to go to the last village on their list. Kelly hoisted the big machine gun over his head. In spite of himself he pressed it like a barbell, three times. He was, like all grunts, a little superstitious. Then he lowered it onto his shoulders like a cross. That was the most comfortable way to carry it. Dupree loaded himself with the long bandoliers of ammunition for the machine gun. Whiz shrugged on his radio pack and picked up his weapon. They checked each other to be sure everything was there and nothing was dragging. The lieutenant came around and spoke to them quietly. “Let’s get ’er done, men,” he said. “Tonight we sleep in bunks.”
The unit walked along the hillside, just inside the tree line for nearly a mile. The morning sun was in their faces as they started down the long slope toward the paddy-checkered flat land below.
Kelly was deep in thought. It was a continuation of what he’d been ruminating about the night before, Father Conway, school, girls and drugs, God, the future . . .
He looked up at the sky. In that moment he was a child again, lying on his back on green grass. Directly above him was a single small cloud. Unlike the larger ones that were racing ahead of the breeze higher up, it hovered directly above the boy on the grass. He concluded that this was his lucky cloud, his Watch Cloud. Nothing could hurt him if the cloud was there. Oddly, there were several incidents as he was growing up when he’d looked up and there would be the cloud. It was easy to believe that it might be watching over him.
He wondered where it had been that day at the University when he’d gotten into a fight with a couple of frat boys. Even though the frat boys had started the altercation, it was Kelly who’d been arrested. He was kicked out of school and charged with felony assault.
“Young man,” the judge said, “This is a serious offense. I could sentence you to two years in prison.” He paused and peered over his glasses waiting for Kelly’s reaction. There was none. “But . . . boys will be boys. I don’t know why, but I’m in a generous mood today. I’m inclined to give you an option here that might help straighten you out. I’ll suspend this sentence if you willingly volunteer for the draft.” He waited patiently for Kelly’s response.
“In the Army?’’ Kelly finally said with a sneer.
“That’s right, the United States Army. Take it or leave it.”
Kelly snorted his disgust. “Do the Marines draft guys?” he asked.
The judge was not amused, but he promised to arrange it personally.
As he came out of the courthouse, accompanied by the deputy who would escort him to the Marine recruiting office, Kelly looked up. In the clear sky above him was a single soft, white cloud. “A little late, aren’t you?” he said.
The man walking point held up his hand and everyone stopped. He dutifully scanned the area carefully before starting down the long slope. Moments later he was holding his weapon chest high and wading into elephant grass.
He looks like he’s treading water, mused Kelly as the line started moving again. He watched his own feet as each step pressed down the grass and bruised the soft earth. Whiz was ahead of him. He stopped on the path. Kelly’s attention was focused on his next step. He bumped into Whiz.
“Keep up or fall out,” he said in a low voice. He stepped around Whiz, barely looking at him and hardly disturbing his own cadence or thoughts. For the millionth time he was questioning the wisdom of choosing the Marine Corps over jail. It was a life experience, yes. Was it the correct path to take? He’d learned things, some of it useful stuff, but he was about to conclude that there was nothing more the Marine Corps could teach him.
Keep up or fall out. A pretty good life philosophy, considering. Not like “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.” He’d determined early on that he wanted to neither lead nor follow. That left only “get out of the way,” and that wasn’t an option either. With Father Conway he was always in “keep up” mode. That was good. It kept him moving forward.
Concentrating on his footsteps, he weighed two applications of the simple phrase. Father Conway’s expression was meant to encourage: ‘You can do this, catch up, keep up.’ The Marine Corps interpretation indicated clearly, ‘If you can’t keep up you’re a pussy, you’re going to die and probably cause others to die with you.’ Clearly he’d meant the latter for Whiz, but only because they were Marines on the move.
He stopped at the line that divided the tall grass from the red dirt path that lead to the rice paddies. He looked out onto the flat field. The Marines ahead of him were already crossing the paddies on a wide dividing dike. Two hundred yards away, on a low hill, a small graveyard and a cluster of palm trees and banana trees marked the edge of the village. He focused on a slight rise, midway along the paddy dike. It would be a good spot for the machine gun if they were ambushed. They didn’t expect the village to offer any trouble, but it was always smart to plan ahead.
Kelly sighed. “Okay. Here goes,” he said under his breath, and stepped down onto the well-worn path.
He didn’t hear the explosion. He didn’t feel it, either. That disastrous instant of time would be forever lost to him. His next awareness came while he was upside down and in midair. The machine gun was falling away, useless. His legs moved oddly, loose, blown by wind. In that impossibly elongated moment he experienced a sensation like he was walking across the bright sky in long, buoyant, strides. I’m Gene Kelly, he thought. Then he landed on his back in the dank paddy mud and everything went black.
Kelly didn’t move. He couldn’t. He was lost in a darkness greater than any he’d ever experienced. He wondered if he was dead. The darkness threatened to erase his consciousness. It ended abruptly and he floated up to a shimmering awareness. The muffled sound of voices began to reach him. He wanted to move, to get up. He thrashed helplessly. Pain ripped through his body like fire. He opened his eyes and gazed into a sky so hard and blue he was amazed that it didn’t crack. Directly above him there was a single small cloud.
Ronnie, the unit corpsman, was beside him. “It’s okay. You’re gonna be okay,” he said in a surprisingly gentle voice. “Let me get a look at you.”
Kelly ground his teeth. Ronnie was looking into his eyes, blocking his view of the cloud. He rolled his head from side to side. Ronnie disappeared and the cloud was there again.
“What can I do?” It was Whiz’s voice, far off and urgent.
“Help me get him out’a the mud,” replied Ronnie.
Then he was floating. His head fell back and he was viewing an entirely different world. Everything was turned upside down. It was all legs and mud, stink and smashed rice stalks. What happened to the sky? Where had his cloud gone?
The path was packed hard. They laid him down carefully. His helmet was gone. Someone raised his head and then lowered it gently onto something soft. He caught Whiz’s scent and realized that it was the towel he wore around his neck to wipe away sweat. Kelly opened his eyes and saw the lieutenant looking down at him with a worried expression, so he closed them again. The lieutenant began yelling something about a radio and a helicopter.
Kelly ground his teeth again. The pain was real now, searing hot, burning in his legs. He groaned and tried to speak but he couldn’t. His mouth was dry as dust. Whiz left and returned and then left again. He was upset about something. Although he was lying very still, Kelly’s mind was racing. He couldn’t see his wound, but, judging from Ronnie’s grim expression, it might be pretty bad. He closed his eyes.
“Easy,” Ronnie said in his calming southern drawl. “In a second here I’ll give you some morphine. I jus’ gotta get this bleedin’ stopped. There! Okay, here we go. Hang on.”
Kelly opened his eyes. He needed to keep connected with the cloud. There it was! He was afraid that it might not be his Watch Cloud, after all. It had been so long. It was pure white, as white as Willy Peter smoke. But Willy Peter would be coming up from the ground and, though it was white, it was an angry white, an explosion with sharp edges. This was his Watch Cloud. It was soft and round, white in the purest, friendliest way possible. It seemed so out of place and yet so correct. It was there just for him, to protect him, to take him away. Kelly nodded with crystal clear understanding. He felt his face smile.
“How’re you feelin’?” Ronnie was close, looking into his eyes. “That morphine should be takin’ hold pretty soon.”
Beyond Ronnie he could see Whiz. He was still pacing. He looked upset, like a little boy who’d done something wrong. Kelly wanted to say something to him to make him feel better, but it seemed like almost too much to do. There was a terrible racket, like a drumbeat, as the medevac helicopter swept in and settled. The air whipped around them crazily. The pace of everything around him picked up.
“Careful with his head,” shouted Ronnie, “I’ve got his leg. Ready? Lift!”
He was cradled in a poncho and they were carrying him toward that steady, chest shaking beat. Whiz stumbled and struggled to walk backwards. The lieutenant held him up and pulled him along by his flak jacket collar. Kelly sighed. The cloud was still above him, unperturbed by the whirling rotors. Then he was in the helicopter and strong hands were holding him. He rolled his head to look at his friends. The only face he could see clearly was Whiz, looking up at him. His helmet was gone. His face was streaked with sweat, or maybe tears. One hand still reaching. Kelly would have liked to put him at ease, to share with him what he’d learned but that was a long conversation and there was no more time. He searched for a word to sum it up.
“Transcendence,” he whispered, pointing at Whiz, knowing he couldn’t be heard above the urgent heartbeat of the rotors. “Tran-scen-dence.”
The helicopter rotated ninety degrees as it lifted away. Kelly lost sight of Whiz and then the cloud, and finally even the earth below.
Somewhere, in a safe layer of his consciousness, Kelly realized everything was going to be different now. Everything.