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“Meal, Combat, Individual”

by Lawrence Morgan

Philyaw joined the platoon on August 12th, and Dance was ordered to the LZ to pick him up. August 12th was Dance’s birthday, and he hoped the coincidence wasn’t bad luck. He suffered from short-timer’s syndrome; all he thought about was luck. He swung his feet off of his cot and pulled on his jungle boots, annoyed.

“Why do I have to get the fucking new guy?” he asked no one in particular.

T-Bone crushed an empty pack of Kools and threw it at him.

“It’s ‘coz you a lifer, Dance. They know you gonna do it.  Me, I’d hop on that chopper most rickity-fuckin’-tick.”

Dance slid T-Bone a look and grabbed his rifle. He settled his steel pot over his head.

“You’d miss me, T-Bone,” he said. “You know you would.”

“Go get that FNG, Dance. I need somebody give me a feet massage.”

Dance squelched through the mud toward the LZ. The monsoons had just ended and the surrounding hilltops were visible once again, defoliated, scarred lifeless, and steaming in the heat. Someone was burning shit at the latrine and the smell followed him. The distant thwack-thwack-thwack of rotor blades ricocheted through the valley, and Dance lengthened his stride.

The Huey’s nose tilted up and the pilot set her down gently on the skids. Four shirtless GIs emerged from a sandbagged bunker and hustled to the bird to offload the pallets stacked within. The door-gunner and the crew chief shoved, the troops yanked, and the pallets landed upside down in the mud. Cursing, the men flipped them over. The chopper’s engine whined and her rotors twirled faster, flinging gobbets of mud into the soldiers’ faces.

A duffel-bag tumbled from the Huey’s belly and a GI jumped out after it. He looked around uncertainly, and then, hunched low, crabbed toward the edge of the LZ where Dance was waiting. The chopper’s rotor wash buffeted him and he steadied his helmet with one hand.

Dance was puzzled. The approaching figure didn’t look anything like a FNG. New guys always looked…fresh, like crisp lettuce. This guy’s fatigues were as faded and soiled as his own, but it was his eyes that totally freaked Dance out. They bulged out from beneath his brow like eggs, and the whites were etched with blood-red veins. His eyelashes and eyebrows had been completely seared off; his eyes were naked. If you were tripping, Dance thought, those red-white-and-blue eyeballs would look like some bizarre American flag. For once he was glad he wasn’t stoned.

“Spec 4 Philyaw, reporting as ordered,” the guy said. His accent was decidedly Southern.  A scraggly moustache barely concealed the blackheads on his upper lip. He glanced around the perimeter and then aimed those strange eyes back at Dance. “Snipers much?”

Dance shrugged. “Some. Mortars more, probe some nights. Come on.”

Dance led Philyaw to the platoon hooch, a dilapidated Quonset hut cocooned with layer after layer of sandbags. They trudged through shoulder-high trenches to get there, heads low into their necks like turtles.

“Y’all have a mess hall?” Philyaw asked.

“Used to. Got rocketed. Every once in a while they send out hot food. Rarely.” He opened the hooch door. “Home sweet home.”

“Everybody, this here’s Philyaw,” Dance announced into the gloom.

Tendrils of cigarette smoke hung in the air. A few desultory greetings emerged from the row of cots.

“Hey, you luckless fuck. Twenty-five and a wake-up.”

“Aim low, they might be crawling.”

“Short! Welcome to Shitsville.”

Philyaw stepped over to a vacant cot and took off his helmet. His shaved scalp was laced with pink scar tissue. The only visible hairs on his face were the ones struggling for life on his upper lip.

“I sure hope you boys like to eat,” he said, upending his duffel onto the cot. He held up a battered pot and dumped a cascade of herbs and spices onto his mattress. “Because I damn sure like to cook.”

“Yo,” T-Bone called out, “where you come from, Cracker Man? Alabama? We expectin’ a FNG and we get you instead. What the fuck up with that?”

Philyaw ignored him. “There a ville anywhere near here?” he asked the room. “I need me some onions.”

“Ville? Shit,” T-Bone said. He grabbed his crotch. “I got your onions right here. We go on sweeps we burn villes, Cracker Man.”

“Name’s Philyaw. They call me Three-Star.”

“Three-Star? What, you a fuckin’ general now?” T-Bone snorted.

“Michelin three-star.”

T-Bone blinked, then recovered.

“That bunk you just took, that was Haywood’s,” he said ominously. “He’s fuckin’ dead.”

The hooch fell silent. A few of the men busied themselves cleaning their weapons or honing their bayonets.

“Well, I’m purely sorry to hear that,” Philyaw said finally. He lay back on his cot and his hairless eyelids slid closed over his Pekinese eyes.

**

The first meal Philyaw prepared was a resounding success. Even T-Bone held his tongue. The morning’s sweep was uneventful, and Philyaw managed to score four plump hens from a mamasan in the village they were tasked to search. The chickens hung upside-down in a bunch on his pack, their feet bound together with twisted wire. They were alive and squawking when the platoon filed out of the ville, but the lieutenant wasn’t having it.

“Sergeant Dance, those goddamn chickens are making too much fucking noise. Do something about it.”

Dance spun Philyaw around and said, “Fix it.”

Philyaw looked pained, but he dutifully wrung the birds’ necks and folded their still spasming carcasses into his pack. Flies moved in, and the column moved on.

**

Back at the firebase Philyaw set up his kitchen. He had firewood he’d scavenged from discarded pallets at the LZ, and he’d gouged out a shallow pit for his fire. He twisted the heads off the chickens and scooped out their entrails with a hooked forefinger. A pot of water was on the boil above a loop of burning C4 explosive he’d pried from the back of a Claymore mine. He dipped each bird whole into the scalding liquid to loosen its feathers, and then diligently plucked them bare. He prodded them with a finger and pronounced himself satisfied.

“Now,” he said, “the magic.”

He concocted a rub of spices and herbs and massaged the mixture into the chickens with muscular fingers. Their joints popped audibly. He rammed a length of perimeter wire through their limp bodies and hung them on a makeshift rotisserie above the coals. The hooked barbs kept the birds from spinning on the wire as they roasted. The smell was indescribable, and for once the entire platoon was outside the relative safety of the bunker. They were circled around the chickens like wolves, entranced by the aroma of roasting fowl.

Dance shook his head in amazement. In an hour there was nothing left but dry, sucked bones.

**

Philyaw flexed his culinary muscle again the following week. A gunfight had ended poorly, and helicopters were summoned to evacuate the dead and wounded. The survivors hacked out muddy holes and curled up inside of them to defend an ugly perimeter. Dusk fused to moonless night. Flares hung and died in the sky, bathing the jungle in unholy light. That was supposed to help the men sleep.

Philyaw had a tenderloin the size of an infant wrapped up in his poncho. He’d carved it out of the still-warm carcass of a baby water-buffalo during their first sweep through the paddies, right in front of the unnerved farmer who owned it. There were other beasts dead in the paddies, the victims of errant machine-gun fire, but the calf promised to be the most succulent. He had planned to cook a magnificent ragout with it, but circumstances had changed. They would be spending the night out-of-doors. He raised his eyes to the heavens, sorely vexed. He still had no onions and had left his cooking pot behind. After reflection he decided upon steaks.

He sliced the tenderloin into steaks with his bayonet and pressed salt and pepper into the bloody meat with his thumbs. There was an unavoidable sprinkling of grit and debris during the process, but Philyaw persevered. He picked out the worst bits with his grimy fingernails and flicked them aside. His foxhole buddy backed away from him, gagging, but only had a few feet of wet clay in which to retreat.

“What the fuck?” LaBelle said.

“Got to eat, Bell my man, got to eat. What, you want canned lima beans and ham?”

A Spooky circled overhead and vomited a stream of mini-gun rounds into the surrounding mountains.  An artillery shell screamed past and exploded in the blackness a hundred yards in front of them. The ground shook. LaBelle curled into a ball and pressed himself into the side of their foxhole. Philyaw wiped his bloody hands on his fatigues and stared at the water-buffalo steaks sizzling inside his steel helmet.

**

Dance and T-Bone had dug themselves a nice, deep hole on the right flank. They sat back to back in six inches of water and took turns easing up and eyeballing the perimeter.

“What you think about that new guy?” T-Bone asked suddenly.

Dance raised an eyebrow. “Philyaw? I dunno. Why? What do you think?” Dance was busy counting how many full magazines he had left. “That chicken was good that time, I guess.”

“Creepy, that’s what I think. He shows up and then we get ambushed.”

“Not his fault, man.” Dance tried to light a cigarette but it was sodden and fell apart in his fingers. He threw it down in disgust.

“Burned-up sonofabitch shows up and we get hit, that’s what I’m saying.”

“You ate that chicken though, right?”

“Ate it, liked it. So what?”

Just then Philyaw’s drawl cut through the jungle sounds behind them like salt on a coldsore.

“Hey Dance,” he called out. “Where you at?”

T-Bone spun around as if electrified and grabbed his rifle. He scanned the exposed rim of their foxhole, nostrils flared, chest heaving.

Philyaw’s hairless visage appeared, framed by the glow of a falling flare. He grinned.

“Y’all hungry?”

“The fuck you doing sneaking up on people, you crazy bastard?” T-Bone fumed. His hands were shaking.

“Steaks for supper, my man,” Philyaw said. He held up two steaming buffalo steaks pinioned on his bayonet. “Here you go. Can’t be dying on an empty stomach, now can we?”

**

That third meal… Well, Dance still dreams about it, but wishes he wouldn’t.

It was a freakishly hot day; the men felt like their brains might explode inside their steel pots. The canal water in their canteens was sour and as warm as blood. Doc Burson hustled down the line passing out salt tablets, and gnats niggled at the wet corners of their eyes. During one short break Dance and T-Bone used cigarettes to burn blood-swollen leeches off each other’s backs.

Philyaw was dragging an unwilling piglet behind him. In deference to the lieutenant he’d duct-taped the animal’s mouth shut to keep its furious squealing to a whimper. It could barely keep up, and its red-rimmed eyes blinked furiously in time with each yank on the rope.

The village they’d just swept smoldered behind them. Huts were burning, dead bodies were underfoot all over the place, and nobody knew what the fuck was going on. Everyone’s face was coated black with soot and sweat. The ville was depressing, and the charred corpses stank.

For Philyaw, however, the sweep yielded a series of culinary bonanzas. First was the piglet, which promised some fine Southern crackling. He found it cowering in a bamboo pen and promptly knotted a rope around its neck. His next windfall was a pot of rice hidden beneath the thatch of a collapsed hut. His eyes gleamed like marbles. Rifle in one hand, pig-leash in the other, Philyaw stalked through the ruined village cramming his pack full of treasure after savory treasure.

**

The platoon bivouacked that night in a wasteland of bomb craters. Philyaw brought up the rear, the pig limping behind him at the end of its tether.

“What’s for supper, Three-Star? We havin’ pork chops tonight?”

“Hope that thing don’t have worms.”

“I saved a can of peaches if you need it, Three-Star.”

Philyaw tugged on the rope, his pack bulging mysteriously. “Victuals,” he replied with a hideous wink. “I got us some victuals.”

LaBelle followed Philyaw into their bomb crater. He moved to a spot as far away from the other man as he could get. The pig was spent; it collapsed to the ground with a wheeze and closed its eyes.

“Lazy hog,” Philyaw said. He glanced around the hole and nodded approvingly. The crater’s floor was littered with splintered tree branches. “Nice,” he said to LaBelle. “Dry wood for once.”

LaBelle didn’t answer. He was watching the sleeping pig, which had started to snore and twitch in a dream. Philyaw shrugged and went to work gathering firewood.

**

The glow of Philyaw’s fire was hidden from prying enemy eyes at the bottom of the bomb crater. A can of C-ration peaches was warming next to the coals. A slab of meat was spread-eagled over the flames, flayed limbs akimbo. He stirred the rice with his bayonet and licked his lips.  A thin film of grease oozed from the meat and sputtered on the embers.

That night the scent of roasting flesh wafted across the ruined landscape and drew the men to Philyaw’s crater. They arrived in ones and twos, mindful of snipers. They filled their canteen cups with peach-glazed meat spooned over mounds of rice and offered their thanks before slipping back to their fighting holes.

**

Dance shook his head when T-Bone dropped into the crater they shared and brought him a serving.

“No thanks, man. I got a bad case of the belly.”

“You sure? Gravy from peaches. It’s good, but be better with some hot sauce.”

Dance unwrapped a pack of smokes and lit one. “LaBelle was just here,” he said. “While you were gone.”

“Why? He supposed to be in his hole with Three-Star.”

“You calling him that now?”

T-Bone scowled. “The guy’s a fuckin’ ghoul but he makes good food,” he said. “What did LaBelle have to say?”

Dance took a drag on his cigarette. “He said to look under the ghoul’s pack. That pig is still there. LaBelle says it snores.”

“What do you mean, that pig still there?” T-Bone held up the canteen cup of meat and rice. “Then what the fuck is this?”

Dance hesitated, then said, “LaBelle said it looked almost like…well, he said it had skinny little arms and legs.”

T-Bone eyes widened in horror. “Fuck. Don’t be tellin’ me that, Dance. Jesus Christ, I ate a plateful of that shit.”

**

Two days later Dance found T-Bone atop the watchtower, manning the machine-gun on the firebase’s perimeter.

“Well, it’s done,” Dance said. He removed his helmet and let the wind cool his forehead.

“What they say?”

“They said they couldn’t prove anything for sure. Just hearsay.”

“No proof? What about LaBelle?”

“His word against Philyaw’s.”

T-Bone gripped the machine gun so tight the tendons in his forearms writhed. “None of them ate that shit,” he said flatly. “They need to send somebody back out there to investigate. We need to know what that was.”

“That hill is running with VC now, T-Bone. Nobody’s going back out there. What, look for some mystery meat out there in the boonies? Never gonna happen, GI. They’re transferring him, though. Effective immediately. ‘For the good of morale and unit cohesion blah-blah-blah…’”

A chopper lifted off from the LZ and zig-zagged its way down the valley. They watched it crest the ridge and disappear from view.

“That would be him,” Dance said. “He’s gone, T-Bone.”

T-Bone turned his stricken eyes back to his friend. “Ain’t never gonna be gone, Dance. I ate that thing. I know what it was. Nothin’s gonna be right. Never. Never until I die.”

**

PFC Willy Billings stopped his jeep at the battalion airfield and waited.

“I’m way too short for this crap,” he muttered to himself. “All I fucking need is some fucking FNG.”

A helicopter landed in a swirl of dust and a GI emerged, holding the edge of his helmet against the rotor wash. He slung his duffel over his shoulder and trotted toward the waiting jeep.

Billings did a double-take when he got a good look at the man’s face. Jesus. Goosebumps slithered up his spine.

“Spec 4 Philyaw, reporting for duty as ordered,” the guy said. His duffel bag clanked when he tossed it into the back of the jeep. He winked at Billings. “Cook pots and such.” He patted his stomach. “I like to cook.”

“Let’s go,” Billings said. He released the clutch and eased the jeep into gear, eyes straight ahead. One look at the guy’s face was enough for him.

“Y’all have a mess hall?” the man asked. “By the way, most everybody calls me Three-Star…”