by Ken Roy
I watched James David Roberts shave the short stick that counted the number of days he had left in Vietnam, his left eye squinting and his two front teeth pressing into his lower lip. He had started the short stick three months ago by drawing ninety evenly spaced lines with a ballpoint pen. Each day he shaved away one line, marking him one day shorter to going home.
A lot of guys made short sticks. Not me. I thought about home, sure, but I tried to keep my thoughts right here, right now in step with my boots and in line where my eyes led me. I had to keep my mind there to get home. Thinking about home at the wrong time was a distraction that could keep you from seeing the tripwire of a booby trap or hearing the safety of an AK-47 clicked off.
I counted twenty-three lines on James David’s short stick. Nothing – no NVA, no booby trap, and no shitbird fucking up – was going to stop him from returning home. Guaranteed. By me.
I would return home right behind James David, and that was the way it had been most of our lives, what one did the other was close behind. I came home for supper one night and walked past my parents standing nose-to-nose under the carport. My dad whispered to my mom his father’s working on an oil rig off-shore, while my mom declared his mother’s a tramp. I walked into the house, and James David was sitting at the kitchen table. He wiped his nose and looked away. I didn’t know him as James David then. I only knew him as the new kid at our elementary school. My mom had rescued him there, sitting in the dark on the steps waiting for his mother. She hadn’t come that night. He ate supper with us and spent the night, and over the years, many others.
We rode our bicycles up and down every street in our home town. Played little league baseball. Slept through English class. At sixteen we worked part-time at a gas station and threw the money we made together to buy an old, beat-up ’56 Chevy coupe. Most Friday nights we circled the parking lot at the Rocket Burger and Shakes in that Chevy, smoking Lucky Strikes and sipping warm beer pilfered from my old man’s fishing cooler.
That is, until our senior year when James David and Judy Ann Baker got serious. Real serious. Talking marriage serious. A guy with a steady girl and talking marriage needed a car of his own, in my opinion, and when we graduated from high school, I gave James David my set of keys to the Chevy.
Still, things didn’t change much for us after graduation. We continued working at the gas station pumping gas and cleaning windshields. Sometimes when things were slow I got on James David about keeping the Chevy running.
“Damn, man, do you ever check the air pressure or the oil? You’re almost running on the rims, and you’re two quarts low on oil.”
He would laugh, nod his head, and admit, “You’re right, man.”
Other times we stood in the door of the carwash bay smoking cigarettes and either watched cars drive by or stared at the post office across the street.
Inside the post office was the draft board, and at nineteen we would have to register there for the draft. If the board called your number, you were drafted into the military, and our nineteenth birthdays were fast approaching, James David’s arriving before mine. It was the lottery you lost by winning because what you won was a ticket to Vietnam.
Then James David surprised me. He knocked on my door late one Saturday night to tell me he had asked Judy Ann to marry him. Judy Ann didn’t say no, but she applied the brakes, slowed things down. She told James David she thought it best to wait until they got good jobs and saved money.
She had a point. We were working at a gas station, spending all the money we made, and waiting to get drafted. Weeks later, James David surprised me again. “Screw this,” he said. “Let’s enlist in the Marine Corps and do our time. I might even learn something useful that will make money so when I get out, I can marry Judy Ann.” I was for it. Circling the streets of our home town night after night was like a noose cutting off the blood to my brain.
Later, I asked him what Judy Ann said when he told her.
“She said she was sad,” he confided, “but she said she would be fine, and for me not to worry about her. She promised to write almost every day.”
That may be, I said to myself, but I didn’t hear her say she loved you and she would worry about you.
So we enlisted. We went to boot camp together, then infantry training, and received orders to go to Vietnam. But I got cross-ways with a sailor on the bus back to Camp Pendleton after a night of steam blowing in Oceanside. The bus was crowded like it usually was on a Friday night with a bunch of drunk Marines and sailors, and I stopped at the first seat I came to. The sailor sat in the middle of the seat like he owned it, and I motioned for him to slide over to the window. Marines and sailors bunching up behind me began to yell at me to sit the fuck down. The sailor hesitated, but he moved over.
I sat down and lit a cigarette. I put my pack of cigarettes and my brand-new lighter on the seat between us. I had just bought the lighter that night in an Oceanside pawn shop. It was beautiful with a chrome finish. On one side was a picture of girl in a pink bra and on the other side, a picture of her ass in pink panties.
The sailor jabbed me with his elbow and asked if he could bum a cigarette and a light. A few minutes later he bummed another cigarette and another light. I turned to talk to James David, who was sitting across the aisle from me, and when I turned back the sailor was sneaking a cigarette from my pack and palming my lighter into his pocket.
Fucking thief! I smashed my fist into his nose and bounced his head against the window of the bus. The bus driver stopped the bus, the shore patrol came, and I got charged with assault. My trip to Vietnam was delayed while I spent thirty days in the Camp Pendleton brig, and I was busted down to private.
When I finally got to Vietnam, I ended up in the same battalion as James David and managed to bribe an admin clerk with a fifth of Jack Daniels to transfer me to Bravo Company, the company of grunts James David was in.
And here we were, standing guard at a place called Khe Gio Bridge, a few miles west of Dong Ha. For almost forty-five days before taking a position at the bridge, Bravo Company had humped mountains south of and up to the DMZ, past all the glamorous places the recruiter had never told us about: the Rockpile, Mutter’s Ridge, the Witch’s Tit. In a day or two we would be back in Dong Ha for down time and camp duty until we saddled up to go back out. By that time James David would be on an airplane back to the States, and he could throw away his short stick.
The Sarge walked up to where our squad was positioned near the perimeter of concertina wire. A cigarette was propped in his lips like a pistol barrel shooting smoke balls, and the brim of his boonie hat cooled his scorched eyes. Months of humping a pack over the mountains of Quang Tri province had caused his shoulders to sag even without the weight of a pack, and sun-seared creases marked his face.
The Sarge was a gung-ho crazy lifer all the way through, and about all he talked about was the Corps. I never knew how to gauge his temper, and when I had to approach him I walked up carefully like I was walking point. Slowly sweeping the area. Relying on my eyes, not my brain, to tell me what didn’t belong. Things like straight lines or square shapes and shadows that didn’t fit the pattern.
Still, I tripped a wire on a personal landmine of his when I walked up on him one time as he sat hunched over a photo held and framed with his fingers. It was a picture of a hot-looking little cheerleader-type.
“Nice, bang-bang, Sarge,” I remember saying.
He looked past me, and his shoulders squeezed together. He whispered like his voice was lost and wandering on the other side of a mountain, “My daughter, dumb-ass. She’ll turn sixteen soon. Lives with her mother. And step-father. I get home, I’m getting out of the Corps. No more overseas tours for me. Don’t want to miss her growing up any more than I have.”
Later, after that conversation, I rested on the rim of my foxhole and thought about the Sarge. Until right then, if he talked about something other than the Corps, it was usually about a bar fight in some beer joint in Honolulu, or terrorizing a whorehouse in Okinawa or Thailand or some other damn crazy place. I had never heard him talk about home before, or a wife, or a daughter. I asked myself if being a gung-ho lifer was the thing that was going to get him and his men home.
I said the word lifer to myself over and over. Lifer, lifer, life for, life for her. Or, was that it? Was that what was going to return him home to the daughter he loved and missed? Life for her. And, how did he keep the thoughts about how to get home separated from his thoughts of why to go home? Thoughts in the here and now, in step with your boots. “What are you muttering about?” asked James David when he’d heard me talking to myself. I told him about walking up on the Sarge that day and asked him what he thought about what the Sarge had said. He’d shrugged his shoulders and mumbled “How would I know?”
“You’re up, A-Squad,” the Sarge said. “The captain wants a patrol along the ridge just to the west of the bridge and down to the river. Meet up at 1600. We’ll go over the mission and the patrol route.”
A couple of guys groaned. Spanish Ned shouted, “No way, Sarge, I got a date with a big blond from La Jolla. I can’t stand her up and break her heart.”
When just our squad went on patrol, either James David or I walked point. We were good, experienced. We kept our thoughts in step with our boots, and in line where our eyes led us.
Because we still had time before the patrol briefing, I dug my section map out of my backpack to refresh myself on what the ridge and river area looked like. James David continued sitting on a pile of sandbags drumming his fingers on his knees and tapping the ground with one boot. A convoy on its way to Camp Carroll earlier in the morning had dropped off supplies, ammo, and mail, and I knew he was waiting for mail call. He hadn’t gotten a letter from Judy Ann in almost a month.
When the mail guy, PFC Duffy, aka Duffel Bag, turned the corner of the sand-bagged wall of our bunker, James David jumped up and said, “About time, Duffel Bag. Have you got a letter for me?”
Duffel Bag held a letter for James David in his hand, but before handing it to him, he sawed the envelope below his nose like a fiddle bow and sniffed real loud.
“Lance Corporal Roberts,” he said, “Judy Ann usually soaks her letters in enough perfume like she poured it from a canteen. I don’t smell nothing on this one.”
He was right. I didn’t smell any perfume either.
“No roses and curlicues either, James David, like there usually are,” Duffel Bag continued.
I noticed that, too.
James David jerked the letter out of Duffel Bag’s hand. He held it and stared at it. Finally he opened it, and when he was done reading he didn’t fold it into a tight little square and place it in his left shirt pocket like he usually did. He balled it up and stuffed it in his pack, and his brow was drawn together.
He picked up his short stick and shaved the end with his Ka-Bar a couple of times. Then he let the Ka-Bar and short stick hang idle from limp hands between his splayed legs. He stared at the ground and frowned like he was confused.
“Are you going to tell me what Judy Ann said?”
He turned the other way and said nothing. I busied myself selecting a couple of snacks from the extra C-ration desserts I had stashed in my pack.
“She didn’t say nothing,” he said, still with his back turned to me. “She asked me how I was. Said everything was fine there except her mother hadn’t been feeling well. There’s been no rain for weeks. The Piggly Wiggly store might shut down. She was doing good in beauty school. She was thinking about going to junior college in the fall. Or, she might get a job in a beauty salon. She’s not sure. She hopes I get back soon.”
Damn, James David was right. Judy Ann said a lot in the letter, yet said nothing. He sometimes shared some of the things she wrote in those perfumed bombs, and I confess I could get a little worked up hearing just a little bit of her love talk. How she missed him so much. How she couldn’t sleep and had to toss the covers off. But this letter was different. Like the kind of letter my old Aunt Mae might have written to me when I was at Boy Scout summer camp.
“Who do you think it is?” he blurted out.
“Who what?” I asked back.
“Don’t be stupid. Some hard leg is sniffing around her, and she’s falling for it. Goddamn it,” he cussed and assaulted the air with his short stick.
“Doesn’t have to be somebody else, James David. Could be her. Did you ever think about that? We think about home like the world stopped when we left for Nam. It didn’t. Things are happening to her there just like us here.”
He stammered like he was trying to put his thoughts together. He gave up and just cussed under his breath.
Spanish Ned walked past and signaled with a jerk of his head that it was time to go to the patrol briefing. The squad fell in together, and we walked up to where the Sarge stood holding a map and compass.
“The captain,” the Sarge said, “is interested in possible avenues of approach that the enemy might take to get close to the perimeter. He also wants to see if there are any signs of enemy snooping outside the wire. When we leave the perimeter, we’re going to walk along this ridge to the river.”
I elbowed the grunt in front of me and stepped in front of him. If I ended up walking point on this patrol, I wanted to clearly see the lines on the map the Sarge’s fingers were following.
“Now, here in this tree line along the river, we’re going to set up an ambush and wait. Not long, maybe thirty minutes before we come back.”
I looked down at my section map and located the area the Sarge was pointing to. I saw that the contour lines crowded together at the treeline. That meant we would set up the ambush on elevated ground. Always better to rain fire down on the enemy than the enemy raining fire down on you.
I looked over at James David to see if he was following along on his map, and he wasn’t. He was scratching his back with his short stick and staring into the blue nothing.
“We’ll return before dark. We’ll retrace our steps for a short distance and follow a different route to the north side of the perimeter. Lance Corporal Roberts, you’re walking point.”
James David stood there still scratching his back. The way to answer the Sarge when he assigned something was to snap, “Aye, Aye, Sarge.” The Sarge glared at him, and I counted two heartbeats. Before the third, and the Sarge exploded, I yelled out, “I’ll walk point, Sarge.”
That distracted the Sarge from James David. He pivoted toward me, pointing the map like he was threatening me.
“Why would you want to walk point, private?” asked the Sarge, “Roberts is up.”
“You know James David’s short, Sarge. A man so short shouldn’t have to walk point.”
“I don’t like it,” said the Sarge, “That’s superstitious bullshit, and I don’t like superstitious bullshit. Roberts, you’re walking point.”
“Aye, Aye, Sarge,” shouted James David, now fully attentive. He looked hard at me, and I looked hard back.
The Sarge finished reviewing the details of the patrol, and we went back to our gear.
I prepared for the patrol. I checked and wiped down my M16 and inspected each magazine before placing them in my bandolier and attaching grenades to it. I walked to the water buffalo and filled my canteens. James David puttered about not doing much of anything and finally plopped himself down on a stack of ammo boxes and lit up a cigarette. With his head in a cloud of smoke, he wiped his Ka-Bar on his fatigue bottoms, first one side then the other.
“Do you think you might get ready to go on patrol, man?” I asked him.
“When I get home I’m going to find out first thing who it is,” he said.
“You’re walking point on this patrol. You’re the eyes and ears to get everyone back in one piece. What’s important is the here and now. Figuring out what’s going on with Judy Ann can wait.”
“And when I find out who it is I’m going to straighten his ass out.”
I started to unload on him again, but I only looked at him and sighed.
I tried again this time saying to him, “Maybe there’s another guy, maybe not. Maybe it’s something else. Maybe her mother is real sick – she did say her mother wasn’t feeling well. She could be really worried about her.”
He jumped up from the ammo boxes and flicked his cigarette into the dirt. He stomped around and waved his short stick like a billy club, cussing so much that Spanish Ned looked up from the skin magazine he was flipping through.
“I’ll tell you what else I’ve been thinking about,” he said. “When we get to Dong Ha, I’m going to talk to the first sergeant about extending my tour in Nam. Go home on leave for thirty days then do another six months.”
“Another tour? And what do you think that’s going to be like for Judy Ann? In a way she’s going to have to serve another Nam tour, too, except she’ll do it stateside”
I don’t know that he heard me he was so busy batting the air with his short stick.
“And, I’ll tell you one more thing,” he said. “When I’m back in country, I’m walking point on every patrol.”
Spanish Ned tossed the skin magazine aside and picked up his M79 grenade launcher. He began walking toward the patrol’s meeting point. “Saddle up, boys. Time to go,” he said as he pointed the grenade launcher up and waved it forward. The rest of the squad grabbed their gear and weapons and fell in behind Spanish Ned.
I snatched the short stick out of James David’s hand and squeezed it so tight the muscles in my forearm twitched.
“If you extend, you’re not short, dumbass, and if you’re not short, you can’t walk point with a short stick. Thoughts in line with your boots, man. You know that, or somebody gets killed.”
Then, like those days in little league baseball playing center field, I pulled my right arm back and sighted toward home with my left and threw the short stick far past the perimeter wire.
The muscles of his neck torqued, and he hissed through his teeth. I grabbed my M16 and my gear and headed toward the patrol meet point. I didn’t wait for James David, and I didn’t look back.
In a few days we would be in Dong Ha. James David would get on a plane and go home. Maybe he would extend for another tour and return to Nam, maybe not. I would be short by that time, and I would rotate soon after him. Once home I would walk point on my own personal patrol to answer for myself: life for what? Where would my eyes lead me? What thoughts would my boots follow? I knew this, once gone, I would stay gone from this place forever. Guaranteed.