by Ken Roy
“You look lost,” the old man said. “Can I help you find your way?”
I wasn’t sure I was lost, but I was confused. I was searching for the house of Private Robert Davis Gaines, who was killed May, 1969, in Quang Tri Province, the Republic of Vietnam.
The earth bloomed from the blast of the landmine. Even though I was yards beyond the concertina wire and the blast, my skin rippled like waves, and my eyelids fluttered. Dirt and rock shot up then fell back down like an avalanche from the clouds. The debris settled, and Gaines was a blurred lump of destroyed muscle and bone wrapped in shredded green jungle fatigues. Son-of-a bitch! Son-of-a-bitch!
I was here to fulfill a promise made to that dead Marine, and I also hoped to answer a question that was a tripwire for bad memories in the foreign loops of my mind.
I looked down at the address written at the bottom of the photograph, up at the house, and back down at the photograph. This was the right address—Rural Route 2, Box 19, Nickaburr Creek, Kentucky—but I was confused because the photograph described a canopy of trees decorating a polished dirt road that would deliver me to the steps of a red-bricked, two-story home, with green plantation shutters, and a porch supported by four thin columns before two leaded glass doors.
Instead I stared at a shattered mosaic of cluttered debris. The barb wire fence detaining the yard sagged and scratched the ground where the fence posts were rotting out. There were no trees in the yard. The road to the house, rutted and plowed by cars and trucks over the years, ran a jagged path through an obstacle course of scraggly bushes, a cabinet-style TV with a busted screen, and discarded car batteries. The house, enduring still on the once sturdy planks it was made of, was folding nevertheless under the weight of time and weather to an inevitable collapse. To the side of the house was a shabby garage where sunlight leaked through the cracks of the shrunken boards. It leaned at a severe angle, and in the rafters’ shadows and cobwebs, an ancient car sat dissolving on rusting rims, its rear window busted and the engine block feeding the weeds at the entrance.
“Can I help you, sir?” the old man repeated. He was thin man in his early seventies. He stood erect with his shoulders pulled slightly back and wore a rumpled denim shirt, khaki trousers, and atop his head a weathered fedora. The trousers were clean but flecked with faint stains of grease, oil, dirt, and paint that memorialized a lifetime of hard work. He lifted his fedora and mopped the bubbles of sweat from his brow with a rag smudged brown and black. He passed the rag down past his nose to his mouth and coughed into it then rounded the rag into a ball and placed in his shirt pocket.
“I apologize. I think I have the right address, but this doesn’t look like the right place. I’m looking for the home of Robert Davis Gaines.”
The old man hesitated before speaking, his body taut, suspicious. “This is our Bobby’s home. How did you know Bobby?”
I pushed the photograph deep into my trousers pocket.
I didn’t really know Robert Gaines. One day after Bravo company humped out of the bush and into Con Thien for downtime and sweep patrols, I was waiting with two Marines to hop a chopper to Da Nang. While on patrol, I had waded through a black, stagnant pool, and a broken branch submerged in the muck punctured my calf. The fire was spreading around the hole, and the Navy corpsman thought I needed to get to the rear to have it looked at.
One of the Marines spoke. My name is Robert Davis Gaines, and my great-great granddaddy fought in the War Between the States. My daddy lost an arm in his war. My mother was a nurse who saved people. They’re both in heaven now. I was raised mostly by my mamaw and papaw. Here’s a picture of the house my daddy built, single-handed.
Gaines was about five feet two, or three, and maybe one-hundred-twenty pounds. Maybe. His black hair was coarse, and one corner of his mouth went north, the other south. When he smiled his top front teeth rested on his bottom lip. Gaines was a real motor-mouth. He bragged about the Dodge Charger he drove back home. Said he ran moonshine in it. Bragged about all the girls he had screwed. Love’em and leave’em. Ha, ha. Bragged that he was an expert on the rifle range. The rifle range was nothing, he said, compared to shooting a squirrel at the top of a tree 50 yards away. He said he was being sent to Da Nang for a briefing about a special operation he was being assigned to. When he talked he puffed up the length of his frame, and he orchestrated his narrative with his fingers flying in the air like tiny maestro batons. His fingernails were ragged like they’d been sanded with twenty grit paper.
“I served with Robert in Vietnam. James Arnett, sir.” I extended my hand.
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Arnett. Sterling Simpson. You served with Bobby you said?”
I nodded, yes.
He wiped his face again with the rag and returned it to his shirt pocket. I passed my forearm across my brow to sop up sweat and wiped it on my trouser leg.
“Bobby wasn’t there long enough for us to get but one letter from him. He didn’t say much in it, but then Bobby didn’t like to write much. Said it was hot. That they did a lot of marching. Said most of the fellas were okay.”
“Yes, sir, it was hot, and there were a lot of mountains in the part of Vietnam we were in. Kind of like here, and we had to march up and over them.”
Gaines pulled a bunch of c-rats out of his pack and gathered the cans in his arms. If I’m going to be eating in the mess hall in Da Nang tonight, I sure as hell won’t need to keep humping these c-rats he said. He turned and started for the road that separated our roosting spot from a field guarded by concertina wire.
What do you think he’s going to do I asked the other Marine.
Hell if I know he answered. You know he’s full of shit don’t you. And in a world of shit. I heard from a guy I know who’s in his squad that he fell asleep while on listening post. He woke up, thought he heard movement, and started shooting. He almost shot the other guy he was with. He shit his pants too. There was nothing out there, and the guys in the platoon gave him hell. He got into with a couple of splibs who were giving him shit about it, and he got all Johnny Reb on’em. They threatened to kill the little son-of-a-bitch. The CO is getting rid of him. Letting battalion deal with it. Not sure what’s going to happen to him.
We watched Gaines stand at the concertina wire and pitch the cans of c-rats into the weeds. The other Marine said I hope he knows that’s a mine field. He’ll shit his pants again if one of those cans he’s throwing sets off a land mine.
When Gaines returned, rid of his c-rats, he sat down and lit a cigarette. He said nothing, just sat there with his legs crossed, smoking a cigarette, and thumping his lighter with his index finger.
“Bobby should have never been in the Marines,” Mr. Simpson said. “His momma, our daughter, had problems birthing him, and she died from it. Bobby has always been a little special as a result. His daddy is a worthless no account. I heard he might be living near Paducah, but I never looked into it. My wife and I raised Bobby best we could. When he was drafted, I didn’t believe it and drove to the recruiting place in town at the post office to talk to them myself. Said they had nothing to do with it because he was drafted.”
He squinted and looked away. I could see his jaw muscles contracting to keep something in his throat at bay. He relaxed some, and he turned back to me. The toes of his brogans shuffled crisscrossing marks in the hard dirt.
“Were you with Bobby when he was killed?”
Gaines, get the fuck out of the minefield! Now, goddammit! Gaines looked back at me and grinned before he returned his eyes to the ground, stooping over to search in the weeds for his cans of C-rations. He stepped on a landmine and searched no more.
“Yes, sir, I was.” My throat was hard, and my breathing heavy. I wished for nothing more in that moment but a cold glass of water and a swath of shade.
One of the commanding officer’s radio operators came to tell us that there would be no helicopter to take us to Da Nang. Instead, we would take a truck ride in a deuce-and-a-half to Dong Ha. There was a convoy of them going there later in the afternoon. From Dong Ha we would catch a ride to Da Nang as soon as we could.
“Good luck, boys,” he said. “Keep your heads down or Luke the Gook will pick you off like ducks at the carnival. No shit, there’s been reports of activity along the road.”
The other Marine cursed. No telling when we’ll get there he complained.
Gaines grew agitated upon hearing of the change. He stomped and paced around for a few minutes. I’ll be starving by the time we get there he said. I’m hungry now, and I threw away all my c-rats.
The other Marine got up and said he was going to take a crap. I tried to keep my attention on a well-turned skin magazine I got from a grunt on his way back to the world, but Gaines kept pestering me. I need to ask you a favor he said. This special operation I’m going on, I don’t know what’s going to happen. To myself I said you’re probably going to the brig. He pressed the photograph of his house, a key ring with a Dodge Charger medallion but no key, and his Marksman badge into my hands. If anything happens to me, please make sure that my mamaw and papaw get these.
Aw shit, Gaines, I….
He squeezed my hand until the photograph crumpled, and the corners of the badge needled into my skin. Please, man, he persisted. I relented to shut him up and stuffed the items deep inside my pack and forgot about them. I figured I would soon forget about Robert Gaines, too.
I recited the lie just the way I had rehearsed it.
“Robert volunteered for a special operation to get some supplies, and he stepped on a landmine.”
He nodded as if he understood.
“The casket come, and the Marine with it wouldn’t let us open it to see Bobby. Even to see if it was his dog tags in there. His grandma and me put him in the ground, and we don’t know if it was really Bobby. One night I woke up, and she was not in the house. I found her at the grave digging in the dirt with a claw hammer and her fingers. She cried and hollered and fought me when I pulled her away. Now, she don’t hardly say nothing and stares at the door a lot like Bobby might come walking through it.
Mr. Simpson turned his head in the direction of the garage and jerked a thumb toward the old car in the garage. “Sometimes” he said, “I myself sit in that old car and think about how I was going to teach Bobby to drive when he got back from over there.”
The other Marine returned, slumped against a bunker wall, lit a cigarette, and closed his eyes. It was my turn to go to the head, and when I left, Gaines was pacing, glancing toward the concertina.
Returning from the head, I saw Gaines had crossed the road to the concertina and was probing it like he was trying to find a hole through it. I nudged the other Marine with my boot. What the fuck do you think he’s up to now? I yelled at Gaines What the hell are you doing? He yelled back he was going to get some of his c-rats back. You dumb shit, that’s a minefield. He kept probing, and the next thing I knew he was squeezing through a gap in the wire.
I started running across the road toward him yelling as I ran. The other Marine straightened up and said Oh, shit. That’s a minefield, Gaines, I yelled again. Gaines, get the fuck out of the minefield! Now, goddammit! Son-of-a-bitch! Son-of-a-bitch!
There was a lot of confusion after that. The commanding officer stood at the concertina with his binoculars trying to spot Gaines lying in the weeds. There was discussion about how to get him out of there. The executive officer took over, and the commanding officer took me and the other Marine to his bunker. He got battalion on the radio. Together they went over with us about what happened. We missed the deuce-and-a-half going to Dong Ha that afternoon, but the next morning we were able to hop a chopper to Da Nang.
Once in Da Nang, I went through the questioning again with a major from battalion. He delivered his questions like he was calling cadence—question, answer, question—, and a PFC, armed with a typewriter, recorded what we said, the typewriter keys rattling as he did like tread on a lumbering tank. The questions became predictable, and my responses repetitive, flat. Did Private Gaines tell you why he entered the minefield? He told me he wanted to get his c-rats. Who in their right mind, Lance Corporal, walks into a minefield to get c-rats? I don’t know, sir. I don’t know who in their right mind walks into a minefield to get C-rats.
The major turned to the typist and instructed him about some corrections to the report. As they talked I remembered the things Gaines had given me, and his request that I get them to his grandparents. Maybe, I thought, there might be something there that could answer some of the major’s questions. I reached over to my pack and pulled out the first thing I touched, the key ring. I extended it to the major telling him that Gaines had given it to me. The major pulled it from my fingers. He stared at it, turned it over, pinched it between his middle and index fingers, and examined it like a jeweler appraising whether it was a diamond or a fake. It’s a key ring with no key he says to me, dead serious. No shit, Major, I think, but don’t say. Lance Corporal, what does a key ring have to do with why Private Gaines walked into a minefield to get a box of c-rats? Before I could answer, tell him that Gaines wanted me to return it to his grandparents if anything happened to him, he turned and threw the key ring into the trash can. What else, Lance Corporal? The way he asked me was like a dare. I withdrew my hand resting on my pack. Nothing, sir, nothing else, and my thoughts fixed on my getting to sick bay to have my calf looked at and maybe get something for the pain.
I reached into my pocket, my fingers bypassing the photograph Gaines had given me. I pulled out the Marksman badge, and I offered it to the old man.
“Robert wanted you to have this. It’s his Marksman badge for shooting. Proves that he was a qualified rifleman in the Marine Corps.”
He accepted the badge in the palm of his hand.
“I’ll be damned,” he said. He chuckled as he delicately polished the medal with the pad of his thumb. “Bobby always said ‘I can shoot. I can shoot pop cans, trash cans, ash cans, tin cans, gas cans, and oil cans.’”
We both smiled at that, and he thanked me. I was relieved. He said he said he would offer me a glass of iced sweet tea, but his wife was nervous around strangers. “Besides,” he said, “I’m sure you want to be on your way.” I agreed. The last thing he said to me before shaking my hand and wishing me well was that he was glad that Bobby had a friend at the end. I was embarrassed at that, but I said, “Yes, sir”, and got into my car.
I pulled the photograph of Bobby’s house from my trousers’ pocket, and it was damp from the sweat soaking through. I noticed for the first time that the photograph was actually two sheets of paper, and they were separating where the heat and dampness had softened the glue. I pulled the papers apart and saw printing on the back of one. The photograph was actually a postcard of a historic Kentucky home. Gaines had apparently glued paper to the back of the postcard to hide the lettering and make the postcard his own photograph.
My own story after Robert Davis Gaines is that I got some rank and extended for another tour in Nam. I wanted to save some money so that when I got out of the Corps, and if things were going well with my girl, Janey, we might get married. The Gunny told me if I did extend I would stay in the rear and work in the artillery fire control center. I did for a while, then the Gunny rotated back to the world, and the new Gunny sent me back out on a forward observer team. I messed up big-time once. I called in the wrong coordinates, and a round fell on top of a squad of Marines on patrol. It was a white phosphorous, or whiskey papa spotter round. Luckily, no one was killed. It burned a couple a guys bad though. The new Gunny was afraid the grunts might want payback, and he transferred me further south to the 1st Marine Division. I stayed in the rear after that, but I didn’t save any money. The ville was too close by, and I got a nasty little habit. I was discharged when I got back to the States, and I returned home. Things didn’t work out between Janey and me, and she left town. I talked to her mother, and she said Janey wasn’t coming back. I didn’t believe that she would never come back to our town, but I understood that was her mother’s way to tell me Janey didn’t want to ever see me again. Things got worse before they got better as the saying goes, but I finally kicked my habit.
I saw in the rearview mirror Sterling Simpson waving one last time before turning and shuffling across the yard toward his house, dabbing as he went the back of his neck with the rag wadded in his fist.
I ironed the postcard as smoothly as I could with the palm of my hand and clipped it to the visor. No, sir, I said to myself, thinking about what Mr. Simpson first said to me, I’m not lost. I know my way, and it’s marked on a map with a red line from Illinois to a new job and a new life in a new town, Atlanta. I just had to take this one detour to keep a promise made to a dead Marine, and that promise was to return something of him to his mamaw and papaw, who raised him, loved him, lost him, and longed for him still. To my question, though, I still had no answer, and when I drove away from the house on Nickaburr Creek, I abandoned it there. In time all of it—the house, the cluttered debris, and the two injured lives—would decay and disappear, and I hoped so would my question: who in their right mind walks into a minefield to get c-rats?