Last Dance

by Michael P. Lambert

The jungle slipstreaming beneath the inbound chopper was like an expansive garden, scented with the perfume of wild rhododendrons, bougainvilleas and rotting orchids. The chopper’s blades were beating the syrupy air with a rhythmic whump, whump, whump that was somehow oddly reassuring.

The crew was scanning the horizon, looking intently for the yellow smoke that was to mark their destination landing zone (LZ). Spread out beneath them as far as they could see was an undulating sea of alternating darker and lighter green foliage. After an hour of tracking across the sea of green, the pilot spotted the yellow smoke, dropped to tree top level and raced towards it. The pilot centered his craft in the middle of the LZ and the chopper flared up and hovered a foot above the earth like a tipsy dragonfly.

Their mission was to collect and exfiltrate a two-man Air Cav forward observer (FO) team, Renaldo and O’Malley, who had been inserted in the bush two weeks ago.

The FO team was squatting at the edge of an LZ they had carved out of the jungle the day before. Right on time, they saw the chopper coming in at tree-top level, maybe two klicks away. O’Malley, the team leader, chucked three fresh yellow smoke grenades into the treeless LZ, making a second triangle of columns of spewing smoke that quickly enveloped the clearing.

“Jesus, LT, they can’t miss this LZ with the smoke storm you’ve puffed,” said Renaldo.

“Why fuck around about it?” O’Malley said. “We need to get the hell out of this place.”

O’Malley, a Second Lieutenant, was six feet tall, and had the lean, rangy torso of a fencer, pale blue eyes, an infectious smile and a shock of unruly blond air atop a white-wall haircut. He had a craggy, deeply lined face of someone who spent lots of time in the sun.

Renaldo, a Spec 4, was a strikingly short man with coal black hair and coal black eyes to match, and comical, toothpick-sized legs.

“Here we go, pardner,” O’Malley yelled above the din of the chopper’s blades. “Last dance.”

The two men grabbed their M-16 rifles, radio gear and rucksacks, went into a low crouch, and started open field running in tandem toward the Huey, with O’Malley leading.

The chopper danced its drunken dance just above earth. The two door gunners were manning their M-60 machine guns, sweeping the tree line from side to side, firing what they called “recon by fire,” often a waste of valuable ordnance, but the din they generated was reassuring to the rescue team.

About twenty yards into the FO team’s dash to the chopper, shells from at least a half-dozen Soviet 82mm mortar tubes started exploding in the LZ. One round hit so close that it knocked O’Malley face forward, his ears ringing and his upper back burning white hot.  He struggled to his feet and looked back and saw that Renaldo was sprawled on his back, a death mask gaze staring to the sky, a shredded mass of red, white and green splotched on the earth.

“The VC had all day to zero in on the LZ we cleared from the racket made by our damn chain saws yesterday,” O’Malley thought.

The door gunners in the waiting chopper had opened full up with their M-60 machine guns, pouring it on and shredding the tree line with hundreds of rounds per minute. The pilots were screaming at O’Malley: “Hurry the fuck up! We’re outbound now, with or without you!”

Everything went into slow motion.

Without hesitating, and thinking “no one left behind,” O’Malley ran back to his dead companion and threw his limp body over his shoulder. He staggered forward, lurching in a zigzag pattern, trying to avoid the mortar rounds that were now sprouting on the LZ all about him. As he got to the door of chopper, which was wobbling a few feet off the ground, he saw dozens of shrapnel chunks tear through its paper-thin olive drab metal skin. With the mortar shells exploding like drops of rain on a pond surface, and the staccato explosions of the chopper’s machine guns, O’Malley, tears streaming down his face, shoved the ragdoll body of his friend into the chopper’s cabin, and then collapsed at the door’s edge.

The machine gunner grabbed O’Malley’s bare, blood-slick right arm and yanked him aboard, and went back to emptying his belt of 7.62mm shells into the distant foliage, with seemingly no effect. Still, the mortar rounds rained down on the LZ without letup.

The chopper lurched up, its turbine engine screaming, and the smell of burning oil filled the cabin. The LZ slipped away beneath them, and suddenly the mortar rounds stopped raining down. The machine guns went quiet, and the smell of cordite hung in the air.  The only sounds now were the thud of the chopper blade beating the thick jungle air, and the ear-piercing protest of the engine.

O’Malley, now lying face up on the deck, rolled his head to the side and looked at his dead buddy sprawled next to him. “We never had a chance,” he muttered to the lifeless form. “Not a fuckin’ chance.”

A chopper crew member knelt next to O’Malley and gently removed his fatigue shirt.

“How bad is it?” O’Malley asked, trying not to show fear.

“It’s pretty bad, sir. But I think we can stop the bleeding for now. Don’t think you’re gonna check out today. But there’s a nasty chunk of shrapnel lodged in your back. I am afraid to yank it out up here. You might bleed out if I do.”

“It hurts like a bitch,” O’Malley said. “Can you stop the bleeding?”

“Can do.” The soldier expertly dosed, plastered, and taped the gaping wound around the shrapnel piece with antiseptic and gauze.

O’Malley was slipping into unconsciousness, but was suddenly jolted awake when, without warning, the chopper blades went whump, whump, whump and then stopped spinning, as if an on and off switch had been thrown.

Wind was rushing up through floor, ear-piercing warning alarms and flashing lights were going off, and one of the pilots was screaming something unintelligible.

The chopper spun listlessly downward out of the brilliant blue sky, a squat green metal and glass hulk tumbling gracelessly to the earth, crashing nose first into a swift-flowing brown river and sinking quickly below the surface.

Their war was over.




(Copyright 2015 Military Experience & the Arts, Inc.)