By Ken Roy
I remember the day the Greek went crazy. I don’t know if it was the heat of the Vietnam sun that fried his brain, or the blood of war that that poisoned his mind, but he went crazy.
He shook his backpack to the ground and flung his rifle into the air. Flung it like a spear. At first it traveled straight and true to a point midway between the sun and the horizon, and for the briefest moment suspended there, before it began to wobble, plunge, and finally disappear into the hungry, grasping claws of the mountain jungle. And then the Greek flung himself from the ledge of the mountain trail into the green throat of the jungle where he, too, was swallowed away without a shout or a sound.
I don’t know why that day the Greek went crazy. It began, like most every other day for our company of grunts, at what the Skipper called the false dawn – that soft, cool time of the morning, when the sun, all juicy red and yellow, still bobbed below the horizon, its creeping glow invading the landscape.
We were already up by then. Up from under the sweet comfort of our poncho liners and into our routines. As tiny fires heated water for coffee and warmed up cans of c-rats, some fired up smokes as we squeezed the air out of our rubber mattresses – our rubber bitches – so that they could be folded and strapped to our packs with our other gear.
I didn’t smoke, but I had a lot of cigarettes because cigarettes could be used like money. I always saved the two cigarettes that came in each box of c-rats, and depending on the going rate, bargained for something I wanted – like pound cake or coffee or a good skin magazine. One time I traded a dozen cigarettes for a little brass statue that a guy had bought while on R & R in Bangkok. It was a statute of a woman with head bowed and hands clasped in front like she was praying. He said it was some kind of goddess, maybe some kind of Buddhist saint that could protect you. Maybe it was, I don’t know. But I made it my good-luck piece and hung it around my neck, tucked under my shirt with my dog tags.
Saddled up with our gear that morning, the Skipper gave the order to move out. We humped down the mountain that had been our night position, and once down that mountain, we humped up the next mountain. And so it went, like it went every day, down one mountain and up the next and down again.
We marched in a single line like a long, green slug, lurching and stopping as we humped. Sometimes all stretched out, then all bunched up. And when we bunched up, the Sarge yelled for us to spread out, and we would. Then we hump some more and bunch up again.
And all along the way as we humped, we loaded more into our packs. We made room for the heat. Squeezed in more thirst. Poked a hole to slide the fatigue in. Wedged in some anger, good and snug so it wouldn’t shift. Re-arranged a pair of socks here, and a can of c-rats there to stuff in a bit of hope, some regret. And if the pack got so full so that we couldn’t put any more on the inside, we tied what we could on the outside, tying double knots so the load wouldn’t work loose or get pulled away if snagged by a branch.
We never had to pack the fear though or tie it down. It was just there. It was in the dust that puffed up in little brown blooms when you slapped your pack to beat it clean, and you breathed it in deep, all the way into the thousands of little air sacs of your lungs. It was in the nuggets of dirt and gravel and twigs and leaves that you thought that you had emptied when you turned your pack upside down and shook it. But you could never shake it all out, and there was always a bit of fear stuck under a seam or in a corner in the bottom of your pack, and even that little bit added to the weight as you humped.
When the Greek went crazy nobody went after him. We just waited for the Sarge. And while we waited, we tugged water from canteens, lit up quick smokes or just plopped down on the trail, maneuvering our backpacks in such a way as to give us something to lean on. When the Sarge arrived, huffing and puffing in that frantic way of his, he asked us what the hell was going on, and as he talked, his gray lips flapped like the soles of his worn out jungle boots.
The Greek just went crazy, Sarge.
Yeah, he threw his gear down and ran off into the bush.
He’ll be in a world of shit, won’t he, Sarge, humping solo through Uncle Ho’s neighborhood?
The grunt snorted at his little joke, but the Sarge didn’t laugh. He looked directly forward, eyes squinted, almost shut, and I knew as I had seen this look many times before that he was thinking. And I suspected that, for the Sarge, thinking was not a lot of what if’s about right or wrong, but only of what was – what was bullshit and what was not, and given that, how to get from point A to point B in one piece. I liked that about the Sarge, lifer that he was, that he could sift the bullshit from what mattered.
The Sarge turned and swept an arm across six of us to motion us toward the jungle. And with that we stepped into the jungle’s tangled, green maze to look for the Greek and bring him back.
We humped down a finger of the mountain, a skinny, treacherous finger of rock, dirt and jungle that pointed straight down. The Mexican walked point first, slashing and cutting with his machete, and even with an energy that seemed fueled by rage or craziness, the going was slow and labored. Soon the Mexican was spent, and he fell back and handed the machete to another grunt who also attacked the dense entanglement of the locked fingers of limbs and branches and vines.
We struggled down the side of the mountain, and the further down we went, the darker it became. The sunlight, which in the beginning, blasted through holes in the jungle’s canopy like glowing slivers of heat, gradually became visible only as reflections trickling down from the leaves that dangled above us. And the deeper the finger beckoned us, the more the canopy closed shut until even the reflections were snuffed out. The trees then became living, breathing walls of a cavernous hall, and like accidental troglodytes, we stumbled over stalagmites of branches and rocks.
We continued downward. We sucked for air like fish. Our utilities turned black from the greasy soup of body oil and sweat that seeped from our bodies like water squeezed from a sponge. We wiped grimy hands across our eyes as quickstepping drops of sweat marched down past wet brows and through eye lashes, rolled over eye balls – stinging as they did did – dripped around cheeks and noses, and finally arrived at the lips from which we licked the salty sweat.
We cursed the jungle. And we cursed the Greek, too, god damn him. Crazy bastard. Where was he leading us? Deeper still, so far deep that we’d never find our way out? Or, to a passage out of this black, hot hole? Crazy, sneaky bastard. Without having to hump his gear he was probably gliding effortlessly through the jungle, over the ridges and down the ravines. Lucky bastard. Probably halfway to Da Nang by now, where he’d soon be sitting in the club right next to the air conditioner, sipping a beer, and plotting, if he had not already worked it out, how he was to smuggle himself onto a freedom bird that would take him back to the world.
We found him instead slumped against a rock on the far, open edge of a quietly running stream. He sat with legs splayed, and his arms hung straight down to the ground like plumb lines of bone.
With the sun at his back and his head bowed, his face was in a dark shadow, but as we stepped closer, we saw an ugly gash on his chin, and the blood was still leaking over the tiny shreds of the wound’s hanging flesh. His right cheek, equally battered, was a swollen plum. The jungle had punished him good during his crazy run through it.
For all his cuts and bruises though, his eyes were the most wounded. They spun in their sockets like tiny black blots, much like a couple of buzzards, circling thousands of feet up, might look.
The Sarge knelt down on one knee to talk to him and tried to get the Greek to look at him. And I think the Greek, hearing the Sarge’s voice, tried to look at him, but he couldn’t focus. His eyeballs would fix for a moment on a place somewhere high above the Sarge’s shoulder then begin to spin again. And when he talked he babbled. He babbled something about gold and the hills and gold in the hills.
The Sarge, his gray lips sagging now with weariness and resignation, called the Radioman over, and the Sarge radioed the Skipper. They talked, and the Sarge answered the questions that you could tell the Skipper was asking. The last thing that the Sarge said to the Skipper before Roger, out, was, yes, send a chopper. We didn’t know if this was the Greek’s ticket home for good, but we knew that today it was his ticket off this mountain.
The Sarge ordered us back up the mountain to wait for the chopper that would carry the Greek back to the rear. A couple of us lifted the Greek up by his armpits, and we dragged him face down up the mountain, his body stretched out between us like a flimsy, floppy board. The toes of his boots plowed the ground as we dragged him, and his head swung left to right like a pendulum.
Once at the top, the Doc met us and directed us to lay the Greek in the shade of a tree. He looked in the Greek’s eyes, patted his skin and checked his pulse. He listened to his breathing. He unbuttoned the Greek’s shirt and folded it back. As he did so, he told some of us to remove the bandannas from our necks, soak them with water poured from our canteens, and once done, the Doc plastered the bandannas like strips of wallpaper over the Greeks chest and stomach. He had the Greek sip water from a canteen cup.
Then he opened up his corpsman’s kit and began to tend to the Greek’s face, cleaning the wound and taping gauze over it.
I asked the Doc what he thought was wrong with the Greek, and he said he wasn’t sure, heat, probably. And then I asked the Doc if the heat made you talk crazy, and I told him that the Greek was talking crazy when we found him, talking about gold and the hills. Is he crazy, Doc? And the Doc said he wasn’t sure if he was or wasn’t, but heat could do that, too. So I asked the Doc how do you treat him if he’s crazy, and he said with medication.
I started to ask what kind of medication, but then the Radioman interrupted to say that sometimes a shrink could help. I didn’t know exactly what a shrink did, but I knew that it involved talking. And it was hard for me to understand, with the Greek talking crazy like he was, how talking, even with a shrink, could help him. The Radioman was a smart guy, he had even gone to college for a while, but he didn’t have an answer to that. Neither did the Doc.
Diceman spoke up. He thought they might have to shoot the Greek.
We all jumped on him for saying that. The Radioman called Diceman an asshole and asked why would the Greek have to be shot. And Diceman said that it was like a racehorse with a broken leg. It can’t ever be fixed right so you have to shoot the horse. He said that he saw it happen back home at the racetrack all the time.
They’re not going to shoot him said the Doc, disgusted.
Okay, said Diceman, bumming a cigarette off the Radioman while he spoke, but if pills and talking don’t help, and you can’t shoot him, then what’s left? Put him in a straitjacket and lock him away?
As we waited for the chopper I thought about the Greek’s situation. I didn’t think that what Diceman said was right, but he wasn’t completely wrong either. We weren’t talking racehorses here. We were talking about a grunt, and a broken leg, or any other broken bone, only had to be fixed good enough so that a grunt could go back to humping mountains.
But could they fix what was broken inside the Greek’s head? And did they care if they could fix it or not because, sometimes, crazy was good crazy. Like the time that crazy grunt, when we were standing perimeter guard at the Khe Gio bridge, jumped up during the night and began firing his M-16 as he ran in the dark toward the perimeter, screaming like a wounded rooster. Ran right into the perimeter’s concertina wire before he quit firing his M-16, and we had to go pull him out of the wire. The next morning a patrol outside the wire found two fresh gook bodies. Crazy grunt got a medal for that.
Grabbing my backpack, I walked away from the trail and stood by a shallow, rocky ravine. I set my pack down and reached into a side pouch. I pulled out the plastic bag that was packed tight with my horde of dozens of c-rat cigarette boxes.
Waving the Diceman over, I stepped further down the slope of the ravine out of sight of the company. When Diceman slid down to where I stood, I held up the bag of cigarettes. He didn’t immediately reach for them but looked at me, quizzically at first, then suspiciously.
I gripped my M-16 by the barrel, and in slow motion, I swung it like a baseball bat and lightly tapped my knee. I tossed the bag of cigarettes to the ground in front of him. His eyes ratcheted to my knee then to the M-16 and finally to the cigarettes.
He shook his head as if to say I don’t know about this then pointed to sky behind me and said the chopper’s coming. I turned to see it, surprised that I hadn’t heard it, and at that moment Diceman swung his M-16 forcefully and savagely against my left knee. The pain both felled me and blinded me, and I rolled down the ravine, crying out and cursing as I did.
When I last saw Diceman, he was him drifting sideways up the slope of the ravine, a distance up the trail from where he had walked down, and he was stuffing the bag of cigarettes inside his shirt.
Whether someone heard me cry out or Diceman sent someone to rescue me, I don’t know. But within a few minutes a half dozen grunts scooted down, picked me up and carried me out of the ravine to the Doc, who was still tending to the Greek.
He had me sit next to the Greek, who lay still, and asked me what had happened. I explained that as I was walking to take a leak down the ravine I slipped, and when I did, my knee landed, hard, squarely on a rock.
He rolled up my pant leg and examined my knee. It was already swelling and reddening. The Doc prodded the knee lightly and flexed it. It was tear-wringing tender to his prods and squeezes.
The grunts had relayed the word to the Sarge, and the Sarge walked up. Well, he asked the Doc? The Doc shook his head. I don’t think anything is broken, but he took a nasty hit on that knee when he fell. It’s going to keep swelling for a bit and will be really tender. He won’t be good for humping. Better put him on the chopper with the Greek. Have it checked out in the rear. Get some ice on it.
The Sarge asked me what happened. I told him that I was going to take a leak, and I tripped. The Doc said I thought you slipped. Yeah, slipped or tripped, I said. I don’t know, I just fell.
The Sarge stared at me for a moment or two, his eyes narrowed. I looked up at him, and looking into his eyes was like looking down dark, twin barrels of a shotgun. His gray lips were pulled and drawn over his teeth, but he wasn’t smiling. I was relieved and grateful to finally hear the chop-chop of the chopper flying in over the trees so that I could look away.
There was a small opening on the ridge, thirty or so yards down, with room enough for the chopper to land. Some grunts rolled the Greek onto a poncho, and holding the sides, they picked him up and carried him to the chopper. I draped my pack over my shoulder, and using my M-16 like a cane, I hobbled behind them, and at each step, I cursed the piercing pain.
I had just barely cleared the door of the chopper when it lifted up and sped away. I looked down at the company of grunts. They were already saddling up and moving up the mountain. I looked away then back again, and just as quickly, they were just dark blots on the trail. In another instant the jungle closed over the trail, and I didn’t see them at all anymore.
It would take only minutes for the chopper to arrive at the base. I suspected that the Greek and I would part there, and I wondered again what would happen to him. I knew that I would have only have a few days in the rear before I would again be pronounced fit enough to carry a pack and hump the mountains.
I looked at the Greek. His eyes were fixed on the western horizon where the sun, sinking in the late afternoon sky, was hidden behind a shawl of thick, cumulus clouds.
Quietly, beneath the chopper’s roar, I said, hey, there’s no gold in those hills. I removed the little gold statue from my neck, and I looped it around his. Tucked it inside his shirt, next to his dog tags. I patted his shoulder. Wished him luck.