The Talisman

by David Tanis

The dense jungles of I Corps in Vietnam were the essence of the tropics. If the men of Delta Company couldn’t tell by the map, they could certainly tell by the punishing heat. For the past month, the daytime thermometer registered between 95 and 110 degrees, as the dry season took hold like an eagle’s talons. The heat sapped the strength of Delta Company, as well as their spirits.

There was a lot of grumbling as the men slow-walked their patrol like zombies. They were on a search and destroy mission, searching without enthusiasm, vaguely looking for something worth destroying, maybe an unprotected weapons cache or a careless enemy unit caught napping. They were aware of the possibility of danger from some hidden booby trap, or enemy ambush. Some of the men worried, some really didn’t care. Prolonged exposure to danger suppressed, even destroyed, the protective emotion of fear. Combat soldiers and street cops understand this.

Each man carried three canteens made of semi-pliable plastic to minimize the noise of the containers clanking together. Still, after three hours on patrol, the men of Delta Company had run out of water. Each was parched and feeling the dizzying effects of dehydration. Tongues swelled and a few men stopped sweating as their bodies neared the dangerous point of heat prostration.

Coming across a small stream with what looked like clear running water, the men carelessly drank and filled their canteens. Upon close inspection, though, which few of the thirsty men took the time for, there was all sorts of not quite microscopic life swimming around, contaminating the water. Some of the more cautious soldiers, having brought iodine tablets, dropped a couple of pills in each canteen. Most just chanced it, hoping the hepatitis, typhus, cholera, or other waterborne diseases somehow would not infect them. Or maybe they hoped they would get sick, so they could be medevaced out of this godforsaken place.

But Delta Company had an assigned mission, one ordered by field grade officers who remained ensconced in the air-conditioned, sand-bagged comfort of the LZ battalion headquarters. Without field experience for many of these officers, considerations like the heat didn’t factor into their orders. They just issued them to prove to the higher-ups they were doing something, even if there was no real purpose in it.

Most of the men of Delta Company were capable soldiers with combat experience; a few had more than a year in the field in Vietnam. Despite the searing heat, they were alert, watchful for anything out of the ordinary, any hidden danger.

The commander of Delta Company was a lifer. A former NCO, he was in fact the old man, being several years older than the oldest non-com. The men respected him, for he never ordered any of the them to do something he hadn’t demonstrated he would do.

Positioned near the front of the patrol, he ordered a halt as they approached a small collection of primitive huts, known colloquially as a ville. He walked to the front, his M-16 rifle dangling from his right hand, as he surveyed the thatched huts surrounded by a fence made of loosely woven sticks and reeds, designed to keep domestic animals enclosed, though there were none in sight.

The ville was unexpected. He had not been told of its existence by the S-2, the battalion intelligence officer. Perhaps because the S-2 didn’t know of it, perhaps because he deemed it unimportant, or perhaps because he didn’t care.

The captain ordered two squads to do a reconnaissance, meeting at the rear of the ville as they completed their inspection. In ten minutes they returned, reporting that the ville was apparently abandoned. No people. No goats or cows or the pathetic skinny yard birds that passed for chickens in these hills. It was even too hot for the feral animals that lived in the nearby jungle. Animals and birds roosted motionless, simply waiting until the relative cool of dusk and evening to forage for food. Even the dense vegetation seemed wilted, listless, slowly dying from the intense dry heat. The silence was eerie.

The captain wiped his brow with an already soaked GI handkerchief. He cautiously led his men into the compound to search the buildings. He warned them to watch for booby traps or ambushes as they searched each hooch. As the patrol entered the boundary through a rickety gate in the fence, the captain noticed a large round threshing basket made of tightly woven rattan hanging prominently by the low, open doorway of the largest hooch. Because of the size of the basket and the prominence of the hooch on which it was displayed, he determined this hooch to be the home of the village chief.

A very tall man, the captain had to significantly bend over to go in. He and his seasoned radio operator, a sergeant, warily searched the hooch, which was lit only by the sunlight streaming in through the open door, and small awnings propped open near the back and side. They were looking for booby traps, weapons, or other evidence that would prove this ville was controlled by the Viet Cong. The fact that the hooch had been abandoned was some slight hint of Viet Cong support.

The interior of the hooch contained the usual assortment of third world accoutrements. In the middle of the hard-packed dirt floor was a rectangular cooking pit dug about a foot deep, lined with stale ashes. A cast iron pot lay near the pit, before a small rattan altar with a pint-sized bamboo container filled with joss sticks. The altar, he knew, was where the home’s inhabitants, who were animists, prayed to the spirits of their ancestors, for protection and guidance.

On the sides of the hooch were a couple of thin, woven, sleeping mats, but nothing else. There was no smell of body odor, food, burnt ashes, or other evidence of recent use. The overpowering odor of nuoc mam, the fermented fish sauce omnipresent in Vietnamese cuisine, was also absent. The only smell, beside the damp musk of the clay floor, was just the warm musty scent of decaying grass of the thatched roof. The captain stood erect and stretched his frame, wiping the sweat from his brow. It was like an oven inside the little hooch.

As he was about to leave, he bent down almost double so he could pass through the doorway, but stopped short. Even in the darkness, he could make out a small round object centered on top of the teak lintel over the low doorway. He carefully checked for booby trap wires. Finding none, he gingerly picked up the object and examined the little token as he stepped outside into the searing sunlight. He was holding a well-worn, 1946 two dong, copper coin bearing the worn image of Ho Chi Minh.

The captain guessed the coin’s wear probably came from the village chief repeatedly turning the little talisman over and over in his hand as he prayed for good fortune for himself and his people. Having studied the animist culture of the people in this area before deploying, he knew the coin had been placed on the lintel for good luck, for protection for the house. But Ho Chi Minh was the revered leader of the Viet Cong and the enemy of America. The coin was a symbol of the devotion of the people, and constituted proof that the ville was a Viet Cong site.

The indigenous people in this area were quite primitive. They conducted a simple agrarian-barter economy, one that did not use actual money. The people of this ville, the captain figured, probably had never used currency. Perhaps they had vacated the ville when the Americans appeared. Or maybe they had left long before, conscripted by the Viet Cong into the war effort, never to return to their old way of life.

He wiped perspiration from his eyes, unable to see clearly in the blinding sunlight, the sweat salt burning. He thought about the little talisman and the primitive people who had lived here. All they had ever wanted before this war, before the French, even before the Chinese a millennium earlier, was to be left alone, to farm their meager plots in their ancient method, to reap their meager subsistence harvests in the way of their ancestors, without machines, without complications or hassle, and to worship the spirits of their forebears in their simplistic manner.

A grizzled platoon sergeant walked up to the captain, crow’s feet proof of his seniority, his face leathered, hardened, and experienced. His soulless eyes showed unquestioning acceptance without emotion of the senseless warfare in this alien land. “You want me to send in the zippo squad and torch the ville, sir?”

The captain didn’t immediately respond. The extreme heat was so oppressive it was hard to concentrate. He looked at the coin still in his hand, turned it over once or twice, “No, Sarge, not today. I don’t want to add any more heat to this damn Vietnamese climate. Let the people who lived in this little ville have a place to return to. They were just plain lucky today.”

He flipped the coin into the air, caught it, and pocketed the little talisman, a meager trophy of his war.