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Tracks

by Ben Weise

That June morning in 1969 was hot as usual when our tank column formed up just south of Da Nang to transport Marine grunts, who would take up positions at intervals on either side of the dirt road. I was sitting on the turret beside the lieutenant, the gunner, and the tank commander, with the grunts relaxed behind us on the flat surface of the tank. A more peaceful setting was hard to imagine, even though we were at war with an enemy who looked in every way like the people presently tending their rice paddies. Here and there, women, some with babies slung on their backs, and old men, all protected from the sun by cone-shaped bamboo hats, worked ankle deep in water. Nearby, children rested atop powerful yet docile water buffaloes in an attitude of easy unconcern. Watching us pass, some would wave and we waved back. And if we paused at a roadside village, it never failed that our tanks were instantly surrounded by bright-eyed boys and girls asking for a stick of gum or a piece of candy.

Wanting to free myself from the hot confinement of my flak jacket, I started to take it off. The lieutenant saw me and said if I didn’t want to wear it, I’d have to go below, meaning down into the belly of the tank where the loader and the gunner normally worked. I opted for the shade and privacy of the tank’s belly, and the chance to page through Listen to the Warm, a book of poetry by Rod McKuen that a friend from home had sent me. Meanwhile, we were dropping off grunts at their assigned posts, our tank stopping each time for a couple of minutes. Of absolute importance when jumping off a tank, each man had been taught to land where the tank had left tracks, lest the impact of feet elsewhere detonate a bomb buried in the road.

From inside the tank I suddenly felt a muffled concussion. Before I could react, the tank commander’s body came down on top of me. His head oddly cocked to one side, his eyes grew dim, and he was gone, although blood continued to pour from his carotid artery like water through a sluice. Once outside, where the injured lay twisted in the dust of the road, I learned what had happened. A Marine jumping from the side of the tank had set off a bomb, sending its shrapnel in all directions. Thus, there was no enemy to shoot at. No hidden sniper to confront. The enemy had killed by stealth, leaving no tracks of his own. How eerie it was, the peaceful silence that followed after the medevac chopper had lifted off and disappeared from view with our dead and wounded aboard.

That night, I opened my book to the poem I was reading the instant Larry died. Its words were blood smeared, and, like the memory of my fallen comrade, indelible.

Up from the pastures of boredom

            out from the sea of discontent

            they come like packs of hungry hounds

            the seekers of the dark enchantment…

Forty-two days later back in battalion area, our crew was stretched out on the tank passing a joint around and grooving to the Beatles on the radio. I had never seen a night sky so full of stars. It so happened that 240,000 miles away in the stillness of that sky two earthlings were leaving their footprints on the moon, while just across the ocean half the country was protesting the war, with the other half making a killing off it. And we, who didn’t give a damn one way or the other except to look out for each other, were caught in the middle. It didn’t make sense. Not much did, but we knew we weren’t welcome back in the world. The music played and we got high listening to Lennon singing “get back to where you once belonged.”