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— "The Cross isn't bad."

"Yeah, but Muncher deserved better. Guy fought off a company of VC all night while leading a bunch of broke-dick VN mercs outta harm's way without any U.S. air or arty support."

"Well..."

"Hey! But d'ya remember the good times we had out there in the desert at Niland? Didn't have no buildings then. We slept in back of that gas station on Highway 187, cleaned our weapons in the grease pit, got all fucked up at the Silver Dollar, and sometimes got lucky with that 120-degree pussy used to hang out there. Remember?"

Before I could reply, he'd drained his beer and shouted across the room for the waitress to bring another round, even though my glass was only half empty. "Better drink up, mate," he said.

The waitress returned with foaming drafts. After she left, he leaned over the table, his face inches from mine, his tobacco breath enveloping me.

"But let me tell you what we did for Billy Machen on the first anniversary of his death. Six of us outta the Delta was pullin' liberty at Frogsville up in Danang. We was hangin' out with the UDT guys playing beach volleyball during the day 'n getting airstarts from Big Red in M1A1 Alley at night. Suck me silly with a handy billy!" He laughed a short, barking laugh devoid of mirth.

"This particular night," he continued, "we was drinking at an Alley bar when someone -- don't remember who -- reminded us that it was the anniversary of Billy's death. No one there had been with Billy, but we all felt like we had. He was one of us. We talked about Billy for a while and how he died, and then we decided we should do something -- get some payback.

"We left the bar, returned to Frogsville and jocked up -- put our web gear on with full loads. I carried the grenade launcher. Rest of the patrol had the usual assortment of M16s, CARs, and of course the Stoner. We all had sharpened Ka-Bars with a light coating of WD-40.

"We borrowed a UDT weapons carrier and headed north out of the city up toward the Do-Long bridge."

"Tell anyone where you were headed? Lay on any support?"

"Nope. We just up and did it. Didn't even take a radio."

"Jesus."

"We got to the bridge a little after midnight, left the weapons carrier with a squad of Marines guarding the bridge, and started patrolling along the river into Happy Valley. Told the jarheads we'd give them a green flare on the way back in."

"Didn't you have to go pretty deep into the Valley to make contact? You probably wouldn't run across anything close in except woodcutters, fishermen, maybe farmers."

"Ever'body in that fucking valley's VC -- especially after the sun goes down." He paused to pull at his beer. "Hadn't gone more'n two or three klicks before we heard 'em thrashin' toward us up from the riverbank chirpin' away like slopes do.

"We eased off the trail into the bushes and waited still as tombstones. There was three of them with fishnets: two men and a co. We let all three get in amongst us before we grabbed them.

"Nobody said nothing. We just took out our knives and started cutting. We passed 'em down the line and ever'body got good 'n wet. I damned near cut my own self when I sliced clean through one of them scrawny Veetmanese necks.

"After we'd finished, I got an idea. I turned the co over and slit her black pajama top open. She had a pretty good set on her. I went to work like Jack the fuckin' Ripper.

"When we got back to Frogsville, I cleaned, cored, and cured the tit. Punched holes around the open end and worked a skinny length of rawhide through the holes for a drawstring. Made a dandy pouch for my Prince Albert."

He made a movement with his hand and, for a startled instant, I feared he would produce the leathered thing and a pack of Zig-Zags to roll his own. But all he did was grab my hand and say, "Gotta go. Someone's waiting. Great seeing you again, mate." Then he vanished through the translucent curtain into the night. One of us.

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