Author receiving Purple Heart from Army General Stillwell. You’re sure your leg is blown off, has to be, one arm doesn’t work your “good” hand...part of your finger missing, grab your face...nothing....
There is no more vile, despicable thing in nature than the man who runs from his demons. — Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
Some people wear everything on their sleeves, they’d run naked through a mall if there wasn’t a law. Others, like me....and maybe you....are more evasive; the parts of our lives are like ants, searching, destroying, and defending... Building nests; over the years we’ve piled up great pyramids of dead needles and twigs and crumbs, and we live like fugitive Pharaohs within. We live protected lives, and...although we have not always been this way... we are happy. We keep our secrets sealed, and we don’t bother people. But every once in awhile some ephemerally happy meddler comes along, peeks inside, knows there are things you won’t talk about, and kicks the shit out of your ant's nest.
The author (left) with father, sister, and brother. Years later I learned that Mother, not long after the Baby Kirk was born, had tried to kill her children.
There was a time you’d have killed that meddler.
Now you just go rebuild....
Truth is, there’s a time or two I thought of putting a barrel to my temple and pulling the trigger. Boom. Remember Kennedy’s head? You’ve seen it....heads exploding. I mean. Sometimes in the wee’s I think about it. Examine it. Smell it. Roll around in it. It’s not all ugliness, you know. You control where you go, where you dwell, until the crow drags you underneath into dreams...dreams you can’t end...dreams inside old buildings, plywood walls, padlocked doors, one-way ancient stages; or dreams of things you’ve really seen: six-month-old black lab on the freeway, shivering in terror, diving under the from duals of a long-loaded semi and blowing out its hide like a billion BBS of cartilage and watermelon; or dreams like things you’ve seen...running without a body on Pacific Highway, stalking with ghost dogs, tails down, tripping over carcasses....roadkills....like Marines at Con Thien; or Marines you’ve seen butchered, misplaced in time....piled on caissons pulled by freaked horses....moving down roads of unmistakable red mud.
Ho Chi Minh City from the Rex Hotel. Every person here still says Saigon. T-shirts for sale on every corner say Saigon.
There’s a baby book I found in a stale box after the war; there’s not much in it, clip of hair, couple pictures, and a final hand-written entry by a mother I barely remember.
Bless Mother and Daddy, baby Kirk, Roi Gen-Eviv and little Ray. Also help little Ray to learn to ride his tricycle sometime soon & help little Ray to be a good boy....
May God always take care of my first and oldest son. In Jesus’ name, Amen
Thoa (pointing) and Hung with Song Cam Lo Valley in the distance. Thoa carriers a primitive M1 carbine. Hung his 9mm. A yelp by Hung’d directed our eyes to a black cobra (thick as my arm) stretched motionless across the trail.
I have four or five memories of my mother, just snippets, mostly of her eyes. Never of her voice. Never of her touch. Last thing I remember, she was sitting in a tub looking at me, far away, like I wasn’t there. Then she was gone. Years and years later I learned that Mother, not long after the Baby Kirk was born, had tried to kill her children.
Museum display of Vietcong booby traps used against U.S. soldiers
Squeeze the trigger.... Tat’ta’ta’ta’ta’ta’ta.....
Eighteen “hellos” from an M16. Blew his heart out, brain’s out....then his body exploded.
First sensations is numbness, all pushed in...face flop from high dive...then fingers and toes stuck in electrical sockets..volts pulsating up, down, up, down...
The DMZ. The upper Cam Lo River loops from Helicopter Valley; where the cartwheeling rotor of an exploding chopper sliced Marines in half; ‘round LZ Margo (where I threw my first grenade) past Hill 304 (Mutter’s Ridge).
You’re sure your leg is blown off, has to be, one arm doesn’t work your “good” hand...part of your finger missing, grab your face...nothing....face blown off, you’re sure...hot metal burns...can’t scream! can’t scream!...they’re out there, out there in the dark.
Dinner in Montagnard village (author far right). “Montagnard, he like pepper hot. Use chickenshit. Fertilize. Make pepper very hot.”
But the pain...
“Keep chilly, man!’
You know that whisper... Poke’s voice...one of the brothers...your teeth are clenched, your lips pressed to keep life inside...please, dear Jesus’, you spurt out a wet groan.
U.S. Marine's jungle boot and fragment of exploded Claymore mine
First of the “housekeepers” came a year after Mother disappeared; she was fat, old, wore a black dress with pink flowers, and introduced herself as Mrs. Briggs.
Life was about to change.
In the previous months, my sister and baby brother and I had been farmed out to pampering relatives, prior to that... Dad at work and Mother in postpartum exile...we were wild as feral kittens.
Mrs. Briggs locked us in the basement.
Rain, snow or shine.
My sister Roi Gen-Eviv was lucky...she was six and escaped to school. My brother Kirk and I made the best of it; we either played with Mrs. Briggs’s insipid bird dog rusty or we played “fort” with the cushions of an old couch. I also learned fun was easily attainable by betraying my brother.
“Say a nasty word.” I’d say.
“C’mon...I promise I won’t tell.”
And Kirk would bite. “..booger!”
Immediately I’d run and tell Mrs. Briggs and immediately she’d thunder down the stairs, wrest poor Kirk from the basement, drag his wailing body to the upstairs bathroom, where she’d scrub out his “dirty little mouth” with a bar of soap.
Mrs. Briggs was a sadistic bitch. She’d swoop down like a fat bat to catch me looking at Rusty’s pecker (or some other act of vast sin) and drag me protesting up the stairs. Her favorite tool was a plastic hairbrush that she used in ways more creative than just spanking my bare buttocks.
She terrified me.
Dad didn’t know.
One snowy morning, as he was leaving for work, I opened a window to ask if I could play in the snow, but when I opened my mouth, the window shut on my fingers. And stuck. Screaming in my pain, my fingers trapped forever I cried hysterically as Father kept walking and got in his truck.
And drove away.
Jungle smells like sour baby diapers; a great smell if you’re a snake or a leech.
Mix it with cordite, gook guts, your own blood...that’s what you’re smelling. For a long time things fall from the sky...bone, flesh, rock, pieces of tree.
It’s dark as a turd.
For years you’ve looked back and wished you could’ve sat up just then, and said....
“Well, no shit!”
....but you were dying.
Mrs. Briggs didn’t last long. Maybe dad’s instincts kicked in. Maybe it was funny bruises on his little boys, I don’t know.
Something wasn’t right.
He drove 20 feet, stopped, jumped out and ran to the house and opened the window off my fingers. Then he reached in and lifted me out. Sat down with me in the snow. Held me. Rocked me. Even kissed my bleeding fingers.
Few days later he came home early. Found us in the basement. My brother was curled in a ball, whimpering. Dad undressed Kirk and found purple welts on his legs and buttocks, where Mrs. Briggs had whipped him with a wire.
Blood runs in your throat...you’re scared...not sure what happened even happened. As ambushes go, this one was fucked up the ass big time...
Ain’t that the way, though? Things always upside down? Unreal things real? Real things unreal? You sit there and study your weapon, your grenades, your bandoleers, and loaded clips, all those mean-ass things you dangle, wondering if it’s a dream. How come you don’t feel different? You’re a paid killer, you know. “Born on the Bayou” pumps out some grunt’s radio. Fuckin’ CCR in the cockuckin’ jungle.
Squad leader says, “Can it...lock and load.”
You slip single file out that wire. Cross that LZ. Head down that mountain. Into that darkness. Fireflies like Devils' eyes....
How come you don’t feel different?
Squad leader sets you in.....
“I’m in front of everybody?” you say.
.....motherfucker tells you, “Chill out, man....nothin’s gonna happen.”
Right. Hours later, he and half the squad are dead asleep..on fucking ambush... One asshole’s even snoring.
Then you smell that smell.
Then you hear a twig snap.
Five bodies crawl out of the fucking earth....out an old crater..gargoyles crouching in the moonlight, heads cocked, smack in Mr. Sleeping Beauty’s field of fire.
He doesn’t see ‘em.
They don’t see you.
You see them... through the dead branches of jungle trees...creeping....whispering...right towards your M16.
Hip that selector switch to full...
Twenty-five years you remember, click....loud as a fuckin’ firecracker...silhouetted sappers droppin’ out of sight...heads turning, hair flying.
A billionth of a second.
Feel the yellow eyes locked on you....
After Mrs. Briggs, Dad hired Betty. In so doing, he’d gone from one extreme to the other. Betty was young and pretty and soft, and she let us play in the yard. She often joined in our play, taught us her favorite childhood games, and she laughed easily. She was permissive, and she never spanked. We could get away with anything, it seemed. But she had a woman’s flaw, I guess, and fell in love with a single man struggling to raise his small children alone. A man still in love, I think, with a wife he’d abandoned.
Dad fired Betty.
On her last day, we picked flowers for her.
Tiny pink and white ones.
“Oh, these are special,” she said “Look....”
Gently, she opened the petals of one and there Prim and proper in its pinkish flower cup.. Hands on hips...sat a strange and delicate white pistil.
“See?” she said....
We stared in wonder.
“...the lady in the bathtub.”
They start chucking grenades...BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!... So close the fucking earth vibrates in your wounds, you’re in front of everybody, you imagine one landing...exploding..right on your crotch.
“Don’t hit me!”
You sort of gurgled it out, but they hear.
“Keep chilly, man...stay cool”
Something deep inside starts to play a song in your brain, you start babbling shit.
“Don’t leave me out here...”
Shit like that. Then you start to cry like a little kid.
“Please don’t leave me out here! Don’t leave me here...”
You never thought it would happen, but you’ve done it. There’s some guy’s guts all over you, there’s some eerie smell you don’t recognize...old and ghostly... a constant dribble of thick fluid leaking down your windpipe.
“Please don’t leave me out here...”
But they do.
Gramma’s eyes are dead gray, I see her false teeth unstuck from fat gums in spasms of rage. But in dreams, when she comes back, her fleshy arms don talons....her eyes yellow. Funny a boy ever loved a beast like that.
She was a real gramma.
When Dad hired her to “raise” us, she’d already finished with one family, had outlived two husbands, and dragged with her a plump teenage daughter, A’mata, who “loved” Elvis and any pus-faced, convertible-driving creep she thought resembled him.
Gramma and A’mata shared the same bedroom, they were “dirt poor” types...one bath a week for them was ample...and their room stank! Smelled like some long dead thing was under their bed.
Those two also shared a poorly disguised dislike for Roi Gen-Eviv, who they knew would grow into somebody pretty. Gramma’d probably been born fat and ugly, and A’mata (“Hot T’mata”) carried all that unfortunate genetic predisposition.
Under their ill-natured gaze, my sister’s life became a kind of Cinderella’s hell...menial chores and verbal abuse...that left her feeling bitter and cheap.
But for my brother and me, our lives plunged into another kind of hell.... under another kind of gaze. You see, they had this thing about little boys’ peters.
Nobody pisses with velocity like a little boy, small nozzle, high power. When you gotta go, you gotta go! You might jump up and down for a while...”GOTTA GO BAD! GOTTA GO BAD!...get in there, try whippin’ it out fast...and piss all over the room. Hit the toilet seat, the floor, the walls....like losin’ grip on a tiny garden hose. Just part of being a little boy.
But there’d be Gramma. Gramma makes you strip naked...right in from of A’mata. Then she wipes the piss up with your underpants. And rubs’ em in your face. Harder you scream, harder she rubs. A’mata laughing... grinning at your little naked body.
Ugly fat bitch.
Saw one marine six feet away....kneeling and gurgling....cough one word....”Dad”... then melt to the ground and die Why not? You think about Dad in your last moment. How he used to give you whisker burns. Tickle your tummy. Tell you bedtime stories.
Billy goats kickin’ a troll’s ass.
“Cut his... cut off his...”
Her speech devoid of moans to explain such things, your eyes read the vulgarities in hers.
Nobody comes out to get you, you gotta save yourself.
Push with your on foot.
They’re behind you, can’t see you, so you push with that foot...push.
Insects screech and mate, nocturnal jungle birds taunt the dark with obscene hoots...
(phuh-Q, phuh-Q, phuh-Q, phuh-Q)
You’re close to them, closer....then snag on a tree...a fucking snag a squirrel could snap...and you feel how it feels....
(phuh-Q, phuh-Q, phuh-Q)
You have a soul...it lives within you...you feel it...feel it deserting you...slipping out of your nose soft as thread....
.....souls of the killed drift about you.
Fly like a thing winged down a hallway of wood past the kitchen and the bathroom and the stinking bedroom to the room where Baby Kirk stands naked from below the waist and sobs as Gramma pulls his little penis and snips with a pair of scissors to purge yet another five-year-old boy of his sins....
Time travel me back with a knife, I’ll fucking....
Poke grabs your sorry ass.
Pulls you into a hole, whispers more shit.
“You be okay...”
Pain's the only thing keeping you alive, Doc. John shoots you up with morphine. You’ve never felt morphine before that glow, that flow, that warm orgasmic massage from you balls to your brain.
You begin to babble like an insane boy.
“I got 'em! I got 'em!”
And as they carry you up in a rain poncho, under those faraway stars, in that eerie moonlight, you’re just happy as birdshit you wasted those cocksuckers.
“I got ‘em!”
Apollo 13 glows on TV...25 years after the first landing...while I saw reinforcements into a money belt. The endangered voyager voices his disposition for death in space. That means something. I think.
The hassles of just trying to take all the of the little things you want to remember to take and stacking them and then the fucking phone.
I hate it.
“Not getting cold feet, are you?” he said.
Dad survived 21 raids over Germany, when his bomber was shot down, and afterward endured a year in a Nazi prison camp.
That means something, too.
Count out $5000 in 20s and stuff 'em inside the money belt. Don’t give a rip about Saigon...nor Hue. Quang Tri..not even Khe Sanh. None of them places. The only place I care about is that place...deep in the jungle.
Just that place.
Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego. Standing on the colossal parade ground called the Grinder, where generations of treading ghosts betray their presence if you listen enough. Looking up to ridges of houses tucked among the trees, I remember, “You’ll be there a week before you notice there’s a city around you.” The forwarder had been more than right, two weeks passed before my numbed soul woke and recognized the truth.
MCRD. Standing on what’s left of the old obstacle course now just sand, thinking of poor private Philips. “Private Philips went bullshit today....” said Drill Instructor Nicholas, with that hint of irony we’d learned to appreciate as soon as we got unscared enough to shit. Philips was definitely retarded..couldn’t spell his own name when he landed...and as clueless as any dipshit ever to pound his boots on the Grinder; a skinny little inbred from the hills whose entire face distorted when he spit-shined his shoes. Philips lost it on the rifle range...shaking and shooting and shaking...so they sneaked him away like a misbehaving ape. It was hard not to laugh.’
They were so many guys like Philips.
Today, the DIs still sing their cadences in tones atavistic and alluring, they’re no longer allowed to swear, I hear; nor are they allowed to use their fists on you for simply existing. That’s all too bad. The world today is no more pretty than it was then. And the planes, the planes, the planes, always landing and then roaring off like rockets into space.
4:35 a.m. San Diego drops into small spots of light in a growing ocean of darkness; few cities exist in this country, I think, where so many young men left and never came back.
Time to settle in for a trillion miles or so.
Time for a drink or two...or three or four.
7:05 a.m. Lost a day...still in the air, read all of Dispatches (Michael Herr's) for the umpteenth time in my life. No other correspondent more revered 18-year-old Marine grunts or better understood them”...calling each other dude and live, Lifer and Shitkick and Motherfucker, touching this last with a special grace, as though it were the tenderest word in their language.”
At best, nothing can be explained, just described. Outside is all brightness, sunlight reflecting off cumulus clouds spread over Asia like a clumpy glacier. I’m the only Caucasian aboard, yet the pilot says in English “...we’ll be passing over Pleiku...” and I can't help thinking he’s speaking to me.
No land is visible, but I know to the northwest, under those belying clouds extends the Annamese Cordillera...most beautiful/ugly jungled mountains of the Montagnard tribes...a planet like place once called I Corps.. place once for unlucky bastards...rain-steamed hell of poisonous things.
“It was mostly esoteric.” Herr wrote, “in the way that so many Marines under 25 became esoterics after a few months in I Corps.” The movie Alien plays in my head..civility descending as we descend now, encapsulated, into the clouds of unearthly brightness, turning to grayness...turning to strangeness.
Let me play tourist for a few days.
Then we’ll go there....
9:30 a.m. Out of turbulent thunderheads we blow entering the clear, dropping in balls-to-throat chunks toward a serpentine river snaking through a denuded delta; clogging the muddied waters, the timeless sampans adrift like colorless cockroaches. We’re a couple hundred feet off the ground Eroded bomb craters pock a destroyed earth. Rows of palm trees. Things fly by. Old bunker. Shacks. Billion peddling bicyclists. Radar tower. Rusting concrete-lined Quonset huts. Helicopters. The runway...boom!
Tan Son Nhut Airport.
8:30 p.m. Ho Chi Minh City.
Whoever renamed it didn’t mean it. Every person here still says Saigon. T-shirts for sale on every corner say Saigon. I’m checked into the Saigon Hotel, where many of the war journalists stayed...some great, some not, some just alcoholic burnouts in need of a romantic rush to necessitate getting drunk. I can identify. The good writers hated Saigon and its surreal “Five O’clock Follies” and implausible truce with the reality of the bush. The same wrought-iron chairs (in which Herr, Sean Flynn, Tim Page sat and drank) still work the Rex Hotel’s breezy rooftop bar, surrounded by lighted plants and third sized plastic elephants, bearing now the heaviness of tourists, mostly French. Lack of sleep (San Diego time is 6:30 a.m., yesterday), codeine pills for pain, and Tiger beers sipped atop the Rex (where once this view included war with a sunset) leave me hallucinatory. Flipping pages of dispatches...
Sometimes I didn’t know...if i dreamed it or what. In war more than in other life you don’t really know what you’re doing most of the time, you’re just behaving, and afterward you can make up any kind of bullshit you want to about it, say you felt good or bad, loved it or hated it, did this or that, the right thing or the wrong thing; still, what happened happened.
Anesthetized enough to descent to the streets, I find them teeming with young people on scooters in uninterrupted cruise, crossing the street is more like swimming a too-crowded pool..there seems no rule; on the sidewalks, teenage boys hock cheap noisemakers, while every age of girl paws at you to buy cigarettes or gum or T-shirts or maps; old mamma-sans cooking rice and noodles and shrimp and soups on ground-level stoves add to a mixed smell of humanity and and humidity, smoke and urine, reminiscent of no other place in the world; beggars with prenatally deformed bodies propel themselves on dollies by hand; they are hard to look at...hard not to look at; hundred of destitute men my age sit in three-wheeled cyclos and pester for my patronage; nearly all of the (like the omnipresent beggars with blown off legs) pay the price still for their long-ago conscription to the conquered side.
Above the planted tamarind trees and human flow at Nguyen Hue and Le Loi boulevards, rising several stories high, global icons National and Panasonic and Savimes and Konica and Fuji glow in brilliant colors and brush the solicitous faces a brownish orange. Things are less carnival down an alley; a 1920s roadster...The Deer Hunter pops to mind...sits parked in a gutter of piss; the young faces here are less beseeching than menacing. Entering an open-faced cafe cramped with pots and trays of steaming provincial foods, I point to things desired...rice, fish, soup, egg rolls, 22-ounce B.I.G. Beer...and settle in for the meal. Total price, 16,000 dong, 80 U.S. Cents.
Floating in the direction of Dong Du Street and my lodging, I note the Hotel Continenta, where another open air bar (the infamous Continental Shelf) once drew the journalists and civilian warmongers like flies. The Continental also accommodated the setting for a Graham Greene novel, The Quiet American...inviting little tale of a man involved with an engaging whore. Prostitution is officially banned today (indigenous females are forbidden to share hotel rooms), yet the profession is easily available. Two doors from the Naigon Hotel, into the charming Lan Fang Hair Salon, I wander (and American!) and mutter gauchely low mhat (shave face) and goy dow (shampoo hair) and mah saw vai (massage shoulders); this last attendant consumes an hour, employs all of her limbs. And soothers more than my shoulders.
Few dollars more...say, mah saw YAI.
5:25 a.m. In San Diego it’s mid-afternoon; below my sixth floor balcony, I watch people rising, sweeping their claim of sidewalk with tied-grass brooms, building their fires; a roosters’ crow punctuates the verdant rhythm of morning, the sound of insects’ buzzing, of flocked birds soaring...the ageless pattern of perfection.
Nearby, a red flag flutters....
Here is the beat I remember. Hit Danang Airport this a.m. with my guide, Mr. Hein (HEE-en). It was about a two-hour flight. He seems nice. Speaks pretty good English...zillion times better’n my Vietnamese, anyway.
A young man driving a small Toyota (that chimes jingle bells backing up) picks up; I’d been staring for some time at the same mountain I’d stared at 25 years before (18, totally boot, oblivious yet to life’s sudden devaluation) recalling a teenager’s perception somewhere out there are people I’m going to kill, or be killed by.
Danang forever burns in the brains as first and last tastes arrived here (quickly sent north). A quick trip... less’n 6 months of a 13-month tour...leaving a permanent aftertaste. Here, six or so hundred miles north of Saigon, is where the first U.S. Marines splashed ashore; and here they quickly established the most heavily defended city in the American War (as the Vietnamese call it).
Driving through this city of 400,000, we pass a statue, standing 35 feet tall, of a woman in black pajamas; Mr. Hien explains through corruption (and naivete), she succeeded (several times) in penetrating “friendly” positions, catching ride on a chopper loaded with young Marines, stashing a live grenade, and jumping into the Cam Le River below...
“She hero now,” Mr.Hien says.
1:05 p.m. Near top of a jungle-crusted Bullock, where walkways lead to centuries-old sanctuaries built within caves and convoluted crevices, where monks chant amid clash of gongs and smell of incense, where knife-scarred sockets of blinded beggars stare...I pay a girl 500 dong to guide me to the summit of Thuv Son, largest of the Marble Mountains. Outside, places pockmarked by bullets describe a flyspeck of the past. Inside....a tube of sunlight swirls up from Buddha and out a three-foot bomb hole into the sky. A dark passage narrows into steep chimneys of worn-slick marble...one leading to light.
Atop the largest of the five Marble Mountains, where U.S. Special Forces once volleyed with Viet Cong for control of the high ground. I can see everything; the South China Sea, Monkey Mountain, Bay of Danang, Danang Airport, Highway I, Cam Le and Vinh Diem Rivers, the distant To Can Bridge, and a spooky place Marines called the Riviera; stitching it all together in tellurian arc...endless hedgerows and rice paddies.
2:40 p.m. Halfway down. Directly below, I spot the rotting remains of a Green Beret team house.
“Can I go there?”
“No way,” Mr. Hien says, “Many police, civilian..no permission.”
Recently, Mr. Hien guided another American veteran to the monolith, a former Green Beret, one who’d returned in search of a little boy he’d befriended decades before....before the little boy, scrambling up a secret passageway, tripped a mine planted by the Green Beret. He did find his boy, now a legless man, and gave him $3000 (here, an inexpressible fortune), plus mechanical means for mobility.
6:25 p.m. “It was a great curving stretch of beachfront that faced the Bay of Danang...”
We’ve all heard of this place, huh? The power of TV. Perhaps the most beautiful beach in the world. Placed in country R&R...surf and barbecue and beer...no girlfriends, wives, family....melancholy respite from the physical agony of Snoopin’n’Poopin’ for Luke and Gook in Land of the Leech. Good grunts get their reward...motivation to kill some more. Nearby there’d be a hospital. And beside it, a warehouse...place where KIAs got bellies walked on to squeeze shit out of dead bowels. Earlier, some students from France approached me on the beach (noting my tank top —”SAN DIEGO USA”— and visible scars) to ask “Did you fight in the war?” “Yeah.” Then “How does it feel to come back?” So I was nice, fed’em some bullshit, and (“...nice to meet you, so long...”) walked away.
The sun is setting. The lanterns of fishing boats on the South China Sea blink like fireflies. From somewhere behind me, in a sandy expanse of trees, I hear those “fuck you” birds hoot...sense some haunting residue here...some ever aching loneliness.
11:30 a.m. Hue City, near the Citadel.
Sitting on the terrace of the Huong Giang Hotel with Mr. Hien, eating steamed shrimp, drinking Hue-brewed Huda beers, rereading Herr’s chapter on the battle waged here....
A little boy of about ten came up to a bunch of Marines from Charlie Company. He was laughing and moving his head from side to side in a funny way. The fierceness in his eyes should have told everyone what it was, but it had never occurred to most of the grunts that a Vietnamese child could be driven mad too...until a black grunt grabbed him from behind and held his arm. “C’mon poor li’l baby, ‘fore one of these mothers shoots you,” he said, and carried the boy to where his corpsmen were.
“Jane Fonda ought to come here,” I say.
Mr. Hien...high school student in Hue during the battle lights a cigarette.
“She popular now,” he says.
During the 1968 Tet Offensive, while the U.S. Military command awaited attach at Khe Sanh, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) walked into the former Imperial City and took over; Hue University students (secretly connected to the National Liberation Front, a.k.a. Viet Cong) entered the two-centuries-old Citadel and defiantly raised the red VC flag. As well, they provided the Communists with a list (prepared months in advance) of approximately 3,000 civilians (teachers, students, Buddhist, monks, Catholic priests, shop owners, anybody suspected of being sympathetic to the puppet government), persons the NVA then arrested and shot, clubbed to death, or buried alive.
“Many people die,” he says.
“They ill many teacher, many student, many my friend...hand and arm, they tie together, five or ten people...just to shoot in head.”
“Jane’s sort of people, Mr. Hien.”
Hien snuffs his cigarette.
“I remember Citadel,” he says, looking toward the dark remains, “Americans make a circle...I saw black smoke high, and American fly around smoke to shoot, many, many guns, they shoot...”
The sudden sound of machine gun fire erupts.
“No, no...” Hien says. “That for fishing, for good luck...new boat for fishing.”
Anchored sampans crowd the banks of the Perfume River while one being christened, (firecrackers blasting) navigates from the Citadel towards us its primitive engine thwaps loudly with a still-unnerving similarity to the thump of an assault helicopter....
1:00 p.m. The Citadel
Sweltering under the midday sun, I climb a shattered main gate and walk the south rampart. A 37 meter high mast...where the VC flag once flew....still crowns the napalmed double pyramid of plastered brick. Reaching the base, I place my fingers on embedded machine-gun ballets tattooed long ago by some grunts “pig.” Even in ruins. The Citadel overawes. Outside its ten-kilometer circumference, an obsolete moat chokes on lilies inside, birds and grasses claim a bomb-leveled treasure....gone is the Forbidden Purple City, gone are the inhabitants. Two-thirds of Hue once lived here. Ten thousand people died. Hue was war like you always imagined war to be; in order to save it, you had to destroy it.
8:30 p.m. On the terrace drinking Hudas....leave tomorrow for Dong Ha, soon the jungle. Need pain pills. Pay a boy a buck to canoe me and Hien across the Perfume River to the Dong Ba Market. Entrance is a squalid jumble of a wooden stairway. Need medicine? Everything you could ever want...stuffed baby crocodiles, air dried monkeys, dead cobras, vipers...is there. Place sold me codeine over the counter. Everything else under the sun...clothing, rice flour, Hondas, stereos, whores, knives, barbers, hammocks, NVA helmets, Zippo lighters, USMC dog tags...is there. Man with legs blown off at the ass held out his hat to me and grinned like a dog. Vets of the south who got blown up get nothing. Tried to find him, again...but he’d crawled away. There was a gallery selling portraits of Che Guevara and....no fucking shit...Jane Fonda. Even snapped her picture.
July 27 6:30 a.m. Highway 1
Started this route from Danang....snaked up a high mountain dotted by French built lookouts; made a summit stop where; an English speaking vendor claimed to me he once translated for the Corps; snaked down the other side ‘round tiny pagoda memorials to countless bus-wreck casualties; glided through the aesthetic fishing villagers past the unrecognizable LZs (landing zones) Tomahawk and Roy and Eagle and finally the skeletal gates of Phu Bai and into Hue...continue today...ghost LZs Sally and Evans click by. Far, far away, I see blue-green peaks poking into ugly clouds, peaks of the Annamese Cordillera...Truong Son Mountains.
Tap Mr. Hien’s shoulder.
“That’s where we’ll be going. huh?”
Mr. Hien smiles crookedly,
“Yes.” He’s not real hot on the idea
“My friend once fly helicopter to Ho Chi Minh Trail...”
“Yes. He take special forces. They jump out already. He don’t know which direction, but NVA shoot one B4 I though window...go out other window...hit tree. Big tree...explode...and blade of helicopter break in half. Half blade only! At first he can’t take off...then he take off.”
“Half a blade?”
“with a vibration...”
We both laugh.
7:20 a.m. Near Quang Tri.
There are no ostensible rules of the highway in Vietnam; right-of-way concepts don’t even exist; our young driver swerves in and out of both lanes of traffic...dodging bucketing trucks, honking cars, passenger stuffed buses, bicyclists, scooters, rice-laden cow pulled carts, water buffaloes, chickens, pigs, goats, scurrying old mamma sans, five billion children...blaring the horn ten times a minute.
“How come you don’t all just shoot each other over here?”
Hien lights a cigarette
“We call this the Horrible Highway,” he says
“Well, no shit...”
But Hien doesn’t smile.
“In Quang Tri with my family...VC go through Dong Hoi and overrun Quang Tri... So my family have to leave...have to leave everything..from Quang Tri to Hue...thousands people on this road....bicycle and everything...and VC shoot cannon along the road and road became corpse...bodies along it. So we say “the Horrible Highway.’”
“You saw this?”
“Yes...I been here.”
White martyr towers flying the red flag appear regularly on Highway I (and everywhere else) honoring the 1,100,000 Communist fighters killed in 21 years of war. There are no memorials for the 223,748 South Vietnamese killed, nor the 58,200 Americans killed, nor for the 5200 South Koreans, Australians, New Zealanders, and Thai soldiers...
Who blames’ em?
“I will show you next place,” Mr. Hein says.
Driver pulls over and parks in front of a small Catholic church...or rather its remains. One of the few original structures left standing in Quang Tri, it is remindful of a similar building in Hiroshima. Here, the cross still stands (tottering) atop naked beams. None of the building has a roof, and there’s scarcely a square foot of wall unblemished by shrapnel or direct hits from rockets and artillery. All around, the vegetation has reclaimed. In some strange way, I sense an unexplainable beauty to this place.
7:50 a.m. Quang Tri City In spring of 1972...while Henry K. And the boys drank wine and talked peace in Paris...four divisions of NVA poured across the DMZ and wasted this place, over the next four months, South Vietnamese artillery and U.S. Bombing (in superabundance) helped flatten a city of 850,000 people. There used to be a citadel here, too.
“There, see?” Mr. Hien says.
“Yeah...” (I’m lying)
There’s nothing here looks any different’n and tumbleweed shithole in New Mexico.
8:10 Car problems We slowed to take a picture, and the Toyota coughed dead. Hien and driver have their heads under the hood. I’m to stay inside.
“No permission,” Hien said.
Across a flat spread of sandy soil and scrub, I see Quang Tri Military Base...only...there’s nothing left. There I spent a first night in-country (This ain’t bad! I though) among 50,000 troops eagerly availing themselves of tanker-pumped showers and stove-cooked meals and open-air pissers and outhouse shitters and Big PX and diesel-generated electricity and cold beer (Schlitz and Pabst) for ten cents a can. I stood out like a boy without hair in a high school shower...shiny boots, clean ut’es, 14-year-old face...that would change. Some “bad-ass motherfuckers” in from the bush (recovering from injuries) had ugly festered sores growing on their arms.
“Jungle rot, man....you get it less’n a week.” That night we got drunk...my new “buddies” and me. Only I did all the paying (I’d forget to remove my cover and”...you buy every single a bee”...I was drunk after 3 beers, but probably drank 12. I stumbled off the wooden stairs and rolled laughing in the sand when...
KAK! KAK! KAK! KAK! KAK!
(Came from outside the wire, first time I’d ever heard an AK-47.)
“That’s a good gun, man...”
“Yeah, man...” 16 goes tat! ta! ta! ta! ta!
Those grunts began finger-pointing each other, going “Kak! Kak! Kak! Kak! Kak!and “Tat! Ta! Ta! Ta! Ta!...” and falling down rolling on me in the sand. This ain’t bad.
8:49 a.m. Dong Ha They’d flown us from Danang to here in a C130-across from me sat a South Vietnamese soldier in reflector shades smoking a cigarette. “What’s the enemy look like” (I wondered) Then they trucked is to Quang Tri. Every building and wall on the way had bullet holes. Now I’m back. This is I Corps. Stretching east from the South China Sea to Laos, and north from Quang Tri to the Ben Hai River...I’m fuckin Z.. the demilitarized zone.Shit..calling’...that..place...demilitarized was like calling an open sewer sanitized. Dong Ha was headquarters for the 3rd Marine Division. Didn’t know that then. When I came back from Quang Tri new jungle boots, camouflage fatigues, M16...I was hot shit! Hadn’t seen a Viet Cong or an NVA or a dead body, but...
“We stay here,” Mr. Hien says.
It’s a U-shaped hotel, and my narrow second floor room’s a place like Norman Bates’d pro’bly like, There are four beds (though I’m alone) with foam rubber mattresses. Blue wallpaper is water-stained and mostly taped together. Ceiling is tall. Two weak bulbs (high on the wall) light the room a dim brown. Bathroom has a toilet and sink. A hose and nozzle provides shower. There’s no stall. Everything (including the sink) pours directly onto the tile then drains out a tube between floor and wall.
Mr. Hien had me fill out a form ( another one) allowing me inside the DMZ, he says certain payoffs have been made that we can square up later...even sleep with my money belt on...soon depart for Khe Sanh.
9:20 a.m. Natural Highway 1 has left us...turned into Huan Street, Dong Ha, then back into itself again going north to Hanoi...and we drive west (beside the Cam Lo River) almost parallel to the old DMZ. National Highway 9 slices across the narrow throat of Vietnam and connects a series of long-abandoned American bases (Cun Viet. Con Thien, Cam Lo, Camp Carroll, the Rockpile, LZ stud, Lang Vei, Khe Sanh; established in unavailing effort to prevent infiltration of troops and material by the hardened NVA. Nobody knows how many communist soldiers died (they have 300,000 MIAs) but it was bloody, and bloody for U.S. Marines. (one of every five was killed or wounded)
I asked Mr. Hien if I may call him just “Hien”...cause we’re becoming friends. Hien rides in front. Beside me in back is a little man who talks rapidly. He chuckles often. His name is Mr. Tinh.
“You mus’uh be care you walk,” he says.
“Right...careful...you mus’uh be careful.”
(A wanting to “tourists” reads, “The war may be over but death is still fairly easy to by in the old DMZ...never touch any leftover ordnance. Watch where you step....” Since 1975, 5000 people have been blown up in this area.)
“I’m not really a tourist. Mr. Tinh”
The flatness near Dong Ha gives way to foothills of the Truong Sun as we pass Cam Lo. A quarter century before, I rode this same road, squeezed in the back of a truck in a rumbling convoy, as we slowed for curves and bombed-out sections, chattering children from the villages ran beside us; grunt smokers tossed cigarettes worth gold (saying, “There you go, you Li’l Communist cocksuckers!”); angry mamma-sans pulled 'em back; old papa-sans and older boys glared...like hatred in a mirror.
“All I remember, Mr. Tinh, is how weird this place looked.”
“Long time for worry about sniper,” he chuckles.
10:15 a.m. Camp Carrol. We walk through thin trees and pepper plants ;’round deteriorated craters of red dust where nothing grows. Clouds have clumped overhear, and it’s starting to piss. Fragments of flare casings litter the ground. A piece of tattered silk flutters on a branch, I recall odious pauses of night, between firing of monstrous 175mm cannons, flares drifting under miniature parachutes, adding surreal shadows to the dark....
“He’uh killed right here.”
Mr. Tinh points to a big hole.
“Captain Carrol. He’uh killed here...it a Russian rocket. Then a General Wes’more’hun...he’uh come her...he say one order, to every Marine to call this’uh position a Camp Carrol...for one U.S. Marine hero.”
“Killed right here?”
“Yes...he bought it.”
10:45 a.m. The Rockpile.
It rises from a base of boulders and scree nearly 1000 feet, the last 300 knifing straight up into a sharp edge; an expert climber might reach top without killing himself, but Marine observers, dangling precariously from helicopters, dropped to it. Nearby clones (dubbed “the Razorbacks”) extend northwest into the Annamese Cordillera and extreme reach of the Cam Lo River. Overspreading these sharp ridges is an almost impenetrable jungle of thick brush topped by a double canopy of trees, one 30 feet high, the other 100. Its steamy growth is territory of Montagnard tribes and forever closed to tourists. No American has stepped foot in there since the war.
Hien and Mr. Tinh talk to a woman living in a hovel beside Highway 9; many children and dogs flit about. The trails of red clay behind her, glistening from an unreasonable rain, twist past the Rockpile and disappear into the jungle. Hien and the woman talk with moving arms. She keeps looking at me. Mr. Tinh joins in the jabber, repeatedly pointing his fingers to me, then to the jungle. The children stare. The woman laughs...
We move on.
Hien crams in back with Tinh and me, and the woman rides shotgun. We zoom down Highway 9 (now winding south) to what place I know not. My window is open and rain spits on my face. I see grass-roofed hutches at the feet of steeply rising hills. Threads of smoke swirl out patches of shrinking forest. My. Tinh ( who Hien says “walked” with the 4th Marines) touches his small finger to a battle map of the DMZ.
“We’re here,” he says.
“Close to LZ stud?” I say.
“Stud, yes..we go see a VC.”
“He train in Hanoi...fight for VC...he chief. Montagnard chief..once he’uh enemy.”
We pass a small military outpost and an idling Russian-made Jeep filled with soldiers; Hien warns not to let police see my map.
“They worry you undercover,” he says
“So who’re we gonna see?”
“He’s a local guy,” Ting says “He know where mine, where a bamboo trap...”
“Where the tigers are?”
“Yes...tiger!” laughs tinh
“Where the mamma-San...” adds Hien.
“You know, when American have LZ over here, he a chief..chief for Montagnard...a platoon for North Vietnam army.”
The woman takes us off the road to a house on stilts. A fence of old branches fences nothing. Chickens peck. Dogs and pigs sniff dirt. Beside the house, immense piles of salvage (defused bombs, fins of exploded mortars, tarmac strips, machine gun projectiles) occupy the ground. Another laughing woman is here, more children staring.
I recognize the contour of this land, and memory tugs my soul: where the ground ahead breeds grass, there once were miles of connected tarmac; and just over the low hill, there existed a place of death and sandbagged huts, an ugly outlaw place called LZ stud (Vandergrift Combat Base). Middle of my first night there, three days before the bush, eight drunk grunts with guns jerked me and two others off our cots. Just teenage killers out for fun. The bush was never so dangerous as LZ stud. Stud...place of random murders (grenades chucked ‘tween tents for kicks) and spontaneous suicides (second night, one drunk Indian blew his head off in front of me), Stud...place of brutal initiations of boots fresh hatched on a planet gone insane. We were “pussies’ untested by fear or death, deserving of contempt...deserving his leg broken (done to one)...deserving his jaw crushed (done to the other one). Lucky for me, two attackers were my “buddies” in Quang Tri.
12:30 p.m. Cafe in Khe Sanh Town.
Eating noodles and dog meat. Broth’s got a greasy hue to it. Meat’s a bit stringy. Noodles are good. Outside the shed-kitchen, it’s raining like it’s the monsoon. This is supposed to be the hot season, and I’m wondering about all these treeless mountains ‘round Khe Sanh...
“They drop oh-rangy bomb,” says Mr. Tinh.
Can that change the damn weather?
Going into the jungle had my stomach upset maybe I should’ve ordered chicken.
1:10 p.m. Lang Vei Special Forces Camp.
Beside the road, a chiseled slab reads “...BUILT BY U.S. AND SAIGON PUPPETS” Hien puts his hand over the P-word, and I snap a picture. Here is a spooky place once shaped like a dog bone; not much’s left, except blown-up bunkers and lurking spirits; next to my foot, an 81mm mortar lies dormant in the mud. What happened here in ’68 freaked everybody. It wasn’t supposed to happen. “NVA with tanks?” They rumbled out of the jungle from Laos in the dark. Ninety percent of the Green Berets were casualties; of 500 Montagnard recruits (Montagnards fought for both sides), 316 were slaughtered.
1:55 p.m. Khe Sanh Combat Base.
Rain pours in sheets. In a way, it’s like walking on Mars, all this red mud, shallow craters everywhere. You can see the runway, ‘cause nothing grows there. Found a crushed Pabst beer can and piece of C-ration can...things recently unearthed. Despite the risk, impoverished locals dig for metal to sell as scrap (steel pays a penny a pound). Through the mist I see the denuded bills 881 North and 881 South, where the 9th Marines (the real “Walking Dead”) fought NVA hand to hand. If I had the time, I’d bribe somebody and go there. Ghosts of abandoned dead are always present at these places. Five hundred Americans died here. At least 10,000 NVA. And when it was all over...when this godless land had been saved...we just sneaked away.
3:00 p.m. Con Thien Firebase.
There were 13,065 Marines killed in Vietnam. 88,633 wounded. Usually it happened piecemeal...mine here, sniper there....other times a point man tripped a daisy chain and blew his squad away. Sometime it was like war in the Pacific; screaming NVA charging on Hill 881 in uniforms stolen off dead Marines. Then there’s July 2, 1967...Con Thien, I was still in high school, ready for the Fourth, when Dad said, “Mike Bradley got killed.”. He was 21. And he was cool...my boyhood friend and idol. Paper said he’d already earned two Purple Hearts. It was a really tiny article. Day I learned David Michael Bradley was dead was the day I “joined” the Corps....
Returning from Khe Sanh, we turned off Highway 9 at Cam Lo and headed north on Route 561 (the “one-zero line”) and drove four miles. Here it’s flat, the foreboding Truong Son Mountains rising to the west, and I walk with Mr. Tinh up a diminutive hill ill-fated by name...Con Thien (“Hill of Angels”). The rain has stopped. A ghostly breeze blows ripples on ponds inside craters formed by 40,000 tons of bombs. Here are pieces of sandbags. Shreds of flak jackets. On the other side, a charmed concrete bunker. A wide field of foliage staked by rusting poles...old minefield...stretches northward. Even the poorest of scavengers won’t go there. Looking beyond the minefield. I’m thinking of Mike...trying to feel what it felt like.
In the hot summer of ‘67, Con Thien marked the northwest corner of Leatherneck Square (configured with combat bases at Cam Lo. Dong Ha, and Glo Linh), where its combat depleted grunts were burdened with the additional duty of constructing the infamous McNamara’s Line ( a barrier north of the square 600 meters wide); this doomed project drew NVA artillery, rockets, and ground attacks like shit-flies to a feedlot. On Sunday morning, July 2, companies A and B (Mike’s company), 9th Marines, began a search and destroy operation code named Buffalo. Four kilometers north up hedgerow-lined 561. Company B came under fire from thought-to-be snipers; to their horror, the snipers were in fact two battalions of the 90th NVA regiment (outnumbering Marines four to one) Flamethrowers (supplied by Russians) forced the Marines into the open, completely exposed to machine-gun fire and exploding missiles fired from cannons deep inside the DMZ. In minutes, Company B was systematically annihilated.
6:00 p.m. Back in Dong Ha.
Walking through crowded passages in a market ‘tween Tran Phu Street and the river...
As we’d entered a puffed-up man smiled at me with poisonous eyes, cigarette smoke slithering out his nose. Mr. Tinh (whose wife rents a stall here) said not to look at the man. Later he said “He own market.” And he explained how, several months before, a woman from Hue became hysterical upon seeing him how she’d remembered this man from long ago. Tet; how this man looked at her and just laughed; how they man’d executed the woman’s husband, two sons....
Hien picks out things we need...carton of cigarettes, two gallon plastic jug (used), large sack of coffee, instant noodles (etc,)... And I pay. A pretty lipsticked whore dressed in white silk darts her eyes. Hien gets a funny smile on his face, whispers “Mah saw...mamma san?”
Leaving the market I sense the owner’s stare.
“We go not,” Mr. Tinh says.
I look at the owner anyway; smile my own devil’s eyes....
6:30 p.m. Twilight.
Winding on foot through a jungle and barking dogs and fenced-in chickens and she'd like houses in search of “Vietnamese whiskey” or rice wine or whatever you want to call it...it’s moonshine.
“You here alone,” Mr. Tinh says, “they’uh kill you”
Come to a place resembling an old wood garage. Smell of alcohol’s in the air. Smiling proprietor shows me around..in a side she pots of mash cook...escorts me and Hien (who’ll handle the money exchange) and Mr. Tinh to a table. Woman brings slices of Manioc on a saucer and some tiny teacups without handles. Hien sets a pack of cigarettes on the table. Don’t smoke...now I do. Man pours the clear liquid in my cup...I sip...tasting carefully, nodding...smile and say, “That’s good!”
(Lighter fluid never tasted better.)
11:30 p.m. Back in Gothic room at Nha Khach By Dien Tinh Buu Quang Tri Hotel; what name....
So drunk, at Hung Vinh Restaurant, Hien and Mr. Tinh and our driver joined me for sauteed something (it was awful good) and rice and shrimp and frog legs and spicy cucumbers and peppers so hot my eyes melted ‘n’ dripped off my face; endless 22- ounce Taiwan beers in boxes of ice made things fun. Cost a billion dong, whatever ten bucks equals...
Mr. Tinh is nice; has a son who “take’uh boat” and lives in Cleveland; Mr. Tinh’d like to go there, too, but can’t “get’uh one cer’tet’cut” saying he “walk ‘uh’ wi’ third Matie”..(Division?) from Colonel “Sek’tun” (Sexton?). Mr. Tinh’s told me this story several times, and Hien always got nervous (“....many police, civilian..”) Both Hien and Mr. Tinh spent six years in reeducation camps (euphemism for forced labor), Hien flew helicopters for the South; he was in my room a while ago, smoked a lot, was quiet....
“What’s the matter, Hien?’
“Me worry,” he said,
“Bout the jungle”
“This very dangerous”
“I worry ‘bout tiger...’bout cobra...’bout mine”
“Well, Hien.” I said.
“I assure you I don’t wanna get bit by no cobra, don’t wanna get blown up by no mine, and I sure don’t wanna get ate by no tiger!”
Outside it’s rainin’ a shit storm... Has been for hours my pack is packed, other things locked away. Hien’s got one key, I got the other...pants still drying. Now that’s a pointless act.
8:30 a.m. The Rockpile.
Our driver’s left us, gone to fetch our “chief”. I’m sitting inside the hovel, outta the rain, skimming Herr’s description of what “an 18 year old boy could learn in a month of patrolling the Z...”
It took no agenor education to make them know exactly where true violence resided…. It absorbed them...inhabited them...fixed them so that they could never, never agin speak lightly about the Worst Thing in the World.
Driver returns. Man stepping out wears thongs, dark pants, and a shirt colored like the red mud. His name is Ho Van Hung (my age, looks younger) and he’s chief of Security Police and chief of the Hamlet (all Montagnard villages both of Khe Sanh to the Cam Lo River). A Marakov 9mm automatic pistol (issued to high-ranking NVA officers during the war) is half stuffed into his pants. He and Hien step into the hovel. Hien offers a cigarette to men and older boys. Mr. Tinh (who doesn’t smoke) mentions me to step outside. The starkness of the Rockpile poles into the drizzling sky.
“Mr. Hien,” he whispers, “has to pay to My. Hung lots of money. We go with you to village. Tomorrow, only you go, you go with Mr. Hung. Only he can take you. Only he give permission. You go far away...and he show you, and he be careful you hunting. He know what way he take you. Only you watch step, okay? You go slow here...be careful you walk”
Hien and Mr. Hung step out. Hien offers me a plastic raincoat. I decline. Soaked in rain? Soaked in sweat? What’s the difference? Learned that much 25 years ago.
“We go now,” Hein says.
My rucksack is stuffed with water bottles, mosquito net hammock, spare clothes, food, iodine pills, codeine and aspirin, first-aid kit, maps, knife, flashlight, and bug juice. Turning to the driver...
“Here...” I hand him dispatches”...don’t lose this”
We head west, below the Rockpile, along the Khe Trinh Hin (stream); this well worn trail (once a major NVA infiltration route) threads through stilted houses, water buffaloes, crowing roosters, yapping dogs, and village children jabbering wide-eyed at the sight (I guess) of me. My long sleeved shirt is white, my camouflage fatigues dyed blue. (I’d been warned, “Don’t look like a soldier!”)
Soon, the trail plunges into the swollen Khe Trinh Hin, reappearing a long distance (diagonally) ‘cross the fast-moving water; village boys (recruited by Mr. Hung) transport our packs (and two gallon plastic jug) atop their heads. I cross with aid of a pole...water reaching my vest (Mr. Tinh’s armpits), feet slipping on rounded stone...and wonder at days at 80 pounds packs and M16s carried overhead. ON the other side, we slog up an arduous incline of sucking mud that narrows and turns northward, vanishing into the jungle.
12:15 p.m. Land of the Leech...
Rain stops. Sit to rest. Eat. Five minutes after first crumb hits, streams of ants attack. Decay. Sour-baby-diaper foulness. Insects, Unending buzz. Eight-inch red centipede three fingers wide. Swell your arm up size of a thigh. Palm-sized spiders. Black ones. Yellow ones. Blue. Ticks in your pubic hair. Vipers small as worms. Paralyze you in a bite. Leeches sucking. Burn ‘em off your dick. Blood gushing. Blast the fuck outta jungle up ahead. Sit in your helmet ‘cause a hole’s in your pants an’ nobody wears underwear. Don’t want no fuckin’ leech up my ass, okay? Cocksucker. Rocks and chunks of trees and tons of dirt fall from the sky. Put helmet back on. Pucker hard. Leech starts humpin’ your boot. Finger that fucker. Stick a safety pin through it. Tries to suck your finger. Pin it to your bandoleer. Rot! Motherfucker....
“Me worry” says Hien
“Mr. Tinh, he very tired”
5:30 p.m. On Bank of Scoi Tian Hien Entered a small village to hysterical shrieks of little boys running from an alien’s voice; these are Katu tribal people...40 or so villagers...residing in three stilted housed of grass roofs and woven walls. An estimated 33 tribes of Montagnards (a French term for “mountain people”) fiercely guard separate territories throughout the jungled Annamese Cordillera. They are aboriginals (Vietnamese call them Moi, or “savages”) who worship their ancestors and believe all things have souls.
“You sit here,” Hien says
“Sure. No problem.”
The house is a rectangular single room (accessed by a ladder) with four openings to the jungle air. At far end, a woman boils rice and chicken in pots steaming over hot coals and licks of red flame. On a mat of reeds, tribal leaders (Ho Van Than. Chief of village; Ho Van Thoa, Old Man of Village, and Ho Van Hung chief of Hamlet) sit smoking cigarettes with Hien, Mr. Tinh, and me. Mr. Hung pours alcohol from the plastic jig into a gallon jar containing chopped-up cobra and poisonous centipede.
“Montagnard medicine,” says My. Tinh. “Protect you from bite.”
The poison is poured into tiny cups.
(Montagnard language has no word for “American”; so they borrow in high-pitched Vietnamese, “Mee!” Also quintessential “bastardized French- “Nam utterances, like “boo-koo!”)
“Mee...boo-koo b’rarah’chee!” (American...pay much money!”)
Woman brings boiled chicken and rice and noodles and a large bowl of peppers that the Montagnards much as if they’re carrots. Salt ( a heavy luxury item) is pinched with fingers from a small saucer. Starving men, we wage a war with the chopsticks and inhale our food. Little is said. Chicken bones are dropped through deliberate gaps ‘tween bamboo slats...dogs underneath fight and gnash viciously over the scraps. Woman squats and smokes a pipe back by the fire, where ten children eat. I swallow a pepper in three bites. Suddenly, I can’t breathe! Eyes and nose begin to ooze clear fluid. The Montagnards’ polite stoicism is barely a disguise, the corners or their eyes connecting in secret hilarity. Dragon’s fire pours out my nostrils....
“Chickenshit,” Hien says.
“Montagnard, he like pepper hot. Use chickenshit. Fertilize. Make pepper very hot.”
7:30 p.m. Almost Dark; air is filled with dampness of jungle...stunning insects’ electric buzz...hoots of night birds; fireflies flick off/on like aimless electrons ‘round water buffaloes’ cud-gnawing heads....
“Need to check on beast” Mr. Tinh says,
“Here...” (he holds toilet paper)
“....I show you where”
Third of the village, adults and children, sit inside this house unwrapping taffies...chew in voracious pleasure..as Mr. Tinh and I descend the short ladder. My boots hang (soaked) under the flooring. Scores of thongs lie on the wet ground. I slip into a pair. Mr. Tinh leads me to a place of obvious purpose behind bushes near the stream,.
“Check on best. This’uh place...” he says.
Looking over his shoulder, Mr. Tinh pulls a folded piece of paper from his pocket. “Please take for me,” he says.
11:05 p.m. Mr. Hung and the village chief had strung my hammock from overhead beams, and i hung over a cabinet like thing (atop which Hiem’s trying to sleep), looking through mosquito-netting at flickering flames. Below, men of the village drink and smoke and talk in animated tones (“Mee! Popping out sporadically); dim orange light from the fire’s glow undulates off wall-and ceiling-supports; shapes of tools..crossbows, large tree-saw...are revealed. Before retiring. I’d consumed two wafers of codeine dissolved in tea. One way to deal with pain. Seems like a dream. The isolated piece of planet onto which I’d been dropped, where I fought....killed...is near. Time’s lost its meaning. San Diego...the World...no meaning. Only this place exists.
From pocket I pull Mr. Tinh’s piece of paper. Quietly unfold. Handwriting is too small to read in such weak light, except for four large and carefully printed words:
US MARINE HELP ME
The irony, I think.
9:00 a.m. Mr Tinh stays back. Hien and I depart from the village, with Hung and Thoa (Old Man of Village) leading the way. Thoa carriers a primitive M1 carbine. Hung his 9mm. A yelp by Hung’d directed our eyes to a black cobra (thick as my arm) stretched motionless across the trail. Thoa threw rocks until the thing finally slithered away.
11:15 a.m. Base of a mountain. We’ve crossed water 15 times since the Rockpile. Other time I was here, we’d been dropped by a Jolly Green Giant (double-rotor chinook) that’d fetched us from LZ Stud. The night before, the Indian’d blown his head off. That queasy image...snakelike windpipe....still writhes in my mind. Never got used to dead Americans, Sight of ‘em made me phobic. Yet I could stare in transfixed awe at horrific disfigurements inflicted on Vietnamese. It’s impossible, I think, for a man to kill another man and think of him as a human..and not go crazy. Anyway.
Wonder what they called us?
Lucky for us (me and Hien), Montagnards see as sharply as night birds. I’d be started to sit on the bank, when hung yelled....
I jumped away.
Looking, I saw dead leaves and mud and glistening stones beside the stream, nothing else. Hung poked at the ground with a broken branch, I looked closer. A bamboo viper...smaller’n a night crawler...had wrapped itself ‘round Hungs branch. It’d bitten itself. Hung tossed it into the stream. Then he pointed to Hien’s ankle....
A thirsty leech humped up his sock. Hein tried to flick it off but it sucked to his thumb.
12:50 p.m. Been climbing a steep mountain for 45 minutes Stringlike vines with seeable fishhook thorns, snag, delay, and greatly irritate. I sweat profusely. The “old man” (in his 50s) doesn’t even breathe. He’d spotted an American grenade beside the trail, picked it up, wedged it ‘tween divided trunks of a slender tree..booby trap...and grinned. I now site (Thao squatting, smoking) wait for Hien. Slivers of gray sky pierce the high canopy. My fingers sting, the early stages of cellulitis, Jungle rot, here already. Small red sores (from fingernails to elbows) will ripen into boils, scabbing over, ripping open...serrated edges of elephant grass 15 feet high, fishhook vines, countless stinging insects and flies, invisible eggs laid, wiggling larvae...
Hien arrives, dripping, helped by Hung, struggling for his breath....
“I sweat,” he whispers.
“Me worry,” I say
“Hien, your very tired”
1:20 p.m. Mountains in the Truong Son rise over 8000 feet; one in the far distance all in the distance hides it peak in the clouds there. Fire Support Base Neville existed, shrouded in ever present must, where Dracula might’ve lived and...in metaphor...did.
Those shivering Marines suffered!
Then, so did we all....
I stand atop FSB Russell! (its cryptic ID: XD912591) and gaze everywhere from its remains. Here, giant weapons fired dismemberment for miles. I ask Hung (through Hien) if any other Mee had ventured here since the war. Hung laughs at (I guess) my absurdity.
“No one go this far,” he says
There is no jungle here. Just “American grass” (what we called elephant grass) It sways in the breeze round my shoulders like God’s weeds, I’d been here before. Then, it was bald and read-orange in mid. Forest green sandbags fortified fighting holes dug into clay. Trenches encircles its plunging periphery; 150 feet below the trenches, triple coils of concentrated razor wire challenged sapper to dare crawl out of the jungle. Here, the NVA overran Russell’s defenders in one night of terror, their shadows flying under parachute flares, their satchel charges and Chinese Communist grenades (Chicoms) exploding, their AK47’s cracking, KAK! KAK! KAK! KAK! KAK!
Littered on the ground...the routine things of surreal existence plastic bug juice bottle, rubber sole of a jungle boot, charred liner of a Marine’s helmet, baby powder container. Grunts didn’t wear underwear, in the jungle, you’d get diaper rash, plus your jungle rot, baby powder, Kool Aid, candy...we begged for things from home to make life more like it.
Below this mountain, the upper Cam Lo River loops from Helicopter Valley; where the cartwheeling rotor of an exploding chopper sliced Marines in half; ‘round LZ Margo (where I threw my first grenade) past Hill 304 (Mutter’s Ridge) where we’d landed after Stud (“One spooky lookin’ mothe’fucka...” soul brother said); ‘tween endless rising ridges at utter edge of the Z...no man’s land...place where recon Marines lurked in six-man teams...place we bumped out heart shot Ron Mclean (stepson of actor Jimmy Stewart); and many klicks (kilometers) away, a pyramid of solid rock points to a high place clouded up, XD826617...LZ catapult...where I left the war. And for miles and miles and miles, as far as my one eye can see, the forest is gone...Agent Orange...that sprayed American herbicide Mr. Tinh’d called “Oh rangy bomb”
Hung’s talking to Hien, his voice and expression firm. Hien turns to me. Behind him, far away and below, a perceptible thread of smoke rises in the valley of Song Cam Lo.
“He can take only you,” Hien says
“It’s very dangerous....”
“Hien...tell Mr. Hung, boo-koo b’errah’chee...”
The trail down is very steep. More’n likely, the seat of my pants is gonna get ripped open. Who cares? Hung and Hien light cigarettes. Hung mutters something. Both men laugh. Hung says goodbye to Thoa, then looks to me, then starts down the trail. I begin to follow, then pause..look back at Hein. “What were you guys laughin’ at?’
Hien smiles broadly.
“Mr. Hung, he say it funny he protect you, he say before 1975, it he see you, he kill you.”
“Oh, yeah?” I say, ”Not if I’d seen him first.”