[With the advent of Ken Burns’ history of Vietnam I’ve been thinking more and more about that fading conflict that defined in so many ways my youth. Then I recalled this short story I wrote in the 1980s. A few bits and pieces are true, or could have been.]
Around the cleared moonscape that enclosed Firebase Delta, the jungle dozed silently while the sentries relaxed. Their flak-jackets reeked of sweat and chaffed at their skin, but they believed in them. They had less faith in the hedged of concertina wire that coiled like huge snakes around the camp, and they had reason. If they loved anything, they loved the full moon that was falling down the sky. They’d be sorry to see it duck behind the vine- choked trees in the distance. Then they wouldn’t be so relaxed. It was when the dark rose up out of the jungle that men died.
Second lieutenant Gary Murphy, halfway through his tour and twenty-three, lay on his bunk in his half-buried sandbagged hootch reading, for the fourth time, a letter from Sally Goines, who swore she was still in love and couldn’t wait until he came flying home for their wedding. “…After the game, the gang went over to Shakey’s for some pizza in Jean’s car. It was great until these longhairs (you don’t have them in Vietnam, do you?) came in and started acting funny. Not funny ha-ha, ” Sally wrote in the rounded script that irritated Gary,” but drugs or something worse. They tried to order from Fred and kept asking for pizza with everything and kept laughing as they added ingredients like penguin dust, I think one said. And this other one tried to play the jukebox but didn’t put any money in it an, big surprise, it didn’t work. So I politely, and I mean it, told him that he had to put money in it. He took out a twenty dollar bill and began to tear little pieces of it off and stuff them in the coin slot! Can you imagine? That took the cake and Fred came out from behind the counter with the baseball bat he kept ….” Gary felt the ground under him shake gently.
Folding the letter and slipping it in his shirt pocket he got up and, after dousing the light, drew back the blanket that covered the entrance to his hutch.
The ground continued to shudder. Far off to the west Murphy could see explosions of light like a host of gigantic flashbulbs popping on the landscape. “Arclight,” he thought, “Arclight.” Arclight was a new tactic to crush the Cong. It was a high altitude air strike featuring B-52s and hundreds of one-ton bombs; an attack that came from planes so high up you couldn’t see them or hear them. Upon arrival there was a dense pattern of bombs that probed the earth like a Titan’s fingers searching for crouched packets of flesh they could transform in an instant into fountains of blood and bouquets of bones.
From over nine miles up, B-52s plowed death into fields of rice where a navigator’s co-ordinates crossed on a map. Those co-ordinates were given by some man examining abstract photographs in a windowless room near Saigon; by someone who had seen a tendril of smoke where there should be no smoke, a rock that cast a suspicious shadow, the pale oval of a face turned up against the darker foliage. Something. Anything that might indicate that Charlie was at those co-ordinates when the photograph was taken and might still be there. Whatever the sign was it was enough to send the bombers and the bombs to obliterate that point on the map. The Americans in charge of the Vietnam war thought, if they did it all the time they would, sooner or later, kill the Cong, kill the VC, kill Charlie and then… then everyone could go home.
But Charlie, Gary Murphy knew, was never at those co-ordinates when the bombers came.
Charlie didn’t dawdle around in the bush waiting for some slick American jet-jockey to bomb his ass. Charlie had better things to do. Charlie had a tight schedule. Charlie kept his ass in gear, traveled light, and killed young Americans.
Killing American’s was Charlie’s job and he was good at it. Charlie was a pro. And Charlie also had patience. In Vietnam, the Americans owned the day and the cities, but Charlie owned the night and the villages and time. Charlie used all three to kill Americans. Five Americans killed today, three slaughtered tomorrow, seven more dead or one more dead during the next week. It didn’t matter how many or when. Charlie’d just keep killing Americans until Americans got tired of being killed and left. It was that or be killed until they were all just slightly greener patches of the jungle with plants growing where the eyes had been.
To pass the time while waiting to be killed, Americans amused themselves by playing with high technology and bombing the jungle. And so every evening Gary was entertained by a distant Arclight strike; a high-tech, high-explosive light show with no dead Charlies to show for it.
“Stupid assholes,” he muttered up at the sky towards where he thought the planes should be by now,” like using a pitchfork to kill flies.” He yawned and lay down on his cot to get some sleep. He watched the lizards and roaches roam on the ceilings and walls of his hutch and thought of the feeling of Sally’s breasts in her sweater. The memory dissolved and he turned over on his stomach on the cot and felt the sticky damp pull at his skin, then the tightness in his temples and stomach that never left him when he was doing time in the bush. Instead of his girlfriend, he saw the village that he would lead his squad into the next morning.
“Better duty than leading night ambushes, these morning raids,” he thought. “Oh yeah, better. Better if Charlie doesn’t pay us another visit tonight, crawl under the wire and slit our throats, then we’ll get a chance to check out the village in the morning. And that’s when the dinks will cut our throats. Cut our throats and…”
Which was always when the fear lumbered out of the shadows of his hootch and, as he turned over, crouched on his chest, lapping his face with its cold, bronze tongue. He turned his head and stared into the lamp waiting for the fear to leave, and after a time it did.
Nearby he heard a tape playing. The words were far away, a world away in the night,
“Bang a gong,
get it on,
get it on…”,
interrupted by the crackle of the radios as the perimeter guards checked in at the quarter hour. Then the night faded into sleep and sleep into a fitful dream and he saw the village in the clearing again.
It was a village of no importance set in a clearing of no significance ringed by a jungle that existed outside of time. The village was officially considered harmless but worth watching. Politically unreliable inhabitants had been “relocated”; sometimes to camps in the south, sometimes out of the doors of helicopters at three thousand feet. The village was marked off as “pacified”. And that thought, that status, woke him.
“Pacified, my ass,” he thought. “Why not call it what it is, dead. Only trouble is its not really dead. Not dead at all.
Recon photos examined in Saigon had showed a wooden bowl near a hut that had moved overnight. That and the absence of any footprints, including animal footprints, gave the men in Saigon a yen to have another look, to send in a squad to get a report that satisfied their endless curiosity. To find out what those foolish little things meant.
Gary sat up and ran his fingers through the burr of his cropped brown hair. He rubbed his eyes, giving up on the idea of sleep, and began to twist the ends of his mustache, and hum the tune of “These Foolish Things” in a soft lilting voice, changing the lyrics to “These foolish thing remind me of Charlie.”
And the fear returned to him. He tried to push it away by thinking of the time he had spent with Sally in the cut-rate motel off the freeway in Sacramento the night before he had been sent to this shitty country. Only when he looked at her body laid out upon the sheets and he closed eyes and when he went to draw the curtains, Charlie was in the window and Charlie was laughing at him.
Charlie was right. It was funny. The joke was on him. He laughed out loud in the hut, his voice hollow and strained.
“I’m sure glad one of us is happy, loo-tenant,” said a voice from the other side of the blanket that covered the entrance to the hootch. “But I am sure sorry it ain’t me.”
Gary spun towards the door and saw the black face of Private Jason Gibbs glaring at him. Gary’s anger flashed in his face. Gibbs had not only discovered him laughing at nothing, Gibbs had also approached the hut without calling out; an unappreciated and dangerous bit of behavior at Firebase Delta, especially at night.
“Aren’t you a little out of line, Private?”
Gibbs sneered, “Maybe so, but aren’t you a bit of a white honky motherfucker, sir?”
Gary went rigid, feeling rage surge through him. Then he checked himself, and sat down on his cot looking closely at Gibbs’ face. His eyes were shot through with red ringing dilated pupils. Doped to the gills. Where do they get it?
He spoke softly and deliberately. “Gibbs, you are stoned-out, pin-sized pain in my ass this evening. If you weren’t the finest fucking dink-killer in my squad, I’d have you up on report for that little remark, and you’d be doing brig time before you could say ‘watermelon’.”
Gibbs’ head bobbed slowly and he shifted his stance until his huge frame filled the doorway. “Dink-killer? That what you think of me?”
“You’re a genocide genius, Gibbs. That is hardly classified information. And speaking of which, I got a reaming from the colonel yesterday which I have been meaning to take up with you. It seems that it has come to his attention that someone in the squad is slicing the ears off of dead slopes for their private collection. The colonel politely requests that this hobby cease. He needs all the body parts he can get. Puffs up the count, you know.”
“No shit, sir.”
“No shit, Gibbs. So why don’t you meditate on that back in your own hootch. You’ll wish you had twice the sleep you’ll get when we hit that village in the morning.”
“Been thinking on that, loo-tenant, and I ain’t going.”
“What do you mean you ain’t going? We are all going.”
“Not Jason Gibbs here.”
Gary raised his eyes to the ceiling, exasperated. “Gibbs, he said, measuring his words, ” you are a member of my squad, right?”
“I am that, sir.”
“In fact, you are the fucking scout for the squad. Correct?”
“Volunteered, sir. Yes. Did that. Just a dumb nigger.”
“Well, then, you and I and the rest of Zulu have orders from division to take an all-expense paid tour of that village in the morning and I am pleased to inform you that you have the honor of walking point.”
“Village is crawling with gooks.”
“I know that, Gibbs.”
“Then why we going there to find out?”
“Because Saigon doesn’t know it,” said Gary in a bored tone.
“And after we get blown away, my black ass first, what the fuck will Saigon know?”
“Gibbs, this is Vietnam. We are not playing stickball in the Bronx.”
“You telling me?”
“I am trying to explain to you, Private Gibbs, that we are, like it or not, in the United States Army. We are going to take a walk and seek out Charlie. If we are sharp, we can take a peek and split before they know we’re around and invite us to snack on their fishheads and rice.”
“Not fucking likely. They know when we fart in Japan.”
“I know its not fucking likely, Gibbs, but its tough titty. Those are my orders and I am going to follow them and you are going to follow mine, Private!” He fixed a stare on Gibbs, and tried to wish him away.
Gibbs didn’t move. Silence filled the hut for a moment.
“Begging the loo-tenant’s pardon, Sir, but no way. I don’t mind wasting the slopes. Sort of like it. But I do mind getting my sweet black ass blown away because some chickenshit Saigon spook thinks its a swift idea. I’m going back to the world, but dressed sharp, not in some rubber bag and a tin box. Gibbs is resigning the fucking Army.”
Murphy’s temper snapped. He stood up and stepped up until he and Gibbs were nose to nose in the doorway. “You’ll take orders like I take orders, asshole! Clear?”
“Fuck your orders,” Gibbs whispered.
“What? What? You black son-of-a-bitch! What’s that again?.” He stared at Gibbs who stood as still as a stone.
The silence thickened in the hootch. Radios crackled in the night. Gary thought he could hear the scuttle of the roaches on the ceiling.
Jason Gibbs’ hands clenched into fists in the shadows, then relaxed. A vacant look came into his eyes and then he smile a slow, stoned smile. He stepped back from the doorway, holding the blanket back, until his face was absorbed in the shadows. “I guess I said ‘Orders is orders’, loo-tenant, sir,” he drawled in a dreamlike monotone.
Gary breathed out slowly. An infinite weariness came over him. He walked back to his cot and sat down heavily, rubbing his jaw. “Okay, Gibbs. Okay. We’ll forget this little disagreement. You’re a good man, you should just lay off the dope.”
“I agree with that, sir,” came the voice.
“You’ll be fine tomorrow. Don’t sweat it. Get some rack time.”
“Yes, sir. We’ll forget it, sir. Gibbs will be all right, sir.” His footsteps crunched away into silence.
Gary lay down on his cot and gazed towards the door and at Sally’s letter lying on the floor. He was still staring at it five minutes later, when he slipped into a dreamless sleep.
“Sir…sir? Loo-tenant, sir?”
Gary awoke groggily. “Wha…who’s there?”
The moon had gone down and his camp lantern flickered giving the hut only a faint copper glow. A shadow shifted in the doorway.
“Just Gibbs, sir. Private Gibbs, Zulu Squad.”
Gary groaned and focused on the shadow through sleep-sodden eyes. “What is it now, Gibbs?”
“I been thinking and I wanted to know if the loo- tenant could play baseball.”
Christ, thought Gary, maybe this spade is ripe for a Section Eight. I’ll never get back to sleep now.
“Why yes, Private, the loo-tenant knows how to play baseball. So what?”
There was a sharp grating sound of metal being drawn through metal. Gary became bolt awake in one cold instant.
“So catch, motherfucker, sir.”
A hand moved in the dim light and Gibbs was gone. A sputtering object about the size of a baseball struck the sandbag wall by Gary’s head and rolled hissing under his cot. Gary was on his feet and leaping towards the door, towards all the rest of his life when an impossible whiteness filled the hootch and he knew that he would never, never, never.
* * * * * *
After Major Timothy A. Scott, U.S. Army Recruiting and Public Relations office for Sacramento, California, said good-bye to Mr. & Mrs. Murphy, he drove straight to the Town and Country Shopping Mall where he ate a cheeseburger with everything at the Chuck Wagon Coffee Shoppe and then walked next door to the Chuck Wagon Cocktail Lounge where he had two Old Fashioneds.
“Rotten war,” he told himself between his first and second drink. “Nice kid gets it in a mortar attack. Still, better than being taken prisoner, or brainwashed, or having your legs or balls shot off.
“Parents took it well. I hate this duty. Have to admit that. At least no tears. A few more American families with that kind of sand and we could finish the job in Vietnam and bring all those boys back from that hellhole.”
He tossed back his second drink, tipped the waitress, wondered how long it had been since she had had it, and drove his gray station wagon from the motor pool back to his office halfway between the State House and the Greyhound Bus Depot. It was the last week in May and he was still ten recruits short of his monthly quota. It worried him until he remembered that the high school graduations were coming up in June and he was sure to get some extras then. Maybe he’d just back date a few forms. No problem.
Mr. Alan Murphy was an orthodontist who maintained a suite of offices in the Arden Professional Building near his home. After Major Scott had left their home, he called in and told his secretary to cancel all his appointments until after the funeral. In a few days, Gary’s body in its metal box was flown into the airbase nearby. He was buried with full honors in the Arden Presbyterian Cemetery. A squad of students from Sacramento State’s ROTC came and fired rifles over the grave. Major Scott gave a folded flag to Mrs. Murphy.
When the coffin was lowered, Mrs. Murphy became hysterical until the rifle shots seemed to stun her into silence. She accepted the folded flag with a numb expression and carried it away with her like a platter on which there was some invisible offering that only she could see.
Before he went back to work, Mr. Murphy asked his secretary to remove Gary’s high-school graduation picture from his office wall and put it in his desk drawer. When he got there he stared at the light patch on the wall for over an hour. Then he took the photograph from his desk drawer and hung it back in its place on the wall. After all, there was really nothing else he could do.
About a year later, the Murphy’s sold their large house in the suburb of Arden and moved into a two- bedroom apartment about five miles away that had a view of the American River. The apartment complex was for mature couples and boasted a swimming pool, two tennis courts, restrictions against children, a security guard, and a communal sauna that was never used. Both Mr. and Mrs. Murphy agreed that it was a much more sensible way to live under the circumstances.
On the day that they moved, most of Gary’s things were given to the Goodwill. The rest were stored in sealed cartons that were kept in the basement of the apartment complex. Mrs. Murphy kept the folded flag in the top drawer of her dresser and touched it every morning after she had her coffee and before she went shopping. After all, there was really nothing else she could do.
Sally Goines called a lot of Gary’s old friends with the news and went to the funeral and cried for most of the rest of that day. Then she felt bad for a long time. One day when she was feeling really depressed about Gary, she went down to Shakey’s Pizza at the Town and Country Shopping Center to eat. Eating was something she had been doing a lot of since the funeral. A boy with slightly long hair came in alone and asked to sit with her. After awhile, they drove off together and parked on a dirt road that ran in back of a hop farm down by the river. The boy lit a joint and offered her some saying that she was just too uptight and that it would make her feel better. Because she just didn’t care anymore, Sally smoked a lot of it. It did make her feel better. Making love to the boy in the reeds by the river made her feel better too.
Sally saw the boy every day after school for more than two months. Then with a brief defiant note to her parents, she moved to Oregon with him. A year or so later the boy moved on to Alaska where they were paying outrageous money for work on the pipeline. He promised to send for Sally and their love child, Kala. But the boy never wrote or came back and Sally was left to fend for herself.
After awhile she met Peter who believe in getting high on Tijuana Gold and staying high by eating macrobiotic foods. Sally and Peter and Kala moved to Yreka, California and opened a small natural-food shop in the town. One autumn afternoon, they were married by an whispy bearded Indian guru in a meadow high up on Mount Shasta, which was, everyone knew, one of the most spiritual places in the world.
Every so often in the years that followed, Sally and her family — expanded now to include another little girl Zoe — would drive down to Sacramento to spend a few days with Sally’s parents, even though Peter didn’t approve of their diet. During one of these trips, Mrs. Goines mentioned to Sally that Mrs. Murphy had died recently and been buried next to Gary. It was said that Mr. Murphy planned to marry his secretary of ten years. Sally’s mother hoped that he’d allow a decent interval to pass before he did though nothing would surprise her these days.
Sally absently agreed with her mother as she tried to remember Gary Murphy. She remembered the last letter she had written to him putting down longhairs and shook her head. “Could I ever have been that straight?” she wondered. Then when she tried to remember Gary she was a little ashamed to realize that she could not picture his face. She went and found her old high school yearbook and was opening it when Zoe and Kala started screaming at each other in the backyard. Looking out she saw they were struggling over the possession of a brightly colored ball. Putting the book back on the shelf, she went out into the yard.
“Come on, ” she admonished. “That’s ball’s no good to either of you unless you play together and share. How many times do I have to tell you that fighting’s uncool?”
* * * * * *
When the grenade exploded in Gary’s hootch, the other soldiers at Firebase Delta assumed they were under attack and lacerated the jungle with small arms fire and mortars for twenty minutes. They brought death to a large number of birds, monkeys, and other animals, as well as waking up a detachment of Viet Cong who were minding their own business and taking a rest in the village six klicks to the south.
During the confusion of the firefight, Jason Gibbs grenaded three other locations in the camp and then shot off the little toe on his left foot. He became, along with Gary Murphy, the only other casualty of the raid that never was.
In the morning, Zulu squad, minus Gary and Gibbs, was sent into the village and, finding the Viet Cong resting there in strength, was wiped out to a man. Twenty minutes after they called in contact and fifteen after the last man in Zulu squad died, a napalm strike obliterated the village. Helicopters came in next to hose down the ashes with rockets and machine guns. The napalm and machine guns also failed to kill any Viet Cong since they had left the area at speed right after finishing off the American patrol. When the news of Zulu squad’s fate reached him in his hospital room in Saigon, Gibbs smiled hobbled out onto the balcony and rolled a fat joint to celebrate his salvation.
After being released from the hospital with a Purple Heart and a slight limp, the now Corporal Gibbs got himself assigned to the Quartermaster Corps in Saigon. Here, as in the jungle, he excelled. He rapidly adapted to his environment and learned how to fake cargo manifest, how to redirect shipments of PX luxuries to local merchants and the black market, and how to offer and accept bribes. He soon graduated to smuggling dope out of and money into Vietnam.
When his hitch was up, Gibbs was given an honorable discharge and flew back to the states. He wound up back in New York City and used the money he’d made in Saigon to buy six luxury apartments in midtown and furnish them with expensive women that he rented out. Rejecting drug dealing as a scam that attracted too much heat for a man with his eye on a career and not a job, he prospered and accepted his inevitable title of Superpimp with a quiet pride.
Gibbs lived well. He was lavish with his money but avoided the vulgar displays of street pimps. Italian suits and a plain black Rolls-Royce with a young, white driver suited his personal vision. He learned French and Italian and was passable in both. Because of this and his quiet style he soon found himself serving a select circle of clients centered on the United Nations. And because he had a reputation for discretion and taste, as well as highly talented women, he was, if not invited to formal U.N. functions, depended on and patronized, which was to his mind much the same thing. Jason Gibbs had it together and intended to keep it that way.
To remind the world that as well as himself that he had arrived, Gibbs lived in an apartment with a sweeping view of the U.N. and the East River. He kept a white French woman who had never been a prostitute as companion and decoration. One evening, when they were spending a quiet night at the apartment, sipping champagne and looking at the lights far down the river, Gibbs asked his companion to get some cocaine from the safe in the closet.
When she came back she was carrying the gold vial of cocaine and a large blue-leather jewel case that she had found.
She opened it while Gibbs carefully prepared the cocaine on the top of the glass coffee-table. Inside the case, on dark red velvet were some twenty-seven human ears threaded on a shiny leather thong. She gazed at them fascinated for a moment as soft music sounded through the concealed speakers in the room and the tapping chop of the razor blade powdered the crystals on the table.
“What in the world are these, mon cher?,” she asked. “They’re not ears, are they?”
Jason took a line of coke into his nose through a silver straw sold by Tiffany’s. “They are. I took them off of some dead Viet Cong when I was in Vietnam.”
The woman took the straw from Jason and a hit, relishing the rush. The man had taste, she had to admit.
Then she fondled each ear. “Little bits of history,” she said. “And all of them from men you killed?”
“That’s right. One from each gook.”
She touched one at the end of the thong that was larger and a paler than the rest.
“This one too?” she asked.
Gibbs laughed quietly. “That one? I remember that one. Some sorry son-of-a-bitch that couldn’t catch.”