Easy Month

 

The lieutenant says, “Take five.” I clear a spot, sit on my pack, slug a half a canteen of water.

“Hey, Doc,” says Larry Roy, “I’m not feeling too good.” He dips his head, with his forearm, wipes his brow.

In another world, Larry Roy played golf. Here, at seventeen, he walks point. Everyone likes him. He smiles a lot. Maybe too much. But for Christ sake, not now, Larry Roy. Not now.

“What is it?” I ask in my best medic voice. “What’s the matter?”

His throat hurts, his stomach aches. He coughs and sneezes.

“Headache too. Doc, I feel bad all over.”

I take his temp. A hundred and three. Kneeling, I open my canvas aid, bottle after bottle, shake out pills, hand him two Tetracycline, two Penicillin, two Compazine, two Probanthene, two Darvon, two aspirin, two Dimetap, two Sudafed, two Benedryll, two anti-anything I got.

“That ought to work,” I say, zipping the canvas bag shut.

Larry Roy eyes the brightly colored pills, pops the artificial rainbow into his mouth, unscrews the plastic cap of his canteen, tilts his head back, glugs down water.

“You’re all right, Doc,” he says. “Thank you much.”

With the back of his hand he wipes his mouth. Then he is gone.

On patrol, every grunt does his job. The lieutenant plots our course on the topo map. The RTO whispers the lieutenants orders into the radio handset. Squad leaders push the men, push them. The machine gunner carries the bulky weapon in the crux of his shoulder and neck. Riflemen, freighted with c-rations, ammo, trips and claymores, will advance, take cover, engage the enemy, while the gunner lays down suppressing fire. The Forward Observer risks his life calling in arty. The medic patches up those who’ve been hit.

Every grunt has his job, but the point is first to walk into the forbidding jungle, the whispering bamboo, the shadowy thickets of thorny vines. See him, slightly hunched, neck craning, M16 held at the hip, his eyes roving, searching for any hint of an ambush. Hear how his heart crackles like thunder inside his head. See how the sweat drips from every pore of his body. Feel how it saturates his uniform, how it clings to him, serpentine, like a second skin. Step by step, see how the pointman looks, listens, scents the air for tell tale signs of enemy passage. With each passing second, he pulses with dread, steadies his fear, plods forward, alive to the sudden thrill of combat, the lawless power it bestows upon him. Larry Roy lives in a world of absolute clarity, where every step may be his last.

An hour later he returns. His eyes are glazed. He moves too slow. Too easy. “Doc, I don’t know what you did, man, but I feel great!”

“Any time,” I say. “Glad to help out.”

The rest of that month went much the same. Cuts. Scratches. Colds. Parasites. Fungal infections. But no howling screams from gun shot wounds. No writhing grunts sliced by withering shrapnel. No in-out or ripped apart or hemorrhaging trauma. No egg splat gray matter that won’t wash off. No blood or teeth or broken bones. This month, this blessed month, none of that. None.

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Top photo: New Years Day: After an ambush, third platoon celebrates three enemy dead and no American casualties. Tay Ninh, 1970.