Horses at Parangtritis, Java

Song Be to Settling Down

We’re in Song Be. How long has it been? Two weeks? Three? I hand my camera to gunner Jim Lamb, or rifleman Alfonso Gamble, or point man Larry Roy, or rifleman Glenn Williams (shot by Bill Williams after an enemy bullet clipped the back of his head). Or RTO Mike Wilson who followed Six over the berm when LZ Ranch was overrun. Or was it feisty squad leader Jerry Bieck? I don’t remember–I loved them all. Take the picture, goddamn it. Just take the picture.

Twenty-five years later I hallucinate the image in a Sumatran rain forest while walking with Mr. Mohammad. For three days we trek through dense scrub, exotic spiraling trees, curtains of hanging vines, the sunlight illuminating the triple canopy.

“Look,” says Mr. Muhammad, pointing directly ahead.

Twenty meters away, the dirt floor of the rocky lair still holds the animal’s scent.

“Maybe tiger,” he says. “Wait,” and he melts into the bush to find long branches that he will carve into spears.

I bend forward, palms to my knees, resting theApparition, Sabang, Sumatra, 1995 way grunts did when taking five. Looking up, a young soldier not ten meters away stares at me. A sudden dread and deep sorrow bridge the gap between us. Seconds later my mirror self shimmers and dissolves mid-air.

“For you,” says Mr. Muhammad. He has two fresh cut spears, and hands one to me. Like me, sweat drips from his face, darkens his sopping wet clothes, but he cannot tell I’ve been weeping. Gripping the lances, holding them at the ready, like the knight errant and his faithful friend, we we move out.

At a bend in the trail, high above us, Mr.Muhammad spies a female orangutan, a baby hugging her back. As we stand and observe her, she becomes agitated, picks and throws leaves and branches, which shower down and fall at our feet.  She is protecting the child, says Mr. Muhammad. We should leave.

For an hour we march through the jungle, our sharp-tipped spears leading the way. I’m excited, exhausted, loving, hating every moment of the arduous trek. Finally, reaching our campsite, we pass the old woman who lives with chickens in her primitive hut.

“She is crazy,” says my guide. “Her spirit is lost.”

Two days later, we walk three miles back to Mr. Muhammad’s large wood house, where his Javanese wife suddenly falls to the floor, her eyes roll back into her head, her feet and arms kick and flail. Calmly, as if he has done this many times, Mr. Muhammad burns incense, wafts it into her dreaming face, whispers prayers to his unconscious wife, mixes herbs and water, gives her the potion which makes her well.

Later still, on my travels through Sumatra, after truck rides, military checkpoints, market place fruit bats trussed to long sticks, a rat eaten hole in my pack, visits to the American embassy, to ancient temples, modern villas, a cockfight-where hundreds of white-robed men gambled and whooped as the captive birds tore themselves to death-there is the blessed horseback ride on the wind blown sands of Parangtritis.

And later still, after sitting in decrepit chairs in high-domed thatched huts in Yogyakarta’s sprawling bird market, listening to the winged and pleading songs. After telling the pock-faced Javanese masseuse who forced her coarse knuckles deep into my back, “No, it’s not good! No bagus!” After the wretched cement strip malls of industrial Surabaya. In France, I have my fortune read by a friends sister who lives in a six-hundred-year-old-house in Beaujolais.

“You are my suicide man,”she said, handing me the slim tarot card as her cat scurried across the keys of the upright piano.

Further on, after declining cocaine in London from a doctor met on the Killing Beach in Zipolite, Mexico, I sipped red wine at Lake Geneva, trying hard to look calm, but knew I did not fool Pascal or his girlfriend or find oblivion.

And then, after staying with an ex-cop, ex-drug dealer in energetic, postwar, rebuilt, tourist filled, Amsterdam, courtesy of the brother of the tarot card reader. After visiting Rembrandt’s house and regretting not buying the self-portrait facsimile print. After visiting Ann Frank’s house, where two middle-aged German women idly gossiped during the sad, inspired, narrated tour. After paying thirty guilders to a Colombian whore in Amsterdam’s red light district, “Hold me, please hold me,” I begged her, after we did not have sex.

At last, after hiding out in a cramped Dutch youth hostel, where I did not know who or when or where I was: a short flight home, where I arrived one day before my DEROS twenty-six years after the event-and moved sixteen times from ‘96 to 2002 until finally settling down.

DEROS:  date estimated return overseas from a tour in Vietnam

Top photo-horse drawn carts at the beach at Parantritis, Java. photo-Janis Wilson (New Zealand)