The Man Who Was Lifted by a Cloud

Medic’s latest short story was first published in the Spring 2023 issue of The Westchester Review.


Young officers can be marched and drilled to exhaustion. Taught to jump from trembling choppers. The sons of bitches can be told what to say and how to say it. But twelve weeks of make-believe do not prepare a soldier for the sudden zzzinnggg of rapid shots whizzing past his helmeted head. Or the raging whooosh of an RPG. Nothing in this world equals the dread sound of plummeting shells, their deafening blast. No book or film or training exercise can prepare a soldier for the total fear and brute thrill of combat. Or when, without warning, a good man, counted on, trusted, officer or enlisted, suddenly turns and flees the fight. Or foolishly throws himself into it.

In Kay’s third month in country Lieutenant Smith contracted dysentery. In less than a week the squad leader had lost ten pounds, could hardly stand, could barely walk. The medic performed one last trick. “This should do it, sir,” he said, holding out the small white pill to the weakened man. “Plug you up good.” But the miracle drug did not work, and Lieutenant Smith was sent to the rear, replaced by Lieutenant Fornoy. The morning he arrived, Sergeant Kay introduced Fornoy to Corporal Lenard, the trusty pointman from Georgia. To Shaffer, who walked second in line and fancied himself a poet. To Blake and Philby, the look-alike machine gun team nearly everyone mixed up. To Maris, the dependable RTO. (“They call me Roger,” he said.) To all the grunts in third squad, including Banks, an immensely stubborn man who could not read or write. And Luce, clumsy and nervous, who kept to himself.

With Kay at his side, after a time Lieutenant Fornoy came to know the rhythm of this war: trudging through jungle, freighted with heavy packs, hungry, sweating, exhausted, day by day the cruel tension building until one side or the other walked into an ambush or stepped on a mine, or the two sides came upon each other. Then a torrent of shouts and rifles, men falling left and right, the soft groans of the dying, the obscene pure notes of the wounded howling in pain, the foul chaos intermingled, igniting the air. And hovering over it all like a smothering white veil, the strange, pungent, unforgettable scent of the elusive enemy, who were not, it was said, despite their suffering, human beings.

By his third ambush—the mangled corpses strewn like rag dolls across the jungle floor, a series of final shots—Lieutenant Fornoy’s voice was cold, flat; his eyes, vacant, lifeless. “Tell the men to saddle up,” he said to Kay. “Move out in zero five.” In that moment Kay understood the lieutenant had changed. He would no longer take prisoners. It had taken Lieutenant Smith twice as long.

Each day the men rose early, ate canned food, waited for the order to march, trekked for hours through dense jungle, the heat unbearable. Midafternoon, the squad might place along a narrow trail a trio of Claymores rigged to a trip wire. “The mechanical” it was called. Well hidden, the men waited quietly. Hours might pass. Then, as often happened, the device was retrieved, the march continued. One morning, beneath the sheltering bamboo, the slender leaves imparting a deceptive calm to the windless air, the lieutenant, sitting cross-legged with Kay, feeling confident—daily assured the sergeant carried out his orders, satisfied that he and Kay were in fact simpatico—purposefully opened his waterproof wallet and showed the good sergeant photographs of his wife, their infant son, their sizable house.

Quietly, in the soft whispering voice used in combat, the lieutenant spoke of his wealthy upbringing, the pitfalls of privilege, the need to prove himself to unsparing parents.

After a time, pleased with what he had said and how he had said it, “What about you?” he asked, pocketing his wallet. “What’s your story, sergeant?”

“Nothing special, sir,” said Kay, who preferred not to tell of his personal life.

But to mollify the lieutenant, to accept his invitation of deeper trust, for a few brief minutes he recalled his childhood. A drunken father. A broken home. High school truancy. The menial jobs that followed. The army had offered him meaningful work. A way out of debt. He was good at getting things done, he said. People listened to him. War or no war, he had no use for politics.

“Are you married, sergeant? Got a girl?”

“Yes, sir.”

Kay felt a certain potency about the man. A self-awareness guiding his deliberate steps. He had come to trust Fornoy. Yet something about the lieutenant—an irritant urgency, nearly invisible—he chose to ignore. Instead, obedient to the laws of rank and camaraderie, he took from his ruck the photo of the woman he hoped to marry.

“As soon as I get home, sir. Seventy-nine and a wake up.”
By this he meant the infallible number of days that remained in his tour.

March. April. May. The shift to monsoon was seamless. The season of red dust and withering heat turned to heavy rains. Well-worn trails became fraught and treacherous. Hills and ridges, now mud-slick and slippery, defeated their best efforts. The pelting rain saturated their uniforms, which clung to their skins, chilling them more. Adding to their misery, the soles of their water-sodden feet became crumpled like old cloth. For weeks, under the bucketing rain, neither side inflicted casualties. Then, unless the squad were near an underground hospital or buried weapons cache or well-concealed bunker complex—having fought invaders for a thousand years, the Cong excelled in these things—the fighting increased sharply. The Cong taunted them with leaflets. “AMERICANS! WHAT ARE YOU FIGHTING FOR? GO HOME G.I.! GO HOME!”

It happened that Blake was killed by an enemy machine gunner, as were Tilken and Rears, both from Virginia, the trio ripped in half by the angry fusillade. Four replacements, barely a week in country, were cut down by a hail of skittering shrapnel. What were their names? No one knew. In a gruesome twist, the worrisome Luce unwittingly shot the illiterate Banks, who clubbed him to death with the butt of his rifle, then lay down beside him and died. One night, as he sat in a foxhole, PFC Whitter, who’d just returned from R&R, emitted a blood curdling-scream, then disappeared.

The lieutenant, determined to gain the upper hand, ordered Corporal Lenard to walk fifty yards ahead of Shaffer, who ordinarily trailed ten yards behind.

Not unwisely, he said to Lenard, “He makes too much noise.”

“I don’t like it, sir. What if I’m hit?”

“Don’t argue with me, corporal.”

Haltingly, weighing each word, Lenard asked, “But what does Sergeant Kay…”

“I’m in charge,” said Fornoy. “Now move out.”

Lenard hesitated.

“I said, move out.”

He was shot by a young woman he saw only when he fell, reflexively firing his weapon into the soggy ground. In his last moments Lenard heard and felt the pure coldness of falling rain. Breathed in the unspoilt jungle’s loamy scent. He felt her warm hands upon him. His weapon lifted from his weakening grasp. A final glimpse of the dark-robed phantom. The wisp of her hurried footsteps. Then all went black.

“Goddamn it,” said Kay.

He leaned over the sprawled body, rudely twisted on the rainy earth, the eyes unblinking. He wondered: had Lenard seen his Lord and Savior at the moment of parting? Had he felt the sunlit wings of angels lifting him skyward? Kay wept. The girl had shot Lenard so many times he was unrecognizable.

They had trained together. Sat side by side on the way to Vietnam. Among many things, Kay knew that Corporal Regis Arnold Lenard, age nineteen, from Atlanta, wholeheartedly believed in the Second Coming of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. “But here on Earth,” he would say, he loved nothing better than to hunt for hours in the Georgia woods. So much so he would not be dissuaded from walking point. “Not much for schooling. But hunting, that’s second nature.” Now, he was zipped in a body bag, to be whisked by helicopter to a large base for the bullet-ridden corpse to be cosmetically repaired and stored in a military casket, homeward bound.

In his grief, Kay wrote to the family, spoke of his friendship with their son. Of his goodness and sweet nature. And how brave Lenard was. How every man held Regis in high regard. “He was my friend,” said Kay. “I loved him. We all did.” And for that reason Sergeant Albert William Kay, age twenty-two, related the actual facts of Corporal Lenard’s demise. That Lieutenant Fornoy had willfully risked the life of their beloved son, ordering him too far ahead of the squad. “What good did it do? He never had a chance.”

Lenard’s mother, stunned by the loss, wrote to Fornoy a desperate letter. “Why did you do this to my son?” she pleaded. “Why?” He did not answer her. She would never have understood that the Lenards of this world were not the only casualties of war. Literate men like himself were expendable, too. Yet unlike the swarms of draftees obliged to serve, the lieutenant loved the army. Volunteered to be its willing servant. Swore an oath—a blood oath—to avoid at all costs dishonor in battle. It was this pledge, this fiery promise, taken to the extreme, surpassing even his stated goal of a general’s pentagram star—which propelled Lieutenant Timothy Fornoy, however well-intentioned, to engage in combat without fear of fate or consequence.

Out of earshot of the men, he belittled Kay. Threatened him.

“We all make mistakes, sergeant. I thought I could trust you. What the hell were you thinking?” Fornoy displayed his pinched thumb and index finger, barely separated. “Watch your step, sergeant. I’m this close to putting you on point.”

From that day the two men rarely spoke.

There is a delicate art to setting up an automatic ambush, the device that will trigger connected Claymore mines hidden along a well-used trail. Imagine if you will, one end of a white plastic spoon barely pinched in the jaws of an alligator clip. In the eye of your mind see the clip connected by a wire to a radio telephone battery. Imagine a second wire, five feet long, attached to the opposite end of the spoon, the length of it strung ankle-high across the trail, and secured to a hidden stake. An unwary foot touching the wire pulls the white spoon free; the separated jaws, clamped shut, produce a spark, which sets off the Claymores, which explode in a firestorm of steel bearings, which race forward, shredding all in their path. To disarm the device, carefully disconnect the battery. Detach the spoon, the mines. Never touch the wire strung across the trail.

A week had passed with no sign of the Viet Cong.

“All right,” said Fornoy. “Move out.” He hoped to collect the mechanical before it rained. After a time, he scowled, “Who’s on point? Shaffer? Kay, tell that son-of-a bitch to hurry it up.”

The sky darkened, making it harder for Shaffer to see. He slowed his pace. The first heralding drops splashed the trail. Then the downpour began.

Hastily, the lieutenant checked his map. “Oh for Christ’s sake. We’ll never make it before dark.”

“Sir,” said Kay, “another hundred yards. Let him handle it.”

And Kay stepped in front of Fornoy. Grabbed both his arms. The lieutenant shook himself free. He glared at Kay. His soft lips hardened.

“That will cost you, sergeant.” And again, as he turned away. “That will cost you.”

Dripping wet, Fornoy walked hurriedly past the RTO, Maris; past Philby, the bulky machine gun braced in the curve of his neck. Overtaking the grunts, he came upon Shaffer, who smiled dumbly, grateful to let the officer relieve him. He was a fool, thought Kay. An arrogant, stubborn fool who would get them all killed.

One last time the lieutenant checked his map. He turned to Shaffer, nodded with authority, then splashed forward. At a bend in the trail, with a sort of skip and jump, Fornay momentarily disappeared, launched skyward in a spectacular white cloud and stupendous roar. Floating upward, the expanding white cloud ignited, transformed to a billowing fireball, its roiling black smoke and yellowish-red flames curling upon themselves, relentlessly tumbling the man trapped inside. All this in split seconds, until, in his strange locomotion of descent, as if hovering in fetal repose, Lieutenant Timothy Hale Fornoy, age twenty-three, husband and father, graduate of West Point, swathed in a garland of flames, crashed to the fragrant earth with a sickening thump.

They could do nothing for him. Surrounded by the burning cloud, his entire body perforated by the steel pellets, Fornoy spasmed, gurgled once, twice, the fruit of ruptured lungs frothing his lips. Mouth askew, he gasped inaudible words, emitted a low, dismal rattling. Then he was dead.

Until the medevac arrived, the squad sheltered from the rain. Shaffer had been the first to reach Fornoy. Now, ever the poet, mused in a notebook, “The paradox of this muted man—how he brightened his command.” Maris casually lighted and smoked a cigarette. Sergeant Kay, sitting nearby, chose to complete an unfinished letter. Before he firmly pressed his signature upon the wilting page, before his vows of faithful love, in a neatly drawn, exaggerated script, he wrote, in bold capital letters TWELVE AND A WAKE UP.

From a distance, the whirly chop-chop tune of helicopter blades sliced the air. Reluctantly, Kay turned to Maris. “Tell the men zero five.” There was sorrow in his voice. And, hidden within it, hope.


top image: Ancient Greece battle scene. Horizontal seamless pattern. Greek vase painting concept. Spartan warriors. Meander circle style. Artist: Matrioshka

combat photo 1: Delta 1/7 Cav M-79 man Mike Derrig and MG/RTO Steve Chaump in a quiet moment. Song Be, 1970. Author’s collection.

combat photo 2: Medic on LZ Ramanda after 46 days in Cambodia. Phuc Vinh 1970

combat photo 3: Medic sitting on a well used trail. Tay Ninh 1970