The Most *%#@# War Story of All *%^#% Time

The man who listened to train sounds in the jungle. Phuc Vinh, Vietnam 1969 Every third day Delta is resupplied by Hueys which spot our popped smoke, swoop in, frantically unload crates of C-rations, ammo, mail, black rubber kegs of water, then they are gone.

The mail is stuffed in a red nylon sack tied shut with thick cotton rope. The Lieutenant unties the bag, reaches in, dutifully hands out letters that bear name, rank, serial number, unit, APO.

Abbott stares into space. “She’s leaving me,” he whispers. Baker, ordered home on emergency leave, yells, “Fucking A! I’m getting out!”

Ernie tears opens a parcel sent by his dad. He reads aloud the titles on the Red Cross cassette: “Side One: Trains Entering Station. Side Two: Trains Departing Station. Always love my choo-choo’s,” says this man unfit for combat.

Jim receives an Easter basket filled with fake green grass and yellow marzipan eggs.

“Nothing for you, Doc,” says the lieutenant.

What remains in the red sack are donated paperbacks and magazines: Time, Reader’s Digest, Popular First hard cover edition published by Viking Press, 1968Mechanics. I grab a book by Jan Yoors, who has lived with gypsies. Check my watch. In an hour we’ll move out, march through jungle, at dusk set up a perimeter. I write to the maker of salt tablets. I’ve written many such letters; it helps pass the time.

Dear Sir or Madam, Did the artist Gervasio Gallardo draw the cover for Peter S. Beagles latest book? It’s very beautiful. I intend to read the story when circumstances permit. Your reply is most appreciated.

Dear Sir or Madam, I would like to know what is meant by “process cheese.” This term appears on the list  of ingredients of your fine dairy product, which I enjoy immensely when not otherwise engaged.

There is time for a letter home.

Dear Folks, Today we killed five. They walked into our booby trap. They scream a lot. Then they are dead. The lieutenant says I’m doing good. The others do the killing. I’m the medic. So far I’ve patched up six guys. We’re lucky. Been killing more than they kill us. Nobody gets how they don’t bleed much. Can’t figure it out. Gonna send something taken off a dead man. Keep it in a safe place. More when it happens. Love.

Commanding Officer, LZ Francis, 1970After an hours march we stop, stake the trips and claymores, dig foxholes. Soon the skin mags circulate. I’m sitting next to the captain. We call him Six.

“Sir, isn’t she beautiful?”

I tear the centerfold from its stapled spine.

“I mean isn’t she fuckin’ gorgeous?”

The kneeling buxom brunette has smooth sexy thighs; she has perfect pouting lips. As she leans forward her full American breasts spill from the page.

“Whatever you say, Doc.”

Six grabs the handset from the RTO, calls in grid coordinates, our casualties, our body count. Stares at his topo map.

“Whatever you say.”

It’s my fourth month in country. Letters, parcels, books and magazines, all help take our minds off the clockwork of killing time or getting our asses kicked.

There aren’t enough machetes for each man to clear a patch of jungle, then hunker down ‘till guard. Men write home for the long blades, for Marine K-bars, pistols, liquor, the damndest things. Those who have lost hope do not write at all.

I tear a page from Popular Mechanics. Beneath the photo the ad screams: ARMY SURPLUS KNIFE AND GENUINE LEATHER SCABBARD $4.95 + SHIPPING AND HANDLING. SUPPLIES LIMITED. THIS OFFER WILL NOT BE REPEATED. But of course it is. Every month. Like clockwork. I clip the coupon.

Dear Mom and Dad, Today the captain gave each medic a Bronze Star. He says we are good soldiers. He says this war will not last long. I need a favor. Pay these people. They’ll send me the knife. I’ll pay you back. Love.

I should have known better. She had her first breakdown in ’65; soon afterward he had electric shock treatment. But I need them. Need their help.

It’s been three weeks. Why haven’t you answered my letter? Here’s another coupon. Just send the fucking knife. Your son, the medic.

William Ewart Fairbairn (1885– 1960) taught hand-to-hand combat to allied special forces in World War II. He developed the Defendu fighting system and the Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife.

When we are not hunting or being hunted I learn to Increase My Word Power, solve Brain Teasers, memorize Quotable Quotes. I join the Rosicrucians, receive the cover art of The Last Unicorn. “Yes, Gervasio Gallardo was the artist,” writes a Random House editor. A week later a company in New York sends a typed note which solves the riddle of process cheese. There is a letter from home.

Everyone here is fine. The weather is wonderful. Uncle William says hello. Your father and I thought about the knife. We don’t think it’s a good idea. It’s very sharp and you might hurt yourself. Write soon. X X X X X  Mom & Dad.

Later I’ll take a hand-forged machete from a dead woman, strap it to my ruck, use it wisely. Years later, when I sleep with a loaded pistol under my pillow my college roommates think I’m crazy. In New York’s Chinatown I buy a meat cleaver, for six years keep it near my bed. If there is noise at night I grab the handle, rise up, prowl soft footed, eager to strike. And later still, in Guatemala I buy a peasants machete, carry it through Mexico, spirit it through customs, tuck it half way beneath my New England mattress. But for now I go quietly berserk.

Still Life with dog. Newark, NJ 1970Eight months later Uncle William sits with us at the dinner table. We have finished the meal, I have told the story and Uncle roars with such laughter tears streak his face.

“Why that’s the stupidest war story of all time,” he says.

But Mother and Father are puzzled. “Why is he laughing?” they ask. “What’s so funny?”

Uncle William wipes his mouth, swallows hard, then explains the tale I do not often tell.

________

top photo: On a log day, Larry Clopton, Larry Hunter, and Mike Wilson find shelter from the sun on LZ Compton. An Loc, 1969