Lamb with grenade launcher, Medic on fifty caliber machine gun. LZ Compton, An Loc 1969

With Jim Lamb on LZ Compton

After three weeks on patrol Delta pulls perimeter guard on LZ Compton. The remote base is surrounded by an earthen berm ringed by bunkers, concertina wire, Claymore mines, trip flares, steel barrels filled with diesel oil rigged to explode. Foo gas, we Medic and Lamb on culvert hooch. LZ Compton, An Loc 1969call it. Inside the perimeter, bare-chested gun crews man steel-wheeled cannons or stout mortar tubes. There is a fortified commo bunker. An aid station. A reinforced Tactical Operations Center. A sun bleached mess tent that serves hot meals.

In dry season the half buried bunkers offer little escape from the tropic heat. Jim and I sit atop our culvert hooch. A single layer of sandbags saddles the smooth curved steel. Front and rear, mortar crates packed with dirt will protect us from incoming shells.

At night we lie on gray air mattresses placed outside our oven-like hut. We wrap ourselves in poncho liners, pull and tuck them around our heads. This way, the the rats crawl over us while we sleep.

In seven days we’ll chopper back to the jungle. For now, in the dry heat and Playing Hearts on Compton. Left to right: Rudy,Ray,Jim,Dorio,Roop. An Loc,Vietnam 1969dusty squalor,we shower under fifty-five gallon oil drums rigged with spigots ;relieve ourselves in jerry-rigged crappers; spin cans of beer on blocks of ice, eat three hot meals a day. We speak in normal tone, clean our weapons; at night play poker in candle lit bunkers. The clink of bullets is the sound of our money, and it’s Jack’s or better, trips to win. From dusk to dawn we pull guard.

In the bush, nearly every grunt smokes weed or opium or strong Thai sticks. But I’m new, just due my job: hand out malaria pills, antibiotics, analgesics, fungal ointments; take care of  cuts and scratches. When a grunt is shot or wounded I’ll do my best to patch him up, and stab him with morphine to ease his pain.

On Compton I ask Jim to walk with me to the aid station.

How long has it been? Two months? Three? Donnatal, Gelusil, Pro-banthine do nothing to stop the spasms that roil my gut.

The battalion surgeon, a tall handsome miserable man, a captain by rank, sweats and drinks in equal measure. “You do drugs?” he asks.

“No, sir,” I say.

“Don’t lie to me, son.” He wipes his sweaty brow, stares at the colorful love beads that encircle my neck.

The captain is sober today. Tomorrow, rousted from bed at dawn, he will expertly vaccinate a rat-bitten man. But the day after, stumbling, unable to treat the dragged in casualties, someone will try to frag him. Frag him can’t walk, can’t help the wounded.

“I don’t do drugs. No sir.”

The captain taps out twenty blue pills from a small brown bottle.

“This is Valium, son. It’ll calm you down. But don’t get high on it, you understand?”

“Yes sir.”

I’m nineteen, a virgin, innocent in the ways of the world. What does he mean, get high?

Walking back to the hootch I pop two pills, minutes later stumble and fall.

“You feeling good?” asks Jim. “Feeling good, right Doc?”

As if in a dream I throw the tablets away, crawl into the kiln of our bunker, sleep nine hours, wake up covered in Vietnam.

Nothing kills the spinning snake inside my gut. Not cheap wine, not good weed, not hard liquor.  Throughout monsoon my gut snake spins and coils inside my belly.

In the second week of May, lifting off from Quan Loi, we chopper into Cambodia; everyone expects to die. But after the birds swoop low and we jump out, after we rush forward and throw ourselves down, nothing happens. Instead, every blade of grass, every layer of canopy, every shimmering mote of sun-light is vivid and beautiful, until the cool summery night sappers attacked and overran LZ Ranch, in the chaos killing five and wounding dozens more.