Volume 5 Number 1-4
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Just Down the Hill, Part I
Marc B. Adin, University of Kansas at Lawrence
Lucas was already asleep. I think he fell asleep the moment he heard the click of the light switch on the small blue lamp in the corner of his room. Barefoot, I tried to make my way across his room without stepping on any of the eight billion Lego pieces scattered across the floor. The sharp little pieces dug into my feet as I quickly clattered out of the room. I snuck into Sissy's room knowing the sound of the blood passing through my capillaries might be enough to rouse her. Her slow rhythmic breathing told me she was deep asleep. I gave her a soft kiss low on her forehead just above the bridge of her nose. It was my favorite sweet spot for sleepy night kissing. She turned her head, mumbled "Daddy" with a bit of irritation in her voice. I beat a hasty retreat, skinning my shin on Sis's doll house in the process. I went into our bedroom and Kathy was lightly snoring, deep into REM cycle number twenty-seven. Just three minutes before she was snickering at a New Yorker cartoon and telling me to be careful about waking up Sis. Oh well, there's always tomorrow night.
I went downstairs and poured some two-percent lowfat milk into my World Wrestling Federation mug. I put the cup into the microwave and set it for thirty seconds. A cup of warm milk would help me get to sleep. Released L-tryptophan or something. I was checking the doors of the house when the microwave beep-beep-beeped me. I drank the sweet milk and headed up to bed.
At that comfortably vague yet perceptible moment when consciousness passes across the border to sleep, I hear the deafening sound of the.45. A great squeeze of panic fear rushes from my stomach and pounds into my ears. I jump out of bed and my ears are ringing.
I run downstairs calling names, crying names. Someone help me. I know it will never go away, never come to an end. Once I thought it would, once I thought a day would go by without thinking about Vietnam, but now, twenty-two years later, I am still waiting for that day. I put four Valium in my mouth and wash them down with a glass of red wine. I go back upstairs, get into bed, put the radio earpiece on, tune in a baseball game and fall asleep somewhere in the fourth inning.
How could it be a more beautiful day? My neck arched back and I was filled by the shades of blue which consumed the sky. The deepest blue was in the center, glowing. The rushing air was joyful life and I was happy in a way only a young soldier in war can be.
I brought my head forward and rested my eyes on the relaxed, innocent face of the Man of Glass. He had on that big twelve-year-old smile. His skin was milk-white with rouge-like patches of pink on his cheekbones. We all got tan except Glassman. The whites got darker, the blacks got darker, the Hispanics got darker, everyone got darker. Even Smitty, who claimed his ancestry had never been tainted by the dumbfuck ugliness of the white man, who was amongst the word's purest racial groups, who was the blackest black I would ever see, got darker. But not the Man of Glass. He was like some walking commercial for dairy farms or a glass of cold white pasteurized milk, strong bones and straight white teeth.
"Bro, put your steel pot on. We're in a war, dude." I looked on the floor of the open gun truck and found my helmet in the jumbled litter of war. Belts of fifty caliber rounds, bandoleers of clips for M-16s, flak vests, canteens, M-79 grenade launchers, C-rations, a radio, rucksacks, insect repellent, first-aid kits, gas masks, flares, ammo cans filled with M-60 rounds, smoke grenades, all colored by the brown-red dust. I found my helmet and put it on.
"Yeah. Great. I don't want some dink to zap you in the head. It might interfere with your ability to fart and talk. Hey, let's have a J before we get to Kontum. We've never been hit south of Kontum before."
I looked ahead and behind. We were in the middle of a heavily armored truck convoy on its way to Ben Het to try and break the siege there which was in its second week. Several NVA regiments had surrounded the small remote camp deep in the Central Highlands, located right at the place where Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam meet. The Camp was dug into a mountain located in the middle of the thousands of branches of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It was here, at Ben Het, where the trails turned sharply eastward and penetrated the strategic Achilles' heel of South Vietnam: the Central Highlands. South Vietnam is at its narrowest and least densely populated in the Highlands. Its sharp, ragged mountains were also the country's most difficult terrain in which to wage war.
This was our third attempt to break through. The first two convoys were hit by the NVA between Dak To and Ben Het and had been driven back. They were smaller convoys and had taken heavy losses. This convoy was huge: two hundred assorted vehicles, with helicopter gunship cover and three infantry reaction platoons. The Man of Glass and I were part of the reaction team, as were Duncan, Grub and the Shah who were in an armored deuce-and-a-half a couple of vehicles ahead. Moore was in a jeep up a little farther with Lt. Conners and Smitty. We could hear them on our radio, chattering instructions and information back to us.
Almost as a dare, I thought, the battalion CO had made this an all-volunteer mission. The certainty we would be hit was nearly one hundred percent. Why volunteer? Me, whose father committed suicide over my refusal to take back my draft card and who had been under a federal grand jury indictment for obstructing the draft. Smitty, who preached that this was the racist white man's war against the Asians. Was it not he who said the rich white fuckers were sending poor blacks to kill even poorer Vietnamese in a war to get to the huge oil reserves in the South China Sea? And yet in Lt. Conners' jeep, Smitty peered out, hunched over his M-60 machine gun. And Grub, the Vermont schoolteacher who applied for conscientious objector status and was denied by his draft board because he didn't attend church on a regular basis, where was he? I could see him from my gun truck as he searched the tree line for any sign of the NVA, M-79 grenade launcher at the ready. We had all volunteered. All three platoons. Even Conners' hippie platoon. We were all here. Maybe our outward sign of bravado masked our inner fears. Maybe we had something to prove. Maybe the thought of the certain death of the men at Ben Het urged us to risk our lives in order to save theirs. I didn't know which reason drove us on, probably all of them and more, but once we volunteered all doubts vanished. Not one of us ever doubted that we had made the right decision.
Just south of Kontum the convoy came to an abrupt stop. The road had been mined and the combat engineers had to clear them. We could hear the dull thudding up ahead as the mines were being blown.
Lt. Conners radioed us to come up to his jeep. Glassman and I climbed over the chest-high steel plate sides of the truck, our M-16s and bandoleers flung over our backs. Conners seemed a little more tense than usual. He was twenty-four. He hated the war as much as he hated the Army. All he wanted to do was go back to Pennsylvania and live in the one-room cottage his father had left him. When he got back to the World, he would mow lawns in the summer, rake leaves in the fall, and shovel snow in the winter. That's all he ever wanted to do. Lead as simple a life as possible, he said, that would make him happy. It was what Vietnam had taught him: that simplicity was the key. Live where you work. Don't own much. I always thought he was selling himself a little short, but maybe he had something there.
"Recon says the whole area between Dak To and Ben Het is crawling with NVA. When we get hit stay in your trucks and return fire with your 50s and 60s. Once we've driven them back off the road, First and Second platoons will dismount and chase them down. Third platoon will provide suppression fire to keep them off your ass. Follow the blood trails." We were all listening intently. Conners was the most unlikely guy you'd ever think of as a leader in combat. His face was wider than it was long, he had buck teeth and freckles, wore thick glasses, had oversized ears, a wide nose with small nostrils, a brown wisp of a mustache, and had a squeaky little voice with some weird-assed Pennsylvania twang. His helmet always fell off his head when he ran and it would knock his glasses off, so he took to tying his glasses on with rubber bands. As he was talking to us I noticed that one rubber band was the usual tan and the other one was a frayed, dried out green. Shit, guys who made war movies had obviously never been in a war. You would never see a guy like Conners in a movie except maybe as the classroom dork. But that just shows you how this whole thing was: Conners was a good guy, who really loved us, who stood up for us even when we fucked up and he had done things anyone would call courageous.
"Adin, are you listening to me or to the marbles rattling around in your head?"
"You, sir." I knew I was paying close attention.
"Oh yeah? What was the last thing I said?"
"Uh. Follow the blood trails?" It occurred to me that maybe I didn't catch every last word.
"No, you jerk-off. Listen again. I'll take First platoon and Sergeant Moore will take the Second. We'll improvise as needed, as usual. Got it? Jeezus Adin, keep your shit together. I didn't bring any of you up this road to lose you. Everybody gets out alive. Mount up and wait."
The Man of Glass thought the whole scene was worthy of a spot on the Ed Sullivan Show .
"Did you see those fuckin rubber bands? Shit, at least he could get matching ones. And you, man, you are like out of it, 'Duh, follow the blood trails.' Where were you? You oughta stop smokin so many of those OJs or you really will be wasted, in the dead dude sense. Man, I gotta write my mom and ask her to send me a package of green rubber bands. Shit, what a doofus Conners is!"
Glassman kept talking about me and Conners as we headed back up to the truck at a half-jog. "Yeah, you two should co-star in a movie when you get back to the World: Space Face Meets Two Green Rubber Bands ."
The truck's name was painted on its dark green steel sides: a white menacing skull rising out of the licks of red flames, with the words "Blind Faith" stenciled neatly above. We too one last look around us before mounting up. The helicopters passed overhead in a uniformly timed sequence and provided a sense of security which we all knew was false and fleeting. Our survival depended upon each lonely soldier in the column. It was the overwhelming loneliness which drove us to each other until the sense of abject isolation was overcome by the realization that we were brothers within a brotherhood we would never choose to leave. Death, which always came upon us when least expected, never rent the circle; nor did a failed memory, so dimmed by time that each name would be forgotten, undo the circle's bond. As we clambered back up into the truck I could taste and smell the love and fear which only soldiers of the ages can recall by an unfocused glance, a drifting thought, as if all of the events of war were occurring at that moment, before them. It was a bond which hung like a bloody haze over the haunted fields of battle long forgotten and men long vanished from the earth. Glassman had said it: "bro." And that we were on that beautiful blue day in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, and that we would be as long as memory remained.
I lit a joint, cupped it, took a long draw and passed it to Glassman. His blue eyes caught sight of it and his blond eyebrows twitched up and down two or three times as his face broke into one of his patented smiles.
"I love you, man. You're too much. I thought you didn't want a J."
"I didn't say that," I said as I passed him the joint.
"Well, you didn't answer me when I suggested in before. You just stared off."
"I was thinking."
"Hey Duncan!" The Man of Glass had an opening and now had to take advantage of it. It was his way, yelling up to Duncan about something which only he and Duncan would find amusing.
"Yo bro! Who that be callin' me? Could it be the Wisconsin white man?" Duncan claimed that Wisconsin was so white that the one and only time he was there his skin actually lightened up a shade or two. He attributed this effect to the heavy concentration of negative white ions in the air.
"Duncan, dig this, an all time first, Adin just told me he was thinking, can you dig it, Adin was actually thinking!" Glassman was enjoying this no end.
"You got muthafuckin proof? Anywho, even if he was thinking it was probably about somethin lame like whether he should be a lifer or not. Yeck. Yeck." Duncan had one of the oddest laughs which I had ever heard a human being emit. It sounded like a cross between spitting, sneezing and throwing up. It was infectious. "Aw, shuddup back there! We're getting ready to move out." It was Sgt. Moore. Duncan's comment about a lifer must have ticked him off.
The instructions crackled on the radio and all engines started. The roar of two hundred engines, the staccato pounding of the helicopters and the yelling of six hundred soldiers all melded together into the brute force sound of the imminent fury of war. We moved out, heading to Kontum.
As we bounced along the road, the Man of Glass was behind the fifty caliber machine gun mounted in the center of the truck and I had the M-60, the lighter, faster machine gun, in the right rear corner. We were locked and loaded, a round in the chamber, ready to fire. Every once in a while Glassman would yell something to me but most of his words and laughter would fall off into the wind and dust and noise as the convoy motored on up the single lane road.
I was watching a Cobra as it flew over us just a couple of hundred feet overhead. As it passed toward the front of the convoy, a tractor trailer pulling aviation gas was instantaneously transformed. A white flash, followed by an expanding red-black ball of flame immediately engulfed the entire truck and the area surrounding it. For a split second there was no sound and then the painful crack of the explosion stiffened the muscles in my face and neck.
"Glassman!" I screamed, "that fuckin Huey just rocketed one of our trucks!" His mouth was open and he was shaking his head as the world around us erupted in the shock waves of explosions and automatic weapons fire. The air filled up with buzzing pieces of metal, clangs of metal against metal and blue smoke hovering and black smoke rushing. The truck stopped moving but the light and sound spun past, through, and over us. We were being fired at from both sides. We were returning fire from both guns. I could see hundreds of muzzle flashes in the dense forest covering the hill. Don't duck, I thought, or you'll never stand up. My legs were trying to pull me down behind the steel plate so I could hide from the whirring pieces of metal which only wanted to tear into my flesh. How would we get out of this? The earth and air shook and cracked and I knew the entire convoy was under fire.
"Glassman, don't duck!" I yelled to him as his shoulders shook from the heavy recoil of the 50. We looked at each other. His face was pulsating. I could see the blood rushing through his neck arteries. "Yeah," he yelled back, "Don't duck!" Suddenly, my gun jammed. I kept squeezing the trigger but the gun was silent. I looked at the barrel: it was glowing cherry red. Shit, the barrel was overheated. New barrel. I flipped the handle, pulled the barrel off with my right hand, threw it in the corner, found a new barrel, put it in, flipped down the handle and locked in the barrel. I squeezed the trigger and a powerful burst of four or five rounds sped toward the muzzle flashes on the hill. The vegetation was falling all along the hill as the scythe of steel from our weapons rained upon those who were trying to kill us. The intensity of the fire had ratcheted down a notch. I smelled the unmistakable smell of burning flesh. I heard the sizzle of bacon frying in the pan. I looked around and then down. The jammed barrel. It had something on it which was now black and smoking. I looked at my hand: two bright red raw, oozing stripes cut diagonally across my hand. Shit. I had forgotten to put on the asbestos glove used to change barrels. Double shit. I felt no pain. The pain would wait like an undertaker waiting for settlement on the balance due.
"Adin, what's that fuckin smell?" Glassman's voice was edged with panic.
"My hand. Burnt it on the barrel."
"You okay? Lemme see your hand." The panic in his voice was suddenly gone.
"Yeah. Yeah. I'm okay."
The firing on both sides fell off but continued with full ferocity to our rear, around a sharp turn and out of our line of sight. We put a new barrel on the fifty and had to keep yelling in order to hear even though we were only about a foot away from each other. It was the rock concert of war.
"What do we do now?"
I couldn't think of an answer, there was only now, there was no future.
"Great, Adin. Wait and don't duck. You're full of good advice today." Glassman was shaking all over as he forced a stiff smile. We tried to light cigarettes but the tremors in our hands made it hard. The radio broke into our space. It was Lt. Conners. The message was simple: First and Second platoons dismount and meet up at Conners' jeep. Third platoon stay put and keep up the fire.
We were going after them. The incoming fire had been reduced to a sporadic level while our gun trucks continued to tear into the hillside with 50s, 60s, M-16s and grenade launchers. The battle to our rear was raging. Glassman tossed me my.45. I belted it on, grabbed my 16, canteen and bandoleers and prepared myself to leave the armored safety of the gun truck. The noise was tremendous, making it difficult for me to keep my eyes open as we dismounted and crawled and then crouch-walked forward to Conners. The air was gray and dirty; I looked up and the sky was gone and it hurt my throat and lungs just to breathe.
We were in a long snaking notch between two steep hills. We were in a bad place. A real bad place. I had to tell Conners. "Lieutenant, we're fucked, we're in a real bad spot."
"Yeah, I know. But shut up." Shit, he knew it, too. "If you listen to me we'll all get out of this alive. Just pay attention." We strained to understand what Conners was trying to say. He was drawing in the dirt and pointing up the hill and down the road at the same time. As best as I could understand it, Conners was going to lead First platoon up the hill in a wide sweeping motion, avoiding contact, reaching the top of the hill, and then move south along the ridge top. When we were above the NVA to our rear we would move down the hill on them from behind, in enfilade. Second platoon, with Sgt. Moore in command, would stay one hundred meters behind Conners, both platoons would have flankers, and both platoons would attack down the hill at the same time. The goal was to drive the NVA off the rear of the convoy. We would finish the mission when we reached the convoy. The rear elements knew we were about to begin the attempt to save them. I asked Smitty what he thought. "What the fuck do I know?" he said with final resignation. The only thing that sounded good to me was the part about avoiding contact, especially as we were making our way uphill through triple canopy jungle.
Everything was fragmented: time, speech, light, ground and sky. Small arms fire was everywhere and explosions repeatedly smacked around us making it difficult to climb up the hill. We spread out as Moore led our platoon. Smitty flanked out to our right, a dangerous place. We seemed to be swinging up to our left, the sweep Conners had spoken about. So far, so good. We were moving away from the sound of the intense fire and I took that to be another good sign. I could just see the Man of Glass up ahead. Grub was between us carrying a grenade launcher with his 16 slung across his back. Our green fatigues were all soaked with sweat and the salt burned my eyes.
We were near the top when five or six explosions and automatic fire suddenly tore into the first platoon. The fire was coming from our right and moving down towards me. The bullets tore the earth and vegetation apart. There was screaming coming from the first platoon. The stray rounds whirred and buzzed above my head as I tried to belly crawl up to a fallen tree for some cover. I looked for targets but could see none. The first platoon was returning fire but from where I was I couldn't make out where the NVA were. Grub crawled up next to me. He had his grenade launcher locked and loaded.
Noise and movement to our right. I lift my 16 up to my cheek, Grub yells and fires his grenade launcher, a scream, no explosion, it was one of us. Smitty. Smitty! Grub and I get up and run the fifty feet to Smitty, he's moaning and cursing, there's blood everywhere on his right side, more and more of it every second. We pull away Smitty's fatigue jacket and flak vest. He's half conscious. Grub and I see it at the same time: the grenade has sunk about four inches into Smitty's side just below his rib cage.
It is armed and can go off at any time, with any movement. "Grub, let's get a medic!"
"You dumb shit! Look what I did! Look what I did!" Grub is sobbing and asking Smitty to forgive him. Smitty is becoming more aware of what is going on. He's speaking to us. "What was it? What am I hit with? Oh, God, Goddamn it." The shadow of pain fell over his face and he grimaced.
Grub tells him. Smitty begins to cry. Grub says it's his fault, if he can reach in and pull out the grenade and throw it before it goes off, Smitty will be okay. I think we should wait for a medic, but Grub is right, any second and the damn thing can go off. But pulling it out may do the same thing. Besides a medic can do no more and probably less.
"Get the fuck back, Adin. I'm going to do this. Smitty's going to be all right. Right Smitty?" Smitty looks at me as if it's the last time he will ever see me. His eyes are overflowing with tears. Smitty nods his assent. I ask Smitty if he wants to wait for a medic. "What for? Do it, Grub, if anybody can do it right you can. Do it." Smitty's face is frozen with pain. I tell Smitty he will be all right, "Don't worry." I take a close look at the grenade lodged in Smitty's side. The heavy bleeding has stopped. I can see his abdominal muscles, they are oozing thick red blood. I take my canteen and rinse the wound with water. Grub shows me where he will grab the grenade, how he will pull it out and where he will throw it. It just might work. I tap Grub on the helmet twice and run back behind the fallen tree. I watch. I can hear Grub talking to Smitty in a quiet, soothing, comforting voice. Smitty is saying something. All I can see is Grub's sweat-soaked back and Smitty's legs. Grub's grenade launcher and M-16 ar
e next to me. Why did this happen? Damn it! I am aware that there is a pitched battle going on up the hill by the sound of intense fire, but it is meaningless to me now. I can see Grub's right arm moving, he must be grabbing the grenade.
The blast is sickening. The air is raining dirt and blood and skin and bone and intestines and other things I don't recognize. After several seconds everything that was once Grub and Smitty has fallen back to earth. I don't know what to do. I am paralyzed. Larger pieces of their bodies are scattered around the place where they were both alive just seconds before. The blast has blown off their uniforms and all I can see are body pieces wrapped in black skin and white skin. There is blood everywhere. Just everywhere. On my face, on the trees, on the leaves. I walk over, slowly. Smitty's shoulders and head are intact. Grub's white legs below the thighs are there. That is all. I turn away and head towards the sound of the guns. I must endure. For Smitty. For Grub. For something.
As I move up the hill the intensity of small arms fire increases. I also hear the ploof sound of the grenade launchers as they fire, followed by the sharp explosion of the grenade. I begin to craw. A few minutes pass and the fire becomes sporadic and then suddenly stops. I hear Moore yelling up ahead but don't see anyone. I stop to listen. I hear dripping: drip, drip, dripping into a shallow pool, onto leaves. Dripping like melting icicles on a roof edge during a winter's thaw. I get up and move to the sound. The ground is covered in a circle of red with splattered drops of blood all around the outside of the circle. The circle must be four feet across. There is no body. I look up. It is Conners. He has been blown up into a tree about eight feet above the ground. He is caught in the broken branches of the tree and is hanging upside down. The only way I know it is Conners is because I see his name and single black bar on his helmet where it has fallen, at the base of the tree.
It became silent.
As I looked about me I was suddenly struck by the medley of light, color and shade in which these horrific events were now taking place. There were light greens and shiny dark greens and browns all bathed in dim shadows punctuated by shafts of narrow bright sunlight. Orange, red and green tracers crisscrossed above me in an astonishing show of rocketing colors. Blue haze was everywhere, moving slowly and calmly above a landscape now in torment. And then the sounds came back. I heard the low moan first, up the hill, somewhere beneath the trees.