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A Coward for One Minute
Stephen T. Banko III, Buffalo, NY
It's better to be a coward for one minute, than dead for the rest of your life."
Duffy might have been the first grunt in history to get hospital time because he shit his pants. Then again, in the asshole of the world called Vietnam, maybe not.
But regardless of his place in the pecking order, Duffy felt very foolish. Surrounding him were grunts with every manner of wound from the common sucking chest to traumatic amputations. And yet here he was, legs suspended from crude slings and spread like a woman about to give birth, his inner legs oozing and scabrous and septic with a virulent infection. A strategically placed sheet did little to hide his plight from the jokers on the ward. One marvelously mobile wheelchair-bound GI was very fond of rolling himself over to the end of Duffy's bed and sticking his head under the sheets.
"Come on, guys," he'd shout into the cave between Duffy's legs, "line up for your passport pictures."
And Duffy, his ass hanging like some kind of hot house plant, would only smile and take it. But for him, it wasn't all fun and games. Scabby sores covered the length of Duffy's inner thighs and burned with a searing pain as the raging infection ate into his flesh. But the worst part was the fever it spawned. It was spiking around 103 or 104. That meant that most of the time, Duffy was febrile and delirious, sweating in a frenzy that soaked the sheets and bred the chills that swept over him during his few conscious moments. The nurses would watch his uncontrollable tremors for a few seconds before jabbing him with the spike of Demerol that would send him off on a tattered cloud of temporary, marginal peace.
It was just as well, Duffy thought in a more lucid moment. I couldn't hack it, being in here with all these wounded guys. I don't belong with them. I don't deserve it.
One afternoon, things got real bad. The fever was getting worse. The thick length of scab was reduced to slime, leaking gore and blood. The infection was oblivious to the assault of the antibiotics. The silver wheeled warrior made his way to the foot of Duffy's bed and sneaked a peak beneath the sheets.
"Oooh man, that's some horrible stuff in there, Duffy. You musta got some VC bacteria to be doing that your own bad self."
But Duffy couldn't hear him. His mind was suspended somewhere in the sequence of blood, death and fire that had been his life since his arrival in Vietnam. Mired in own semi-conscious limbo, he was visited alternately by the faces of the friends he'd seen die and the strangers he'd helped kill. One minute his mind echoed with the screaming moans of the wounded and next, it wallowed in the silence of the dead. Even unconscious, Duffy found no refuge from the war.
Through it all, the intravenous medicine leaked a drop at a time -- like sand tumbling from an hourglass, tolling time till the end of Duffy's tour of duty or his life, whichever came first.
The ward nurses had been taught early on that their smiles might be the most important treatments in their healer's bags. But they didn't have too many smiles when they came to treat Duffy. The usual sunshiny happiness of the round eyed women darkened to overcast gravity whenever they neared his bed.
Doctors ducked in occasionally, more to hear the latest jokes about the "shitty case" in the corner bed than to treat it. But in reality, there was little they could do except let the poisoning run its course. It -- like everything about the war in Vietnam -- was just a matter of time.
Duffy had just reached into the bloody stench of the punji pit to retrieve the body of some new guy who'd died before anybody even knew his name when he was snapped out of the nightmare by a sensation of coolness. He had no idea how long he'd been "away" this time. He only knew that the cool felt good. He blinked his way back into the present to see the familiar ceiling fan whirring overhead and the tent over the lower half of his body before believing that another prayer had gone unanswered. This wasn't just a nightmare. He really was in Vietnam.
There was a lot of activity swirling around him, much more than usual. As he came more into focus, he saw the nurses buzzing around him carrying crinkling bags that reminded him of sandbags.
"Hey L-T," he said, "what are you guys doing? Building a bunker?"
The petite, red-haired nurse hardly blinked and never stopped.
"Welcome back, Duffy. You've been gone a long time this stretch. We thought we'd build a little something to keep you with us a bit longer."
With a wry smile, she packed an ice bag between his legs. The other nurses were packing more under his arm pits while still others draped his feverish body in freezing towels.
"Oooh, L-T, does this mean were going steady?"
"Just steady that fever a bit, Duffy, and we'll all be happy."
"What for? So I can be conscious all the time? That's not much of a deal, Lieutenant."
Duffy was in and out of the ice for two days before the fever broke. They kept him in twenty or thirty minutes at a time, gave him a fifteen minute break, then packed him again. The ice helped break the fever and ten days of massive doses of antibiotics were finally getting the upper hand on the infection. Even the pain was ebbing from his legs.
The green-eyed lieutenant slipped the last ice pack from beneath his arm and smoothed his hair back from his clammy forehead.
"I think we finally beat it, Duffy."
"What exactly was 'it,' L-T, this bad 'it' that keeps kicking my pretty young butt?"
"Make you a deal. I'll tell you what 'it' was and you tell me how 'it' happened. The ward's been rife with rumor ever since you got here but nobody really knows what happened."
"It's a deal, Lieutenant. You first."
"You had the most incredible staph infection anyone on this ward has ever seen. The inner portions of both legs were covered with it. It looks like whatever it was got in through the leech bites and the scratches covering your legs. It caused a fever that spiked at about 105 degrees. That's when we had to put you on ice. It was pretty shaky there for a while. We didn't really know if we were going to get you back. If we knew more about what happened to you, we might have known more about how to treat the infection. But you weren't cooperating. Your turn, buddy. What happened?"
Duffy took a long, cool drink of the ice water on his night stand and looked around to make sure nobody else was listening.
"I took a dump in my pants, L-T."
"You kept saying that in your delirium. We didn't know what you were talking about then, either."
Duffy's embarrassment poured out of him as anger.
"It's pretty simple. I'm talking about crapping my pants, Lieutenant. Is that so hard to understand? I'm talking about being a coward for a minute. I'm talking about being so scared out there, I lost control. You know what I'm talking about yet?"
"I've been here for four stinking months and if I've learned anything, it's that nothing is simple. That infection wasn't simple. What it did to you wasn't simple. And from what I've heard about you, you're no coward. So let's cut the crap, okay?"
"Was that a pun, L-T? If it was, it wasn't very good. But I'm telling you the truth -- I just lost it out there. I'm a lurp -- you know, long range reconnaissance patrols? We work in six and eight man teams and get dropped off God-only-knows-where. We walk around for a while, check things out, then we get picked up a few days later at a pre-arranged landing zone.
"Well, we got dumped somewhere out by the Cambodian border, not far from the Song Be. That means the Be River. It was some heavy duty jungle, I tell you. Thicker than anything I'd ever seen. We had to rappel: you know, slide down ropes, just to get to the ground. When we get into an area, we hole up during the day and move a little at night, just like Luke the Gook. Well, we found a big ole bamboo bush and we crawled under it to wait for dark. We were there about half an hour, when the sarge gave me a little poke. Our bush was about fifteen meters off a big trail and the big trail was carrying a big load of VC. They went walking by like they were on a stroll in the park. I stopped counting at eighty-four and they went by for another five minutes or so. Well, somewhere after eighty-four, but long before B-I-N-G-O, I lost it. I couldn't help myself. I just lost control. There's six of us and a hundred or so bad guys and nothing between us but some bamboo poles. I just lost it. Tears, shakes, and before I knew
it, there's shit running down my leg. I wasn't making any noise, but it didn't take long before the smell got real noticeable. Thank God, the column of VC was almost by us.
"It took about five more minutes and they were gone. They never gave us a look. But here I am, out on day one of a three day patrol, in hundred degree heat and I got shit lining my pants."
"Oh Duffy, how could you -- I mean, I know how it could happen, but how could you walk around like that?"
"Well, what did you expect me to do? Call time out? Ask to get picked up because I messed my pants? The war's like show biz -- it goes on, you know?"
"God, didn't it hurt?"
"Hell, yes, it hurt. It hurt bad for the first couple hours. I knew I was rubbing myself pretty raw. It happened to me once before -- when I was about seven. Playing hockey out on a pond and I was too embarrassed to take a dump in the bushes. So I walked home with my pants full. But then I got to wash off right away. The good news is there ain't no momma to whip your butt for messing your pants in the bush. The bad news is you're in the bush."
Somewhere in his tale, Duffy felt his hands covered with the warmth of the lieutenant's soft skin.
"What about Rockwitz?"
At the mention of the name, Duffy's eyes sunk back in his head. They went suddenly empty; black and flat as glass. He tried to slip his hand out of her grasp but she held tight.
"How'd you know that name, ma'am?"
"How do you think I know it? Every time you blacked out on us, you kept calling his name. Did Rockwitz help you?"
Duffy succeeded in taking back his hand.
"Sure did. Helped the whole team. Wasn't for Rockwitz, wouldn't none of us be here."
A glint of life returned to Duffy's dark eyes. His mouth curled slightly, threatening to break into a smile, but holding tight on the shadowy periphery of emotion. He gave her back his hand.
"Tell me about it. What happened to Rockwitz? Will he come to see you?"
"I expect I have a better chance of going to see him, L-T. "
Duffy was slowly submerging in the stink and decay of that dark and bloody jungle. His eyes glazed over. He was afraid they'd tip off the pretty lieutenant to where he'd been and what he'd seen. He sneaked a peek into the warmth of her shining, green, eyes and knew at once there was no danger. She'd never even had nightmares about where he'd been. He was only vaguely aware of the sound of the voice and even less aware it was his own.
"We were about half way through the mission. We knew something big was going on because we spotted all those VC with their clean uniforms and new weapons and stuff. We also knew we were right in the middle of some deep doo-doo. But that's our job. We find 'em before they can get to our firebases. We get a fix on where they were heading, call in the zoomies in the jets and helicopters. Then just sit back and watch the fireworks.
"It was dusk on the third day and the sarge decided to take a chance moving before dark to get closer to a trail we thought they might be using. Rockwitz was on the point. Jefferson was next, then me, the sarge, Garcia and Monteith walking drag. Moving in the jungle was okay. It was already pretty dark in there but we could still make good time. But then we had to cross some open elephant grass -- about two hundred meters worth -- to get closer to the river where we were going to set up. The sarge thought we should wait for a few minutes till it got darker. But Rocky wanted to move right away. So, we up and started across the clearing. We were about twenty-five meters from the edge of the jungle when we saw these three guys coming the other way. They must have surprised Rockwitz because both of the pointmen fired about the same time."
"Oh God," the L-T broke in. "They killed Rockwitz?"
Duffy's eyes softened a little and his hand squeezed hers this time.
"Hell no, Rocky killed them. Rock's one fast momma with his Thompson. He got them all, so we had to really make it for the river and some cover.
"Well, we got back into the jungle and slipped in by the river bank just as night fell. I figured everything was okay, even with my legs rubbed as raw as hamburger. I slipped down into the water to rinse some of the crap off me and cool the burning. Then I crept back up to Rocky's position and to see if he had some Vaseline or something to put between my legs. I couldn't see him in the dark but as soon as he tried to talk, I knew something was real wrong.
"He rattled-- you know -- like he was trying to clear his throat or something. I crawled over. He was trying to keep from coughing but he couldn't and every time he coughed, pink foam bubbled out of his mouth. I opened his shirt and there was blood all over his belly and chest. I eased him down by the river bank and went for Garcia, our doc. He came back with me, took one look Rocky and started working like hell. He pulled the field dressing off Rocky's belt and ripped open the plastic wrapper. Then he leaned over and said something in Rocky's ear. Garcia motioned me to put my hand over Rocky's mouth. Garcia squeezed on something and the blood squirted out of Rocky's mouth and shot through my fingers. It was a real mess.
"But Garcia used that plastic to seal up that hole and Rockwitz started breathing a lot easier. I asked him how Rocky was doing but he just crawled away. I knew something wasn't right."
Duffy stared out the window again, and the nurse knew his mind leaving his body again.
"Rocky'd moan a little when the pain got to be too much for him and I'd put my hand over his mouth and rock him till it went away. I wanted to sit with him all night but the sarge said we couldn't blow the mission because one guy got hurt. So I gave Rocky some of my bubble gum and Garcia gave him a whack of morphine and we went out to recon.
"We were out a couple hours, moving real smooth on a narrow trail when we picked up the movement. It wasn't much. Ole Luke the Gook surely does know how to move at night. But get enough of them on a trail at night and even they can't help making some noise. We were laying in behind some big banyans when they came down the trail heading away from the river. We figured they were the same guys made me mess my pants. We waited till they were a few hundred meters down the trail and called up some helicopter gunships and brought some artillery on their butts.
"We must have hurt them some because when we were moving back to our night position, we ran into three different patrols they had out looking for us. We dodged the first two, then our luck ran out. I was on the point and we were making pretty good time when I saw the bad guy right in the middle of the trail just ahead of me. He turned to look at me and I squeezed off three quick shots. Then we ducked into the brush. Took us another hour but we got back to the river about a little before dawn.
"Garcia -- he looked real glad to see us. He said Rocky was getting worse and there were enemy patrols all over the place. Rocky's moaning almost gave them away a couple of times. I heard him and the sarge talking and they said we had six klicks to walk at first light to get to the pick-up zone for extraction. Humping six klicks with Rocky in a bad way was going to be a real bitch--no offense L-T."
"None taken." The lieutenant turned away from her patient and smiled.
Duffy was like most of the other boy-warriors in Vietnam. He could roam the jungles and patrol the rice paddies in search of enemy soldiers to kill but he wasn't quite yet comfortable cursing in front of a woman.
"The dawn came and we didn't waste any time. I had Rocky, so we were in the middle of the team. It was hot as hell and moving through the jungle was taking a big bite out of my butt. Then we got into a clearing of elephant grass and we tried to make some time. But Rocky just couldn't cut it. He was trying, but he was hurting too bad. I wound up carrying him and that was surely no day at the beach. We stopped in a little clump of trees to get a bearing on the pick-up point and the sarge figured we only had two klicks to go. I thought we just might make it.
"I took a big swig out of my canteen and gave Rocky another piece of bubble gum. He couldn't have any water because of the stomach wound and all, so his breath was enough to wilt the jungle. I hoisted him up on my shoulders and we started on the last leg of the march. The elephant grass was tearing me up. It was about four feet high and sharp as razors. I was already having a little problem with my crotch rash and then my arms got all ripped up in the grass. And sweet suffering Jesus, does that stuff itch!"
Duffy's arms were covered with a mass of angry, pus-filled scratches that crisscrossed his flesh like some diabolical connect-the-dots puzzle.
"We covered about five hundred meters before I needed some rest. Carrying Rocky in that heat was kicking my butt. But before I could get somebody's attention, the gooks did it for me. There was a big explosion about fifty meters in front of Jefferson--either a mortar or a rocket grenade--then we were in it up to our lips.
"We were in a fire storm of all kinds of shooting--mortars, rockets, machine guns, AKs. In the middle of grass, we had nowhere to hide. The bullets kept snapping and cracking all over the place. I covered Rocky with my body and prayed. After a few minutes there was a lull in the firing and I heard the sarge yelling for Jefferson's radio. But Jefferson yelled back the box took a couple of rounds and wasn't working. That meant no commo with the choppers. So we had to get to the extraction point or we'd miss the ride home. I was one scared momma about that time, L-T.
"But sarge knew his stuff. We just got everybody together and started crawling toward the treeline. The grass was high enough that the gooks couldn't see us. They kept shooting but they were shooting blind. At first, we were doing all right. But it was just too tough, trying to pull and push and drag Rocky and keep down and out of the line of fire. I dragged him for a couple meters, but he started to bleed and I knew he was hurting real bad. But I just couldn't hack it anymore. So Garcia took over but he wasn't doing much better. He got so frustrated, he sort of sat up to get a better grip on Rockwitz and I saw his shoulder explode in a bubble burst of red. There was just no way we were going to make any time with Rocky not able to move himself.
"The sarge knew it and we all knew it. There was no way we were going to make it. It was all over. We couldn't get to the pick-up spot and we couldn't leave Rocky behind. So the sarge told us to make a circle around Rocky and Garcia. Then we'd just wait for the gooks to assault. We'd take as many of them as we could, but nobody had any false hopes about what was going to happen.
"You know, L-T, not one of those guys said a word. They just circled up and stacked their ammo. Even Garcia. He said he wasn't hurt so bad he couldn't take his place in the circle like everybody else. I helped him wrap his shoulder wound and he crawled out to take his place on the little perimeter. I couldn't believe it. I kept wondering: who are these guys? We hardly know each other. After the war, we'll never see each other again. We got nothing in common except the uniform. And yet, we're all ready to die for each other--to sacrifice ourselves rather than leave one of our wounded behind. And in that second, it didn't seem like such a bad deal to die with guys like these. I knew if I lived another hundred years, I'd never be with people like this ever again. I barely knew them, but I loved them more than I loved anything, ever, in my life.
"I finished with Garcia's wound and reached for my rifle. There was nothing left to do but wait for the big minute. I felt okay. I wasn't really scared anymore. Until I couldn't find my rifle. I laid it down to help Garcia and now it was gone. I felt this surge of panic--dying was one thing, but dying without firing a shot was something else. I looked over my shoulder to see if it was behind me.
"And there was Rocky. For the first time since he'd been shot, he looked happy. His chin was resting on the barrel of my M-16 but he had this calm, glazed over look on his face. And goddamn, L-T, if he wasn't full smiling when he pulled the trigger. And just like that, he saved us. We couldn't do nothing more for him. So he did it all for us. Gave us another chance to live. And we took it. Crawled like crazed fools through that grass and into the belly of the jungle. The gooks were still shooting but in the trees, we were pretty safe. Right on schedule, we heard the whacking of the helicopter coming in for the extraction. Snatched us right out of the mouth of the dragon and here we are.
"Another team went out and brought Rocky's body back the next day."
Duffy was still staring into the cruel, terrible hell that the safe and sheltered have never seen. But his face softened and his eyes glimmered with a hint of the fire they'd lost.
"Hell of an army we got over here, L-T, one hell of an army."
When she didn't answer, Duffy snapped out of his trance and looked at the pretty nurse. This time it was her eyes pooling their sorrow, flat and cold.