Nobody Gets Off the Bus:
Texts made available by the Sixties Project, are generally copyrighted by the Author or by Viet Nam Generation, Inc., all rights reserved. These texts may be used, printed, and archived in accordance with the Fair Use provisions of U.S. Copyright law. These texts may not be archived, printed, or redistributed in any form for a fee, without the consent of the copyright holder. This notice must accompany any redistribution of the text. A few of the texts we publish are in the public domain. For information on a specific text, contact Kalí Tal. The Sixties Project, sponsored by Viet Nam Generation Inc. and the Institute of Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, is dedicated to using electronic resources to provide routes of collaboration and make available primary and secondary sources for researchers, students, teachers, writers and librarians interested in the 1960s.
Down by the river the trees turn soonest in the fall, so I parallel the river on my way to work. Fall is my favorite time, when the leaves might be a different color every day, and I wouldn't want to miss any of it. I've spent too much of my life in places where leaves don't change color.
Because I know how fast time goes, I concentrate on the trees. Colors mean a lot to me. Today their colors will be like no other day, not like yesterday and not like tomorrow. Autumn, I can taste it on my tongue. I can feel the simultaneous rush of melancholy and exuberance. The end and the beginning. I think of cheerleaders in white sweaters and short blue skirts, jumping high, showing blue panties. Frost has not come yet, but the mornings are cool.
Along the path beneath the trees, an Oriental man is running.
Orientals have no pectorals. Their chests are almost concave. Steadying my arm along the back of the seat, I cradle my rifle and snug it against my shoulder. The steel is cold and my hands don't sweat. The jogger's chest explodes, pink fragments flying, a little blood, and then comes that crumpling, graceful fall. Most of their muscles are in their legs; it makes them so good at broken-field running, at jungle slithering.
I step on the brake at a stoplight. The Oriental man runs on. It isn't that I hate them. Gooks are good at technical things, but nodding and smiling are not communication.
Tam Do sits on the bench next to mine and tries to talk. "Ah, how you today, Charlie?" He gives me that giggle they all have, like everything is funny. I'm not talking to gooks today. He turns away politely and I feel bad.
Cliff Sears, management asshole, comes by, wearing his necktie that makes him important. "You need to have your progress report on my desk by 9:30," he says.
Shit! Progress reports. How can you make progress when they take up all your time making progress reports? They learn how to put things this way in management seminars. Not that he needs a progress report, but that I need to get it done.
Cliff was a lieutenant in Viet Nam. Fuckin' shame he survived. Somebody fell down on the job. We did get rid of some lieutenants who would have turned into the wrong people.
That's the trouble, I think, as I look at Tam Do. I killed gooks who never had anything but political differences with me--the gulf between us was not half so wide as what's between me and Cliff Sears. I've been saddled with the useless Cliff Sears on dog and pony shows in San Antonio, trying to sell the System 300 to Southwestern Bell, and seen him get freaked out by a Texas thunderstorm. No doubt he was in administration, survived some wild-ass mortar attack. A Texas thunderstorm freaks him out.
Tam Do is a handsome, deserving young man and doesn't really remind me of gooks. He isn't even Vietnamese, but part Chinese, and he isn't even skinny. His people migrated to Vietnam some time ago. His parents fled South Vietnam, not North Vietnam, like some of those who came to the States with their hands empty and their mouths filled with lies.
He looks up.
"How'd you like to earn a few bucks?"
He grins. "How I do that, Charlie?"
"I'd pay you to wear black pajamas and shower shoes. You come slipping around here at night when we're busting our asses on this System 300."
Tam Do is giggling.
"Just let old Cliff catch a glimpse of you running past his window--so he can't be sure if he's really seeing anything--maybe call out a few Vietnamese words from way in the back of the warehouse. Then just throw--let's see, I'll get you a knapsack at the surplus store"--Tam Do is shaking his head--"and you just throw it. I'll get you a smoke bomb. Then you run like hell. I'll guarantee old Cliff'll freak out. We'll get that cocksucker off our asses for good."
Tam Do cracks up. "See, that your problem, Charlie. You still in Saigon." Tam Do knows I don't mind him calling me Charlie. It's a Charlie Daniels' song.
Cliff Sears and his empirical answers and his goddamn progress reports. Cliff doesn't even know how to put a circuit board together. He only wants empirical answers because he doesn't know what questions to ask.
The colonel always wanted body counts, tunnel complexes, weapons and rice caches, something to prove we did our fucking job.
Payback. Cliff deserves some payback.
August 16. September 11. I make up projected completion dates for Cliff and picture blood pumping from his throat.
"What happened to you in World War I?" I used to ask my oldest uncle, who never told me. All I remember is the smell of Flying Dutchman and his far-away eyes. Staying drunk for ten years wiped out most of his memories, I guess. He told my mother of being pinned down in a wheat field in France, watching the wheat being mowed down by machine gun fire.
Mother had older brothers; Dad, younger ones. My family's service to country spanned two world wars.
But vividly I recall my youngest uncle's memorial service. His picture showed sad eyes and dark skin. There's Indian blood runs in us. They take your country away, then they send you away to die for it. Johnnie was dead on a beach at some place called Normandy. A beach, and I was raised land-locked. I was excited, outdoors with all my relatives like a picnic, and I fell off my chair when rifles were fired. The grass in the cemetery was yellow. It must have been autumn then, and my baby sister's shoes were red.
Before I got tin soldiers, I played with blocks, and it was war I played. Red blocks were artillery. Red blocks were infantry, too, but with green blocks on their backs for packs. Yellow blocks were cavalry. John Wayne always rode a chestnut horse, but yellow was as close as blocks could get.
Desert Shield and Desert Storm wiped out America's shame. America does not like losers. Yellow ribbons, romantic as the cavalry's bugle call. Panty Shield, we called it at the group meetings.
Tam Do works quietly at his bench, and his round face betrays nothing inside his mind. He's right. As I lay out my schematic, the part of my mind that never came back takes over. It's Tam Do's face I see flash past as I find myself driving a jeep down a rutted track through the ravaged Vietnamese countryside. Refugees trudge perpetually to a haven that does not exist. A small boy of seven or eight carries a huge baby on his hip. I avoid their eyes because the kid will try to con me out of anything he thinks I have.
But something about that baby is wrong, and I stop. "Lai dai!" I command him, and the Vietnamese boy scuttles willingly to the jeep. "Where'd you get that kid?"
"You buy my brother?" Eager to make a sale, the kid hauls the light-eyed baby up on his hip and resettles him. I speed away, glad to obliterate the disgusting children in my dust.
Oriental women have never appealed to me. Straight up and down, they are, and those high-pitched, sing-song voices whining, driving you crazy.
Prostitutes follow us around. Cyclo girls, the Vietnamese call them, because they ride bicycles. Men crawl into shelter halves with these whores, their lower bodies exposed to the rain and the commentary. The whores chew betel leaves and have black teeth. And some of them are the mothers of the sons of men like these.
I like whores sometimes. It's because they do it for money. But when you're done, you get that cold feeling and can't wait to get away. But they never tell me how hard it was to pay the rent while I was in Vietnam.
My foot still aches when the weather changes. I shift it on the rung of the stool and think about killing Tam Do, who glances up and gives me a fleeting Oriental smile. I look away again and see the hospital ward, that spic doctor looking at my half a foot with that sneer on his face. And that bitch, that head nurse with one brown eye and one blue one, telling me my foot stinks. The other nurse, the pretty one, came and wrapped my foot up again, away from their eyes.
She came in every day and rubbed one guy's back, that guy with arthritis. She would sit on his bed for an hour at a time, rubbing his back with long, slow strokes, leaning forward and settling back. It was nice to watch, and nice because everybody shut the hell up for a while.
When I come out of Cliff's office after wasting my time on his shit reports ("Now are these empirical answers?" the fuck said), Tam Do is looking at me expectantly. It is lunch time. Tam Do is about the same age as my daughters, and I have not seen them in ten years. My ex-bitch calls herself a casualty of the Vietnam war. I bring Tam Do a sandwich back from the sub store, and he flashes that ingratiating Oriental smile.
"I got this at the Vietnamese restaurant, Tam. Punji stake in rice paddy."
Tam Do laughs and laughs, the way they do. "You got big problem, Charlie," he says. "Still in Saigon."
"Not Saigon, Tam, Da Nang. An Hoa."
I turn back to schematics, but I see myself walking behind a Vietnamese prisoner. There is a thick stick thrust through the cord that binds his wrists. We marched him almost all the way back to base camp before Tripper pushed him to his knees and jerked back his head and cut his throat. I kept walking, not to see him take an ear, but I was thinking, goddamnit, why'd he have to go and do that for? The guy was going to die, anyway. Why put us all in jeopardy? It was another goddamn report to make.
There, that's a satisfaction. That was at least one report that never got made. We got too busy at the right time. That village we swept through, those innocent people, but on the other side we got pinned down by fire from the tree line. What were we supposed to do, die? We called in for an air strike and told them the village was deserted. They knew it wasn't deserted. They knew it wasn't deserted, but how else can you wipe out a nest of gooks in a tree line?
We had to go back through that village. Most of them were dead in perfect shape. Napalm just sucks the oxygen right out of the air, and out of the holes in the ground the gooners slid into. They looked asleep. Wasted bodies, ones with rice pouring from their stomachs, grunts laughing all around me, was that worse than sleeping babies?
Shit. Just when I get started setting up problems and knocking them down, the vice-president in charge of whipping the company into shape calls another meeting. They won't let you get anything done.
Number four-hundred-eighty-nine times for me this canned speech. Straight from Management Principles. Times are hard, tighten our belts, bite the bullet. Tough decisions, max effort, and sacrifice. Same shit in the Marines.
Now is when I can turn it against them. Deliberately I turn the prick at the front of the room into a first lieutenant. He is lying on his bunk under his mosquito netting at base camp, wiggling his white toes. The lieutenant is looking forward to reading his dog-eared copy of The Hobbit. Suddenly he hears the spoon fly, a thud, a hiss, and then he has two or three seconds to remember there are no VC in the area.
There were rumors that Jim Volk had a birthday this week. I look toward the door, where there will probably be a birthday cake coming in, and we're all supposed to sing, like a bunch of kindergartners, to this asshole who owns half the company.
Suddenly, I hear that word. Layoffs. It's a trap. I look around; it's a strange group, engineers and technical staff, and we are the sacrifice.
Wait a minute. Six months ago I got a certificate of appreciation for my design, but instead of a bonus I got an option to buy stock in the company. An option that won't be good for a year. Jim Volk knew he was selling out then.
Across the room, Bob Rogers gives me a wink, but he's been through this even more times than I have.
We're still stunned, and some cunt in a business suit has taken the podium to outline their plan for downsizing. There will be a three-day transitional seminar to train us in job-hunting skills, she says. She's twenty-five if she's that much, and she's telling us middle-aged men she's going to train us in job-hunting skills.
I should have killed the colonel. That would have been worth it all, if only I'd shot the colonel.
The captain explained apologetically that this colonel liked to keep his people on the ground longer. When the area had been swept, nothing but booby traps and snipers left, the colonel, instead of extracting the platoon, liked to leave them spread out in the field until a few more were killed. I watched the colonel in his hovering Huey, as he surveyed the scene before lifting off. All at once I could see what he was seeing, chess pieces on a board and which of them to sacrifice. I could have picked him off easily with my M-16. I never wanted to kill any gook as bad.
Jim Volk was the overseer of the operation. For two years we have worked on the System 300, overtime, weekends, trips to San Antonio, and almost have it sold. And then the real operation was selling the company the whole time.
What was the real operation that last thirty-five days we spent in the field? We were flown in on one big transport helicopter, platoons of us, big mortars and little mortars, one hundred pounds on every back because each of us had to carry extra rounds. The crew chief kept cramming us in, shoving us toward the back of the chopper. The right engine was shot out before we could land, and the transport rolled on its side, transmission fluid streaming across the windows. The pilot had to turn back to An Hoa.
We know we're going back. The colonel couldn't see the load was too big and fly us in in small groups. He doesn't care the gooks can see a transport that big coming in to the boonies and now they're ready for us. We're just loaded onto another transport and flown in to the hot spot, so jammed in there that when the pilot lands, we all fall like dominoes, helpless squirming men with hundred-pound packs, hearing the ping of the gooks' bullets hitting the metal sides.
And Charlie went underground once we got set up. He's a guerrilla fighter, and we've got the artillery, so we only took small casualties.
Thirty-five days we kicked their asses. But we felt pretty good; we'd worked hard, took out a lot of gooners, and then we got word from the colonel that the operation was over. Choppers were coming in to extract us, and there we stood in an open field, waiting for that beautiful sound. Three at a time they'd come, and every chopper could hold fourteen men. Except one time, they had trouble on the ground at An Hoa and only two choppers came. The last extraction would be one squad.
Gooks can count.
That's when I know we're all dead. Over the mountain one of those towering black monsoon clouds is coming fast, and I can't see a chopper. The gooners know fourteen of us will be left, and for the last thirty-five days of killing hundreds of them, they are going to take revenge on the last fourteen. There will be no more air strikes from Da Nang through the storm. Gooks can slip through the artillery fire. They don't care if we kill a hundred to one, they will slip through. There will be fourteen of us left, but all fourteen will be dead when the chopper can make it back. The storm is coming faster than the chopper.
I watch the cloud move, fast, as fast as a West Texas tornado, then look toward An Hoa.
Yes! There is a green dot. He touches down, and as the last of us is hauled aboard, the pinging starts, like hail, like that West Texas hail that comes before the deluge. The gooners had us lined up the whole time, and they could still bring us down.
But we make it safely back to An Hoa. "Our asses were dead," I tell the supply sergeant. "If he hadn't made it just ahead of that storm, we'd all be dead motherfuckers."
"Aw, shit, no, man," he said, "we wouldn't have left you out there. Colonel would have sent another chopper."
This guy is from Detroit. He's never seen a West Texas spring storm, but he's been in Vietnam long enough, he should have known nothing could have made it through that storm. It would have lasted all night, and when it was over, they'd have come back for fourteen dead bodies, souvenirs already taken.
What was the real operation, then?
Twenty-five of us in the conference room. The company has been sold to the French, and the first order for layoffs has come down.
"I urge you to take advantage of this valuable seminar. You'll need transitional support and guidance in your new job hunt." This unbelievable bitch is still squawking about networking and contacts and the vital importance of keeping our spirits up.
Outside the conference room, employees are assigned to escort us to our desks to clean them out, to make sure we don't steal any designs or sabotage the company. Cliff Sears, that useless bastard, is my escort. Before the afternoon is out, we're out. I should have shot that colonel. What a beautiful memory I'd have now.
I can't think now, can't make plans. The VFW bar is the only place to go. There are veterans of the Korean conflict and of the big war, the real war, Their War, the one the Vietnam vets don't understand. That old fart, Newman, is still talking about parades.
"Every Veterans' Day we'd have a parade. You Viet vets and your whining. Everybody's sick of it."
I agree with him: Taking a beach at Anzio, liberating Paris, sinking a battleship, capturing a hill, annihilating a city, those are accomplishments. I would like to have things like that to remember. Torching a village because Viet Cong have cached ammunition there does not make me proud. What the fuck was I supposed to have done? I stayed alive, didn't I?
I am alive. I drive down the street where the hookers walk, and they signal because my car is old and my hair is thin. At a crosswalk, some stumblebum meanders across my path. He's the right age. He could be one of the guys I saved by taking them to a safe spot to smoke a little dope before going back to base camp and lying to the captain about a body count. What for? So he could freeze his ass in a cardboard box down by the river? Viciously I want to run him down because he is stumbling along alive, because the colonel and Jim Volk are not dead, and the wrong ones always survive.
At the high school, boys with pimples in ludicrous camouflage uniforms march in the dust of the athletic field. They have little ponytails held by rubber bands because they're still playing war and can't be ordered yet to cut their hair. Some of them will squat confused in the sun someday, their faces comically painted green or brown, in places with Latin and biblical names. In places that weren't even places before. Anywhere in the world a show of power must be made, these are the next ones to die. Some of them will die before their pathetic little dicks ever touch anything softer than the palms of their hands.
If I had only killed the colonel, I'd have won the war.