Nobody Gets Off the Bus:
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"I'm so short! I'm so short!" he panted, running through the thickets toward the district town. Just one more bend, one more field, when the bushes parted, and the bullets came rushing toward him. The Major woke up screaming.
For a minute everything else was silent. Then someone turned over and coughed, and a chair squeaked in the other room. Gasping, the Major lay on his back. His legs were tangled in the sheets where he had tried to run.
"You OK, Sir?" Lieutenant Meyers called from the door. Without speaking, the Major opened and closed his mouth.
"Fuckin' short timer," grumbled Sergeant Harris from the next cot.
"Shut up," said Meyers, but he knew Harris was right. The Major was staring at the overhead bunk, and the other men were quiet. Meyers returned to the radio and his reports.
From the reports, Meyers knew that the Major had been an advisor in the central highlands, where he had led raids against the trails in Laos, and won the Distinguished Service Cross. Rotated to the States, he became an instructor at the Army's school for counterinsurgency operations. He had given lectures and shown slides to senior officers about guerrilla warfare. When he came to the Delta, he advised Dai Uy Trong, the ARVN commander, to take the initiative against the enemy outside the district town. Trong advised him to stay inside the compound. It was better to hold the town and the compound because the enemy wasn't interested, than to lose both by going into the fields.
The Major had prodded; the Major had insisted. He offered Trong pallets full of c-rations and cases full of Salems. So Trong drafted the teenage boys in the town, and the Major issued them carbines and fatigues. By night they lay in ambush in the thickets outside the town; by day, the Major led them on long marches and countermarches through the fields along the river. Trong waited in his compound, smoking Salem cigarettes.
Meyers had reported on the Major's progress to province headquarters: he had raised a new levy, he had trained new men. As a show of force, the Major divided them into a sweeping force and a blocking force. To everyone's surprise, his plan worked. The enemy ran into the blocking force, and savagely attacked them. The Major's boys were holding their own until he sent his sweeping force across the dikes to hit the enemy in the flank. Then he found that the enemy, too, had divided his forces, and had placed his stronger force to block the flank attack.
All afternoon the Major lay in the mud beside his radio, calling for an air strike, calling to Trong, while his boys were shot down around him. By the time the planes arrived, everyone but the Major had died or run away. Standing up, he watched them bomb the empty fields.
Meyers had reported their own men killed as enemy. It was the biggest victory in the district in years, and earned the Major the Vietnamese Cross for Gallantry from a smiling Dai Uy Trong. After the ceremony, the Major never went outside the compound again.
Now, Meyers thought, it was almost over. Tomorrow the Major's relief would arrive. With less than two months to go, Meyers was a short timer himself. He only hoped the Major's relief would leave things as they were.
Meyers was worried because the Major's relief was just a captain. Maybe, at Province Headquarters, somebody was on to them. Maybe they didn't believe all his reports. Nobody had been down to check since the Major's battle.
Putting his reports back in the file, he turned off the radio. Meyers wanted to be fresh for the next day. Besides, it was after ten, and everyone at Province Headquarters went to the officers' club at five. There wouldn't be any messages until morning. When the Lieutenant went into the bunk room, he saw the Major was still lying with his sheets around his feet, staring at the overhead bunk.
The Major couldn't sleep anymore. He was afraid to close his eyes, he was afraid of the crackling of the radio. He was even afraid of the smell of Salem cigarettes. The whiskey didn't help now. If he drank enough, he passed out for a few hours, but he always awoke more afraid than before. With a terrible effort, he pulled up his knees and threw his legs over the edge of his bunk. Across the room, Meyers dropped a boot. Reaching for the overhead bunk, the Major drew himself to his feet. Maybe, after all, another drink would do it. He lurched past Meyers into the other room.
"Good night, Major," said the Lieutenant.
The Major didn't answer. Meyers wasn't the one who couldn't sleep; he wasn't the one being relieved by an officer in a lower grade. Suddenly nauseated, he fell into the chair by the radio.
As he looked at the silent radio, fear replaced the nausea. I need a drink, he thought. He stood up and went to the refrigerator. Taking a beer, he grabbed the bourbon from the cupboard. This time he sat down eagerly.
I'll show the bastards, he thought, watching the radio dials rise and fall across the band display. Try and screw me and I'll show them. He stayed beside the radio, daring it to call him, until he fell asleep.
The throbbing in his head exploded like a thousand hammers on the tin roof. Lieutenant Meyers ran past him into the yard. Dazzled by the light, the Major blinked at the door.
"Hey, Major!" Sergeant Harris stuck his head inside. "You got a visitor. In his own fuckin' helicopter!"
Staggering to his feet, the Major stared at the helicopter. A visitor. His relief! He roared his joy into the roar of the engine. In the hooches along the wall, and in the Dai Uy's house, other half dressed men watched the helicopter, and children covered their ears.
A tall man in new fatigues jumped out of the helicopter. Holding onto his beret, he reached for his duffel bag. Sergeant Harris bent double and ran under the rotors for the bag. As they dragged it toward the Major, the helicopter rose, swirling clouds of dust across the compound.
The Major almost collapsed. They hadn't waited for him. The helicopter disappeared over the trees outside the compound. When he looked down, Harris and the Captain were standing by the steps.
"Captain Leutner reporting for duty, Sir." The Captain saluted him.
"Thank God you're here," said the Major. He held out his hand, and the Captain ran up the steps. Across the compound, the other men were going back into their hooches, and the children were returning to their games in the dust.
"What a setup!" Leutner exclaimed, admiring the refrigerator and the radio.
"Come in. Have a drink," said the Major. "We weren't expecting you so early."
"We tried to call you on the radio, but..."
"Lieutenant Meyers pushed up the steps ahead of the Sergeant and stood expectantly in the doorway.
"Oh, this is my administration officer, Meyers," said the Major, turning away to the refrigerator. As Meyers stepped forward to shake hands, Harris stamped through with the duffel bag, pushing Meyers against the radio. The refrigerator opened and the radio clicked on almost together.
"Glad to meet you, Sir." Meyers shook Leutner's hand. The Major set two beers on the table.
"Get Han in here to cook some eggs, and straighten up your reports," he ordered.
"Looks like you just got back from an operation," grinned Leutner. "We tried to reach you all night and this morning."
"We've been busy," agreed the Major, waving at the table. "Let's get some food before we talk. "Where's Han?"
Leutner wasn't used to drinking beer with his eggs, so he nursed one can through the meal. The Major talked excitedly about the compound and Dai Uy Trong, and called for more food and more beer. He told Leutner about operations and training. To their delight, they discovered the Captain had attended the counterinsurgency school where the Major had taught. Han brought the Major another beer.
"Everybody in province headquarters says this is the best damn outfit around."
"They do?" said the Major. Maybe he had underrated Meters' reports.
"They still talk about you back in counterinsurgency school," the Captain continued. "Anybody who can work with you has it made in this Army. The only reason I got the job is because I'm about to make major myself."
"Congratulations." The Major couldn't believe it. "Now about relieving."
He called Meyers, and the three officers spent the morning going over Meyer's reports. The Captain was particularly interested in the Major's tactics for sweep operations, which had become classics in their field. He was sympathetic about the all-night ambushes, such as Meyers reported they had conducted the night before.
"You can sit and wait for months without getting anything, and then something comes along and makes it all worthwhile," explained the Major.
"There's just one think I'd like to do before you leave," said Leutner.
"Anything I can do to help," the Major grinned.
"I'd like to go on an operation with you."
The Major gripped the beer can for support.
"We... we don't have anything planned."
"Most of the troops are out on small unit maneuvers," broke in Meyers, shuffling his papers for statistics.
"Small unit tactics have replaced the sweeps," agreed the Major. "I'd just get in the way. This has got to be your show."
"I want to be able to say I've been on an op with you, Sir," the Captain insisted. "You don't know what this means for my career."
The Major gripped the beer can tighter.
"I'd like to help, but I can't mess up our other plans." Maybe he won't relieve me, he thought wildly. The Major remembered the dream of running and death.
Meyers was equally concerned. Shaking his head, he paged through his reports.
"We're spread out all over the district. We'd never get anything put together in time."
"It can be something small, just a patrol," argued Leutner. "I need this in my record."
The Major shuddered. The crazy bastard actually wanted to go on an op with him. Until his helicopter arrived, he had to keep Leutner happy.
"Tell you what," suggested the Major. "If we get this relieving done on time, I'll help you plan your first op. We can make it look like we did it together." He looked at Meyers, who nodded enthusiastically.
"Yes, Sir!" Leutner agreed. "Where'll we get the troops, Lieutenant?"
Meyers returned to his reports.
"We're kind of short," he muttered. The Major nearly gagged. The bastard wanted troops.
While Meyers shuffled, Leutner pulled out a pack of cigarettes.
"Have one?" he asked the Major. They were Salems.
"That's it!" cried the Major. "Trong told Harris he needed more cigarettes. We'll have them put a few cases on my helicopter!"
"I don't get it," said Leutner.
"Trong helps us with the PX," the Major explained. "We've got to see him anyway before I go. We'll work it out."
Then he called Han for lunch.
Dai Uy Trong received them in the teahouse at the gate to the compound. After shaking hands, they sat down on stools around a table. Leutner was impressed by the selection of liquor, engine parts and ammunition piled along the wall.
"Yes, yes," smiled Trong. "All very good."
A boy wearing plastic Japanese sandals served them beer in tall brown bottles.
"This is Trong's place," said the Major.
Leutner grinned his approval, and offered a cigarette to Trong and the Major. He was surprised to see Trong palm two before placing one between his yellow teeth.
"We got beaucoup Salems," began the Major. "Marlboros, Winstons, all kinds."
Sucking the smoke in greedily, Trong smiled and nodded.
"Beaucoup," the Major repeated, watching the interest stir in Trong's eyes.
They smoked and drank more beer.
"Dai Uy Leutner, he number one trooper," the Major said, as Leutner offered another cigarette to Trong.
"Dai Uy, Dai Uy," echoed Trong, accepting the cigarette.
The Major felt confident.
"Maybe he go on op, kick shit out of VC."
Trong stopped breathing. Without the smile, his face looked like a cadaver.
"Maybe him get shit kicked." Trong looked at the Major. Slowly the smile returned, peeling his lips back from the stained teeth. "Number one trooper."
They drank and smoked without talking. You can never tell with a gook, thought the Major. Again Leutner passed the cigarette.
"You go soon," said Trong, leaning back in the smoke. "No more big op."
"Don't worry about that," Leutner reassured him. "We'll keep on just like before."
Trong turned to him.
"Just like before." The ash crept up his cigarette.
"Dai Uy Leutner, he want to go on op," the Major began again. "Maybe you show him how."
"No got troops."
The Major watched him smoke. You can't rush a gook, he thought. The little bastard's got to find it by himself.
"Very soon big chopper come," the Major said. "I get to States."
Through he smoke, Trong nodded.
"Big chopper," repeated the Major. "Maybe bring beaucoup stuff. Beaucoup."
"What about the patrol schedule?" interrupted Leutner.
"No got beaucoup troops," said Trong. The boy brought more beer.
"Big chopper," repeated the Major. "Beaucoup stuff."
Trong took another cigarette from Leutner.
"Maybe got some troops. No got beaucoup."
"One for one," the Major offered. "Big chopper. How many you got?"
Trong's eyes flickered to the shelves along the wall.
"Eight. Maybe ten. You bring more." His eyes fixed on the Major again.
"I bring more."
The deal was closed: two cases of cigarettes for every soldier. The Major had done worse. When the Americans finally stood up, Leutner left his Salems on the table.
In the evening the Major packed his trunk and finished his last fifth. Sitting on the steps, he looked across the compound at the shadows in Trong's windows. The whiskey had dulled his excitement, and he started to think about all the nights he'd spent inside that compound. Just one more, he thought, and it will be all over.
"What's this shit about an op?" Harris kicked open the door, nearly jumping on the Major. "What the fuck is going on?"
The Major looked up at the Sergeant.
"How should I know? I've been relieved."
"Son of a bitch!" Harris smashed his fist into the side of the door. "He says we're goin' on an op tomorrow, and you planned it."
Harris started toward the Major. In the hooches along the wall, lights were starting to flicker. Again the door behind them opened.
"Major?" Lieutenant Meyers peered at the two figures on the steps. "Can I talk to you a minute?"
"Shit," grunted Harris, stalking off across the compound. "Fuckin' officers."
Meyers took a few steps, and nearly kicked over the Major's glass. The Major watched Harris' figure blending with the twilight.
"Sir," began Meyers," about the talk you were going to have with Captain Leutner..."
Leaning back, the Major stared at the deepening sky.
"You said you'd talk to him, but just now he said I had to go on this op tomorrow to handle communications. I told him I was the administration officer, but he said, from now on..." Meyers' voice broke.
"I told him about Trong running the PX for us." The Major didn't look at Meyers. "The rest of it he got from your reports."
"Christ!" Meyers gasped. "I thought we..."
"It's over. I've been relieved. When you get this short yourself, you'll understand."
Meyers' mind raced wildly. He couldn't give the Major away, because his reports implicated them both. He couldn't tell Leutner he was afraid. And he couldn't go out on an op and get killed, when he was so short himself.
"Christ. What am I going to do?"
"You could go with Harris."
Meyers looked across the empty compound.
"Where's Harris gone?"
"To see Dai Uy Trong," said the Major. Standing up, he climbed the steps back into the hooch.
Leutner had wanted to start the operation at four in the morning. He couldn't understand why the troops weren't ready. Twice he sent Harris to Dai Uy Trong, and twice Harris returned with the same shrug. Exasperated, the Captain sent Lieutenant Meyers to find out what had happened. Half an hour later, Meyers reported that Trong was holding back his troops as an honor guard for the Major.
The Major was ready to go even earlier than the Captain. For the first time in months, he'd awakened sober. All the waiting, all the fear was almost over. Harris dragged his trunk outside, and left it at the foot of the steps.
The Major ordered coffee with his eggs. Leutner found a cup and sat down beside him.
"They'll be here any minute now," the Captain said. "I told them to hurry it up."
The Major swallowed and nodded.
"You know, Major, there's one thing I forgot to ask you," said Leutner. "What do you do if one of the VNs gets hit?"
"Medevac him," said the Major.
"And if he's dead."
"Medevac him. Medevac everybody. It's bad for morale if you bring them back here." The Major jumped up; the helicopter was rattling over the compound.
He ran down the steps past Harris and the trunk. Over by Trong's house, Meyers had ten or twelve boys in new uniforms. Rotors slicing the dust, the helicopter roared into the compound.
The side gunner started pushing out cases of cigarettes. With every case, the Major's heart beat faster. Ten, twelve, sixteen, eighteen, and the helicopter was empty.
Turning to Leutner, the Major yelled good luck over the engine. The relieving ceremony was complete. Bent double, he ran under the rotors for the chopper. Harris followed with the trunk. After he had shoved it in beside him, the Sergeant gave the Major the finger.
Shuddering, the helicopter rose slowly. As it banked forward to clear the wall, the Major looked back at Meyers and his troops. There were only nine now, and the cigarettes were gone. The Major wondered what had happened to Trong, but already they were climbing over the wall, and the fields were spreading out beneath them.
Captain Leutner followed the Major's op plan out of the district town into the fields along the river. One of the new recruits trotted behind him, lugging a field radio on his back. Dragging their rifles along the ground, the others straggled after them. Meyers and Harris, who had the other radio, brought up the rear.
Trudging across the dikes, they cursed the afternoon sun. Once they saw a man driving a bullock through the fields, but he disappeared into the trees before they could call him. Leutner ordered a halt in some trees by the river, and they squatted in the shade, smoking Salem cigarettes. According to the Major's plan, another patrol should be on their flank. Meyers said maybe they were keeping under cover.
Leutner grunted and studied the map.
"There's supposed to be a blocking force up here." On the map, he pointed to a grove across a canal several fields away. "We push in along the river, and the other troops come in across the fields." With his hands, he made the triangle of river and canal and fields that would contract to drive the enemy into the ambush.
"I don't like being out of contact with our flank," Leutner said.
"That never bothered the Major," Harris smirked.
Folding the map, the Captain decided to have a talk with the Sergeant when they got back.
"Get moving," Leutner ordered, starting forward through the trees. The others waited to see who would be the first to finish his cigarette. Finally Harris pulled the Captain's radioman to his feet. One by one, at longer and longer intervals, the soldiers moved off after Leutner. Harris and Meyers were last.
Skirting the fields, they crept through the trees along the river. Every few minutes, Leutner peered out of the brush for a glimpse of their flank cover. The only movement was his own men straggling after him.
At the edge of the last field before the canal, Leutner crouched down with his map, and waited for the radioman to come up. He looked across the field, and could just make out where the canal set back the next tree line. Sweating and shaking as if exhausted, the radioman crept up and squatted beside him. Leutner wondered if he were sick.
The Captain took the handset to tell Meyers to bring up the troops, but he couldn't raise him. He turned to the alternate frequency. There was chatter on that line, a voice like Meyers' calling for a medevac helicopter. Leutner turned back to the patrol frequency. Finally the Lieutenant's voice crackled out of the receiver.
Angrily Leutner ordered him to bring up the troops. Then he pushed aside the branches or another look for their flank. Nothing stirred in the field, not a breath of air, nothing to explain the tiny movement in the thicket across the canal.
He started to wonder what had moved the leaves, and had started to crouch back down, when he heard the helicopter. Now what the hell? He was looking up, when the leaves around him shivered, and the bullets whipped him over backwards to the ground.
Head thrown back, he saw the upside-down radioman staring at him in horror, fingers still in his ears. What's the matter, wondered Leutner? The radioman crawled away through the bush.
Leutner's chest rose and feel rapidly, but a cold hand closed his throat. He wondered how his chest could breath without using his nose and mouth. The air seared his lungs in shuddering gasps that blended with the roar of the helicopter. Maybe Meyers would know. Maybe Harris would tell.
They were standing over him now, but they had no answer for the questioning eyes that stared up at them.
"The fucker's finished," said Harris. He threw a smoke grenade into the field to signal the helicopter. Then he lit a cigarette, and waited for it to land.
Sweeping aside the smoke, the helicopter rushed toward them. Its struts barely touched the ground before a crewman jumped out with a stretcher. Harris helped him lift the Captain into it and carry him to the chopper. As they strapped him to the side, the helicopter was already starting to rise. The crewman leapt aboard. Harris stuck his cigarette into Leutner's mouth. The Captain's head fell back when the helicopter climbed, and the cigarette blew out over the fields.
Running back to Meyers, Harris didn't see it fall. The Lieutenant was anxious to start on his report. If they hurried, Harris said, they might catch one of the VNs to carry the radio for him.
The Major bought his last carton of tax free cigarettes in Tan Son Nhut airport, and chain smoked waiting for the plane. I can't believe it, I'm so short, he thought. Finally the gate swung open, and they called the officers to go aboard.
The silver hulled jet flashed in the sunlight. Just a few more steps through the hot afternoon, and the Major was running up the stairs. Even inside he was sweating. The air conditioning chilled him, and the whine of the engines ran through his stomach like electricity. It seemed to take forever to get everyone aboard. The Major could hardly breath until they were racing down the runway, and the nose lifted, and the ramshackle city fell away beneath them.
The Major was elated and exhausted. It was over; he was free; he could sleep; he could live. Leaning back, he smiled out the window. They were banking over the shell splattered earth around the city. Slowly the great brown river curled by his window. Then far, far away, like a minnow in a deep clear stream, he saw a tiny helicopter sliding in from the Delta.