Nobody Gets Off the Bus:
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If you've got a little of the pathologist in you, if you're interested in causes after the fact, then Major Drake was responsible for what happened to Yarbro that hot morning. It was his idea to send us out with a scout dog to search for caches of weapons. He probably thought it was a sound plan. At the time.
Or maybe the dog handler was to blame and, if so, he paid dearly for his inattention. He stood idly by, yacking about the girls in Sydney, while the big shepherd began digging. Somebody told him to stop the dog. His last words were, "Don't worry about it."
At any rate, the dog kept digging and set off a mine, blowing himself and his handler into never-never land. Unfortunately our medic Yarbro was close enough to get a big dose of shrapnel, too.
Yarbro liked to tell about the high school classmate who'd offered him a handful of pills before their physical. The pills would have raised Yarbro's blood pressure out of sight for a day or two. Yarbro declined.
He would be living with decision for a long long time.
We were lucky. The dustoff came before Yarbro had lost much blood. It landed long enough for us to load him and the doorgunner to throw out two bodybags, one for the dog handler and one for the dog. No hurry with them; they weren't going anywhere.
When we got back to the firebase, nobody mentioned Yarbro. We hadn't had a man killed or wounded in over two months. Sergeant Peters always said we were fugitives from the law of averages.
Walker didn't even bother cleaning his weapon or radio. He knew he could get by with it. He was leaving the next afternoon for Cam Ranh Bay and on to Bangkok for R&R. He sat a little distance from the rest of us, drinking from a bottle of Scotch and reading a book.
Walker and Sam Barker and I had come to battalion together. I suppose we all changed, but Walker's change had been unpleasant to watch.
There'd been a time when he was reliable, good-hearted, and funny. He already had a degree in English, and he was bitter because the draft had interrupted his plans for graduate school. He was deeply against the war.
But the more time he spent in the bush, the less he talked about the draft or the Army. He was still reliable, still loyal to the platoon, but his circle of bitter anger widened, taking in anyone not in the infantry and all civilians, especially women. Being dumped by his college sweetheart hadn't helped.
Lt. Morrow and Sergeant Peters were watching Walker. Like me, they were waiting.
Oddball passed by, saw Walker, and said, "Hey, LT, we ought to get a picture of the Professor. We could call it 'What Sort of Man Reads Hemingway?'"
We knew what he meant. A few weeks before Walker had propped the corpse of an NVA against a tree, placed the famous skin magazine in the lifeless hands, and said, "Now we finally know the answer to that all-important question: What Sort Of Man Reads Playboy?"
Walker didn't even smile. He rose and said, "American writers are all a bunch of lying, low-grade assholes. I hate them, one and all."
"All of them?" the LT said.
"Every last one." A rather extreme statement, considering Walker's former love of American literature.
"And here's the worst one." He waved his copy of A Farewell to Arms at us. "General Ernie. What a con-man, what a lying, syphilitic old fool. Know how he got that great war wound he was always bragging about?"
"No," the LT said, "but I bet we're about to."
"A goddamned trench mortar. The son of a bitch was never in contact. He was a fucken ambulance driver." He waved the book at us again. "Sweet little Catherine Barkley, that ministering angel. Nurses are all whores, selling it for fifty bucks a crack at the Officer's Club every night. I hate them all. Doctors, too."
He unbuttoned his fatigue pants and dropped them. Like the rest of us, he didn't wear drawers. He opened the book and rubbed it against his ass.
"Sergeant Peters," the LT said, "you're a witness. We're seeing the ultimate sacrilege."
But Walker wasn't done. He threw down the book and pulled up his pants. When he picked the book up and started off, we saw where he was headed. The latrine was fifty yards downhill, and someone had taken out the barrels, added diesel, and set them on fire. Walker went straight to a barrel and threw in the book.
A couple of artillery troops were passing by and heard Walker's tirade. One of them said, "What's wrong with that guy?"
"Meanness," Peters said. "Too much booze. Too much bush."
Walker didn't say a word the rest of the afternoon. He skipped supper and when it was dark, went off to his bunker and lay down. Nobody said anything to him. Our own thoughts were sad enough.
He woke Sam and me the next morning. "Get up," he said. His voice was quiet and cold. "Put on some clean fatigues. Shave."
"What is it?" Sam said.
"We're going to the hospital to see Yarbro. Pay our respects." He made it sound like Yarbro was already dead.
The LT and Peters saw us getting ready. "And where do you guys think you're going?" Peters said.
Sam and I looked at Walker. We thought he'd already obtained permission.
"To the hospital," Walker said.
"Next time, ask first," the LT said. "Tell Yarbro we'll be by to see him some time tomorrow." He pointed at Sam and me. "You two be damn sure you're back here by noon."
"We're wasting time," Walker said and left for the pad.
"See to it that he behaves," the LT said. "He's in a bad mood."
"He stays in a bad mood," Sam said.
The LT thought a moment and nodded. "Yeah," he said, "there's a lot of that going around."
Walker was silent all the way to the hospital. But when he saw the barracks where the medical personnel lived, he said, "It's a rough life, ain't it?" and spat "REMFs."
We knew what he meant. Rear Echelon Mother Fuckers. They stayed dry and cool, slept on beds. Hot food, showers, the PX and clubs nearby. Survival was something they never had to worry about. They were in the same Army as us, the same country, but that was all we had in common.
We found the admissions building and turned in our weapons and ammunition. A Red Cross volunteer--donut dollies, we called them--was talking to the PFC at the desk. Sam and I probably gawked at her; she was the first round-eyed girl we'd seen in weeks.
"Hi," she said brightly, "where're you guys from?"
Walker looked at her as if she were a creature from another planet. "From the bush," he said.
Sam eased him out of the way and asked where we'd find Yarbro.
"Anemic brained slut," Walker said when we were outside.
We had been in the hospital wards before, but I was still unprepared for that look down the long room. Bed after bed, body after body.
A medic was using an iodine pad to scrub the foot of a soldier in the first bed. I saw his rank and said, "Sergeant, where's SP/4 Bill Yarbro?" He was about to start an IV and didn't look up. "Check the board by the door."
The sheet of plywood was covered with clear plastic. One black square for every bed with names written in red grease pencil.
"He's in the last bed on the left," I said.
But Sam and Walker were watching the medic. The patient was about our age. His legs looked okay, but both his upper limbs ended above the elbow and were wrapped in bandages.
"A farewell to arms," Walker said quietly.
"Shut up," Sam told him. "Let's go see Yarbro."
I wasn't watching Sam or Walker, but I looked straight ahead as we went down the aisle.
Yarbro was lying with his eyes closed, half-covered by a sheet, IVs going in both arms, a catheter draining urine. But what concerned me more was the big patch over his left eye and the tube running into an incision in his abdomen.
Though we didn't speak, he opened his eyes and looked at us. After a moment his face broke into a big grin. "Well, look who's here."
Naturally we asked how he was doing.
"Getting lighter all the time."
"What?" Sam said.
"They took out my eye and amputated my foot. Six or eight feet of small intestine." But he kept grinning. "If they don't send me to Japan before long, there'll be nothing left."
"Nothing left," Walker said and looked away.
"See this," Yarbro said and pointed to the bag of dark, runny stool. "They've got my asshole sewed shut. A colostomy. I'll get rid of this shit bag in a few weeks."
He asked about the rest of the platoon. "Make sure you-all take your malaria pills," he said. "Use your iodine tablets."
"Same old Yarbro," Sam said and took his hand. "Still a mother hen."
"Yep," Yarbro said, "same old me. I hope they give you a good medic."
"You'll be hard to replace," I said.
"Everybody's replaceable," he said. "And everything. They'll give me a new foot and a glass eye." His smile became wider. "I've got a plan for that eye. I go in a bar, see, and when my glass is empty, I put the eye in the glass and--"
I glanced at Walker while Yarbro was describing his scheme. The muscles in his jaw were twitching.
I looked past him. A tall, red-haired nurse, a lieutenant, was at the next bed. She was changing the dressing on a big wound on a guy's leg, but every so often she'd look up and watch us, especially Walker.
"Are you hurting anywhere?" Sam asked.
"All over. But that's about to end shortly. Here comes my doctor."
The doctor was a young looking captain named Coffman. He had a syringe in his hand. "Having some company?" he said.
"These are my buddies," Yarbro said proudly. "Recon. The Bountyhunters."
Doctor Coffman was not particularly impressed.
"Good," he said and looked us over. "Real good." He wiped off a little outlet on the IV tubing with an alcohol pad and injected the medicine.
"What's that you're giving him?" Walker said.
"Morphine," Yarbro said. "These are the guys that bandaged me up," he told Coffman. "They did a good job, didn't they?"
Coffman looked at us again. "Yes," he said, "quite good." The morphine took effect quickly. Yarbro yawned. "See you tomorrow," he said and drifted off with Sam still holding his hand.
"Tomorrow, buckaroo," Sam said.
"How's he doing?" Walker asked.
"Pretty well. His vital signs are stable. No infection. Urine output looks okay."
He was about to say something else, but Walker cut him off.
"Why'd you take off his foot?" A moment later he added, "Sir."
Perhaps Coffman was anticipating that question. "You think we're knife happy?"
"I bandaged that foot myself," Walker said. "It didn't look that bad."
"Sometimes things are worse than they look. Bits of shrapnel and boot leather were embedded in the bone. The tibial artery was almost severed."
That seemed to satisfy Walker. "We'll call that Captain Coffman's Law," he said. "Things are worse than they seem."
Walker's eyes took on that awful glint again. "Sir," he said, "is Nurse Barkley on duty today?"
Coffman was looking at Yarbro's chart. "Who?"
"Catherine Barkley. Surely you know her. She's a regular angel of mercy."
Coffman smiled, but it was just a reflex. "We've got a lot of new people. Is she the one from Cleveland?"
The red-haired nurse laughed quietly and walked away.
"You can see your friend tomorrow," Coffman said. "He'll be here two more days."
"He's going to be all right, isn't he?" Sam said.
Coffman nodded. "Sure."
"Dumbass," Walker said to Sam. "He'll never be the same." Without another word, he left.
"Thanks, sir," Sam said, but Coffman was already moving to the next bed. I don't think he even heard.
Walker was waiting for us at the door. "Thanks, sir," he mocked at Sam. "Thanks for what? You think he gives a shit about Yarbro?"
"I think he might," I said. Walker glared at me and went outside.
The red-haired nurse was outside, too, drinking a Coke. Taking her break, I guess.
As soon as Walker saw her, he said, "Excuse me, aren't you Catherine Barkley?"
"Of course I am," she said. "You look dashing, as usual, Lieutenant Henry."
Sam and I laughed.
Walker could scarcely take that. Here was someone--an officer and a woman, at that--who was on to his bullshit. He couldn't come up with a worthwhile reply and couldn't risk getting really nasty. He knew, as we did, that this was one woman who wouldn't hesitate to lock his heels.
"Let's go," he said finally. "I hate charnel houses."
He walked away, and I said, "How'd you know about all that? It's been his private joke for two days."
"I had a minor in English in another life."
Sam said, "I apologize for our partner's bad manners."
"Don't. He's really hurting. You ought to get him out of here."
"We plan to, ma'am."
"You guys," she said and shook her head. She looked away, then back at us. "Grief's not a commodity and you don't have a corner on the market."
We found Walker outside admissions, tying on his bandoleers. We checked out our weapons and joined him.
"I'm getting to like it here," he said. "I may stick around and fuck with some people, namely one smartass redheaded twat."
"She fixed you," I said.
Walker made a move to go back into admissions, but Sam put a hand on his shoulder and turned him around. "No, Professor," he said. "You're going with us." Holding a big fist in front of Walker's nose, he added, "Right now."
We stopped by the PX on the way to the pad, and Walker bought another bottle of Scotch. He didn't offer us any, but it was just as well. In a few hours we'd be back in the bush, just about the time he left for Cam Ranh Bay.
I thought of Yarbro lying there, still cheerful, still brave, and the way Walker's face had looked. I wondered how many times that scene would replay itself for Walker as he prowled around Bangkok, whoring and drinking and, probably, causing trouble.
Maybe in time he'd be better. Maybe in another life we all would.
Walker opened his bottle and drank again. "You guys think I was just lying around drunk last night," he said, "but I wasn't. In my mind I went somewhere. I saw our future."
"Visions of the future," Sam said, "courtesy of your cousin Johnny."
Walker ignored him. "Gentlemen," he said, "I have seen the future, and it sucks."
He drank again and shivered. "Something bad is going to happen to us."
"Maybe it already has," I said.
Pate Warner is married, with one daughter. His fiction has appeared in Re: Arts & Letters, Innisfree, Flipside, FOC Review, Clifton Magazine, Radio Void and Soundings East. He served in RVN 1970-71 with the Americal Division.