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 Viet Nam Generation Journal & Newsletter

V3, N3 (November 1991)

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.

Poetry from Bill Jones

The Body Burning Detail

Three soldiers from the North
Burned for reasons
of Sanitation.
Arms shrunk to flippers
Charred buttocks thrust skyward
They burned for five days.
It was hard to swallow
Difficult to eat
With the sweet smoke of seared
Flesh, like a fog,

Twenty-five years later
They burn still.
Across sense and time
The faint unwelcome odor
Rises in odd places.
With a load of leaves
At the city dump
A floating wisp of smoke
From the burning soldiers
Mingles with the stench
Of household garbage.

Once, while watching young boys
Kick a soccer ball,
The Death Smell filled my lungs.
As I ran, choking
Panic unfolded
Fluttering wings
Of fear and remorse.
A narrow escape.

A letter, snatched from the flames
The day we burned them
Is hidden away
In a shoebox
With gag birthday cards,
Buttons, string, rubber bands.
A letter from home?
The Oriental words,
Delicately framed
Are still a mystery.

Heathen Killer


A rear headquarters non-combatant
Christens the search and destroy
Missions in curious olive drab lingo.
An officer no doubt.
"Captain Ashley speaking, sir.
I didn't ask for this job."

At Khe Sanh, we lounge
on sandbags, drink Kool-Aid,
And watch the screaming fighters
Come like clockwork
From Da Nang, Pleiku, Chu Lai
And giant carriers criss-crossing
The South China sea.
Sky Hawks and Phantoms
Climb almost straight up,
Dive and circle,
Drop tumbling silver
Cannisters of jellied fire
That flash in the sun.
We cheer the more spectacular
Rolling orange mushrooms;
The Greatest Show on Earth.
"This," says Chief,
"Is one crazy white man's war."

Clever enough name,
I suppose,
For a military operation.
"Heathen Killer"
There is certainly a significant amount of killing
Though most of it
On the wrong side.


On mail call days
The photographs I share
Of new cars and picnics,
Smiling blue eyed people
Eating wedding cake,
Are always returned
Without comment.
Chief never gets any mail.
He eats sliced peaches,
C-ration apricots and pears,
While I sort stacks
Of perfumed letters.
"Got any pineapple bits?"
He knows the answer.
I always steal
More from supply
Than I can eat.

On a mud hill jungle firebase,
Drunk on desert memories,
Rage and contraband whiskey,
Chief packs his trash,
Lurches toward concertina wire,
A sea of elephant grass
And the Reservation far beyond.
Gang tackled from behind,
The fight is on.
He beats Dino's eye shut
And busts the Wetback's lip
Before nylon parachute cord
Binds him to a stake/tree.
Next morning, he surveys
The swollen purple faces,
And sullen stares.
"Nothing personal, boys".

His round face split
In a yellow toothed grin.
We smile back,
Crazy goddamn Indian,
In spite of ourselves.


The squad draws straws to wake him,
Fists flailing at unseen
Dancing demons,
Until we learned to jab
A stick in his barrel chest
And run for our lives.
We stack our weapons
At Dong Ha,
Innocent as children,
Pile the deadly war toys
As offerings.
Frags and bandoliers
For warm Black Label,
Showers, clean clothes,
And dehydrated steaks.
Chief buys a portable tape player
And one tape
We hear the drum solo,
In our sleep,
Over and over
Like a bad dream
Struggling for life.

"Where's Chief," Gunny asks?
At morning muster, we stand
In the nauseous
Aftermath of green beer
For the Skipper's pep talk.
The words rise like bile
From his monotone speech.
"NVA Regiment
Air Assault
Operation Heathen Killer."

"Chief ain't up, Gunny"
"Well go get him," he says.
But nobody moves.
"Why don't you go, Gunny?"
(a voice from the ranks)
To wake Chief from a big drunk,
No stick was long enough.
Gunny stares at his clipboard.
A wise man weighing options.
"Naw," he says
"Let the wild son-of-a-bitch sleep."


In the afternoon we shuffle
Aboard the waiting choppers
To the dull thump of whistling engines
Pounding hearts and psychedelic drumbeats.
Chief stands by the door gunner,
Head bobbing to the strains
Of The Iron Butterfly,
And watches the seething pockmarked jungle
Flow green beneath us
As giant rotors throb
Banking the great bird North
To the red clay of Con Thien
The Place of Angels
Street Without Joy
"Heathen Killer."

At Dawn, Barret is still alive.
Hang on, we urge.
It is our turn to beg.
But he grows weary
And slips away.
In the distance, medevac choppers
Hum above the fog shrouded valleys.
We wrap him and the others,
In plastic ponchos
Gently, as if it mattered,
And load them in the bellies
Of thrashing helicopters.
We stand in postures
Of absurd bravado
And weep in the prop wash.

"Go get the Skipper," Chief says.
And we peer over the edge
At the source of the moans.
A Gook officer, wounded,
Has saved himself
On an out-cropping of rock
And looks up in a half-smile
Of recognition and hope
Even as the pistol barks.
The Skipper, hollow-eyed,
Passionless, walks away.
He never says a word.


In the night,
Barret is hit,
Lays dying,
Calling our names in the darkness,
Knowing we will come.
The Gooks know it too
And use the plaintive sobs as irresistible bait;
A favorite slope trick.
They kill Doc first,
Then Wilson,
And the new replacement kid
Whose name we never learn.
Barret is begging now.
Let him die, I pray,
Before my turn.
As Chief crawls out
Stone-faced to save us all,
I change my prayer.
Grenades arch soundless.
he catches the bouncing baseballs
And tosses them back.
Lt. Mac, a good catholic boy,
Fingers black rosary beads.
"Mother of God," he breathes.

The new chevrons and Silver Star,
Pinned on by the battalion commander,
Are sweetened with a week of R&R.
A big mistake, we smirk,
And are rewarded with stories
Of an AWOL Chief busted, in a Hong Kong
Back-street whorehouse,
By an unsuspecting cop.
Poor bastard . . .
Trying to roust a sleeping Indian
From the Binge of the Century.
We celebrate Chief's return.
Walk to the LZ
Bearing gifts of canned fruit.
Beaming, he embraces us all.
A little thinner from a red line
Bread and water brig.
"Still a slick sleeved private,"
He brags.
The officers shake their heads,
Go back to map reading,
And peer through binoculars.


One image remains.
near Laos, the night wind
Alive with sing song
Oriental voices,
Mortars fall from a back sky,
We press out faces in damp
Fresh earth and pray aloud.
On this, our last day
The mortars stop.
And in the silence,
Sick with sorrow,
We knew they are coming.
The word passes
in hushed tones;
A whispered holy sacrament.
"Fix bayonets".
A hoarse cry from a distant hole,
"Gooks in the wire.
Fix bayonets."
In the brief ghost light
of a pop flare,
I see Chief's face,
Flush with the blood
Of ancient Arizona warriors,

Bill Jones, Cowboy Poet, appears in the The Dry Crik Review and the Owen Wister Review (University of Wyoming). A collection with Rod McQueary will soon appear, published by John Doffelmeyer of The Dry Crik Review.

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