Monday, February 20, 2012

Inexperienced writers tend to get stuck on the visual sense—as if the story’s narrator is a roving eyeball. Our actual experience involves seeing, hearing, touching, smelling and tasting; therefore, including all five senses creates verisimilitude (realism). The following 1,700-word story is fiction.

Don’t Mean Nuthin’

In 1968, at age 19, I was a grunt in Vietnam, Army corporal, stationed in a province called Duc Pho, at the outset of the Tet Offensive. That’s when the Viet Cong nearly overwhelmed our forward bases and killed enough Americans to fill hundreds of cargo jets with coffins—plus about ten times as many South Vietnamese soldiers.
Duc Pho has landmarks with poetic names like Monkey Mountain and Rice Goddess Valley. It’s also got lots of place names in French. Near our base ran a river the Vietnamese called the Cad De Song, and the French called the Riviere Vaseuse—both mean Muddy River—but we called it Turd River. Villagers dumped their wastes into the river and you could watch garbage and human turds float by. Once I saw the puffed-up balloon of a dead dog drift past. But mostly, the locals ate the dogs. Rats, too.
My best friend in ‘Nam was another 19-year-old corporal, Rodgers Hammerstein. Odd name. And yes, his parents did name him after Rodgers & Hammerstein, the 1940s song-writing duo that created the great Broadway musicals: Oscar Hammerstein was his dad’s uncle or something. Rodgers’ mom was from Harlem and he was of mixed race before that was considered hip.  
            On the Army base at Duc Pho, the races hung together: Hispanic with Hispanic, whites with whites, blacks with blacks—and Rodgers didn’t fit in. He didn’t belong with the whites because he was dark-skinned, and he didn’t belong with the blacks because he didn’t have that streetwise, inner city mojo going like most of the brothers back in the ‘60s. Those from Motown or L.A. had it for real, and those who came from some suburb in Ohio or Indiana, faked it for real.
But Rodgers didn’t know the first thing about how not to be himself. Growing up, he’d spent most of his free time in the library at Columbia University, where his dad taught history, and Rodgers’s intellect had come to shine at about a million candlepower. He listened to Bach and Brahms, and he played—get this—the guy played the bassoon. I played drums and I dug soul and funk, James Brown and Smokey Robinson and all that good shit and, hell, I could have hung out with the brothers more easily than Rodgers.
            But I didn’t fit in with anyone either, because I never have. I carry the genes of the outsider. It makes you allergic to whatever is conventional, and drawn to the exotic, and to other outsiders. Naturally, Rodgers and I ended up as buddies. Brothers, really. It’s hard to explain the bonds forged in combat: descending to hell while depending on your brother to help you survive.
In the second week of the Tet Offensive, on a night without a trace of moonlight, a couple Hueys dumped our platoon a hundred klicks out from base, in a rice paddy near the edge of the Deng Ne rainforest, to conduct a LORRP—long range reconnaissance patrol. An hour later, following a muddy trail through the jungle, we walked straight into an ambush. In the first five seconds, I saw half my squad eat it. Rodgers got nailed a dozen feet in front of me. He pitched backward and slammed to the ground so hard he bounced.
I threw myself down flat. Sharp, popping sounds snapped an inch above my head—bullets making sonic booms. Which meant somebody on the enemy side was firing a sniper rifle in addition to the AK-47s, because AK-47s fire subsonic rounds. I tried to squeeze my body flatter, press deep into the mud; I wished I was two-dimensional, like a photo.
            Our rifles, M-16s, make a sound like ka-blang-ka-blang-ka-blang-ka-blang. I heard only one firing, and then it stopped. AK-47s, the Chinese-built models, make a racket like someone hammering on a steel garbage can. Klack-klack-klang. Klang-klang-klang-klack-klack-klang. Jesus, they wouldn’t shut up. Both weapons shoot bullets that tumble, which makes them inaccurate at long range: you aim here and the bullet hits over there. But at short-range, it’s like they’ve got whirling teeth—to get nailed by one is like shoving that body part into a blender.
I crawled though sucking mud over to Rodgers and reached for his hand, but saw bone stumps jutting from his wrist. I tugged on his arm and his shoulder sagged and I had the sickening feeling I was going to pull his arm off.
I dragged him off the trail to hide under a drooping canopy of elephant ears. Held him in my arms, cradling his head in my lap; watching his life blood pump out with each pulse. My teeth chattered. I tasted a mouthful of muck and grit.
In that moment the sky collapsed. Monsoon rainy season. When it rains in ‘Nam it’s as if massive cranes have hauled a swimming pool up into the air and then tilted the deep end over your head. The elephant ears made lousy umbrellas, and I leaned over Rodgers and shielded his face with my hand so the fat raindrops wouldn’t splash into his open eyes and mouth.
And then I said the goofiest words ever spoken to a dying man. I said, “Don’t worry. Where you’re going, they’ve got a great library.”
See, Rodgers was always griping that the library on base sucked. For one thing, he and I were both science fiction nuts. And they had maybe three science fiction novels—and all three were by Andre Norton—kid’s stuff. We were into the concept of the Encyclopedia Galactica—that there might be a central repository of information—science and art from countless cultures—and that whenever a sentient race reaches maturity, the Ancient Wise Ones or whatever contact them and grant them a library card to tap into this ultimate Book of Knowledge.
So I heard myself saying, “Don’t worry. Great library.” And Rodgers looked at me and half-smiled, and his lips moved, and he said—I think he said, because no words came out, just a gush of blood—but I want to believe he said, “Galactica.” Then his eyes rolled back and he was just 165 pounds of death in my arms, heavier than this whole planet.
I didn’t cry. I closed my eyes and the sideways rain stung my eyelids like flying pebbles. It washed the blood that slickened my hands and arms.
The rain bought me time, because you can’t see diddle in a monsoon cloudburst. Everything melts into liquid shadows. One minute you’re having a great time killing people, or getting killed, and the next minute you can’t see past the tip of your rifle barrel. But I could feel Charlie, squatting out there in the inky jungle in soaking black pajamas and plastic flip-flops, waiting for the rain to stop so he could finish us off.
Then a figure loomed over me in the downpour, yelling something at me and I couldn’t make out a word—I heard the shouting, but I didn’t recognize the language. I expected to open my eyes and see a Viet Cong soldier with his rifle leveled at my chest. I was about to be dead.
So what? is exactly how I felt.
            But the soldier standing over me slapped me in the face, hard. And I saw it was my lieutenant. “Chopper’s coming.” He dragged Rodgers off my lap. “Leave him. Let’s get the hell out of Dodge.”
            “Chopper? In this rain?”
            “It’s Mad Dog. They’re letting him fly again.”
            “Far out.” Mad Dog was insane. Clinically. But somehow his mania helped him fly in hairy shit that pilots in their right minds couldn’t handle.
I staggered to my feet. Now that I thought I might actually make it, I felt terrified. My heart started thumping like a boom box. Getting to a clearing for evac, waiting for the chopper, hearing it approach, watching it touch down through curtains of rain—to this day, I can’t remember any of that. The adrenaline pumping through my body wiped out my memory like electroshock.
Anyway, half a dozen of us got out—out of a squad of twenty. All but one survivor was wounded. Wasn’t me. Turns out, I’d been hit and didn’t even know it until we were aboard the chopper. I had a silver-dollar sized hole that entered through my right butt cheek and exited the left.
I laid on my belly on cold, corrugated aluminum. Jesus, I felt every vibration. The rotors churning, thub-thub-thub-thub-thub-thub-thub-thub…man, I mean, PAIN in the ass.
Guys bleeding and moaning all around. The smells of blood and vomit and guts and the kerosene reek of burnt jet fuel exhaust. Over the noise of the rotors and turbines, my lieutenant leaned toward me and shouted something in my face. I didn’t understand a word and I put up my hand to keep him from slapping me again. He stuck his lips against my ear and screamed, “Did you get his dog tags?”
Fuck. You’re supposed to yank them off and take them with you when you leave a comrade behind. I’d been too freaked out to grab Rodgers’s tags. Now his parents weren’t going to get anything back from ‘Nam. Not their son. Not his body. Not even his damn dog tags.
The lieutenant read the look on my face. “It’s okay, man.” He squeezed my shoulder, and I winced, because I felt it down in my butt. “Don’t mean nuthin’,” he yelled. “You did good. You’re alive.”
But it’s not okay.
Here it is, forty years later, and it’s still not okay.
It means something.
Doesn’t it?

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