|C O M B A T|
|the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones ™|
|ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 02 Number 02 Spring ©Apr 2004|
I pull the trigger of my M-16, on full auto, and Charlie's face, at 600 rounds a minute, becomes a kaleidoscope of bone and tissue. The reek of burnt flesh and hair shoves aside the swamp's stench and penetrates my nostrils. The smell of my flesh and hair, seared by 18 shells ejecting from the right. A scarlet shifting blur flows out of black pajamas to complement the jungle's bottle green. “Chào, buddy, Chào” I mutter in Vietnamese. “So long. So long.”
When I was eight, my father told me, when death stares you in the face in combat, so close you can smell the other guy's breath, your whole life can flash in front of you. Sometimes, though, just a fragment surfaces, a little sliver that you've long forgotten.
“I was twenty in '43, Dave,” he said, “and a jungle scout in the Solomons. One night, I was far ahead of my company. I was crawling through some kunai grass when I felt cold metal against my jaw. It was the muzzle of a Jap Nambu Light machine gun. Suddenly, everything in front of me melted away. Before I knew it, I was thousands of miles from there, back in the North Country, your age again. I was standing in my old Holy Cross schoolroom and telling a nun about my toothache. She dipped her hand in a holy water font and made the sign of the cross on my jaw where it hurt. ‘It'll be all right now, Laddie,’ she said. And it was. I was carrying my knife out, and I stuck it to that guy before he could get one shot out of that 30-round magazine.”
I don't know where Charlie was when I killed him. Maybe on a night-fishing trip on a painted wooden boat. When he was seven, with his old man on the Nam Qum River. Or on an early-morning stroll through the market with his mother in Dien Bien Phu. Or maybe, with a playmate, molding a tiny house in the hard-packed sand of Tra Co beach. Maybe when my bullets hit him, he was on a raft on the Quay Son feeling the spray of the Ban Gioc Waterfall against his face.
I only know where I went when he stuck the barrel of his Type 56 in my face.
I was nine again, deep in the Adirondacks, with my father on my first deer hunt. I was hauling a huge gun, far too big for a child. The sort of gun that would have given Hemingway a hard-on.
The gun explodes in my hands at the first deer I see. What appears to my eyes as a buck is no more than a doe. It lurches and heads for the bush.
“I hit it!” I yell, from the ground where the gun's recoil has deposited me.
“You just nicked it, kid. Get your ass after it so it doesn't suffer,” he says.
The spruce, with their branches, slap my face along a gauntlet of trillium and ferns. A distant loon's call mocks me and cheers them on. I stumble and slip over moss and cones and, in a clearing, trap my foot in a woodchuck hole. When I catch up with the doe, I am drenched with sweat. I rip open the collar of my hunting jacket, gasp for breath. I stick the gun's muzzle in the doe's face. One shot and Bambi's deerness is gone.
I have no sense of the deer as an animate being, in the process of life or death. It is merely an obstacle between me and my father's approval. There is no forethought, no afterthought. No meditation on the mysteries of life and death, no post-killing nausea. There is only that moment.
I am back with Charlie now. His legs are still twitching. Not life but a mockery of it; the original Dance of Death. “At least you didn't suffer, buddy. Chào.”
I reload my M-16, adjust my webgear and turn to go.
There are two of them there, with guns pointed, waiting for me ... in black pajamas and smiling. I pull the trigger. Two bullets enter the chamber, and the M-16 jams.
I am six, in the Adirondacks again. Hurtling down a hillside on a splintered toboggan with my older brother Pete. I am in front and Pete, with his long arms, has me in a protective lock. He's laughing and slugging me in the kidneys, over and over. The snow is razor-like and cuts my face, but I turn to him and yell, “It ain't never gonna get better than this, Pete. Never.” He just keeps grinning and laughing. And when I turn front again, he tightens his grip, leans forward, and says to me, in a voice not my brother's, “Chào, chào.”