combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 02 Number 04 Fall ©Oct 2004


          Nobody had much to say when those bags came off the chopper. No sir, quiet as mice. They zipped the bags open and I thought Captain Edmiston was going to puke. No gunshot wounds and no shrapnel wounds either ... couldn't have been done by bullets or shrapnel. Nobody said a word, except Captain Edmiston, and all he could manage was, "What the fuck?"

          Then he looked at me. I was still standing in the back of the chopper and he looked at me hard. I knew what he was thinking. Why not me too? It's what I was thinking myself, why not me? He looked sick and pissed off at the same time. Maybe Robenault told him about the kids over the radio.

          We'd been there two days. We were guarding a field just big enough to get a chopper in and out. They left a big rubber fuel tank on the ground so choppers could land and refuel.

          It was some kind of special operation. They didn't tell us anything about it, except to guard the landing zone and the fuel tank until they came back and got us. So we did that for two days. Both days choppers came in, always full of grunts, refueled, and kept going.

          The landing zone was flat and grassy, except right on the edge, on the east side of the field, where there was a grave. A grave right out in the middle of nowhere.

          None of us had ever seen a grave like that before and we couldn't figure out why it was so damned big. The mound rose up like a huge egg coming up out of the ground and the top of it was as high as our waists.

          Gilliam said that maybe it was some big shot they buried with all his horses and wives; killed them all to bury with him like the Egyptians did, he said; and that's why it was so big. It could be full of dead gooks, he said. Gilliam spent a year at the University of Virginia, so maybe he knew.

          Anyway, I figured the grave was so old even God didn't remember who was in it. For us it was just a place to sit.

          The kids came at sundown both days. They came from a village two clicks away. We never knew what the name of the village was. Maybe it was so small it didn't even have a name.

          The kids stood across the rolls of wire and looked at us. Then they started talking. The only English I ever got was "GI" and "hey." "Hey, GI ..." and then gibberish.

          Then they would start making gestures. Hand to mouth gestures, like they were putting something in their mouths and eating it. The kids, four of them, stood on the other side of the rolls of wire, making eating gestures and yakking gibberish.

          When the kids came we would be sitting on top of the grave. From there we could see all around the landing zone and it seemed as good a place to be as any. If Captain Edmiston had known we were doing that all night too, and drinking Cinquamani's hooch, instead of being in the sandbagged holes around the perimeter, he would have raised hell. But he wasn't there.

          Cinquamani brought four canteens of hooch with him. He had canteens hanging all over him when we landed. I don't know how he got the hooch, but he was a fast talking New Yorker.

          We didn't drink the hooch during the day. That's when the choppers came and we helped refuel them, and waved them in and out. We started sitting on the grave mound and drinking the hooch everyday about the time the kids showed up.

          They were skinny kids. They were boys and they wore short pants. Their legs went straight down to their bare feet, with knees that stuck out hard and round like billiard balls. Their arms were skinny too, bony at the elbows, and they had long narrow faces. Their teeth were bad; crooked, missing, and caked. But still, they smiled, laughed and gibbered like kids.

          The oldest one, maybe twelve, but it's hard to tell with gooks, smoked cigarettes. He rolled the cigarettes himself but his thin fingers were clumsy at it and he looked funny, with his skinny arms and legs and his skinny head too, with a loosely rolled up cigarette big as a small cigar sticking out of his mouth. Laughing, smiling, yakking like a monkey and puffing on the cigarette.

          But they kept pointing to their mouths and making gestures like eating.

          On the first day I threw a can of spaghetti over the wire. I remember the sound it made when it hit the ground by the kid smoking a cigarette. Thump. Hard as a brick. "That's the way that shit's going to hit your stomach too, kid," I yelled at the boy. He smiled and picked up the can.

          Then the smallest one, maybe eight years old, but, like I said it's hard to tell with gooks, put his hand up to his mouth and chewed, never taking his eyes off my face.

          Thump. I threw another can.

          I don't remember what it was, but the little kid ran to it and grabbed it up like it was wrapped in colored paper under a Christmas tree.

          That's when Robenault grabbed me by the shoulders. "What the fuck you doing, man? Are you fucking crazy? You know what they do with that shit?" he said, shaking me hard by the shoulders. My helmet almost fell off.

          "Yeah, they eat it," I said.

          "You dumb shit," Robenault said. "They eat it and then their big brothers make booby traps out of the cans. I catch you doing that again I'll bust your ass for sure," he said, flecks of white spittle flying out of his mouth.

          The kids watched, two of them, the oldest one and the smallest one, holding the c-rats cans down by their sides. Their eyes were black and seemed to sink further into their faces.

          I stooped over and picked up another of the green cans. I looked at it. Crackers and cheese. A real delicacy with crackers that tasted like sawdust. I heaved it over the wire like throwing a baseball. "Fuck you," I said to Robenault.

          The kids swarmed over the crackers and cheese. Then they ran off toward the village, carrying the cans.

          That night, the first night, we sat on the grave and drank Cinquamani's hooch. It was bourbon, raw and cheap, and burned its way down.

          We talked some, drank some, and just sat there some. Listening to the dark between the talking and drinking. After the hooch lit a fire in his belly, Cinquamani pissed on the grave and said, "Fuck you, you slope-headed fucker."

          Then we all fell asleep, except Hightower, who had the first watch. Hightower woke me up at 4 A.M. "Your turn," he said. Then he slid down the side of the grave mound and lay against it with his face to the sky.

          I sat in the dark on the hump of the grave and sang bits of Smoky Robinson songs in my head. Then I imagined screwing a girl. A girl with a generic young girl's face and no name.

          It was maybe an hour later when I felt it. I felt it from my buttocks all the way down my legs. It was a sinking jolt, like an elevator suddenly hitting bottom. And then the grave pulsed. It moved. It rose under me like the elevator was coming back up. I jumped up and started shaking. For some stupid reason I brushed the dirt from the grave off my butt.

          The other guys kept right on sleeping; all of them right there, up against the side of the grave mound.

          I stood there until I saw a line of gray doing a slow fade-in across the horizon. How long that was I don't know, but I sure as hell wasn't going to sit back down on that grave. Nobody else moved. Robenault snored. I stood there waiting, lighting cigarettes with shaking hands, more scared of the grave than I was that the gooks would see the light from the cigarette. I could still feel that vibration, that sudden thump, traveling down my legs and into my boots.

          When the gray on the horizon was high enough to see details I woke everybody up. Soon we would hear the whumping blades of the first choppers.

          "What the fuck's wrong with you?" Robenault said. "Your face is white as a sheet. You sick?"

          I didn't tell him anything. It was too crazy. It would make me look too crazy. And there was the hooch. "No. A little too much bug juice last night," I said. He looked at me another second and walked away.

          All day choppers came in and went out, and I tried to figure out what had happened. They all kept sleeping. They didn't feel anything. Maybe it was the hooch. Or maybe I've been here too long, I thought. I decided not to drink anymore of the hooch.

          By the time the day ended and the kids came back I was sure it was the hooch. My stomach felt like a rock and every time I belched the taste came back for a second shot at making me sick. It had to be the hooch.

          This time the kids bunched up together in a group and looked straight at me, like the other guys were not even there.

          "No way," Robenault said.

          Then the oldest kid, the tallest one, with his straight meatless arms, put his hand to his mouth and started chewing. The kid held his long bony fingers against his mouth.

          Robenault was watching me too. Cinquamani, Hightower, and Gilliam were smiling, waiting for the show.

          "No way," Robenault said again. Then he said, "Gilliam, break out the c-rats. I'm hungry. Time to chow down." But he never took his eyes off me when he said it.

          Gilliam went to the pile of c-rat cases, busted one open with his Kabar knife, piled cans in his arms and went around dropping them in front of everybody. He dropped a can of beans and franks in front of me. I took a puff of cigarette and looked away.

          Robenault picked up the can of c-rats Gilliam dropped in front of him. He didn't open it; he just sat there, holding it in front of him, his eyes boring into me.

          "GI, you got ..." the tall kid started to say.

          "Shut the fuck up," Robenault shouted at the kid.

          I looked down between my knees, my arms across the tops of my knees and my hands holding each other, and said nothing.

          "Beat it, slope-heads," Robenault yelled at the kids. "Little cocksucking gooks," he said. Then Robenault looked at me and said, "You like them cocksucking gooks, don't you? We'll see what Captain Edmiston says about that. Maybe he'll send you out where you can step on one of their fucking booby traps."

          Still looking down at the ground between my knees, I remembered the girl I was thinking about screwing when I felt the grave throb under my ass the night before. I found a face for her. The face of a girl I knew in high school. Tenth grade. I remembered her name, too. Then I stood up, holding the can of beans and franks, and threw it as hard as I could over the wire. The can sailed over the kids' heads and they watched it, bending their drinking straw necks back, as it flew through the air over their heads.

          "You bastard," Robenault said and ran toward me. He jumped on me, his fists pounding against both sides of my head.

          When the other guys pulled Robenault off, the kids were still standing in a clump. Watching. They didn't say anything. Not so much as an eye blinked.

          The tall kid walked over to the can of beans and franks, picked it up and came as close to the wire as he could and tossed the can back over. I was surprised that his pencil arms could do it. The kid, his eyes darting from me to Robenault and back again, said nothing. Then the kids walked away toward the village.

          "What did he say?" Hightower said.

          "Probably something along the lines of stick it up your ass," Gilliam said.

          "When we get back you and me are going to have a little talk with Captain Edmiston," Robenault said to me.

          I watched the kids, walking away toward the village.

          Soon the night came on and where the morning had brought a cold gray line across the horizon, there was now a neon yellow-orange deepening into red like fire burning the sky. The fire slowly died down behind the curve of the earth, the red ball of the sun sinking into the ground like the earth was consuming it.

          I didn't drink any hooch that night. I didn't say much either.

          "What's the matter, man?" Hightower said.

          "Ah, he's not feeling too good. He looked like shit this morning. Didn't do a fucking thing all day either. Worthless shit," Robenault said.

          I listened to the talk about girls, how fucked up the military was, and the first-thing-I'm-going-to-do-when-I-get-home singsong, and smoked cigarettes. I let the canteen cup pass me by. And I wouldn't sit on that grave either.

          I would have told everybody about what had happened the night before, but I was sure it was the hooch. I was still bubbling it back up from my guts. Just leave it alone and I'd be okay.

          I was the first one to fall asleep. I put my helmet under the back of my head, spread my poncho on the grass a few yards from the grave and went to sleep.

          I woke up because Gilliam was screaming. A scream that jerked me awake ... that paralyzed me.

          Then Cinquamani did it too. A terror-stricken, tortured animal scream; the sound of it coming out of the dark.

          And sobbing. Begging. Between the screams.

          When Hightower and Robenault started screaming too the only part of me that could move was the wild beating of my heart.

          I couldn't see them in the dark ... only hear them. Agonized, howling brutes, sobbing and begging in words so torn by terror that I couldn't understand them.

          And still, I couldn't move from where I lay on the ground, my helmet still under my head. My rifle was by my side but my fear-paralyzed arm would not reach for it.

          And the screams kept going. A chorus abandoned to pain and mindless fear.

          I have no idea how long the screaming lasted. It could have been minutes. It could have been hours.

          I heard other sounds too. Noises in the brief pauses between the screams. But at first I couldn't tell what they were.

          Then I heard a long guttural hum. I felt it more than heard it, over the high-pitched screams. The hum made the ground vibrate, like the first probing rumblings of an earthquake.

          The clouds drifted away. The sky broke free from the low running clouds and the full moon came on like someone flipped a light switch. My eyes blinked with the light, my face still toward the sky and my head pillowed by my helmet, transmitting the vibrations of the ground through my head and neck.

          Paralyzed with fear, only my head and my eyes could move. I turned my head and looked toward the grave.

          What I saw when the moon came on was something growing out of the grave. The grave extended and elongated and puffed itself out with four protrusions like huge vacuum cleaner hoses. And the vacuum cleaner hoses were swallowing Robenault, Cinquamani, Hightower, and Gilliam whole. Alive.

          Dirt clods fell off the tentacle-like protrusions as they moved, and stones fell with the clods of dirt, as they rose above the grave or moved down the slope of the grave mound with the flexible elasticity of something alive; exerting themselves under their covering flesh of dirt, rock, and broken roots.

          And they had black maws sucking in the writhing bodies of Robenault, Cinquamani, Hightower, and Gilliam. The tentacles came to rounded ends with open mouths that sucked and crushed the four screaming men, each of them disappearing down the holes inch by inch.

          My mouth moved, jaw muscles working, but no sounds could get past my paralyzed throat.

          Then I knew what the other sounds were; the sounds in between the screams. They were the sounds of cracking bones.

          And still they screamed as they slid down, were ground down, inch by inch, like sausage through a butcher's grinder, into the mouth ends of the grave tentacles, with each inch punctuated by their screams. Even when they were ingested by the things up to their chests, and their rib-cages and breast bones snapped and broke with popping sounds, they kept screaming ... their mouths wide open and twisted. Their eyes round as ping-pong balls and bulging from their heads.

          I started to crawl backwards, flat on my belly, my eyes riveted on the grave mound with its moving tentacles, thicker than a man's body and twice as long as a man's length, moving up and down and in curving arches, like the motions of a giant spider's legs; sucking, chewing, and grinding their shrieking prey down the openings at their ends. I crawled away backwards, slow and awkward, clinging to the ground and my eyes focused on the tentacles in the light of the moon.

          Robenault, Cinquamani, Hightower, and Gilliam screamed even when all that was left sticking out from the ends of the tentacles were their heads. They were screaming heads now, their faces, illuminated by the moon, were twisted in expressions of terror beyond the most depraved man's imagination.

          Then they stopped. The screaming stopped and was replaced by a silence even more terrible. The tentacles kept moving up and down and in their circular arcs, the heads of the men frozen in death grimaces.

          I kept backing away on my belly. I crawled toward the far edge of the landing zone, away from the grave.

          I lay in the dark on the other side of the landing zone, on my belly and facing the direction of the grave, and sobs made my body jump like a dying fish out of water. I stayed there until morning came and never took my eyes off the black mound of the grave.

          When the full circle of the sun was above the horizon I saw the kids again. I was still watching the now inert and silent grave, the tentacles gone; normal as the first day we came.

          They were standing on the other side of the wire, just like they always did. The four kids, standing together in their short pants, the tallest one with a fat and ragged homemade cigarette sticking out of his mouth. They were silent and still and they were watching me. They said nothing, and they made no gestures.

          At first I thought they looked different. Their knees not so bony and their legs and arms not quite so thin.

          They watched me and I watched their motionless faces, until the sound of the first chopper came from the distance. Then they walked away toward the village.

          Nobody had much to say when the body bags came off the chopper. They zipped them open and Captain Edmiston put his hand to his mouth. He looked at the broken pieces of bone and the four heads and said, "What the fuck?" Then he looked at me, his face pale and cold sweat white.

          They put a medical name on me and sent me home. They looked at what was left of Robenault, Cinquamani, Hightower, and Gilliam when they unzipped the body bags and got rid of me as quickly as they got rid of what was left of them.

          My hands shook for six months. I had to play the radio next to my bed at night to sleep. I had a night light for a year. The shrink at the VA hospital put another name on me and gave me some pills. I threw the pills away and drank whiskey instead. And I still can't eat anything out of a can.

by Gene Hines
... who is a Vietnam veteran of the 1st Marine Air Wing, a legal aid attorney, the author of several books and articles, including "Buffalo Hunt" in a recent issue of Black Petals magazine.