"Thirty days son, just thirty days – the good Lord willin,
an Charley and his big brother cooperate for once – then
they send me home. And when I get there, I'm going hug you and
your mama so tight ain't neither one of you gonna be able to
breathe for a week," said Sergeant First Class Clarence Ball, to
the photograph of his newborn son, lovingly cradled in his
oversize rough-hewn hands. He sat atop a sandbag bunker, built on
a clearing cut in the jungle: forty-five miles south of Pleiku,
fourteen miles east of the Cambodian border, in the Republic of
Ball's large black frame cast a shadow nearly as large as the
bunker itself. While his body, under direct assault from the
searing South East Asian sun, added layers of wet to an already
soaked and faded green T-shirt. His face, reminiscent of a young
Isaac Hays, but with eyes that betrayed the strain and fatigue
that comes from being too long in country, suddenly erupted into
an enormous grin. His mind saw the father he would be, in the
photograph of his newborn son.
"Hey, Ball, you're going to burn to a little black cinder if you
stay out in that sun much longer," said Staff Sergeant
Washington, from his slightly more comfortable seat in the shade
of the bunker, where he and Sergeant First Class McKinley sat
sharing a can of warm Coke.
"Now I want you to tell me the truth, Washington, you too,
McKinley – ain't this the greatest looking baby you've seen
in your entire life – Clarence Ball the Second."
"Ball, that boy is got to be the best looking kid ever born in
this here year of 1966," Washington said, as he gave Sergeant
McKinley a jab in the ribs.
"Ok, I get the idea," Ball said laughing.
"Don't let Washington get to you, Ball," said Sergeant McKinley.
"I remember when my wife had our first; I got drunk for three
days and damn near got busted for disorderly conduct. But, when I
held that kid in my arms for the first time I felt like a five
"We've been trying to have a baby for ten years. She finally gets
pregnant, and they send me over here. She has the baby, and I'm
still over here. Hell, when he was born I was on long-range
patrol, didn't find out I was a daddy until I got back to base
camp six weeks later. Boy's already three months old and I ain't
never held him in my arms, and this is the first damn picture
I've seen of my son since he came into the world. The way things
are going he'll be graduated from high school before I get home."
"What you so worried about man? You short! You is so short you
can hardly see above your boot tops," said Washington.
"Being short ain't gonna keep Charlie and his buddies from trying
to sneak in here some night and blowing us all to hell. And it
sure ain't gonna keep his big brother from crossing the border
with a regiment or two just to see how many GI's he can take out.
Short, yeah I'm short, but thirty days over here is gonna feel
like thirty years."
"But that's SOP around here, man, why you so worried now?" said
"It's called the curse of being short," said Sergeant McKinley.
"When you first get here being short is all you dream about, but
once you're short, you're jumpier than a crippled canary in a
room full of cats."
"Amen to that," said Ball.
In the distance the sky turned from bright blue, to an orange-yellow, to black as giant thunderheads began rolling toward the
encampment. Ball looked up. A chill passed through his body, but
not from any change in the temperature, something inside, what
his mom use to call someone walking on your grave. He
kissed the picture of his son, and carefully put it back inside
"Looks like the monsoon season starting; better get inside before
we're soaked," he said, stepping down from the bunker. "You know
back home in Mississippi we got hot and when it rains things cool
down. But over here if you ain't sweatin your ass off you're
freezing it off when the monsoon's hit."
The downpour assaulted the bunker in large sheets, feeding the
small streams of water that found their way inside a room already
smelling of damp earth, mildew, and sweat. McKinley stood near
the entrance staring out into the rain, while Washington curled
his long lanky body into a semi fetal position at the far end of
the bunker, and dreamed of the day when he would be short.
Ball found a relatively dry corner, took out the letter from his
wife and began rereading it, for the fifteenth time.
"My Dearest Darling Husband:
I still can't believe this tiny miracle laying here beside me.
He's so beautiful, so perfect, so little. I just can't believe
that after all this time he is really here, really is ours. How I
wish you were here to hold him in your arms, God, I hate the
Army. Maybe daddy was right – never marry a lifer. NO, NO,
I didn't mean that. I knew what I was getting into. After all I'm
a lifer's daughter, a real Army brat.
And speaking of that lifer. You should see daddy. Strutting
around the entire post telling everyone about his new Grandson.
Says that boy is going to be the first black general in the
United States Army. He already asked the post commander about an
appointment to West Point ...."
"Ball, McKinley, Washington, you in there," came a voice from
Ball looked up from the letter, "Yeah we're here."
"Old man wants to see y'all along with Sergeant Williams in his
hootch at 1500 hours."
"God, what now," said Washington. "Don't they ever leave us
"Oh it's probably nothing," said Sergeant McKinley. "Captain just
wants to make sure we keep the troops doing something: digging
holes, building bunkers, you know, busy work. If a GI ain't doing
something officers get nervous."
The hair on the back of Balls neck stood on end.
The CP's guidon read 2nd Platoon, Charley Company,
3rd Battalion, 1st Air Cavalry. Inside,
Captain Moore, dressed in a pair of fatigues that should have
been honorably discharged months ago, sat in the command bunker
waiting. "Ok gentlemen," he said when everyone finally arrived.
"Here is the situation. We just got a load of FNG's from the repo
depo, and we lost two lieutenants. Gavin is out with a bad
appendix and Johnson reached his six-month rotation, so thanks to
the geniuses in Saigon he's off somewhere pushing papers as we
talk. That's why you're here. As of right now, McKinley, you're
acting Platoon Leader for the 1st platoon, Williams,
you take over as Platoon Sergeant. Ball, you're acting Platoon
Leader 3rd platoon, Washington, you're acting Platoon
"Sir," said Sergeant McKinley, "Sergeant Ball only has thirty
"I am fully aware of how short Sergeant Ball is, but I need him;
we got a situation here. Bravo Company spotted what looks like a
build up across the river in Cambodia. If that's true something
big could be coming. With all these FNG's we have around here I
can't afford to sit on my dead ass and wait for battalion to come
up with the cadre I need."
"Hell these guys are fresh out of AIT. They got no idea what
they're doing. I need a command structure in place, and I need
these guys whipped into some kind of shape, now, just in case.
The way HQ tells it we should be up to our full complement of
officers and NCO's in two weeks. Between then and now I really
need your cooperation on this, ok."
All four men answered as one, "Yes, sir."
Captain Moore looked directly at Ball. "I know your wife just had
your first, and I promise you this, when those replacements come
I'll find some excuse to sent you to Pleiku until you're ready to
"Thank you, sir."
Ten days later Ball stood on a small mound watching Washington
put his platoon through its paces with the look of a man totally
devoid of patience.
"No, no, no. I can't believe you still don't get it. You're all
moving like a bunch of over aged grandmas at some church social.
If this were the real thing, you'd all be going home in bags. Now
do it again, only this time try getting it right, shouted Ball."
"Yes, Sergeant," said the assembled group of FNG's.
"Ok, Washington, one more time."
"You look like you were born to be a leader of men," said
Sergeant McKinley, as a smile spread over a lean tanned face that
was always one day away from clean-shaven. "But aren't you being
a little hard on them. I gave my kids the afternoon off."
Ball looked up, "Your group any better?"
"Hell no, the Captain was right. These kids don't know squat.
Thank God we're not into anything just yet."
"What about Bravo company."
"So far nothing. It doesn't make sense. Why would an NVA unit
build up close enough for one of our patrols to see them? Captain
thinks it could be a decoy."
"Yeah, or it could be they want a fight."
"Bad weather closes in we get no air support. That leaves us with
nothing but our artillery. So the NVA adds mobile artillery to
their rockets and mortars inventory, then stages a massive
assault across the border. Slicks are grounded, that means the
only way we get reinforcements is over land. So we sit there with
everything the NVA has in this part of the country jumping all
over our sorry ass until the weather clears, or a relief column
makes it," said Ball.
"You're making my lunch think twice about staying put in my
stomach," said Sergeant McKinley.
"You. I'm down to twenty days. All I want to do is crawl in a
hole and pull the dirt back over top of me."
"I think I'll get back to my people and give them a big kick in
the ass. If you're right, we are going to need every swinging
Ball turned back to his group. "Ok ladies let's do it one more
time." He ignored the groans.
"What are you down to today, Ball?" Lieutenant Owens said as he
and the four other Platoon Leaders sat waiting for Captain Moore
to return to the company HQ.
"Seventeen days, six hours and fifteen minutes, approximately
sir," said Ball. The group laughed.
"Sorry for the delay," said Captain Moore as he entered the room.
"Just got off the radio with battalion, and it looks like monsoon
or no monsoon we got something like two regiments of NVA about to
come our way. S-2 says along with mortars and rockets they're
packing mobile artillery."
Sergeant McKinley looked at Ball.
"Saigon tells us if they want to fight, we fight. They'll back us
up with everything at their disposal. We got top priority from
all the artillery in the area, but air support will depend on the
weather, right now it's ok but two hours from now who knows?"
Captain Moore unfolded an area map, set it on a desk in front of
the men and pointed to a section marked in red. "At 0600 hours
tomorrow our Company, along with Alpha and Delta companies, will
stake our claim about three miles on our side of the border. We
got the middle; Alpha has the right flank and Delta the left.
Ball your platoon will be first in and secure the LZ, once the
whole company is in we form up and move out, and God help us. Any
"We assemble at 0530 hours tomorrow. Dismissed."
Artillery peppered the LZ for forty-five minutes. Thirty seconds
after the last shell exploded, gunships began flying cover as
three slicks dropped into the LZ – hot and flared –
never touched down, never stopped moving. Ball and his men jumped
from the birds in ground effect, and hit the LZ running
with M-16's firing full automatic. The surrounding jungle and
everything else in their line of fire became so much green mulch.
The first contingent of the 3rd platoon moved toward
the perimeter of the LZ amid the wail of aircraft engines, the
roar of gunfire, and the organized chaos of an airmobile landing.
Before the rest of his men were on the ground, Ball had the LZ
The gunships withdrew. The rest of the company off-loaded as a
light mist began settling over the ground, filling the men's
nostrils with the stench of burning vegetation, scorched earth,
and charred flesh.
Radios squawked with near incoherent chatter as Captain Moore
formed up his company. From his command post near the LZ he would
direct and coordinate the operation.
Ball moved out from the LZ with the rest of the company keeping
his platoon in a tight formation as they twisted and snaked their
way through a colossal spider web of vegetation that formed a
nearly impenetrable labyrinth of knee high saw grass, giant
trees, and thick intertwining tropical vines. The company,
meeting no resistance, kept advancing in a northeasterly
direction to form the LZ. There only link to the captain and each
other was a PRC-25 radio strapped to the back of its operator.
"Sergeant," said Private DeSantis, Ball's RTO, "1st
platoon reports caps popping on their left flank – nothing
"Got some people down now," said DeSantis, "getting more serious
– the CO ordered a halt."
Ball passed the word down the line, "halt in place." He picked up
the radiophone and began monitoring the situation.
"2nd platoon, we just walked into a nest of guys in
khaki uniforms, must be NVA. Got a real shit storm going now;
they're hitting us with small arms fire and mortars. Request
"Wilco, gunships en route," radioed Moore, "hang tough."
"All hell just broke, Captain, 2nd platoon's under
heavy attack, lost contact with one squad forming a defensive
perimeter. We're taking heavy losses, need help."
"Ball," said Captain Moore, "reinforce 2nd platoon."
"Copy," said Ball, as the men of 3rd platoon followed
Ball's commands to pivot on their axis, form a skirmish line and
bulldoze their way through dense jungle and heavy enemy fire with
a tenacity and speed that even General Patton would have admired.
"3rd platoon just linked up with 2nd,"
reported Ball. "Taking heavy weapons fire, 2nd just
lost Lieutenant Owens – Sergeant Henderson now running
things. Where in the hell are those gunships?"
"Gunships sighted. Ball, you direct from your position, Henderson
got enough problems," said Captain Moore.
"Still getting our ass kicked," Ball said, "gunships returning to
base. Need more air support."
"Just got the last of any air support, or artillery – we're
on our own," said Captain Moore. "All platoons report in."
"3rd platoon's in high angle hell. We got an entire
regiment coming our way and they're throwing everything they own
2nd platoon getting hit with artillery, mortars, and
rockets – not sure we can hold our position," reported
"1st platoon being flanked on two sides – we're
in a world of hurt."
"All platoons withdraw to LZ, say again withdraw to LZ," said
Captain Moore. "Ball take two squads and cover the withdrawal.
Sending up two M-60's and two large organic – should help."
Ball took the two squads and held the line. What was left of the
three platoons made it back to the LZ.
"Everybody here but you, Ball. Will provide cover. Move out,
Through a crack in the right flank, Ball withdrew his men in a
leapfrog fashion, one squad retreating while the other provided
additional covering fire. The ground beneath them shook and
bucked so violently from exploding artillery that the men had
trouble staying on their feet. Somehow Ball managed to keep his
men together and moving as automatic weapons and cannon fire
continuously battered the area with the intensity of a monsoon
rain. But the jungle that had been such a bane in the attack,
provided enough cover and concealment from the enemy's lethal
barrage in the retreat, so that Ball was able to make it back to
the LZ without taking any additional casualties.
"Ok," said Captain Moore to what remained of his company. "We
form a defensive line here. Everything inside the perimeter is
us, everything outside the perimeter we shoot. Ball, you're
acting XO. Now get on the radio with battalion and get us some
air support, artillery, reinforcements, anything."
Ball reported back in three minutes, "Sir, weather closing in
can't get air. Battalion says artillery engaged with two other
companies, will get to us as soon as possible. Reinforcements out
of the question."
"That is totally unacceptable," said Captain Moore.
"Sir," said Sergeant Washington, "some of the new guys are
starting to panic."
"We don't need this now. Ball, get those men under control."
Ball restored order in less time than it took to report back.
"Sir, they're coming right at Sergeant McKinley," shouted Ball.
"Sir, he's not stopping them!"
"Ball, reinforce McKinley. Engage FPL's, and it sure as hell
doesn't matter if they burn out the MG barrels! You can't let
them breach our perimeter!"
"I'll stop the bastards, sir."
"Battalion, this is 6-actual, Broken Lance, I say again Broken
Lance. American unit in danger of being overrun, American unit in
danger of being overrun."
Ball held the perimeter.
Dorothy Marie Ball heard the knock at her bedroom door. "It's
time, honey," came the deep base voice from the outside hall.
"Thanks daddy, we'll be right out." She looked at her new son.
"Got to make sure you look good when you see your daddy. Yes,
sir, can't have you looking like some raggedy new recruit." She
adjusted his top, double-checked to make sure everything was
perfect, then picked up her son. She hugged him tight, "Your
daddy is a genuine war hero. They gave him a medal and a battle
field promotion. Lieutenant Clarence Ball. Now what do you think
of that." Her baby smiled.
She opened the door. Her father was standing there waiting,
dressed in his best uniform, covered with virtually every medal,
service ribbon, and hash mark a man with twenty-five years in the
Army could earn. "Come on baby," she said to her boy, "let's go
see your daddy."
Mrs. Clarence Ball sat patiently waiting as the officer slowly
approached her chair. He stood before her straight and rigid
holding a flag in both hands that had been folded into a perfect
triangle. He leaned forward bringing his body closer to her, then
handed her the flag. In a voice just above a whisper he said,
"please accept this flag as a token of respect on behalf of a
grateful nation." He straitened up, stepped back, and gave her a
slow and perfect hand salute.
Tears welled up in her eyes as she pulled the flag close to her
and her son. "Say goodbye, baby," she said as the tears streamed
down her face and onto the white stars covering a field of blue.
"Say goodbye to your daddy."
by Herman N. Spinelli
... who is a Vietnam veteran, now working as a pharmaceuticals
representative, with two essays and five short stories published
regionally; his completed book, entitled A God of Foreign
Lands, is seeking an agent for publication.