combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 05 Number 03 Summer ©Jul 2007

Small Charlie

          As the third tank rattles out the back gate, Pham ties the third knot in one of the cords hanging from his waist. Two soldiers begin to swing the gate shut and the boy runs toward the center of the compound, the helicopter staging area.

          About eight soldiers with rifles sprawl on the red clay outside the hatch of each of six helicopters. The rotors of the helicopters spin slowly. No time to tie knots with an exact count of the soldiers. He must hurry. Even with only twelve years, he is certain that the fighting will not be far from the compound. The facts speak clearly: no fuel truck with the tanks and the soldiers carry no heavy packs. Rice paddies, where tanks cannot go, surround the compound and the road – the single road connecting the compound with all the nearby villages. The soldiers plan to fight on or near this road.

          Pham can see the ambushes in his mind: rockets and mines blow up the tanks returning on the road and anti-aircraft guns hit the helicopters returning from the fighting. There is no time to waste. He knows the runner waits for his report outside the main gate. He reminds himself that he must hurry. The runner hides in a cone of rice straw beside the road, fifty running steps beyond the small statue of the Buddha.

          Pham runs past the sentries and out the gate just before it closes. He ignores the hand-painted bilingual sign he cannot read: ANY VIETNAMESE RUNNING FROM THIS COMPOUND WILL BE SHOT – it is presumed that anyone fleeing has probably set the fuse on a bomb. "I will learn to read," he whispers to himself as two images of his village in his fifth year pass through his mind: the burning school building and the dead body of the teacher.

          As Pham reaches the statue, he glances at the worn face of the compassionate Buddha. Feeling a sharp ant-sting between his shoulder blades, he shakes it off and begins counting his running steps as the first raindrops fall.

          He thinks that Au will be proud of me. In the underground classroom, when the children kowtow and burn joss sticks in front of pictures of our famous warriors, I will sit next to Au. I must always protect Au; she is also twelve but smaller and weaker. Ten running steps, one time.

          She always sits in front of the picture of Trieu Au, her namesake. Trieu Au sits on an elephant and swings two swords. Au also likes the picture of Phung Thi Chinh, who gave birth to a baby in the middle of a battle against the Chinese. The picture shows her fighting a fierce Chinaman, her baby strapped to her back. Au says that when we get older, she will carry our baby on her back. The next picture is my favorite warrior, Le Loi, who casts his net on the water. All children know he will bring up a magic sword in his net and fight the Chinese invaders. Ten running steps, two times.

          When I return to camp, the corporal will let me sit next to Au as she packs the explosive into the hand grenades. I love to watch her quick fingers. She does not like this sticky explosive that stains her fingers. She washes her hands many times. Always cool, smooth, and clean, Au smells good. Ten running steps, three times.

          Yesterday, the corporal told me that I was getting too tall to visit the ugly hairy giants' base camp. I am getting big but I am not afraid; the ugly hairy giants know nothing and sometimes give me candy. Ten running steps, four times.

          The last picture in the row of famous warriors is Ho Chi Minh, Uncle Ho. The corporal promised me that if I am brave enough to bring important news from the big nosed, ugly hairy giants' compound, Ho Chi Minh will visit our camp and pin a ribbon on my chest. The corporal also promised me a rifle. I will then fight in ambushes as a young man and will not have to do boy's work in the hairy giants' compound. I can see myself in the rifle ceremony with Au watching: the captain smiles down at me and presents me with a rifle, all my own. Ten running steps, five times.

          In front of the small roadside statue of the compassionate Buddha, Pham lies face down in the red dust pocked with raindrop impressions; a red hole between his shoulder blades collects the burgeoning rain.

by Peter Graebner
... who is a former Marine Corps officer and mathematics professor, and a retired topologic geophysicist, now writing freelance on Asian subjects, including a trilogy of spy novels set during China's national revolution (1911-48). He has published "Samurai Geometry" in the Journal of Asian Martial Arts, "The Forever Motel" in Words of Wisdom, and "The Philosopher's Shingle" in Words of Wisdom. His writing has previously appeared in this periodical.

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C O M B A T, the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones