The Homecoming

Somehow one more day and night managed to slip away and mark its moment in timelessness. Jimmy Taylor let his dream of home linger behind his closed eyes a little while longer. He struggled to keep the outside world away, but it was proving to be a losing battle as the clamor of the day pried its way into his ears, and shadowy light slipped through his closed eyelids. It was another shit day in-country.
The hooch came slowly into focus as he reluctantly let go of his reverie and willed his eyes to open, leaving the comforting images of home and family to slip into a safe harbor for another time.
Jimmy shared the hooch with nine other enlisted men of the 174th Assault Helicopter Company. It wasn’t exactly designed for comfort, but it offered a comparative luxuriousness not available in the sand bagged bunkers on LZ Sue that he called home before coming down to LZ Mustang. He wasn’t sure at first if transferring to an AHC was a smart move, but he was tired of the rats and filth, and days on end without ample water to clean himself. His arms and legs tingled and burned from the numerous yellow pustules that covered them; the only little relief coming from rainfall showers, or a quick dip in a river while on a walk in the boonies.
His bed was one of ten Army cots lined five to a side in the dusty, oblong, screened building. A scrounged sleeping bag and poncho liner served as mattress and blanket. Wooden ammo boxes served as cabinets and drawers for personal items; a scant attempt at order and sanity in this hell-hole existence. And, as it might be mistaken for, there was a shower room which was nothing more than a wooden box with an open water tank perched high on one side that collected rain water heated by the sun and gravity fed to six shower heads. It was the only thing close to heaven, and his sores, properly treated, eventually healed and disappeared.
Jimmy brought his hands to his head and rubbed gently. His head ached sharply and felt as though it were going to burst. The headaches had become a daily ordeal over the last few weeks. He had been x-rayed by the docs, soothed by the chaplain, and probed by the shrinks, but nothing of medical, spiritual or psychological concern was found. Yet the headaches persisted.
The incessant slapping clatter of choppers hammered into his aching head and rattled the hootches as they ferried men and material to the bush. The olive drab Hueys rose slowly, but gracefully in spite of their loads, and drifted quickly towards the jungle and waiting troops on the hunt for an elusive enemy.
The morning sun sliced its way through the rows of wooden buildings and onto Jimmy’s gaunt and unshaven face. It had been a long time since he slept that hard, the last interruption coming in the middle of the night forty-eight hours earlier when eight mortar rounds slammed into the compound; missing anything of importance. No one had been killed…this time.
Jimmy was exhausted and felt old beyond his years. Having turned nineteen four days out of Qui Nhon in September, 1967, he spent that morning in the galley of the USS Gordon nursing a cup of coffee; watching mesmerized as the horizon rose and fell through the rain streaked porthole, contemplating what fate might have in store for him. He wasn’t anywhere near old enough to vote or buy a beer, but he was old enough to kill…or be killed.
Jimmy was a door gunner on a slick, a Huey designed to carry men and supplies to battle. Since the TET offensive, their missions had been frequent and fierce as they sought and made contact with Viet Cong and NVA units. The war was definitely building up, and more times than he cared to count, all hell broke loose as they dropped into hot LZ after hot LZ.
His crew had flown missions day after day for…for God knows how long. “Too goddam long”, he thought to himself. Three weeks earlier the unit lost two ships and all crew with the exception of one badly wounded Pilot, Warrant Officer Dave “Pops” Fuller.
Squad sized elements of Task Force Cooper, separated into patrols, had been on the ground in a week long operation to surround and flush out a suspected VC and NVA enclave on the Batangan Peninsula in Quang Ngai Province. For several days they had encountered small arms fire and lost several men to bullets and mines as they approached the hamlets, only to be told by the very young and old occupants, “No VC. No VC.” Was it truth? Or was it fear of reprisal?
Two days later the word came from division to pull back to the LZ for pick-up. Frustrated and bloodied, the grunts moved out; eager for the end of the hump and a ride back to Mustang. The platoon was about one-hundred and fifty meters from the hamlet, when a command detonated 155-milimeter artillery shell ripped through the middle of the column, sending body parts and dirt in all directions. Pitiful cries and screams of wounded men were quickly muffled by the frantic crackle of AK-47’s and M-16’s. The ground shook as grenades flew back and forth and the air was filled with guttural howls and terror filled curses as men on either side fell. They had walked into an ambush.
The choppers were redirected to a secondary landing site while gun-ships raced to the site of the melee. One slick was on the ground and Pops bird was settling in for landing when the secondary site exploded into mayhem. Charlie had anticipated and planned on this move.
The first bird had taken an RPG directly into the cockpit and burst into flames. Pops, acting on instincts, began to reverse his landing when his ship was riddled by small arms fire and an RPG slammed into the rotor housing, nearly snapping the bird in two, sending it crashing hard into the ground. Jimmy’s bird was third in line. Hutch and Ketch pulled the Huey away while Jimmy and Cousins sent death into the tree line. In a matter of minutes both ambushes went silent.
Their Huey now on the ground, Jimmy ran to Pops shattered slick, found him to be barely alive and pulled his mangled and bloody body from the wreckage. He should have died that day three weeks ago, but somehow he hung on and was med-evaced to Chu Lai.

But for today, Jimmy was bone-weary tired. Sleep was what he wanted, but it was not his to have. He slowly rolled over on his side, sat upright, set his feet on the floor and rubbed the burning fatigue in his eyes and the explosive pounding hell in his temples. He sat quietly for a long moment, tempted to lie back down and retreat into his dream once more, but other necessities beckoned him.
He stuffed his feet into his boots and reached for his cigarettes. Lighting his smoke, he inhaled deeply, held it for a moment, and exhaled slowly, letting the gray vaporous cloud escape his lips while his eyes roamed the room.
Door gunner Henry Cousins was still sleeping two cots down. A relaxed, slow talking twenty year old from the South Side of Chicago, Henry was a fast witted joker with a permanent smile and infectious laugh. He was a replacement, joining the 174th in mid-December. Assigned to the same bird, Henry and Jimmy had become friends and flew with pilots Ketchum and Hutchins. Henry had been home on leave before shipping to Nam and had married his high school sweetheart on Thanksgiving Day.
“Ketch” was from Montana and “Hutch” from Wyoming. Both were raised on a cattle ranch and of course were known as “The Cowboys.” Under fire they flew their Huey with a wild grace and finesse that only bronco riding cowboys could manage. They were good, real good.
Jimmy grabbed toilet paper from the ammo box cupboard and ambled out the hooch door.
Shuffling towards the latrines, laces trailing behind, he spotted Riffenbach and Hart, two medics with the 3rd Infantry, running and lugging their gear towards the helipad and their Dust Off chopper. Riffenbach called back to Jimmy as he ran past. “Alpha walked into a two hundred-fifty pounder up a goddam tree. The whole platoon is down. Jee-zus!” They turned the corner at the last hooch in a full run and disappeared as Jimmy approached the latrine.
The latrines were being cleaned and the shit burners were busy down wind. This job usually fell to the villagers who worked every day inside the compound. Jimmy thought this was not a good idea as it was common knowledge that several of the workers were either VC or VC sympathizers. Since coming from the boonies, it always made Jimmy uncomfortable to see the compound busy with villagers. He knew that more than one would be taking notes, counting paces and drawing mental maps. No matter, the compound “city folk” did not want to do the labor, so the villagers came every day, and mortars and rockets fell somewhere on the compound every night.
Jet fuel cocktails burned like giant wickless candles in halved fifty-five gallon drums filled with human waste, sending black putrid smoke into the air. Doc Richards, who was tagged to supervise the Vietnamese crew, sat with Peanuts, an older and crippled farmer in his late sixties who wound up the “foreman” on most details. Doc and Peanuts were leaning against a jeep exchanging English words for Vietnamese, Peanuts barking out intermittentent singsong instructions towards his charges. Jimmy waved as he passed.
Entering the screened wooden box that was the latrine, he peered down the first hole to see if the drum was in place, dropped his shorts and sat gazing out towards the village. The locals were up and working in the fields. He could make out movement in the village through the trees. A young boy of about ten, in black shorts and tan shirt, rode placidly on the back of a water buffalo across the open field to his left. How odd it all seemed. The day was unfolding as easily if it were in his home town, belying the reality of the war torn landscape.
Sitting there, staring out into the early morning, his thoughts drifted to his Illinois home, and to Marci. They were engaged with no date set for a wedding, and now the Army set the date further back. Jimmy smiled as he recalled their last night together. His parents not objecting, she had spent the night with him. It had been a gentle and passionate night filled with loving… and unspoken fear. She nestled up against him and he softly kissed her while they both let their tears fall silently.
A muzzle flash winked a cruel reminder in the tree line and a split instant later the whizz of its savage messenger passed nearby. A shift in the wind stung his nostrils with the pungent fetor of flambéed excrement. Yep, another shit day in Vietnam.

By the time Jimmy reached the mess tent, Staff Sgt.Willie Thomas had already served breakfast and all that was left were a few pieces of bacon, the clumped cold remains of powdered eggs, and coffee. The rest had either been thrown away or was being added to whatever was to be the next meal. It didn’t matter, coffee was what Jimmy wanted and most needed. He sipped the thick brew and watched the cooks clean and prepare for the next meal.
Willie walked up to his table, sat across from him and they made small talk for a while over their coffee. Willie told Jimmy that he heard “Pops” had died at the Army hospital in Yokohama, Japan two days ago. Both men sat silent for a few moments then renewed their chatting.
Their conversation was abruptly interrupted by a loud tlang! A bullet struck the bumper of a passing deuce-and-a-half which was quickly followed by a sudden burst of laughter as the vehicle sped off. Willie shook his head, “Someone needs to find that son-of-a-bitch.”
Finishing his coffee, he picked himself up and left the mess tent and headed for the aid station. He was curious to know what had happened with Alpha Company. He passed the burning half-drums and saw that Doc Richards was gone and had left Peanuts to mind the store; his spindly and twisted arm, the result of a WWII wound, meandered wildly as he pointed, emphasizing his prattled instructions.
Mike “Doc” Richards had come down from LZ Sue the week before. He had been Bravo Company’s second platoon medic since the brigade arrived, but had come down to Mustang before being sent to serve as battalion casualty reporter in Chu Lai. It would be his duty to assess and evaluate the WIA and KIA and report to S-2.
Doc had no idea what was to come. He soon would see hundreds in the battalion, many of them friends, come to the hospitals bloodied and dazed, or delivered to Graves Registration, their still warm lifeless bodies stuffed into olive drab body bags. His ears will ring from the frantic, desperate screams and cries of torn and dying men. His lungs will fill with a foul slaughter house stench and his throat will burn from the acrid taste of death.
Jimmy and Doc did their basic training together at Fort Knox, Kentucky. They had become good friends, and then went separate ways for AIT, Doc to Fort Sam Houston, Texas and Jimmy to Fort Benning, Georgia. They bumped into one another again when Doc climbed into Jimmy’s chopper at Mustang on the way up to LZ Sue. It was a reunion of old friends.
The Aid Station at Mustang was well sandbagged. Everyone called it “The Castle” as it stood impressively and nearly impregnable with its triple rows of sandbags neatly stacked around the hootch. Everyone may have joked at its immensity, but it was all in jest. They knew this could be their one hope should they need medical aid. The medics were determined to protect themselves and their patients.
Jimmy passed the “Old Guard” sign, pulled the screen door open and walked in. Doc was sitting with a few other medics on the left who were watching while he wrapped Lt. McKay’s swollen ankle; twisted while on ambush the night before.
Jimmy sat on an ammo box, propped his arms on the table and listened as LT talked softly about his wife and newborn child. “We named him Roy McKay the third.” His eyes closed and his hand went up to his face to wipe a tear. “I can’t wait to see him. My wife says he’s beautiful” Doc finished his wrap and gently tapped LT.’s calf. “Okay here…you’ll be fine, Sir.”
Lt. McKay stood and smiled. “Thanks, Doc,” he whispered and limped out the door. He would die in a firefight six days later.
“What’s up, Jim? How’s that headache?” Doc said putting supplies away.
“Hurts like a bitch” he said rubbing his temples and forehead.
“You should talk with Bennett” Doc suggested, filling his aid bag.
Paul Bennett had been majoring in psychology at the University of Indiana. With one year left to graduation, and suffering from burn out, he dropped out and was drafted soon after. The army of course did not want to waste any part of his education and stuck him into a four-deuce mortar platoon while the brigade was still stateside. The battalion doctor pulled some strings and had him transferred into the medical platoon.
“Is Paul here? I thought he was in Chu Lai?”
“He’s over at the 6th Support Hospital right now. You should talk to him, Jim.”
“I might do that, Mike” Jimmy replied. “I just might do that. “What’s up with Alpha? I ran into Riffenbach and Hart”
“First platoon. They were on the beach, I think, and headed for a tree. Charlie set off a big fucker. The last we heard was nine KIA. Everyone else is wounded, four pretty bad.
“No shit?”
“Yeah, the whole platoon is down.”
Jimmy grabbed a cigarette from an opened pack on the table, lit it and let out a long sigh.
“What the hell where they doing going to a tree?” Jimmy asked in disbelief.
Doc shrugged his shoulders and shook his head slowly. “I don’t know.”
A long pause in conversation was finally broken when Jimmy asked, “Have you heard anything about Holmes?”
“Not yet. I would guess he’s stateside somewhere. He might even be home by now.” Doc answered.
Just days before TET, while on patrol with Delta Company, medic Eric Holmes stepped on one of Charlie’s home made toe-poppers. He was fortunate that it was a small device; he only lost part of his foot, if you want to call that fortunate. I’m sure he’d say it was…he went home
The talk went on for a little while longer. It was the usual chatter about home, wives and girlfriends. Mason and Miller from 6th Support car talked. Parker was cutting Lt. Tanaka’s hair and passing gas. Both men were laughing hysterically. The quick flutter of a lone projectile hissed overhead.
“Son-of-a-bitch!” Will someone cap that asshole already,” Miller barked.

Jimmy made his way back to the hooch, lay back down on his cot, and thought about anything but the events of the day. The remnants of his earlier dream and thoughts replayed behind his closed eyes. Cousins was gone and all was strangely, but gratefully quiet. He drifted into that ether world where reality and dream almost become one. All things there are serene; clear and still. He could almost see it, feel it. If only he could drift a little further he was convinced he could really be home.
His silent reflection was shattered by the frantic stomp of boots running towards him. His eyes flew open as Henry crashed through the door.
“Jimmy,” Henry struggled, nearly out of breath, “Reef and Hart went down!”
Jimmy bolted upright. “What! Henry, what!?”
“Deef and Hart…their bird went down. I think they’re all dead”
“Did they get to Alpha?”
I don’t know…I don’t think so. We’re sending another chopper. Ketch wants us on the 60’s.”
Jimmy had his flak jacket half on and was reaching for his helmet as Cousins was talking. Both men sprinted out of the hooch and toward the helipad.
The bird was already fired up and six grunts were already on board. Ketchum and Hutchins were hastily doing a flight check. Ketchum waved them on board. Jimmy jumped in and pulled Cousins inside just as the bird lifted and swooped across the helipad.
They were flying full speed at tree top level. Everything below them was nothing but a maddening blur while they readied themselves for the coming melee. So much for the day off, Jimmy said aloud as the ground, trees and village sped by below them.
Fifteen minutes out they banked to the left and Hutchins pointed downward. Jimmy was on the port sixty and spotted the downed Dust-Off chopper. He stared into the thick tree line below. Nothing. The bird suddenly slipped tail out and nosed up as they banked right and changed directions for an approach. Dropping in from the Southwest they took ground fire. Ketchum leveled out, banked right and began to climb. Henry opened up sending burst after burst into the shadows. On the return pass, Jimmy did the same.
The tell tale tic-tic-tic of VC ground fire hitting the chopper sent the bird into wild gyrations as Ketchum manipulated the controls and pedals. The big slick screamed and shrieked as it yielded to the pilots’ evasive commands.
Jimmy fought to keep his rounds headed into the tree line. He could see the muzzle flashes blink in the dark foliage as they sent their hellish death towards them. Turning his head to check on the pilots, he felt a hot searing pain tear into his thigh. “Shit! I’m hit. I’m hit!”
Henry Cousins, secured by his harness, sat slumped, his sixty now silent. A bullet had ripped through the last thoughts of his new bride, his dead body flailing with the convulsive motions of the Huey.
Jimmy shifted to check on the pilots again. CW2 Sam “Smiley” Hutchins had turned to check on his door-gunners and smiled when he saw Jimmy. He suddenly grimaced in surprise, and then pain as a round hit his elbow, throwing his arm wildly up and into the back of Ketchum’s head. His face went blank as a second round passed through his chin and out his headgear.
Ketchum glanced quickly at his co-pilot and hit the mic switch with his foot and breathlessly called out, “Henhouse six, this is Red Tail…over”
“Go Red, six Oscar, over”
“We hit a hornet’s nest. Two down. One wounded”
Tic-tic. Tic-tic-tic.
Ketchum continued to yell status into his headset as he coaxed the green ship into wild twists, dives, and turns. Jimmy felt the sting of another deadly intruder, then another. “God, Please, God. No.” He slumped back into his seat, his body useless. The pain was hard and brutal and he felt himself slipping away. He managed a last fading glance towards Ketchum as round after round now struck the bird. Tic-tic-tic. She was going down. Ketchum fought the controls, but it was useless…it was done. Jimmy passed out.

Jimmy stood for a long quiet moment at the end of the street. It had been a long while since he was home. It was almost too good to be true. He tensed for a moment, but now as he walked down the familiar street leading to his boyhood home, he let himself feel safe. The early morning was clear and beautiful; the late summer air sweet and cool. Serene, clear and still. The mayhem and madness of Vietnam was finally over. It was just an experience waiting to become a memory.
Nothing appeared to have changed much in the time that he was gone. It all looked the same as it did on the day he left. A small gentle breeze washed over him. His gait was slow as he made his way up the street. His heart beat with the anticipation of being with his family again.
Passing the empty lot where as a young boy he played ball with his friends he noticed that the Porter’s living room window was broken again. How many times had he and his friends sent a ball through that window? Countless times, he thought to himself. Jimmy smiled at the thought of the next generation stepping up to the plate. The Porter’s must be on vacation and in for a surprise when they returned. He was just three houses from home.
Jimmy walked onto the driveway, stopped, set his duffel bag down, and stood in grateful silence and let his eyes consume the womb of his youth, the safe haven of his boyhood. That boy was different now…forever changed. There is no way for the innocence of youth to remain unspoiled by the irreparable realities of war. Every combat veteran who makes it out alive is wounded, wounded in ways that are not visible to the civilian, and in many ways that are not immediately recognized by the veteran himself. The beast burrows deep inside the folds of memory, hiding, waiting to ambush and devour sanity. No one…not one walks away without a wounded spirit.
He was overcome with a warm and emotional peace as the familiar comfort of home welcomed him. He slid his hand back and forth over his thigh. Nothing, he thought to himself. He was surprised that he felt no pain. He shook his head in an attempt to dispel the thought. His wounds were spirit deep. “God”,…he silently prayed, … “Thank you.”
Grabbing his duffel bag, Jimmy made his way up the driveway, onto the walk and up the stairs. He peered through the screen door and saw his mother at the table. He stood watching her for a long silent moment, a warm smile on his face; his eyes taking in the familiar surroundings. It was good to be home.
“Ma”, he called softly.
She did not move.
“Ma,” he quietly called once more, “I’m home.” But again she did not move.
Only now did he see that she was weeping, her head resting in her left hand, her sobbing deep and mournful. Her right arm hung limply at her side clutching a photograph. It was his.
“Ma,” he cried out. “Ma? Ma!”
She slowly looked in his direction but her eyes did not see him. Tears fell slowly down her cheeks as she softly wept.

The gunship circled above the two downed choppers while the Medevac chopper held back. Drawing no fire, they descended rapidly and set down in the tall grass. Half the team set up a perimeter, the other half headed towards the smoking wrecks. Several bodies had been thrown from the Hueys on impact and it appeared that all had been killed.
An eerie silence entombed them as they warily approached the wreckage. It was the perfect set up for an ambush, but it appeared that Charlie had gone.
“We have one here, sir!” an excited grunt called out. “I think he’s alive!”
The wounded man was barely alive, his eyes locked on an inner vision, his mouth trying to speak. Leaning closer, the grunt heard the barely audible last words of Jimmy Taylor.
“I believe he’s calling for his mother, Sir… he’s calling for his ‘ma.’

© 2006 Richard Raitano

One thought on “The Homecoming”

  1. I came home from Vietnam in September, 1968. A short time later I began to mentally play around with the story line of a combat veteran coming home from war only to discover in a final fleeting moment that he was dead. It took years for me to develop a story, and only after I spent time in PTSD couseling and waded through the fetid swamp of memories was I able to recognize what I was reaching for…my own death.

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