Richard Boes – My Blue Block of Wood

“He who learns must suffer
And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget
Falls drop by drop upon the heart,
And in our own despite, against our will,
Comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”

From Agamemnon by Aeschlyus

It was a plane full of strangers, a hundred and fifty of us maybe, but no one I remembered or seemed to know from a year ago. Just this deafening silence like the kind that stops you at the moment somethin’ or someone dies. Jesus, it ain’t me anymore reflected in the window glass but ghosts, faces I’d known, Buttkins, Henderson, Walsh, Casey-fuckin’-Jones. A backdrop of flares, tracer bullets, an explosion here and there like fireworks across a black screen, a black sky, a black hole we were shooting out of as we taxied down the runway.

Even in this pressurized cabin, the heat still clung to my flesh, the stench, the taste of burnt, rotting corpses still permeated the air. You couldn’t wash it off, there hadn’t been time, no debriefing, besides it was stuck in my throat, suspended somehow between home and my gut.

We were all in jungle fatigues, worn and faded green, muddy, some ripped, others bloodstained. As was the practice, I’d crossed off days on a pocket calendar, sealed tight in a personalized, plastic, First Cav, waterproof wallet. Still, though the ink bled, eventually I called myself “Short!”

“Short! Three days and a wake-up,” Brown yelped. Now this here was the fuckin’ wake-up, I was in tow, goin’ back to the world. Thinking, couldn’t stop myself, all the things I’d truly missed, all the things I’d do. Still, I sat in disbelief. Why me?

I couldn’t stop my legs from moving, up and down, side to side, in and out of time. There was a chorus stirring about me, a rustling movement goin’ nowhere. That final fear resonated in everyone’s eyes, what if we take a fucking rocket? What if we crash? After all this shit, the irony, Jesus, wouldn’t it be my luck? I continued my search back and forth, front to back as if scanning a perimeter, a fuckin’ treeline. It wasn’t the enemy I was looking for, not this time, but someone, anyone I might recognize. No one, it seemed. We’d all been abandoned by a meaningless war, forsaken on all fronts, both sides, both for and against. Even to ourselves we were strangers. God was absent. I was alone.

A tour of duty was a year, troops coming and going every day like a shift-change entering or leaving a factory. Dispersed, replaced, gathered up, and sent off. This was very much an individual war. I’d left everyone in my platoon, my company, behind as others had previously left me. I wasn’t supposed to care. I didn’t! When Myles left a few months earlier, he cried and held me in his arms. He was drunk. O’Brien borrowed ten bucks he was gonna mail to me, but six days back in the world he deliberately drove off a bridge in his brand-new red Corvette. And Casey, Casey re-upped for the fuckin’ dope. This war was about getting me out alive, and up to now I’d been victorious.

The pilot broke the silence announcing over the PA, “Gentlemen, we’ve just cleared Viet Nam airspace.” We all cheered, but it was like someone trying to laugh who can’t stop crying, like trying to make small talk at your best friend’s funeral. Quickly, the silence returned. I couldn’t stop my legs from pumping. There in the glass were only shadows of who I once was, who I didn’t recognize anymore, a fuckin’ ghost.

I do, I do believe… I do. Smacking my knees together, these muddy boots like ruby red slippers. It’s over. I’m going. I’m goin’ home.

We stopped twice briefly to refuel, once in Thailand, then Hawaii, and eighteen hours later landed in California. We were bused to a military base. No wire mesh on the windows anymore to repel explosive cocktails, no fires in the skies like when I got to the war. No heat, no stench clinging to my flesh, but this one, this taste I’d brought home in my mouth like the promise of milk and honey gone sour. There wasn’t any fanfare, there was no one. We walked through a barn door, the back door of a building, a basement entrance, down a long corridor of bare bulbs and concrete, what looked like a warehouse, a slaughterhouse, or even a fuckin’ prison… like I was gonna be interrogated, tortured, or somethin’, somethin’ bad. And over the archway was a sign that read, “Your Country’s Proud of You.”

“Fuck you!” shouted someone. Others laughed, or tried to.

“The joke’s on us,” I told the guy to my right, who tossed up a middle finger. Some officer in clean-starched khakis, donning a blonde, butch, stuck-up haircut, broke us down in columns and pointed us in which directions to go.

“Welcome home, welcome home, welcome home,” he whispered as we passed in rows of two. No one saluted, and I could tell we made him nervous.

Welcome home motherfucker! was my only thought, as I pretended to trip and bumped him up against a wall. “Excuse me, Sir.”

I took a shower, a fuckin’ hot shower, and got me a change of clothes. Goddamn dress greens! I wasn’t thrilled about having to wear a uniform. Besides the stories of being spit upon and the name-calling, a rumor was circulating that a woman approached a soldier in a commercial airport, identified the patch on his arm as being the same as her son’s, same as mine, he’d been killed. She wailed, “Why are you still alive?” pulled a gun from her purse and shot him dead.

Some spiffy soldier, a fuckin’ paper-shuffler, sat behind a desk and asked if we had any wounds he needed to make note of. “Speak now, or forget about it.” His name tag read “Pilot,” all the hair he’d left on his head like cotton balls was in his ears. God was here, alive, and laughing.

“I’m fine,” I told him, ignoring the shrapnel that was still in my leg. “I just wanna go home.” There was a free steak dinner, but no one I knew of was hungry for food. I collected my things, and soon enough was on a plane back East, and homeward bound.

It was sometime after midnight and the airport was practically empty. In a day’s time, I’d traveled from the hellish jungles of war and was just a forty-five minute car ride from home. I’d called Jimmy, my best friend since childhood, and he was en route. My family expected me sometime during the month, but had no idea I was soon to arrive. It felt strange wearing dress greens and not jungle fatigues, bright ribbons and patches instead of camouflage. These new shoes only hurt my feet, I missed my muddy boots. Still, I couldn’t sit still and wait, but had to walk around.

All the shops were closed. I was too young for the bar, too young to vote, too young for anything, but not to die. So few people around, and those who did pass avoided eye contact. I wanted so badly to celebrate, to yell out as fucking loud as I could, I’m home! To grab some girl and dance, dance the fuckin’ skies like an angel, to sweep her off her feet with a passionate kiss. Like that photograph, that other war, a war that meant somethin’, but no one seemed to notice me, no one cared. I was fuckin’ invisible. I didn’t fit. I didn’t belong here. I might even welcome someone calling me a bad name, at least to show I’m alive. Me, the keeper of a lost war, a war no one seemed to recognize, or desired any knowledge of. Jesus, it’s all that I’m about anymore. And if I could I’d fuckin’ disappear like you wish I would. If! If only I could. And the enemy was silent, and the silence was killing me.

I tried saying something to someone, anyone, say anything like, what time is it? Nice weather we’re having. Have you change for a dollar? Excuse me, Miss, my name is Lazarus, I’m back from the dead, and I ain’t got a fuckin’ clue.

This underwear I hadn’t worn for a year, buttoned-up collar and tie, irritated the jungle rot, the pimpled sores that oozed in a straight line from the base of my neck to the balls of my crotch. There’s too much starch in this shirt. I itched like a fuckin’ leper on parade, a bad case of mistaken identity, and, and I had to pee. Where’s the men’s room? I could ask, but fuck it. I’d find it myself.

I lost the tie and unbuttoned a few buttons down my shirt, took the bayonet strapped to my leg and cut my underwear off. The bathroom was empty, so I thought, standing at the urinal having a good scratch, taking a leak, caught unawares as the janitor came out from the toilet area and dropped a large trash drum to the floor. Incoming!

Shrapnel flies up and out, hot and screaming, so the lower you get the better your chances. In a split-second’s nosedive, I was flat against the earth sucking up warm wet tile in a puddle of my own piss. A moment’s flash and I’m back there, had I ever left? Where the fuck am I now?

“Sorry boy, you’s okay?” A soft, black, gray-whiskered face was leaning over me.

“Yeah,” I said, “guess so,” feeling only grateful it wasn’t a rocket. He handed me a towel from around his neck.

“Dry’s yourself,” he winked a surprising sky-blue glass eye, scratched with fat nervous fingers atop his thinning hair. “Sold, it’s the first four letters of soldier, a four-letter word,” he laughed, a disheartened-like punch-drunk fighter’s wheeze. “And your sellin’ price,” shooin’ a fly from his face, “wasn’t even our freedom. My name’s Elijah,” he took up his mop. “There’s no good wars to speak about, but at least my’s generation, our war had a purpose.”

“Thanks,” I said as he took back his towel, and shook my hand.

“Wars is fought by us poor folk, us soldiers, is niggers, and all niggers is trained to die.” He itched with a flurry of pokes at his nose. “Don’t you let them make it your fault. You’s hear me boy?” I just nodded my head and made my way for the exit. Elijah fumbled twice, dropped his mop to the floor. I wanted to catch it, but was too far off, too slow, too late. He called out as the door closed between us. “You’s be a survivor.”

Me and Jimmy were both more than tired. He was against the war, an accountant now, not much for words. I didn’t know what to say, or how to say it. We talked sports some, the Mets had won the World Series, the Jets the Super Bowl, the Knicks were NBA champs. Other than him reading every street sign, billboard, storefront we passed, we were mostly quiet. “Shop Rite,” “Two Guys”, “Kool, come up, all the way up.” Yeah, I was feeling anxious, afraid, guilty I think about coming home.

Elijah was right. It wasn’t my fault, it wasn’t up to me. I didn’t choose to be there, who would die, and who would come back. And there ain’t no more Stockwell, Abrams, Smyth, or Donny Gains. Jesus, and Rodney Brown who stood where I stood just moments before. “Short! Three days and a wake-up,” he yelped in a black man’s drawl. “I’s goin’ back to the world! I’s one lucky motherfucker!” and Betty, Bouncin’ Betty, she’s a goddamn landmine, bounced up in his lap, cut ‘im in fuckin’ two! And a B-40 rocket swallowed what was left into tiny little fucking pieces.

“Don’t mean nothin!” Myles said.

And I’ll never know by just how much I missed her. Half a step maybe, If! Guess I’m one, one lucky motherfucker! Just these shards, bits of metal in my leg. And one, Rodney’s one patch of black hair sunken in behind one eye swimming in a sea of brain matter, all pink, and blue, and gray. We collected him in a black bag, “I’m in pieces, bits and pieces!” Me and Myles kept singing, stomped our feet, scattered the fucking bits that weren’t even pieces anymore.

You’re really alone during a rocket attack, there’s nothin’ anyone can do. You’re really fuckin’ alone, when the other guy’s dead. If! As if he’d taken my place. And if you’re one of the lucky ones you get to do it again. And again. And the repetition, over, over, and again. And the pieces that won’t fit together like Humpty Dumpty didn’t have to pick himself up. And all the King’s horses wear blinders, and all the King’s men believe their own lies. “Don’t mean nothin’!” And the fucking fear that resonates, echoes back and forth, gnaws and eats away at you, over, over, and again. It’s worse than death. I do believe, I don’t believe you. And who’s the lucky motherfucker?

We sat at the tracks waiting for the train to pass. Its whistle and pulsing bark put me on edge, my feet on fuckin’ trampolines. Here I was alone again, with Jimmy in the driver’s seat, still waiting. I tried counting cars, seven, seventeen, seventy-eight, how many more before I’m home safe? The face in the windshield was Rodney’s. All I really wanted was to be held, for someone to hold me.

Me and Jimmy met some twelve years ago, he was a few years older and my family’d just moved into the neighborhood. I had this old beat-up glove that was my Dad’s and a blue block of wood I was using for a ball. I was throwing it high up against the side brick of the house and making basket catches like Willie Mays. The whole game was alive in my head, both teams, a miss was a run and it was one-one, in the bottom of the sixteenth. Jimmy approached unnoticed until he sneezed, a giant fuckin’ sneeze. He was a tall skinny kid with a face like Goofy, a dried mop of brown hair, and a big long tweaked nose. I’d made a bad throw, and just missed catching it with a diving attempt into the bushes. “Nice try,” he said, and goofed up a laugh like a jackass hee-haws. “That’s it, game’s over, you lose!” Jimmy invited me to join him and his friends up the block, the Dick Street Bombers. They had a real ball, and needed a center fielder.

In a few weeks I was to be the best man at Jimmy’s wedding.

Sure we were happy to see each other, but something was missing, it just wasn’t the same. Yeah, guess it was me who’d changed. I wanted to tell him about the war, about Rodney, what I’d seen and done, but didn’t know how, couldn’t find the words. Anyway, I didn’t think he’d understand.

We were just a few miles from home and I had to say somethin’, flush this spin-cycle circlin’ my brain, break my fuckin’ silence. I mentioned meeting Elijah, him helping me up off the floor, and the conversation that followed. Suddenly and without warning, Jimmy’s Mustang jumped the curb. He’d fallen asleep on me, and we were headed straight on for a telephone pole. The second thu-thump of the back tires woke him the fuck up. “Jesus!” he shrieked, but was slow to react. In one sweeping motion I reached over and cut the wheel to the left landing us back on the street. Jim was a bit shaken up, squeezed tight. “Sorry,” he said, “coulda killed us.”

“Don’t mean nothin’!” I told ‘im, and for a moment I was baggin’ Rodney again. “Just stay awake, Jim. We’re almost home.” I never called him Jim. Something felt good inside, this wasn’t like a rocket attack, there was more I could do than just be a passenger.

“See ya man, thanks for the ride.” I closed the car door, Jimmy drove off. The house was all dark, no porch light left burning. Bones, my dog must of come home, but there ain’t no barkin’. I climbed the steps, hit all the fuckin’ cracks down the walk, another flight of steps. They never locked the front door, but something stopped me from opening it. I turned myself around, gazing up at the streetlight. A pair of my old sneakers still hung by their laces over telephone wire, deep blue shadow sifted through naked tree branches like distant fingers, reaching into, grabbing at a big thick slice of pitch-black, heavenly mud-pie. No stars. Still no Bones.

Mom, Dad, my two younger brothers and sisters were inside sleeping. I felt this knot in my stomach like the whole fucking war was twisting up inside me, might I just fuckin’ implode! I wouldn’t wake them, I’d go quietly upstairs and go to bed. I’d see them come mornin’. I opened the screen door, stopped, and had to close it, opened and closed it again. Walked round the side of the house, doubled over, body doubled up, holdin’ my stomach, leaned into some bushes and started throwing up. Once, twice, over and again until there was nothin’, nothin’ but bile, yellow sauce, until all of me was empty, inside and out. And there, right the fuck before my eyes, peering out at me, out from under dead leaves and a fresh spray of vomit was my blue block of wood. I scooped it up as if I’d found lost treasure, gold and silver bullion, and cleaned it off with a few swipes against the grass. I clenched it in my fist, couldn’t help but smile. Bones came running up, his blackness all a-glow, excited and welcoming me home.

I looked in for a moment at my youngest brother Billy, my godchild sleeping peacefully. As a child I was a sound sleeper, I once fell off the top bunk of a bunk bed and didn’t wake up. Hearing the thud, my parents came rushing in from the living room and found me sleeping on the floor Now I had to put my mattress on the floor, and it was a good thing that my room was the smallest in the house, most like a bunker, less of a target, it provided a false sense of security. Accustomed as I was to the constant barrage of noise a war makes, now the silent night of suburbia was keeping me awake.

After only a few weeks in Viet Nam, I knew every sound of darkness like a blind man knows his own home. What was incoming and cause for alarm, and what was going out. I slept on a thin dime, and the faint whistle of a distant rocket would call me out from a crowded dream. I’d be hugging mother earth like a babe for milk, sucking up mud like wanting breath, steel pot and flak jacket on. I’d have a fuckin’ cigarette lit before the first round hit, before any siren ever sounded. If! And if it let up long enough you ran for a bunker.

I came to know with acute precision, like a fine-tuned instrument, the difference, the distinction in every sound the blackness made. What were rockets, mortars, short rounds, a.k.a. friendly fire, snafu! Fred took one in the shower. Small-arms, M-60s, M-79s, quad-50s, B-52s, and oh how the ground shook. Flares, Claymores, bounce, fuckin’ Bouncin’ Betty, fuck! Fuckin’ B-40! If! A sapper left a satchel charge in a hooch two doors down. Don’t mean nothin’! A luring Loach, whoop, whoop, whoop, draws out enemy fire, a seething Cobra and other gunships closin’ in. Woof! Napalm jet streamers, and Puff, Puff the Magic Dragon, whose mini-guns from on high could infiltrate every fuckin’ square inch of space the size of a football field in a matter of seconds. Every twenty-seventh round was a tracer, and we watched cheering atop a bunker as the red whip, the red whip waved on, and on, and fuckin’ on like hells bells rainin’ down.

We were the supreme, ultimate firepower of the skies. Absolute, all-powerful, like God I thought, like God lacks humility. But the enemy was underground, tunneled in beneath the earth, at the core of believing, beyond extinction.

Now I scanned about my room by the gray-blue shadows of moon, and filtering streetlight, beads like tears patterned upon embroidered curtain lace. In the wake of the battle, tired enough, but unable to sleep. The rug was sky blue and grape-juice stained, the walls needed more than paint. Jesus was missing limbs on the crucifix above, at the back of my brain, broken off by a touchdown pass that should have been caught. Dust collectors on bookshelves posing as trophies, old posters, banners, signed baseballs and other sports memorabilia. My bruised blue block of wood I’d placed on the dresser, my bayonet sheathed, asleep under my pillow. That picture, without any glass, a gentle boy laid back on a hillside, all blue-jeans, white button-down shirt, red-vested, black shiny curls, an arm up shielding his eyes from the sun. Tell me, tell me again… please, tell me your dreams?

Football is the precursor to war, the training fields, the same language. Kill, kill, kill! War is the ultimate sport, the culmination of sport. Kill, or be killed! Kill the Giants, Jets, Patriots, and Eagles. Kill the fuckin’ Yankees, Braves, and Angels. Kill Babe Ruth! Killroy, he’s not here anymore. Kill Jim Brown, John Brown, Charlie Brown, and Rodney Brown. ‘‘I’s one lucky motherfucker!” Kill the fuckin’ Gooks! Kill the Japs, the Krauts, the Commies, and the Jews. Kill Goliath! John the Baptist, John the Catholic, his brother Bobby, and Martin Luther King Jr.!

“My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” Kill Jesus! And like Cain slew Abel, I am the plowman, the keeper of a bad uprooted seedling, maimed and forced to wander. And Abraham, what of Isaac? Kill me!

Bones rests his head on my belly, looks up at me, gives me a stare like what the fuck man, like he knows my thoughts like he feels bad for me because I’m a fuckin’ nut job! “Good old Bones.”

It’s raining now, a soothing rain, rap, a pat, tap, and the occasional swish of a passing motorist endeavoring to lull me to sleep. It’s not that hard monsoon rain that blinds the sky, or the sound of hot screaming metal cavorting off tin roofs, that piercing screech that howls and rips through tent canvas embedding itself below the heart at gut-level.

Uncle Ho’s birthday, I couldn’t stop the thoughts. We were hit five times during the night with over ninety rockets. Every time I’d fall asleep. Again, over and again. We got no fuckin’ sleep. From side to side, closer, overhead, then passing. Back and forth like walking giants. Giant steps. Explosive, deafening! Fe, fi, fo, fum! If! If one hits the roof you’re dead! Away, and back again. Approaching, closer, fi, fo, fum! If! If one hits the roof, and again! Over and again like the buttoning and unbuttoning of shirts until all the buttons fall off.

I’d promised God I’d go to church every Sunday for the rest of my life. If! If he’d just get me the fuck outta here alive. The hooch in front of us was hit, and all twelve guys obliterated. The tent to the right, the one behind were all gone now. And still came the giants. Fi, fo, fum! And Casey, Casey took one in the shithouse while shootin’ up at the war. Happy fuckin’ trails! Swishhhhhh.

My eyes pop open, toothpick wide! This ain’t no fuckin’ war, this is my room, there’s Bones asleep on the floor like old paint. Please, dear God, but for thy grace, grant us some fuckin’ sleep. Rap, a-pat, tap. Fe, fi, fo, there are no giants anymore. Swishhhhhh.

We sat on empty ammo boxes under a sweltering sky in twelve rows of five. It was Palm Sunday, my first Sunday in Viet Nam and the last time I attendedMass.A Major, a priest who resembled Elijah, stood before us in bloody, torn jungle fatigues and addressed us as a group. The blood was blue. “I haven’t time to hear your confessions, so just think of your sins, and you’s forgiven.” He made the sign of the cross pendulating his rifle muzzle through the air. I hadn’t sinned yet, my uniform was clean. I was nothin’, an FNG, a fuckin’ new guy. What the fuck did I know? Was this ammo box really empty?

The Major’s face commenced to shed, and words fell out in drools of blue spittle, his flesh peeled back on sheets of wind and fell like raindrops into pools of blue blood. Everyone was going blue, bleeding, and crying blue tears. My arms, my hands, my fingers like tree branches sprouting blue streams. The Major’s hair in one fell swoop burst into bright orange flame, arcing out across an orange sky, orange as if a sunset had swallowed it whole. I put my hand to my face and my nose came off in my hand, blue lips impressed upon a blue palm. In a swishhhhhh of orange blue vapor, the Major, Elijah-priest was all gone.

I could feel my ears dribble, dripping off, my eyes leaking out of the sockets, waist deep in a whirl of blue bubble and torrent I was thrashed and spun about. From the heavens came a blue rain, rap, a-pat, tap, and blue stoned hail the likes of hot screaming metal chunks, fi, fo, fum! A murderous raging pain in my chest gashed forth, bone-pierced flesh like the great sea had been parted, and split me in fucking two. “My God,” I cried out in slumberous garble. “Take all of me.”

Slam, “Fuck!” Into the wall, I’d kicked the dog. Smack! Against the window pane, cast down like a bad, scorned, forlorn angel into the bottom of the dresser, and out across the fuckin’ floor. Low crawl, belly drag. I’m fuckin’ belly up here now. Awake! Cold with sweat, naked, free, freezing. I’d bruised my head, my fist and rug burns to my knees and chest. My side hurts, and the curtain is torn. It’s raining harder now, and the sky splits, flash, spits, rat-a-tat-tat like machine-gun fire. Kerplunk, plunkety, plunk into buckets, drain pipes like blood gutters, bullet holes, buttonholes, and this empty hollow feeling at the pit. I’d been pitted, gutless, so fucking vacant. Whose sins are these? Are we all really dead? What the fuck did Elijah want? And the moon’s a grayish hint of blue hue, and shadows by streetlight upon the rain-beaded window glass, silhouette on the wall like black tears. Jesus, where’s my blanket? Afraid to sleep anymore, but I need so badly, so bad, to get warm.

Three days back in the world and I’m up before the birds, before the trees, before the sky and branches reaching. Waiting, waiting for the sun to begin, for the heat to come up before I come out from my blanket. A train whistle off in the distance, up the block, two clicks. It ain’t that kind of whistle or siren, and the fuckin’ streetlight goes out. Again I’m in blue-gray shadow, still waiting. Church bells, and the wind chimes off the back deck. Newsprint hits the front steps, the workings of a bicycle chain. Squawk! A squawking blackbird sounds reveille. I’m an empty Bat-Car, third car from the rear. Three hundred and sixty-five of’ em. Stop counting, stop waiting. It’s Easter, Easter fucking Sunday! Beyond the torn curtain lace there are only shadow limbs groping for the sky. Other blackbirds squawking now like a party of thieves. Fresh road kill, I heard the brakes an hour ago, screech and thu-thump! Fuckin’ Rodney never knew what hit him! If! Another fuckin’ whistle, another train in the opposite direction.

Me and Jimmy, brothers Don and Jeff, Johnny, Mule, Gonzales, Worm, and Billy Gibbons, us Dick Street Bombers, we played on them tracks. We played war, Get-the-Bag, Kick-the-Can, Hot-Beans. We built forts under the bridge, dammed up the creek, hit homers over the fence, over the rails. We smoked cigarettes, sipped wine, talked sex. We showed each other our dicks, Johnny had the biggest. “You idiot, babies didn’t never come from fuckin’ storks!”

There are other birds talking now, red, blue, and gray. A coo, cooing mourning dove takes Bight. The rhythmic hammer of that train passing, the heat hiss, hissing up. My cigarette ash falls to my chest. A neighbor’s car whines, starts, grinding gears and drives off. I’m safe here, without really thinking, not consciously, but the night’s fuckin’ over. And again, we get to do it again.

I come out from my blanket, push up from my hands to my feet and stand naked before the window. There are no faces in the glass, but mine; what’s only me is scary. We stretch. I’m five-foot-ten and all of 135 pounds. I’m apart, a part of, superimposed upon that tree, without leaves like lines of bark my ribs can be counted. When I left for the war I was 160 and flawless, but the heat, sweat, bad water and food, C-rations, and constant diarrhea made me as thin as a communion wafer, lean like a manhole cover. My eyes sunken-in like a sewer rat’s, more black than blue anymore, my face long and narrow and missing teeth. Who is it? It ain’t me, these puffs of white steam. Is it breath? Am I breathing? Or am I just a broken limb, a cut branch, kindling for the fire? Is this cover about to blow, and who will receive me?

I put my pajama bottoms on and realize I’ve put them on backwards. I’ve stopped pissing out my asshole or I’d be politically correct, could be fuckin’ president. I need to make myself laugh, me and God share a laugh. There are no bunkers here, but for an old sparrow’s nest under the eaves of shingle next door. I’ll go ahead now and turn myself around.

Squirrels padding, pit-pat, pit-pat on the roof above, voices down below. Too much fuckin’ TV. The front door creaks, and the screen door grates. My father retrieves the paper, his mumblings about it having blown apart. Yes, I have seen the pieces, bits of brain matter, all pink, and blue, and gray flesh. Just one, one patch. “Jesus,” he snaps at my little brother watching cartoons, “Turn it down!” His life’s so fuckin’ simple: work, drink, eat, drink, sleep. “Let the dog out.” Oh, and how he loves his crossword puzzle as he makes his way across the dining room, shuffling pages, into the kitchen, into his coffee cup.

The bathroom is pink and gray tiles, and too fuckin’ bright. Kill the light! This piss is freedom, emancipation from one’s inner demon: a moment’s bliss like a yawn or a sneeze. Only with these bodily functions is there any reprieve. A good dump is king, but for a shot of dope. If! What Casey already knows. I splash some water on my face, but still come back orange. It’s that clay, red dirt, those convoys in an open Jeep, too much fucking sun.

My mother’s voice rises up from the kitchen, a wafted aroma of coffee, eggs, and bacon, sizzle, pop-pop. No small-arms fire here, just appetites. Mom’s cooking will soon enough fatten me up. Only one night we feasted on steak, Shrimp Scampi, Brussels sprouts, my favorite, and wild rice. I had two pieces of strawberry shortcake. “How was it?” she asked, and without thinking I blurted out, “Fucking great! Best fucking meal I ever fuckin’ ate!”

My youngest brother and sister, Billy’s seven and Marianne’s nine, sat there dumbfounded, mouths agape. Everything stopped as if a rock had hit, like someone farted in church, but you’d better not laugh. Shay, eighteen, and John, fifteen, took to snickering; even Dad was holding back a hoot.

“Well,” said Mom, attempting to rise above the muzzled snorts, ‘‘I’m glad you enjoyed it, but I don’t like that word.” She tittered, giggled and we all broke loose in wholehearted laughter.

I made my way down the stairway, downstairs, Bugs Bunny askin’ “What’s up, Doc?” Doc took one tiny piece of shrapnel in the temple sitting on his cot reading a letter from home, just a head above the sandbag line.

If! Nothin’ was up, but fucked up, and Doc’s world stopped six days short of leaving. Don’t mean nothin’! Still I couldn’t stop the thoughts, the sleepless nights, the fuckin’ nightmares. This wasn’t the place I thought home would be, the war hadn’t been silenced. Still, I was bored, I missed the goddam excitement, the killing game. This world had no meaning, no life and death consequences. Yeah, it was me who’d changed, everything else was the same only a year older. A year of hell, how could I ever again lie on a beach and tan myself?

I opened the door and stepped from the stairwell into the living room. Marianne was hiding between the upstairs and foyer doorways. Elmer Fudd was about to kill that cwazy wabbit. “Boo!” she screamed, this high-pitched screech like a rocket whistles when it’s in your lap. I went up like a prizefighter does from an uppercut to the jaw, then down, down for the floorboards, stopped! Stopped myself, than snapped, snapped right the fuck out of myself! She was laughin’, God was laughing. I jacked her up off her feet by the threads of her pajama top like a dog would shake a rag-doll in its mouth, pinning her shoulders back up against the wall. Her eyes met my stony-cold, blackened rage! It wasn’t her but the enemy I saw.

“Never, never fuckin’ do that to me, never! Do you hear me?”

My mother ran in from the kitchen, spatula in hand, waving it like a scepter, a magic wand over a pimply frog, “Put her down! Put her down this minute.” There were all kinds of whistles screaming in my head.

“Put her down!” My father’s voice reverberated, pinging off walls, and out the back of my brain. He threw his pen and crossword puzzle at me, spilling his coffee. I’m an empty flat-car, third car from the rear. Bones was snapping at my PJ’s. “Now!” He bellowed from a safe distance and looked to my mom as if asking, what are we gonna do now?

Billy sat bug-eyed, amused, gawking at me from the couch, this was better than any cartoon, I was cwazier than that fucking wabbit. Tears were streaming down my sister’s face. What? This fear, it’s mine, I thought, from the depths of the dead and the missing. My God, my God, but couldn’t say it. I’d brought the trauma home. I’m the fuckin’ enemy here.

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

RIP – David W. Powell

David W. Powell (1941 - 2011)

David Powell was one of the first Viet Nam veterans diagnosed with PTDS to benefit from Traumatic Incident Reduction (TIR). Out of this experience came his book, My Tour in Hell, A Marine’s Battle with Combat Trauma, published in 2006. David was a tireless advocate for veterans and for Traumatic Incident Reduction, giving live talks and interviews as well as appearing on radio and TV programs.  An excerpt from David’s book, “An Office in Hell”, appeared in the anthology More Than A Memory: Reflections of Viet Nam published by Modern History Press.

In recent years he trained as a TIR facilitator, wrote a workbook for people dealing with post traumatic stress disorder, and was planning on attending and presenting at the 2011 annual Technical Symposium in Ann Arbor. To our great sorrow, we lost David this year to a sudden illness, shortly before the publication of Reboot! Confronting PTSD on Your Own Terms (Forward by John Durkin, PhD). He will be missed by all who knew him.
Ragnhild Malnati writes:

“David Powell did the TIR workshop with me as his Trainer about 2 years ago. In the workshop the other students loved hearing David’s stories about how TIR had helped him with horrendous war experiences. After the Vietnam war, David suffered from PTSD and after trying all kinds of other helping methods in the VA to no avail, he came across TIR and he was cured of PTSD. What was most remarkable about David was his compassion and genuine interest in others. We deeply mourn him and wish his family the best.”

On Sunday morning of this year’s Symposium in Ann Arbor, MI on October 2nd, 2011 at 9:00am there will be a brief memorial service for David for all who wish to attend.

REBOOT! Confronting PTSD on Your Terms: A Workbook
REBOOT! Confronting PTSD on Your Terms: A Workbook

David’s final work, Reboot! Confronting PTSD on Your Own Terms (Loving Healing Press) a 38-page workbook is available through and other fine online retailers.

Burgers and Southern Belles

Burgers and Southern Belles

September 15, 1968 / Cam Ranh Bay RVN

Stepping off the C-130 that carried us from Chu Lai, we were herded onto a waiting deuce-and-a-half and made our way through the compound. Cam Rahn was another large military installation filled with “rear area” activity. It was a bustling city filled with officers and EM in clean, starched fatigues and polished boots…and the always present Vietnamese locals. Those of us who were here to make our way back home stood out like folks from across the tracks; our fatigues and boots bore the wear and tear of red dirt and lack of spit and polish from places other than the rear. It was like the war was somewhere else or maybe hadn’t existed at all.
The deuce-and-a-half delivered us to the holdover quarters where we would wait until our flight left. We were met by a spit and polish staff sergeant whose last assignment must have been one that had him greet new recruits into army life. He barked out orders like an eager DI and directed us toward the building that would house us until it was time to leave. No one paid attention to him, and he seemed to pay no notice to us. He was content to pretend he was important. Once inside, he informed us that our flight was due to leave around eight p.m. that night, and that he’d return in a half hour to put us on a police detail. Police detail!?
Our jaws dropped as we watched this REMF NCO swagger out the door. We stared in disbelief at one another. You gotta be kidding me! Did we hear that right…police the goddam area? Bullshit…there was no way in hell we were we going to clean this guys area of paper and cigarette butts. We didn’t expect, or want, preferential treatment. Maybe a little respect for having spent time outside the wire-we just wanted to leave Vietnam-and the sooner the better. And no police detail.
We took a quick vote and six of us decided to take off to go find something to eat. It was after 10:00 in the morning and most of us hadn’t eaten since the night before. So, with orders in hand we walked out the door and headed in the direction of the PX.
We found a Burger Bar. I mean an actual Burger Bar! All that was missing were sweet teenaged girls behind the counter flashing their sweet teenaged smiles. What we got instead were the grumpy, unsmiling privates in green fatigues. But, we did get a good hamburger…with fries and a Coke, or maybe it was a Pepsi. No matter, it had been a long time since our last journey to a burger joint. For all we knew, the meal was the worst ever.
After wandering around for a couple of hours and assuming that the “detail” was done, we made our way back to the holdover hooch. It seems that after we left a few others decided to escape the detail also, and those that remained confirmed that the NCO did return and have them police the area. Our stomachs satisfied, we stretched out on the cots and waited for our ride to the airstrip later that evening. We might have caught some Z’s. Don’t recall. When the long-awaited ride did come, it was another NCO, just as spit and shine, but much more cheerful, who gathered us up, loaded us up, and wished us well. Nice.
We were giddy with restrained excitement and disbelief as the deuce rumbled through the compound and made its way to the airstrip. We were that much closer to going home…but we weren’t out of Vietnam yet.
The deuce stopped and we were guided into a small Quonset hut where others were waiting for their trip home. What came next was our “debriefing.” An officer entered, smiled, and welcomed us. He then began to tell us that once we get home we would find things “different.” Different!? God, I hope so. Although, with the Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy assassinations just a few months earlier, the joke was we’d be allowed to take our weapons with us so that we could fight our way home if necessary. However, those killings did leave so many of us with doubts of what “home” really was. Violent and deliberate death is an everyday event in a war zone. You accept that. You live with that reality moment to moment and you find a way to deal with it. Home was supposed to be the refuge away from that reality. Home was the safe zone. Home was the “world” where our lives would resume; pick up where we left off.
The debriefing lasted around thirty minutes of which maybe five were heard. Our thoughts and attention were not on the officer lecturing us. Blah-blah-blah…good luck men. Dismissed. That was it. Thirty minutes and we were ready to live our normal lives again. It was that easy. So they thought. And, so we thought as we marched to the hut that served as terminal, show your orders, receive a flight voucher and head out to the flight line and the waiting Freedom Bird.

We made our way up the portable passenger stairs and boarded the plane that had come to take us home. It was a civilian plane, Central Airlines I think. The image of that plane sitting on the runway is stuck in my memory like an old rumpled photograph I carry around in my wallet and I just can’t find the heart to toss it.
It was around nine p.m. The stewardesses were all young, beautiful southern belles with soft, lacey “y’all” accents. They looked so good to us and smelled just as nice. Other than the nurses and the occasional visits from the Red Cross “donut dollies,” these lovely and graceful ladies were the first non-military American women we had seen in a very long time.
You would think that being in the presence of those lovely ladies would have turned us into drooling, silly seventh grade boys. But that was not the case. We shared a common, ever present thought that stayed with us our entire tour: would we live to see this day? We were more concerned about getting off the ground and into the air.
We knew we weren’t safe yet. There were many incidences of mortar or rocket rounds killing troops who were homeward bound. To have survived your tour only to be killed on the way out was the final insane absurdity delivered by the beast. Working hurriedly, but gently, they got us seated; they didn’t want to hang around any longer than we did. We were just as anxious as they to leave that goddamned place with all its death and misery.
With everyone belted in, the plane taxied into position. Given final clearance for take off, the plane lurched forward pushing us back into our seats. I had a window seat and watched as the runway lights raced past, faster and faster. The plane rotated upwards and we left the ground…Vietnam was now rapidly slipping away under us.
I’ve heard stories of flights that erupted into roaring cheers when the plane left the ground, but not this one…not this time. It was stone quiet as we climbed higher and higher into the black night.
Through the window I saw explosive flashes and lines of tracers arcing through the void. Down there the war still raged. Down there someone was still dying. And we were on our way home. The plane banked and we headed out to sea. We had survived our tours and were headed back to the world. I leaned back into my seat and let silent tears fall as Vietnam disappeared.

Doc Rich R

Richard Boes Memorial Award-Winning Book 2010

Richard Boes (R.I.P.)
Richard Boes (R.I.P.)

The 2010 Richard Boes Memorial Award goes to Charles Joseph Fickey for his book Sworn to Secrecy for Life: A Young American Spy’s Odyssey through War-torn Germany and Russia (ISBN 9781432761189)

The award is a $200 cash prize for best debut book by a veteran (fiction or memoir) and is sponsored by Modern History Press. The contest is administered by Reader Views Inc., which includes a general book award contest as well.

Richard enlisted into the US Army and served in Vietnam in 1969 – 1970 with the First Air Cav. He is the author of two books, The Last Dead Soldier Left Alive (2007) a firsthand inquiry into why thousands of Vietnam veterans have committed suicide and Last Train Out (2008). Right up to his death Richard was writing a third, In the Valley of Dry Bones. He passed away on Feb 21st, 2009 at the VA Hospital in Albany, NY.

I am a soldier

I am a soldier

I am a soldier,
One of America’s own.
Child of the father’s before me
Whose sacrifice I owe a debt
Which can never be repaid.

I stand ready to honor that debt
When called upon. I will take arms
Against those who would seek to
Cage liberty and set fire to peace.
My life for these I do pledge.

All that I ask…
Do not deceive me. Do not send
Me to distant places to stand
In harms way for falsehoods and
Riches earned by the letting
Of my blood.

Do not dishonor my sacrifice
For the gains of your purse.
Let not my life be your reward.
I am a soldier,
One of America’s own.
Father to those to come after me.

Rich Raitano

The Watch

The Watch

 I saw them come in numbers,

More than anyone

Should ever have to see.

Fresh from the battlefields

Of slaughter;

Their bodies torn, shattered,

Ripped apart and mangled,

Eyes, wild with fear

Or empty dead stares,

Told their story of raw horror.

Frantic strangled cries gurgle

From their blood filled throats;

Calling for wives or mothers…

Or God.

But they have come to face the beast

With its fetid smell of death

On its angry dragons’ breath.

There comes no mercy…

No peace…

Nor holy, saintly knighted savior

With sword of life in hand

Riding nigh.


…And only this…

To stand a silent vigil

And to watch them slowly die.

Richard Boes Memorial Award Winning Book 2009

Richard Boes (R.I.P.)
Richard Boes (R.I.P.)

The 2010 Richard Boes Memorial Award goes to Charles M. Grist for his book My Last War: A Vietnam Veteran’s Tour in Iraq (ISBN 9781440152689)

The award is a $100 cash prize for best debut book by a veteran (fiction or memoir) and is sponsored by Modern History Press. The contest is administered by Reader Views Inc., which includes a general book award contest as well.

Richard enlisted into the US Army and served in Vietnam in 1969 – 1970 with the First Air Cav. He is the author of two books, The Last Dead Soldier Left Alive (2007) a firsthand inquiry into why thousands of Vietnam veterans have committed suicide and Last Train Out (2008). Right up to his death Richard was writing a third, In the Valley of Dry Bones. He passed away on Feb 21st, 2009 at the VA Hospital in Albany, NY.

Leaving Da Nang

Leaving Da Nang 



It was one of those moments when sound collapses into an eerie silence and time somehow ceases to move and deposits you into an altered, yet clear reality. I had been plucked from the moment and set down in the space between time. But I was not alone. I turned my head and our eyes met as if guided by some mysterious contrivance of fate. In a bustling, chaotic crowd of many, only he stood out; a slight smile on his lips.

I had recently returned to Chu Lai from an assignment at the NSAH (Naval Support Activity Hospital) in Da Nang. Our unit was working an AO in the area and the battalion commander wanted a casualty reporter nearby. It was a quiet three weeks and an opportunity for me to use it as an in-country R & R; one that I badly needed. It may have been why I was sent to Da Nang. Activity was constant down south, and I clearly was showing the signs of sensory overload.

I was back in familiar territory and working the ER, GR, and wards when I received a call from Percy that Captain Rice (not his real name) wanted me to accompany him to visit wounded at the hospital in Da Nang. He arrived mid-day in his jeep, and we made the 60 mile trip north. Captain Rice drove and I held his Thompson in my lap. My M-16 was in storage in the 2nd Surg. armory.

The trip was uneventful as we raced passed villages and sandbagged outposts. Farmers bent over in their fields and young children standing on the roadside with outstretched hand, babies on their hips, greeted us along the way. A column of thick black smoke rose in the distance on my left as we neared Da Nang. I kept my eyes fixed in that direction until I was satisfied there was nothing of consequence in progress. Captain Rice sped on, his eyes fixed on the road.

Once we arrived, Captain Rice told me to meet him at the hospital in two hours. I made my way to the hospital barracks to find Walt and others I had met while in Da Nang.  I found Walt and we sat and BS’d until the two hours had passed. I said my goodbyes and made my way back to the hospital only to find that Captain Rice planned on visiting for another two hours and was not ready to go. It was nearly 1400 hours (2:00 p.m.). Curfew was four hours away at 1800.

Walt was surprised to see me stroll back into the barracks. When I told him that we weren’t going to leave for another two hours or so, he suggested I should tell the captain that I refuse to leave, spend the night, and leave in the morning. It sounded like a good plan to me; I did not want to be on the road so close to curfew. Two lightly armed American soldiers would present an easy target.

The time passed and I walked back to the hospital only to find that Captain Rice was not where we had planned to meet. Nervously glancing at my watch, I sat and waited for him to show. It was after 4:30 when he strolled into the reception area, Thompson in hand, and signaled for me to follow him. He jumped into the drivers seat, handed his weapon to me, started the jeep, and we began our return journey south to Chu Lai.

The Thompson rested, barrel out, across my lap; my left hand resting on the trigger guard as we made our way out of Da Nang. The village on the outskirts of town was busy with U.S and ARVN military traffic and locals on foot making their way in from the fields. Curfew was a little over an hour away and they did not want to get caught in the open. After 1800 hours, anyone beyond the last guard post would be considered an enemy combatant in a free fire zone and subject to be killed.

We crawled to a stop as we approached a narrow one lane bridge filled with lumbering vehicles, horns honking, and nervous villagers rushing back from the fields, dōn gánh (bamboo carrying bar with woven baskets hanging on each end) filled with produce, swaying on their shoulders. The sooner they were in from the fields the better off they were. It was not uncommon for a late straggler to be gunned down before 1800 hours.

I watched these villagers closely as they raced across the bridge, snarling angrily  and shouting at the passing vehicles forcing them to walk an even narrower path against the steel girders of the bridge; their loads bumped and spilling on the road. I was growing nervous as it became obvious we would not beat the curfew before reaching Chu Lai. I asked Captain Rice if he thought it best to return and stay at the hospital for the night. He shook his head and frustrated, laid on the horn. I continued my watch.

It was in that moment, stopped at the foot of the bridge amidst all the noise and erratic commotion, when the forward flow of time ceased. I was on high alert and being drawn to something. I scanned the blurred faces of the villagers as they raced past me, my eyes searching for what beckoned me. Nothing. I looked past the parade of humanity and into a crowd standing at the entrance of a market and saw only him standing there; his arms folded across his chest.

            He was wearing a black shirt, purple shorts and Ho Chi Minh sandals; dark black hair sat atop his weathered face; old for a young man. Our eyes locked. Safety off, my finger moved imperceptibly towards the trigger. He slowly moved his left arm away from his body to reveal a pistol in his right hand, tucked under his armpit. With a feint, non-threatening smile on his lips, he nodded lightly. Eyes still locked, I returned his nod. The jeep lurched forward suddenly and caused me to lose eye contact. Time had restarted and we were moving. I quickly turned to look back toward the market. He was gone.

Something unexplainable happened at the foot of that bridge that day. I did not feel threatened or frightened. We both had somehow found ourselves in the same space and time apart from the chaos that whirled around us and acknowledged that it was not the place or time for death.

Captain Rice sped across the bridge; a basket hit our windshield and a shrill litany of Vietnamese curses followed us as we passed the last guard post and headed for the open road and Chu Lai.  



Nothing was said as we sped down the road at full speed in a race to get somewhere-anywhere-before curfew and darkness set in. Nothing was visible. Animals, people, birds…nothing. It was as if 1800 hours had become such a way of life that all living things made themselves scarce and dared not be seen in the open. I thought about what Walt had said and wished I had stayed behind. I was not comfortable, and I could see by the tension on his face, neither was Captain Rice.

            Coming out of a turn we heard a pop and the jeep began to shimmy and swerve. We had blown a rear tire and we had no spare. Never slowing, Captain Rice said “Fuck it” and we continued to race down the road. Even if we did have a spare, stopping to change a tire in the middle of nowhere after curfew was not a good idea.

            Conversation now began to flow between the captain and me. He kept repeating “Fuck!” over and over, “We need to find a place to stop…soon. Keep an eye out for a friendly place. Fuck!” 


“No shit, sir.”


As dusk cleared daylight for dark we spotted a Marine outpost and pulled up to the gate. The sentries exited their sandbagged guardhouse and approached us. They were surprised to see two G.I’s cruising the road after curfew. Captain Rice explained our situation and pointed to the now shredded remains of a tire and battered rim. Letting us in and directing us to the command post I could see the laughter in their looks…“Army…figures”

            Captain Rice stopped the vehicle and entered the command bunker. I waited in the jeep feeling a hell of a lot better about my circumstances, no matter what the sentries thought. Captain Rice exited the bunker minutes later with a Marine captain who was taking us to a location where we could grab some C’s and sleep for the night.

Leaving the jeep behind for their mechanics to repair, we followed our Marine savior to our sanctuary for the night. As we walked away, I heard the two sentries talking in low voices and giggling. They might have been laughing about something else, but I was sure we had to be object of their delight.

            After chatting a while with a couple of Marine grunts, I settled down on a borrowed sleeping bag and drifted off to sleep. Morning came; our jeep was delivered with a replaced rim and tire, and we set off to finish our journey. Captain Rice let me off at 2nd Surg. and went on his way. Two weeks later a couple of friends, battalion medics, stopped by to visit. In our conversations I told them of the journey from Da Nang. They laughed and let me know that Captain Rice had been reprimanded by the battalion CO for placing me in danger. Hell, the government did that.


Rich Raitano