Father, Soldier, Son
Memoir of a Platoon Leader in Vietnam
By Nathaniel Tripp
Chapter One: The Dream
In the dream I am at home on my farm in Vermont where I have lived since 1973. It is summertime, with blue skies, shimmering green trees, and sunshine pouring over me like warm honey. There are the rolling hayfields, the big old barn, the house I've fixed up and filled with family. All seems well with the world; I am at peace and my children are playing in the shade of the big maple tree. I am mowing the lawn, or weeding the garden, doing middle-aged weekend things. This is always the way the dream begins.
Then there is a noise, so low and distant at first it seems more felt than heard. It is a beating, a throbbing, a drumming like the mating call of the partridge in May. But it is not the partridge, and I straighten up as I hear it. I turn left and right, trying to determine the sound's direction. It grows louder, resounding off the hills, distinctly coming from the southwest now, and I can hear the turbines, too, and separate that sound from the slapping rotors. I know they are coming for me, and there is not much time. I walk away from what I was doing and head toward a nearby knoll in the hayfields. My arms and legs get very heavy, I am so tired, suddenly so very tired, but I must go. I look back at my children playing, knowing that I may never see them again, yet there is no time to explain. Now the air is throbbing with that familiar sad song, a song I have not heard for so long. The helicopters are still hidden behind the tree line, but I know they are close now, maneuvering into a long line, preparing to descend.
I reach the knoll just as the green tadpole shapes of the slicks emerge over the trees. There are five of them, and I feel myself crying as they swing around. A smoke grenade, which I have been saving for nearly thirty years, appears in my hands. I pull the pin and throw it out in front of me, and tears sting my face as the yellow smoke billows upward. Unholy archangels, why have you come for me? Even though I am so very tired, I place my back to the wind, spread my legs slightly, and raise my arms above my head in a gesture that looks like solemn supplication. All these movements come back to me as the old circuits in my brain, so long unused, instantly rewire themselves. The line of slicks swings to my command, though my arms ache. They are downwind, bobbing gently up and down, headed straight for me. I am mindful of the power lines. I am filled with awe and sorrow. I can see the door gunners leaning out over their machine guns. I can see the sun glinting on Plexiglas. The sound wells up even louder as the machines loom closer, losing airspeed, sinking lower.
I am amused, for a moment, speculating upon what the neighbors must think. And I am pleased, for a moment, with the spectacular show I'm putting on for my family. But these are fleeting thoughts. As the ships settle toward me it is mainly the sadness that keeps surging inside me, the sadness and the fatigue. Now I am engulfed by the thick, kerosene-scented wind. It is the hot breath of death. The grit blown up by the rotors stings my eyes, mixes with the tears. The incredible noise beats on my brain as the lead ship comes in, nose up, and kisses the earth with its skids. I walk toward it. The flight crew looks surreal, like spacemen, mechanical grasshoppers in their flight helmets, flak jackets and dark glasses. The infantrymen are sprawled behind them in the open compartment, sleeves rolled up over bare, tan arms, fighting gear draped on their bodies. As I approach a few of them sit up and take notice, but most continue to show the indifference of men facing combat.
The rotors thwack the air over my head. The scent of kerosene is dizzying, with that constant turbine scream that drowns out everything else. Every cell in my body is in tune. I recognize my men. One of them reaches out for my arm to help me up. It is good to feel his strength. So much time has passed, filled with the relative serenity of things we had once prayed for. But now there isn't even time to say "Good-bye." The war still goes on. I must give up everything and go back. The scream gets louder and I feel the deck sway and lift beneath me. The hayfield falls away. I watch everything I worked so hard on and loved so much slowly disappear behind the skids.
In this dream my unconscious does a good job of reasoning. I know that I will be promoted to captain, and will be given a company to command instead of a platoon. It will, therefore, be somewhat safer than the last time, but still I could get killed. I also reason, as I settle in amid the web gear and feel the grenades and ammo pouches and canteens in their familiar places, that I am wiser now and less apt to take chances; better equipped to survive than the last time. But still the sadness is overpowering. I am no longer twenty-four with little to lose. Fatherhood has changed me. And I am so sad to see that the war still goes on. All that time, while I was safe at home, that war which had left poison in my veins was still going on and nobody bothered to take notice. The protesters had gone home; the television turned to other things. But for a few there can be no end, and I am tired and saddened that once again I have been chosen for this utterly awful and meaningless task. There is the sorrow that I must give up so much, my youth the first time, and now my family. There is the grief for all the people who have suffered and died while I unknowingly mowed my lawn. But I keep these thoughts to myself as I settle in among my men and feel the cool beat of the wind on my skin. We are together again, and even though I hate the war I do not hesitate for a moment.
Why doesn't a part of my subconscious rebel? Why can't I ever walk away? How is it that I can find comfort again in my compass and maps and the cool hiss of the radio, giving up all else? Or is it that the dream is real, that a part of me will always be following Highway Thirteen, which runs north from Saigon to the Cambodian border, which runs like a river through my life. I draw from it while I go canoeing. As the shore slips past, with brooding forest, beach and rock outcrop, I am also exploring the dreamscape of sandbags and concertina wire near Bien Hoa, where the road begins and trucks snort soot into the air and the black asphalt then leads to Di An and beyond, where it turns to red laterite and Herron was killed somewhere off to the right side, past the bulldozed margins of red mud and tree stumps, past rice paddies and children begging for cigarettes to the hills near Lai Khe. Then comes the open plain, then more hills and less of the sandbags and concertina wire. We cloverleaf to the left, form a column of two on the right, passing the place where Douglas and Wearmouth were killed, the highway a red stained artery dividing war zones C and D, sprinkled with the vertebrae of the lieutenant from Delta company, the land rising and falling more and planted to rubber trees, rubber trees forming patterns alongside the road which grows darker and narrower till it reaches An Loc, with the cobblestoned town square and a fountain where South Vietnamese soldiers drank beer and told stories and listened to transistor radios, and you could turn right toward Quan Loi, or keep going straight past Firebase Alpha, where Goodman and the guy whose name nobody knew got killed, and then continue farther up the road, which twists and dips and rises like a road in Vermont, the sandbags and concertina wire gone entirely, deep into the dreamscape of mist-filled valleys and little villages on stilts where the Viet Cong knew me and beckoned to me from thickets of bamboo, to the town of Loc Ninh, with its cobblestoned town square and fountain where North Vietnamese soldiers drank beer and told stories and listened to transistor radios, and where General Ware got killed, and still farther beyond, the road turning to purple clay and the shimmering green forest closing in overhead, to where the border with Cambodia is just a red and white striped pole across the road and two men stand smoking cigarettes, their bicycles leaning against the guard shack and a girl in a black and white au dai sells yellow chrysanthemums and the sunlight pours down like warm honey on the land beyond, where my children play in the shade of a big maple tree.
I will always remember the evenings at An Loc as very still and beautiful. The air was clear and sweet smelling, and the last rays of sunlight seemed to reach the darkest places inside of us. From our muddy knoll outside the north gate of the village we looked out upon a rolling landscape of hills which could have been Vermont except for the rice paddies in the valleys and the melodic voices of Vietnamese villagers drifting like smoke in the air. It was a time when the war seemed to hold its breath. It was a time of horseplay, or of reading, or of writing a letter home.
After the bad times we'd been through down south, this outpost was like heaven. Hot meals were flown in to us by helicopter twice a day from brigade headquarters in nearby Quan Loi and dished out of big green thermos containers. We were awash in C ration sundry packs; cartons of cigarettes, chewing gum, candy bars and toothpaste. Our daytime duty was to sweep Highway Thirteen south from An Loc each morning looking for mines. There were never any mines, and our sweeps were accompanied by vendors with pushcarts selling Coke and French bread. Best of all, we didn't have to pull ambush duty at night.
For most of us, the war was nearly over. We were getting "short." I was expecting my own orders any day; I had almost fulfilled the alloted six months as a platoon leader and was looking forward to the MACV advisor assignment I had requested. Most of the old-timers who had been with me all along were going home soon. Every day brought this closer.
We were not much older than my own children are now, and we still had a child-like innocence, even after all we had seen. It was an innocence which for most of us would not finally end until we returned to the "real world." For the time, our language was the jargon of radio protocol. Our names were our coded call signs. Niner Two, our artillery officer, had a guitar and sometimes we would sing while the sun went down; innocent mid-sixties stuff. I did a rendition of "Tell Old Bill" by the Kingston Trio myself, Tell old Bill, when he gets home, to leave those Viet Cong alone. Once, the advisors in An Loc even took part. Two of them took the L-19 observation plane up into the darkening sky and flew above us in lazy circles with a recording of "This Land is Your Land" by Pete Seeger blaring from the aircraft's Psyops loudspeakers. The little plane hummed and danced beneath cloud puffs. The last of the day's sunshine grazed the hilltops and the valleys filled deeper with shadow.
The artillerymen who shared our perimeter used the last of the light to check their aiming stakes and swab the long 105 howitzer tubes with oily rags. They would be up all night firing H&I's, or "harassment and interdiction." Several times an hour they would send salvos of shells crashing into a random selection of trail intersections, suspected base camps, and resupply routes to the north. This was designed to keep the Viet Cong from getting much rest, if nothing else. But for us, the sporadic eruption of howitzers just a few meters away was merely the tympanic accompaniment for our dreams.
We had a couple of dilapidated tanks assigned to us, which in retrospect remind me of the tractors I own now, and the mornings began shrouded in mist, just as they do in Vermont in the late summer. My men would have a hot breakfast of scrambled eggs and fried potatoes, but I preferred two cups of black coffee and a package of M&Ms from a sundry pack. Then the tanks would start, spewing exhaust smoke into the damp air, and I'd climb aboard the lead tank. I'd sit astride the main gun while my men found places around me, and I'd alternate sips of coffee with mouthfuls of M&Ms as we started out. The hot coffee swirling around them made the M&Ms cook off in my mouth, bursting sweetness while we rode through the drowsy town toward the south gate. The tank tracks clattered on the cobblestones and the exhausts resounded off stucco walls in this village half a world away from the villages we had left behind.
An Loc, the illusion, An Loc, the impressionist's canvas screen, a veneer of dappled light and shadow concealing the war within. Our tanks, with their thick armor and heavy guns, would grind to a ponderous halt in front of the south gate, which was made of thin bars with cast iron flowers on them. An old man dressed in black, who had stood guard alone at the gate through the night with a rifle older and taller than he was, would then ceremoniously unlock the gate and swing it open. He'd graciously bow to us, very aware of the irony of our respective security measures, and we'd flip him a pack of cigarettes. Often, there would be a couple of civilian vehicles waiting for us at the gate as well, the three-wheeled lambrettas or a motorbike or two. As soon as the gate was open they would rush past us and head down the highway intent upon their missions of commerce; they knew a lot more about mines than we did. Day after day, they knew there were none.
We'd dismount and send the tanks back. The lovely raven-haired Co Dep would maneuver her pushcart into our ranks, and we'd begin our leisurely stroll south on the hard red clay of "Thunder Road." It was August of 1968, and there were tanks and armored personnel carriers in the streets of Chicago. We were still unaware of the irony of this, still unaware that to many at home it seemed their city gates had been stormed by brigands. For us, for a while, Thunder Road south of An Loc was mysteriously silent. The devastating mines, the rocket attacks, the ambushes which had given the road its name had evaporated like the morning mist. Sunshine spilled down in shifting patterns as the fog lifted, shimmering on the leaves of the rubber trees which lined the road. After an hour or so I'd buy a Coke and some bread from barefoot Co Dep and try to look in her eyes, but she would always look away too quickly, reaching into her purse for change and speaking English carefully, with a slight French accent.
We went south about six kilometers, just past the Montagnard village, to where we would meet another unit sweeping north. Then we would hire taxis to take us back to An Loc again, instead of walking back the way we were supposed to. That allowed some time for a beer or two at one of An Loc's sidewalk cafes where we could relax and watch the full flow of midday traffic surge past: lambrettas loaded with vegetables, beautiful girls on bicycles, old women carrying ammo cans full of water on chogie sticks. After five months of sweeps and eagle flights and night ambushes, it was the first time any of us had really seen the country, or seen it without a sense of imminent danger. I felt my own strength, felt my platoon as my arms and my legs. And Highway Thirteen was becoming a river I was just beginning to explore. It beckoned with swirling eddies and deep holes.
Sometimes I would leave my men at the cafes and wander over to the advisor's compound. I was drawn by that bizarre world of decaying colonial infrastructure, Kennedy-era idealism, and CIA operatives. That part of An Loc could have been the Casablanca of movie fame, filled with intrigue, and I had begun to learn my way through the rabbit warren of red tile roofs and mossy walls, scrounging medical supplies for the Montagnards, whom we were trying to befriend. Then I became acquainted with the province's intelligence officer. Under the slowly churning ceiling fans, over the slightly yellowed linen tablecloths, just beyond earshot of the lingering waitresses, he shared his reports with me and I saw the distant hills in a new light. An Loc was an illusion, but still, we clung to the illusion, because it was so beautiful.
An Loc, the capital of Binh Long province, was an island of nineteenth-century colonialism riding high above a sea of chaos. It had been built during that era by the French, carved out of what was once a wilderness populated only by primitive tribesmen. Now it was the center of the vast Michelin rubber empire, built on the high ground like the walled fortress towns of medieval Europe. Thin though the wall was, just brick and stucco with four gates guarded by four old men at night, it seemed a totally effective barrier against the constant battering reality of war. In fact, the communist revolution had started here in the 1920s, amid the squalor and near slavery of the rubber workers, with attempts to organize labor unions. And forty years later, great tides of Viet Cong and even greater tides of North Vietnamese regulars were sweeping past us every night, going back and forth between their Cambodian sanctuaries and the fighting to the south on well-trodden paths that ran parallel to Thunder Road. Yet a truce of sorts really did exist, allowing the French to keep harvesting their rubber trees, and allowing the Vietnamese soldiers to remain dapper and evanescent while the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong staged battles to the south and rehearsed for the inevitable assault on Saigon. The ARVN battalion stationed at An Loc stubbornly maintained its responsibility for security in this part of the province. Every day they patrolled the outlying countryside, finding nothing. Every night they furnished the advisors with a map liberally sprinkled with red circles showing where their ambushes were. Such diligence was a deception. The local Viet Cong were kept better informed than we were.
The illusions were elaborate and well constructed, like the cobblestone streets. In all my time in Vietnam, sliding down hillsides, digging fighting holes, rooting through Viet Cong tunnels, I never saw a native stone. Not even a pebble. Just red clay, mostly, or sometimes grey clay or sand, so these stones must have been quarried a great distance away and brought here at considerable expense in order to complete this canvas of serenity. And the streets were lined with pastel-painted stucco buildings with long, brightly painted shutters and elegant balconies to further invoke memories of France. There was even a statue and a fountain in the center of town; the traffic ran in circles around the fountain and shade trees drooped above the sidewalks. "White Mice," which was what we called the immaculately uniformed national police, rushed back and forth trying to direct the traffic, waving their white-gloved hands like orchestra conductors. The traffic ignored them. Commerce took precedence over everything else, with a palpable vitality which was fun to watch from a sidewalk table with a bottle of Ba Mui Ba, the local beer. The voices and the traffic noise seemed to rise above the town like a song. Everything had to be accomplished by day, for at night, after the gates were swung closed, the world turned inside out. This was the matrix in which we found ourselves, and it seemed to invite insanity.
Military ritual and discipline were continually enforced from above; in the afternoon we might take a short patrol out into the countryside to the north, but more likely we'd work on improving our own fortifications, building ever more elegant bunkers out of sandbags, engineer stakes, and the wood ammunition boxes the artillerymen discarded. Our firebase, called "Camp Alpha," had been a revolting mess when we first arrived. The red clay knoll was strewn with garbage and infested with rats. The fighting holes were collapsing and filled with putrid water. It was hard to imagine an infantry outfit so demoralized and undisciplined that they could live like that. Within our first week there we had rebuilt the base, hiring local kids to help fill the sandbags. Then we went on to design elaborate sleeping quarters, command centers and clubhouses, all with the mandatory three feet of earth on the roof.
Always, no matter what we were doing, there were the fantastic clouds overhead, coming in off the sea in a slow parade. These must have been the same clouds my father saw while he lay at anchor in the harbor at Saipan, suffering his "nervous breakdown," an event which was offered to me as an explanation of his absence, an event which characterized him, an event of such humiliation that I never was able to find out much about it although I kept trying, searching for myself in him, looking for the weak points in both of us and building defenses as a military man does. My inquiries were taken as attacks. His loneliness and mine went forever unshared, as is so often the fate of men.
I knew that his breakdown had taken place at the same time of year that I was in An Loc, with the great Pacific monsoons forming, eclipsing everything below with the play of heat and light and water. Then, I was just ten months old. Then, the sun would beat down day after day upon the glassy stillness of the harbor as he sat in his repair ship, surrounded by the wreckage of war and spirits of the dead, while at An Loc, the sun beat down upon the jungled hills and endless rows of rubber trees, but we were both waiting under the dome of sky: he to go home from a war he had never quite reached, and I was waiting for the war to resume. The wheeling of the day overhead was the same. Clear midmorning skies would gradually give way as the day wore on, first to little puffs of white, then later to great ballooning, mushrooming shapes, billowing ever upward, sometimes just like the bomb clouds that had ended his war. By midafternoon there would be hundreds of clouds, even thousands, stretching to the horizon and beyond, taking on fantastic shapes, lifting the waters of the Pacific skyward.
Entertainment, for men waiting, is generally simple and close at hand. At our knoll at An Loc, for example, there was a very short dirt runway beside our perimeter which ended right at the north gate to the village. The runway was just long enough for the twin-engine Caribou resupply airplane that came in once or twice a day, in fact it had at times proved not quite long enough. The wreckage of two Caribous lay at the foot of a steep slope which marked the other end of the runway. Whenever we heard a Caribou coming we would stop filling sandbags and watch the air force play "Let's see if we can get the White Mice to run." Three or four White Mice took over guard duties at the gate during the day, and the air force pilots enjoyed landing a little hot and heading right toward them, reversing their props and jamming on the brakes at the last possible moment. Such were the highlights of long afternoons.
Then, late in the day, when the shadows grew long, a couple of advisors would come out to the runway and check the tie-downs of the L-19, which was the only airplane that stayed there. The last of the villagers would wander up the road and pass through the gate, and the White Mice would go away. Sounds would carry very far in the still air, and the ripening sun played on the huge towers of benevolent cloud drifting in from the South China Sea. I felt as though I were seeing the sunshine for the first time in many months. Surely, there must have been days of sunshine before we came to this place, surely there must have been sunsets ribbed with red and gold, but I couldn't remember them. I only remembered the gray-green wetness. I was not like my father. In the struggle to distance myself from him, and at the same time get closer, I had achieved a great victory on the distancing side. He would never forgive me for my strength. I would never forgive his weakness.
Camp Alpha was where units were sent to recuperate, although of course we were still at war, and in fact our firebase was perched on the edge of a strategic precipice. From where we stood, outside the north gate of An Loc, all the land northward was in Viet Cong hands. Of course this gave the rolling hills we looked out upon a deeper sense of mystery; it was a forbidden place as well as a beautiful one. There were no permanent firebases beyond ours. Highway Thirteen continued its course across French Indochina, but it crossed a different landscape. Above An Loc the flanks of Thunder Road had not been bulldozed back into a tangle of mud and tree stumps. Instead, the trees still enclosed the road with their spreading limbs overhead, all the way to the Cambodian border and beyond, keeping out the sunlight and shutting secrets in. Sometimes in Vermont, when the sky is clear and the sun is setting, I still see that road and those hills as though I am seeing the light for the first time. The place where a hayfield meets a deep wood becomes the edge of the rubber plantation, and on our neighbor's dairy farm I even see the place on Bad Vibes Hill where the helicopter went down.
Looking out across those hills to the north, there was the urge to simply walk away, answering to no one, perform the ultimate recon and follow the river to its source. As a platoon, we could probably have woven our way through the fabric of Vietnam pretty well, as long as the cigarettes and candy bars held out. This would have been the sane thing to do. Nobody gave a fuck for the war, we were great at performing recon, and we had doubtless made friends with lots of Viet Cong already. Not only were there kids filling sandbags, wandering around our base all day, but there were also mamasans cooking dinners to order and passing them to us through the concertina wire, and a host of other vendors. Best of all, though, were the "short-time" girls who came around at night; Butch and Nancy and the others with Americanized names and hair cut short. The lucky men assigned to listening posts just outside the wire got to share the warmth of their poncho liners with them for a few dollars. Often, while I scanned our defensive perimeter with a starlight scope, I would be startled by the image of a pale white ass bobbing up and down against a hazy background of brush and tree line. Our seduction was complete; there were no more enemy, no more rules. There were just the pastel shades of An Loc, the brightness and shadows of Highway Thirteen, and the almost sickly smell of hibiscus, raw latex, and diesel fuel.
When An Loc had finally been overrun by the North Vietnamese tanks, and bombed by the B-52s, and I had moved to Vermont and was barefoot planting sweet corn and feeling the sunshine and had just seen the photographs of An Loc in the news in which nothing was recognizable but pieces of tank and those stupid cobblestones amid the red clay craters and my own children had not yet been born, there was no way to talk about those things. I was planting corn and planting the seeds of my children in my first wife and keeping An Loc a secret. But now and then I would stop and lean on my hoe and look out across the valley at the next hillside. There was the column of smoke rising like an exclamation point from the side of Bad Vibes Hill, interrupting my reverie on a particularly fine evening. Bravo Six, our company commander, breathlessly explained to me that a helicopter with four men on board had just gone down there, only four kilometers from our position, right where the rancid rubber plantation met an impenetrable bamboo thicket, and I had to get my platoon there fast.
I knew the place was infested with VC; I knew this partly through the intelligence reports I'd scrounged but mainly I knew because of the sixth sense I had developed, that most of us had developed, which had become as real as taste and touch. It was something which could qualify us as crazy, but it was terribly important, as important as the smoke grenades and claymore mines we carried with us, a tool for survival. It was as though we had absorbed some of the Montagnards' animist religion through our skins, and rejected the Western logic which had landed us in this place. Call it ESP. Those who had it, and by now I was one of them, were always on the edge of a precipice, playing with fire in our brains.
Bad Vibes Hill had earned its name precisely because nothing real ever happened there. It was an illusion, a sucking black hole. One time, while out on a rare afternoon's mandatory reconnoiter, there was a feeling as if maybe we all really were crazy. We were at the foot of the hill, on the southeast side, just about a click below where the helicopter went down. We kept going through little square fields enclosed by bamboo hedges, each one just like the one before, so that it began to seem like we were stuck going in a circle even though we were trying to go in a straight line. We all became confused and disoriented. I couldn't get over the impression that I had been there before, even done and said the same things before, like in another lifetime. We looked at each other in wordless communication, eyes rolling. Of course this meant we were all going to die, and talking about it would only make things worse. Within the bamboo, they were watching us through the narrow slits of spider holes. We finally had to stop and sit down for a while, we were so scared. Then we went back to the firebase and reported seeing nothing.
What could we report besides our own hysteria? My platoon was functioning like a family, very close and under siege, more or less autonomous and quite neurotic. We were also the best and knew it, the envy of other outfits, speaking our own language. We saw the most action, yet suffered the fewest casualties. That was one reason we kept getting the recon assignments. There were hierarchies of male bonding, of legends and lore that must have seemed impenetrable to the newcomers who were gradually trickling in and bringing us back up to strength. We really had become tribal and mystical like the Montagnards we admired, feeling our way through a jungle filled with many spirits. If this was insanity, at least I wasn't alone in it. It was how we had learned to survive, teetering on the edge, sensing what is unknowable.
Another time we were in the rubber on top of Bad Vibes Hill and Bravo Six sent us to check out a thicket on the northwest side, near an infamous VC hamlet. The VC liked bamboo because it is nearly impenetrable and the roots form a dense mat which is the perfect cover for a tunnel system. Like the other time, we knew that the VC were in the bamboo, and with each step we took that sense became more vivid, and we kept looking at each other as well as straight ahead.
Then a voice materialized on my radio and began calling me by name. "Mike Six," it kept saying with a heavy Vietnamese accent, "Mike Six, you come here. Come this way."
At first we thought it was a joke so I stopped our movement and gathered the platoon together. We sat in our usual tribal circle with all four of our radios, but the voice kept going. It wasn't a joke. They had a fifth radio and not only did they know my name, they also knew the right frequency. Perhaps they had been filling our sandbags or draining our semen the day before. Now they were watching us, beckoning for us to cross over into another dimension. Or, as I preferred to think, they were warning us not to break the unwritten truce we had forged. I wasn't about to test any of these theories, and ended up doing something I had never done before. We hunched lower in the thick underbrush of the rubber plantation and concocted phony radio reports on a notepad, which we passed around. Then we took turns sending the phony reports over the radio just as though we were doing a thorough cloverleaf search of the bamboo. Actually, we were doing pretty much the same thing the ARVNs were doing. The VC fell silent, either puzzled or pleased. We, of course, reported finding nothing in the bamboo and returned to the base.
Maybe we were just crazy. Maybe we had been in the field too long, and now we had been outside An Loc for too long, and ambivalence and craziness had begun to grow on us like moss or clouds. Maybe I had lost my own sense of identity as an officer and grown too close to my men, and certainly we had lost track of our mission long ago. At any rate, if we had indeed formed our own separate treaty, it was doubly annoying that the truce should be broken by four guys from the rear of another outfit who flew too close to a VC marksman on Bad Vibes Hill. I ran back to our sector yelling "Saddle up, Mike Division," and my men looked at me as if I was being mean and spiteful. Cursing and complaining, grunting and clanking, they began to throw on their web gear and check their weapons. There wasn't much time; the VC would be expecting us. Already that side of the hill was in shadow; the smoke plume rose a hundred feet or so in perfectly still air before it entered the yellow sunshine. I briefed the squad leaders and coordinated some preplanned fires with Oscar Five, the mortar platoon leader, and Niner Two, who was the artillery liaison officer.
The plan was to race up the highway with some M-48 tanks, take a side road up the hill toward the VC hamlet, then cut off and bash through the rubber so fast that the VC wouldn't have time to assemble an effective ambush. The potential flaw in that plan was those tanks. They belonged to an armor outfit that had been stationed at An Loc for so long they had gone completely to seed. For month after month the crews just ate and slept and went to the latrine and hung their laundry on the gun tubes to dry. I never once saw an officer in their presence, and got the impression they were here because nobody else wanted them. After a lot of clanging and banging and puffs of blue smoke, only two of the tanks could be persuaded to start on this evening, which was OK because most of the crews had managed suddenly to disappear. The malaise which was entirely to overcome our army in the years to follow was already firmly rooted among those tank crews, who'd been a subject of ridicule up to this moment. The man driving the lead tank, a man too new to the game to hide successfully in the bushes upon hearing my orders, began to plead with me as we mounted up. He said he had never driven a tank before in his life. He was an ammunition loader. I screamed at him that he had better learn to drive in a hurry, and he went back down through the driver's hatch like a retreating clam. Then, with a dozen of us riding each tank, clinging to the turret handrails and avoiding the hot engine grates, we were off, lurching across the runway and onto the highway, headed north.
There was still a lot to do en route, and I stayed on the radio while sitting in the turret hatch of the lead tank. A helicopter fire team from Quan Loi had come on station. I could see them circling the smoke plume like angry hornets. I went to their push on my radio and checked in. They had enough fuel for forty-five minutes, which was about as much daylight as we had left. The voices of the pilots, trembling with the vibrations of their ships, sounded grim. They said they couldn't see anything below them through the thick canopy of the jungle, just a smoking hole burned through the leaves, and they didn't want to go down any lower for a closer look. They put one of their radios on my push, and left another on brigade frequency so they could relay back to Quan Loi. Niner Two broke in to tell me he'd gotten a battery of 155s from Quan Loi to shoot for us, adding their massive firepower to the 105s back at Alpha. Oscar Five was cranking azimuth and deflection data to his three 81mm mortar crews, following our progress with the gun tubes so we could count on a quick and accurate response. And brigade radioed down that they had put a team of F-4 Phantom jets on stand-by out of Bien Hoa with a twenty-minute response time.
I had quite an arsenal at my fingertips, and I hoped that the Viet Cong still had their radio tuned in and were listening closely. I also hoped the downed helicopter hadn't inadvertently flown over one of those NVA regiments which kept showing up in the intelligence reports. As we roared through the lengthening shadows, churning clouds of red dust into the air, peasants emerged from their thatch huts on the outskirts of town to see what the commotion was about. Squads of ARVNs on their way to their overnight hiding places gawked and waved. Then we were alone on the road, going deeper into the land I loved and feared. In my mind's eye, each hill ahead had the military symbol for an enemy unit hovering over it, as on the intelligence maps; the Phu Loi Battalion, the Fifth NVA Regiment. I used my mental radio to tell them that we meant no harm by steaming into their midst at thirty miles an hour in a cloud of red dust. And nightfall was coming on with the inexorability of death itself.
The highway was fully steeped in shadow by the time we hit the fork a few kilometers north. We left the main road and climbed up the side of the valley, back in the sunshine again. The view out to the west was splendid: mile after mile of rubber plantations, rice paddies, dark jungle and misty streams rolling toward the horizon. I longed to come back on a bicycle some day instead of a tank, maybe with a girlfriend. The place where we turned off the road and entered the rubber would be good for a picnic, right at the crest of Bad Vibes Hill, with the sunshine flaring up for one last moment before plunging down below the distant hills. All the colors seemed so incredibly bright, iridescent blues and greens, with the stark rows of rubber trees on the left side of the road glowing orange for a few seconds. I knew, at that moment, with a clarity that had taken me long to reach, that I had done my work, and that I had found my way as a leader, as a father of men just a few years younger than I was, and I hated it. There were black butterflies of death fluttering between the tree trunks again.
As soon as we entered the plantation the darkness was a shock, like plunging into icewater. Even at midday, the canopy kept the place in twilight. Now it was almost impossible to see at all until our eyes adjusted. And since this part of the plantation had been abandoned, deemed too infested with things invisible even to bother harvesting the rubber, a dense undergrowth ten or twelve feet tall had sprung up, making visibility much worse. The driver of my tank began to cry on the intercom. He said he couldn't see and he wanted to stop. He had reached the breaking point and was getting hysterical on me. But I knew the feeling, had experienced it myself once, and just kept talking to him calmly in order to keep him going. We couldn't stop. Now and then we would smash head-on into a rubber tree, and my men on the tank would yell and curse, drawing more sobs from the driver. I told the driver to ignore them, that he was doing a great job. And gradually, his driving improved, the sobs subsided, and we smashed into rubber trees less often.
As we drew closer to the crash site I got the whiff of burning meat which was memorable for the irony that, during that split second between levels of recognition, it smelled great. The helicopter had hit in the bamboo right on the edge of the rubber. We dismounted and I set up a security perimeter around the site. Then I went in with my CP (command post) group; just me, my radio man, and our medic. The helicopter had burned a big hole in the bamboo, so it was easy to get in. Nothing recognizable of the helicopter remained except the tips of the rotor blades and the end of the tail boom. The two passengers had been thrown clear of the wreckage and lay nearby, naked and hairless. The copilot had tipped over, but the pilot remained sitting bolt upright in his seat, atop a pile of flaming wreckage. The pilot's hands were raised up in front of his burned marshmallow face, as though protecting himself from the blows of an invisible enemy, still holding forth.
I sent the others back to the tanks to get fire extinguishers. This left me alone with the dead. I pulled the two passengers back a little farther. The guys were taking a long time getting back with the extinguishers. The sight of the pilot kept burning in my mind. I knew I had seen it before. Was it another lifetime? Was it really me I was seeing? Total deja vu on Bad Vibes Hill again. Then it came to me. I had seen it in Life magazine. It was the picture of the Buddhist monk burning himself to death on the street in Saigon with that same gesture, in death, which can be interpreted as either anger or genuflection, but is in fact simply referred to by coroners as the pugilist's position. At least I'd figured it out, with this pilot sitting, as though on a throne, on his pile of wreckage, enshrined by flames. It was all here: the sacrifice, the grief, the ugliness, the war.
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