I see them fading, in and out. Must be the heat and the distance. My eyes aren’t what they used to be.
It was hot, but oddly, not humid. The two soldiers in sun faded tropical fatigues stood on the ridgeline; they were motionless. Their web gear was unbuckled and hung loose around their hips. Likewise, their hands hung empty; no weapons were slung from their shoulders. They were unarmed. The one on the right was tall and lanky, the other shorter, but with a heavier frame.
Two full rucksacks lay at their feet. Both had seen extensive use, and were no longer the “new green” of fresh issued equipment. One had the name “Compton” block lettered in faded magic marker on the rucksack’s top flap. The other one was personalized with an equally weathered hand drawn “P sign”, a round peace symbol on the center cargo pouch.
The stocky soldier on the left flicked away what was left of his cigarette and looked up at the column of oily smoke that twisted and shifted until it disappeared like a wraith into the bluest of skies. The base of this blackness appeared to be somewhere in the center of the town.
The taller grunt looked down into the Iraqi ville where the smoke was denser, roiling atop the orange-yellow flames. A sudden flash of yellow erupted fifty meters from the column of smoke, followed by a rolling boom. The rising ridge beneath their feet focused the approaching shock wave. Compressed, it flattened into a ”Bwwwwaah!” as it passed the crest.
The tall one stared at the new fountain of flames, spitting out, "there it is...fuck...there it is..."
The sharp report of light weapons fire from the center of town that was audible earlier was now being backfilled with the heavier, lower register of .50 cal. machine gun fire. The short, stocky grunt slipped off his web gear, carefully placing it next to the rucksacks, and took a step down slope. He turned to his buddy with expressionless, unblinking eyes sunken into a countenance stripped of any human expression. His weariness clung to him as though it had become an indelible part of his body language. If it had a smell, it would stink.
"Let's go down into the ville and check out the FNGs. Shit, with the beaucoup bang, bang there’s bound to be some KIA. Besides, you felt the flashes too, didn’t you?" His companion silently nodded in agreement. Yeah, there it is. Somebody down there was bound to be having a real number ten day. And yes, he too felt the unseen ripples of death as well as the unliving that buffeted them from down below. With a practiced motion he shrugged off his harness and added it to the gear piled on the ground.
The shifting sand remained silent beneath their boots as they made their way their way down the ridge. Aside from an emaciated light brown dog digging in a trash midden at the edge of town, nothing alive was in view. This must be the backside of the town. All of the buildings nearby appeared old and uncared for. The streets and alleys abruptly ceased where the buildings ended or simply withered away into dirt paths. The two soldiers picked up the trace of one of these trails and followed it down into the ville. Eventually it widened into a narrow unpaved street as they passed the first set of tired, mud brick structures. An absence of people suggested that the residents had fled or were in hiding from the violence.
The sound of a low, rapidly advancing attack helicopter swept up from behind, the sharp staccato of the main rotor blades pressing down against the ground. As soon as it passed overhead the sound pitch changed and the high whine of its turbines mixed in even as the throbbing blur disappeared over the dun colored buildings. The soldiers continued up the alley, not bothering to look up as the weapon-laden aircraft flashed overhead. Reverberating booms soon emanated from the center of town.
The attack helicopter was engaged.
A hundred meters into the Iraqi ville they came across a GI in a tan uniform and full battle rattle standing in front of a blown out gate opening set in a walled enclosure that surrounded a house. The metal gate hung askew from hinges half torn away. Shrapnel was back scattered across the alley. In the middle of the alley an open sewer trickled its way down towards them. The lone soldier stood in the middle of the trash-strewn street, looking confused, glancing behind him for the rest of the five-man stack that crashed the house. Seeing movement out of the corner of his eye, he turned, lifting his weapon to a ready, horizontal position.
The two soldiers striding towards him glanced at each other. The tall one had a thoughtful, almost sad expression. The eyes of the stocky man at his side had come to life; they seemed to glint with expectation. He let out a bitter snicker and said loudly, “Hey you, yeah you.”
Startled, the infantryman stared at the approaching soldiers and turned around, looking for the support of his squad. Turning back to the approaching soldiers he gestured with the barrel of his M-4 and demanded, “Who the freak are you?”
Neither soldier answered as they bore down on him.
The two soldiers ignored his command and continued to approach. Now anxious and intending to retain control over the developing situation, he fired a three round burst into the ground between the approaching figures. Neither soldier reacted to his warning shots.
With one smooth motion he flicked the selector switch and swept his weapon from left to right, firing a continuous burst at chest level. The expended shells made a tinkling sound as they bounced off the courtyard wall of the nearby house. In response, the shorter soldier staggered as if he’d been hit, but he was acting, mocking the efforts of the soldier firing his weapon. Neither soldier broke stride until they were standing 10, 15 feet away.
Stunned, the soldier in tan croaked, “Who are…what are you?”
The short grunt shot back with, “What you’ve just become, Cherry.”
The tall GI affirmed, saying in a tone of voice tinged with resignation, “Fuckin’ A, fucking A...”
Battle Rattle froze and a shadow of cognitive fear flicked across his face. “Shit, are you…are you dead?”
The short one replied obliquely, “No more worries, no more pucker factor.” He turned to the other GI and said, “Hey Compton, it’s pretty obvious he fucked up.”
Staff Sergeant Compton whispered out of the side of his mouth, “Christ, Lou, cut him some slack, will you? He’s already screwed. You’re supposed to be helping, not fucking with his head.”
For a moment nobody moved. Two attack helicopters could be heard working over targets in the center of town, the beat of their thwapping blades changing as they altered their altitude and direction of flight.
“Who are you guys?” The shaken soldier looked first at Lou, who simply stared back, hungrily smiling, and offering no information, so he settled his gaze on Compton.
Compton nodded at the soldier and stated evenly, “Staff Sergeant John Compton, Second Battalion of the Twenty-Seventh…Wolfhounds. Delta Company.”
Compton tilted his head towards Louis and said, “He’s Specialist 4 Louis McGinnis, 227th Aviation Battalion, 1st Cavalry Division.”
Lou McGinnis added, “Company C”, and glanced at the lone soldier’s left shoulder. “25th, huh? My first tour was with the 25th. What’s your handle?” Battle Rattle’s body armor obscured his name.
Battle Rattle stared at them, dumbfounded. He repeated, “Are you guys dead?” Ignoring his query, John Compton gently asked, “What’s your name, Soldier?” His neutral expression revealed nothing. The soldier simply continued to stare, not answering or moving. He appeared to shake slightly, but stood his ground.
After a long period of absolute silence that accentuated the space between the soldiers, he replied, “Sergeant Richard Morales…uh…First of the Twenty-Seventh...Alpha Company…”
Morales lowered his weapon. Trying to push down his mounting panic and the taste of bile building in his throat, Morales pressed Compton, “Are you dead?”
Compton nodded and replied, “It’s not so bad.”
Lou added, “You’ll see.”
Ignoring Lou, Morales addressed Compton, “Am I dead?”
Seeing the wedding band on Morales’ white knuckled hand gripping the M-4’s ribbed fore stock, Compton hesitated, returned his gaze to the frozen soldier and made eye contact, “Yes, Sgt. Morales, you’re dead. It happens to all of us sooner or later.”
“Fuck you! Fuck you! Awww fuuck yoooou!” Morales sank to his knees at the edge of the open sewer and jerked with every sob that punctuated his frame. The mounting sense of dread he had been experiencing since finding himself alone smashed through what little self control he retained. An inchoate flood of confusion, desperation, rage, and fear swirled about. Dead…dead. Oh God, no. Not me.
Lou McGinnis looked away. It was never easy, and being in denial only made the hurt and sorrow sharper. How doing this shit was going to help him with his own issues still eluded him. The only reason he continued to do these soldier retrievals was John’s insistence, and yes, gratification at helping another grunt. He also felt that he owed John for having retrieved him from a hellish existence in Vietnam’s mountainous Central Highlands.
Lou remembered, ‘I was left behind, damn it, and we don’t leave our dead and wounded behind. We take care of our own. No one gets left behind.’ He looked down. Somehow, all these years later, the pain of abandonment still lingered.
Compton squatted beside the sobbing soldier and gently lifted the M-4 that lay astride Morales’ thighs. Without looking up, he handed the weapon to McGinnis and leaned in, touching Morales‘ heaving shoulder with his open palm.
Lou McGinnis stepped away and held the rifle at a casual port arms. Turning, he looked up the alley towards the small arms fire crackling in the distance.
The supporting bup, bup, bup, of the machine guns suggested that one side was maneuvering towards an objective. An inconsistent, but periodic thuunk of mortar rounds leaving a launch tube and the accompanying impact added to the orchestrated mayhem. From the vantage of the alley, the sounds were disembodied from any visible action, rising and falling as unseen men strove to stay alive while attempting to kill their opponents.
Compton remained silent and almost motionless, his arm imperceptibly rising and falling in unison with Morales’ sobbing. The deserted street was still, save for the trickling sewage and paper litter rocking in the wind at the left corner of the nearby house compound. Despite the sounds of fighting nearby, they were alone in a world devoid of people.
Sgt. Morales’ heaving gradually subsided into smaller, quieter gasps. Compton remained in a squat and rocked back on his heels. As he glanced towards the open gate he saw the oxidized purple-brown stains that radiated out in an uneven pattern on the sandy, packed earth of the alley. His eyes followed the path the stains took.
The sloppily plastered mud brick wall on the other side of the alley was the canvas that had received the violent, kinetic Jackson Pollock of irregular pock marks, wood, metal, purple-brown spots and smears overlaid with bits of flesh and stained cloth. This expression of an instant centered on a sharp, ragged hole that penetrated the wall. Morales. Or at least parts of him…Glancing to his right, Compton noted that Lou was no longer with them. He must have gone up for a closer look.
Morales sat on his butt with his knees up against his body armor, enfolded by his arms. He was quiet now, spent. Compton noticed the absence of unit insignia on his right shoulder. Aw shit, his first combat tour. Morales straightened and looked at Compton from behind an anguished face. Faint vertical lines showed where tears had joined into the rivulets that had coursed down his grimy cheeks. “How do I know I’m dead?”
Compton extended his left arm parallel with the ground and pointed below it with his right. “No shadow”. Morales echoed his movement.
“I see a faint shadow below mine, maybe I’m not really…” Morales clung to the possibility that all of this was a horrific dream and he would wake up, alive. Oh Jesus. Mom, Mom, help me. I don’t know what to do…
Compton shook his head, “I can’t explain it; it will disappear. Soon.”
Morales dug in his heels and pushed until his back rested against the courtyard wall of the house. He looked up and saw that the guy in faded green was still there.
He pointed to John Compton’s sun bleached tropical fatigues and said, “Looks like you guys have been dead for a while. I mean, uh, nobody wears that stuff, except old vets on Memorial Day or Veterans’ Day.”
Compton nodded, and replied, “Yeah, but time’s kind of funny. In some ways it feels stuck. In most ways I’m here, in Iraq, with you across from me. At the same time, I’m not really here. It’s a trip. I mean, I can’t be, I’m dead, and you…well, you’re…”
Morales retreated from Compton’s words, sank back into the wall and went silent. Too much had happened and trying to make sense of it all simply overwhelmed his battered psyche. One second he was preparing to kick in the front gate of the house he was leaning against, telling his men to stay sharp. Then the sudden blinding, cold rush of black followed by his standing alone in the bright sunlight, his fire team missing, no one in sight.
For a moment after the cold blackness receded and it felt like oxygen was returning to his brain, Morales had thought to enter the house to see if his men were there, but he remained rooted to the ground as a gnawing tension found voice in an internal screech that found no outlet, building up into a suppressed scream, “Don’t go in there, don’t go in there, YOU DON’T WANT TO GO IN THERE.”
As he stood there not comprehending the aftermath, everything felt strange, like in a dream in the moments before awakening. But he never woke. Morales remained tethered there, waiting for something he was not sure of. Expecting, but expecting what, lay beyond his ability to discern.
And then these guys coming up the alley, telling me I’m dead. This can’t be happening.
Compton noted Morales’ withdrawal from conversation and fell silent. Acceptance was the first lesson he had agonized through after Xuan had rescued him from a stumbling reality comprised mainly of sorrow and rage. This slight framed Vietnamese soldier became his mentor and brother. In fact, Xuan took to calling him Anh Trai Nhỏ, or “Little Brother”.
Xuan had found John northwest of Tay Ninh not far from the Cambodian border and lifted him from a whirlpool of ceaseless wandering. With Xuan’s help, John for the first time in his sentient existence grasped acceptance and patience. Forgiveness, including for himself, was a work in progress.
After a brief period John stood up, facing in the direction that Louis had gone. The firefight had either entered a lull in activity, or was at an end. He turned back towards the rectangular hole that once framed a solid metal door. The upper part of the opening arched over, giving emphasis to the entrance.
As he approached the arch he felt the screams…and sensed the fear. Again. Sighing, Compton looked down at the diminished, hunched form that was Morales and proceeded to enter.
“Sgt. Compton, don’t go in there, something bad is in there.”
Compton paused, looking at Morales, and said softly, “Sgt. Morales, I’m dead. What could possibly hurt me?”
Morales shook his head, but his eyes admonished, “Don’t.”
“Sgt. Morales, what you feel is real, as real as it gets. And it probably happened right after you were killed. But what you are sensing is also in the past. You are having a reaction to it. When I come out I’ll try to explain. Whatever occurred in there probably won’t be pleasant, but something did happen, and it can’t be undone. I believe it will be necessary for you to understand it…for you to be able to move on. Something in you keeps you tied to this place.”
With an inaudible sigh, Compton continued and disappeared into the opening.
Richard Morales glanced at Compton’s legs as the tall man entered the house’s courtyard. Further up the alley he could make out Louis McGinnis in the distance, with two, maybe three others in tow. And he instinctively knew that they, like him, were recent casualties. McGinnis waved to Morales and half turned, pointing to the soldiers following him. Evidently they belonged to Morales’ platoon and not to Alpha Company’s second platoon that also participated in this morning’s sweep.
What a fucking day.
From the direction of the town’s main road Morales could hear the cyclic thwapping of a helicopter taking off, its main rotor blades seeking lift in the hot, dry air. For the briefest instant he saw the grey-green bird rise before it dropped out of sight, hugging the ground as it raced towards a Combat Support Hospital. More casualties, but for them, perhaps, time still mattered.
Morales noticed that the short column of men had halted and turned in the direction of the receding helicopter. As the sounds of its rotors faded, they remained rooted, still as statues. Lou McGinnis turned in Morales’ direction and proceeded down the alley. He walked the length of two houses and stopped when he realized that the men weren’t following.
McGinnis issued a shout, and arced his right arm as he turned, pointing in Morales’ direction. Unfrozen, they followed.
Morales slumped back against the wall. All of this was too much to absorb. And it didn’t seem to stop. Wasn’t death supposed to be quiet, some kind of finality? Anger, frustration, sadness, and panic all seemed to bounce around in his head. In a fit of unarticulated rage Morales ripped off his helmet and flung it at the unfinished mud brick wall. As it impacted, it appeared to hang there for a split second before bouncing off the wall and rolling away down the alley. The helmet came to rest in the open sewer that ran the length of the narrow street. Its usefulness to him had come to an end. Nothing mattered. Everything was chaos.
Compton stepped beneath the archway and found himself in an enclosed courtyard. The spare courtyard was taken in quickly.
To the left, near a wall separating the courtyard from the street was a small structure, an outhouse he guessed. A fuel drum standing upright and two wood crates were against the opposite wall to his right. Used car engine parts were on top of the wooden crates. Across the dirt courtyard was what looked like the main entrance in the center of the house wall facing him.
The main door was riddled with bullet holes and smashed, hanging ajar. On either side were two large windows, both of which were protected by reinforcing iron bars set into the sills. To the right, behind the fuel drum, where the house wall and the courtyard wall came together was a smaller exterior door.
What loomed large in Compton’s field of view was a single strand of telephone wire which led from the blown out courtyard entrance to the shattered main door.
Compton followed the wire into the house. He found himself in a small room somewhat larger than a vestibule. It was sparsely furnished with two old wooden chairs and an equally old table; all were knocked over. The smooth, plastered walls were gouged with quarter-sized holes and what appeared to be grenade fragments littered the bare floor. There were two doors, one to the left and the other on the right. To the right, the door was open slightly, and undamaged. The door on the left was breached.
The telephone wire trailed into this room. Compton stepped into the room and saw that it was carpeted and much larger, with most of the furniture along the sides. A sitting room. Diffuse light from one of the large barred windows illuminated the room. Spent brass cartridges littered the floor. The pockmarked walls and evidence of shrapnel damage were indications that the room had been cleared quickly by fire.
The wire meandered across the carpet and disappeared through an open interior doorway on the far wall opposite the courtyard. He followed the wire and found himself in a hallway that ran the length of the house. A stairwell was to his immediate left.
More detritus from the assault littered the hallway. The wire stopped a few feet into the hallway and near the end it was split. One end was taped to a D cell battery’s bottom. The other lead was taped to the battery’s body with enough left free to touch the top of the battery. Detonating the IED that killed Morales was a simple affair.
Compton proceeded down the hall. The contents of the first room on the left were demolished. Apparently more than one grenade was tossed inside to clear the room. Bullet holes stitched the opposite wall. There was no evidence that it had been occupied at the time of the assault. He stepped back into the hallway.
The second door also opened to the left. A wide finger-paint like smear of dried blood came out of this doorway and headed further down the hallway. Someone, dead or wounded had been dragged out of the room. Bits of grenade shrapnel and brass cartridges from an American M-4 covered the floor of the narrow room.
A pungent copper-iron smell of oxidizing blood mixed in with the burnt gunpowder retained a descriptive presence in the room. The finger-paint smear led to the wall on the right and ended in a larger mess at the base of the blood splattered wall. Stubby 7.62 mm Kalashnikov cartridge casings littered this end of the room. The trigger- man for the IED retreated to this room and fought back, but didn’t last much longer than Morales. The men in the stack Morales was leading saw to that.
The next door was on the opposite side of the hall and the room it opened onto appeared to be another sitting room, albeit furnished in a more intimate, comfortable fashion than the first one. There was a door near the far right corner of the room. Compton surmised that it led to the small room he had entered first. Damage, if any, was minimal. He turned and noted that the hallway ended with a door on the right and a short hall to the left. Sunlight bathed the end of the hallway in a soft glow that belied the mounting tension he felt. A low, intermittent buzzing could be heard coming from this direction.
The door to the right was open and he could see that it was the kitchen. There was a faint smell of mint and something subtle he couldn’t identify. The short hall on the left led to the outside. The finger paint smear turned left as well. He felt that familiar knot tightening in his stomach. Sunlight was fingering through a smashed exterior door that led to a small, enclosed courtyard.
The buzzing was now constant. The blood trail continued outside to the middle of the courtyard. There a man dressed in a light yellow shirt and grey slacks lay facedown. The back of his head was missing, and two gaping holes defined his back. A shiny black matt of flies obscured most of this body trauma. Apparently, he had been dragged here chest down by the feet. Compton bent over slightly and examined the length of his body.
Compton hated flies.
The flies kept at their task. Compton felt revulsion even as he acknowledged again to himself that his task was similar to that of the busy insects. As he straightened he turned to the far side of the courtyard where an overhang offered shade. A smaller, lower section of the house lay beyond.
Beneath the overhang a man in the same yellow shirt and grey slacks stood with his head in his hands. His back was to Compton. Further into the shadows were two overturned white plastic lawn chairs, spotted red. At the man’s feet lay one, maybe two crumpled bodies. Compton stared at his back and after listening to the man’s grief for a long moment, walked across the courtyard. As he approached he said, “They have gone to a better world where fear has no place. And perhaps you will join them, Inshallah.”
The grieving man did not respond, swaying slightly where he stood. John stopped along side the other man and glanced downwards. A young girl with a ponytail held by a blue elastic band was half shielded by an older woman, possibly her grandmother. Both lay in a shared pool of dark blood.
Now closer, Compton could hear the bereft man repeating, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry…”
Speaking louder, and facing him at an angle Compton said, “You didn’t kill them, this was the work of another man.”
The grieving man, a little shorter than Compton lifted his head and replied, “If I hadn’t killed the American they would still be alive. I wanted revenge, and God has given me this. The Prophet spoke of forgiveness. And I, and I…”
Compton replied, “Peace be unto his name. But this killing was not yours, it most likely was done by friends of the man you killed.”
In reply, the man said, “Six months ago there was fighting in our neighborhood. The ulooj, American soldiers, killed my wife, my beloved Aini. And now my mother and Hanan are dead.” He finally looked directly at John and simply stated, “You are American.” There was no anger in his empty, tired voice. It was a simple statement, shorn of meaning.
“Yes, I am, or was. Now I’m simply dead.”
Compton turned and glanced at the man’s prone body. “Yes, like you.
My name is John.”
“I am Nasir”
John nodded an acknowledgement, and said, “Please accept my deepest condolences. And I offer my humblest apologies for entering your home uninvited. My task is to retrieve the souls of dead soldiers who like yourself, are caught between the living and the newly dead who have passed on to other worlds. Inshallah, God willing, I will be able to assist them to a better place, a dimension of serenity and awareness.
:I have a terrible favor to ask of you. Nasir, may I bring the man you killed? He’s outside your courtyard door. Like you he hasn’t moved on. This place, your home, will haunt you as long as you can’t let go. I think meeting each other will help you. Letting go of this place might give you a chance to see your family again.”
Nasir appeared startled at John’s proposition. Meet the man he had killed? Was this appropriate?
Finally Nasir replied, “This has been an evil day. I am dead as is my family. I wish to see them again, if only to beg forgiveness. God has shown me the fruit of my hatred. Mashallah, it is what God wills.”
John nodded, “Thank you, I’ll come back with the soldier.”
Nasir continued looking at Hanan; an inexorable tremor of sorrow the only expression left to a man who has lost everything. The anger and hate that consumed him had vaporized with the knowledge that his rage, put into action, led to the death of his mother and daughter. Now the only emotion that stirred within him was a keening sorrow that seemed to grow with every internalized shudder. How did it happen? Allah, I beg you, please turn back time. Let it be morning again."
John stepped outside and glanced up the alley to where Louis was leading three soldiers in their direction. Shifting his stance, he inquired of Morales, “Yours?”
Morales looked up at John and said flatly, “Two of them. The other one is 2nd squad, but yeah, my platoon so I guess he’s mine too.”
John evaluated Morales. Shit, you go with what you got. “Richard, this is difficult, but I would appreciate your help in assisting and orientating them. I don’t want them spinning off lost and angry. I don’t want to lose them.”
“Lose them? Fuck, they’re dead. There’s nothing to lose.”
John squatted so that he could look straight across at Morales. “Sgt. Morales, this morning they were your men, your responsibility. As for nothing to lose, you have no idea…no fucking idea how ‘dinky dau’ it can get. There are things out here worse than death. And right now, your men need you more than ever.”
John paused, and continued with a sharper voice, “The fact is, your guys got wasted. Shit happens. They’re here and they’re following McGinnis, so it’s pretty clear they’re lost. They will first look to you for support and direction. Familiarity and stability will help. You are, or rather, used to be their sergeant. I need…they need you to get your shit wired tight, copy? If you were alive you wouldn’t leave them behind. Now it matters even more.”
Morales didn’t respond.
John stood up. “Sergeant, listen up, time for you to unload some of your baggage. Follow me.”
Morales looked at John with baleful eyes, glowering with anger that emanated from half-wild eyes. He remained seated.
John stepped closer and towered over him. “Sgt. Morales, if you’re going to wallow in your own shit and not help yourself, that’s your choice. But when we unass this place, I’m not going to force you to come with us. You want to cut loose, fine. Things are twitchy enough. But I know you don’t know the way home. Comprende?”
Sgt. Morales spat out, “Pinche cabrón”, but he rose to his feet and waited for John to lead, following him through the courtyard and into the house.
John stopped inside the sitting room door opening and waited for Morales. He nudged the telephone wire with his left boot. “You never had a chance. I respect the risk you took, but someone else should have been on point. When the blast wasted you, the fire team lost its most valuable member. After that things went to shit”
Morales stared at the wire, too stunned to reply.
John turned and entered the hallway, stopping at the entrance to the second room. Morales kept his eyes on the wire, tracing it to the doorway. John looked at Morales and stepped aside. Morales peered into the room, turning his head to the right, seeing where the wire ended. “So he’s dead, too.”
“Good. Fuck this goddamn sandbox”. The hate was palpable.
John looked at Morales but said nothing. He continued on to the end of the hall and turned left towards the sunlight. Morales followed silently, lost in his thoughts. They stepped outside into the enclosed privacy of this small courtyard.
Morales’ eyes immediately fixed on Nasir’s body. He walked over to the body and stared down at his killer. After about 10, 20 seconds, he drew back his right foot and let loose a savage kick to the corpse’s left side. Finally, he had a target upon which to focus his careening emotions. He pulled back and struck out again, and again. His actions were sufficient to cause a perturbation in the weak, gravitational force of the corpse. Morales’ foot felt spongy and numb where it contacted the corpse, if indeed it was contact that occurred. Whatever the precipitating event, the flies were disturbed, and rose in a wavering cloud before settling down again.
The buzzing continued.
John pointed down, moving his extended arm three times, each time indicating where a spent 9mm casing lay. These cartridges came from an M-9 semiautomatic handgun.
Standard US issue.
Okay, so what?
John walked over to where Nasir stood, watching silently in the shadows, saying nothing. Noticing Nasir for the first time, Morales felt an amalgam of anger, hatred, and embarrassment. The buzzing flies gave emphasis to his unexpected faux pas.
“Nasir, this is Richard Morales, the man you killed. Richard, this is Nasir. This is his home, and there,” John again pointed down “…there is his family.” Nasir, apologetic, half raised his arms in supplication; they fell to his torso in defeat. Morales stood transfixed, looking past Nasir to the huddled forms lying in the shade.
Three well placed shots. M-9 shell casings.
This was no accident. His men didn’t spray the courtyard, clearing by fire as they entered. His mind began to reel with what was inconceivable. His gut call said they were murdered, and most likely in revenge for his death. Because of him. Morales’ rage flared off, leaving an untenable vacuum in its wake. He felt empty, weak, and shaken to his core. He was a warrior, a professional, with ethics and a creed that gave substance and meaning to his being.
This can’t be. His guys.
He had failed.
Within himself Morales felt a surge of feelings that were in conflict even as it consumed his being. No, I’m a soldier, I protect people, I mean, no this can’t be, I’m not …Jesus…no, no…I serve…
Sgt. Morales reeled as though he was blacking out with his eyes wide open. Everything was becoming distant as a swirling panic overwhelmed sentience. He was sorrow, guilt, horror, loneliness, rage, and hate. Attempts to form a coherent thought slid back into the static of raw feelings.
An emotional vertigo enveloped him; it was as if he were falling away from himself in all directions at once.
As Morales stretched out into nothingness the roar in his ears shrieked of ripped metal and the cries of countless voices. The only thought that penetrated for a nanosecond was that he recognized one of those screams. It came from his soundless lips. Audible sound reached its limits, oscillating exponentially into the near spectrums of visible light. Everything pulsated, amplifying a shrieking agony.
Then he felt contact.
A presence was beside him, painful claws gripping his shoulder, anchoring him. Instinctively, Morales concentrated on that point of pain. As things came back into valence, he sensed John, who at that moment seemed to be frozen, concentrating, flowing sentience back into him with a grip that was both searing and reassuring. John seemed to glow, burnished with a soft light.
The panic subsided, once again leaving him empty. John shuddered, released Morales, and stepped back, spent. The glow was gone and he appeared diminished, almost transparent at the edges.
John stumbled into the shadows. As he attempted to sit in one of the upright white plastic chairs, he appeared at first to almost sink through the chair. He caught himself, concentrated, and once centered, John settled into the chair. Keeping Morales in this dimension meant exposing himself to the same cosmic centrifugal forces that had threatened to scatter Morales across more than one reality. Morales had been on the cusp of becoming a wraith. Only John’s awareness of the situation and his learned ability to tap and transfer energy from this dimension to Morales kept him coherent.
Visibly weakened John said, “Morales, keep your emotions in check. You almost made a one way trip to hell.”
A startled Nasir looked at John, who nodded that he was okay.
Morales was unable to stop himself, walking with jerky, string puppet movements toward the crumpled bodies beneath the overhang. Kneeling, he looked at Hanan, her small ponytail dipping into the dark pool.
Jennifer was about her age. Consuelo had mentioned in her e-mails last week that Jennifer wanted a Barbie with a princess outfit for Christmas. Hanan was smaller than Jennifer, but her ponytail and the way her arm was wrapped around her grandmother elicited an echo of familiarity. Already deflated, he began to heave, retching nothing. In between spasms he croaked, “Oh God, Dios mio…”
The weariness Morales felt made every movement an act of determined will. He pushed off the ground and stood, facing Nasir. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. This shouldn’t have happened. I’m sorry, I…”
Nasir shook his head, “If I didn’t kill you, they would still be alive. Please forgive me. My Hanan would have been seven years old next week. Allah, forgive me.”
“Your mother and, and your daughter. I don’t know what to say. I trained my men better than that…Oh, God, I failed.”
Both men fell silent, the futility of words self-evident. They stood, heads bowed, sharing an ineffable grief that also served to isolate them, wrapped in their individual horror.
John stood unsteadily and approached. Looking at John, Morales said, “That’s what you meant, about me being on point. After I was…was killed, my men lost control.
“Richardson probably, yeah, Richardson. He was always calling the Iraqis ‘ragheads’ or ‘fucking haji’, and he was rough when handling them. I tried to keep an eye on him. I really thought he was calming down, becoming more professional.”
John listened but said nothing.
Nasir turned to Richard and said, “Perhaps you could tell me why us, why my house?”
“We had some street intel that indicated your house held a store of RPG rounds. That’s why your house was targeted. It was a rushed deal; we were moving through your neighborhood pretty fast.”
Nasir shook his head. “That would be my cousin Nafi. He lives nearby. It was Nafi who gave me the rocket head and showed me how to explode it. He said that the blast would go out, in the direction of the street. I taped it onto a chair and then I wedged the chair against the courtyard door.”
Seeing Morales’ confused, pained expression, Nasir addressed him saying, “I wish this could be undone. My desire for revenge has killed you and my family.”
Morales stood dumb for a moment and then slowly shook his head. “My men killed your mother and daughter. My men.” Rage ignited briefly in his eyes and receded to its hiding place.
Morales asks Lou about how he died.
There was a flat spot, a slight widening of the ridge above base camp that was a vantage point. One could look in any direction and see for miles. Few came up here. That suited Lou just fine. This was where he came when he sought sanctuary.
From his perch on the ridge Lou watched the sun continue its descent, backlighting the high altitude clouds that edged the rim of the ocean. First, the yellows and pinks diffused through the clouds, followed by the higher, red furrows in the stratosphere. Up here he felt like he was back in the sky. Sky was freedom, cool air, and safety, too high for the malevolent, twinkling lights far below from reaching up and punching holes in metal and flesh.
More than once Lou would observe his passengers, infantrymen, smile as the aircraft reached altitude. To these men “sky” became a verb. Instead of saying, “let’s leave”, or “I’m outa here”, they would simply say, “Let’s sky”.
Even so, many grunts had mixed feelings about helicopters. They were made of aluminum-magnesium alloy, were full of fuel and ammo, and many had witnessed the consequences of these attributes. Lou remembered overflying a crash site where the only thing left was the main rotor and the end of the tail boom. Melted lumps and a whitish ash hinted at what was the rest of the bird and its crew. A particularly vulnerable time was when the helo was egressing the LZ. Sure, the bird was more nimble after offloading troops and cargo, but the transition to forward flight was painfully slow when you could sometimes actually see the enemy gunners and the lines of red tracers coming up at you.
For his part, Lou felt sorry for the grunts. If your number comes up, it comes up. Nothing you can do about it. In the meantime, he almost always slept on a cot, not in the mud. He ate hot chow on melmac trays with real cutlery. And showers. Getting the stink of kerosene, burnt propellant, and adrenalin induced sweat off of you at the end of the day was civilized. Chewing on a wooden stick to “brush” your teeth while sitting in the bush in the dark was not.
If the Big Desk Wallah in the sky looked at you and said, “Tits up”, that was it. No appeal. Might as well be clean. Just hope you don’t burn.
Sometimes up here on the ridge, Lou would spot aging UH-1 Hueys still flying with the local National Guard aviation company. More often, he would first hear the unique thudding of the two bladed chopper first, causing him to rotate his head until he had a fix on the bird. Like the sound of a Volkswagen bug, you knew what it was before you saw it.
On those occasions Lou would watch the helicopter traverse across his field of view, its tail slowly moving back and forth as the pilot pressed the opposing anti-torque pedal against the rippling flow of air coming down off of the corrugated Koolau mountain range. Lou would watch until the receding craft became a dot against the sky, and finally disappeared. Somehow it was comforting to watch the drab green helicopters make their way unimpeded and peacefully.
As the day drained out of the sky, Lou sensed movement of dark against dark; a figure was approaching from below on the ridge trail. It was Rich Morales.
Lou nodded a greeting. “Hey.”
“Mind if I come on up?”
“Sure, Lotsa room”
Rich sat down on the koa log on Lou’s right, and took in the light show. “It’s nice up here. Come up here much?”
“Yeah. Sometimes I can connect with memories of what I was like when I was back in the World, before I went to the Nam. Not often, but I think it’s important to have an idea of what I used to be. Xuan and John say that knowing what I was will help me find my path.”
Rich nodded, indicating nothing.
Both men fell silent as the first points of light appeared overhead. As the night strengthened, the faint glow that seemed to edge everything in this dimension gradually reappeared. The glow pulsed ever so slightly as their reality drifted, shifting in and out of phase with the dimension they thought of as the “World”.
Rich turned to Lou and said, “The stars look like they ‘wiggle’. I mean they kinda twinkle, but they at the same time seem to like shimmer, or, uh, wiggle.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t really understand except to say that there are others back at camp who can explain it. All I can remember is that the wiggle motion you see is part of the light fuzz you see around everything. And it has something to do with gravity. Notice how the closer you get to an ‘object’, the sharper the glow gets?”
“Same, same.” Rich pointed to Lou’s right shoulder, "First Calvary Division, huh? I didn’t know there were heavy armored units in Vietnam.” Lou shook his head.
“I saw some tread head units in-country but we weren’t mechanized, much less armor; our mounts were helicopters. The Cav was airmobile in Nam. I was crew chief on an assault helicopter, a slick. That’s a troopship. Different from the guys who flew gunships. They had more firepower and rocket pods. Our slicks were war taxis with two M-60s hanging from bungee cords on the rear doors. I flew with C Company, 227th Aviation Battalion. “
Lou glanced to his right at Morales, "On my first tour I was attached to the 25th, like you. I was with A Company, 25th Aviation Battalion down in Cu Chi. That was the 2nd Brigade’s AO. I didn’t know John Compton back then, but it turns out we knew people in common from Schofield. In some ways Cu Chi was home in a way that Chu Lai never was. I preferred Tropic Lightning. I was really tight with the guys in Alpha Company. When I was with the Cav, somehow, I kept to myself more. It wasn’t the same. I had 33 days and a wakeup left on the second tour.”
Rich nodded, ‘I, uh, had 72 days left and no more ‘Groundhog Day’. I started to believe I was going to make it.”
“What’s with ‘Groundhog Day’?”
“There was a movie a few years ago where this dude wakes up and repeats his day over and over again. Every day in Iraq, in the sandbox, is the same grind. Groundhog Day.”
Lou looked at Rich, “Groundhog Day, shit, maybe that’s what happened.”
Rich had something on his mind. Lou could tell. I mean, don’t we all? “So, what happened?”
What happened? There it is.
A long, long, time ago, but it seemed as though what happened twisted upon itself and swallowed its beginning. And he repeated this nightmare so often that he almost knew what was about to happen. It lasted forever until it stopped. That was when he met Xuan and John. And how he came to end up here, this ridgeline covered in green that was his refuge.
When Lou was up here by himself, he was alone, but not lonely. Rich reminded him of his loneliness and isolation. And now he wanted to know how “it” happened.
What a rude asshole.
The urge for a smoke seemed to be overwhelming.
As if reading his mind, Rich pulled out a pack, shook out two cigarettes and pointed it in Lou’s general direction. Lou relaxed and shrugged. He noted that Rich wasn’t one for opening up much either.
It was mid afternoon, 23 November, 1967 and they had just made a run out to LZ Baldy to drop off a mechanic who had to work on a gunship that was down with a hydraulic line problem. They were inbound to Chu Lai to refuel and pick up a load of mortar rounds, small arms ammunition, and two mechanics and then head for a company in the field north of Bong Song. On the return leg they were going to drop off the mechanics at LZ Dog where they had to repair a swashplate assembly for another bird that was down.
On short approach to Chu Lai things changed. The co-pilot, CWO 1 Herbert Crane leaned back and tapped Lou, keyed his mike, and said over the helicopter’s intercom, “We’re refueling hot and then we’re heading for LZ Ross to form up a ten ship. The flight is gonna lift a company plus two platoons about 30 klicks to the west of Ross. Quick Reaction Force. The LZ’s hot.” Herb turned forward and started scribbling on a folded map.
Herb had already clicked into the parent battalion’s radio net and fed the signal into the ship’s intercom. From the sound of things, the situation was going bad real fast. Whenever the embattled company CO’s mike was open, they could hear the heavy crackling of small arms fire and the booms of larger weapons. Ten ships. That meant two flights into the LZ. Shit. For sure they’ll have a fix on us on the second go round. Fer sure.
As the bird approached the refueling point, Lou turned to his door gunner, Scooter Armstrong and pointed to the ammo cans stowed under the canvas seats. Scooter nodded. They would land, keeping the turbine running while Lou refueled. Scooter would go over to a nearby revetment to grab extra cans of belted, 7.62mm ammunition and some replacement barrels for the machine guns.
The pilot, CWO 3 Billy Franks would try to get more info on the disposition of the LZ. Meanwhile, Herb would finish up calculating his estimates of distance and fuel burn. Apparently the unit in question, a reinforced company, ran into a buzz saw, possibly a regiment of the NVA 320B division or the NVA 2nd division, and was having a Tango Sierra day. As soon as Billy Franks returned they would didi.
Lou stepped out onto the left skid as Billy Franks came to a hover before setting down on the perforated metal planking of the refueling point. Even as the bird was touching down, Lou was heading for the fuel hose. Scooter jumped out the other open door. Billy exited, cigar already lit, and headed in the same general direction as Scooter. The air was heavy with the smell of burnt JP as the Lycoming T-53 turbine kept spinning.
As he was finishing up, Lou could see Billy Franks loping back to the refueling point. Behind him about a mile out, Lou could see another slick coming in to gas up. Scooter had already stowed away the extra ammo and was waggling his open palms at Lou, indicating that he couldn’t get spare barrels. Someone had ripped off his secret stash hidden under the 2.75 inch rocket crates. Scooter had traded with the armorer three cases of stolen beer for five new barrels with his name on it.
Lou secured the fuel hose and walked back to the bird and shook out a cigarette from a fresh pack. The four, prominently placed, no smoking signs apparently were not meant for him.
By then Billy was strapping himself into the right seat as Herb worked the collective, lifting the bird about five feet off of the runway matting, pressing the left anti-torque pedal until they were pointed away from what were now two birds coming in to refuel. Increasing the collective, he nudged the cyclic towards the instrument panel and they began to tilt forward, rising above the strip. After a slight shudder, the helicopter began to pick up speed. Clearing the strip, Herb tilted the cyclic slightly to the left and they banked away to the west, towards LZ Ross.
When they arrived at LZ Ross six helicopters were already there. The 155 battery further down the airstrip was busy. The battery’s tubes were pointed in the direction of the company in trouble. The fire mission they were engaged in was probably for them. Even from this distance, the booming of outgoing shells was strong enough for the shock wave to be felt. Platoon sergeants were busy assigning squads to the different craft for the flights in. Within a short period of time all of the heavily laden soldiers were positioned according to bird and first or second flight.
Pilots had gathered in a knot by the flight commander’s bird. It was Major Thompson. This was good news. Thompson had his shit together, and although he already had three birds shot out from under him, he had yet to lose a crew member, much less a single WIA. Some of the warrant officers called him “Lucky Jim”, a moniker he discouraged, fearing it tempted the fates.
Billy Franks and Herb went off to confer with the clustered pilots.
Lou and Scooter turned their attention to the M-60s. Lou made sure the c ration can was fixed firmly to the feed tray. The empty pear can helped the ammunition belt from kinking as it came up from the can and fed into the machine gun. It was always a pear can, because that ration was his favorite, and truth be known, Lou had his superstitions like everyone else. He checked the spring action of the front and rear cartridge guides and the gun’s feed pawl. It had jammed two days ago and the pawl, which moved the ammunition belt along, was a replacement part.
After checking his weapon, Lou worked the cocking handle, lifted the cover and feed tray and placed the ammunition belt’s first round into the feed groove, making sure that the open side of the metal links holding the belt together faced down, and closed the cover. He would wait until they were up and inbound before charging the weapon and firing off some test rounds.
Now that he had nothing left to do, he could feel the stomach churn begin. Damn, he needed a smoke. Come on, come on, let’s get this show on the road. Glancing down the row of slicks, he saw that there were now eight. Off to the east, two dots were approaching. Come on. Don’t give the dinks time to set up a welcome. Dinks aren’t stupid. They KNOW we’re coming. Hell, they might be rattling that company’s cage to just to ATTRACT helicopters. It wouldn’t be the first time.
As the last two choppers set down, Lou heard one of the sergeants growl, “Saddle up!”
Lou and Scooter were standing alongside the helicopter’s tail boom finishing their smokes as the heavily laden grunts clambered aboard. In the distance Billy and Herb were approaching at a half trot. Lou took another hit off of his Pall Mall, flicking it away as he pulled on his flight helmet and climbed aboard. He went forward and retrieved his flak vest, which he kept behind Herb’s seat when not wearing it. It was heavy, hot, and stank. Lou wore it only when flying or on the ground at a remote LZ.
In contrast, Herb seldom took his off, kept it clean, and had TWO chicken plates stuffed under his seat. No round was going to come up through the floor and blow his nuts off. When Scooter teased him, Herb pointed out that even Chu Lai suffered incoming rockets. And he, CWO Herbert W. Crane III, was going to survive this shit in one piece and exercise the full use of his genitals until he couldn’t remember what they were used for. Laugh all you want. I got my shit together.
One by one, the helicopters lifted and formed up into a stick as they gained altitude. Initially Major Thompson followed the trace of Route 535 west. They were third in the stick. Lou keyed his mike and asked Herb, “What, no guns today?”
Herb shook his head. Apparently the gunships were already committed or too far away to form up on this flight. Billy Franks keyed in and said, “It’s possible we might have them on the second lift.”
Herb added, “The clearing looks big enough for a four ship LZ. That should help cut down our exposure.”
You go with what you got.
Lou charged the M-60 and let off a four round burst. He could hear Scooter doing the same.
Lou looked past Herb’s shoulder, through the cockpit’s windscreen and in the distance he could see four, no, five columns of smoke rising. That must be it. Another hit. The supporting fire mission was still on. Another incoming round, this time Wily Pete, or white phosphorous. Check fire, last round in. Good.
Lou remembered a flight into another LZ three months previous where the artillery battery assigned the supporting fire mission didn’t get the word, and shells started arcing in as the helicopters were landing to disgorge their passengers. Helicopters were veering off to the right, left, hell, anywhere to get away from the incoming shells. It was amazing that no one got blown out of the sky and that there weren’t any mid-air collisions. Lou had just about shit his entire intestinal tract out of his pucker hole.
Most aviators had heard about the story of how a C-123 got slammed out of the air by a mis-coordinated outgoing fire mission at An Khe. The two engined cargo aircraft disintegrated at the end of the airstrip when it flew into the battery’s artillery fan. The fear was real.
There was talk of going over to the firebase and rocketing it, but tempers cooled down and nothing came of it. Even so, resupply pilots made it a point to kick up as much dirt as possible when coming in to deliver at the firebase, now known to the 277th as FB Last, as on a list. There it is, man, there it is. In-country was one big time cluster-fuck.
From about five klicks out Lou could determine that the LZ was an oblong, grassy clearing with a rounded hundred meter high ridge on the left and on the right the beginnings of dense triple canopy forest. The ridge knuckled upwards after it continued past the clearing, rising into the massif. The clearing itself sloped gently towards the direction of the helicopters’ approach.
Herb looked back at Lou and held up his right index finger. Lou nodded and tapped the shoulder of the squad’s staff sergeant, then held up his own right index finger, and shouted, “One minute.”
The staff sergeant turned to his men and shouted something unintelligible that was lost to the slipstream passing the open doors. He held up one finger, closed the hand into a fist, and pumped his arm up and down twice. Almost imperceptibly, the squad stiffened. Two men on Scooter’s side of the aircraft got up and stood on the right skid. They were primed. The LZ was hot, and they wanted to get away from the helicopter as fast as possible, find cover, and return fire.
Lou leaned out of his door and tried to make out the lay of the LZ. The tree line to the left of the LZ sparkled with muzzle flashes. On the far side of the LZ someone had popped yellow smoke. What it signaled, Lou had no idea. He pointed the M-60 as far forward as possible and waited for the tree line to come into range. Major Thompson’s helicopter was now descending rapidly, and Queenie followed suit.
Lou felt the drop as Billy Franks, who was now flying the ship, backed off on the collective.
When they were about a hundred feet off the deck they leveled, and passed over about ten soldiers running towards the LZ. The one in front was burdened with a good-sized tripod. Another two soldiers were struggling with what appeared to be a heavy machine gun. They were wearing pith helmets and dark, olive green uniforms. Two or three more fire teams were in train.
The weapons looked to be Soviet DShKM 12.7mm heavy machine guns.
Aw shit. That weapon was a real helicopter killer.
Lou swung his weapon as far right as he could go and started firing into the tree line, concentrating on where he saw flashes.
Thwap-thwap. They were taking small caliber fire.
Thawap! The downwash flattened grass of the LZ loomed large as they came in. Lou kept up the long bursts of fire into the tree line. The barrel would burn out quickly firing this way, but screw it. Right now volume of fire was paramount.
Billy Franks flared out. Even before the helicopter skids touched earth, the soldiers were jumping off, running for cover. The skids grazed the grass, never really landing.
Lou shifted slightly, laying down covering fire about a yard above the hunched figures scurrying away from him. Now unburdened, the bird leapt about ten feet into the air and tilted forward as Billy Franks applied collective and pushed the cyclic toward the windscreen; all four crewmembers willed it into the sky, leaning forward, as if that would make a difference. Come on. Come on. Let’s go.
Air speed indicator at 60 knots. Let’s go. Let’s go. Thhhpp. Thhhpp. Two rounds came in Lou’s door and exited through Scooter’s door, missing both men.
Lou and Scooter let off on the firing as they rose, but kept a lookout for flashes from below. Billy Franks banked the helicopter to the north well clear of the LZ and arced around, heading due east. He increased collective and they rose even faster, following the first two birds in the stick.
Scooter keyed, “Bird down.” Lou looked through Scooter’s door and glanced back at the LZ. He couldn’t see anything.
Lou keyed, “Who was it?”
Scooter shook his head. Herb came on, “I think it was O’Grady’s ship. Someone said he was hit and was going down. It sounded like O’Grady.” No one spoke until they were almost on approach to LZ Ross. O’Grady shouldn’t have been flying. He was five days short. O’Grady should have been shuffling paper in Cu Chi, counting time until jumping on the Freedom Bird back to the World. One helluva foxy wife and two kids. Damn. When you think you’re okay, it reaches out and claws you back.
There it is.
As soon as they landed, everyone got out and started checking for damage. Herb and Lou started up forward on the left and Billy and Scooter did the same on the right. The next squad was already climbing onboard. Four, no five hits. It looked like it was all skin, nothing vital. The instrument panel was showing nominal readouts, the engine sounded fine, and there were no fluid leaks evident. The bullets that went through the tail boom didn’t hit anything. Herb checked by looking through the holes and seeing if passage to the hole on the other side was a clear path.
Nothing but sky. Good to go.
Even so, one of the soldiers who was watching the intent crew inspecting the holes in the tail boom let out, “Aw Jesus, will yah look at that, we’re going in hot.”
He nudged his buddy, and pointed at the holes. The other soldier looked, said nothing, and disappeared back into his own head. ‘I really don’t need this shit. I really don’t.’
Billy and Herb decided to walk over to Major Thompson’s bird and see what was up for the next flight. Lou fired up a Pall Mall and placed his Zippo and cigarette pack in Scooter’s left palm. Scooter was out. Then Lou remembered what he had seen as they were coming in. So he headed in the direction that the pilots were walking. Lou caught up with the other two just as they reached Major Thompson.
Billy turned and faced Lou.
Lou pinched one more drag, and flicked the butt away. As he stopped he said, “When we were on approach we passed over some NVA coming up with crew served weapons. I’m pretty sure it was .51 cal. and they were headed for the east side of the LZ. I saw, maybe, three crews. Ammo bearers too.”
Billy Franks replied, “Shit.”
Major Thompson looked at Lou and said, “Lou, right?”
“Inbound edge of the LZ?”
Major Thompson nodded and tapped the folded chart in his right hand against his upheld left palm. Twisting his left wrist to look at his watch, he said, “We have two Sandys coming up from the south who should be on station…now.”
Voices became audible out of the background cacophony of LZ Ross. All turned towards the strip as four more pilots walked up.
Addressing no one in particular, he continued, “We lost one. O’Grady. No word yet on survivors. There’s a FAC flying over the crash site checking. Still nothing. Pete Bowers’ bird also got hit. He’s in the air and inbound, but his hydraulics are shot. He’s pumping his way back. So that leaves eight total when the others return.
“Gunships are still out, but the FAC over the LZ has two fresh Sandys on station right now. I’ll ask the FAC to confirm with the ground commander that there are no friendlies on the approach side and see if the Sandys can lay down some nape on the east perimeter. Right now they’re waxing the treeline on the hill to the south. The north side is still good, but battalion TOC says that side is pretty thin, so the situation is fluid, copy?
“Sunset is at, uh, 17:12 so it should be nautical twilight by the time we’re headed back to the barn. Moonrise is at 22:25, so it’s going get pretty dark when we lose the light. Keep your spacing. We lift as soon as the last helos in get the sitrep and saddle up.”
As the three men walked back to their chopper they could see four more helicopters coming in. Bowers was bringing up the rear. He just barely made it over the airstrip runway matting, flared into a hover for about half a second and fell three feet like a rock. The helicopter sagged slightly to the left, as the main rotor continued to whip around on its own momentum. The engine was already shut down and a light smoke was drifting out of the engine cowling. Even from 50 meters away Lou could tell that the bird had been hit numerous times.
No one was exiting.
They veered towards the stricken bird on a dead run. Lou got there first. The four men inside remained seated. One of the crewmen in back was hunched over, trying to light a cigarette, but his hands were shaking too much. Lou reached over and held his Zippo hand steady, flicking the flint wheel. The Zippo flamed and the crew chief leaned his face into the flame. Lou let go as the guy nodded his thanks.
The other crewman, the door gunner had his head cupped in his hands. Bowers sat in the right seat, still as a Buddha statue. Billy Franks rapped on his door window, and he finally moved, cracking open the door. He looked at Billy and said, “It’s dry. I don’t know how we made it. The hydraulic system is bone dry. Every other time I tried to set her down, we started to spin. This time we lucked out.”
Herb asked, “Anyone hit?” Bowers slowly shook his head. His flight suit was drenched in sweat. It stank of fear.
Lt. Dick Smith, the co-pilot in the left seat was emitting a high-pitched, nervous, giggle. He stopped, and then simply croaked, “What a rush.” Herb and Billy looked at each other and in unison, shook their heads. No one hit. Go figure.
The other helicopters were loading so the three men double-timed it back to their ship. Sergeants were hastily reconfiguring the loads to compensate for the two downed helicopters. Fifteen minutes later eight aircraft were aloft and headed west.
Inbound, and the sky was painting itself with a palette of colors that you see only in the tropics. Lou leaned out the door and took it in. He had seen many beautiful sunsets in Vietnam, but this one was all time. For a moment Lou lost himself, awestruck by the intensity of the colors that seemed to shift by the minute. The cool evening air had a pleasant sting to it as it streamed past.
Billy keyed his mike and broke the mood, “They have wounded. So after our guys unass, don’t shoot the guys coming up. They’ll be bringing in wounded.” 23 Med at LZ Ross already had more business than they could handle. Early in this firefight dustoffs had brought in the first wave of wounded to LZ Ross. Chu Lai was further out towards the coast, but it also had a full on surgical hospital.
Billy turned to Herb and keyed, “Let’s try for Chu Lai.”
Herb began calculating to see if they had enough fuel to make it back to the Second Surgical Hospital’s ramp at Chu Lai, or if they would still have to divert to LZ Ross to take on fuel.
Herb keyed, “We should touch down at Chu Lai with, uh, two hundred, maybe one hundred fifty pounds of fuel left. It’s gonna be tight. Depends on how much weight we take on.”
Lou leaned out the door and could make out the LZ. It was still hot. Green and red tracers were weaving a barrier of lead across the clearing, and he could see an occasional flash. Mortars. At this distance he couldn’t tell if it was incoming or outgoing. The still brilliant sunset combined with the tracer rounds and explosions on the perimeter made the approaching scene seem surreal, psychedelic.
Herb keyed, “One minute.” Lou turned to the sergeant sitting on the canvas seat that faced forward, leaned in, and shouted, “One minute”.
The sergeant nodded, and tapped the helmet of the nearest soldier and held up his right index finger. The soldier nodded, and turned to the man next to him, rapping his helmet.
They came in fast, and it was insane. Tracers were cris-crossing everywhere, and they weren’t getting hit. This time they bounced slightly as the grunts tumbled out and disappeared.
Eight men came at them, bent over, and running. They were carrying two wounded, using ponchos as litters. Lou shouted to Scooter to give a hand. Scooter’s side was not taking much incoming fire. Lou continued firing in the direction that most of the incoming red tracer streaks were coming from. The far side of the clearing was twinkling lights, sharp flashes, and worst of all, strings of incandescent red reaching out.
As the first four men came up with their burden, Scooter reached down and pulled so hard that one of the men banged against the edge of the deck before letting go. After the wounded were laid on the deck the men, bent over, ran away into the growing twilight in the direction they had come from so fast that they appeared to vanish.
The enemy gunners were getting their range.
Okay, okay, let’s go.
Scooter keyed and shouted, “Wait one.”
.51 cal. machine guns were now registering. Let’s didi!
Two men came up out of the gloom holding a limping man between them. They lifted him up, and Lou grabbed him and laid the wounded soldier lengthwise on the canvas seats. Scooter screamed, “Go, go, go!”
Lou reached for his M-60 to resume firing, and slipped on the blood slick deck as the helicopter lurched forward. He caught himself by grabbing the doorframe. Speed was picking up and they were now about 50-60 feet above the ground. Let’s go! Lou looked down. Red tracers were shifting. Gunners found their range and were leading their fire into the helicopter’s intended path. The red, snaking lines were converging on their piece of sky. Let’s go! Whap! Whap! Heavy machine gun fire was striking Lou’s side of the ship.
Fuck! Shake a leg! Go!
Scooter turned, looked at Lou, and shouted, “They’re setting…” and a round hit him in the back of his flight helmet, spraying his face and brains onto the quilted insulation that lined the cabin ceiling. Scooter fell forward onto the wounded men wrapped in ponchos lying on the deck. One of them shrieked in pain as Scooter’s lifeless body toppled on top of him.
Lou screamed, and looked into the cockpit. They were still climbing. He could see the fading sunset through the windshield. Whap-Whap-Whap! More hits on the left side of the aircraft. Lou was still looking forward when the instrument panel lit up. Master Caution light, engine temperature, oil pressure, hydraulics, Fire Warning light, fuel pressure gage, generator, everything was failing. The instrument panel warning annunciator began bleating, barely adding to the cacophony.
Billy Franks was tilting the bird to the right, still trying to get away from the LZ. Bam! The windshield disintegrated, sending shards of green and clear Plexiglas spinning through the cockpit. One of the windshield wipers whipped past Lou’s face, putting a deep gash in his right cheek. Herb was slumped forward against his seat restraints, his head lolling back and forth with the shuddering of the dying bird. Billy was screaming, his bloody hands searching for his destroyed eyes.
The helicopter continued to roll to the right.
Lou held on to the forward doorframe. To his horror, he watched as Scooter and the three wounded men slid off the deck and canvas seats into space. Rounds were now slamming up through the deck. He saw a flash and looked out the door on his side. An RPG was coming up, and he knew in an instant that the rocket’s trajectory was on a converging arc. Suddenly, everything was brilliant light, enveloping heat.
The helicopter was pushed sideways through the air as the rocket’s shaped charge detonated against the turbine engine, which sent its compressor blades scything through the cabin. The magnesium-aluminum airframe was incandescent white, burning at over 6000 degrees. Hydraulic fluid was flaming yellow. Machine gun rounds under the canvas seat began cooking off. Lou screamed through seared lungs as he burned. Lou was on fire. Then nothing but obsidian black, cold, penetrating, nothingness…
He reached for his M-60 to resume firing, and skidded on the bloody deck as the helicopter lurched forward. Lou caught himself by clutching the forward doorframe…
Lou McGinnis shook his head to clear it of repetitive memories, leaned forward, and pulled on one of the offered cigarettes, placed it in his mouth as he pulled out his lighter, thumbing it as he lifted it up to the tip of his cigarette, then Rich’s. The Zippo flickered as he steadied it for Rich to pull a light.
The sky above Rich and Lou sparkled with the light of countless suns. A gibbous moon was rising out of the east, halfway to its zenith. It was bright enough to backlight the fat, puffy clouds that drifted in on the northeast trades. Lou sighed.
He glanced at Rich and said quietly, “Well, we went into a hot LZ and got stitched with .51 cal. machine gun fire. Then an RPG finished it.”
Lou shrugged, “Shit happens.”
Rich looked at him and realized with a start, that Lou didn’t like talking about his death. He suddenly felt like a voyeur, a peeping tom.
Lou sensed Rich was looking for answers to something, but what, he wasn’t exactly sure of. Was it death? Or perhaps it was the dying. Could it be about corporeal remains? His family? I don’t want to talk about dying. That’s a done deal.
“The helo I was in crashed outside of the defensive perimeter, so a search for remains didn’t happen for about a week. It turns out that most of what they recovered of me was inside the perimeter all the time. When the Graves Registration guys from the Chu Lai Division GR Point came out the following week the first area they checked was the crash site. They found most of Herb and Billy Franks intact. When the RPG hit our bird the whole front of the helo blew off and fell first. It didn’t burn, like the rest of the helicopter. Some wild animals chewed on them a little bit, but not on their faces.
“Scooter and the three WIAs fell not far from the TOC that was set up. Apparently that really freaked out some guys who were only about ten feet away from where they landed. So when they went looking, it was just for me. They didn’t find me, or what was left of me. Well, they did find some charred rib bones fuzzed in with what was left of my flak jacket but couldn’t do a positive ID. That part of me fell into a category of “believed to be”. Everything else was burnt up.
"Several weeks later there was a big ops going on, pushing up the Que Son Valley and another unit was cutting across the LZ while chasing some VC support units. Someone found my left leg from just below the knee. I guess when the bird disintegrated that part of me was blown back towards the LZ.
“Anyways, I always had one dog tag around my neck and another laced into my left boot. Hell, when I was in Bangkok for R&R, I had a two by one inch block tattooed on my chest with my name, number, and O Pos. No religion. If you’re wondering if I was drunk when I did that, I hardly remember being sober. I was still buzzed getting on the charter flight back to Tan Son Nhut. I missed the afternoon C-130 flight up to Chu Lai because I fell asleep and lucked out when I hopped on a C-123 that was flying direct to Chu Lai. We got to Chu Lai first since the C-130 I missed was making its way up the coast spiraling down to one airstrip, then taking off, yanking and banking into another spiral into the sky and on to the next stop where it would corkscrew down again.”
Lou inhaled, pulling one last draw from the glowing cigarette stub. He returned to the subject at hand.
“The GR guys took my leg back to Chu Lai where they did the preliminary paper work.”
GR Point at Chu Lai was a small single story wood building with a white picket fence around it. Yeah, a white picket fence. Lou had been there once before, to take a look and say goodbye to his first door gunner since coming back on this tour. Mike Wyzinski. Back in the World he was a bass guitarist for a local rock and roll band in Flint, Michigan.
They got Mike back alive, where already exhausted doctors, medics, and nurses worked on Mike through the night at the 2nd Surgical Hospital; they didn’t give up, but he died.
Lou remembered there was a white picket fence that surrounded the low building that was the Graves Registration morgue. Yeah, that makes everything stateside normal, whatever that is.
Lou continued, “My leg was sent up to the mortuary at Da Nang. From there it went back to a funeral home in Beaverton. Mom didn’t handle it very well. I mean just one leg and a few charred rib fragments they thought was me. I found out that I was buried almost eight months after I was killed. When I think about Mom, I have a rucksack full of guilt that pulls me down. I try not to think about Mom.
“The rest of me, what you are talking to, wasn’t recovered until Xuan heard about me from other Vietnamese doing recovery work and he contacted John. After some effort, they reconstituted me and brought me to base camp. When they found me it was May 1997 in parallel time. I had been spinning through the last few hours of my life for almost thirty years.”
Lou’s hand trembled slightly as he flicked the cigarette butt out into space, the glowing ash disappearing into the darkness that was the valley below.
“I’m 24 years old. I guess I’ll always be twenty-four. So how in hell could I have spent thirty years reliving the worst part of my life? It doesn’t add up, but I still feel the weariness of it all. When Xuan and John first found me they said I was barely there, just flitting images and overwhelming panic and rage. It took both of them reaching out and sharing their energy each time I came into view before I spun off again, reliving being shot down and burnt up.
”John said that there were two platoons of recovered Vietnamese chanting the Metta Sutta, anchoring them as they reached out to me in an attempt to give me awareness. Xuan told me it took almost 36 parallel hours before I was “solid” enough to hold onto. He said that when they had completed the initial reconstitution of what is “me”, that night had just fallen, and the soldiers that surrounded them, holding hands in a concentric circle, were all shimmering in a golden light. Xuan said, “For a moment, they were all Buddha, many thanks to you.”
Rich looked at Lou, “Thanks to you?”
Lou said, “Yeah, thanks to me.”
“So these guys, your enemy, save your ass, uh, soul, uh, something, and THEY thank you? I think I’m missing something here. Maybe I can understand Juan and John, but the gooks?”
Lou felt a flare of rage coming on, accepted its presence, and acknowledged that he himself had thought of his opponents as gooks, dinks, slopes, and worse. And Rich wouldn’t be calling them gooks if men like he didn’t first use the dehumanizing term.
“Well, first, ‘Juan’ is Xuan. Yeah, it sounds similar. So he’s Vietnamese too. And those guys you called gooks saved me from a hell that didn’t end until I was retrieved. The Metta Sutta, or Buddhist prayer they were reciting and meditating on is about loving kindness. What they did was also an act of forgiveness for themselves through forgiving me. To seek forgiveness without forgiving completely misses the point, and to forgive without feeling the need to seek forgiveness is to lay a seed of arrogance that will grow.”
Lou looked at Rich, “Look, I’m still pretty fucked up, and I’m still having trouble with my anger. I can’t seem to let go of it. I understand, when I try to think it through, but somehow I don’t believe more thinking will solve this problem that I’m having. I mean, for a split second there, when you called the people who helped pull me out of the hell I was in, ‘gooks’, I was ready to toss you off the ridge.
“What you said sucked, but it wasn’t you, it’s me. Anger is part of me. You just scratch the skin, and it pops out. Sometimes I feel like an automatic, open bolt weapon. Once I get going, the finger stays curled and I go until I’m empty. The only thing I can do is try to think, and choke off the anger before the first round cooks off. I don’t know if I got screwed up before I died, or during the years I kept cycling through the worst hours in that life. I don’t remember enough of what was me. I realize I’m addicted to anger. I want to be free. But somehow anger reminds me of that other me. Maybe that’s why I can’t let go. I just don’t know.
“When you ask what happened, I can’t tell you. I’m afraid to. I might get angry, or I might just fall the other way, and feel nothing but sadness and loneliness. In many ways when I was reconstituted, the only thing left of me was raw emotion. I’ve been trying to become more than that, but it seems like every time I inch forward, I meet me. I don’t ever want to go back to what I was trapped in, and I suppose since I’m dead, I can’t die. Most of the time, I just wish I was nothing.”
“In the several parallel years since I came to base camp other soldiers, even civilians, have come and gone. They seem to be able to clean up their shit, get centered, and move on. I’m still here. Maybe I’ll always be here, sitting up here.”
Rich sat quietly, listening. Jeremy Richardson and Jack Reinhart, the “JRs” had moved on, Gabe was studying to be a “retriever”, but Morales seemed no closer to getting it together that when they first arrived at the camp high in the Ko’olau mountain range.
What if he fared no better?
Half the time he felt like he was walking in an out of control kaleidoscope. One moment he was thirteen years old, protecting his mother from his goddamn drunken father, the next he was calling in a fire support mission, watching bodies and parts of bodies slowly pinwheel above the detonations, exulting, “Yes!, Yes!”
All too often this visceral parade got jammed on Hanan lying there as she flickered back and forth, becoming Jennifer and then Hanan. The worst was when Hanan got up and handed him a Barbie doll. And the sights of the dead children in the market place he had managed to “forget”, coming to life and turning their backs on him as he approached.”
On a conscious level, Rich reached back to a space when there was certainty. As an altar boy at Our Lady of the Sorrows there was a belief, a trust that there was sense to his life, to the world he lived in.
“O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of heaven, and the pains of hell; but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, Who are all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life. Amen.”
Somehow, reciting the ‘Act of Contrition’ as if it were a mantra left Rich even more bereft. But he continued to cling to it. God remained silent. But he had nothing else. Sitting up here on the ridge, he suddenly felt as lost as he had ever been.
He turned to face Lou as he pulled the cigarette pack from his left shirt pocket and noticed with a start, a large shape in the darkness, its edges glowing ever so slightly. It was perhaps 6-7 feet high and maybe 5 feet wide. Rich was sure the rock wasn’t there before. There were large, exposed rocks further down the ridge, but he didn’t recall passing this one when coming up. Threatened by the unexpected, he shifted into a hyper vigilant state. Rich was acutely aware that he was unarmed, naked.
Lou turned towards him and nodded thanks, taking a cigarette. The large rock suddenly moved to the left. Rich jumped up, “Jesus!”
Lou turned in the direction Rich was staring at, and simply said, “Hey girl.”
A thick, tapered, hose snaked out of the darkness and touched Lou’s shoulder. It was Hoa. She was one of the few in camp who could slip past the cocoon Lou wrapped himself in. Lou reached up and touched the tip of her trunk with his fingers.
“Hey girl, I missed you.”
Hoa ran her trunk over Lou’s shirt pockets, looking for something. Lou remembered.
“Xin Loi. I’m sorry, Hao. I forgot. Next time I go down I’ll remember about the sugar.”
Rich sat back down with a thump. “An elephant, Jesus, it’s an elephant. Hawaii doesn’t have elephants.”
Lou looked over at Rich and gave an unguarded smile, “Her name is Hoa. She’s from Vietnam. Xuan says she was traumatized the first time when her mother and sisters were killed and she was captured. Her captors turned her into a pack animal for the NVA. Apparently, she saw terrible things. A lot of soldiers that she came into contact with died. That was the life she had until an airstrike killed two other elephants and most of their handlers.
Hoa had rocket wounds from the airstrike that became infected. She wandered in the forests near the Ho Chi Minh Trail for a while before she died. She’s a combat vet just like you and me. We found her west of the A Shau in Laos. Xuan and John did a lot of work with her. She’s okay. Just don’t make any sudden moves or do anything threatening. Whatever you do, don’t express anger. That will make her jumpy. You don’t want to see an freaked out elephant.”
Hoa let out a low, rumbling sound wave, audible in this dimension. She held the tip of her trunk above Rich, sampling the air before withdrawing. The sensation Lou picked up was, ‘Good Safe See Lou good Safe Lou now Gone Xuan far Lonely See Lou good Safe Smell man sad Lost man Crying man’
“Yeah, it’s good to be home. I miss Xuan too. This man is Rich. He’s okay.”
‘Man sad’ “Same, same. Lou and Hoa. He just died, not even one moon. Same, same, Hoa. An RPG killed Rich.”
Hoa let out a rumble of sympathy. She knew about the terror of rockets. Hao reached out with her trunk and gently stroked Rich’s back. This display of unconditional kindness and care was too much for Rich to accept. He no longer felt worthy. He trembled silently, shutting down any outward expression of emotion. Hoa rumbled, and rested her trunk on his left shoulder.
Lou let out a stream of smoke and flicked away the hanging ash. “Hoa, why did you come up here? The trail is narrow and I know you don’t like heights.”
‘Gone Xuan danger Far away cry Gone Xuan danger Smoke bad Smoke bad many’
A chill slid through Lou as he turned to face Hao. And Xuan left on a mission soon after he felt the perturbations. “Hoa, when John and I were far away we felt ripples, like in water. Big ripples. John thinks its wraiths. Yeah, bad smoke. You said many smoke. Did you smell the wraiths?
Hoa rumbled. ‘Smoke red Smoke red many’
Lou felt the hairs on his neck and scalp rise. Hoa used color differently. Red was very bad. It was also an expression of anxiety or fear. Many wraiths and she was afraid.
“Does John know this?”
‘Smell John red Say John me Worry John many’
Lou stood up and flicked away his cigarette. Addressing both Hao and Rich, he said, “We have to go. I’m sure John will be calling for us. Did John send you?” Hao rumbled. Lou shook his head. Sometimes Hao was too polite. Asking about Rich when we should didi mau back down the trail.
A slightly confused Rich stood up. “You talk to elephants?”
He sensed the anxiety in the other two. “What’s wrong?”
“John told me about how you started to deconstruct at Nasir’s place in Iraq. Do you remember how you felt? If you became a wraith you would have become an emotional vacuum cleaner many times more than what you experienced. Hao says there are many on the loose, and the strongest emotion they are projecting is rage. She said that she’s afraid. Xuan apparently left to investigate, and knowing John, he’s probably gearing up to see how he can assist Xuan.”
Lou turned and made for the trail at the edge of the small clearing. Hoa followed. Not knowing what else to do, Rich followed Hoa.
The moon was now overhead, helping Rich, who was unfamiliar with the trail. They proceeded down the trail without speaking. Within fifteen minutes they were entering base camp’s central clearing. Moonlight fingered its way down through the leaves and branches of the single banyan tree that dominated the clearing, dappling the shadows with spots of light that shifted as the trades pressed against the banyan’s canopy.
John was standing by the circle of footstool high stones that served as a meeting place. Lou was surprised to see Xuan standing next to him. Returning so quickly was not necessarily a good thing. With Xuan was another Vietnamese soldier Lou had met once before, and two people who looked Indian or Pakistani. One of the South Asians was about twenty-five. The other was at least in his late fifties. The older one was speaking to the others; all had grim expressions. As the three made their way across the clearing, John noticed, and waved at them, beckoning.
The speaker paused, turning to take in the odd trio that was approaching. Hoa was waving her trunk at him.
He nodded a greeting and continuing, he said, “The turmoil in the other dimension is also increasing. Relations between India and Pakistan have inexplicably deteriorated, and I should mention that Rao left two weeks ago to ask Huang what was happening in China. We haven’t heard from either.”
Nodding at his companion, he said, “Ahmed has equally disturbing information coming out of Peshawar and Quetta.”
The younger man, dressed in a worn khaki uniform, spoke, “Indeed, escalating incidents has become most distressing. The situation in Baluchistan is deteriorating rapidly. Baluci clans on both sides of the Iranian – Pakistan frontier are attacking police and army outposts. Both the Iranian and Pakistani security forces have crossed the border in hot pursuit of tribesmen. Both sides are accusing the other of fomenting trouble and supporting the Baluci insurgents. In Quetta, bombings are now a daily occurrence. Pakistan blames Iran, although Baluci tribesmen claim that the bombing is directed against Islamabad because of non compensation for gas and oil production in Baluchistan. Both countries have recalled their embassy staff and referred all matters to the Swiss mission.
"The situation is very grave.”
“Unrest in Peshawar has spread to Afghanistan. And in both areas recovery teams have felt disturbances. There has even been discord among team members. This development is most distressing.”
Xuan nodded, and said, “Joshua Bukenya from Uganda will be here tomorrow, and I understand that peace talks with rebels along the Congo border have collapsed and Rwanda is gearing up for another invasion.
Xuan continued, “Sergeant Yazov has sent word that civil disturbances are occurring in Russia’s Far East. Anti-Chinese demonstrations have broken out in Vladivostok, Khabarovsk, and Magadan. Russians are upset over the illegal migrants from China and North Korea. The perception is that they are taking over commerce and buying up fish and timber. Wild rumors that the real intent of the migrants is to take over the Far East are becoming obsessive. Military ground forces remaining in the region since the collapse of the Soviet Union are on heightened alert. In response, the Chinese have stepped up news stories of abuse and discrimination suffered by Chinese in Russia. They have canceled leave in Shengyang Military Region and troops have been seen moving north into Heilongjiang military district along the Russian border.”
John added, “Dimitri should be here sometime soon. He wants to confer with us over the increase in perturbations in this dimension. He’s taking this very seriously.
Lou spoke up. “Its wraiths and they’re multiplying. That’s what you’re talking about, right? Hoa says that they are full of rage. From what I just heard, they’re starting to impact things back in the World.” Hoa rumbled her assent.
Xuan addressed the group, “I was first alerted to the situation when Yazov contacted me and said that the number of newly dead recoveries was rising and that this was not a localized phenomenon. It’s happening everywhere. More recently, when John and Lou were away on a mission, Hoa started to get agitated. It was as if she was regressing. She sought me out and mentioned that she had sensed more ‘smokes’ out there. ‘Smokes’ is the name she uses to describe wraiths. When I mentioned this to Yazov, he made the connection immediately.”
The older South Asian soldier, CHM Mohanty, turned to Hoa, asking, “Are the wraiths you have sensed alone, or are they moving in groups?”
“Smoke bad family Bad family Red family Smell See Feel…Smoke family many…Danger”
From Hoa’s societal perspective, social groupings were based on family. Individual wraiths were gathering together. Her comments electrified the gathering.
Mohanty slowly shook his silvery, short cropped head and said, “Something different is happening, and I fear that danger will be upon us before we understand its nature.” Hoa directed her thoughts to Mohanty, “Elephant dead Elephant dead many Sad Mohanty know Mohanty help Hoa Elephant lost Mohanty help Hoa”
Mohanty nodded, “She’s correct. Tensions in Assam, in the northeast of my country, between villagers and elephants have escalated to the point that deliberate attacks and killings on both sides are now measured in the hundreds. Land is at the core of this conflict, but in the past few months the conflict has taken on the nature of a vendetta war.”
Mohanty turned to Hoa, “Come with me when I return and we will see what we can do to set up a recovery team that you can lead. I suspect that what is happening in Assam is related to the wraith situation.” Mohanty continued, “I neglected to mention earlier, because until now I did not see the connection, that monkey- human confrontations are also on the rise across India, especially within the past few months. Hoa has pointed out that it’s not just humans.”
Silence fell upon the group as the growing scope of the problem presented itself.
The Army of the Dead
Sergeant Major Forrest Curtin stood by the meeting circle, awaiting the arrival of senior noncommissioned officers from responding recovery teams. He stood by force of habit. It didn’t even occur to him to sit on one of the stones that made up the circle. After 27 years of active duty, he’d be damned if he would be caught sitting like some sad sack “desk sergeant”. He would sit when EVERYONE sat.
That star in the center of the chevrons on his sleeve was the culmination of a career that began in 1942 as a shaved head private in the 82nd Airborne. Three wars later he still wore Cochran boots as CSM of 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry (he missed the designation of Parachute Infantry Regiment, but the Army, his Army, had moved on), 173rd Airborne Brigade (the appellation “Airborne” left him somewhat mollified).
Majors assigned to the battalion treated him with deference, and generals frequently called him Forrest or “Spanky”. Before his death in Vietnam, CSM Forrest Curtin had two volume levels when speaking. When he was in a good mood he communicated five by five, in the clear. When angry, he spoke softly, causing lieutenants to stutter, and enlisted men to disappear.
But death had relaxed his demeanor. Truly fearless, he was not afraid of showing compassion, and gentleness. But he still strode like a paratrooper and stood like rebar had replaced his spine. The recovery team he led listened and followed through on most of his suggestions, not because of his former rank, but because of his devotion to recovering lost soldiers. He would tell every new member of his team, “We leave no soldier behind, regardless of the uniform worn. We are soldiers and we take care of our own. This is my final posting, and I will continue the mission until the last one is shown the way home.”
Not surprisingly, when Xuan put out the emergency call, Forrest was the first to respond, as the advance party of his recovery team. He did not have long to wait for the next arrival. CHM Pradeep Kumar Mohanty, 4th Battalion, Madras Regiment of the Indian Army stepped into the clearing and strode directly to Forrest, saluting and saying, “Sergeant Major Curtin, old man.”
Forrest returned the salute, then shook Pradeep’s hand, responding, “Old and dead, friend. I see you’re still deceased.”
“A temporary posting, I expect new orders any day.”
Both men roared. Amusing each other came easily. Turning serious, Company Havildar Major Mohanty inquired, “How many are we expecting to join us to form the cadre?”
“Right now, I count 12, including us. All are NCOs except for Colonel Yang and Warrant Officer Stanley Tibbs. I believe you know most of them from the last intelligence sharing session that Sergeant Yazov organized.”
Pradeep, nodded, “Are we expecting Sergeant Yazov? He has a sharp mind.”
“Bloody good. What’s the buzz on this emergency? Is Sergeant Xuan going to stand up this operation?”
Forrest shook his head, “No, Xuan’s busy setting up the intel shop. We might lose Yazov to him. If we keep Yazov, he’ll make an excellent liaison with intel.”
“What, nicking the help before we turn to? What’s the word on Sergeant Compton?”
“He and Lt. Kim are trying to find out why it’s happening and how to deal with the ‘Smokies’. When I saw them this morning they looked plenty worried. So they’ll be working closely with Xuan.”
Forrest continued, “The recovery teams will be doing the heavy lifting. Xuan said the cadre should tell the incoming soldiers that this won’t be typical recovery work. He expects we will lose some to the wraiths.”
“Bugger, this is serious.”
© Dave Takaki 2007