That Tuesday started out quiet as a day could be--too quiet, according to Swede, our rear gunner, who was fond of running his hand along the belt of 7.62 ammo the way I might run mine up some hot chick's thigh. You could've wrung out the musty air like a sponge. The sun was so blast-furnace intense that we all just wanted to cruise and hoped things wouldn't get too dicey.
We usually patrolled in teams of two boats, and we were in chase position when an RPG hit the leader. The shaped charge struck right behind the helm, and I didn't even want to imagine what was left of Chief Callendar and the midship gunner. Before he could even get off a shot, the stern gunner went down in the rain of bullets that rattled from the starboard shore. We swung into position with our usual smoothness, Trott on the twin 50's in the bow, Swede on the rear M60, me on the grenade launcher.
My ears rang as we raked the jungle, turning the trees to tatters. On the sinking boat, Coop, the only survivor, blazed away until the barrel of his M134 began to steam, the river rising around it. In the occasional lull, I could hear him letting out bloodcurdling rebel yells that raised the hair on the back of my neck. He was a crazy bastard, fearless enough to be dangerous, hopped up on amphetamines most of the time. But no one ever busted his speed-freak ass because he was an ace shooter.
The next RPG came wide, sizzling into the water. A bullet streaked by so close I felt the air move against my cheek. We couldn't pinpoint the Cong position, but after one of my grenades exploded, there was sudden silence on the shore. The broken boat and its cargo of dead sailors had sunk out of sight, but Coop, the tough son-of-a-bitch, was struggling towards us in a one-armed dog-paddle, kicking furiously as the muddy Mekong took on a red sheen behind him. We got him on board, then Chief Wofford goosed the throttles, and we skimmed upriver at half-speed.
Swede knelt to take care of Coop's gashed left shoulder, which was fine by me. Ever since the blowout with the Saviors, a rival gang in Newark, I haven't been able to cope with the close-up sight of blood and torn flesh. Even now, it puts me in mind of Jackson dying back when we were barely teenagers, and that was shit I didn't need.
Once Swede got him patched up, Coop parked himself near my grenade launcher and started chain-smoking. He always made me jumpy, twitching, bouncing, cracking his knuckles. He had a racist rep, too, and on our boat that would be a problem. For Trott, tall and black as a Zulu warrior, and for my own self, too. The only son of an Irish-American mother and a black father, I could've been anything with my arched nose and olive green eyes and creamed-coffee skin, a Native American, a Pakistani, a gypsy.
We continued up the sluggish river, and I'm sure everyone else was praying just as hard as I was for the rest of the day to be as boring as a strip show to a blind man.
I had just finished changing a fuel filter and was kicked back by the M60 with Swede, smoking a Kool and listening to the number two engine running as smoothly as a new car. The sun was high, burning behind a layer of hazy clouds. We were well into monsoon season, wet tropical winds blowing in from the Indian Ocean, and for sure there'd be a downpour before this day was over.
The Chief's voice made me jump, and I realized I'd gotten way too relaxed. "Sampan off the starboard bow," he said in the Maine accent we all loved to tease him about. It was time to either confront a bunch of VC gun runners or scare the living shit out of some innocent family bound for market.
The sampan was drifting downriver about twenty feet from shore. We veered toward it, and I was moving to my station when I heard the unmistakable crack of an AK-47. Swede collapsed like a punctured balloon, and I hit the deck, sliding on my knees on splatters of blood and brain and bone fragments. I swallowed hot puke as I saw the hole where a sizable chunk of Swede's skull had been blown away. For certain a single sniper, on the shore, not the sampan.
I jammed my brain bucket on my head and decided not to try to reach my grenade launcher, shoving Swede's body out of the way instead and pivoting his M60 towards shore. It was cleansing, the way rounds spewed from the barrel and peppered the riverbank, every one of them for Swede, one of my two best friends in this hellhole called Viet Nam. I could hear Trott in the bow, the heavy pounding of the twin 50's almost drowning out the M60's rattle.
Sniper fire had stopped when I saw Coop swing my grenade launcher with his one good arm and yank the trigger. Behind us now, the sampan burst into splinters of wood and shreds of cloth that bobbed on the dense brown water along with the torn bodies of two adults and three children. White feathers floated down, all that was left of a couple of bamboo cages of chickens. Coop let out a prolonged rebel yell. "Got the bastards," he crowed, but clamped his trap shut as the Chief turned a savage gaze his way.
"Don't get trigger-happy," he said. "Not on my boat."
"Whaddya expect me to do? They attacked first. Obviously VC. Obviously."
"The hell," I said. "The shooter was on the bank."
The Chief cut the throttles, came astern and got right in Coop's face. "You ID first. You shoot if someone shoots at you. You don't shoot possible friendlies."
He stomped back to the helm, and I heard Coop mutter, "I'll shoot whoever I want, you fucking Yankee bastard." He gave me a glare that was as full of daggers as a Samurai's arsenal, and said, "Don't even think about getting in my way, boy."
I gave the look right back, because it was going to take more than some jerkwater redneck asshole to intimidate me. Then I closed Swede's eyes and covered his face with my spare bandanna as we continued upriver in the steamy heat.
Things got quiet on this part of the Mekong just long enough for us all to start feeling lazy and slow and stupid. No more sniper fire, no traffic, not so much as a pedal boat.
I couldn't get the picture of Swede's last moment out of my mind, so I distracted myself by working for a while on a chronically cranky bilge pump. Then I put on my shades and turned on my transistor radio and stared at the sky. No matter how hard I tried to push him away, there was Swede, the big farm boy from Minnesota as different from me as anyone could be, who'd never even met a black person until basic--Trott, son of a Mississippi sharecropper, and Swede, and me: the Three Musketeers of the Mekong.
Now we were stuck with Coop instead, and if ever a loose cannon could disrupt a crew's teamwork, he was the one. It was like everything else in this fucked-up war--you couldn't trust your allies and you were never sure who your enemies were.
I had to change my head. It was too easy to get paranoid out here where everything was reality through a funhouse mirror, too easy to picture Coop's hyped-up bad judgment getting us all killed.
"Sampan, port bow," the Chief called as he cut the wheel. I was almost glad, for once, for what the Navy called an interdiction, because it gave me something besides Swede to think about.
"Dibs on the M60." Coop flicked a butt over the side. I figured he must've gobbled some bennies, because he'd been rapping a mile a minute even though no one was paying him the least mind, and his wounded shoulder didn't seem to be bothering him at all.
"Go for it," I said. I liked my grenade launcher better anyway, the relative precision of one well-placed shot at a time.
We were about thirty feet from the sampan when the sky opened and the deluge began. The rain drummed hard, loud as our idled-down engines, but I was sure I heard the hollow thunk of a mortar being launched. Coop put the whammy on us but good when he blew away that sampan.
The mortar struck just forward of the helm, sending shrapnel in all directions. I was okay, and so was Coop, but in the bow Trott went down in a shower of blood, and I thought, Fuck, another friend lost to this stupid wasted war. The Chief fell too, one hand still holding the boat's wheel and then finger by finger losing its grip until we began turning in a wide arc.
I looked over my shoulder. Coop was spraying gunfire at the starboard shore where the mortar had come from, letting out bone-chilling hillbilly whoops as the rounds made small waterspouts and tore the fronds from palm trees. With the Chief down, we were closing fast on a collision course with the sampan, and I dove for the helm and cut the wheel as hard as I could.
After we slewed to port and missed the sampan by a couple of yards, I throttled back to neutral and first thing I heard in the sudden eerie quiet was Coop, shouting, "You fucking yard nigger, what the hell do you think you're doing? Ram them!"
I forced myself to be calm, even though I wanted to punch his lights out, and knelt by the Chief. Blood was pouring down his face from a gash above his right eyebrow, and I grabbed the first aid kit, pressed a wad of gauze tight and taped it there. His rain poncho was Swiss-cheesed where shrapnel had punctured it, but when I held my hand above his nose and mouth, he was still breathing.
"I said to fire up this boat and ram those bastards." Coop was beside me now, wild-eyed and looking as though he was ready to jump right out of his skin. It wouldn't take much to push him over the proverbial cliff, and that could be as big a problem as the VC.
Maybe I could've gotten over my blood-and-guts phobia long enough to deal with the rest of the Chief's wounds, but Coop's next words stopped me. "Ain't that carpet-bagging bastard dead yet?" Was Coop the only sailor in Nam who didn't understand that the team was everything? When we didn't know who we were fighting, or why, all we could do was take care of our friends.
The Chief still breathed, but it wasn't obvious. "Yes," I said, "he's dead," and hoped that Coop wasn't in a kill-'em-all-and-let-God-sort-'em-out, sole-survivor mode. I squeezed the Chief's wrist. He moved one finger, just enough to show he understood.
"Well," Coop said, "I guess that puts me in charge. You go check out that sampan, boy."
"I ain't your boy," I said. And I was his superior, though I figured there was no point in arguing that a machinist's mate second class outranked a gunner's mate third class. He had already drifted far beyond reason.
"You get on that sampan, boy, and check out that cargo."
I was going to say, "You go," but from under his poncho Coop pulled out a pistol I recognized as Swede's prized sidearm, his .45 semiautomatic. I gave myself a good mental kick in the ass for not getting to it first. No question now that the wingnut with the gun and the balls to use it was in charge for the moment, and that was another thing I'd learned during turf wars in Newark. Never argue with superior firepower.
"You going?" he asked. He babbled on, but I tuned him out and began to tie up to the sampan as if I had all the time in the world. He dug the gun barrel into the back of my neck. "Get going, Stark." I stood up, thinking, If he blows me away, he blows me away, and there isn't fuck-all I can do about it. This sure wasn't the way I intended to die. I ran my hand down my face, sluicing away the rain, and looked over the rail at the sampan.
There was a basket of weird, wilted-looking vegetables in the bow alongside a basket of rice. The canvas tarp, smaller than a pup tent amidships, could've hidden VC, a few cases of AK-47's, it was hard to say what. But if Charlie was aboard, why was he sitting back while we argued like a pair of idiots?
I took an M16 from the arsenal and tucked it under my poncho. My heart was crashing against my ribcage like an out-of-control semi, and all I could hear was the pounding, rain on the boats, blood in my ears. "Cover me," I said from habit, and then thought, yeah, right, and stepped aboard, breathing evenly to calm myself. The tiny boat rocked madly from my weight.
Nothing in the bow but soaked rice and vegetables. Water sloshed over the toes of my boots as I took a few steps and bent to look into the dim interior. Smells of sweat and wet canvas and old wood and something with a tang like lemongrass assaulted my nose. Two pairs of eyes stared at me from the shadows, and I thought, One person shouldn't have to do this alone, with only a trigger-happy hyped-up shit-for-brains at his back.
Carbine at the ready, I came closer to whatever and whoever was under the canvas, thinking of booby traps, like the day Swede reached into a crate of grenades and was almost bitten by a deadly-poison tropical snake. It was a mistake to let my mind wander, because a tiny woman in black pajamas got the drop on me with a raised rifle. I had this momentary picture of us facing off against each other for eternity. Then I pictured Coop causing a panic, and me and the woman shooting each other. I had to get centered before I lost it altogether.
Behind her in the shadows, I could just make out a girl about my own age. She said something to the woman, quick and soft in their singsong language, then looked at me and whispered, "No shoot, sailor man."
The armed woman and I stared at each other for a long moment, and then as though we were mirror-images, we both lowered our weapons. Things were looking maybe okay, but then Coop yelled, "What's going on? You got VC? Got contraband?"
Looking scared and frantic, the girl shook her head and waved her hands just above her lap, fingers spread. I started to tell Coop they were maybe friendlies, at least so far, but then I heard the ka-whang of the .45. Splinters flew from the starboard gunnel near the stern of the boat.
The woman in black dove out the stern end of the tarp with her rifle, got off two quick shots. Coop fired three times as fast as anyone ever triggered a .45. The last shot lifted her off her feet, over the side of the sampan. I wanted to look out to see if Coop had been hit, but I knew he wasn't taking the time to identify his targets.
The girl reached out and grabbed the rifle. It was an old Chinese bolt-action number, and I thought, Cong for sure, my goose is roasted and toasted. I started to raise the M16, but she just held the rifle across her knees, and whispered again, "No shoot."
I lowered my carbine and tried to regroup, but I was confused beyond belief. The woman had gone for Coop, even though I was the easier target. The girl and I had each had more than one chance to pull the trigger, yet here we were. I couldn't shoot her, sitting there so still, I couldn't, no matter what.
Coop called, "Hey, Stark, I ain't got all day here."
"Hold on. I'll be right there."
"Get over here now, boy, and bring the rifle that bitch winged me with."
"No can do," I said. "I'm not in possession of the weapon." If he'd chill out, maybe I could talk the chick around, but it didn't look like I'd get the chance. "Give me a minute," I said.
"Jumping Jehoshaphat's fucked-up granny!" Coop shouted. "Get the rifle! Get over here now!" He punctuated his words with a shot that tore wood chips from the port gunnel near the bow, and that told me he'd moved to the stern of the patrol boat.
"Look," I called, "don't shoot any more. If a round hits a case of ammo, it'll blow us all to Kingdom Come. Including you and the PBR."
"That's why if you ain't over here in two minutes, I'm cutting that sampan loose and tossing in a couple of grenades."
I had a head rush then, more intense than I'd ever had smoking grass, even the best Cambodian red. For one crazy second, I wished Coop would shoot me, anything to get me out of this twisted, fucked-up war. But I had to stall him, and the only way I could think of was to get him babbling in a speed-freak rap.
"I'm your partner here," I said, though I nearly choked on the p-word. "Why kill me?"
"You ain't my partner. You're just one more problem. I'm gonna show those motherfucking hometown shitters back in Tennessee that I ain't just some dumb hillbilly white trash like they say." He was silent for a moment, but then he began again. "Oh, yeah, I'll show those bastards. Rudell Cooper's gonna get a medal for this one. Got my story all ready. Only survivor of a VC ambush, took out, oh, ten, fifteen slopes trying to save my crew, only they all got shot."
I didn't hear any more--my mind totally capsized at the words only survivor. The bastard wanted me back on the boat with the Chinese rifle so he could shoot me with it himself and drag my sorry carcass home full of VC bullets. Otherwise, like he said, he'd just blow the sampan into the next century, leaving me and the girl for fish food. I jumped when two shots punched holes in the bow of the sampan above the waterline. "You're not listening," Coop yelled.
"Sorry," I said. "Almost done here." Then it dawned on me, clear as a Cape May sunrise. Swede never kept a round in the chamber of that .45. I tried to count, and hoped my memory wasn't tricking me. One shot over the stern, three at the woman made four, one over the bow made five, two more made seven. One more round and he'd have to stop and reload.
A straw coolie hat lay on a pile of overturned baskets. I picked it up. "Give me your rifle," I whispered. The girl shook her head. "Please. He's gonna sink us. We're both gonna die." Running out of options now, I held out the carbine. "Trade, then."
She studied me, wary, but then she grabbed the M16 and held the SKS just out of reach. "Saigon, okay?" she murmured. What the hell was this? "Go Saigon," she said again, an urgent whisper.
She lifted the old rifle. I held up one hand, palm out like a traffic cop going stop, and then put it down again, because somewhere in the back of my mind was this notion that showing your palms was an insult in some parts of Asia. "Vinh Long," I said. "No farther."
"No lie?" she whispered.
I shook my head. "No lie." She handed the SKS over, and I checked for ammo. Then I reached out, clapped the coolie hat on the barrel of the M16. "Stick that right out here," I told her, pointing out the bow end of the tarp and praying Coop would take the bait.
She shoved it out just a little and I heard the ka-whang of the .45 followed by a click. I leaned out from under the canvas, got my range and fired as Coop headed towards the M60. Then I drove the bolt and fired again. He went over backwards, and I couldn't look to see where he'd been hit. I started shaking all over, and my knees gave out and I fell on my ass in the bow of the sampan. How could this happen? The first person I killed was another American.
The Chinese SKS was still in my hands. I looked down at it, then stood up and flung it so hard I was sure my shoulder was going to hurt for a week. The rifle tumbled in a broad arc, splashed into the muddy brown water and disappeared along with all my leftover illusions.
I turned back to the girl. She was moving quilts off a wooden box, reaching behind it. When she straightened up, she was carrying something in a bright red cloth. "We go now," she said.
"In a minute." With the Chinese rifle, and the woman trying to take Coop down, maybe there was contraband here. I bent over the box, and the oily smell of cosmoline stung my nose. "What's in this?"
"Don't know. Auntie's." She didn't look at me, and I thought, yeah, sure you don't.
I muscled the box out into the open, shoved it up onto the PBR, retrieved my M16 and climbed aboard while the girl watched. The white tunic she wore over black pants had gone all clingy and sheer from the rain, and I started thinking about things I should only think about when I was safe in my rack back at the LST. I reached for the red bundle, but she held it close and gave me her hand instead. I pulled her aboard. "What you got there?" I asked, not that I expected to her to cop to it if it was a booby trap.
She pulled back the red cotton, revealing a baby with big round eyes. I ran my hand over his nappy hair and tickled his cheek, which was several shades darker than mine. "Father American, huh?"
She hugged him under her chin. "Like you."
"Yeah. Like me."
"No want dark American baby in ville," she said. "Vinh Long. We go now."
I picked up the first aid kit. "Can you do anything for that man?" I pointed to the Chief.
She pulled up his poncho and tee-shirt and began cleaning his wounds while I pried open the case and looked at the AK-47's. VC contraband after all. I felt as though someone had conked me with a nightstick right between the eyes.
I started the boat. It seemed like the only thing to do. The rain beat hard again, but soon faded to a fine drizzle with the first hint of sunshine behind it. When I looked at the girl, she was sitting on the deck with the Chief's head on her lap, the baby cradled against her side. I figured what was at the end of this journey was more apt to be a court martial than a medal, but I didn't really give a shit anymore. Surviving was all this war was about, and taking care of your friends--if you could figure out who the hell they were.
All I knew for sure was the sun was shining again and the river was deserted, and if I had any luck left at all today, maybe it would stay that way.
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