Conversation Pieces V: Scars
By: Wayne Brown
You are always here when I come out on the patio to smoke. You are always here waiting for me. Don’t you have a life. Hell, it’s two in the morning! When do you sleep? I guess that is an interesting question coming from me who is up at this time of night. When do I sleep? I know the answer to that one. I sleep when the demons let me. When they don’t I wake up in that cold sweat twisted up in the sheets. That’s when I come out here to smoke, think and talk to you. I know you will be here. I can always depend on it.
You are not real even though I can see you sitting there. I don’t know your name but I know who you are. You are an extension of me. You are that part of me that yearns to know why. You live to know the answers that drive the demons in my mind on a nightly basis. You wait here for me to show up and talk about them. Smoke and talk. You think you will come to find out why. Why am I still alive when the others are dead. Why was I not maimed for life deprived of my limbs; my ability to walk or make a living. Why was I not hurt. That’s what you want to know isn’t it. That’s been it all along. Never once have you said anything. You just sit in that chair and stare at me with that vacant look in your eyes. You are waiting for an answer. I’ll say this for you, you are one patient son of a bitch.
Let me pour a shot of Jack and light up and we’ll talk just like we always do. I would offer you a drink and a smoke but I know you don’t use either. Neither did I before that stint in Vietnam in ‘67. But you know that already. You and I both know the source of the misery, but it still does not bring us relief nor does it give us the answers that we seem to constantly seek on a nightly basis. We have been over it and over it time and again but we still come up short. We don’t find an answer that satisfies both you and me. Oh, I could probably settle for a lie but you, you have got to get to the truth before you will leave it alone. I know that. You have waited a long time to have it and God knows you deserve the truth.
Remember Johnson? He was the guy who planned to buy that new GTO when he got home. He was saving all his money for that car. He was going to pay cash for it. He dreamed about it day and night. That’s all he could talk about. He had that worn car magazine with the pictures of the car. While other guys were gazing at Playboy and dreaming, Johnson was going for a drive in that GTO. It helped him pass the time. He had a reason to get through that mess; a reason to get back home. He was the first one I saw go down. The first time I had ever watched a man die. That Punjab stick made from the bamboo is a nasty trap when it comes swinging off that trip line. Poor devil never had a chance. The thing went all the way through him in a heartbeat. I was right behind him on the trail. He was on the point. If I had been on the point, that would have been me with that stick through my heart. Johnson might have lived to drive his GTO. But it wasn’t me and Johnson didn’t make it. Is that just luck?
Tommy Nelson was the platoon leader. He was a college football star. He had a good chance of going home to an NFL contract but he had to get the damn war out of the way first. So he volunteered because he knew he was going to be drafted. He was in a hurry to get over and get back so he could get started on the football career. Man, he was some athlete; one magnificent piece of human engineering. I can’t forget the screaming the day he stepped on that mine while we were checking out an old NVA camp. It took his right leg completely off the minute he ignited it. One minute you have a man who is a fine young athlete, the next you have the remains of a man with one leg. Everything Tommy planned for and worked for disappeared in that single blast. The medics packed him with morphine and a dust-off evacuated him to a field hospital. He lived but maybe he wishes that he had not. I don’t know. I just know that I could have stepped on that mine but I didn’t.
After Tommy left, I took over as platoon leader. I spent a lot of time out on the point as we worked our way along the trails. I took the point most of the time hoping that it would be me and not one of the others if something were to happen. That worked for a while. We didn’t lose anyone for a few weeks and I didn’t even have a close call although we got into our share of firefights in those jungles. Somewhere along the line there, I quit being afraid. My body and my mind just went on autopilot. I had already resolved that whatever happened would happen. I couldn’t live in fear day and night. It was eating my insides out. War is beyond the scope of anything most men know as frightening. After that first round whizzes over your head or that first mortar round explodes with a deafening roar near your position, fear sets in; fear begins to dictate your every move, your every thought. You cannot take a step with trembling in fear that it will be your last. It is paralyzing. It causes brave me to freeze up and it gets them killed. Somehow I got beyond it. Maybe that is what saved me when others around me were dying. Maybe that was the difference. I don’t know.
Eddie Rickles and I use to drink together and talk about going to California to be surfers when we got back home. That seemed like a life that appealed to both of us. We loved the sun and the sand. We would get drunk and describe our perfect day at the beach complete with the women and the waves. For all that we talked about it, we never did figure out how we were going to make a living doing that. It didn’t seem important at the time. We just knew it beat the hell out of banging around in those wet-ass jungles watching folks die on a daily basis and wondering if our number would be coming up. That makes for a long year when you contemplate your own death on a daily basis. I shut it all out. Blocked it from my mind. Eddie would bring it up but I would just change the subject to something about surfing.
We got pinned down up in the Aschau Valley chasing those ‘charlies’ off one of those worthless hills. We usually owned them one week and they had it back the next. Nobody seemed to be in the business of holding ground in Vietnam. We would trade the blood of fifty men to control a hilltop and then abandon it a week later as if their deaths had no value to the overall scheme of things. That’s how we got pinned down, moving from one hill to the next. We ran into the unit of NVA and before we knew it our platoon had been outflanked and they had our backs to the wall. We had enough firepower to hold them off for a while but they were slowly chewing into to us one by one. I called for air support and artillery but it was slow in coming that day. They had a backlog of requests according to the command post. When the NVA started dumping the mortar rounds on to us, I knew we were cooked. Three guys bit the dust on the first explosion and two more were wounded. I called for air evac and some air support again. If something didn’t happen pretty quick, we were all going out in body bags.
The close air support “Sandies” finally rolled in from the east and began to hose down the area from above. By that time, half the unit was dead. Two guys bleed to death from their wounds and lack of medical support. What a waste. I could hear the choppers coming aiming to land in the open rice field behind us. Once I spotted them coming over the ridge line, I yelled for the guys to pull out and motioned toward the field. We ran as fast as we could for the evac area but the NVA still had some firepower that the Sandies had not yet shut down. A machine gun mounted in the edge of jungle was cutting us to ribbons as we ran. Eddie was running on my right side and we were matching each other step for step when suddenly he disappeared. I dropped to the ground and quickly turned to see Eddie groaning on the ground behind me me. I ran back to him and rolled him over. He was hold his insides literally in his hands. I grabbed in my arms and I ran toward the choppers. Hang on Eddie, we are going to get out of here man. Hang on. We got some surfing to do I remember yelling to him as I ran for the chopper. Blood was all over me. I didn’t know if it was Eddie’s or mine. I didn’t even know if I might have been hit. I just had to get Eddie in that chopper and get him some help. Finally, I was there and the crew was yelling for me to get in. The other guys were climbing aboard other aircraft. I tried to climb in with Eddie in my arms. I could feel the tears starting to roll down my cheeks. Blood was dripping off the end of my fingers. I could hear voices and gunfire but it all seemed so far away. “Let go of him! Let go of him! He’s gone, Sarge, let go of him!” the crewman on the chopper was yelling at me. “He’s dead, Sarge….let go!” Finally, he pulled Eddie from my arms and I collapsed on the metal floor of the Huey. I don’t remember anything else until I woke up in the hospital. Eddie was dead and I had survived again.
Look, we been over this and over this and over this. You know the story better than me. You have heard it now for years. I’m down a half-pack of smokes and a half-bottle of Jack tonight trying to help you understand why they died and I didn’t. Why can’t you just leave it alone? Why can’t you just let it go? What is it that you have to know? Why do you need to know? Why do keep coming back here night after night and listening to me tell the same story over and over. And every time, Eddie dies. Every time. If I had been a man I would have saved him. I couldn’t save them all but I should have saved Eddie. I should have saved my friend.
I’m going back in the house now. I have swallowed enough Jack to calm the demons and maybe get a little more sleep before they return. You go on about your business and do whatever it is that you do when I am not out here. I will see you back here tomorrow night and we’ll talk again.
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