The next morning I plodded back to the perimeter bunker with a major hangover. In my head, a marine artillery battery joined in with the Marine Corps Band in the finale to “Stars and Stripes Forever.” My mouth tasted like my foot.
Nearing the fence line, I noticed the diminutive shapes of three children on the other side, their little fingers grasping the links as they stared in at me. Two were boys of the same height, the girl a head taller. They had jet-black hair, large foreheads, sloe-eyes, and skin the color of brown sugar. Their clothes were torn, their feet bare, and grime streaked their faces. Real raggedy-asses.
One of the boys glanced around quickly, then motioned to me saying, “Lai Đâi!” which I remembered was the equivalent to, “come here.”
My nose took in their particular odor as I approached and when I stopped opposite of them, towering high, one boy looked up and said, “VC numbah ten. Maline numbah one. You give me chop-chop?”
“There might be some C’s in the bunker, I’ll check.”
The other boy piped up, “GI gimme cigarette?”
I smiled at him. “Hey . . . you’re to young to smoke.”
“You want boom-boom me?” This from the girl as she stood there, her big toe making furrows in the dirt, eyeing me coquettishly. I noticed that her teeth, despite her pubescence, were stained black by betel nut. An astringent seed of the betel palm that served as a mild narcotic, and popular amongst the Vietnamese like bubblegum to bobbysoxers.
I took off my helmet and scratched my head. “Boom-boom? What the heck’s—”
“WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING, MARINE?”
I came to attention at the speed of sound, ramrod straight as a steel I-beam, eyes front. All the horrors of boot camp revisited in that loud parade ground voice. I watched the kids run away, speeding like the bird in the Road Runner cartoon. Meep-Meep!
The first things I saw, as he came around me, were his captain's bars gleaming in the sun. Slowly, he inspected my haircut, my uniform, my military bearing. He even bent over to run his finger over toes of my shined boots. When he straightened he stared at me arrogantly, but said nothing. I stared over the top of his head, wondering what his problem was.
Finally, he said, “I asked . . . what the FUCK are you doing, Marine?”
I opted to make it hard for him. “Sir, standing here at—”
His voice rose in exasperation. “Not now. Before.”
“I was talking—”
“Were you not given mandates that fraternization with the indigenes is strictly verboten.”
I glanced at him, once, trying to figure out what the hell he had just said.
“Sir, I was just talking—”
“Were on the second question, Marine. Try to keep up.”
“Sir, I don’t . . . know what you mean. But as I’ve been trying to explain—”
“I am not interested in your explanation.” He opened his palm, revealing a notebook and pen, real sleight of hand. The brass firmly believes that the pen is mightier than the sword. And it, and they, never gets bloody. “Now, give me your name, rank, and serial number. You are going on report to the officer of the day.”
As I recited, I saw Goodman headed our way. He spotted our little formation, made a direction change, and disappeared into an outhouse. No sense him buying into trouble.
The captain snapped the notebook shut, and it and the pen disappeared back into his palm. “And now, I will repeat the order. Do not fraternize, converse, or affiliate yourself with any Vietnamese in any shape, form, or fashion without a direct order from, or the express consent of, your superiors. Is that clear, Marine?”
“Now repeat the order.”
“Sir, I don’t remember the exact—”
He yawned and waved a hand in dismissal. “Carry on.”
As he swaggered away, back straight, shoulders square, head and ass interchangeable—I pulled on my thumb knuckle to make popping sound, and tossed a pretend grenade his way. Goodman peeked out the door of the crapper, and when he saw the coast was clear, headed my way.
I filled him in, and it sent him into a spasm of laughter. “What’s so funny, Goodman?”
“You and the lifer.”
I leaned my rifle against the bunker wall, and chuckled myself. “You know, for a second there I thought he was going to order me into the front leaning rest position and make me give him a ten. ”
Goodman shrugged. “Comes down to it boy, he was givin’ you good advice.”
“Gook kids ain’t to be trusted,” he stated then walked into the bunker and rested his elbows on the sill of one of the front cutouts, gazing into the countryside.
I followed. “Whadda ya mean, man?”
He looked over his shoulder. “They’ll blow you away they gets haf-a-chance.”
“Believe what you want, but I’ve seen ‘em run up and toss grenades at convoys,” he replied, then looked back to the paddies. I sighed, then went outside to get my rifle. Just in case.
Goodman’s head appeared in the side window. “Hey, Murphy. Come ‘ere.”
I walked over, but stood away from his bad breath. “What?”
“Did those slants say anything?”
“Yeah. One of the boys begged for cigarettes.”
Eyes half-closed, he asked, “And the dink bitch?”
I was silent a moment, marveling at Goodman’s way with words. “She said something about boom-booming her. I guess she wanted to see me shoot my M-16.”
Goodman dropped his head and shook it slowly, “Man, oh man.”
He looked back up at me. “Oh, you can bet she wanted you to shoot your gun.”
“I don’t get you.”
“How old would you say was, Murphy?”
“Thirteen . . . fourteen. How the hell do I know?”
Goodman reached over and ruffled my hair as if I was a child. “Do you know what boom-boom means, boy?”
I slapped his hand away. “No, I don’t. Jackoff.”
“She was selling herself to you, cherry. She was askin’ if you wanted to f***.”
“What are you talkin—”
Goodman turned his back and walked away. I glanced at the fence line where the kids had stood, then back into the bunker. Goodman was in his usual position; seated, hat over eyes.
I looked back to the fence.
You gotta be shittin’ me.