Web Site: 395 and a Wake Up
No ear can hear nor tongue can tell the tortures of the inward hell. Lord Byron
U.S. of A.
May 3, 1989
I thumped my forehead with the palm of my hand to derail the endless train of intrusive thoughts. Blood coursed through my vessels, pushed by an overtaxed pump. A sheen of cold sweat covered my body, giving rise to hills of goose bumps.
On a dinged end table sat a lamp without a shade. A small bulb glowed dimly, leaving the rest of the dingy one-room apartment in shadow. Strips of wilted wallpaper hung like tongues from the mouths of overheated hounds. And fist-sized holes, remnants of angry outbursts, randomly decorated the walls in miniature bomb craters. Tattered scatter rugs with psychedelic patterns covered the scuffed floor. The armchair in which I hunkered was threadbare, the wood structure fractured, and springs seeking relief from tension pushed against the cloth. The air around me was musty, and hung like swamp gas.
Reaching down, I grabbed a bottle of whiskey and looked into the nut-brown liquid, searching for the answers that were never there. The memories overwhelmed me again and I chug-a-lugged till I got dizzy, then gazed into the gloom—willing myself not to think of the handgun that lay on the kitchen table amid the crumpled remains of McDonald’s wrappers.
The Demilitarized Zone
Republic of South Vietnam
May 3, 1969
The helicopter banked left and an ill wind blew in from the portholes. I shuddered. After sixteen months in the Nam, I figured I’d seen everything, but the task that waited below gave me a sense of foreboding.
I craned my neck to look down at the heavily wooded mountain. Locating where the bird had hit, I followed the path it cleaved as it tumbled through the dense forest. Further down lay the smoking wreckage, half-shrouded by the canopy.
The chopper sat down in a clearing on top of the mountain, and the squad and I spilled out the back. Dirt and leaves swirled in tiny cyclones as the aircraft lifted off. After wiping the grit from my eyes, I cautiously led the way, rifle clutched at the ready, looking and listening for the enemy. The steep ground wanted to hurl me headfirst, and I fought against the momentum. I concentrated on sounds; trying to read the language of the jungle. The fluttering wings of birds taking flight caused me to glance up, and I expected to see snipers perched on limbs like droopy-eyed vultures.
At the impact area, there was nothing but felled trees, charred trunks, and dismembered branches. As I walked in the furrow made by the bird, I came upon miscellaneous chopper debris. Further down, the human destruction began.
I first spotted an arm—fist clenched—and stuffed it in a body bag. Ambled forward and found a leg still clad in trouser—but boot and sock gone from foot. Crammed that. As I parceled human parts, I escaped reality by daydreaming that I was a teenager again, working at the golf course picking up windblown trash as part of my duties as a caddy.
But the sight at the wreckage forced me out of my fantasy.
Back at the LZ, I had watched as twelve Marines loaded into the helicopter. All headed home, their tours of duties complete. With the four helicopter crewmen, it added to sixteen men—intact.
Here, it looked as if a maniac ran rampant with a chain saw. Torsos lay like unfinished sculptures. Extremities littered the side of the mountain. Decapitated heads stared into the hereafter. I forced myself to continue the gruesome work, trying to look anywhere other than the havoc at my feet. I came upon the rear portion of the fuselage that jutted into the sky, walked around it, and stopped in mid-step when an inner voice whispered:
Look . . . up.
He hung in crucifixion, stuck to the hull of the rotor casing, burnt crisp from head to toe. I glanced over my shoulder at the others, wanting to skulk away and pretend I hadn’t seen him. To let someone else do it.
Without a conscious decision, I found myself scaling the side of the still warm metal. The going was slow as the hand and footholds were hard to find. Finally, face to face, I stared into his eyes. But they had melted away, leaving only blackened sockets. I hung there trying not to breathe the odor of char-broiled human . . . then steeled my balls and grabbed his bare shoulder. I pulled, and ash wafted in the air. Disengaging him from the metal sounded like sealing tape ripped from a cardboard box.
Realizing that I couldn’t bear his weight with one arm, I gently pressed him back into position and yelled, “YO . . . A LITTLE HELP OVER HERE.”
The company medic, a kit bag slung over his shoulder and a .45 on his hip, jogged into view and glanced around.
He looked up with a start, almost losing his helmet. “Jeez . . . zus,” he exclaimed, his voice hoarse, his eyes wide. “Who is that?”
“Can’t tell. Just get your ass in gear before I lose him.”
When we got the poor son of a bitch on the ground, I tried to rub away the charcoal-like stains on my hands. Kneeling, the corpsman peered closely at the corpse’s face as he checked for a pulse. “It’s Hamilton,” he said, then rose sluggishly, as if drained of life force, and sighed. “He’s had it. Let’s git em inna bag.”
When I grabbed Hamilton under his arms, his flesh seemed to separate from his body; like skin sliding off deep-fried chicken. Once encased, we lumbered him over to the heap of death and stacked him on top. For a moment, I squeezed my eyes shut and rubbed them hard with the palms of my hands, wanting to obliterate images. Forcing them open, I continued the ghastly mop-up operation, walking without direction, collecting.
On one occasion, I laid a body bag on the ground; then gently nudged a severed head into it with my boot.
Spotting a lump lying in a knot of scrubs, I trudged to it. Parting the foliage, I gaped Tommy Simkovich . . . my friend, my buddy, my pal . . . half-hidden in the brush.
Dropping down, I spread the undergrowth, looking for his lower extremities . . . but came up empty. Scratching my head, I grunted in confusion and searched anew. No dice. I searched . . . again . . . starting to giggle spasmodically, and mumbling, “Come on, Tommy. I know this is just one of those fake outs you always pull, tee hee. So quit messin’ with my head and get your legs back on.”
I stopped the hunt and shook myself like a wet dog. “Tommy, damnit, I mean it!” I said through clenched teeth. “Quit screwin’ around, you’re going home.”
I tried to shake him awake, but to no avail. I opened his lids and peered inside, searching for that dance that was always there, but it was gone. In a panic, I reached down and felt his neck; there was a faint, fluttering beating, like butterfly wings. I sprung to my feet, blood roaring in my ears. “DOC WILSON. CORPSMAN UP.”
The medic reappeared. “He’s got a pulse,” I said, staring at him, wide-eyed, voice trembling in disbelief.
The corpsman dropped to his knees and put a soiled hand over Tommy’s mouth. “He’s alive. Goddamnit all to hell.”
I looked up at the towering trees and the heavy canopy. “No way I can get a chopper in here.” Then I looked at the steep haul to the top of the mountain. “Quick doc, I’ll get a litter and you can help me carry him up. Then I’ll radio for a dust-off.”
The medic stood and looked me square in the eyeballs. “We can’t.”
He looked toward Tommy, shaking his head. “The fire melted his flesh and sealed the amputations, if you lug him up this here hill, he’ll open and bleed to death in seconds. He . . . can’t . . . be . . . moved.”
“Well what the hell am I supposed to do?” I said, screaming like a madman . . . then caught a hold of myself. “Wait, I know, I’ll tie him off.”
“There’s no place for a tourniquet. He’s all stumps.”
“But he’ll die here if I don’t get him to an aid station.”
He knelt again and searched his kit bag. “Beat it, dude.”
“Whaddaya mean? Whaddaya gonna do?”
The corpsman, holding a handful of morphine syrettes, gazed up at me. “The only humane thing to do. I’m gonna put him out of his misery.”
“What if he regains consciousness for Christ sake?” The corpsman eyes commiserated with mine. “Would you want to see yourself like that?”
I shook my head once, imperceptibly.
Then his look went hard. “And I don’t want any witnesses. Can you dig it?”
“Waitaminute Wilson, wait!” I said, wringing my hands. “I . . . I gotta think. This cat saved my ass more than once. We were tight.” I looked around frenetically. “Maybe I can find the rest of him.”
“And then what, Sarge? Bandage him together?” He sighed deeply. “Look man, there is no other way.”
I stuck the muzzle of my M16 right smack-dab in the middle of his freakin’ hairline, then flicked the selector switch from safe to rock-n-roll.
He stared at me, unblinking. “Okay. Now what?”
I lowered the barrel and turned my back. As I walked away, Tommy's goofy laugh echoed in my head. . . .
. . . . I opened my eyes. The bottle in my hand was empty, so I let it clunk to the floor. I stood, intent on getting another one from the case I bought yesterday. Purchased in anticipation of the flashback I experienced without fail on the anniversary of his death.
“Death? Shee’it! Smurder.” The room spun violently, and I fell back into the chair, gripping the arms to counteract the centripetal force that wanted to suck me into a black abyss. Reacting to a churning in my gut, I stuck my head between my knees and vomited black bile, flecked with bright red blood. Sitting back, my blurred gaze drifted slowly toward the forty-five. Its chrome plating shined like a beacon in a fog, directing me to safe harbor. The room stopped revolving and tears filled my eyes. . . .
. . . . In the afternoon, the crash team arrived to salvage what was still workable in the wreckage, and to destroy anything to large to carry. They didn't want anything valuable to fall into the hands of the slopes. They took care of business quickly and started the climb back up to a waiting helicopter. I intercepted the team leader and pointed to the wreckage. “What brought ‘er down?”
“Some Army helicopter lifted off from somewhere, gaining altitude. The pilot didn’t see ours above him and rammed it underneath.” He shrugged. “End of story.”
My mouth dropped. “You mean it was just a collision? No hostile fire?”
“Yep. Just a one in a million accident.” The team leader had nothing more to add, so he shrugged one more time, and then walked away.
I looked around to the growing pyramid of body bags, staring with remorse. “What about the other chopper?”
His voice echoed in the forest behind me, “It autorotated to a safe landing. All the dogfaces made it.”
I wished I hadn’t asked.
The rest of the day I hauled body bags up the mountain, having to drag them on the ground because of the steep incline. I felt that I violated the dead. By early evening, all of the remains sat on top of the mountain. I radioed back to the company reporting “mission completed,” listened to the reply, then flung the handset into the dirt startling the guy sitting next to me.
“What’s up, Sarge?”
“We can’t get a bird till morning,” I told him, disgusted.
“You mean we gotta stay here all night?” he whined. “In the rush to get over here nobody brought any C’s. Or sleeping bags.”
“There it is.”
“The hell with this noise this, man. Seven of us,” he pointed toward the north, “and loads of NVA sitting safe on the other side of the DMZ. Just checking us out all day. And you know they’re partying down—right freaking now—waiting for dark. Blowin’ weed and getting psycho’ed up enough to trip over here and kick . . . our . . . ass!”
I distanced myself from his nitpicking, wishing that I could fly off the top of the mountain and disappear into the ether. Forever.
Later, I watched as the sun slid below the horizon. I was exhausted. My stomach rumbled. My body shivered from the chill air. My brain ran continuous reels of the day’s events.
And from the pile of body bags, the faint smell of cooked meat hung in the air.
Through a damp night, I sat in a foxhole protecting the dead.
I thought about the other times I had felt miserable in this war. Like upon arrival, realizing I had 395 days left to go and I was in a place where strangers wanted to kill me. And my first Christmas 10,000 miles away from home, enduring a bone-bruising loneliness, aching for my family. And the day I voluntarily extended my tour an additional six months; not really understanding why. Something inside compelling me to do so.
But those were cakewalks compared to this.
I thought about the KIA’s behind me, the guys headed home. Their families anticipating their arrival at this very moment, not knowing that the doorway would remain empty. Except for a grim faced officer holding an impersonal cable from the Defense Department. A messenger of misery, and a giver of grief.
I thought about Tommy Simkovich and our long friendship through easy and hard times. How he bragged about his high school sweetheart and future wife. He had their life planned. He wanted kids, a ranch, and horses.
These reflections broke me and, for the first time since childhood, I cried. Tears cut a swath through the grime on my face and formed in droplets on my chin. I held my breath so as not to sob aloud.
In my mind’s eye, I saw everyone in their seats before the collision. Their eyes closed, smiles on their faces, thinking about home. Memories of moms and dads and wives or girlfriends. Images of children born. Pets.
Then there was the sound of speeding metal colliding with speeding metal; ripping and tearing! The noise was unearthly! Their eyes popped open! The bird plummeted! The wind howled through the portholes like a thousand ghosts! Everyone was plastered to the overhead, weightless, mouths agape with silent screams! Then there was a microsecond awareness of what was happening. . . .
And a mocking inner-voice:
“DID YOU REALLY THINK YOU WERE GOING TO GET AWAY WITH IT? TO GET OUT OF THIS PLACE ALIVE?”
Then it’s all over with the killer impact, the exploding jet fuel, and the saw-toothed shrapnel cutting through skin and bone. . . .
. . . . Shakily, I got to my feet . . . and it slowly dawned on me that—at this moment in time—I had come full circle. Magically, the widow-maker was in my hand and cool to the touch. As I wiped tears from my eyes, I felt a great relief. All pain would soon be anesthetized. All guilt would soon be assuaged. All sins would soon be forgiven. After two decades, I would finally find peace on earth.
“Maa-rine,” I rang out, “At-ten-shun!”
At the stance, I sang from the gut, giving it 110%:
“If the Army and the Navy
Ever look on heaven's scenes
They will find the streets are guarded
By United States Marines”
I jerked the slide back, jacked in a round, and flicked off the safety.
Then stuck the barrel right smack-dab in the middle of my freakin’ hairline.
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|Reviewed by Terry Rizzuti
|Good job with this story, bro. Been there, done that. Semper fi! Terry|
|Reviewed by Kaz Greene
|So gut wrenching to read. But very glad to did make it out alive.|
|Reviewed by Myles Saulibio
Thank you for bringing your experiences to reality via the written word.
|Reviewed by Joyce Rapier
|My God in Heaven, your short story is similar and not so far apart to my book, FULL CIRCLE! My Vietnam Veteran, Tommy Moon, told me stories so vicious, I cried all the way home as I couldn't put aside the horrendous atrocities placed on him, his friends and other grunts shoved in a non-declared war. The graphics I wrote is embeded into my mind forever and I understand the PTSD that all the veterans are experiencing. I pray for all the soldiers who are in Iraq as I know first hand about my young nephew who won't admit the trauma he is having and will have for years to come.
Your short story is graphic but so true.
|Reviewed by Susan Bailey
|I don't think anyone, such as I, could ever imagine the horrors that young men had to live through during that awful war. Your writing is powerful and shows us vividly what terrible things were experienced. It was hard to read but excellently written. Take care.|
|Reviewed by Karen Lynn Vidra, The Texas Tornado
|Excellent and sobering write; God bless you!|
|Reviewed by Walt Hardester
|Sorry man ...I was a Med-Evac medic and could not finish your poem
I'm glad for you being able to describe such tings, honestly...but I cannot bear to read them...your journey will lead you back to the "world" eventually