To paraphrase an old speech from an assassinated President:
Ask not what your country can do for you . . . just get your butt out there and sacrifice
This is a story about a young lad, named Bobby Murphy, who did just that. As soon as he reached that magical number of eighteen, when all boys became men, he inked his way into the United States Marine Corps. That was his first mistake.
His second was to be shipped off to Vietnam where he was introduced to the vagaries of guerrilla warfare. Where the enemy are the civilians . . . and the civilians are the enemy. Young or old , male or female, each and every one could do a number on you.
Add to that racial tension within the troops—kicked into overdrive by the murder of Martin Luther King.
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A tingle on the back of my neck—I hid in the undergrowth, clad in a green that blended with the terrain, at a position that best suited an ambush. The sun burned as hot as acetylene, and flies buzzed like traffic on a freeway. The smell of vegetation was pungent and irritated my nostrils. I waited, muscles taut, tendons stretching till I thought they’d snap. My eyes, mere slits, flicked back-and-forth over the terrain, constantly in search of telltale signs. My eardrums reverberated with every nuance of sound, my brain sorting the ordinary from the extraordinary—warned me he was coming.
Fifty yards away he broke through the thick foliage to stand on the well-worn trail. He looked left, and listened, then right, and listened. Then he came my way very very slowly, crouched forward ready to blast, rifle muzzle seemingly pointed directly at me. Right then, I wished that I possessed preternatural qualities. Like the ability to incorporate with the earth, submerged to resemble a swamp crocodile on the hunt, nothing but eyes and backside.
He moved a few steps at a time then stopped, probably to think it through and weigh his options. At times, I thought he would just backpedal and flee the scene. I knew the feeling he had: Something ain’t right! As he neared, my finger tightened on the trigger and I readied to put a bullet in his face and send him home in a box. But, I paused.
Well, I’ll be darn. It’s him!
And . . . he . . . was a real troublemaker. When I dry-gulched him yesterday, airing him out with rounds from my Tommy gun, he’d refused to die. We got into a "you’re dead I got you" / "bullcrap you missed" kind of argument. I insisted that I plugged him fair and square and that he should fall down—instead he stuck his tongue out at me and disappeared back into the woods.
So I decided to do a total number on his behind, and leave him washed, rinsed and hung out to dry.
As he moved past, I discarded my tree branch, whittled to resemble a rifle, and slipped my Boy Scout’s knife from my belt. Tracking him, I unlatched the blade and John Wayne’d it between my teeth. I could have passed for his distant shadow, pausing when he paused, creeping when he crept, holding my breath on cue with his. At the right moment, I lobbed a rock that doubled as a grenade, and when it hit the ground with a thud and rolled, his head turned. I quickly covered the distance and landed on his back. He collapsed under my weight and I grabbed a fistful of hair greasy with Butch Wax, then laid the knife blade directly on his Adam’s apple.
"Gotcha," I hissed in his ear. "Now you’re as dead as a dodo bird."
Fighting a pretend war in the neighborhood woods was more appealing to me than the games of baseball, football, and basketball that normal kids liked. I spent hours alone in my room with toy soldiers, tanks, and exploding bridges. At night, I prowled the suburban backyards sniping at silhouettes in the neighbor’s windows.
The radio proclaimed the impending arrival of the Beatles to America. Coop, the Duke, and Audie Murphy epitomized the warrior—AKA manhood—in Hollywood film.
And the six o’clock newsman reported an attack on an U.S. destroyer in some place called the Gulf of Tonkin.
I was fifteen years old.
Base activity seemed normal, so I went to see the supply sergeant. He was a weirdo, but always possessed the latest poop. He sat behind a counter that blocked the double-door entrance to supply, engrossed in paperwork. “Sergeant Belstra, what’s new?”
He looked up, pushed his glasses up his nose, and winked. “There’s always something new if you’re observant.”
I noticed that his glasses were still taped together and wondered why he didn’t order a new pair, he was the freakin’ supply sergeant. “You’re the man who knows,” I said, and winked back.
“You think I sit here in the doorway because I like the hot sun? I could be over in the corner with a fan blowing on me. Firsthand information is the key to surviving in this man’s Marine Corps.” He tapped the counter with a forefinger. “From here I watch all that goes on in my kingdom.”
Kingdom? This dude’s straight out of Lord of the Rings.
“So what happened yesterday? I’ve been on the lines and all I know is that Martin Luther King was assassinated.”
“When the unofficial news got out, all the blacks walked away from their various duties and details to gather at the company office and demand The Word. The first sergeant ordered them to disassemble and get back to work. They refused, so the first shirt sent for the commanding officer who got the same reply. That set the CO off.” Belstra giggled. “Stomping his feet like a little kid who couldn’t get his way, he screamed at them to start acting like Marines. Then he threatened them with MP’s, court-martial, and the stockade. One black, named Roosevelt, calmly walked forward nose to nose with the captain and said, ‘Now hear this. All we got is second-hand info, no one knows if Doctor King is dead or alive. And ain’t nobody saying who shot him. He went down yesterday, and we want information ’”
“That dude’s got balls,” I said.
“Yeah, man. The captain, realizing he had a real potential problem on his hands, got his act together. Best to defuse that kind of situation. So he assured the blacks that as soon as he had any solid information, he would tell them. Then, instead of ordering them back to duty, he gave them the day off to mourn, which was a dumb thing to do. Like he knew something but wasn’t telling. As of now, they still haven’t gone back to duty. I guess they figure they got strength in unity.”
“Where’s this tent they got hostage?”
“On the other side of the chow hall, used to be storage for mess supplies. There’s two signs hanging out front, so you can’t miss the place . . . but I suggest you do.”
“Thanks Sarge,” I told him, and left to find the tent. I knew orders was orders, but even Greene had to realize that this was too good to pass up. An active mutiny in the Corps? I had best scope it out for future reference, in case they had a workable program.
I walked past the mess hall and casually strolled through an area of tents like I had business there. Sitting alone in a field well away from the others, I spotted my target. As I neared it, the signs Belstra had alluded to hung one over the other, the bottom one pulling no punches.
NO WHITEYS ALLOWED
And, on top of a three-step stairway leading to the tent’s inner-sanctum, stood an ominous figure. An ebony sentry to bar all unwanted. He wore a .45 pistol in a shoulder holster rig, and bounced a grenade in his hand like a green baseball. A bayonet thrust into a wooden tent pole was well within reach. His lips were meaty and red, a cigarette dangling from the corner, and his face pockmarked As he turned his head my way, two tiny suns burned in the lenses of his tinted sunglasses. His passion also burned, and was well beyond anything I had ever experienced. He was hate, and hate was him.
Standing in place, rifle pointed at the ground, I smiled with all thirty-two. “Hi’ya,” I said, like we had just bumped into each other at a Cub’s game.
Nostrils flared, teeth bared like a ravenous wolf, he said in a basso voice, “Is you a message boy from that honky CO or first sergeant?”
“Uh-uh. Just . . . um . . . visiting?”
He knuckle-rapped the tent pole . . . knock . . . knockknock . . . knock, and a group of his comrades poured through the tent flap and stood out front in a gang. All were replete with rifles and bayonets, the latter fixed.
“This here be the brother’s official welcomin’ committee for first time callers,” the cat on the top step announced, “and if I was you, I’d haul my dum’ ass outta heah.”
After careful consideration, I hauled my dumb ass out of there.