Silence. It was dark and getting darker. Soon even the few silhouettes against the sky would disappear into the blackness. There were the sounds of insects, a constant chirping. The night belonged to them. It belonged to little things with green and black bodies that knew their way through the tall grass.
I listened for the sounds of a firefight. I listened for the sounds of voices. What had happened? Were the Congs gone? Were our guys down?
The sounds replayed through my head. There had been fire in our direction, then the sound of a sixty. Was it Johnson’s sixty or something they had? Were both sides waiting for the other to make a move?
“Perry!” Peewee’s voice in the darkness nearly stopped my heart.
“What’s going on?”
“I don’t know.”
Were the Congs creeping up on us? Could they see in the dark? Could they wrap the shadows around themselves and make themselves invisible?
“Let’s open up, let the squad know we re still here.”
“They got to know already.” Peewee was closer. I was glad he was closer. I wanted to touch him.
“How do you know that?”
“They know we ain’t there, we got to be someplace,” Peewee said.
“Let’s just keep quiet and shoot the shit out of anything that come near us.”
I touched the safety. Changed clips. I put a frag grenade in front of me. I had three. I’d use two and save one for myself if it came to that. I remember hearing stories about what the Congs did to prisoners.
I thought about Kenny. He was afraid of the dark. We were all afraid of the dark.
Peewee put his hand on my wrist.
“What is it?” I whispered.
“Nothing,” he whispered back.
He kept his hand on my wrist. I moved my hand and took his. We held hands in the darkness.
I tried to get the possibilities straight in my mind. Maybe the squad had called in reinforcements. No way they overran the squad. No way. You didn’t overrun Johnson. Johnson was the man. Johnson would kick some ass. Him and his sixty would sing.
Yea, though I walk through the valley …
Then where were they? They had to know we were over here. They wouldn’t leave us.
Voices. Vietnamese voices. Peewee let go my hand and I knew he was checking out his piece.
“Peewee, we get the direction of the voices, then go the other way.”
The voices were coming up from the stream. We weren’t going away from the stream, no way. They were coming nearer. Think. Think. Don’t think, react.
I opened up toward the voices. Peewee followed me.
“Skirmish spray!” he called to me.
In the darkness he had moved a little away from me. I did what he said. I sprayed fire down toward the stream in as even a line as I could.
There was some confusion. I could hear a number of voices. Then they returned our fire. They were long.
“Perry! I see them!” Peewee was making his way over toward me.
“A million of them!”
We started moving backward. Maybe they had overrun the squad. We moved down the long side of the ridge, trying to keep our balance, hoping we wouldn’t step on a mine or pull a trip wire.
The voices were coming closer.
A flare! We hit the dirt. We were on the other side of the ridge and their line was coming up. They wouldn’t come up too fast. They didn’t know how many of us were on the ridge. I hoped to God that they didn’t know how many of us were on the ridge.
I got off the ground as soon as I saw that they hadn’t reached the top of the ridge. We had to get the hell out of there. There were paddies off to the left. They must have used the stream to water them. We’d never make it across the paddies. There was an overhang on the side of the ridge. I pointed toward it and Peewee caught on.
We reached the overhang and tried to back against it. It went deeper than we thought and Peewee turned to me. I couldn’t see his face, but I knew what he was thinking. We were backing into a Cong spider hole.
Peewee turned and rammed his rifle into the hole. Nothing. He moved into it and I heard him flail around.
“Yo,” he said. “It’s cool.”
It’s cool. Bullshit it was cool. He knew it wasn’t cool and so did I. If it was a Cong hole then they knew about it. It was better than the paddies, but it definitely wasn’t cool.
The spider hole was about a meter and a half all around and a meter deep. Once we climbed in it we were just below ground level. It might have been cozy for one little Cong but it wasn’t made for me and Peewee. The grass in front of it was high. We had knocked some of it down and Peewee was trying to get it to stand up. I felt around the hole. It felt like an open grave.
“Peewee, maybe we should try to work our way back across the stream,” I said.
“No way, man,” Peewee said. “There’s a million of them out there.”
“They ain’t taking me alive,” Peewee said.
We waited. There weren’t any voices at first. Then there were. The high, singsong grunting that was Vietnamese. What were they saying?
A flare. The light terrified me. Peewee was in front of me, and I could feel his body tense. I had to force myself to keep my eyes open. We could see the light from the flare through the grass in front of the spider hole. If they had the guts to send up a flare it had to be a damn battalion of them. I pulled myself into as tight a ball as I could. More voices. Hide-and-go-seek.
They were looking for us. Were they confused?
I could see them walking down the ridge. If I were a sniper, I could pick one of them off easily. They were looking toward the paddies. Most of them didn’t even crouch. They knew they had the numbers.
As the light from the flare died, the darkness seemed to eat their bodies. Black.
The voices went past.
What had happened to the squad? Were they on the bank of the stream? Were they down?
I had one arm around Peewee. I held him close. There was nothing to talk about. We couldn’t tell where the voices were coming from. We couldn’t leave.
My right leg had gone to sleep. I flexed the muscles in it, moved it a little.
I wondered what time it was. A thought flashed through my mind. The Congs would take watches and rings from dead soldiers. They would cut the rings off. Suppose I wasn’t dead? Suppose I just lay wounded, trying to fake it, and some Cong came to take the watch?
I slipped my watch off in the darkness. Then I put it back on. Stop thinking; it didn’t help.
Thoughts came. What would Momingside Avenue look like now? It would be day and the park would be filled with kids, their screaming and laughter would slide along the light beams into the helter skelter world of monkey bars and swings. On the courts there would be a tough game. Black bodies sweating and grunting to get the points that would let them sweat and grunt in the sun for another game. It wasn’t real. None of it was real. The only thing that was real was me and Peewee, sitting in this spider’s grave, waiting for death.
Artillery off in the distance. Outgoing? Maybe, maybe not. Somebody had to know that the squad wasn’t back. Somebody had to know something.
God… . What to pray? What to tell God? That I’m scared? That I’m so scared that my heart might stop any moment? That my heart might stop without the fragments of metal that would rip it apart?
God… . What to tell God? That I didn’t want to die? That I was like everybody else over here, trying to cling to a few more days of life?
Peewee moved, adjusted position.
“I got to shit,” he said.
It was funny. It was funny as hell. We both started giggling. I buried my head in his shoulder. We were both a glance from dying, and he had to shit and it was just so damn funny.
The Congs wouldn’t understand that. Not at all. They wouldn’t understand two Americans giggling in a spider hole in the middle of their country. They’d stop us from giggling, too.
Be alert, don’t think. Don’t think.
I think that time is passing and they haven’t found us. I’m thinking that if daylight comes we might live. We might be able to crawl out of this mother and see some Cong dressed like a farmer, his rifle hidden in a bush somewhere, working in the paddies.
We might be able to see the stream and get across. The helicopters might swoop us up from the ridge and save us a trip back to the hooch. All that and life, too, if daylight came.
Thou preparest a table for me in the presence of mine enemies… .
It came. The insects noticed it first. The chirping picked up. There were birds. The distant boom of artillery switched from its sporadic night rhythm to the purposeful daylight pounding.
We hadn’t heard voices all night. Now they were there again. The Congs were awake. The voices didn’t seem too close.
“I’m going to look outside,” Peewee said.
He stuck his head out and looked around. When he got back in he unhooked a frag grenade from his belt. I gripped his shoulder.
“They look like they getting ready to move out,” he said.
“They headed this way?”
“No, but if any of them do…”
No more voices. Peewee was between me and the front of the hole. Our sixteens were at our side, too jammed between us and the walls of the hole to use. My legs ached. I couldn’t have run if I had wanted to.
Peewee patted me on the leg, and started to look out again. He jerked back in.
“One coming this way, the others headed away from here.”
I tensed. I flexed my hand twice, quickly. Got it back on the sixteen.
Outside the hole. Something had stopped just outside the hole.
A voice. Movement in the grass. I could see the feet. They wore thick black-soled sandals. A rifle poked in. Peewee put his hand on mine, moved my fingers off the trigger.
He moved his hand away, and my finger went back onto the trigger.
The voice again. We had disturbed the grass in front of the spider hole and the guy wasn’t sure. The feet turned and moved away.
Peewee didn’t say anything. He pushed up and looked out. A long moment passed. Peewee moved back against me.
“Most of them gone. This dude went a little way after them then stopped,” Peewee said.
“He coming back?”
“I don’t know,” Peewee said. “I think this his hole.”
The feet again. The rifle came into the hole. A voice. Peewee was right. He was nervous about the hole. Then a pole came in. On the end of the pole was a knife. It went near Peewee, then into the wall near me. The Cong above us shifted his position, then pushed the pole in again. Peewee was pushing it aside with his hand. I saw blood on Peewee’s hand. Then the pole went into the dirt near my head. It came out clean. Then it was gone.
Then a rifle was thrown into the hole. Peewee grabbed it and pulled it in. The Cong s feet followed. I pushed the sixteen into the small brown body and pulled the trigger. The body jerked backward once.
Peewee was frantically trying to pull him in on top of us.
“Get his arms!”
I could hardly move before; with the Cong in the hole I couldn’t move at all. I couldn’t reach the arms and just grabbed a piece of his shirt and pulled on that. We got him in and for a moment he was still. I thought he was dead. Then the shock of being shot must have worn off and he began to struggle.
“Don’t shoot again!” Peewee was saying.
I got one arm free and was pulling at the Cong’s hair. Peewee was trying to strangle him with one hand. The Cong was desperately trying to push his way out of the hole. Me and Peewee were desperately trying to hold him.
He got one arm out of the hole.
“Shoot him!” Peewee said.
I couldn’t find the trigger of the sixteen. Peewee had one hand around the Cong’s neck. We pulled until he stopped struggling.
We waited. The Cong was dead. I knew he was dead. The smell of death filled our small grave. The Cong’s body growled and let off gases.
“Peewee, we got to get out of here!”
Peewee started to push on the Cong. He was halfway wedged between the front of the spider hole and Peewee.
“Can’t move his ass,” Peewee was saying.
“Wait, let me pull him.”
I searched around until I found his arm. Then I pulled on it. He came down in the hole. His knees were on either side of Peewee. The three of us were wrapped around each other. I kept pulling. His head slipped past Peewee’s shoulder.
A kid. He was a damned kid. The blood stained the smooth chin. The eyes weren’t completely closed.
I pulled. Peewee got his elbow on the Cong’s side and pushed him enough to get his arms out of the hole. He pushed up and went out.
I pushed past the dead Cong out into the open air.
I had to reach back in and get my sixteen. I felt around for the grenades, felt the Cong’s body, and left them.
I sucked in the fresh air as hard as I could. The day was clear, the sky brilliant. There were fields of rice paddies before us and in one of them a Vietnamese farmer stood. He turned toward us, still kneeling in the knee-deep water. Maybe it was his son in the hole. He stood and Peewee lifted his rifle.
He ducked down into the water again.
We left him and got to the top of the ridge. There was nobody around.
“Watch the stream,” Peewee said.
We ran down the side of the ridge until we got to the stream. There were some reeds in the water. I didn’t remember if they had been there the night before or not. I hoped they had been as we started across the stream.
Peewee was slightly ahead of me. The water turned bright crimson around him as he went through it.
“Ain’t shit,” he said.
We were on the other side of the stream. We started moving along the stream as fast as we could. We ran for five minutes before Peewee stopped and fell to one side.
“Go on, man, I can’t make it,” he said.
“Never happen, man. I’m not leaving you, Peewee.”
“Go on, man.”
“No way, Peewee.”
I looked around for a stick or something he could use as a crutch. I didn’t see anything. My mind wasn’t working anyway. Nothing made sense. I looked at Peewee to see how he was doing. He was looking at me through the oldest eyes I had ever seen.
“Get my neck!”
He threw his arm around my neck and I pulled him to his feet. We started off again.
It took another five minutes to find the pickup zone. When we got there, it was more trouble.
It was Monaco. He was sitting against a tree. He had his head in his hands. His piece was about ten meters in front of him. I wanted to go to him, but Peewee stopped me.
“He ain’t sitting there for nothing,” he said.
I looked around. Nothing. What the hell was wrong with this damn war? You never saw anything. There was never anything there until it was on top of your ass, and you were screaming and shooting and too scared to figure out anything.
Me and Peewee found some cover and watched Monaco,
“Maybe he’s dead,” I said.
Monaco moved. He straightened his legs out and then brought them back up again.
Voices. We looked to see where they came from. There was a clump of bushes off to one side. It was just a little thicker than the rest, but I could still see one branch that was a little too straight. It was the barrel of a gun pointed at Monaco.
“They got him covered. He move and he dead. They waiting for a chopper to come in and get him,” Peewee said.
We looked around, trying to spot anything else we could find. There was another suspicious clump of bushes on the other side of the pickup zone.
“Let’s get the one on this side when the chopper come,” Peewee said.
He wanted to fight back. That was Peewee. He was hurt, maybe hurt bad, but he was still thinking about fighting back. Who the hell were these peo-pie? These soldiers? Was I really one of them? If I was, could I ever be anything else again?
Wait. Always. Wait. We waited. Across from us, no more than sixty to seventy meters, Monaco sat, looking at his hands. His helmet was pushed back on his head.
He was sitting in the shadow of death. We were all sitting in the shadow of death. I wondered what he was thinking about. Maybe he was thinking about his girl. I even hoped he was thinking about her.
We heard the chopper. It came in from behind us, like a great, angry hornet, swinging its tail. Me and Peewee opened up on the first clump of bushes.
We surprised them. It took them a while to return fire, but the chopper had them spotted. The moment the chopper opened up on the first machine gun, we started shooting at the second.
The chopper came down fast. We thought it had been hit. It landed and guys started piling out. Me and Peewee came out and started heading for the chopper. Monaco was up and had his piece.
He came running over to us and grabbed Peewee’s other side. We got to the chopper, the damn thing bounced up a foot and almost knocked Peewee’s head off. Me and Monaco grabbed his legs and threw him into the chopper. A crewman pulled him in. I thought about putting my piece on safety before crawling in.
Monaco was up and in and the other guys who had come in with the chopper were piling back in.
“Move your ass!”
I lost the little strength I had left. The wind from the chopper sent pieces of sand and dirt into my face, and I just wanted to lay down. I got my rifle in the door and reached for something to grab hold of. Somebody, I didn’t know who, was pulling on me as we started moving. The floor of the chopper smelled of oil.
Pain! God! A sudden, searing pain in my right leg. I was hit again! The pain took my breath away and I tried to twist to look at the leg. Somebody pulled it around, and I screamed. Somebody else was screaming, too. Or maybe it was me. The chopper was in the air. I couldn’t breathe. Somebody was laying on top of me.
The guy on top of me was trying to get off. I heard myself yelling as his weight came down on my leg.
The chopper veered crazily to one side, and I was struggling to hold on. My leg was burning, bursting with the pain, but I was able to hold on. The dark interior of the chopper began to spin. I called to Peewee.
“I’m making it, man,” he said, weakly.
“Hanging in, baby,” Monaco was near me and put his hand on my shoulder. “Hanging in.”
A short burst of rounds hit the side of the medevac, and I clenched my teeth and grabbed for the sides. It spun in the air, and then I felt the floor lift into me as we started away. There were bodies around me, some crying out in pain, others shaking in fear, others trying to help the wounded. One thought filled my whole being. I was still alive. Alive.