Chapter 19 In the Jungle, Saving Democracy
Second Platoon Bravo Company humped through the agonizing heat toward the An Dong River in dead silence. The sun beat down like a soft rubber truncheon and the humidity hung at an asphyxiating hundred percent. Even the condoms on their rifle barrels were limp and dispirited. Second Platoon was noted for its aggressiveness in not finding the enemy. At this moment they were making a supreme effort not to find him, reaching down into their souls for that final ounce of failure that made the difference between death and beer.
Lieutenant William Washington, the only black platoon commander in I Corps, said “OK, chillun, this playground is now in recess.” They dropped heavily to the ground near a shattered temple and reached for canteens.
“Think the bastard’s going to get us, Lieutenant?” asked Ron Cagle, a dark-haired corporal from Tennessee.
“Huh. Charles ain’t smart enough to kill this nigger. I’m going to bring all my men home from this war, every swinging dick, and just incidentally me too. In fact, maybe just a bit more than incidentally. Don’t you trust me and my leadership qualities?”
“Yessir. But Charlie’s a lot worse than the rest. He’s gonna kill us, I tell you.”
“Oh, he’s trying. He’s trying, all right. But he ain’t going to do it.”
Charlie was their battalion commander, Colonel Charles Aafes Kelley. He was indeed trying to kill Second Platoon. So, though to a lesser extent, were the Viet Cong. Colonel Kelley needed casualties to show that he was a hard-charging, pugnacious officer who took the battle to the enemy and gave him no rest. In a more reasonable war, if there were such, he could have done this by having his men capture a city. In Vietnam there was nothing to capture that was worth having, so the best measure of effectiveness was the number of casualties his men took. Moreover there was an unofficial contest between the Army and Marines to produce the most casualties, thus continuing a rivalry reaching back to Tarawa.
Colonel Kelley consequently had his men patrolling constantly where he thought the thickest concentrations of enemy might be found. Fortunately his information came from REBOP, where as low-level tactical intelligence it was compiled alphabetically by a lieutenant. On the first of the month he reported concentrations of enemy troops in all villages beginning with A, one the second in those beginning with B, and so on. Since this intelligence was almost always wrong, many lives were saved.
Cagle leaned his head on his helmet, lit a cigarette, and blew a cloud of smoke over his head. “Ain’t this great? Seeing all these foreign places? You guys know you love it.”
“Fuck you, Prevert. You wouldn’t even be here if you wasn’t a child molester…Hey, Newbie, you know why old Prevert’s a Muhreen? Tell’im, Prevert.”
Cagle thought a moment. He had told the tale dozens of times. He was used to it.
“Shit, it wasn’t nothing,” he said. “I was working in Kriegstedt’s Esso back home, see, and this lady pulls in driving a Corvair. Well, she sorta mumbles something, which was, ‘Do you have a rest room?’ I couldn’t hear too good, and I thought she said, ‘Do you have a whisk broom?’ So I says, ‘Naw, lady, but I can blow it out for you with the air hose.’
“Well, it turns out she’s the mayor’s wife and she starts shriekin’ and tears outa there like she had a burr up her ass and pretty soon ol’ Sherriff Powell comes out in the squad car and tells me I’m under arrest for Salacious Degradation or some shit, and Judge Wilson tells me I can do two in the Corps or four in the slammer, and I chose wrong.”
“Sounds about right. I was….”
The sound of chopper blades came in the distance. The sound grew until a Huey dropped to the ground. Mike Feinstein jumped out like a hairy underfed insect and walked, crouching, toward Second Platoon through low vegetation blowing in the rotor wash. The chopper fwop-fwopped faster and rose, roaring and whining, into the clear blue sky.
“Afternoon. You Lieutenant Washington?” asked Feinstein.
“I have that distinction. Can’t help it. Am I being relieved of my command, I dearly hope?”
Lieutenant Washington had never seen anybody sweat like this white guy. If you squeezed a sodden sponge, he thought, less water would pour out. Where did it come from? This scrawny muthufucker musta weighted three hunnerd pounds this morning and now he’s down to it looks like about ninety.
“Not by me. I’m just a commie minion of the press. UPI.” He held out a press card.
“Oh. Well, you should report that I ought to be relieved. My men, too. And sent home in disgrace. Or any other way.”
Feinstein had never encountered an officer who made sense before. He found it disturbing. He wasn’t sure how to begin.
“Maybe this is going to sound crazy, but, well, there’s this report going around about how the Russians have these invisible airplanes.” He suddenly realized he sounded like a raving lunatic. “Supposedly they fly over this sector. Fuck, I feel stupid. Still, I gotta ask. You guys seen anything like that?”
Lieutenant Washington was about to ask the obvious, namely how the hell do you see something that’s invisible, when Cagle said,
“Lieutenant, you reckon that head case in the F-4…I mean he always looks like he’s trying to fight somebody, but ain’t nobody there.”
Lieutenant Washington thought hard for a moment. Damn, maybe…yeah, that Phantom did look like he was chasing something, and he was always shooting at what looked like nothing. Shit, maybe them Russians….
An hour later Feinstein waited for his chopper to return. He wanted a drink. He had firm reports, from a dozen apparently sane Marines, confirming the existence of the invisible intruders. What the hell was going on?