Chapter 5 We Meet Feinstein
Ezekiel Feinstein, newest member of AP’s Danang bureau, stared at the keyboard of a portable typewriter in the deserted press hooch. It was five a.m. Outside in the steaming darkness of Asia, artillery boomed as batteries fired randomly to keep their quotas up. Feinstein didn’t notice. He was worrying about what it meant to be Jewish. He was also sweating profusely although he was stripped to his skivvy shorts. Sweat ran down his long thin legs, matting the black hairs in sodden streaks. Feinstein was probably the hairiest man in Viet Nam. He had thick hair on his wrists, fur on his legs, a lush mat on his chest, and a dark halo of fine down on his earlobes. Even his friends said he looked like a yak-hair pillow on stilts, or several pounds of stalked lint.
He was depressed because he had been in Vietnam for six weeks and had not gotten a big story. When he was depressed he always worried and felt vaguely guilty—not guilty of anything, but just guilty. Often he worried about being Jewish. What it was that worried him about being Jewish wasn’t clear to him, which worried him more. At the moment he wondered whether he hadn’t betrayed his people by changing his name. His father had always been contemptuous of Jews who changed their names.
Feinstein had been born Hezekiah Baum in Hoboken, son of a struggling fancy-foods jobber in the lush half-Spanish neighborhoods near the railroad. He grew up happily enough, playing street ball with tired baseballs with flaps hanging down like a spaniel’s ears, feeling up the girls behind the weeds in vacant lots, and reading. Everybody had problems, so he didn’t know he had a problem. His parents were good to him. They were, however, working like dogs to save tuition for him, and his father made it clear that either he made A’s or he found another family. He made A’s.
In the pacifistic mood prevailing in the early Sixties at Oklahoma University School of Journalism, where he went because he got a scholarship, he had discovered that being Jewish was a burden. At least, being a pacifist named H. Baum was a burden, and he wouldn’t have been named Baum if he had been Irish. Being hairy hadn’t helped. His friends had started calling him H-Bomb the Hoboken Tarantula. At parties a predictable exchange always took place.
“DeWayne, this is H. Baum. He’s in journalism.”
“Aitch Bomb? That’s his name? You shittin’ me.”
“I swear. Don’t piss him off. He’s got a short fuse.”
His self-esteem collapsed. He began walking parallel to sidewalks at a distance of fifteen feet to avoid being introduced to anyone. He grew moody, took to sitting in remote corners of the library and reading tales of suicide and decay. His grades suffered. The thought of going through life as H-Bomb the Hoboken Tarantula loomed before him. Finally he snapped. He went to the courthouse and changed his name to Feinstein. Ever since, he had worried about having changed his name. He had never told his father, who would have been ashamed at having a name-changing Jew for a son.
His father, puzzled at getting dozens of telephone calls for Ezekiel Feinstein, had been complaining to the phone company ever since.
Feinstein was also worried about not having a big story. He disapproved of the war, but he wanted a Pulitzer. Vietnam was his big chance, everybody’s big chance. If a reporter couldn’t find a story here, he would never find one. A raging sense of urgency weighed on him, a fear that the war was on the brink of some miraculous finish that would leave him high and dry, Pulitzerless. Every time anything big happened, Feinstein was always somewhere else. Maybe he was doomed.
The tent flap opened and the driver assigned him for the day walked in, that guy Hearn he saw around. Some kind of chemistry major. Feinstein hated chemistry.
“Morning, sir. Monkey Mountain….”
“Yeah. Yeah, I forgot. Let’s go, I guess.” Feinstein grabbed a canteen belt and camera bag. Radar sites on Monkey Mountain. Big deal. They were there to guard against air attack, but the enemy didn’t have airplanes. Meanwhile the artillery shot at enemies who weren’t there, and progress was measured by counting corpses that hadn’t been killed. Feinstein wondered what the Viet Cong contributed to the war. Apparently it could be fought perfectly adequately without them. Increasingly he suspected that it was being fought without them.
Outside the gate Hearn inched the jeep delicately through the mass of Viet children trying to sell their sisters, peddle dirty pictures, or map the base for mortar attacks.
“Hey Joe. Joe. Hey Joe,” ooched a boy of perhaps eight years. “You want boomboom? Boocoo cheap. My sister. Clean. Long time. Sucky fucky.”
Hearn answered, “Sister no good. How about your mother. She virgey?”
“Yeah, Joe, boocoo. You want? I go get.’’
“If she virgey, where you come from?”
“My sister have me. No problem. 1 get?”
“Oh, fuck off.’’
The throng thinned and they headed down the red clay road cut toward the mountain.
“Well, Hearn, what’s the hot scoop? You get around a lot. I need a Pulitzer this morning.’’
“Stop calling me sir. It makes me nervous.’’
“Yeah. Sorry.” Feinstein wasn’t much older than Hearn, really. “It’s a habit. If you call people sir, they don’t talk to you. Stories … I don’t know. Not much. I did meet some guys out at Marble Mountain, say they got strafed yesterday.’’
“Strafed? Air Force hit the good guys again?”
That might be a story. Too common, though.
“No, he says nobody did it. I mean, rounds came out of nowhere. I didn’t pay much attention. You hear a lot of shit like that. Like flying saucers in those grocery-store magazines.”
“How can rounds come out of nowhere?”
“Well, maybe that’s where they were, so they had to.”
Hearn wasn’t always easy to talk to. It sounded weird. Still, anything was better than looking at a bunch of’ radar screens in Quonset huts.
“Can you take me to Marble Mountain?”
“Can you get me a fifth of Jim Beam?”