Pete was the last man to arrive at the morning briefing. He came sloshing though the dark from his tent, sending up little splashes of muddy water at his feet with every step he took. His helmet joggled around loosely and the neckstrap bounced against his face. Lieutenant Bryant had already begun talking when Pete came up behind the group of soldiers huddled in the rain around the door of the operations shack, put his rifle carefully under the overhanging roof of the building and jumped up on a low sandbagged wall behind the rest of the soldiers.
"We’re making a run to Lai Khe," Bryant was saying in a low, clear voice. "Ammunition and C-Rations. We’re gonna go up fast, unload fast, and get back fast. If we get hit, keep moving. If we have to stop, shotgunners out of the trucks and take up position. If your truck blows up with you in it, you’re no good to us…"
Pete knew the briefing talk by heart and yawned. Okay, okay, he thought, we’ve all seen John Wayne about a million times… He looked at the field of gently bobbing helmets suspended above a wall of backs uniformly covered with greenish-gray ponchos. Water from the drizzling rain ran around the rims of the canvas-covered helmets to form small rivulets down the back of the ponchos. That’s the Army for you, Pete said to himself. Everything’s got to be identical. He yawned again and reached under his own poncho to hitch up his flak vest. He hated to wear it because it was hot and and heavy and always made his armpits itch. He scratched, cursed under his breath, and returned his attention to Bryant, who was glaring at him.
"Spencer!" Bryant said sharply.
"Oh, uh…here, sir."
"Answer up, Spencer. I don’t like to have to call you twice."
"Grab yourself an M-60. You’re riding shotgun in the number two truck."
Pete slid down from the wet sandbags and pulled the damp fatigue trousers away from his skin. Damn it all anyway, he thought. A damn M-60 again. He didn’t mind riding shotgun on convoys, but he hated to wrestle with the long bulky machine gun, and it was all but impossible for him to clean it to the armorer’s satisfaction. Mumbling to himself, he threaded his was through the group of men grabbed the heavy gun from the armorer’s hands. The armorer grinned at him and whispered, "That gun better be spotless when you turn it in this time, Spencer."
Pete snarled back an inaudible answer and jerked the metal ammunition box off the doorstep. He crossed the motor pool to the long line of dull green trucks, trying to sidestep as many of the huge mud puddles as he could. It was just getting daylight as he reached the second truck in the line and climbed up into the canvas covered cab. He opened the windshield, snapped apart the bipod legs at the end of gun barrel, and balanced the gun on the hood of the truck, resting the stock against the leather seat cushion. Then he slouched down in the seat and pulled his helmet down over his eyes.
Fifteen minutes later, the door opened and the driver of the truck, a blond kid of about nineteen or so, got in. Pete didn’t recognize his face.
"Hi," the kid said in a loud and friendly voice.
"Hi," Pete said in return. "You new in the company or something? I don’t remember seeing you before."
"Naw, they sent me over from the 261st. One of drivers went on sick call and they sent me to replace him." He started the truck engine and raced the motor slightly to warm it.
Pete reached his hand across the cab. "I’m Pete Spencer"
"Chuck Williams. Glad to meetcha. You a driver?"
"No, I’m the company clerk."
"Company clerk? Why the hell are you on convoy? Our clerk can’t even get out of the orderly room. He couldn’t go on convoy even if he wanted to. They need him too much, I guess. At least that’s the story he tells. He says the company would fall apart without him."
"I guess I haven’t convinced the Old Man or the Top of that yet. As it is, they both hate my guts and get rid of me every chance they get."
"Why? Are you a troublemaker?"
"No…not in the usual sense, anyway. I just hate the Army and they both know I won’t put up with any lifer bullshit. They’ve tried to get me transferred out, but 6th Battalion won’t cut orders on me. It looks to me like they can’t find any other company will have me, so they’re keeping me right here."
"And you keep being sent on shotgun. You must be a draftee."
"You know it, baby."
Lieutenant Bryant’s jeep splashed by, sending up twin roostertails of muddy water from each fenderwell, and took up position at the head of the long line of trucks. The convoy slowly pulled out of the compound, past the sandbagged guard bunker at the gate and onto the asphalt highway.
Pete snapped open the dun-colored ammo case and took one end of the long shiny belt of M-60 bullets out of it, lifted up the loading plate on the top of the machine gun and slipped the first shell into its slot. He snapped the plate down, clicked on the safety and balanced the gun on the bipod legs, holding the stock lightly in his hands. Before long the convoy turned off the smooth asphalt of the highway onto a wandering mud-rutted track through the rice paddies and rubber plantations northeast of Saigon.
It was now well into daylight and the morning was getting hotter. Pete struggled out of the poncho and wadded it up behind the seat, pushed his helmet back on his head and wiped his sweating forehead with the back of his arm. Squirming around in the seat, he loosed the nylon flak vest and let the cooling wind from the open windshield blow around his sweaty body. He grunted, scratched as his armpits, and slouched back against the seat, letting the butt of the machine gun ride against his thigh.
Looking out at the bright green rice paddies laid out in perfect squares to the horizon, bordered by graceful palms and small banana groves, Pete thought it hard to believe that there was a war going on. Occasionally they would rumble through a gigantic rubber plantation with its tall stately trees, each with a series of slash marks on its trunk, some with a bucket hung below a fresh slash to collect the raw rubber that oozed from it. The trees were planted in perfect symmetrical rows, like some vast American fruit orchard, and Pete was almost overwhelmed by the feelings of peace and calm that they seemed to exude.
When they went through a hamlet, filled with corrugated tin shacks, bamboo lath huts, a few brightly-painted concrete houses and garish advertising signs, dozens of brown children came running out to the edge of the roadway, waving wildly and yelling "Chop-chop!" Pete grinned at them and waved back. He liked the Vietnamese kids and he always saved part of his C-Rations to toss to them on the return trip.
"What the hell," Williams said strangely. "What are you doing?"
Pete jerked around to glare at him. "Just what are you trying to say, Williams?"
Williams looked back at him and shrugged. "Spencer, you just can’t expect to treat these stupid gooks like people, man. Hell, they’re just a buncha gooks—"
"Aw, shut your goddam face, Williams!" Pete said angrily. "I’m fed up with you and all your kind!" He turned back to face the front, feeling the anger flush into his cheeks. Oh, God, why was I ever put down in the middle of this? Why do I have to put with bastards like Williams every goddam day? He slouched down in the seat and pulled the helmet low over his eyes, wishing he’d never heard of the Army, of Vietnam, or of Chuck Williams.
Williams looked at him and chuckled. "Whatsa matter, boy? Can’t face the facts of life?"
"Screw you, Williams," Pete mumbled, looking out the window and trying to imagine what it would be like to be home again, away from the Army and its sadistic cretins like Williams.
They skidded their way up a long hill and past the big "Sherwood Forest" sign, lettered in green Old English script. As they started around a corner, suddenly there was an odd, popping sound from the rear, along the line of trucks, and Pete jerked up out of his slouch. The butt of the gun dug viciously into his thigh. Just as he was turning to look out the window toward the rear, Williams Yelled, "We’re being hit!" Almost simultaneously Pete heard the rattling of a machine gun close ahead. The truck in front swerved and skidded crazily and its trailer fishtailed violently in the wet mud. It came to a sudden stop and Williams cursed and jammed his foot on the brake pedal. They slid into the trailer with a bone-jarring crash and it toppled over, its gray boxes of C-Rations cascading down into the mud.
Pete began looking frantically into the bush at the side of the road. He felt Williams digging at his side. He looked over and Williams shouted something he couldn’t understand and jumped out of the truck. Just then Pete remembered the words of the morning briefing:
"shotguns out of the trucks and take up position…" He jerked his door open and slid out onto the mud, dragging the machine gun with him and carrying the ammo box under his arm. Now he could hear the sounds of firing all along the line of stalled trucks. Hunched up on his knees and elbows, cradling the machine gun in the crook of his arms and dragging the ammo box with one hand, he crawled quickly toward a patch of tall grass at the side of the road next to overturned trailer. He had just passed the large gay heap of C-Ration boxes when the explosion came, a quick loud metallic blast that compressed his chest, blew off his helmet, and peppered the ground around him with tiny bits of mud, metal and rubber.
Pete gasped for a breath, jammed his steel pot back on, and scrambled for the side of the road. Once in the long grass, he rolled over on his back and looked at his truck. It was barely recognizable: a mine had been detonated almost directly under the cab and the truck looked as though it had been sprung open in the middle. With a sick feeling in his stomach, Pete rolled back over and searched the jungle. Where are the shots coming from? How many of them are there? It seemed as though he could hear them all around him. He began firing random bursts into the thickest parts of the bush, looking vainly for a rarget. The actions became mechanical: hold tightly, squeeze the trigger, let up, make a quick visual search, hold tightly, squeeze… The sound of the firefight seemed to grow farther and farther away and he had a sudden fleeting mental picture of himself as a robot, programmed to go through the same absurd repetitious motions. He halted the ritual and shook his head to clear it.
It was then that he heard the rapid footsteps coming quickly through the jungle from the direction of the rear of the convoy. They grew louder and louder and suddenly Pete could see the man, dressed in the black pajamas of the Viet Cong, running through the brush and looking behind him frantically. His face was filled with panic and his eyes darted around wildly. Pete jumped up onto his knees, jerking the muzzle of the gun up toward the man. The Viet Cong saw him and stopped, his mouth working soundlessly. Terror filled his eyes. He threw up his arms protectively. His hands were empty.
Time seemed to suddenly expand. Pete felt the vibration in his own throat as a low rumble, heard the sound coming from his mouth as a distant thunder. The machine gun, bucking in his tired hands almost under its own power, felt as though it were gently swaying. A look of shocked surprise spread over the yellow face of the Vietnamese as the bullets slowly ripped through his body. He crumpled over backwards and bounced to the ground.
Pete got slowly to his feet. The shooting had stopped and the jungle seemed filled with an ominous silence. He heard, as though from a long way away, slow footsteps cross the road behind him. Williams appeared at his side, looked down at the dead Vietnamese, then at Pete, and finally back at the dead Vietnamese. Breathing a low whistle, he walked over and nudged the dead man with his toe.
"Wow, nice one, man," he murmured. "You got him right in the chest and guts."
Pete fell back to his knees and felt the vomit well up in his throat.
Williams lit a cigarette and nudged the corpse with toe of his jungle boot again. "Stupid gook," he said.
© 1973, 2002 Dennis Mansker