The flight to Da Nang went smoothly enough, and soon the Huey slick was setting down at the air field. Lee waved a thanks at the pilot and a victory fist at the door gunner, bending low and holding on to his skivvy hat – he never wore his steel pot helmet while on his personal adventures – as he jogged in a forward bend out from under the chopper’s wash, then headed for the gate, through which he would leave Marine territory and enter suburban Da Nang. He would hitch for rides into the city, where he would walk the streets perusing the store displays and traffic madness and the facial parade of Oriental diversity which pulsed vibrantly among the throngs.
In contrast to Chu Lai, Da Nang was a city with paved streets, electricity, buildings, commerce, and all the rest of it. It was an old city, and second in size only to Saigon hundreds of miles to the South. Vietnamese traditions and cultural display permeated every street’s busy scenery. American construction workers in civilian clothing were seen, and all the military branches were visible in the crowds teeming the streets. But the overwhelming picture revealed countless Vietnamese men, women, and children of every social stratum busily pursuing their daily activities. It was a city which made no apology for being the juncture of agrarian antiquity and western technology. Motor vehicles seemed oblique to the peasantry driving them or packing them as passengers. Business signs in electric lights and neon posed an incongruency which Lee noted wistfully as he walked about the old city.
He went into shops, haggled with street vendors, and took pictures of the buildings and the crowded streets for several hours. Occasionally he would encounter other Marines and ask questions or directions, exchanging vulgarities common to men of the Corps. Some suggested he go to “Dogpatch”, a settlement peripheral to Da Nang which was populated by prostitutes, pimps and various other types of nefarious cultural backwash. He figured to check that out on another visit, but had too much to discover in the city today to include such risky diversion.
Lee enjoyed a certain feeling of power as he walked the streets of Da Nang. He had his M-14, fully loaded and ready for use, strapped barrel down over his right shoulder. He had a .45 automatic pistol on his web belt, and a K-bar combat knife, a couple of frag-grenades, and spare magazines of ammo as well as several bandoliers of quick-feeders. He was unafraid of the dangers which were potential and likely to happen to any Marine or other serviceman from the States who might be found wandering the city’s war-crazed corridors. He knew it would be perceived as a weakness, a distraction of purpose, when the citizenry noted the camera around his neck, but felt that he could back himself up defensively if any confrontation arose. None did, largely because he was prepared and that being prepared oozed a seriousness to his aura, he figured much later when finally home, and presently he realized the day was wearing on and he should begin to get back to the airfield where he could hitch a ride aboard another chopper back to Chu Lai.
When he arrived at the chopper pads it took a while to engage a willing pilot who was going southward, but finally, after approaching several crews at their birds, a pilot agreed to take him on. “Yeah, I’m going to Chu Lai, but first I’ve got to drop off this crate of shit to some guys on a hill-top inland. Jump in, and keep your shit together. If anything happens you ain’t on my bird, ain’t never been on my bird, and ain’t never met my ass, got that?”
Lee nodded and grinned at the door-gunner as he took his favorite position, sitting on a sandbag at the edge of the starboard-side door and resting his boots on the runner outside and below the fuselage of the craft. Soon they were up and heading south and south-west, clearing the first small mountains inland from the coast of the South China Sea. The pilot took her higher than Lee usually flew, indicating that the flight inland might be a bit longer jaunt than he had guessed from just hearing the pilot speak about dropping off a crate. He did not know the details of just where this hill-top group of ground-pounders might be, and It had not dawned on him that the crate of ammo might be tensely awaited, urgently wanted by a small outfit of grunts who were fighting for their lives and dearly needing re-supply on ammunition.
Viet Nam was like that. One could be enjoying the mystery of the ages as revealed in the peacefully unraveling day at one moment, then in the next moment the whirlpool of the quantumly-spiraling insanity of an entire world’s primal rage might savagely crush down upon one in an explosive, deafening, death-dealing rush of madness and destruction. A Marine in this new sort of war had to always be ready to meet the face of death and pain in any instant.
Lee was conditioned to remain alert, to keep the eyes in the back of his head opened at all times, and had survived nearly his full tour of duty there without so much as a wound. He had survived numerous fire-fights, mortar attacks, rocket assaults, mis-placed friendly fire and arty, and all the hardships. He had only gone crazy once, and that incident had been safely repressed under a ‘black-out’ of consciousness so that he had not the capability of remembering it. All he knew was that he had awakened to find himself strapped to a canvass cot in a field tent at a sea-side hospital at Da Nang one day, and had been told that he had been there three days before he ‘woke-up’. He never knew how he got there, though he was sure that he’d been transported there by chopper. It had happened while he was still in MASS-3, an air-support squadron, prior to his transferring into C Battery, 2nd LAAM. He would never know what operation MASS-3 had been involved with when he went black, or where he was when it happened. He would simply never know where he and MASS-3 had been, the name of the operation they had been on; but he would always wish he knew, as if simply knowing the name of a madness would somehow make the madness manageable. His mind had simply gone black, ending him up unconscious in Da Nang’s tent hospital group.
He had no memory of what had happened which caused him to be sent to that field hospital. He never would know, as he would begin to realize twenty years afterward, owing to the Veterans Administration’s policy of denying veterans any helpful information which might assist them in claiming PTSD awards after they returned to the States. He knew that his survival was more than his preparedness, however, and understood that it all had to do with when one’s “number came up”, or did not come up. It was luck, plain and simple. This was a proving ground of souls attached to human bodies, a sorting-out of the lucky and the luckless. Anyone could die in any way, and Marines in Viet Nam did die every day, in many crazy ways.
Lee’s mind rolled on endlessly as he rode silently high over the inland mountains below. The late afternoon’s sun was over Laos to the west, which could be seen from this height to resemble a continuation of the hilly terrain below. He found himself thinking about borders and national boundaries. It occurred to him that Nature never painted borders between nations sharing a continent, did not draw lines which said, “this side of this line is Cambodia, and this side of this line is Viet Nam”. Rather, borders were the projections of the human mind, collectively defining nations in geographic terms. Lee did not understand much about how and why the world had come from primordial objectivity to modern subjectivity, but he did register the question of the matter. His habit of letting his imagination run free was a quirk the Drill Instructors at Parris Island had overlooked, had not squeezed from his soul during training and brainwashing exercises there. And for that, Lee was not a total “Marine”. He still had original observations inside his head, something which enlisted Marines were not supposed to possess while on active duty. He mostly kept that to himself, as his peers would never respect him if they knew he wondered about “things”.
The Huey rattled on for more than twenty minutes, keeping southward by westward. Then he noticed that the bird was dropping altitude. He saw the door-gunner’s mouth moving as the crew chief spoke via his helmet-mike with the pilot in the cockpit. He noted the change in the gunner’s face, which now turned to him as the gunner slapped the trigger-housing group of his machine gun. “We got a hot LZ!” the gunner shouted over the noise of the chopper.
“Oh, great!” Lee thought to himself, “just what we need.” But he hollered back to the gunner, “Awright! Which side do you want me on?”
“Right there’ll be fine if you can handle it!” came the shouted reply as the gunner circled his barrel’s range in preparation for hosing. In no time at all an SKS round came through the bird’s deck from the ground up ahead, and hit into the aft bulkhead waist high. The chopper kept sinking lower, but was wobbling side to side as best as the Captain could manage. Lee got his boots in off the runner and climbed to a stand, then knelt on the sandbag, leaning his right shoulder against the hatch. He wished that sandbag below his knees was twice the size as another round came through the flooring and smacked the back bulkhead. He pulled his magazine and inserted a fully-loaded one, then drew his left knee up and braced his left elbow on it, getting solid for what was to come.
He looked at the bulkhead to his right, figuring what he could use for props to help with his firing from the door while hiding himself from view from the ground. This would not be the first time he would have to fire from a bird, but that did not help him like the idea of it. He always had felt vulnerable when trapped inside a moving chopper which was drawing fire. And before he could have a collected thought, that was just what was happening to the Huey slick in which he was riding.
The door gunner started firing as far forward as he could reach, leaning out the door and forward, snaking the barrel of the 50 Cal, hosing down the woods on the northeast side of the hilltop. Lee would wait until he could see something for aims, which yet he could not. No need in wasting up good rounds on a tree-shoot. More rounds came through the bulkheads and the floor. This was getting tight too fast. One shell bounced off the overhead and rolled between his knee and the bulkhead. Lee breathed in fiercely through his nose and drew out the inhale full and long until he felt full of himself, then cussed and let it all out and started firing. The mothafuckers! He and the door gunner were suddenly whooping and screaming, bellowing from deep inside their guts, working up for facing something awful, something which was approaching now more swiftly than either of them would be able to describe. The hilltop was rising up to meet them, and it was covered with hot shit that was filling the air. The grunts on the ground were peppering the treelines beyond their wire, helping keep the VC down, knowing that the VC would want that Huey slick more than they’d want a helmet on the ground.
Lee crouched low beside the door opening and saw ahead of and below the Slick a small knob of a hilltop which had been sprayed and blasted to a shredded-looking pile of clods shorn through with roots ajar, a bastion of bald brownness surrounded by the forested hillside in a circle below it. The Viet Cong were in that forest, but had no artillery. They did have B-40 rockets, mortars, and automatic weapons, and they were not shy about using such on the Marines who had holed-up atop this nameless hill. Lee would come to find out they were Alpha 2/7; Alpha Company, 2nd battalion of the Seventh Marines, supposedly not involved in any known operation, but keenly wanting re-supply on ammo. Their perimeter and bunkers appeared to have been used for some weeks, maybe longer. A round hit the runner outside the door, screaming as steel will when struck with a shearing velocity.
Now the shit was filling the air as the Captain wove his bird bravely, insanely, on, coming ever closer and closer to that brown circle atop that green hill. Lee and the gunner were by now screaming trash and blasting on full auto, figure-8-ing and spraying. The foliage was too thick to see into, so Lee was firing without a target. But judging from the amount of lead shit in the air and the incessant peck-peck-peck of rounds hitting the bird from below, Lee figured that any bullet he sprayed might have good odds of hitting something worthwhile. “AuwwwEEEhooo ya lilly-livered muthafuckas!” Lee bellowed and fired fired fired, firing and cussing as fast as he could. The world swam now in a whirlpool of rage and fear and raped hope hilarious futility. “Gawdfuckingdamn! There must be a zillion of the little fuckers!” Lee heard the door gunner blurt. He looked at the gunner for a split instant and went back to shooting out of the chopper down to the ground below. Again he lost his mind, hearing himself screaming while blasting away with his ’14, “I’m havin’ fuckin’ gooks for supper, Mama! Sissy set the table!” Blam blam bloouey-blam blam tatatat attat blam blam, and the door gunner was letting ’em have it the same way too, only with larger rounds and more of ’em than that blessed precious most-beautiful sacred-assed bitch of an M-14 he was firing, which he loved more dearly than a man really should, could do.
Another round came through the floor to lodge higher up than had the previous. “Ah, ha! Some little squirt down there thinks he has my number!” Lee shouted to nobody. Lee had not had time yet to figure on the odds of setting that bird down on that brown hilltop gallery and getting it safely back into the air again, but the Captain must have been concerned about the rounds coming through his cockpit.
Lee could see the gunner talking into his headset, firing bursts all the while. Incoming shit or no, the pilot had kept dropping altitude as his bird drew nearer and nearer to the browned hilltop. The gunner, having just said something into his mouthpiece to the Captain, suddenly looked over at Lee cold for a second, then said something else to the Captain. He rose and gestured to Lee as he bent in a reach for the large wooden crate of fresh rounds and ordnance on the deck between them. “Help me get ‘er ready to shove; Captain says he’s blowing off the landing; too hot for as short as he is—me’n you ragonna slide this box off when he banks ‘er!”, he shouted above the rotor noises and the gunfire which we could now hear only too plainly.
Lee nodded as he reversed-strap on his M-14 and hung her barrel down over his shoulder. Reaching for his edge of the crate which had suddenly grown much larger, Lee saw that they were over the top of the hill and felt the Captain beginning a frenzied and hard bank to starboard. The banking went much more steeply than Lee anticipated and he found himself reaching with his right hand for the door’s frame as the gunner screamed “heave ho muthafucka!” and the crate began to slide toward the door. Bullets could be heard flying through the bulkheads now, and a couple whizzed through the open door and out the higher opposite door.
The chopper was surely out of control, thought Lee. “Is he gonna lay this whore down, or what?”, Lee hollered at the gunner. Crazily, he feared the pilot’s losing control of his bird worse than he feared being shot. Funny, what can go through a man’s mind when the shit is flying thick and fast. Some fucking idiot on the ground popped some purple smoke, turning everything into a visual circus, making a target onto which the Captain could light-down the ship, never guessing that the chopper had changed its mind. The smells of spent shells and old sweat and poisoned tree roots and a goat’s sick ass and a thousand other anomalies of combat now matched the insane noises of battle. Smokes and powders on the air showed the wind to be breezing from west to east below like wild spirits riding madness over the ugly brown earth where death was working its dull methodical merciless ways into the lives of humans who could not afford to be quite human at the time.
The crate finally cleared the hatch, causing the Huey to lurch upward with the lightening of her load, a lurch which roller-coastered the circus into the finale which only the gods of war could compose. What happened next was too fast, too unexpected, too completely crazy, too impossible even in hell, to have really happened, but it did. What happened next would put a bur in Lee’s head for the rest of his life, a bur which he would never lose, a bur which demanded in his sleep and in his wakeful hours remaining to him on this earth, to find that goddam Huey Captain and kick his ass.
The door-gunner grabbed Lee as he was getting straightened from pushing the crate out the hatch, grabbed him by the upper arm and pushed him with a running lunge right out the holiness-forsaken starboard-side door of the Huey, and suddenly Lee was swimming in air, flailing vainly to get his feet below him, flying down to the horrible earth and its deadly business, groping through air-borne gore and bullet-song for some sense of rightness, some sense of balance, some sense of how the hell could he survive *this*! Unholy Mother of everything wrong on earth! The gunner had pushed him out of the chopper!
Life, like death, can come quick in war zones. This moment of life came too quickly for Lee to assimilate.
Neurons fired the image like the explosion of eternity, then clamped shut with a thud before his kicking right foot struck the earth just ahead of his torso. For a timeless second he sent a flash upon his mind’s screen, in a reason he would never know, of an imagined ‘snapshot’ of his unsightly fall, which would have been taken from the ground below him.
Looking down as the ground rushed upward at him he knew frantically that he was head-long into the fall and fought to get his feet below him. Everything gets weightless in freefall. His canteen may as well have not been there. His dogtags suddenly wanted to get out of his shirt. Only the legs mattered now; had to get them under him somehow. But the rifle sling was threatening to slide off his shoulder and he found himself struggling to clutch the wooden stock while jerking with the free elbow in an attempt to shift his legs before him. His 35-mm Canon was flying sweetly, benignly, as if suspended in a vacuum before his face, as if it had a mind to slip its strap over his head and fly free. The splintered crate below lay shattered on the ground where it had fallen, miraculously still unexploded by enemy rounds. Upturned tree roots, charred wood, foxholes and bunkers, some scraggly old weeds who refused to lay down even in brown chemical death, burn-piles where the grunts had pitched their c-rats cans and scraps; infusoria unleashed beyond the range of senses, beyond the normal; stench and awkward surreal sights of human folly; and all moving ’round and ’round, looming, rushing upward, thundering the senses. All of that would be in his imagined snap-shot, and more.
The air was full of rotor-wash as his departing Slick-trick hitch-hike Huey-ride cruelest-of-all-cruel-jokesters was now hauling ass out of there.
Time stopped, stood still with a million bullets hovering in the sick air. A bed in hell, a bed itself made-up of parched brown tortured earth, loomed invitingly before Lee in a moving stillness, a gesture of timelessness, a great nothingness which in time’s suspension was a secret of life which anyone can only know by coming too close to death. That, too, would be in the imagined photo.
The imaginary camera on the imaginary man below would have been pointed up into the sky from the ground. The image, full and dressed in the dawning knowledge that he had left the Huey and was now falling into a new kind of torment on very ill winds, through which he was now being hurled in the rotor’s blasts like a sodden leaf in a tornado, would be the most impossible photo-image he would ever imagine. He fixed on the non-existent image of the imagined ‘snapshot’ of his falling. He imagined he could see his ungainly sprawl suspended above himself, arms and legs kicking and flailing vainly, powerlessly, above his other self, the self which had already splattered to the earth and was now like a cruel joke laying prone on its back, aiming that miserable camera up at Lee, as if he were a photographer taking a self-portrait as he fell and flailed, and his scrutiny of the imagined snapshot of himself seemed, in a detached way, to have suspended time for its inspection.
Legs and arms in a frantic grab at nothing for whatever might be the most-dignified and proper way to fall, the safest way to fall, the best way to break the fall; futile clutches at a floating camera sure to be in the picture, his rifle jeopardized by the disorderliness of the rush downward, his skivvy-hat hovering like a faded halo over the obliviousness which had always marked his life in just such unforeseeable, senseless adventures. The sky above would be blue and cloudless; the late afternoon temperatures would be over a hundred at ground level. The odors of cordite and spent shit and airing blood and clotting piss would be in that photo. And so would the fear, inmixed with dirt gone to dust, and the impossible grab by something very deeply coiled within his being for some rational grasp on the here and now. And the bewilderment and the confusion and the letting go, the accepting of it, the taking of it, the realization of it; and so much more, would forever be enshrined in that imagined snapshot of himself falling down to himself, the self who would be the other self, the self with a sprained ankle and a disoriented second version of a Viet Nam blackout, laying there finally on his back, unconscious, knocked out by the fall, but somehow unhit by any flying bullet, waiting to wake up to the surge of pain and fear into a world where the bullets were waist-high and everywhere in and from all directions, where Lee’s new self dared not even stand for fear of being shot, where he would crawl belly-down to the perimeter, where the grunts of Alpha 2/7 would be cussin’ and cryin’ and shootin’ and blastin’ and bleedin’ and pissin’ themselves and bandaging and shooting-up their torn brothers with morphine and screaming obscenities at their brothers in death across the wire, and where he would join them in dealin’ death as fast and true as they all could all night to keep from dealing with their own damned deaths, and where Lee’s newest self would spend one of the longest and darkest nights of his life.
copyright 1999 and 2007 Elias Alias