The following was sent to me by my friend, Isaac. It is the prologue to a book that he has either written or is thinking about writing. I don’t know if it will be purely fictional or based on real events. I think that Vietnam was Beautiful From the Air is the working title, but that’s just a guess.
Isaac sent it to me for my thoughts and did not object when I said that I might post it to see what others thought. Your comments are invited. Posted verbatim, this is for Dave Bernazani, a loyal and insightful reader:
PROLOGUE: The dream is always the same. It hasn’t changed in decades and each time the rawness of that day possesses me like a demonic spirit.
A guy who introduced himself as Griffin just a few hours earlier motions for me to take cover behind some kind of a palm tree with big, twisted roots running out from the trunk in all directions. He motions for me to stay put and keep quiet.
I kneel down and watch as Griffin disappears into the jungle, stopping once to look back at me, again jamming his left, vertical forefinger to his lips, the universal signal demanding silence.
I try to slow down my breathing and allow the sounds of the jungle to cover my presence. It is late afternoon and the tall palm trees cast long shadows toward the village to our east. I can hear shouting coming from the village in what I assume is Vietnamese. As I try to focus, I think I hear high pitched sounds, like crying or wailing.
Before I know it, I am creeping toward the closest hut, a haphazard affair of corrugated metal and thatched sticks. By the time I cover the 30 yards from my hiding spot through the brush to the hut, my heart is beating out of my chest.
Taking deep breaths, the shouting gets louder and a shot rings out, nearly scaring the shit out of me. Literally. I can feel my sphincter tighten. Now there is more crying, the wailing gets louder.
Like a moth to a flame, I slowly crawl around the hut until I can see into the the village. About 20 people are huddled together, on their knees in the center of the clearing, about 15 or 20 yards away. All I can see are old men, women and children.
There is some kind of soldier in front of them, right profile towards me, pointing his AK-47 at the frightened villagers. There is another soldier behind him, staring off into the jungle on the other side of the village. I don’t see anyone else with guns.
The first soldier erupts with a barrage of something that sounds angry and threatening. As he screams at the villagers, the crying and wailing intensifies. With that, he raises his rifle, aims at the woman closest to me and blasts her head open like a ripe watermelon.
Instinctively, I reach for my rifle, one of the older M-14 models given to me by Griffin when I first met him. The situation darkens as I realize that I left that damn rifle by the palm tree.
I turn back to look into the village just as the soldier shoots an old man in the chest. I look into the jungle, expecting Griffin and his men to come charging to the rescue, but I see no one. Then the shooting starts again, rapid fire shots, one after another as the soldier slowly moves the barrel of his rifle from his right to his left.
This next part happens so slowly that it seems to go on forever and I am holding my breath the whole time. I can feel drops of sweat rolling down my forehead and dripping from my armpits. I snatched the KA-BAR knife-also given to me by Griffin- from the scabbard lashed to my leg and slowly stand.
I take a deep breath and turn the corner, facing into the clearing. This is not bravery, it is a moment of lunacy. As I run toward the soldier, he is still firing, his rifle moving away from me.
Just as I raised the knife above my head and launch myself at the soldier, he turns his head toward me and begins to swing his rifle back in my direction. He will be too late.
My feet have already left the ground and our collision is inevitable.
I can feel the heat of his rifle barrel as it brushes against my ribs. For a fraction of second our eyes lock as my body continues its forward and downward trajectory.
His rifle clicks as the last round in his magazine leaves the barrel. The KA-BAR plunges into the left side of his neck as my helmet hits the right side of his bare head, the blade burying itself to the hilt. I barely slow down as he stumbles backward, his feet dragging as the back of his head arcs toward the ground.
Tucking reflexively, my helmet hits the ground and I somersault onto my back, laying motionless, trying to catch a breath.
That’s when the shooting starts, gunfire exploding all around me.
I roll onto my stomach and clench my arms around my head, laying there for a minute, an hour, maybe a day. Time is frozen, stilted and ethereal. I don’t know how long it all took, probably less than a minute.
And then it’s over. A deafening, all-encompassing silence envelops me, creating a momentary serenity. Life and death are two sides of a coin and I don’t know which side landed up.
I slowly lift my head and see the top of the soldier’s head, the KA-BAR sticking out of his neck. I raise my head a little more and I can see his sandal-clad feet, toes still twitching. I look right, where three dead soldiers lay. I focus on their sandals. They must have been standing in the shadows of the huts when I charged into the clearing.
Griffin walks over to me and crouches down, his face within inches of mine. He stares at me for a couple of heartbeats and spits through clenched teeth, “When I tell you to stay put, you stay put.” Then he stands up and walks away.
Another soldier, a black guy called White comes over and reaches down. We grip each other’s wrists as I pull myself up. Standing eyeball to eyeball, we stare at each and he says, “Fuck, doc.” Then he just nods his head and walks away.
I stand there, my ears ringing, the smell of gunpowder and smoke sharp in my nose and the dead soldier lying in the dirt at my feet with my knife sticking out of his neck. He looks to be a teenager, like me. I don’t feel anything at all. I am completely numb.
I reach down to retrieve the KA-BAR and watch blood ooze from the wound as I pull it out of his body. Standing there in the late afternoon sun, I watch blood drip from the blade of the knife onto the dirt below, forming little dirt-covered blobs.
Looking up, I see the villagers, all but three lay dead or dying.
Like someone just opened a freezer door, I feel an icy draft. My sweat turns cold, my body shivers and my stomach convulses. My knees give way and I sag down to all fours, puking my guts out onto the face of the teenager I had just killed.
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