I am a small person. I yearned to be bigger and early on realized how a uniform places a person perceptibly larger in the eyes of others. I was second trumpet in my high school band. It helped that I’d been in love with the Army since I could remember. Posters of Audie Murphy and Uncle Sam Wants You hung on the wall of my little room. However through these six decades and more, alas despite all that happened, I have remained a small person.
The Gulf of Tonkin incident was an answer to my prayer. Uncle Sam did indeed want me. At 59 ½ inches tall and 98 lbs, I barely met the Army’s physical requirements, but I made it and arrived at basic training certainly the most thankful person there. All that intimidation which boot camp serves I had expected so none of the yelling or marching or drilling in the rain could outweigh the appreciation of belonging that I felt for my boot camp company which was the real thing, the real Army. Belonging to this was ten times better than the band or any school club or church. We were this bunch of guys from all over the country who had joined up to fight for our country, by God. And what good guys too. This was the first time I’d been around blacks, and in boot camp I learned that despite what I’d heard all my life about blacks, they were no different than whites. I came out of boot camp and infantry training clean and proud and was soon aboard a troop ship, The General Geiger, at Long Beach and off we sailed across the wide Pacific to Hawaii, Guam then Cam Ranh Bay, Republic of Viet Nam. In the staging area waiting for the trucks Sonny and Cher were singing “The Beat Goes On” through some GI’s portable radio. The year was 1966 and I had two legs and two balls, and yes I felt bigger than ever.
Second Platoon, Easy Company called itself “ The Clyde Platoon” a name lifted from that Bonnie and Clyde movie. The boss was Lt. Lionel Fiske but everyone called him Jesus as he was a bible thumper. He was the replacement for a lieutenant sent home with some hellish intestinal parasite. Our true leader was First Sergeant Sutton who was a hard-ass black dude who everybody called First Sergeant. Jesus, having much to learn, realized First Sergeant’s station and stuck to him like a leech. About half of the Clydes had been in country nearly their full year. First Sergeant and six others were on second tours; all their in country time together. Easy Company patrolled in rough mountains from a base camp atop a mountain called Calvary originally secured by a Special Forces company which had crucified three VC who had penetrated their perimeter one night. A gruesome Polaroid of the three crosses with the crucified VC was passed around the entire company. I remember hoping that the poor fuckers were dead before being hung up on those crosses. Easy Company’s job was to send out patrols from Calvary to interrupt Ho Chi Minh Trail traffic. The famous Ho Chi Minh Trail was not a single secret path through the mountains, rather, it was any north to south route used to funnel men and supplies from the North.
Two villages rested at the base of Calvary, tiny Anh Cap at the south foot and Binh Ga to the north, Andy Capp and Bingo we called them. Andy Capp was just a few huts with one caribou and a couple of dogs. The Army had relocated the hundred or so Andy Capp villagers from their true home many miles to the north. First and Third Platoon patrolled the northern sectors and their GIs said there was a little market in Bingo with pussy to be had for cash. We always passed by Andy Capp on our way out to our
patrol sectors but there was nothing there. The slopes were afraid of us and would disappear before we ever got close enough for a good look at them. The last LT had ignored the village. Jesus, however, wanted a parlay with the village chief but could never find him.
On my first patrol First Sergeant placed me with Cpl. Johnson one of the oldsters who kept on my ass. “Get yo’ eyes up off the ground, dammit. You gotta check out the horizon, always be ready for a signal from point or Fuss Sergeant.” “
I’m lookin’ for trip wires and snakes.”
“Fuck trip wires and fuck them snakes too. Trip wires and snakes is for them assholes up front. Don’ be worryin’ none ‘bout no trip wires and snakes. Now shut yo mouf, Pixie and pay’tenshun.” That’s what he called me, Pixie, and this went around and soon enough Pixie was my name. It beat Pee Wee or Shrimp or Cookie back in high school. Yeah, with the Clydes I was Pixie. My name was the most memorable thing to come out of my first patrol.
On my next patrol the Clydes set an ambush for a column of VC that had been spotted from the air. Just before we left in the still dark early morning First Sergeant went over each position and made sure the new guys understood hand signals. In addition to my pack I carried two extra barrels for the M60s. Our coordinates were ten clicks through thick foliage hot as hell and so humid we were like spiders crawling under a hot, wet dishrag. I did not complain. I wanted Cpl. Johnson and First Sergeant to know I was a soldier and not a pussy. As we set the cross-fire positions with the two M60s, First Sergeant and Jesus checked out each man, his weapon, his instructions, and in an OD ditty bag First Sergeant collected every cigarette in the Platoon.
“Ain’t gonna be no noise, ain’t gonna be no movement, and ain’t gonna be no smoke ‘til this here party is done and over. Now snug into your concealed positions, ladies, and wait.”
It was only an hour but it felt like three or four hours of waiting, wanting to scratch an itch, or swat legions of bugs. But we all did what Cpl. Johnson called assholein’.
“Jist tighten up yo’ asshole ever’ few minutes,” Cpl Johnson whispered, “Flex the muscles in yo’ legs. Wiggle yo’ toes. Thass assholein’, Keep you from stiffin’.“
The ambush popped just after noon. The column had come trotting along the river to the ford where we had positioned a deadly crossfire. It was over in less than two minutes. The sun was directly overhead and I remember sunbeams reflecting off the running water so bright they hurt my eyes as we crept out of the thick green foliage like deer. Up ahead I heard the popping of First Sergeant’s .45 dispatching the wounded on to their next reincarnations.
The only dead body I’d ever seen had been at my granddad’s viewing. The dead along the creek were different, mostly small, young, and skinny like me and sprawled out in the water and along the banks, in black pajamas all chewed up by the 7.62 rounds. Even though they were fresh dead the flies knew; they knew right away and it was ugly to see the heavy iridescent green flies on eyes, noses, and crawling into open mouths as we smoked our cigarettes while we searched bodies ostensibly for papers for G2 but also for loot. I looked until I found the smallest VC, smaller by inches than me. He had been one of the wounded. First Sergeant had shot the back of his head with the .45. The slug had crushed his skull and blown off much of his face. I could not tell what he looked like or his expression when he died, though I imagined his face to be young and pretty. His hands were elegant which made me think he may have been a musician or an artist. Had he spent afternoons in his parents’ house in Saigon or Hue practicing piano? Violin? Had he a girlfriend? Buddies? I imagined his mother weeping at the piano or before a violin placed behind votive candles with his picture. His pack contained only a half eaten rice ball and three mortar rounds, nothing personal. The few rings and watches among the other dead, any little souvenir easily carried, disappeared pronto. I took nothing as it would be like stealing something from church. Most of what the VC carried was ammo and balls of sticky rice wrapped up in leaves. And sadly, snapshots. A heavy, dark blue yet vaguely sacred, sweet melancholy came onto me.
We had to hurry to make it back before dark so we collected their weapons and ammo leaving the enemy dead to the green and blue flies and night critters. The Clydes were pumped up by the success of the ambush. At chow Cpl Johnson told Cobb and Price, “Pixie got blood on his boots. Now he a warrior,” and laughed. I had not fired my rifle; the M60’s had done it all, but blood on the boots? Yes, there was blood on my boots. “Hey, you earned yo’ $65 combat pay today, Pixie.”
Presence at the successful combat confirmed my status as a true Clyde. I hadn’t freaked or pissed all over myself and they had conferred upon me my tribal name. We were all in this together; we killers. “Clydes: 12–Gooks: 0” someone had chalked on the latrine. My skin was Army but inside I reckoned myself a pussy. I’d seen enough slopes to know how small they were but death diminished them further and it ate at me that the Clydes, so large, in their gloating ignored this distinction in size. It was David and Goliath but with Goliath winning. The image of my own dead little Charlie, the musician, persisted. What had those in his patrol called him? This I kept to my pussy self.
Cpl Hale our Radio Operator was the largest Clyde by weight. He was called “Heavy,” He was very funny and I liked him well enough but I did not like to sit across from him or his buddy Deeter at chow. Both were voracious eaters and the pair had this gross out trick they’d pull when they wanted to beg desserts. They’d open wide their mouths full of chewed food then talk in funny voices to each other. It was disgusting. I estimated Cpl Hale easily more than twice my weight. On patrol he carried a .45 but he had to link two web belts together to get the pistol belt around his girth.
When my first night patrol was assigned we drew a new sector that had been reconnoitered only from the air. With four patrols behind I was no longer a new guy but I still harbored a fear of trip wires and snakes. We’d seen both during the day. On that first night patrol the Clydes found a lean-to with a long wire antenna rig but no enemy. The next night we drew a search and destroy patrol. Cpl Hale carried a receiver that could scan for Charlie’s signals and give us an idea of proximity but not direction. Near the site of the long wire discovery a signal was picked up and First Sergeant put pairs in a spiraling circular search mode. A light rain had bought out the ponchos. My partner Deeter, one of the old hands near the end of his second tour, slipped in mud losing his balance, sliding quickly down the muddy trail into the punji pit. His screams brought in all the Clydes. The pit was shallow and smelled of the fresh human shit Charlie had pitched upon the stakes. Extracting him was difficult. One fire hardened, sharpened bamboo stake pierced Deeter’s thigh another clear though his lower back came out through his navel. First Sergeant and our medic rigged straps from all our web belts to lift him. He never quit the noise. The heels of his boots dug in as he arched his back to scream while the doc hovered over the wounds. First Sergeant clapped his hand over Deeter’s mouth until doc passed him a bandage pack that he shoved into his mouth to silence him, but Deeter didn’t last long. Doc said his kidney had probably been pierced and he’d most likely bled to death.
First Sergeant turned and barked orders. “Stinson, Johnson, set up a perimeter, hurry. I want the M60s pointed the way we come and over this way. Hurry godammit. Lock and load, ladies. Let’s circle the wagons. Everyone in position.“
So we waited assholin’ the rest of the night expecting an attack which never came. Waiting for an attack I felt like a true soldier, though I’d fired my weapon not once in combat.
At first light we carried Deeter back wrapped in his poncho through the wet jungle. We all took turns with the improvised stretcher. Death did not seem to diminish Deeter’s body. Maybe this was because I could not see the corpse under the poncho. There were no flies, none of the sweet sorrow that I had felt at the ambush at the ford. Dead Deeter was just Deeter whom I knew as someone with bad acne from Philadelphia. This lack of sentiment caused me to feel guilty so I tried to imagine Deeter’s world as I had my little VC musician’s but the images were ugly. Deeter with his deck of porno playing cards. Deeter the time we were in the deuce and a half when he threw empty beer cans at the mama-san on a bicycle. Deeter talking loud with his mouth full of food. I felt worse for such disrespect for the dead, and a dead Clyde at that.
Luther Stinson, another private, and I became buddies. Like me he was a slender boy from Arkansas but he was very tall and he was black. He had an economy of motion which set him apart from the rest of the Clydes to whom quietude, unless on patrol, seemed an anathema. He said we were like jumpin’ puppies in a box always squirming and yapping. He was a first rate carpenter and mechanic too. He could fix just about anything. This and his easy going manner gained him a universal popularity. He had a little chess set which folded up and nightly we would play one game after chow. We were evenly matched and the games gave us much pleasure. He planned to finish school then teach math in some small high school. “I’m here for the GI Bill, that’s all, man. How ‘bout you? What you want to do?” He laughed when told him I’d stay in the Army, but then said, “That’s good, very good, Pixie.” I did not know why he thought so, but his approval pleased me. He had a little Vietnamese language book he studied and sometimes sat to practice speaking with the mama-sans that cleaned our hootches. One of them, Co An, he had become sweet on.
“Ever wonder why the girls always laugh when Cpl Hale goes by? In Vietnamese his name sounds like their word for pig. Cpl Pig, can you dig it?”
Night watches were stood from a sandbagged 12’ tower with a search light that overlooked Calvary’s perimeter that was protected by coils of concertina wire with beer cans dangling throughout the entire circuit. The tower was a two man post. One soldier on the mounted M60 or an M79 while the other worked the search light and was free to crank the siren. I liked the four hour night watch because it was quiet. About the only disturbance came from wild pigs that sometimes rooted our garbage dump. You knew it wasn’t Charlie on account of the racket the pigs made. Stinson and I drew our watches together and we stood the midnight to four watch. Half-way through, at 2AM we’d share a box of C-Rats and a joint. Stinson had a girlfriend who sent him rolled joints in a little harmonica case. Later there was all manner of home grown in country but 1966 was early on. Most everybody including the NCO’s were down with pot. First Sergeant knew it was all over the place; he knew everything, but I don’t remember him ever addressing it as an issue. Cpl Johnson said First Sergeant never drank but liked his smoke. Smoke was kept far and wide from Jesus who was hell on all manner of sin. Those long free nights in the watch tower brought Stinson and me together. Some nights our low quiet talked filled the whole four hours other nights we barely spoke, but we drew together as men at war will. As he learned more of the language he had begun speaking with the Andy Capp men we had employed to dig, empty the latrines, and haul water. These laborers ate their lunches in the shade of a mango tree and Stinson would often for practice join them, squatting back on his heels in their fashion chattering away like a monkey. One day Jesus saw Stinson give two D cell flashlight batteries to one of these men and the lieutenant called him over behind the bunker to chew ass. I happened to have been down in the bunker and heard them. Jesus knew that Stinson enjoyed much prestige so the ass chew was pedantic rather than his usual shave tail imitation DI bullshit.
“Stinson, I’m sure you know that these batteries can be used to detonate a mine, huh?
“Why, yes sir.”
“Then how do you know, soldier, that your ”friends” over there aren’t VC or at least VC sympathizers?”
“Lieutenant, Ong Hua there, he’s their boss, he can’t get batteries for Andy Capp’s one flashlight. I reckon every flashlight battery in country goes to the ARVANs”.
“Andy Capp is neither here nor there, soldier. I see anything like this again, I’ll have you up on charges. You understand?”
That night on watch he told me that Andy Capp had one flashlight that hung from a ring on a post so that villagers using the privy at night could use it on the path. The year before a woman had been snake bit at night.
“No use tryin’ to explain. Jesus means well but he’s got his head up his ass like most these yoyos. He hates these folks because he’s afraid of ‘em. I understand that. It’s one fucked up situation, Pixie, one super duper fuck story. “
“You gotta admit, he’s got a point. I mean about the batteries findin’ their way to the VC.”
“So what? You know what’s really wrong here, Pixie? Humanity, kindness, compassion, decency are all covered up by this shit bag, fuck story of a war. These little people just tryin’ to fill their rice bowls get shoved around and shit on day after day. First they got the fuckin’ VC comin’ round collectin’ taxes, carryin’ their boys off. Then here we come –big hairy fuckers with helicopters and airplanes tellin’ ‘em what they can and can’t do. Makin’ ‘em move outta their ancestral villages. For what? So we can have a clear line of fire? At least the VC are their own kind. These poor people are fucked comin’ and goin’. Shit, to them we’re probably no better than the Japs were. And now here we go bombing rice paddies, and bridges, and even talkin’ ‘bout bombin’ Hanoi up north. Hanoi for chrissakes, that’s a fuckin’ city, Pixie, a city filled with civilians, women, little babies. For what? Jesus gets pissed ‘cause the Andy Capps won’t talk to him. Hey Sherlock, ever think maybe they just might hate us. Oh fuck no, you can’t hate Americans. No, no, no, we’re over here to save you, that’s how come we burn your villages and make you relocate and fuck your daughters for $4.00.
“I reckon it’s the Communists’ fault, Stinson. They started it. They take Viet Nam then what?”Cambodia, Singapore, Australia? We can’t have that, buddy. We gotta save these people from communism.”
“So whose gonna save us from capitalism? You ever thought of that? communism, capitalism, socialism….fuck all isms, they are all a fuck story. Hows about at shit load of decency-ism, respect-ism, leave-us-the-fuck-alone-ism?
We don’t gotta save nobody but ourselves. Ourselves, Pixie, ourselves.”
That fat assed fuckin’ Kissinger is over there in Paris cluck-cluckin’ ‘n crowing about whether the peace talks table is gonna be round or a rectangle while we spew napalm and high fucking explosives all over little people north, south, east and west. Those fuckers don’t want to see this war end; war is profit. How many senators and congressmen and their power worshiping goddamm fairy aides you reckon hold stocks in Dow Chemical, Olin Matheson, or Montesano? They’re waxin’ fat, they are, while we’re bleedin’. Fuck’em, Pixie, fuck ‘em all. Now tell me we don’t have some real sorry ass atonement up ahead.”
“Well what would you do if you were in charge, Stinson?”
“That’s easy. First I’d call a cease fire, send all our troops home. Then I’d apologize to the Vietnamese and the rest of the world. Then I’d send a team of engineers to Andy Capp to install a generator and wire the village for electricity. Then I’d ram two D cells up Lieutenant Jesus’s ass then light me up one giant spliff. That’s what I’d do, Pixie.”
Going out on our next patrol Jesus told Stinson to roust the village chief at Andy Capp. But all the men, including the village chief, were back at Calvary that morning digging new mortar pits, only women remained in the village. An older woman with beetlenut stained teeth with whom Stinson tried to communicate refused to converse preferring to scream unintelligible invectives at Stinson and Jesus.
“If she isn’t a VC sympathizer, I’m a monkey’s uncle,” Jesus said.
On our way back in from patrol a one-shot-Charlie sniper put a slug into Cpl. Hale’s PRC76. Everyone heard Jesus tell First Sergeant that that woman had no doubt alerted the VC to our location. “First Sergeant, short of burning Andy Capp I want a lesson taught to those people. He ordered Cpl Hale to take out the village’s one water buffalo. To his credit Cpl Hale dropped the huge beast with one shot between the eyes.
I heard someone say,“Hamburger tonight, zipper heads.”
On my last patrol Cpl .Johnson’s boot met Bouncin’ Betty’s trip wire. Our medic called in the dust off chopper which carried me to the field hospital on the coast where surgeons took off my left leg below the knee, wired up my jaw, and sewed up the mess that was my scrotum. My left nut is still rolling around somewhere below Calvary.
Recovering from the amputation I was not only immobile but mute too. Shrapnel from Betty had smashed part of my jaw which the doctors had reconstructed. There I lay wired shut, confined to bed, and unable to communicate beyond grunts. As the morphine was stepped down to Darvon my head began to clear and the realization of the loss emerged, however the hot fog of pain occluded just about everything. I was locked within myself with no exit, concentration impossible. I conceived harsh images of the pain as glowing hot knots of cords where the leg had been. Every time the generators outside surged, bolts of pain shot through the knotted cords. Bizarre, vivid dreams repeated themselves and wracked sleep. My faceless dead VC boy plodded through the jungle, my leg in his pack and my testicle nestled deep in his wrapped rice ball. In another dream, carrying Deeter back to Calvary, his corpse became longer and heavier until we could not bear the weight. First Sergeant rigged our web belts into drag lines, 10 GIs to a line hauling the huge body tied within the poncho. At Calvary Cpl Johnson and the doc ran the bundled corpse through a sawmill which turned Deeter into stacks of 2X4s. These dreams have continued to visit me for 40 years.
My hoped-for army career ended at Valley Forge General Hospital in Pennsylvania with a prosthetic leg, a Purple Heart, and a bus ticket home to Arkansas where I have spent 35 years working for the United States Postal Service.
Stinson and I have remained friends. Stinson’s DD 214 will show that he left the service honorably having served a combat tour in Viet Nam and that he suffered no wounds, but I know better. He was different, unlike the rest of us Clydes who remained numb to the filthy politics of war, half-blind to the happenings around us, and impervious to the guilt we all bore. Stinson bore that guilt for us. After his discharge he began school in Missouri on the GI Bill. During his last semester he was arrested with half an ounce in a federal sting operation aimed at his supplier. It was an election year, filled with get tough on crime promises and my good friend Stinson, a black man, drew a ten years federal prison sentence, his hopes to teach crushed. He served four years at a federal minimum security prison 70 miles away where I was able to visit regularly. For a short while after his release he lived with my wife and me but eventually moved in with a woman who ran a boarding kennel. By the time that relationship went south, Stinson’s period of parole was up. He signed up with a mining company that sent him overseas to far away Western Indonesia. His letters were beautifully written. For the first year he lived in a Conex box and worked a hydraulic dredge mining gold and copper ores. Like the Vietnamese, he came to love the Melanesian people, dove into learning their language, and eventually he married a Melanesian. The day he discovered that Henry Kissinger was a major stock holder in the mining company, he walked off the job. Later that year I was questioned by the FBI who asked to see our correspondence. I burned Stinson’s beautiful letters rather than hand them over. He had involved himself in his people’s independence movement against Indonesia and once again found himself on the wrong side of American foreign policy. He has disappeared with his wife’s people deep into the bush. Daily I think of Stinson and am reminded how small a person I am.
© Gary Ives
first published in “Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors, Volume 2″, November 2013 Southeast Missouri State University Press in cooperation with the Missouri Humanities Council and the Warriors Arts Alliance.