So poets, mystics of
the bruising thing
climb up bloody concretes
to leave nailed high
white pieces of themselves.
— Vassar Miller
Being unready and ill-equipped is what you have to expect . . . It is the universal predicament. It is your lot as a human being to lack what it takes. Circumstances are seldom right. You never have the capacities, the strength, the wisdom, the virtue you ought to have. You must always make do with less than you need in a situation vastly different from what you would have chosen as appropriate for your special endowments.
— Charlton Ogburn, Jr.
No word he understood. Brother Owen droned on and his hand on Josiah’s forehead. His other hand in the small of Josiah’s back. They both stood in water and on the preacher it was waist deep. On Josiah it came between his navel and his breastbone. The preacher, Brother Owen, was praying—prayed fiercely to some point not in the corner but beyond it, not at the brown waterstain on the stuccoed wall but through it, and Josiah was unsure where was that place he prayed to, but knew it was not here. Where might it be? This place it was not.
The front of this place opened in an arch and past that first the gated sanctuary with its heavy pulpit and then the whole church full with people Josiah knew. They were singing. Rock of Ages it was. Above this Josiah knew there was a huge wooden cross bolted to the wall, but he could not see it from
there, though he did know of it. They were in a sunken place and it had a drain like a bathtub and on the wall out of sight of the congregation a fixture just like a bathtub also. The rubber stopper in the drain was secured to a staple with a chain like small silver beads. The preacher prayed and then suddenly Josiah was under the water.
He tried not to thrash. The water was murky but he saw the dark pillars of the preacher’s legs and then he was out of the water looking into Brother Owen’s placid face. It prayed. Then he was in the water again and sputtered with it, and now he did thrash but out of it again he came coughing and sucked in a breath. And he was in it again and out of it again and the congregation sang. He heard his mother’s voice. He heard Brother Owen. They were climbing out of the font and he found himself in a small room where waited a change of clothes. He wondered at the manner of thing he had just done and indeed, he knew many of the words that were attached to it. It seemed to him that something ought to be different now but nothing was different. He knew nothing was changed with all the certainty that he also knew he had just lost, though he did not know even that, not yet. He might go out among the people and they might be amazed at his youth in having decided on just this thing, but that would not make a change, though he would be pleased at the kudos, the admiration. He was eight, and approval was a thing he loved when he was eight. Of the things he loved, that only he could name, and naming it somehow he lost it, and at that in the very moment when he should have gained it, and more besides. Whose approval was it he sought? Finally he could not name that and so, all lost, was lost indeed.
Because he suspected already—more than suspected—that nothing was different really; that nothing had changed; and though he did go out, and the people were indeed amazed, the days and weeks and months and years to come bore out this suspicion. He thought of it later on, much older than the eight he was then, as his first experience of farce. But he would think of Brother Owen’s earnest face, and the gravity of his talks with the man, and his own blithe hypocrisy in mouthing back to him formulaic chapter and verse- -just what Brother Owen wanted to hear—made him both sad, and ashamed. He ought not have expected choirs of angels, and perhaps he did not—not exactly. But he did expect some difference, and of hat there was nothing either. He had discovered, he thought, that shed blood meant so little, after all. He did not yet know that most things come in for a reevaluation, soon or late. This he would learn, by and by. We all do, don’t we? Of course we do.
He would think of that stucco church and the heat of it in summer when he felt another heat. Heats there are in all sorts and this one was like a hothouse, a wet heat, in the thick forests marching up and down the hills that might be giants, sleeping. What bloom would we force here? He wondered. It was his place to hump the radio and hump it he did, up and down, and when the L-T called for him up he went, because this particular L-T was fond of certain types of heat that Josiah himself would have as soon avoided, had he the choice, which he had not, and the radio was his job. He had had no choice since the summons came, fresh after high school. Yet he chose to do that: his job. Josiah was not college material, and he knew it, and supposed at first it was just as well—working for Convair didn’t appeal particularly either, at the time. Now (gazing perhaps upward at the blue blue where coursed just such airplanes as he might have built, had he listened to his father) he thought building airplanes might not be so very bad a job after all. He thought that particularly often, after the new L-T came.
"That motherfucker is determined to have himself a medal," Paddy said one day. "He’ll rotate out," said Barr. "Two weeks, you watch, the mother fucker’ll miss his AC and his mamasan so bad he’ll be begging his way out of here. Show me the Great Tit, and I shall feed therefrom. He’ll be sucking off skytwo on a daily fucking basis. Powder his feet. Bring him the fucking papers."
"He’s gonna get us all killed," Paddy said. "He learnt all about how to do it at fucking West Point. They got a class there called How to Kill Your Troops Singly and In Number."
"He’ll rotate," Barr said.
"Not him," Josiah said, "He thinks he’s John fucking Wayne. He thinks he can win this fucking thing single fucking handed. Sands of Iwo fucking Jima docha know."
"Fighting fucking Seabees," said Paddy.
"A by God Green fucking Beret," said Barr. They all laughed.
"Well whadda we do about the motherfucker?"
"Whaddaya mean?" Top walked past. He was checking everybody out for the next hump. That was his job. Paddy watched him go past with cold eyes.
"He’ll fight to the last drop of your blood," said Paddy, climbing to his feet, "Later."
Josiah thought the mud never changed. It was always the same mud. He visioned small yellow men humping bags of mud on their thin backs, perhaps on bicycles, pedaling furiously to stay ahead of the platoon and dump their bags, then waiting for the platoon to pass and furiously shoveling up the mud again and racing ahead—teams maybe, in relays, pedaling along with all the intensity of an Olympiad—to dump it afresh on whatever trail they traversed, whatever fastness of jungle they struggled through, that always there be mud to interdict their way. It never changed. In his months in country the character of the thing had changed, though. There had been a great deal of nastiness shortly after his midpoint—fireworks, vast drumbeats plowing holes in the earth, gunships unloading into the bush, waves of them, spent cartridges flung smoking in mounds to the steaming earth, the thwok-thwok of bullets impacting a tree trunk, more fireworks, happy Fourth of July. After that time, of their former opponents they saw little, the little dead men in black clothes and B.F. Goodrich sandals, Victor Charlie, esquire, a statement in sartorial elegance, the year’s latest. Now most of the dead wore khaki—when they did not wear olive drab—and pith helmets of soft, squashed khaki jungle hats, and they—Victor Charles you see—seemed (those he did not see—those who were still alive) intent indeed on the business they sought to transact, involving a debit against an account very dear to Josiah. Not to say their predecessors had not entertained a like ambition, but these people were obsessed. And he was getting short. It sucked.
They left the coast in the morning and the choppers rose almost straight up until they broke through the clouds, and then the noses dipped and they set off and the cloudscape raced by beneath them like a world made of cotton. It was a pure world, and it had its special pleasures. Josiah and Paddy and Barr with the rest luxuriated in the cool of the air, shot the shit, snacked a little. Josiah and Barr split a pound cake. It was good. At one point it seemed to Josiah the choppers were circling. He looked out and down and saw a break in the clouds and through it far below a valley in the midst of what appeared gently sloped greenness though he knew the slopes would not be humped so gently if the time came to hump them. The pilots saw the rift, too, and they moved toward and through it and the mist thickened and then it vanished and out of the green below a sudden onslaught erupted, an abrupt tumult of smoke and noise, and they were surrounded by puffs of white smoke that seemed harmless though of course harmless they were not. In the chopper they all gathered up equipment, shrugged on flak jackets or helmets they had been sitting on, squatted clinging one-handed to netting and the tension ratcheted up almost audibly as the chopper dropped down through the flak. Josiah saw a "Y" where two roads met, one dirt one paved. The paved one to the left he knew was rouge 547; that to the right 547A. Then the chopper touched lightly the earth and they all tumbled out and ran and bellyflopped in the grass and Top was telling somewhere and the roar of the Huey pulling straight out over the treeline and the thud-thud-thud of its doorguns and then he heard the L-T calling and he wormed over though the grass and handed him the handset of the radio.
"The LZ is cold, repeat, the LZ is cold", the L-T spoke into the receiver. It was then that Josiah heard smallarms fire—AK47s—to the front, to the left. There was a ripping sound, a burst from a machine-gun. "RPK," Josiah murmured to the L-T. The L-T heard it, too. "Wait one," he said, and listened. Josiah saw Paddy hunkered in the grass. He caught his eye. Paddy smirked. They heard 16s and 14s reply, and then an M60 chattered, and finally the cough of an M79 and the thumping burst of the grenade. The firing swelled. The L-T muttered, "Well, fuck me running," and spoke again into the radio. They were in the A Shau.
A battalion stayed behind at the LZ and Josiah moved with the other that was his own down 547A and the opposition, they never saw. The faceless northern horde brought them under fire, swiftly fading back into the bush after a quick bloody nose. They moved down the route past lounging wounded and the neat clusters of dead in body bags, and small ocher mounds of dirt where a grenade had dug a small crater sometimes still smoking thinly into the hot air. "You watch," said Paddy, "That fucker will have us on point before it’s over."
"At least the little dink bastards ain’t got mortars," Barr said.
"Yet," Josiah said.
At night the L-T sat under his poncho, a mute plastic pagoda regarding at ease the teeming dark. In the fading light of the evenings he read one of his small horde of books. He seemed to sleep very little. The man loved books. Josiah couldn’t fathom it. "Where’s he think he’s at?" he asked Barr. "A fucking library someplace?"
"Try it sometime, Joeboy," said Barr.
"I’d ruther watch TV, thanks."
"So go watch it. The Beverly fucking Hillbillies oughta be right the fuck up your alley."
"Fuck you back."
"The only pussy you fuckers are apt to see for awhile is your strong right arm," Paddy said. Barr and Josiah together chorused, "Fuck you." It seemed the thing to say. The day would come soon enough that they rotated to point, and come it did. But that is what a day is apt to do. The clouds would be gone when that day came. When that day came, it would be hot and bright instead of hot and overcast.
But even before that, as if to show that there still existed no shortage of tender attention to be had from their khaki-clad accrouchers, they drew some fire one time in a midday bivouac. Sitting there minding their own business and suddenly the fire crackles, and the earth spits up little gouts of dust and they all looked around like men shocked even unto their very own easy chair, in front of their very own TV. A row of such minuscule turbulence rattled past bout four inches from Josiah’s bare foot, and he rolled smoothly into the lee of a stone perhaps life from someone’s old campfire, and he looked across it while pulling on his boots at two men seated on a pile of baggage and one, the black one, raised an M60 and feeding the belt with one hand fired with the other and Josiah marveled at his strength and his steadiness even as he wondered why he did not seek cover. The white guy seated next to him sat with his 16 pointed in the air, a can with its plastic spoon before him jarringly prosaic, and his one hand wiped at his face and he seemed stunned and the black guy firing and the crackle out of the brush and people diving and rolling and sporadically returning the fire, an increasing counter-crescendo of response, and the steady drumbeat staccato of the M60 and the white guy motionless with his face in his hand and his blonde hair white in the filtered sunlight and he sat as though he sat some beach, somewhere—perhaps California—and pondered at the surf before plunging into it, and the black guy fired steadily until suddenly he seemed to gasp in astonishment and he stood. The red blood, wrenchingly bright, spilled down his front and he stepped right across the other man, in a single stride, a wide lurching step, and he stood a moment on his scissored legs, his piece silent now, the belt dangling from the receiver at his waist like a rosary blessed to some outrageous God, looking down at the blood that poured forth from him like water and the piece slid from his hands and his empty hands went out, supplicating or blessing the earth about to receive him, it mattered little which, and he toppled over the blonde man finally rolled backwards and popped up behind a log and fired into the bush, fired at last, sent forth his own benison into that faceless efficiency that spat its message out of the bush only to vanish posthaste, a visitation come and gone in brief and lethal conversance with what it was they offered, though Josiah could not have named it, knew not what it was he offered here in lieu of whatever it was they offer, and as always the silent moment following the cries of Cease Fire occasioned in him a moment of mute sorrow, and of shame.
In the night Spooky hovered in the sky like an angel bent on vengeance. At dusk they had fired out of the perimeter into the bush, every piece in the battalion unloading all at once into the unseemly dark as if they would teach it manners. Maybe there was something there besides jungle, and maybe not. And now fire rained from the dark sky thence into that same blackness. The sound was like a sustained and spectacular belch. It curved in a long glowing arc, subject to gravity after all, and Spooky tipped sidewise from the heat of its own pronouncement and the firing stopped and they heard it bank around for another pass that must be its last. Spooky was a profligate angel and its word soon spent. Josiah sat with the L-T and watched it track through the sky on its last pass. Its wrath flailed the dark but ceased at length. The L-T’s eyes were hooded in his face and his mouth moved unseen in all that dark and the words spilled into the dark and the dark took little note of them, though Josiah heard.
"You’ll be going back to Texas soon, huh, Joe?"
"You got a girl?"
"That’s a good thing."
"Yessir it is."
"You like Texas?"
"Love it, sir. It’s home."
"Home has a name. It’s a good thing, huh? Gives it a handle."
Josiah answered not but sat in the dark. He was uncomfortable. Soon enough there was a little sleep and then there was daylight and they moved through the bush and this was the day. Barr walked point of their point. He stepped gingerly like a man walking on nails. They had spoken that morning, Barr and Josiah and Paddy, and now Josiah too felt a tension and he remembered what had been said.
"It’s him or us," Paddy hissed.
"He ain’t so bad of a guy," Josiah said, "I don’t want to do this."
"Son of a bitch. You can keep your fucking mouth the fuck shut can’t you?"
Barr said, "Take it easy, Pat. Take it easy." Barr after all had himself drawn point.
"We gotta off the bastard. We gotta light up his ass or ours is gonna be."
From ahead there was firing and then the crump of an RPG. Josiah and the L-T jogging down the trail. Around the bend and Barr sprawled where the road widened into a clearing in a widening pool of blood, one leg kicking frantically in the ochre dust and the other lay in its own small pool some distance away. Smoke rose from the small crater the RPG had made. From the bush a series of deep coughs they might have heard, or might have not, and then the earth blossomed richly into strange and terrible flowers of dust and of flame and the air was alive with whizzing metal. The L-T dove and rolled behind a cluster of trees and he shouted back to the platoon, "Spread out! Speard out!" Two RPKs opened a crossfire into the clearing and the troops spread left and right and some tumbled amidst the abrupt gouts of earth plowed by the bullets; they spread out into a firing line and the unseen mortars dropped round after round along the roadway and left behind some few twitching bundles of rag and bone and now the platoon opened a fire into the treeline and the L-T ran crouched with Josiah shadowing him, scuttling all along the line and he paused here and there, "Fire left. Yeah. Right there." And paused again further along telling another to cross the fire to where he thought the opposition lay. The mortars had stopped. Josiah knew they were adjusting the fire and a single round burst behind and shortly after another nearer the line but further down and he knew then that they were being bracketed.
"Gimme that," the L-T barked and snatched the handset off Josiah’s back. A map was in his other hand and he read off coordinates and presently Josiah heard the voice in the radio, "Freddy is ready, over."
"Round to adjust, over."
Mortar rounds burst along the firing line and Josiah and the L-T curled into balls behind the trees. Josiah grappled his helmet as if he would be pushed bodily and entire up into it and his bladder let go and he was drenched with urine and that not the first nor yet he feared last time and more rounds burst around them, a twitter of shell fragments weeping through the humid air, and moved on. Overhead a crackling whoosh and an enormous explosion burst near the treeline, dwarfing those of the mortars, rattling Josiah’s teeth, shaking the earth in its bones: the soil quivered, almost liquid in the tumult, like a live thing, and Josiah heard the L-T: "Fifty yards east, fifty yards east." A pause. The mortars burst among them and the firing into and out of the treeline seemed to swell to a higher pitch than ever. Another passage in the air and a shellburst in the treeline huge it was and the trees rippled away from it where they did not disappear, where they did not loft high into the air, where they were not incinerated absolutely. The L-T was speaking into the handset again: "Fire for effect, fire for effect. Fire goddammit fire!" The air overhead quailed with the passages through it, a lethal flock swooping in like raptors, a shriek and a shock of velocity, and then along and within the treeline a whole section of forest disintegrated and the earth flinched away once more from the fury that it was and Josiah clung to its shivering, outraged flesh and waited for the cataclysm to pass. And then the silence that followed seemed absolute, but that was only by comparison. Odd bursts of fire down the line and Top’s voice shouting, "Cease fire! Cease fire!"
"They’ve pulled out again," the L-T muttered. Along the firing line men looked around, stunned, mute, dropping empty clips and slaping in full ones only to look around again, as if they sought some explanation. None was forthcoming. A medic worked frantically in the middle of the road, others yonder and thence, bending over those bundles that sometimes flailed weakly with a hand that seemed no part of them, sometimes moved not at all. The L-T dropped the handset into Josiah’s hands and said, "Get a dustoff. Fast." He strode away down the road toward the medics. He walked past somebody’s arm lying palm up with the fingers curled as if it reached, and reached—after what? Whatever that might have been it never would be had, and Josiah did not know anyway, nor can you tell him. It would have been a good thing if you could have told him something, anything, but you were not there, nor I. Josiah got on the horn and he called in the dustoff and men moved cautiously in the cordite and burnt wood stench of the treeline searching for bodies and equipment and indeed, they did find not a few of each.
They came past a gutted and shattered Huey not much later in that same day, festooned in a tree, and the body of a crewman hung in the shards of Plexiglas like exotic drapery; two survivors were huddled by the road and a medic ministered unto them and one of them trembled so you could hear his teeth rattle and the L-T stopped and spoke with the medic to be assured that a dustoff was on the way, and the man still in the fuselage—or the leavings of a man—dangled above the L-T with his guts spilled over the airframe like sausage and his mouth was open in the rictus of a scream fled long since out of all hearing. The men filed past with only the odd glance. The chopper fell behind them and out of their ken was out of mind and Josiah’s platoon was no longer on point. They walked through the day, spreading out occasionally to run a clearing line through the bush, stopping when the point got jitters, moving on and moving on down the red dirt road.
"How long we been here?" Paddy asked that night. "Awhile," Josiah said," A week. More. Two weeks. Tomorrow maybe—" and he paused, staring at Paddy’s grim face, and then he cried out, as if he had been wronged somehow, "How the fuck should I know?"
"We gotta get that SOB," Paddy snarled.
"Why?" Paddy looked at him and scowled so fiercely Josiah wondered if he were not insane. Josiah scowled himself.
"No," he said and, "Why?" and pressed on, "Why? I mean, why? We rotated on and we rotated off. The L-T does OK in a firefight. What the fuck do you want?"
Paddy’s hands twisted on the stock of his rifle and he hissed, "Because I want the motherfucker dead." Josiah stared at him and saw Barr again in the dust of 547A with his one leg twitching and his other leg, gone. Something there was, that was in that, but he could not, he would not hold the thought and he felt his bowels clench and he stood without a word and walked away and left Paddy clenching his rifle, hissing in his teeth at the leafmold, where Barr was not, nor Josiah either, nor even himself, through perhaps he read there particulars of the L-T’s death, if not of his own, and no doubt, both in time would come. The Air Cav was to meet them at the midpoint of 547A. the Air Cav was coming up from 548, having passed through A Luoi before turning Northeast down 547A and at nightfall now they could hear them popping off from their perimeters just at dusk, a mad minute in a mad day in a mad week. South lay Ta Bat and further down 548 beyond it the hamlet of A Shau and none of these would Josiah ever see. They had linked with elements of the three-two-seventh and the ARVN 6th. They set up a block and awaited the Air Cav. Josiah left his radio at platoon CP and walked the camp. He pondered.
There in a glade in the forest was a pool that was the bottom of a shellhole, and the light streamed thought the stripped and ravaged trees in oblique misty shafts and he sat on the bank of the shellhole gazing down into the pool and the waters there were still. He looked into the waters and he pondered what change had taken Paddy and made of him a person other entire than his friend and that one, some person Josiah liked not at all. He pondered Barr, who was not at all, but he had no leisure for the grief he carried, and that was, as it may be, the demand of a moment. He thought of the L-T and his books, of his minor mistake at the LZ that seemed so distant now in space as in time, and of his deft handling of the platoon in the big firefight. He pondered all and gazed into the waters that were still and no answer came to him as no angel to Mons and he could not name the thing that was in him and when he realized he had lost count of his days remaining in country it gave him a start. To lose such a thing. And such thing as that, to lose. It would be a month by now, less possibly, a matter of weeks, and the feeling provoked thereby he could not name wither and lost in the clear pristine globe of not feeling that had become himself he realized suddenly that home—the great PX—the fucking world—was less a thing he valued and more a thing that he wanted because it was there to want. Whatever thing it had been that he reached for in that font so long ago that had fled from him, too, was like that lost entire, burned out and bled out and no summoning to witch it back. And that made him wonder what else it was he had lost, and the water that he gazed upon was tell, and no rill or ripple troubled it.
Nor any hand that blessed or blustered, nor any loss or gain, nor anything that had a name, or that did not. In the fading light he knew he must return, and he knew that he would do that, and of all that he did not know, of days and weeks not yet, knowing that was sufficient to his need. The need of a moment, and the moment, after all, was all there was.