Toward the end of the monsoon, after humping the green-roofed mountains and the elephant-grass hills southwest of Hué so long that they’d become my home, I got a rear job. There was an opening in the security platoon at Eagle Beach: I’d finish my tour of duty there. This was a lucky break, since the Army could just as well have made me a clerk in muddy Phu Bai, the rear area of my battalion.
For a grunt a rear job meant a chance to coast to that magical day when the plaintive song about leaving on a jet plane was reversed. It meant clean fatigues, hot meals, almost enough sleep. It meant music—not just AFVN but your own tapes on a cassette player or the big sound of an eight-track at the EM club. It meant cold beer for fifteen cents in flimsy military scrip that was useless out in the bush. Above all it meant safety—safety from tripwires, snipers, ambushes, friendly fire, cobras and tigers that we never saw but feared like the night, and red-ball trails and blind-bend streams. Safety was what I took for granted when I arrived at Eagle Beach. On a barrier island facing the South China Sea, it was the rear of the rear, an outpost between the war and the World.
The Chinook lumbered up, its rotor wash swirling grit and drizzle as it angled into the sunken February sky. I stepped off the steel-plank pad onto an unpaved sandy road. A spec 4 wearing a half-zipped field jacket asked if I was the new guy from the 502nd. He hoisted the red nylon mailbag. Like me, he wore on his left shoulder a black-and-white Screaming Eagle patch. In the chilly salt air we trudged along tire tracks toward the compound, away from a green-stippled village in the other direction.
“You're gonna like it here.” Murphy’s blue eyes sized me up from under ginger eyebrows. “All you do is pull guard at night. Once in a while it’s your turn for day guard, but pretty much you got the days to yourself.”
After passing through the recreation area, where drooping pines dripped onto a mini-golf course and yellow and green picnic tables, we reached the orderly room. The words THE HEAD SHED were painted in red above the doorway. “Pony Express,” Murphy said. He dropped his burden on a gray wood counter that enclosed the rear of the room. A sulky-looking PFC rose from his desk behind the counter. He snipped the bag’s wire lock and asked Murphy, “This the new guy?” I said, “Yeah, that’s me.” Murphy sat down at a table with three soldiers playing spades. After he’d sorted the mail, the private sauntered out, drawling, “I’ll go get the LT to sign you in.”
The screen door clicked. Murphy said, “You gotta watch out for Elliott. He'll screw you if you give him half a chance.”
One of the cardplayers said, “Yeah, he’s a prize-winning shit.” They began telling me about Elliott. He was the only guy in the platoon whose jacket lacked a slim rectangular chest patch, the Combat Infantry Badge, with a long-barreled musket threaded in black. His dad was a Texas oilman with buddies in Congress. That was the only way he could’ve landed a plum gig like this one, the fat fuck. Who wouldn’t want to glide through their tour as a clerk typist at Eagle Beach?
I’d been a soldier too long to be surprised when Elliott updated the guard roster to include me that night. But on the whole, life at the beach was easy—a release from the never-ending tests of an infantryman’s body and character. In the darkness, as I hunched in a wooden tower or on the roof of a sandbagged bunker, shivering and listening to the ocean, my periods of watch drifted by. After first light I’d join the others straggling back from their posts and eat a big breakfast in the cozy, good-smelling mess hall. Then, until our six p.m. formation, I was free to amuse myself.
After a few days this freedom got on my nerves. The dribbling, spitting clouds showed no sign of breaking, and we sheltered in our hootches or the EM club. The hootches were plywood A-frames set two feet above the ground, with screen windows and sandbag-weighted tin roofs on which the rain tapped. Except for Murphy’s, each one had a dozen thin mattresses on green frames and a dozen green wall lockers mottled with rust. Amoeba stains blurred the pinstripes of my funky mattress. I rested for hours, feeling more than thinking, while a rain smell wafted in through the screens. For the first time I had leisure to review my tour of duty from something like a distance. Memories burst in my brain like flares. Except for Co Pung Mountain, they cast a brief, unsteady light on the dark landscape below before going out. On Co Pung my best friend Matt got pinned by shrapnel to a mahogany tree because of me. He’d beckoned to follow him; I froze, he waited. He toppled dead on me when I pulled him free. Afterward, I surrendered my dream of capturing the war in a novel. Rather, the war captured me. I quit taking notes and lived in the moment except for imagining my return to Susan and the World.
Soon enough the present washed back over me. My fellow guards were short-timers, like me, who’d greeted with cynical pleasure the 101st Airborne Division’s caprice of bouncing them from the boonies to its in-country R&R center. We shared a loose comradeship. I fell into a routine of playing cards, listening to tapes and partying after dark in a tower or bunker. This got old fast, but two other distractions gave my posting at Eagle Beach the semblance of a happy coda. I discovered a little library near the chapel and threw myself into books, all kinds of books, like an opium smoker resupplied with his fix. Then a girl turned my head.
She spoke to me one morning on the boardwalk outside a shower hootch where two other girls crouched in half-light washing clothes.
“Where you go, GI?”
“You buy me two cig’rette?”
Her tone was nervous—not flirtatious, not even lightened by a smile of embarrassment. I was just another GI. Perhaps I might act on one of the Americans’ inscrutable impulses and do her the favor she hoped for. Not long ago I would have brushed her off—I’d been bitter since January when Susan sent me a Dear John—but the beach had mellowed me. I took her folded notes and used my ration card to buy two cartons of Salems at the dinky PX. The transaction, nonprofit on my part, was illegal. She wasn’t supposed to have scrip, and I wasn’t supposed to buy her goods to sell on the black market. Against the vast flame-and-smoke-colored backdrop of the war, however, who the fuck cared? Pleased to help you, miss. I was glad to feel more like my old self.
I forgot her. When we crossed paths again, her shy smile awoke me. I began stopping by the shower weekday mornings. Sparrowlike birds rustled among the dark green pines, setting off bursts of raindrops, while drooping branches and gutterless roof edges dripped around us. We talked until she had to go back to her washing. It was innocent. We weren’t even flirting. Besides, after losing Susan I no longer had a taste for romance. Yet Lan, whose name meant orchid, drew me.
My life slipped into a new rhythm. Past and future—the boonies and the World—faded. Before I knew it three weeks had gone by. The monsoon was ending. In the morning a heavy salt-scented mist covered the island, turning golden toward noon and disappearing as the sun burned through.
Just before the hot season transformed Eagle Beach into a grunt’s dream of heaven or haven, a buddy joined the security platoon. We ran into each other at formation and went to the EM club afterward. The club was almost deserted. The barmaids had tuned the radio behind the bar to a Vietnamese station, which was playing one of their strange, reedy, sad-sounding songs. Following us in, the sergeant who managed the club switched the radio to the American network: AFVN—music pow-pow-POWer!
“Well, here’s to us,” I said. “We made it through the Nam in one piece.”
“Yeah.” Bowman nodded with a bemused smile. He was slim and broad-shouldered, about six feet tall, with short black hair above a strong-featured face that was handsome except for his boxer’s slightly side-bent nose. He didn’t look anything like my idea of a Mormon.
I said, “I wondered about you last July, during the battle for Carentan. Later I heard you got off the hill safe. When the five-oh-sixth retreated.”
“We didn’t retreat. It was a strategic withdrawal. That’s what the lifers said afterward. Not that we had any choice with like twelve thousand NVA out there in the mountains. The mother-fletchers had us bracketed with mortars for three weeks.”
Bowman, who’d bought a Fanta, still didn’t drink or swear. In a line company most guys learned how to fit in fast because acceptance, even survival, depended on it. But early on, Bowman’s outfit must have recognized him as a kind of regular guy, masculine and athletic, whose quirks were harmless. His fake curse words pointed to his roots yet blocked any feeling of disquiet—the sort aroused by an outsider harboring an odd, morally exacting worldview. Anyhow, now he carried the cachet of a veteran of Firebase Carentan:
Carentan, oh Carentan,
Shells droppin’ down like rain,
The one thing you can count on,
You’ll never be the same...
I couldn’t recall the remainder of the song, which eight months after the battle nobody sang anymore. Anyway, Bowman appeared little changed from our trainee days at Fort Jackson. I wondered what—his faith?—had kept him more intact than me. My dog tag read Episc, but the God of Episcopalians hadn’t endowed me with savoir faire in the face of meat that lately had been my best friend, girls balling soldiers under the heavens as a mission unraveled, or the temptation of grass and speed and downers and vials of pure white heroin when we stood down at Phu Bai.
“How long before you go back to the World?” I asked.
“Oh, man, forever,” I teased. “I only got fifty-eight.”
He grinned, revealing teeth unstained by powdered coffee or the free cigarettes that logbirds delivered along with C-rats and ammo and mail.
“All those guys from Basic must be getting short now,” I said. “You ever bump into any of them?”
“Antwon. Antwon Toussant. He was in Bravo Company, too, till he became Black Spade’s RTO. The battalion commander.”
“I know! I ran into him at Evans last July. He told me about Carentan.”
“Yeah. Hardly saw him. The shelling kept our heads down the last two weeks, till the Black Widows lifted us off the hill. He got nominated for a Silver Star. For tryin’ to save Black Spade after a mortar round got him.”
“Silver Star. Bet Sergeant Carr would be proud.”
He laughed at the memory of our old drill sergeant.
“Remember Hayes? He was in my squad.”
“Purple Hayes! The coal miner. He got assigned to clerk-typist school. So Uncle Sam made a warrior out of him anyway. Where’s he now?”
“In a better place, I hope. Tripped a booby trap on a ridge near Carentan. Couple of daisy-chained 105s, judgin’ from the damage to my squad.”
“Just my heart. I should never’ve let him walk point.”
A dappled jungle trail, a crash, a billowing up into sunlight of smoke and debris. I heard, saw, smelled, yet couldn’t summon up any feeling for Hayes, a kid I’d lived with for nine weeks. The artillery rounds must have torn apart his skinny body. “Poor fucker,” I said, using a standard-issue phrase. I glanced out the propped-open double doors. In the sunset’s slanting light the sea glistened blue gray. A bulldozer squatted high on the beach, safe from the bubbly surf that a typhoon could whip into a surge like the one that had smashed the tennis court into jagged chunks. During the day a bearded Seabee had been leveling the sand for a new season of visiting combat troops. They’d arrive by chopper or ferry, play like kids, drink like frat boys and after three days return to the war’s vagaries on the mainland.
Next afternoon, as sergeant of the guard, Bowman had to check the two daytime positions. I picked up my rifle in the Head Shed and went along to keep him company. We marched down the sandy road toward a rusty fence, hedged with gleaming coils of concertina, stretching from the lagoon to the sea. Bunker 6 stood next to a gate in the wire. On top Murphy and Pierce slouched shirtless in the sunshine with their 16s resting, muzzles skyward, against the parapet of sandbags. We climbed up.
“Well, how do you like the place, Sarge?” Pierce asked. He leaned back on a frayed cane lounge chair that, scrounged from God knows where, had become the bunker's only portable furniture.
“Beats the field, that’s for sure.”
It was a stock reply to a stock question, reminding me how language and behavior had been waiting for us in Vietnam. A code steered us away from words or actions that might reveal a dissenting view or a tangle of conflicted feelings or terrifying memories. Bowman had learned the code early, and now he was picking up on the rules of Eagle Beach. Pierce had called him “Sarge.” It was a lazy gambit, asking: Are you cool? Do you know that being one of the platoon’s buck sergeants means being one of us? Rank at the beach was just a formality except for Lieutenant Parrish, who had the power to banish an errant guard from paradise.
Bowman gazed past the fence at the village. From a distance, under a green haze that up-close was a ragged canopy of pines, it looked lush, inviting.
“Is that where the water station is?”
“It's on the other side of the ville,” Pierce said. “You just take the road on through.”
“Oh. You guys ever go into the ville?”
“Sure. You can go get a piece of ass if you want. There's a whore at Mama-san's named Frenchie. But don’t let Tree catch you.”
“Tree. The LT. Parrish. He doesn’t want anyone in the ville.”
We talked about the mystery of our commanding officer. Above his left chest pocket he wore a Ranger patch and a CIB, and he had a lifer’s gruff look and manner. Yet out in the field he must have fucked up badly enough—some lapse of character, surprising him more than anybody—to be exiled to Eagle Beach. A twenty-five-year-old first lieutenant with his military future behind him, he loathed his safe island post.
Bowman’s floppy boonie hat shaded his eyes. I couldn’t see them when he startled me by poking through weather-stained copies of Playboy that, along with the Stars and Stripes, littered the bunker's roof. What did he feel about those creamy butts, bordered by tan, hollowed backs and silky thighs, and those strawberry-sundae tits that beckoned like an Uncle Sam Wants You poster? During our first weekend pass in Basic, he wouldn’t help me satisfy my curiosity by accompanying me into the lobby of the DeSoto Hotel, a bordello that was a Columbia landmark. Fellow trainees ribbed him, but he didn’t miss much by passing up the young-old prostitutes whose blandishments I resisted, loyal to Susan, with a mixture of regret and self-congratulation.
We climbed down and followed the ruts through the gate. The pipe from the water station, dripping where villagers had tapped it, flanked the road as it curved past the village. Bowman stared. Like me, he’d spent most of his tour in the boonies or on firebases; this was a Vietnam he’d seen only from a distance. We gazed through wind-bent hedges at thatched roofs, gardens and a boat on trestles beside a purple-flowering pergola. Two women in conical hats were raking asparagus-green stalks on a mat. Seeing us they straightened up. One called to two tiny boys squealing and rolling a hoop with slaps from bamboo switches. Wide eyes swiveled toward us. They fled giggling.
“So darn cute,” Bowman chuckled. Back at Fort Jackson, I recalled, he’d talked of having kids someday.
As the shacks and vegetation thinned out, the sea reappeared. We sidestepped low burial mounds planted with incense sticks that fishermen burned, I explained, before launching their boats at dawn. Ahead, like a mirage, the water station rose from a landscape of rippled sand dotted with green scrub. It resolved into a bunker, a pumping shed and a muddy pond.
“Pretty.” He pointed to the pink flowers fretting the sandy earth around the pond. “Reminds me of the desert back home. In springtime. This country can be so pretty where we haven’t—”
“Haven’t fucked it up.”
We BS’ed with the two guards and headed back. On the way a commotion from the village caught up with us. Women and children raced out to meet the garbage truck. As it groaned in low gear past the gate, a few clambered up and began tossing down heads of cabbage, stale bread and other good things the cooks at the mess hall had thrown out.
The coming of the hot season brought changes to Eagle Beach. Weaponless grunts in T-shirts swarmed over the recreation area. The Flip Flops, a Filipino rock group with two go-go girls, performed twice a day on a bandstand built out from the club. Audiences cheered them from benches on the asphalt of a half basketball court where, after dinner, a movie flickered under the dark starry sky.
My life rolled on, a painless round of grass and guard duty, of books and stumbling chats with Lan. The only change was that I started hanging out with Bowman. Our friendship from Fort Jackson, an eternity ago, revived. As outliers there in military and Southern culture, we’d found affinities beyond our two years of college. We were quiet. We were smart. We belonged to the great American middle class that expected to have good teeth and mocked but respected Ph.D.s. At the same time we had differences that our nine weeks of training only sharpened. From the get-go, his soldierly right stuff outshone me. Even the platoon’s bad-asses—mean, hilarious rednecks and angry-eyed Black Power mutterers—noted his prowess, especially in physical proficiency. His modesty disguised how much strength and grace it took to excel yet remain friendly, mindful, self-possessed. Now, fifteen months later, I pictured him out in the field. He must have been a terrific squad leader, trusted by roughneck grunts and junior officers alike. At least until he let Hayes walk point. Missing a booby trap could be simple bad luck. Most likely nobody blamed Bowman. But luck in a grunt company is an article of faith, and the disaster may have suggested that his charisma had a fatal flaw.
Now, at Eagle Beach, combat behind him, Bowman surprised me by having trouble settling down. The Army’s gift of loads of free time—as a sergeant he was off every second day—made him as restless as a lottery winner who disapproved of lotteries and couldn’t recollect buying a ticket. I showed him the deserted two-room library that some clueless admin type (bless his heart) had deemed an amenity for grunts. Poking around the musty shelves, he thumbed a few curled paperbacks. He’d gone to an engineering school in Colorado; he was eager to finish up, do his stint of missionary work and begin raising a family. He didn’t read much for pleasure, I realized, except for Zane Grey westerns and two-week-old editions of the Deseret News his parents mailed him.
The first time we went swimming, his muscled shoulders plowed the water. His crawl was strong but splashy because he kept his head above the swells. On the beach he stretched out facing the galloping brilliance.
“The ocean’s beautiful. All I knew before the Nam was the Great Salt Lake.”
“How come you only stay in a couple minutes at a time?”
“I’m scared. Who knows what’s under the surface? Maybe the undertow comes in closer. Maybe there are sharks. I was never in such deep water before.”
Our voices mingled with the surf, music from a boom box and word fragments from other bodies lounging on green-and-brown-swirled poncho liners. We ran out of good talk after catching up on our year in country. At Jackson there’d been new shit to discuss every day, but at Eagle Beach time slouched forward in loops, repeating. The future was vague, a cliché like that joke list of warnings for parents—humor for soldiers getting short—about the conditioned responses their sons would carry back to a homeland that had grown as foreign as Nam once seemed. About his past—in the World, in Nam—I couldn’t unreel much from him. I wanted him to tell me more about Carentan. The siege there had battered a once orderly base, where guys worked bare-chested in the sun, into a smoking, cratered mountaintop. That was the trial that must have proven his ideal self, the one that could answer yes to Jimi Hendrix’s question, Are you experienced? But unlike Antwon he excelled at friendly evasion, and I had nothing equivalent to trade except the whirlwind of Co Pung Mountain, where I’d caused Matt’s death and shot a wounded enemy—guilts shared only with Susan. Later I saw that the code that carried him through the siege had shaped it in his memory. He wasn’t going to let a lost battle shake his belief that God and America were good.
After showering under canvas buckets of sun-warmed water, we ambled to the bandstand for the afternoon show. Soldiers in swimming trunks or fatigues, some with brown jungle-rot scars on their forearms, crowded the yellow and green benches. We sat on the sand with Murphy and Pierce. The first number was Ball of Confusion. The Flip Flops played it loud, their stumpy lead singer reaching down and uncorking the bass notes. Then they did Good Lovin’ and the go-go girls, in white boots and white satin shorts and halters, danced and stamped at either end of the little stage. The grunts whistled and cheered. One of them, drunk or high, toppled from his bench like a boy shot through the heart.
The dancers depressed me. They reminded me of my R&R in Bangkok, where I’d chosen to go because I couldn’t meet Susan in Hawaii, reserved for married guys. Yes, she’d written: go, you desperately need a holiday. She surprised me by bringing up sex. If it would ease me, before the war swallowed me again, how could she say no? Just so long as it was fucking, not lovemaking. She guessed she could deal with that. So I slept with a bar girl and told her afterward. Her reply was: Goodbye! I felt shocked and then stupid, stupidly adrift, as ripples from that hurled stone, sinking a five-year love and a likely marriage, never stopped reminding me.
The number before intermission was the long version of Light My Fire. The four of us slipped away to the husky strains of C’mon baby to beat the rush into the club. At the bar the staff sergeant in charge of laundry services was telling Sandy, a barmaid, how many ways he wanted her body. She turned her back on him. Her bra made a modest line beneath her peach ao dai. Through the thin walls we heard a squeal from the Flip-Flops’ female singer.
We grabbed a round Formica table the color of orange Kool-Aid served on firebases to mask the water’s taste. A hungover guard named Devil Fuentes joined us. He fingered his black stubble as if pondering a puzzle.
“Wonder if those bitches put out,” he said.
“You better fuckin’ believe it.” Murphy cited one of his many informants, saying that a week ago the CO of a grunt company had paid a hundred bucks to sleep with the pretty singer.
Pierce whistled. “Ain’t no pussy that good,” he said.
The music stopped. The space between the saloon doors rippled with exuberant grunts entering from the beach.
“You know where the most beautiful bitches are?” Pierce asked. He was an upstate New Yorker with disheveled blond hair and squinty blue eyes glazed over from the hash he’d smoked before the show. “The ones in Bangkok. Man, they’re really, like, uh...graceful. Not like these skinny-ass gooks.”
A steam-bath girl had persuaded him to move from his Army-approved hotel to her one-room home on stilts above a canal. “She fucked like a rabbit but she was sweet.” He added in wonder, “I didn’t bang any other broads.”
Murphy declared his devotion to round-eyed pussy. He told us about the redhead at the Big Apple Bar in Sydney who picked him up his first evening.
As for Bowman, he’d lucked out as the lone single guy on a plane to Honolulu.
“Far out,” Pierce said. “You have fun with any hot wahines?”
“One. I was touring the island on this Harley I rented. I stopped at the temple in Laie ‘n met this girl there. Beautiful girl. We had dinner at her family’s house. She writes to me.”
“At her family’s house?” Murphy said.
“All you did was talk to her?” Pierce said.
“Oh, man, you know it’s against our religion to have sex before marriage.”
Bowman’s wry grin was as disarming as his tone. He’d had plenty of practice, in the Army, answering questions like that.
Pierce asked, “You mean like, you go to hell if you don’t wait?”
Bowman and I skipped the second half of the show. We meandered along the boardwalk past the Korean tailor shop, the Rose of Saigon massage parlor and other enterprises that had reopened at the outset of the hot season. His nonchalant honesty disconcerted me. He’d been the same at Jackson where I, when pressed about my experience of cars or women or liquor, embellished the facts. I thought of the golden tablets and the angel Moroni and the long trek west, and I envied him this faith of his that had flung up spires in the desert.
The next day he had to hitch to Camp Evans to straighten out his 201 File. On the roster posted that afternoon his name appeared as sergeant of the guard. Murphy and Pierce wasted no time. They buttonholed me beside the pint-size pine-shaded basketball court between our platoon area and the Seabees’ quarters. On cracked concrete Lieutenant Parrish, flushed, propelled his six-foot-five bulk among a cluster of smaller players.
Murphy, who was in charge of Bunker 6, had set up a business deal with Mama-san.
“You think it’ll be cool with Bowman tonight?”
“Hey, man, why ask me? I’m not his keeper.”
I forgot until later that he’d asked. I continued on my way to the hootch where Lan and an older woman ironed American olive drab leavened with the colors of flimsy Vietnamese garments. Against my better judgment, which had floated away on the sea breeze like a maxim from a fortune cookie, I’d become her boyfriend. This was a fact acknowledged by my buddies, other laundresses and even Phuong, Lan’s grandmother, who spoke no English but smiled at me with betel-blackened teeth. There weren’t too many other facts. Lan was eighteen, her ID card showed. She must have been, not long ago, one of Hué’s straight-backed, blue-uniformed schoolgirls pedaling their bikes along Le Loi Street. During Tet ‘68 the VC captured her father, a teacher; we took back the ruined city but not her dad. Her family and other Catholics fled to Thuan An, the village on the island’s tip where the sea meets the Perfume River. A century ago, so I’d read in one of the library’s moisture-crinkled books, French gunboats had bombarded the forts there and steamed upriver to Hué to dictate terms to their Empire’s newest colony. Thuan An was oriented toward the fallen imperial capital on the mainland and south toward its neighbor, the American compound, which stood oblivious as a good luck charm against a third calamity. Buddhist hamlets dotted the rest of the island. Higher-higher favored the Catholics because they worshiped a familiar God, I guessed, or were likelier to hate communists. Maybe the thin gold cross dangling from Lan’s neck accounted for her coveted job keeping Americans clean and neat. What did I know? I did know, after she surprised me by returning my kisses, that I wanted her. We shut the door after her fellow laundress, Huyen, had huffed off.
Bowman returned from Camp Evans in time for formation. Dust streaked his fatigue pants; his sun-pinkened face looked drawn. I’d made a similar trip to Phu Bai, hitchhiking on the sweltering, fumy, noisy ribbon of Highway 1, and recalled my relief when the ferry began chugging across the lagoon toward the island’s green glow.
After showering Bowman joined me for chow. That evening he was sergeant of the guard. I had to pull second guard at the water station, so I set out with him on his rounds. We drew our rifles from the armorer’s cage in the Head Shed. We visited two guard towers among the dusky pines in the R&R area; then we headed toward the bunker line. Our boots crunched the road’s soft sand as the raucous sounds of the Flip Flops and their audience faded. By the time we approached Bunker 6, darkness had fallen. A murmur rose above the sea’s cannonading. I made out dark forms on our side of the fence. Closer, a spotlight cast a dirty glow on a confusion of footprints before the gate. The murmuring died away when we appeared. We heard music from the bunker’s roof.
Beside us, Murphy’s alert voice said, “How y’all doin’?”
“Who are these people?” Bowman asked.
“Hey, no big deal. Just some line doggies from the company that rotated in this mornin’.”
“What’re they doin’ here? This is off limits. They’re confined to the R&R area.”
Murphy shrugged. His ambition to join the ranks of rear-echelon entrepreneurs wasn’t as pressing as his goal to glide home to Arkansas with a clean record. He strode to the fence. Complaints and laments rode the air like garbled radio traffic. Then the shadows flocked back onto the road to the compound.
We climbed up the bunker. I caught a pungent herbal whiff of grass and recognized the jerky beat of Psychedelic Shack:
Come in and take a look at your mind.
You’d be surprised what you might find...
Bowman said to Pierce, “If Parrish showed up instead of me, you guys’d be humpin’ the boonies again. Why risk it?”
Pierce’s tone of indifferent assent was one we’d all used when questioned by the Green Machine. Two other guards draped in poncho liners made hunched shapes against the sky, which glowed with a low round moon. The Temptations sang, You can have your fortune told... I climbed down to take a leak.
Murphy hustled me into the bunker. “Hey. Elliott’s in the ville.”
“What's he doing there?”
“What do you think he’s doin’? The fucker just showed up here. I nearly shit my pants. I couldn’t stop him or nothin’—I was afraid he’d tell Tree.”
“So what do you want me to do?”
The gate creaked behind Bowman and me. Mama-san’s shack, the largest, stood in a cluster of pines flagging toward the lagoon. Moonlight shone on the sandbagged tin roof and the trees, which threw feathery shadows below. Where the road’s milky path skirted the shadows, a bunch of boys joined us. Johnny, a twelve-year-old who liked to fool with the guards at Bunker 6, half mocking and half hero-worshiping, tugged at my sleeve. He asked did I want to buy dinky-dau. “No!” I said. I’d never thought twice before about scoring grass off him, but it felt different walking beside Bowman, whose presence suggested higher standards. The flicker of curiosity in Johnny’s eyes gave way to glee. Giggling, he pointed to Mama-san’s and slid his middle finger into his fist.
“Beaucoup GI,” he said.
Bowman looked at me. We veered into the shadows. He knocked on the screen door, waited, knocked again and pulled it open. Its orange-painted wood framework slapped behind us. A filmy glow from an oil lamp lit up a tablecloth vivid with yellow orchids. Mama-san sat at the table with her knees drawn up. After her eyes had darted over Bowman, she greeted me, saying my first name with a sibilant ees. Two Black GIs from the stand-down company, sitting on a bench across from Mama-san, raised wary gazes. Beneath a latticed window in the far wall, on a wooden platform, Papa-san curled asleep with his back to us, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt. He looked like a kid except for his gray hair.
Bowman asked who else was there. The private in aviator shades motioned toward a curtained doorway.
“One of your dudes, my man. Think he’s done. I ain’ heard nothin’ for a couple minutes, you?”
His homey shook his head. The two of them wore braided Black Power wristlets fashioned from Army bootlaces. Luckily they were feeling more cool than drunk or high. Bowman, in charge but respectful, averted the trouble that sometimes suggested, on the big mainland bases, the prelude to a race war between Americans. After they’d sauntered out we took their places at the table. Mama-san forced a smile. Behind the purple curtain we heard movements, voices. She pointed to three bottles of Tiger orange soda. I raised two fingers and held out a 25-cent note that at first she waved off. Then the curtain rippled and Frenchie came out. Her pajamas were a paler shade of purple than the curtain. She was tall for a Vietnamese woman, with plum-sized breasts mounding her shirt, and despite her faintly pocked cheeks was pretty. Her hazel eyes had a lively assessing look as she glanced from Bowman to me.
The curtain, parting again, revealed a bulky form. Elliott’s hair was mussed and one hand held his fatigue cap at his side. His moue was more pronounced than usual.
Wheels must have been spinning in Bowman’s mind, as always, I figured, when he confronted heathens whose behavior challenged his principles.
He said, “How y’doin’, Elliott?”
“How the hell are you doin’?”
“I’m doin’ what I’m s’posed to do. Keepin’ R&R troops out of the ville. I’m surprised to find you here.”
“Aw, come off it. Frenchie’s our regular. Murph brings in another whore once a week for the stand-down guys.”
“I talked to Murph. This bullsquat’s coming to a halt, at least when I’m on duty. OK?”
“Don’t be so fuckin’ self-righteous. Why don't you just get a piece yourself instead of spoilin’ it for everybody?”
“Out. Get the fuck out!”
“Ooh, I didn’t know you use swear words.”
Elliott’s defiant exit was spoiled when he stumbled on a pile of buoys, nets and ropes. Slamming the door, he woke up Papa-san and set the kids outside chattering. Bowman sat down. The wine splotches on his cheekbones ebbed. Frenchie and Mama-san had a quick, sharp exchange that might or might not have been an argument. Then Frenchie looked at us curiously.
“Same-same,” she said. She smiled and pointed from me to Bowman.
We didn’t resemble each other, but I was used to not catching everything Lan said and so didn’t wonder what Frenchie meant.
She asked, “Wha’ you name?”
She pointed to the black chevrons on his sleeve. “You honcho? Why GI di-di?”
They talked, sort of, some more. Bowman relaxed, sipping from the tiger-faced bottle with his 16 resting between his knees. After a while I pointed to my watch; it was getting on toward second guard. Our shadows slanted on the moonlit road near the village’s dim shapes. I felt spooked: what fine targets we’d be, even though intelligence maps marked the island as pacified. Apart from the sea’s wistful roar it was quiet. We shot the breeze with the guys at the water station. Bowman checked the machine gun and the Claymores and called in a report on the dirt-stained PRC-25 radio. Then he turned back.
I settled down for my spell of guard. It struck me, as I lit my first J, how funny Elliott had looked tottering on that pile of fishing gear, and how pissed he must have been that we saw his Texas two-step.
Next morning, in the Head Shed, I heard that Bowman hadn’t returned through the gate until after midnight. Murphy and Pierce assumed he’d been with me at the water station. I didn’t enlighten them. The news distracted me so much that I threw down my jack of spades when I should have recalled that Pierce held the queen.
I didn’t see Bowman until afternoon. He’d just finished playing basketball. As we strolled to the beach, I didn’t bother asking if he’d gone from the water station back to Mama-san's: there was no other place he could have been. After swimming we stretched out on our poncho liners.
“Chris, you ever get to know any Vietnamese? Like, before you met Lan?”
He was the only GI who got away with saying Vietnamese instead of gooks or the equivalent. Once, when new in country, I’d said it and was corrected by a kid from Tupelo, Mississippi, who’d never heard of the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage but knew the code for speech in Vietnam.
“No. Except a Kit Carson scout. Alpha was only in a ville once. We did a Civic Action Program there. The adults avoided us. But I wondered what their lives were like.”
“Yeah, I been wonderin’ that, too.” He paused. “So Frenchie lives with Mama-san?”
“Yeah. I heard she’s her niece.”
“Gosh. Her niece? Well... Prostitution’s inevitable, I reckon. What with all the foreign soldiers.”
“Us? Yeah, well, it’s a poor country.”
“It doesn’t have to stay poor. Lots of things we could do to help after the war. Build a dam on the Mekong. Build a tractor factory. Tourism.”
“How do you know we’ll win the war? I mean, Nixon’s pulling out troops.”
“I guess the South Vietnamese’ll have to win it. But I can’t see us letting ‘em get taken over. Not after all of us that got wasted here. We’re just gonna walk away?”
A color slide: the postage-stamp French cemetery out in the scrub beyond the water station. Before its thin, half-fallen slabs lay a stone commemorating the premiers pionniers d’Indochine.
“We wouldn’t be the first. Besides, you think most Vietnamese care who wins?”
“You remember all those bodies they dug up outside Hué? People the VC buried alive during Tet ‘68? It mattered to them who was winning. What about your girlfriend, all the Vietnamese workers here? You think they don’t care?”
I flinched. I’d never pondered Lan’s fate if, in some unimaginable future, the North Vietnamese Army swept down across the DMZ.
“They care. But look. After 55,000 wasted GIs, plus God knows how many Vietnamese, what the fuck good have we done?”
“Well, I can’t believe it’s all been for nothin’.”
He looked away toward a gaggle of R&R soldiers down the beach. Some were playing volleyball, some were swimming and others just sprawled, snoozing, indifferent to the surf’s slow, uneven advance.
Every weekday at midafternoon, horny and ambivalent, I strolled to the laundry hootch. The brightness outside the doorway bathed Lan’s purple-pajamaed figure in a shady glow. Her taut slender arm made passes with a big American iron, its plumes of steam wafting her scent to me. On her wrist the Bulova I’d bought at the cornucopia of the Phu Bai PX swung on its loose bracelet. We talked. Sometimes I showed her a word in my pocket dictionary. I helped her lift sun-dried clothes from the concertina wire outside. (The bladed spirals stretched along the beach for reasons—to slow a landing by a VC flotilla?—that no one could figure out.) Then, once she’d sorted the clothes, we latched the sunlight-splintered door.
We sank on the crackled cushions of a rickety wicker couch. We whispered, kissed, touched. Her honey-stringed brown irises pulled me in. The crotch of my fatigues dampened. Yet even when she met my mouth with her small strong tongue, and seemed to welcome the plunge our bodies longed for, an older code than the Army’s held me back. She was a fervent Catholic. She’d introduced me to the family—her Grandma Phuong, anyway, who’d served me a steaming lunch of fish and rice and greens. She was Vietnamese and would need her virginity to land a husband. My betrayal of Susan would deepen. All were good reasons to keep my fly buttoned. Still, the current that drew us together left us quivering each time we parted.
Lan’s culture offered a happy ending for unsanctioned love affairs. The lavender paperback she carried in her handbag, with its deckle-edged ivory pages and the brooding boy and girl on the cover, warned and promised. In love, all men were foreigners and dangerous, but they had to be negotiated in the quest for fulfillment. That fulfillment was marriage. I knew this. And yet, one afternoon while we were swooning together on the wicker couch, oblivious to bumps and sags, I let it happen. As my cock pushed aside what felt like the thin skin of a ripe fruit, she moaned. I heard myself murmur, “I love you.”
Later, my hand on the door, I said it for the sixth, seventh, eighth time. Maybe I meant it. What I mainly felt, after I stepped from the warm dimness into the afternoon sea glare, was that my life had changed. How? What had happened was no rape, yet I’d violated my belief in my ideal self, as when I’d shot that NVA soldier with our gazes locked. In the shower hootch I shut my eyes as light-fingered rivulets from the canvas bucket washed my sweaty body. My mind skipped from one future to another. I bargained: if the hazy God I’d prayed to as a child kept her from getting pregnant, I’d make amends. I’d give her a dowry: a thousand bucks. No, three thousand! That’d be all the blood money the Army had paid me. For a moment I felt generous.
Near sunset, after Lan and her fellow workers had walked down the sandy road to palm-fringed Thuan An, the opposite way from Mama-san’s ville, I visited Murphy. We sat at the card table in his and Pierce’s cozy two-bunk hootch where he mellowed out before dinner. Wax from a red candle rippled down the womanly curve of an empty green Mateus. The wine was a ration-card delicacy, which went with grass better than the beer and hard stuff that juicers drank. He poured me some from another bottle and lit up. His ginger hair was dark from the shower, and cut-off fatigue pants revealed his freckled legs. I was glad when he mentioned something that took my mind off that afternoon.
“Hey. Not to spoil the mood, but your friend spent last night at Mama-san’s.”
“Yup. Jus’ thought you might want to know.”
He spoke with an air of disinterest. He’d had a scary close call when Tree roused himself to tour the guard posts. No more GIs were allowed in the ville.
“Wow,” I said. “Uncool.”
The next morning Bowman was nowhere to be found—not on the beach, not at the snack bar where we had pizza and soda for lunch, nowhere. I skipped up the weathered steps of the Head Shed. His name wasn’t on the acetate-covered roster where soldiers on leave or guard were listed.
Elliott stuck his head out from the armorer’s cage. He said, about as friendly as a moray eel, “How’s your buddy?”
Devil Fuentes was shooting hoops on the tiny slab of dappled concrete. An unabashed sinful Catholic, he found Mormons as understandable as Martians.
“Try the ville,” he said.
The new guys pulling day guard by the gate snickered.
I followed their head jerks across the sand to Bunker 4, used only for night guard. It was a standard shithole, cramped and dim, nothing but sandbags and lumber except for the inside of the door. It bore a life-size Zig-Zag Man, a Zouave, painted in yellow and black beneath his flowing red hat. I heard their voices first. They were sitting on the rough wood of the bottom bunk, Frenchie cross-legged, Bowman with a bare foot on the floor. They didn’t bring to mind a soldier with a whore. The tableau suggested an instructor with a student, though who was which wasn’t clear.
“Hey, amigo,” I said.
His eyes quizzed me. I’d entered feeling that my visit would snap him to his senses. Now I floundered. How could I moralize with that Zig-Zag Man dancing like crazy behind me?
Frenchie said, “Bonjour.” She liked to practice speaking French with me. We exchanged a few polite sentences. Bowman, silent, gazed at me from somewhere inside himself. I backed out, trailing lame words.
My jungle boots scuffed sand drifts from one rut to another. A bad mood descended like the sun clamping my skull through my boonie hat. My rescue mission had failed—failed, too, to salvage my sense I was still a good guy after fucking Lan. Lan: my deflowered Catholic orchid, whose desire was so strong and naïve that I, not the Blessed Virgin whom she worshiped, had been her only defense against the chance of a gritty conception in a seaside shack.
Tree’s surprise visit to the guard posts was the first sign that he’d recovered something—self-respect, interest in his job, who knew?—after a season of quiescence. He decreed we had to wear full uniform—no more cutoffs and flip-flops—outside the platoon area. We were still soldiers, he said, not a bunch of hippie-dippy beach boys. Soon after he put us on detail refurbishing bunkers. We sweated shirtless while spading dirty sand and hoisting stiff new algae-green bags that prickled against our skin. That night he toured the perimeter again. He failed to catch any wrongdoers only because at two a.m. even hard-core heads and juicers were sleeping like babies, their well-being secured by guards whose glassy eyes he might have attributed to fatigue.
It wasn’t a good time for Bowman to start living more dangerously, in a way, than he’d lived in the boonies. The memory of my mission at Bunker 4 stung me. I’d retreated, without being under fire, in moral disorder. What now could I do to redeem myself? At this point, with Matt dead and Susan lost, not a hell of a lot. But at least I could try again to save my friend.
The platoon area was so compact we all knew each other’s routines. I staked out a strip of sun-spattered, brown-needle-strewn boardwalk until I saw him. He grinned, having forgiven me. Later we went to the rec hootch to play ping-pong as we’d done in the dayroom at Fort Jackson. I put up a fight in the first match. His sleepy pallor turned into a sweat-beaded flush. I lost the second in a rout. He looked happy. I apologized for barging in on him and Frenchie.
“No big deal. Anyway, what did you want? To find her alone?”
“You know better than that.”
“So what were you doin’? Tryin’ to save me from sin?”
“Not from sin. But if Tree found you instead of me, you’d get your butt booted off this island. Why risk it with only three weeks to go?”
“I could handle a couple more weeks in the field. Tree doesn’t worry me.”
“What does worry you?”
“Oh, different things. You’re not a Mormon, so it’s hard to explain.”
Back at Fort Jackson, at a Character Training session, the chaplain had warned us about the danger of getting our feelings toward Sex and Love mixed up. Maybe this was all it was. I knew a soldier who’d fallen in love with a bar girl on R&R. One of our fellow guards had bought “a rock”—an engagement ring—for a masseuse who gave hand jobs at the Latin Quarter steam bath in Phu Bai.
He asked, “Do you know Frenchie supports three kid sisters in Da Nang? Her family were farmers in a ville that became a free-fire zone, except they didn’t tell the villagers. Her parents got wasted in an air strike.”
“Yeah, well, Lan’s dad was murdered by the VC. Civilians are catching hell in this war. What can we do about it?”
“I’m givin’ money to Frenchie for her sisters.”
“Wow. That’s great. Really. But you can’t help her anymore if Tree sends you away.”
“I like talkin’ with her.”
“I know what you’re thinkin’,” he said. “It’s not that simple. The finest people I’ve ever known are Mormons. I’m not a credit to them right now. But they all support this war without knowin’ squat about it.”
“Forget the war. Quit fooling around with Frenchie. Go home and build your life.”
“What about you ‘n Lan?”
“For Chrissake, Lan’s not a...she’s an employee. Tree doesn’t give a shit if I talk with her.”
“Is that all you do?”
He walked out, his broad shoulders stretching his OD T-shirt, leaving the paddles and ball for me to return.
Within a week the affair had become a scandal. It wasn't that he was screwing Frenchie: it was that he was treating her like a girlfriend. He didn’t want anyone else to be with her and almost got into a fistfight with Devil. Murphy and Pierce were indignant. I sat with them at the card table, its varnished top stripped by the salt air into Rorschach shapes, in their hootch. We began our pre-dinner ritual. Pierce slipped a roach clip, a bobby pin he’d stuck into the melted lead base of an M-16 round, from its brass jacket. Murphy poured rosy Mateus. Our usual chat about not much was focused for once on a principle. The principle my friend was violating came from the same code that moved them to respect my romance with Lan. Among the women who worked in the compound—laundresses, hootch maids, barmaids—a few had American boyfriends. They were jealous, faithful, aspiring wives. Though guys classified them, in their unthinking talk, as gooks, dinks, slopes, all but the most oafish or drunken ones saw that they also belonged to the category, learned in Brooklyn or Paducah or Santa Cruz, of women you don’t mess with.
Lightly I said, “So maybe he's in love with her.”
“In love?” Pierce jerked his hand, swirling smoke toward the luminous peachy flesh of a Playboy centerfold pinned to the batten behind him. “She's a whore. And I know she doesn’t do it for free.” He mimicked a Vietnamese accent: “No money no honey.”
Murphy said, “See how much he loves her when she gives him a dose.”
He splashed some more rosé into his souvenir glass from Bondi Beach. He had one of those young men’s faces you could envision in middle age—the face of a high school wrestling coach, gruff, knowing.
“I don’t get it,” he said. “The dude was a squad leader on Carentan, he won a Bronze Star with a V. He had his shit together. At least back then.”
He toked thoughtfully.
“I knew this black kid, Jonesy, he was on Carentan, too. Afterward they gave him a cushy gig in Supply, drivin’ a mule around Firebase Beeham. He always played Aretha Franklin because his dad was a preacher man. One day he drops acid ‘n just flips. Waves a .45 around and makes a captain low crawl. He’s in Leavenworth now. Still be there after the last GI gets on the last Freedom Bird.”
“Some people,” Pierce said, flicking ash from the roach, “don’t know what’s good for them.”
Maybe Frenchie was good for Bowman. The venial sins he was committing, unlike the sanctioned violence we’d been trained to inflict, might under other circumstances have made him a better man. But now a current was tugging him down to a place that should have stayed unplumbed until he returned to the World. There was something to be said for abiding by codes. The code for screwing Vietnamese women was to have fun while looking out for number one. In my affair I was risking no punishment. Yet always before I entered Lan, my cock poised above her intoxicating pinkness, I felt I was about to slip into a rift in all the kinds of time—Christian time, school time, Army time, my time with Susan—that had ever defined me. At other moments, when she talked with bright eyes about what our kids would look like, my throat swelled and to save myself from sobbing I thought: Well, maybe it could happen. Maybe somehow I’d stay on the island, marry her, become a fisherman—a lone American loitering after the war. Just so long as we could remain young, could make love every day in a pagan mix of desire, fear, taking, being taken, tenderness.
The few GIs who knew about Lan and me were envious. The same guys spoke of Bowman as a four-flusher, a phony, his ideals reduced to, “Aw, what a crock.” To me he was a member of an oddball desert sect yet also the best soldier I knew. My conscience told me: Do something! Talk to him again! Yet a lotus-eater’s slackness overcame me. I did nothing. Now and then I heard reports on him like the rumors of war that reached us from the mainland. For a while he appeared to be exercising discretion. This lulled me until Tree, emerging again from the opium den of his mind, spooked everyone.
One evening at formation he told us to stick around, after drawing our weapons for guard, outside the officers club. We lingered uneasily, our eyes half on the show—Strawberry Fire, another Filipino band—and half on Tree, who at intervals stalked out of the club and loomed glaring. He’d scuffled with the CO of the grunt company on stand-down and seemed to be waiting for him. The grunts, oblivious, swayed on the rows of benches, cheering and whistling and drinking. The lights flicked on under the bandstand’s canopy, the pine trees and the ocean got dark, and an old papa-san who cleaned the clubs put everyone in stitches. Some jokers had been buying him beers. Now, pointing at the go-go girls and chortling, he did some gyrations himself. A barmaid in a blue ao dai stared at him hard; she swished back inside. Toward eight Tree gave us the high sign. We drifted off to towers and bunkers, not sure what he’d wanted us for but relieved as if we’d stepped unscathed out of someone else’s bad dream.
Right after Tree’s non-showdown, Bowman spent the night in the ville again. When I heard about it I was furious—at him, at me. I didn’t see him until next morning when, sacked out after breakfast, I awoke to excited voices. They were floating across the boardwalk from the Head Shed. I padded over in my flip-flops and joined a knot of guards. Elliott had caught Baby-san, our sixteen-year-old hootch maid, with a handful of contraband scrip. Relishing his audience, he was questioning and haranguing her. She responded through her tears with volleys of Vietnamese. In the midst of this came a sharp yelp: someone had stumbled on the puppy that he’d adopted and that Murphy and Pierce kept threatening to drown.
Bowman spoke up, defending Baby-san. He was right. Countless Vietnamese, I guessed, had bartered with GIs for scrip, which unlike the dong had a steady value. Both sides broke the rules for their mutual advantage. I didn’t say anything. Why should I? It was plain what the verdict would be. Many guards felt a vague bitterness toward the South Vietnamese (our noble allies, who couldn’t be trusted further than you could throw the little motherfuckers) and it would be painless to hire another hootch maid. Elliott, for once on the popular side of an argument, didn’t debate long. He glared across the counter and said:
“Hey! We all know you’re a gook-lover. Why don’t you just butt out?”
Bowman lunged, raising himself on the counter, and landed a glancing blow on Elliott's chin. Elliott danced a step or two backward, his smirk replaced by astonished drawn-back lips. I pulled my friend, aided by other hands, and the orderly room door slapped shut behind us.
“C’mon,” I said. “We’re going for a walk.”
We tramped along the beach to the fence. Silver whorls of concertina sloped down into the surf, extending the border between Vietnam’s messiness and America’s imagined order. Below the horizon, dark silhouettes with curved prows and sterns rode the swells. If any fishermen bobbed across an invisible line, the day guards would fire warning shots. Beyond the fence we could see a stretch of black-specked sand where villagers relieved themselves. Gray-and-white sanderlings tracked the surf, skittering on both sides of the wire. I pointed them out. Bowman smiled. We shared, in secret, the unsoldierly habit of birdwatching.
I said, “So, you didn’t win a lot of friends this morning.”
“Yeah. I was dumb. I shouldn’t have lost control.” He seemed to be recollecting his personal code. “It just seemed so unfair. Like the Gestapo or something.”
“Yeah, but Baby-san’s goose was cooked already. You didn’t help her at all. This is small potatoes.”
A hand plucked at a necklace, its owner's white shirt stained plum red. Six berry pickers, five women with a child, had tripped one of our booby traps in the shrubs at the foot of Firebase Arsenal. The Army’s pamphlet for in-country GIs called our trip-wired Claymore mines “mechanical ambushes” because booby traps were against the Geneva Conventions. Two of the foragers had survived, I heard, after a medevac flew them to the 85th Evac.
“Listen,” I said. “Elliott’s not gonna turn you in for smacking him—Tree might laugh at him. But you gotta walk a straight line now. Know what I mean?”
“No, I don’t. You mean Elliott’s straight?”
His face tightened with a dogged look, a look he must have worn while hunkering down in a battered bunker on Carentan.
We turned back, following a wispy South Vietnamese soldier whose Honda fishtailed along the ruts until he reached American pavement and grew smaller fast. We walked past rows of round fuel tanks to the U.S. Army Port Tan My, where the tire-festooned ferry, a World War II LST, was disgorging passengers, jeeps and trucks. A trim, boyish-looking soldier was first to climb the ramp for the return; his duffel bag sagged from one shoulder. Soon, I thought, that would be Bowman. Going home, in good order. If only character or fate, the amoral force that Lan believed in along with Mary and Jesus, permitted.
“Promise me one thing,” I said. “Try. Try and take care of yourself. This’ll all be a dream soon.”
His frown softened. “I will. You try too. Take care of yourself ‘n Lan.”
That evening, and the next few afterward, he continued his visits to Mama-san’s. All his life he’d navigated with skill and grace in a straight line. Now a whirlpool had sucked him under. There was one last thing I could do to haul him out. I, too, could violate the code, as he was doing with dizzying heedlessness. I could talk to Frenchie. I could ask her to save her lover—to return to Da Nang so he didn’t get banished to the bush and suffer the feared grunt karma of getting wasted or losing a body part just before going home. How the fuck would I tell her this in French and pidgin English? I wasn’t sure. The one sure thing was that he’d hate my guts for trying.
Yes, I decided: that’s what I had to do. Then my imagined confrontation with him afterward gave me pause, made me think I wasn’t his damn keeper. It was all too easy to circle, drowning and exhilarated, in my own gulf. I lived for midafternoon when Huyen, who wouldn’t meet my eyes as she slapped green laundry with her iron, left Lan and me alone. I couldn’t picture my life going on without her, without her body, far from the island. During the day I blanked out Bowman’s perilous love even when we chatted. But during the mellow warm nights, while I was pulling guard and he was in the ville, I had a feeling of being split in two—as though I were there also, sitting at the table with Mama-san and nursing a Tiger orange soda, while he and Frenchie made rustling sounds behind the purple curtain.
Then, when Bowman had ten days to go, Tree struck. Someone had tipped him off. Just after midnight he loomed at Bunker 6 with his wood-stocked AK-47, a trophy normally locked in his hootch. He swayed, Murphy recalled, like a drunk. He said he was going to “teach that young sergeant a lesson.” He made a slanting shortcut to the ville and vanished in the pine shadows around Mama-san’s hootch. Half a minute later an AK crackled and the guards at nearby bunkers dived behind their sandbags. There were two, three, maybe four bursts, red tracers arcing into the sky’s dark glow. I imagined what happened so often that it felt like my own memory. Bowman—warm, all tension eased, asleep after making love—must have been lying behind the purple curtain with Frenchie. Half awake, he low crawled outside and swung his 16 toward the sound of an enemy rifle. The darkness swayed. He did what he’d learned to do so well, first in quick-fire training at Jackson and later, over here, in the first heart-swelling seconds of contact. He shot Tree in the chest.
Everyone heard the racket: first the medevac and then the MPs’ Huey, a night bird that swooped down and whisked my friend through the perfect starry sky to Camp Eagle.
Murphy and Pierce were pissed off. They would be late catching their Freedom Birds because they’d talked with Bowman and Tree that night and had to be deposed for the court-martial. They excused the LT and ignored Elliott, who after the killing kept his puppy at his side and looked distraught. They blamed “that motherfuckin’ Mormon.” The word Mormon, preceded by readymade expletives or adjectives, was how Bowman came to be known.
I sent him two letters but heard nothing. At Eagle Beach it was easy to forget people on the mainland, even guys who’d been brothers. His image grew ghostly. My mind spun around Lan. A year’s worth of longing had drained from my dream of returning to Susan and the World. I stowed my short-timer’s Snoopy calendar in my wall locker where its few blank spaces wouldn’t show. On the rusty shelf above it lay Ivy League college applications Mom had mailed me. I’d filled out the first one except for the essay, which asked for objectives. The military word halted me: Our objective on Co Pung Mountain was... I couldn’t conjure up any objectives beyond staying at the beach. Untouched, the papers curled in the salt air that seemed to have transformed me more than any dope I’d ever breathed.
“Yes,” I told Lan, “yes. I’ll come back. I’ll marry you.”
I quit the snack bar and ate my lunches with her under the pines amid women’s chatter. Her grandmother beamed as I dipped fish or sinewy chicken, pinched between chopsticks, in a plastic bowl of nuoc mam. What did that old woman, who’d grown up without having heard of America, think of me? Lan said, “She like you. You good man.” She meant: a good future husband. Later that afternoon I made love in a frenzy to forget that good man. Then, before dinner, I picked up The Overseas Weekly and flipped past the saga of the Sergeant Major of the Army, on trial for accepting kickbacks, to want ads for civilian jobs in Vietnam, Thailand, all over—wherever the war like kudzu had spread. But none of the jobs were near Hué. And they didn’t need young guys with infantry and literature backgrounds, especially ones who couldn’t separate sex from love or despair.
After work that Friday she lingered on the road to Thuan An.
“When you go?”
“You know when I go. Sunday.”
“You come back?”
The boy and the girl on the cover of her paperback romance gazed. I wanted to hold her, kiss her, bury my face in the hollow of her neck, but the averted heads of her coworkers, waiting to go home for the weekend, stopped me. Whatever I replied, I knew I’d always remember it, like some puzzling action in childhood that revealed too late who I was.
“Yes, sweetheart, I love you. I come back.”
Murphy and Pierce conspired with Devil to give me a going-away party. We slipped out of the compound. Out among scattered low green shrubs beyond the ville, in the dilapidated French cemetery, we paused to read the names of young soldiers fading from skinny gray-blue stones, some toppled.
“History,” Murphy said.
“Their fault we’re here,” Devil said. “Fuck ‘em.”
We hiked the island south, between charging white breakers and the lagoon, to where the land widened and rose into dunes. Everywhere, old graveyards. Their walls were slabs the color of old ivory, with mandala-shaped cutouts in the gates. The strokes of Chinese-style characters had been etched, I guessed, before the French arrived. I scrutinized them, but they withheld their lessons in surviving history. We sat down out of the wind beside a tomb guarded by a black stone cat. Pierce opened his Vietcong first-aid bag, a trophy, and pulled out his cassette player and his stash. He lit an OJ. We passed it around as the words of the Gypsy, the Acid Queen, shredded by noisy gusts, teased our ears like a dying anthem. The opium tincture didn’t hit me until we mounted the crest of a seaward dune. We stripped down to our trunks. I leapt far out, my eyes on the blurry blue line between sea and sky, thinking nothing. Wind seemed to hold me suspended before I tumbled. We took turns, giggling when we landed in the softness where the dune collapsed onto the beach, and helped each other back up. When I reached for Pierce’s outstretched tan forearm, he had Matt’s face.
Early the next morning I squinted at the lagoon’s brilliance as I lugged my duffel bag onto the tar-smelling ferry. It was heavier than when I’d first arrived, with odd sharp bumps that probed my shoulder. The port of Tan My, the island, the spoiled haven of Eagle Beach receded behind an oily wake. In a few days I’d board a jet for my deliverance back to the World. There, in that land of thoughtless ease and safety, I’d sink into peace like a spent swimmer, forgetting everything, my whole complicit tour of duty, until someday I’d have to account for it.