by James Aitken (1973)
Don’t bother me
of your evenings spent
at the bedside of an
alcoholic priest in Cleveland.
There is very little I can do about it,
and you lie outside my sphere
of interest. (Lederer)
LEDERER IS LEAVING in seventeen days. That means he’s been here for 357. They give you one day off on your way back, or it has something to do with the dateline. But it’s too many days all the same, and I have to admit I envy him a lot. Lousy year in ’Nam any way you get it.
He hasn’t put much time in the office since he got pissed about a month ago and left the hootch. Got pissed at Howard who put ice on top of his mosquito net and it melted down during the night. When Lederer woke up, around four in the morning, both he and his mattress were soaked. I thought it was a pretty good trick, but I was just new meat and nothing bothered me. Lederer went stomping around, banging on the lockers and waking up the juice freaks while he moved his stuff out.
I wasn’t sure of where he was sleeping then. He was slipping into the office there for a while, mostly at night, and filling in a day or so on his short-timer’s calendar. It’s a crazy magic marker dream with seventeen blank spaces left on it running down into the bowl of a little pipe stuck in the mouth of a guy stretched out in bed—made up by a Red Cross girl with a good head or a sense of humor.
He pretty much quit last month. That hurts, because there is a lot of work to do, and even though nobody does very much work you get more work done when you have three guys not doing very much than you do when you just have two guys not doing very much. He did leave us Lederer’s Legacy, though, a little book he put together, and that makes it easier. I have a copy of it, open and taped down under a sheet of plastic on the top of my desk. Fifty or so stock phrases for use in any situation when writing an award.
Not that he left it for me personally. He left it for me, Chassen, and for Howard and Loving and whoever it was that was coming in after he went home. Along with the right to buy his interest in the two-foot-square Sanyo refrigerator we use to keep the Cokes in. And a little bitty fan that blows hot air on you when it gets up over one hundred, which has been every day so far this summer. And the last four months of an attractive calendar from an electronics firm in Japan that sent it to him free with his tape deck and speakers. And a collection of fantasy paperbacks and a couple of H.P. Lovecraft weirdies. And a guide to Taipei. And the four hundred awards in our In boxes and the five cardboard cartons of more awards that are getting moldy in the storage room, and thirty to one hundred new ones showing up each day for action.
This awards business is all pretty standardized, which seemed funny to me at first, because you would have thought that was the kind of thing which really required individual action in every case. In a way, it does, but when you have so many, it has to get a little routine or you would never get anything at all done.
You get an Army Commendation Medal if you get shot at and don’t get killed. You get a Bronze Star if you get shot at and somebody else gets killed. Or if you step on a mine and they don’t know what to say. Or if you kill two or less dinks.
You get a Silver Star if you get shot at, kill two dinks, and save a man’s life. Distinguished Service Cross if you’re a lieutenant colonel or above.
You get a Medal of Honor if you’re really crazy, and it doesn’t matter whether you get hit or not, although the only two we’ve processed were for dead guys who did spectacular things and must have been really all right. I mean, really all right.
We take the proposed texts for the citations that come in from the field and turn them into Army English. Then other guys type them up and you have orders and we have one less in the stack to do.
Lederer is really good at it. He doesn’t even seem to read the things anymore, just checks the guy’s name and fakes it. With the help of the Legacy.
tenacious devotion to duty
his intrepid actions
with a total lack of regard for his personal safety
ever intensifying barrage of hostile fire
in an effort to deny the enemy access
Oh yes. You would like Lederer, though, in spite of the fact that he was a little stingy and given to throwing fits whenever discovering that one of his sodas had been stolen and scarfed down, ordinarily by Howard. He’s got a Midwestern, buck-toothed, split in the middle, open appearance, sandy hair, and a pair of aviator’s sunglasses—the kind that look like a mirror from the front—that he wears all the time.
He comes from a little dusty town in Texas and plans on going back there. I once asked him what he did when he was back in the world, and he said, “Not much.” I thought that this was probably true because he struck me, you know, even when I first met him, as the kind of guy who was willing to let things happen in his head while events and stuff slid by on the outside.
Pressed further, he owned up to the fact that he worked for his father as an expediter in a shipping company. Light freight. Odd lot work. He said it seemed like a reasonable thing to do after he got out of college. I said, yes, but not when you got a degree in Chemical Engineering. “Goddam, man,” he said, “Fat lot you know about it.” Which didn’t clear up very much, but it kept me from asking many more questions.
It was hard to get Lederer to just sit around and talk, which made him different from the rest of the guys, who couldn’t stop talking about how great they used to be before they came into the service. I thought it was a shame that Lederer wouldn’t open up a little more, because there were a lot of things I wanted to ask him about. He was, for one more thing, a conscientious objector. Refused to carry a weapon.
Now, we are in a rear area. So far removed from the shooting and all that few of us would be able to recognize an enemy soldier unless he walked into the office and started lobbing hand grenades under the desks. Why a man lets himself get shipped to Vietnam and then decide that he’s a conscientious objector is beyond me. Something of a real question there. So I asked him: “Why are you a conscientious objector?”
“If you’re a conscientious objector,” he said, “they can’t put you on guard and you don’t have to sit up all night.”
Which ended that line of inquiry.
ATTENTION TO ORDERS:
GENERAL ORDER 3647
BY DIRECTION OF THE PRESIDENT, UNDER THE PROVISIONS OF EXECUTIVE ORDER 11046,
24 AUGUST 1971, THE BRONZE STAR MEDAL WITH “V” DEVICE IS AWARDED TO:
Specialist Four Blake Christianson for heroism in connection with ground operations against a hostile force in the Republic of Vietnam. Specialist Christianson distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism on 7 February, 1969, while serving as a rifleman with Company B, 4th Battalion, 21st Infantry. On that date, the company was conducting a search and clear operation near Ap Hai when it came under a heavy volume of enemy fire. Although most of the company was pinned down by the insurgents, Specialist Christianson ran to a bomb crater twenty meters in front of the enemy emplacement. With complete disregard for the danger involved, he attacked the hostile position with hand grenades and placed intensive suppressive fire on the enemy force. He then exposed himself to the hostile fire, assaulted the position, and destroyed it completely. Through his timely and courageous actions, he contributed significantly to the defeat of the enemy force. Specialist Four Christianson’s personal heroism, professional competence, and devotion to duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service, and reflect great credit upon himself, the Americal Division, and the United States Army.
Hundreds and hundreds of them in the cartons in the storage room.
The first time we got together was over at the 523d Signal Club across the road from Division Headquarters. I like it there. It has all the warmth and atmosphere of any sleazy dive in East St. Louis. And only one of the bar girls is hopelessly pockmarked.
I walked in and heard a guy call my name and say, “Buy a Bloody Mary.” I was pretty sure it was Lederer, even though I’d only seen him once or twice before, and then only as he passed through the office on his way to wherever it was he went to screw off all day. Still, we’d been sort of watching each other out of the corners of our eyes.
I brought him his drink.
“You sorry bastard,” he said when I sat down at his table.
“Everybody asks himself that question at least a thousand times while he’s here, but it doesn’t do any good.”
“That’s not what I meant. I know why I’m here. I’m here because I didn’t want to go to jail or Canada. Why am I a sorry bastard?”
“Oh, that. Because of the way it’s going to get to you after a while. Wait until you see the dead guys coming across. Posthumous awards. Guys you went through training with, or sat between on the plane coming over. The skinny crazy eighteen year old grunt you met at the replacement center. His name sticks in your mind because he drank too much and passed out one night and had to be carried back to the hootch. He’s dead now, and you have to write him up. A guy you knew. Damn.”
Silence for a minute, and I try to get the sense of what he’s working toward.
“It hits you in three stages. First you think: this is really rotten. Here I sit in this office, completely removed from whatever it is they’re doing out there where they’re shooting and killing each other. Phew. And I’m supposed to make up some kind of coherent award about a man who knew so much more about what was going on than I do, or did, or will. Like the man I had to write up for the Medal of Honor. You might see one come through. It takes about a year to get it processed.
“He’s twenty years old, a medic. They’re always the screwiest. They get inspired or something. The healers. Anyway, it happens.
“This whole company is getting zapped from four sides of a rice paddy. They make it back to this little island, but five men are shot down and lying out in the open. Medic makes five trips out to get them. The temperature is maybe 110 degrees and he is constantly under fire. On his last trip in, he gets killed. You wonder what the hell he could have been thinking about. Not so much the first and second trip. That’s sort of reflex. But what does he think about after three times? Or four times?
“He has the power, now. He knows he can do what has to be done, now. He’s been doing everything that he’s been trained for, that they want him to do, that a man can possibly do. Think of the sense of elation he must have felt. He has passed beyond fear. He is off somewhere else in his mind now, feeling the strength of himself flash out of his pores and crackle in the humid air. It’s louder than the bullets and the grenades; the sound of his own power. He is really making it, he is on top.
“He gets killed on the fifth go round, but that is not where the interest is. What are you going to say about a man like that? That would make any sort of sense? In 250 words?
“Maybe the problem is being too close to the words for too long. For a year you sit and write about courage and valorous actions, about gallantry and heroism, and when something which screams of it comes along you only have the same words left to try to make it come alive.
“And you start thinking about what a bitch it is to have come all this way to sit it out, to never really know what is going on around you. If you felt that your time in the States didn’t make much sense, wait until you’ve been sitting around here for a couple of months.
“There was a line in The New York Review of Books, in a poem. It had to do with artificial respiration and went something to the effect of, ‘I get tired of kissing the dead.’ Maybe that isn’t relevant here. I don’t know.”
He stopped talking for a minute and I ordered another round of drinks from My Lee. Her little son was in the club, a two- or three-year-old trailing around after her or sitting on the bartop staring at the television set.
“The second stage is when you start to laugh at it. You laugh at the deadies. Look at this stupid son of a bitch. Tripped a booby trap and got himself greased. A Bronze Star for screwing up. Must have been some kind of a dud.
“I guess that’s the easiest part, and it lasts for the shortest period of time.
“After a while, the horror of it starts to sink in. These are guys, man, just off the block. And now they’re nothing anymore. It comes on you suddenly, just how dead they are. They simply are not anymore. Everything they might have been has just been erased. Wiped off. Whatever they might have been just isn’t going to happen.
“And for what? In stage two you would answer, ‘So that I can write awards about them.’ In stage three you don’t have an answer. The varieties of death that we invent for each other are almost endless. The reasons why are almost always vague, false, or nonexistent. You work that over in your mind for a while and you start to feel pretty rotten.”
There was nothing I could say to him.
Lederer did not so much take part in a conversation as launch into an occasional tirade on one subject or another. He ended these outbursts when he felt he had said enough.
I don’t know why he had been in the club that night in the first place. He didn’t like to drink, unless it was to keep himself occupied during a movie. There was supposed to be a film that night, but he walked out before it started. I guess that talking himself out a little made it unnecessary to get lost in a flick for a couple of hours.
I am pretty sure that was the only time I ever saw him over at the club. He was a grass fancier. Every time his name came up in the office, Sergeant Reeves would stick his arm out and pretend to be an airplane.
“Cruising at 45,000 feet, ground speed approximately three-quarters of a mile an hour, and going up.”
It was supposed to be funny, and I guess it was, the first five or six times. They all kidded about it, Lederer’s smoking dope. They made out like he was high all the time. He wasn’t, though.
continued to resist by all means available
denied himself medical attention until
by displaying the utmost of personal bravery/courage/intrepidity
Howard is barking like a dog. He does this exceptionally well. When I first got here, he would do it when I wasn’t looking and I would always make a remark about it, how I wished the dogs would go away. Everybody got a kick out of that, but managed to hide their smiles, so it was about three days before I finally caught on.
Howard can also cackle exactly like a chicken. He places the backs of his wrists against his kidneys, waves his elbows, thrusts his chest out, cranes his neck, bobs his head, takes one tentative, jerky step after another, and puk pawwk! Puk pup puk!
He never could stand Lederer.
“That silly-ass freak! What do you want to know about him for? Damn guy’s always flying. Grooveeno, you know. Shambling around with his head a million miles away from here. And he’s a stingy bastard, too. I stole a Coke of his one afternoon and I didn’t hear the end of it for a week. That measly can of Coke, you’d have thought it was gold or something.”
Howard goes out of his way to inform you that he is from South by God Carolina, stand when you say it, and seriously believes that people don’t go far enough out of their way to do things for him. It is his contention that anything left unattended in the communal refrigerator is fair game, and is genuinely surprised at the number of people who do not share his views. He doesn’t share Lederer’s hangups about the job, and is probably no worse off for it.
“Screw him! I was going to give him the damn dime, but not after he put up such a stink about it. I mean, it was a can of soda! And then he tried to sell me his lousy radio for eighteen dollars and got mad when I would only give him fifteen. I swear to God, he didn’t even want to give me the thing after I paid him for it. I mean, three lousy dollars. You’d think it would break the guy.
“What the hell did he want? It wasn’t the only radio around. It wasn’t even the best radio around. He could have sold it to me for ten dollars and still come out better than he was before.
“Or the time we put ice on top of his mosquito net. I never saw a guy get so mad over nothing. I mean, we were drunk, kidding around. What did he expect? We should go out and buy him a new bed because his old one got wet? I sure ain’t going to miss his ass when he drags it out of here.”
Well, yes, Howard, I had to say, I’m sure all of that is true, and I hoped he’d quit rapping, but like as not he’d go on for another half an hour about the crimes Lederer had committed against him. He’d go on until he noticed that no one was listening anymore. Then he would look at the ceiling and yell, “Hey, ceiling, can you hear me?” If the ceiling ever heard, it didn’t let on.
intrepid actions at the cost of his life
gallant display of heroic action
courageous and decisive action at great personal risk
resolute personal determination
reflect the utmost personal credit
“And you think you lucked out, but you’re wrong,” Lederer said. He walked into my plywood walled area in our hootch and lay down on my bunk. I was sitting at a rough desk I had built, writing a letter to a buddy of mine from Basic who’d pulled a MAG assignment in Iran. I wasn’t too sure whether he’d lucked out either.
“And you think I don’t know anything about you, but you’re wrong about that, too. You sit there and act dumb, stupid half smile on your face, detached, and all that good stuff, but the first thing you do when you get here is build a bookshelf and put books in it. Your priorities give you away. Those are not the actions of a fool.”
He had a soft West Texas way of speaking, like Henry Fonda in The Rounders. A little half lisp, and he talked with his teeth clenched and his lips hardly moving at all. You would wonder where the sound was coming from unless you stared closely at his mouth. Anything suits you—howdy—just tickles me plumb to death. He was western, all right, and had that certain independent big-goddam-deal way of speaking and moving and half smiling that said he just knew more than you did, and it came from growing up on the dry dusty plains where there is no shade from anything, and he just might tell you what he knew, if you were listening right.
“I often wondered,” he said, “who it would be that would come in and take over my job after me. I cared about it, you know, even though I can’t say exactly why. Shouldn’t have bothered wondering, though, because the next guy in was Howard. Couldn’t say anything to him at all. Crazy mother drunk. Can’t see living a life like that. There’s enjoyment, and there’s disease. He’s got the disease.
“So, whatever I worked up went out the window on his arrival. Be that as it may, I will tell you an apocryphal story, meaning that parts, or all of it, don’t have to be true. Maybe some parts aren’t.”
I turned my chair around to face him. His uniform was filthy. He could have put it on a week ago, or fresh this morning. Nothing here stays clean longer than an hour.
“It occurs in the EM Club, one night last February. I had gone over to watch a movie, despite the fact that I detested that rat-infested hole. It was a terrible old Lee Marvin movie that I had seen before on television in the world. And hadn’t liked. But it wasn’t raining for the first time in a week, and we could sit outside and watch a film. The smell of the cesspools immediately to the west hangs heavy in the air.”
He half laughed at his attempt to draw the story out, like a grandfather trying to soothe shadows that danced on his grandchild’s wall with his soft, old man’s voice.
“There were a lot of other men in the club that night. Because of the rain. It was such a relief to be able to do something, even if it was only to watch an old, bad movie. I think all our nerves were a little shot. It was just after Tet, and there was a lot of shelling going on. Two days before, they had blown away the finance building. I think that may have been the only time our company area had ever been hit by anything. There was that, and the boredom, and the rain.
“These guys came by. In a truck, or a jeep. Grunts. In out of the field, with long hair and beads and Montagnard bracelets. Maybe been out in the woods one hundred straight days and scared to hell. You couldn’t hear them coming. You don’t hear just one more truck going down the road when you’re watching a movie and there are trucks going by all the time.
“They hate us because we’re back here at division and have very few opportunities to die. I guess it makes them feel better, and I don’t hold it against them. You see a lot of fights when they come in for stand-down and decide to raise a little hell.
“So these guys, for fun, you know... they threw a smoke grenade into the club. Everybody panicked. I can’t tell you how frightened I was, mostly because it was so confused. The grenade landed where we were sitting, right in the middle of the open courtyard in front of the movie screen. It was impossible to get out through the exits. They were packed. I could hear the men yelling and what I thought was bones being broken though I realize now that it was only chairs toppling over and beer cans being crushed underfoot.
“Somebody broke down part of the plywood wall that closes in the courtyard, and maybe sixty people got out through there. I was caught in the middle. I was at the end of a line trying to get out through an exit, and then I turned and was at the end of the line trying to get out through the hole in the wall. This is all taking place in seconds. Not ten seconds have gone by now, maybe not even five. I am still expecting that another round of whatever it was might be coming in, and I would be trapped in the courtyard. I hadn’t even realized that it was only smoke, yet.
“Then I saw these fellows going by. They had picked up Lee, one of the bar girls. Hose-momma. Oh boy, she’d been tromped on by the guys running all over the place. They didn’t know where to take her. We were caught, all of us.
“I stayed with these men, and we stood in the middle of the area waiting for everybody else to clear out.
“By now we know that it was just smoke, but I am even more frightened. What keeps going through my head is ‘Good Christ, what if we’ve killed somebody?’
“I had to stay there with them, because I was part of it. I couldn’t get over the feeling that I might have been the cause of it. There was a chance that if I hadn’t been afraid and gotten up and tried to run, no one would have been afraid. There was always that chance.
“It seemed like we stood there for a long time. I know, though, that it couldn’t have been over twenty seconds before we made it through the hole in the wall.
“We didn’t know what to do with the girl. She was not conscious. We brought her to the far side of the building, in the shadows. Some of the men were moving back into the club now, realizing what had actually happened, and we didn’t want them to see her. I didn’t, anyway. She was mine now. I had made her my responsibility, and it was strange, but I started to get selfish. I didn’t want to share that responsibility with the other two guys.
“They placed her down on the ground and asked me if I thought that she was dead. I said no, but that we should call the MPs right away. They didn’t want to stick around for that, and I was actually glad to see them slip away. It would be easier to feel that you had nothing to do with it, and I think they wanted to get away because they actually knew better. The reason I had to stay with her was because, I don’t know, if you’re going to be a real person, then you do the things which people should do. It was up to me to save her in some way. Save her from what, I don’t know. She wasn’t dead, which was fortunate. I can’t keep people alive. It’s not part of my MOS.
“She wasn’t dead, but when I picked up her arm I could tell that it was broken because her wrist was twisted at a funny angle, and I didn’t know what else might have happened to her. And I started to worry about whether she might be broken up on the inside and we had hurt her worse by moving her out of the club. But there was nothing else that could have been done. Nobody knew what was happening at the time, and it was right to move her.
“They are a very small people, the Vietnamese. Not only short. That never surprised me, because I expected them to be short before I came over, but they are so slender. There is really nothing to them at all, and not just the girls. When you see the men you don’t think of them as being well, fully grown up or something. Until you are used to seeing them around all the time, it is hard to think of them as regular people. But after a while, I don’t know, you get protective. You think that might be why we are fighting? Because these are charming little people in need of a brotherly arm around their shoulders? Weird theory, that, but I suppose it makes as much sense as anything else.
“Then I heard the MPs. Everybody else was moving back into the club, or already there. The girl was still unconscious, but nobody was around her or anything, so I left her for a minute and went and got one of the MPs.
“I told this one guy that there was a girl hurt, and took him to her, and he decided we should take her to the hospital. I don’t know why I didn’t think of that before. I guess I had it in mind that someone would say something or do something right there and she would be O.K. again.
“They put the girl in the back seat of their jeep. I decided I would go along with them to the hospital. I think I felt that if I went along with them that it would make a difference, and that she would get better quicker, or be better for my presence. I didn’t know the girl particularly. I’d only been at the club once or twice. I may have talked to her, but in no special way. It was a crazy feeling, like I could make her all right by wanting her to be all right, because if you wanted something bad enough, then it just had to be so. Your force could make it happen.
“When I got to the hospital, they asked me if I had seen anything, and I said no, you know, and explained what I could about the grenade and how we carried her outside. They told me to go back to the company. I didn’t want to leave. I just knew somehow that if I didn’t get to see her again she was going to die. It was the closest thing I’ve ever had to some kind psychic experience.”
He stopped talking and stretched out on my bunk and stared at the ceiling. I waited.
“You see,” he said after a few minutes, “you’re predictable. I knew even before I started that you would not ask me whether the girl died or not. You’re too tactful. Willing to sit there and wait to see whether I’m going to tell you or not, and figuring it’s my business whether I do or don’t.”
I didn’t say anything.
“She did die,” he said, “about two days later. She was all messed up inside, and I don’t know whether we helped her along or not. I know that it had to be in some way my fault, and it is something that has become part of me. And, of course, the nice thing about the story is that now that you’ve heard it, what happened is part of you, too.”
Lederer got up and left as abruptly as he had entered earlier. I tried to figure out why it was that he had chosen me to talk to. It was probably something as simple as the fact that I was new, and wouldn’t have any preconceptions about him, and that I was not close to him. I hadn’t lived his life. There was nothing I could say back.
outstanding professional competence
a definite asset and contributed immeasurably
reacting to the extreme danger
imminent pending death
inspired by his courageous actions
Howard came in screaming drunk that evening. “Piss on it!” he yelled. “Do you hear me? Piss on all of it!”
He walked up and down the length of the hootch, banging on all the wall lockers and plywood partitions with his fists and waking everybody up.
“Go to bed, Howard,” somebody called.
“Do you think that makes any difference? To me?” He continued to shout as loudly as he could. “Do you think that makes any difference at all?”
“Go to bed, Howard,” said the same voice, with the same effect.
Howard stomped through the hootch, bringing his feet down as hard as he could on the echoing floor. “Do you think that makes any difference? Do you think you make any difference at all? Puk Pawwk! Puk puk puk puk. Piss on all your stinking assholes.”
Howard crashed out of the hootch. I don’t know where he went.
exceptional courage and daring
demonstrated exceptional resourcefulness
long arduous hours
disregarding the danger involved
during the initial exchange of fire
I didn’t see Lederer again until the night before he was leaving, about four days after his last visit.
“Let’s go out and sit on the bunker.” he said when he came into my area. “I can’t stand the smell of these freaks.”
It was about nine o’clock and I had been lying around in my underwear trying to get involved in a long adventure novel from the PX. I put on my Ho Chi Minh sandals and followed him outside. There was a lot of noise in the hootch. About three different guys were running their tape recorders. He raised himself up on top of the green nylon sandbags which cover our bunker and I did the same. It was hot out, hot being away from the fan, but quieter.
“I have left you a document,” he said, “which purports to be Lederer’s Legacy, a compendium of deathless phrases to be applied with discretion both to mortals and to those who have transcended their earthly remains. Specifically, those guys who either make it back to Mom and Dad, or get greased. Do not be misled. It is neither Lederer’s true Legacy, nor does it work, in most instances.”
“I don’t know,” I said, “I think it comes in pretty handy.”
“Did you know I was married?” he asked.
“No,” I said, a little startled. Lederer just always seemed like he was only himself, not part of something else. I didn’t know whether he was telling the truth or not.
“Aptly put. Forthright, direct, and to the point. You might also gather that I am half lit. No matter. It is my last night, and I intend, if not to really enjoy it, at least not to hate it. I am making my fond farewells to this delightful place. No matter. But I wanted to rap with you for a while before I crashed. You got time?”
“Yeah, sure,” I said to him. Most of a year left.
“Yes, my friend,” he said, launching into a bad imitation of W.C. Fields, “I will be going to a little corn-silk, tousle-topped, blue-eyed darling of mine. Little girl from Wrens, Georgia, by way of the University of Tennessee and a disastrous summer at Corpus Christi where she worked as a waitress and had the good fortune to meet and marry mine own self. Beautiful little girl. Salt of the Earth. Salt of the Sea. Salt of the Shaker. Shit. I love her anyway.
“Makes me nervous, it does, this thought of returning to the world. Can’t get properly prepared for my hero’s welcome. Do you think they will do that, you know, have the high school band out, and half a dozen of us or so march down the main street of the tree-lined town, and everything will turn to technicolor, and all will have been worthwhile? Are there any towns left underneath the trees?
“Still, it will be better than the shakes over here, even if everything is still dun brown and dusty.
“Sometimes I wonder what she is thinking, because you never can tell. I just never have been able to get inside a woman’s imagination. Trying to play like you are part of their mind and know what she is up to, it just doesn’t work out.
“Lays back there in old El Pas-ay-o in the little air-conditioned apartment she picked up while trying to finish her schooling, and dreams about me consorting with flesh peddlers, pimps, whores, and willing boys. A very bad place, the Army is, for clean young men. But that is neither here nor there. Particularly not here.
“I, of course, dream of her constantly. Abstinence makes the heart grow fonder.”
He lay back and looked up at the stars.
“Did you ever wonder where the Southern Cross was in all those stars? That’s the four stars on our patch, in case you didn’t get the orientation on the history of the unit. I’ll be damned if I could ever find it up there in all that space.”
I was starting to understand a little of how tired Lederer was, of how disgusted. I could see it happening to me, maybe, just the time starting to wear you down, eat at the edges of your mind.
“I was on the verge of cracking up,” he said. “There was nothing particularly dramatic about it. Chalk it up to my being a slightly weird guy. At any rate, nothing came of it. When I first got here, I wanted to be a door gunner. Listen to this, now, it’s almost like a poem: I wanted to fly in the mad helicopter skies and piss death with my machine gun, streaming death from between my legs. Wear a red Day-Glow helmet and kill people on the ground . . .
“But that was before I had the realization, before I knew that no matter what I did, unless I killed myself, I would not die here. I realized that I was somehow protected, that nothing could happen to me, that I would have to live through it, live with it, and that was all there was. So I decided that I would not kill here. It was only fair.
“And after a while, they decided that I was crazy. Not too crazy to do my job, but certainly crazy enough to keep away from a weapon. No sweat. We all have to make it on our own terms.
“But it didn’t help much.
“I think of my wife at home with a lesbian lover. That is the substance of my erotic dreams. My subconscious is a bitch. Make of that what you will. I dream of my wife and her lesbian lover who looks exactly like herself, and they roll about in the slowest of motion on the couch and split and fuse, split of fuse. What is the source of these midnight creep shows? They hold each other so tightly that they are just one person, then come apart and make intense, explicit, pornographic love. I can see it, and feel it, and it hurts me very much.”
We smoked a cigarette. I had to light his for him because he only had those green Army matches and couldn’t keep one lit long enough. He started talking again after a few minutes, but it was different. Whatever he had been working up to was over, and I don’t know whether he had said what he wanted to or not.
“So, you spend a long year here. At first, it doesn’t seem that way, when you are fresh, and angry, and can think of ways to pass the time. But it grows longer and longer and you close up inside yourself and have visions of the little woman. And you don’t want much to be an Indian. No hunting, no trespassing.
“I sleep outside, now. I shipped everything I want to keep back home, because I didn’t want to be attached to this place anymore. I sleep outside, down by the beach, with the rats and the lizards and the night noises that I refuse to be afraid of.
“There was another story that I was going to tell you, and it made sense earlier on, but maybe it’s not important. It wasn’t a very unusual story, and maybe a little maudlin. I need to go home, now, and get my head straight. But it’s no sweat, GI. I’ll see you in the morning.”
Lederer climbed down off the bunker and walked away.
I saw him again in the morning when he came in to pick up his service medal, and Loving drove him down to the airport in the office jeep for his flight to Camn Ranh and home. He didn’t say anything.
Now, sometimes, when Howard is beating on his desk with both fists and the Marines are running up their jets down at the airport and everything is so loud that you want to scream, I think about his remarks, and hell, maybe I almost understand him, and I almost understand the little poem which I found neatly typed on a three-by-five card. Lederer had signed it and paperclipped it to an award for a medic who had saved this guy’s life by fishing out and tying off the arteries in the stumps of his blown-off legs.
Once in a while I get a notion to write him a letter, even though I don’t have his address, and tell him about this crazy scene I’ve been envisioning. It’s Howard, stripped naked, in a room where the light is intensely bright and the walls and floor and ceiling are covered with mirrors, and he’s screaming, “Can’t you hear me? Can’t you hear me? I’m Howard, Goddam it, from South Goddam Carolina! Can’t you hear me?” Lederer would probably understand.
while he kept the enemy occupied
continuing his advance
neutralizing the hostile fire
closing with the insurgents
overrunning the enemy positions
his courageous actions at the cost of
This story is from a 1973 book entitled FREE FIRE ZONE: SHORT STORIES BY VIETNAM VETERANS, edited by Wayne Karlin. There are a few used copies available on Amazon, and quite a few used copies, both hardcover and paperback, can be located via AddAll.com, a meta-search website that searches many bookstores all at once for you.