Copyright 2002.  Danny Dumas.  All rights reserved.  No part of this document may be copied, faxed, electronically transmitted, or in any other manner duplicated without express written permission of the author.  Daniel Dumas ddumas3@twcny.rr.com

 

 

 

The Boot Brown Bar and the Rooster

by Sgt. Dumas

"The struggle was in the rice paddies, not passing through, but living among them, night and day and joining with them in steps toward a better life long overdue."

General Lew Walt
Commander of Marine forces in Vietnam, 1965-1967

I crouched there watching the North Vietnamese regular hose the second lieutenant's dead body down with his assault rifle. When he'd emptied his clip, I put a round from the heavy old M-14 in him, and he went down, dying. That was a good weapon. That round would put a guy down and keep him down with one well-placed shot. Also, the weapon didn't jam.

The second lieutenant had been dead since he walked into the clearing where the rooster was tied by the foot. Hell, he'd been dead when he joined our patrol four days before, he just didn't know it yet. I'd tried to tell him not to advance into that trap, but he wouldn't listen. You hear a lot about junior officers catching a round in the back from their own guys. I don't know about that. What I know about is how a lot of guys get it because the officer with no combat experience orders them to do something that anyone with an ounce of been there, done that wouldn't even dream of doing.

The morning we set out, he was just another FNG, a fuckin' new guy, and it showed. Most of the guys were bitching because we'd only been back to the compound at Tam Ky for three days when they ordered us to go back out with this fucking second looey who was gathering info for some strategy moves the big shots dream up.

I wasn't.

I couldn't wait to get back out there. That wasn't because I was gung ho for the program. It was because I was very nervous about being a sitting duck for rockets and mortars. After all, the enemy had read our play; he knew the exact distances from any position to the razor wire. Furthermore, he knew the exact distance from the razor wire to the hooches, the razor wire to the communications bunker, the razor wire to the power generators, the razor wire to the ammo revetments, the fuel dump, and so forth.

I'd been there before, and I didn't want to go back.

Let me make myself clear. The fight That's where the terror lives. The enemy, the Viet Cong, or the People's Liberation Army, or just plain old Charlie as we called him, he still lives there. We were forming up at the base camp there along the Song Tam Ky river 15 miles south of the An Hoa Valley, about twenty-five miles southwest of Da Nang, to make another patrol of our area of operations, our AO.We were going out to find and engage the enemy.It was like this.We were young Marines aged anywhere from eighteen to our mid-twenties. The average age of the seasoned combat Marine was nineteen.

Our commanders were middle aged professional officers who had been ordered by politicians to bring peace to, and secure, an area where the people had been at war for centuries.The politicians, they called that "pacification".

As to the Vietnamese, they had fought the Chinese, the Japanese, the Laotians, the Khmers, all comers, for centuries, and had reduced all comers to intimidated occupiers.With every day I served in-country, I learned that professional Marine officers aren't very well disposed to making peace.
War is their thing, their passion, their guiding principle.They are there to see to it that their Marines keep their killing instinct pure, clean, razor sharp, and at the ready. You fuck with that, and you're fucking up. I learned that lesson every day.

They were there to teach me. But they didn't grade the tests. The enemy handed out the grades. To pass the course in guerilla warfare, you lived through the day. If you got killed or wounded so badly you couldn't carry on with the fight, you lost.It sounds so simple now. It wasn't so simple back then.

Our squad was under strength - eleven Marines, a Navy hospital corpsman, and a greenhorn Second Lieutenant, who ranked among us, the experienced, the battle weary and hardened, as a "boot brown bar" because of the bronze bar he wore on his collar. We were forming up to sweep our area of operations. They wanted us to go out and look for the enemy because the fixed positions of the 3/5, the third of the fifth, or, that is, the Third Batallion of the Fifth Marine Regiment, had been taking a lot of rocket and mortar attacks lately. Patrols of line companies hadn't run into any significant numbers of Viet Cong or North Vietnamese Army troops. Something was up, and the officers wanted to know what it was, who was involved, and where it was coming from. The something that was up, it was nothing but a war of nerves.

Let me break that down to nuts and bolts, put it on the ground where it belongs. We were volunteers. We got no orders straight out of boot camp. We were going to work hand and hand with the locals and teach them how to take the fight to the enemy. We lived there. We lived there twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. We developed intelligence reports that were used in the high command's estimates of the enemy's movements, strength, and predictions of his intentions. We were so alone, we couldn't have been more isolated in the middle of an ocean on a life raft.

This thing of the intelligence, it worked both ways. The village peasants liked us for being there, supplying them with all the stuff we brought out of the land of the big PX, things like batteries for radios and tape players, antibiotics, and clothing. They passed us tips on where Charlie and the NVA were, when and where the attacks would come.

The trouble was, Charlie used them to misinform and disinform us and the command structure we reported to. Inside each village there was a well developed fifth column of informers and undercover political operatives; these people had a clearcut picture of their goals, their objectives. They worked harder on the Vietnamese militiamen, or PF's, as they were called.
For a little yellow man in a uniform, it was just as easy to shed that uniform and drop that rifle the Americans had equipped him with as it was to stay and party. He could boogie. We couldn't. We had to stay where we were. Then, we were alone. Ten to fourteen guys moving, on foot, through villages occupied by thousands of people, we knew we were very, very alone.

They, Charlie and his operatives, spread terror like a cheap whore spreads the clap.Their whispers took advantage of every half truth and outright lie or exaggeration that could be conceived. There was the bit about the prices on our heads. A peasant would whisper to you that you were marked for death, that so many piasters would be paid when someone could prove they had killed you. They said they'd heard it on the radio during a broadcast of the revolutionary people's council, or some old shit like that. They said we had been mentioned by name, rank and serial number, that even now the fighting soldiers of the people's revolutionary army were setting up that ambush where we'd get it for the last time.

It was an unsettling feeling to get the news from a friendly face smiling out around betel nut stained teeth, someone you'd known and lived with for months. It made you want to haul off and shoot them, but what if you shot the wrong one, someone who wasn't a VC spy? Then all hell would break loose, and you wouldn't have done what you came there to do, after all.

Marines are supposed to be, above all, brave in the face of danger, certain death. It was our abiding code, something to hang onto no matter what. We were pawns in a chess gambit.

When I was on patrol, moving among the people, through the jungle, along the trails they'd been using for centuries, I was a member of the group of people I thought of as the just not dead yet squad. My life was over. I was thinking about my funeral. Who would be there? What words would be said about me? My life passed through my mind in the first hours after dark.

After dark, it was all Indian country. Charlie ruled the night until we came and took it away from him and Westmoreland hated our success stories and small victories.

After dark, a small group of guys would read the Bible they prayed. I'd watched them do this many times, but I never bought into any of that religious shit. It seemed to give them a calm, so I ignored it and cleaned my weapon or some other menial task that you were forever needing to do.

This time, it was different. This time, as it was every time, it was morning. We were forming up in the morning fog. We would find the enemy and ambush him. We would call in the coordinates where he could be found on a detailed topographical map. We would dial in artillery fire, gunship helicopters, and Navy fighter jets with napalm and high explosive bombs.

As we moved through the jungle looking to set up an ambush site, I was actually relieved. The reports were that charlie was building forces and the NVA were coming in by large numbers to engage us at any cost. I was more at ease than I'd ever been during my tour of duty. There wasn't going to be any more terror, no more suffering. My life was over. I had reached a new understanding of war and my human nature.

Now, what I had in mind was the notion of selling my life at the highest possible price. Now, I wanted to make Charlie pay the maximum price to take it away from me. Quite simply, I wanted to take as many Communists with me as possible. I was ready to do what I'd been trained to do.

There were the war protests, the unknowing actions of privileged university students that led to huge public disaffection with the men beside me in the field. There was the time we'd found boxes and boxes of sweatshirts from the University of California at Berkeley mixed in with rounds of ammo, rice, rockets, and assorted boots, bullets, beans and band-aids stashed in a Viet Cong bunker. We knew that all of it had been bought or stolen from the supply depots of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, what the newsmen called South Vietnam, or the ARVN troops. What wasn't obtained from them had been sold to them by the dope heads, the "rear echelon motherfuckers" or REMF's, as we called them, who were more interested in their dope habits than they were in resupplying we of the line companies. We knew the sweatshirts came from American boys and girls who had crossed over, joined the other side.

There were the pictures in the newsmagazines of the massacres performed by an operation where some highly pissed off Army guys had done what they thought would keep them alive. They had lit up an entire village because they were tired of booby traps, sniper fire, and getting ambushed by an army of the night that was supplied by the civilians in that village at their own "the Army's" expense. All of it had left me mentally exhausted.

I was ready to fight and die, but not just die for no reason; I wanted to exact all the damage I could. I, and the guys in my squad, had learned the war's basic lesson the hard way. We'd learned the ultimate lesson that armed conflict had to offer on any given day. You must survive today, all day long, if you hope to live and carry on the fight. No more fight, no more life.

Is that too simple? It's not too simple for the man behind the trigger. Once you're in that position, then the orders, the concepts, the strategies, the international treaties, all the parades, the political theories, the rhetoric, all the trappings of war, it all boils down to that simple equation.

It's a phenomenon, a force. Like an ocean wave, you don't fight it and win; it will drown you. You go with it, understand, adapt, improvise, and execute under the conditions that prevail. If you're one of us, you already know that. If you're not, go there sometime. Try it. You'll see, or you won't survive.


# # # #


There we were, forming up in the compound area, all eleven of us, including four FNG's, the men who had no nicknames. You have to fight, and win, to earn one of those. They called me "Radio" because I was always keyed up, looking, listening, communicating with hand signals, telling the news and because I started my tour as a humper for the grunts, carrying that dreaded PRC-25 with the whip that you made every effort to stick up your ass to keep charlie from seeing you were the comm man.I half snickered as I watched one of the FNG's trying to stuff all his boxes of combat rations in his pack. They wouldn't even fit that way.
Would be out for about five days and  would be re-supplied on the fifth day, they had told us. The truth was, the way things had been going, we didn't have any idea how long we'd be out there. I showed the guy how to disassemble the cans from the boxes, how they'd stuff into the corners and crevices much better that way.

While I was at it, I traded him out of some of my favorite, canned peaches. I couldn't get enough of them. He settled for my lima beans and ham, and a couple of scrambled eggs, which I couldn't stand. I'd kept from laughing at the baby face and the nervous movements by turning my head and muttering "Let me help you with those rats, kid." He just looked at me like he was scared shitless.

What the hell, I was nineteen, a corporal acting as sergeant, which was usually the highest rank in a line squad operating in the field in the type unit I was involved with. I was a hundred years old, and I knew I was going to die here. "Thanks, corporal," he said. "Where we headed?"I didn't want him to see the smirk on my face, so I turned my head and pointed down the road, down Highway One toward the Arizona territory.

"Out there," I said, turning further and walking away to help the radio telephone operator hoist his gear onto his shoulders and adjust the straps. "Hey, Radio," he said. "Help me get this fuckin' thing on right. It rubs blisters on me if the fuckin' straps aren't tight enough." We slipped the plastic bag over the receiver and adjusted it to keep the unit dry and working. "No sweat, Sparky," I said. After all, what are radio waves if not some kind of invisible sparks that travel on certain frequencies.

"Motherhood," he said into the microphone. "Motherhood One. Radio check, please." The squelch made the reply squawk and break up. "Motherhood One," it belched amidst static. "This is Motherhood I read you five by how me over?" Sparky acknowledged the transmission, picked up his rifle, locked and loaded and fixed that thousand yard stare down the trail we'd be following.

I checked out the rest of my boys. The doc was stuffing his pack with medical supplies; he was leaving most of his rations on the ground. We called him Mother because he came on like a mother hen, fussing over us. When we first started calling him "Mother Hen," he tried to act like it rubbed him the wrong way, but you could see he liked it. He was Navy, a swab jockey who had become one of us. It made him a proud sumbitch.

The Coon Ass was loading his body with more stuff than two average men can carry. He was hooking up new links of 7.62 millimeter rounds for the M-60 machine gun he always carries, cleans, caresses as if it's his best girl's tit. He was a good man to have on your back, didn't run from a fight, didn't talk when you needed quiet. He'd proven many times that he could lay those tracers down and make them keep their heads down, conserve his ammunition, and stay cool when people started getting the jitters. He was the Coon Ass because he was from the bayou country of South Louisiana and usually told people that "I gaw-roan-tee" after every positive statement he made.
Mack, the guy who was as big as a Mack truck and built like one too, slung another bandolier of white phosphorus grenades and then another of fragmentation. White phosphorus comes out of the barrel of that sawed off shotgun looking M-79 grenade launcher with a wicked little pop. When it hits, it burns until it goes out. Water won't touch it. It's a self oxidizing compound; it burns right on through anything it's hot enough to melt and burn. Fragmentation grenades go off and turn into razor sharp shrapnel that penetrates flesh and is hard to extract. Take my word for it. I'd been hit twice with the stuff, and the docs at the battalion aid station just released me to go back to my unit with most of it still in me. There was no Purple Heart, no hospitalization, just a hot meal and a ride back to our base camp between An Hoa and Tam Ky.

"How the hell does he hump all that stuff?" I asked myself. "I'd hate to think I had to do it." That's when I spotted the new second looey, the boot brown bar, strutting down the line of men like the foolish little bitch he was. The Headquarters Company had detached him to my patrol so he could help generate a high quality assessment of the situation, the enemy's strength, his movements, all that. It was understood that he was new in-country, had no previous combat experience, and was expected to ease into his leadership role with a lot of help from his new friends.

That's not how it was working out that morning.
This fuckin' idiot strolled along inspecting his new troops, giving last minute instructions that sounded like he was reading them out of some ninety day wonder manual. I don't think he ever realized that the guys had him totally tuned out; they never heard a word.

They were running the prospects of heavy contact through their heads. No matter that they'd been out many times before, they were full of the "what ifs" that go along with taking a five day plus stroll through Indian Country. They were in their own world, and the boot officer had never been there with them before, so he not only didn't have a nickname or a place in the squad, he couldn't be heard or seen. It was if he wasn't even there. He never seemed to notice.
I walked down the line one last time, telling everyone to get ready to go in five minutes. They were ready. The greenhorn looey gave the command to move out. When I got on point, it was because I like it there. I know where I'm going; I know what I'm looking for; when we walk into the shit and it starts to hit the fan, I'm going to know it and know the why and the where of it.
The highway was pretty easy going for the first two miles. I stuck to the edges, avoiding the ruts and tracks because, though the engineers swept it for mines daily, Charlie came back every night to plant mines. It was easy walking. I cradled the heavy rifle casually, at the ready, because nothing much ever happened on the road. When I signaled I was diverting into the thicket, heading for the village, I started perking up, walking heel to toe and looking, really looking, at everything around me.

I was looking for clues, anything out of the ordinary.

My nostrils flared, and I stopped to savor an unexpected smell. I had caught the sweet aroma of firewood burning. Since this was more than three hundred yards from the village, I got very interested in the fact that Charlie might be camped out somewhere along the trail. What's more, where Charlie camped out, he laced the trails all around with nasty little surprises for diddy bopping Marines.

As we got closer, I began to smell the rotten fish sauce they call "nouc mam". It smells like a Da Nang prostitute's stinking cunt after a convoy of Army troopers pass through and give her a bang for four, five dollars a head.It would gag you to smell it unless you were accustomed to its odor. All the gooks ate it on their rice. You could smell it coming out of their pores when you got downwind of them.

Most of the guys wouldn't eat it. They couldn't handle the odor. I ate it all the time because it helped me to smell like them when I was out in the bush. Charlie had a very well developed sense of smell, and I didn't want him to catch some strange white boy odors and let him know we were coming. Besides, once you got past the odor, it was delicious; it made the rice taste a whole lot better.

By now the morning fog had lifted. I could see the shiny ripples on a rice paddy under the bright tropical Asian sun. We moved across the dikes with caution as we approached the village slowly, carefully, watching a peasant plow his rice field behind a water buffalo, the most docile creature imaginable, a two thousand pound beast that little kids could lead around by a string through its nose. We kept to a narrow dike between the paddies, seeing nothing but setting off alarm bells in my mind, where I saw visions of us all buying it out there with no cover available.

That's when the little kids started running out to meet us. I yelled "Didi mau, didi mau," which is Vietnamese for "get out fast, get out fast." I couldn't count the times I'd seen them running to meet us in unfriendly villages when I was with the grunts, with big smiles on their faces, only to explode when the booby traps strapped under their clothes went off and let a couple of Marines have it.

We'd made no contact that day, so we moved a little past the village and scouted the trails and the jungle in all directions, three hundred sixty degrees. Then we made a perimeter, set the watch and settled down for the night, eating c-rations we'd opened with our "John Waynes", little can openers called P-38's that came in the boxes of rations. There were no fires because we couldn't afford to let the enemy know where to look for us. That's when this fool of a boot brown bar started running around our little camp acting like he knew what he was doing. He debriefed the men, talked about the mission, the goals for tomorrow, looked on while Mother checked their feet for blisters and infections, or small wounds they might not feel inside their wet jungle boots.

I just snickered as I watched his dumb ass. What kinda idea did HQ have sending this greenhorn out with a patrol that would most likely be out numbered if they had to engage anyway. We needed someone with some savvy, not some glory hungry wet nose brown bar. The Coon Ass and Mack gave each other mock salutes any time his back was turned. I mean, this fuckin' idiot was actually running around with those bronze bars on the collar of his fatigue shirt, as if anyone could mistake him for anything besides what he was. Or maybe he thought we'd forgotten, after a whole day in the field with him, that he was the officer in charge. It was that bad.

Everyone kept right on doing what they always did. They opened cans of rats and crawled up under the bushes to eat and sleep. How the hell they could just fall asleep like that, I'll never know. I never got more than a few minutes at a time. I was always too keyed up for that.

It was on the morning of the fourth day that I knew, felt in my gut, that something was about to happen. I had been walking point slowly, carefully, signaling a halt while I made a look-see at everything I thought could mean something was wrong. I was feeling the beginning of that knot in my stomach that I always felt just before it gets too late to do much about it.

I wasn't seeing anything specific, just feeling it, until I saw the c-ration can on the left side of the trail. It was almost completely covered up with rotted vegetation, but there was just enough exposed for me to see it was a different color, a different texture. I held my arm up with the clenched fist for what must have been the twentieth time in a couple of hundred yards.

Everyone stopped. Now I was sure, I crouched down to see the piece of clear monofilament fishing line strung across the trail and tied to a tree on the other side. I used my razor sharp carbon steel knife, the K-Bar with the leather handle, to clear the debris away from the open end of the can. Peeking out at me was an American fragmentation grenade.

I swore at heaven, cursing the dope heads in the rear echelons for trading our weapons and ordnance for heroin and marijuana. We lost half our supplies before they got on the choppers to rear echelon motherfuckers who wanted to keep their dope habits up at our expense. I prayed silently, for the thousandth time, that I could get just a few days in the bush with some of those bastards, just once.

I motioned for Mack to come up and take a look. I told him to send the FNG's up, one at a time, to get a look at what Charlie had left us as a little party favor, a birthday gift. I hoped they'd take note and not blow it off, the way thousands of other guys had.

Usually, some seasoned grunt got it along with the fool, and that was bad for business, the way I saw it. I slowly pulled the little gift out of its hiding place and got a piece of field wire out of my trousers pocket to put it back in the little hole where the pin goes. After I got it twisted off, it was safe. We'd beat Charlie, after all, for the moment. The little gift meant that he wasn't very far away, though.


We were in no man's land now, Indian country; anything could happen.


Sweat began to pour down my face. I took the bandana I had tied at my waist and put it inside my cover to soak up some of the briny stuff running into my eyes. I moved along for the next hour in slow motion, disarming four more booby traps. I could feel the bowling ball begin to swell in my gut. God, I love this shit, I thought, knowing it was going to come down any moment.

Fifty meters ahead, I saw a dimly lit little clearing under the triple canopy jungle foliage. I stopped the squad and approached, dry mouthed, with my heart pounding, letting my eyes become accustomed to the dim light. I looked and looked, knowing something would be there. Just as I was about to take one more step, I spotted the skinny little red and yellow fighting rooster tied to a stake driven into the ground.He was scratching and clucking without a care in the world.

Now I knew it. We were in the deepest trouble imaginable. NVA regulars, elements of the army of the People's Republic of Vietnam, or North Vietnam as the American press always called it, they used roosters like this as early warning devices wherever they camped in strength. I slithered back to squad, passing everyone until I reached the greenhorn second looey.

He seemed annoyed when I told him what was up. "What's the big deal?" the fool asked me, getting out his maps to figure the coordinates so he could tell headquarters these folks' address. "The big deal is, sir, the NVA regulars travel in strength. I can promise you we'll be outnumbered by at least ten to one if we engage them," I said.
Much better idea to just drop back and punt at this stage of the game, I explained. Let the artillery, the helicopter gun ships, and the Navy fighter planes speak harshly to these folks with white phosphorus, napalm, and TNT. Then the whole world would know just where the enemy was, the way we'd been instructed to do the job. "Bullshit, corporal," he said with a lot of snot in his voice, "I say we advance and engage the enemy."
>"Well, sir," I began again. "At least let me set a fire team and get them in position to cover us. I'd like to go around that clearing because I smell a rat, and I don't want to go charging in there where I can't see anything and get killed." He waved his hand as if he was shooing a fly away. With the bored tone of the hacker addressing the non-hacker, he said "Do it, but make it quick. I don't want to be here all day." I sent Coon Ass with the machine gun and four other Marines into the jungle on the right. I told them to set up and lay low. To get triangulation fire on the clearing and be ready to move.


# # # #


There's a moment when you know it's going to get hot, and you know that it will come as fast as the twitch of a trigger finger, when everything slows down. The world gets focused, sharp. The greens of the trees and bushes are greener. The air has a special quality of light you've never seen in it before. Dust and moisture stand out, and you know what you see is just an illusion carried by light through the atmosphere. You can feel little prickles under your armpits, around your scrotum, in rings around your ankles and wrists. The feeling, it pounds behind your eyes, inside your temples, and at your throat.

I walked back to the second looey heel and toe, praying my movements wouldn't set the rooster off. "They're in place, sir, but we better go around this clearing just to be on the safe side," I told him. If you don't have the balls for it, Corporal, I'll take point myself," he whispered, drawing his .45 automatic, which was at least already locked and loaded with a round in the chamber.

It was the last thing the fool ever said out loud.
As he approached the clearing, the rooster started acting like he was being killed. He made such a racket, it gave me the chills, and I shivered, enraged. What would happen to the men in my squad. Now, it was my squad, I thought, because this fuckin' idiot had just signed his own death warrant. He'd failed the test, screwed the pooch, taken himself off the count; he wouldn't be around to snap out any more orders.

Just as quickly as the rooster started his act, the clearing filled with the NVA regulars I knew would be there. The second looey was laying on the ground with a sucking chest wound, screaming like a castrated calf. Coon Ass opened up with the M-60; he socked it to them, making those red tracers track them where they were trying to rush our positions. The radioman, Sparky, started calling in artillery rounds. Mack started blooping those 40 millimeter grenades into the mass of soldiers charging us. He blew a lot of them to bits with the rounds that cleared the M-79's large bore shotgun muzzle with that funny little "bloop" sound.

I spotted a soldier with an AK-47 grinning wickedly while he stood over the boot brown bar second looey and poured rounds into his body. He silenced the poor bastard's screams forever, except for in my dreams, the one place where I can't shake them.

Sparky began to adjust the artillery fire. He got them bracketed, side to side and front and rear, and the stuff rained down for about a half an hour until we heard the whump whump whump sound that Hueys make. Those are the Hughes Aircraft Company's "slicks" gunships that were used to resupply, evacuate and transport people to this silly war. What a happy sound that is to hear. What was even better was the arrival of the First Air Cavalry's Cobra gunships with their rotating gatling guns the GI's called "the eye of God," their rockets, and their cannons.

They all backed off to the side and held their positions while the Navy jets laid napalm down on the enemy camp. The jellied gasoline and phosphorus started to burn them up. It made exactly the same odor that barrels of burning hair made out behind the barbershop in the little Mississippi town where I was raised. I was starting to feel pretty good, though I was still all tensed up and sick from the stuff my heart was pumping through my body. My old mouth tasted like brass, and I knew I couldn't get enough water, so I just ignored it. I just kept scanning the area, reconnoitering and checking on my people.

I looked around at Mother; what I saw almost killed me. I thought I was going to have a heart attack. He was holding a battle dressing to Mack's neck, which was squirting bright red arterial blood. Mack kept asking him if he was going to be all right. Mother kept clucking and soothing him. He kept telling him he was going to be all right, that we'd already dialed in the medevac chopper, to relax and get ready for that freedom bird, buddy.

The freedom bird. Mack was short. This was his last time to go "out there". For the past three months he'd been taking us all, George, Coon Ass, Mother, anybody who would listen, and we all wanted to listen, back home to Georgia. He talked about food, southern style, fried catfish and hush puppies, black eyed peas and ham, greens and cornbread, pot liquor, roasted fresh killed quail and that old dog he hunted with. We knew every acre of his daddy's farm. We'd held his girl's little high school graduation picture and admired her sparkling eyes, her turned up nose, for what seemed like at least a hundred years and a thousand times.

We were all going to go back and visit him at his home place and stay awhile. We were going to get to know the folks. We were going to ride his old XLCH Harley Davidson Sportster. We were going to the drags in his old 1956 Bel Aire Chevy, the one he and his brother had dropped the big cam and 327 into, saved up for the headers, welded the roll bar.

The truth was, we'd already visited there many, many times. He'd taken us with him on that freedom bird, that Continental Airlines Boeing 707, the proud bird with the golden tail, many times. Many times.
He made me care about home, some kind of home. The truth was, before Mack got short, I hadn't cared. Take the thing about the letters from his mother and his girl. I really didn't have anyone back home, and hadn't gotten but one letter. It was from this sweet thing that took care of us on the Golden Eagle Continental that flew us into the country. She was from Playa Del Rey, California, I believe. She was so proud to have a Marine to write to in Vietnam, so I received only one letter while I was in-country. I wrote her two or three letters on c-ration boxes, but I never mailed them, so I only got that one letter.
That blood kept on gushing and Mother kept talking to him. Mack said he was getting cold. I'd seen this all too many times not to know what was going down. I knew Mother was just talking to him to keep him calm. I'm pretty sure Mack knew it, too. Mack settled down and got that old lost look in his eyes, that old thousand-yard stare. He started mouthing the word "Mama, Mama," but no sound was coming out.

Very quickly, almost before you knew it had happened, just about as quickly as those NVA troops had flooded into that clearing, he stopped breathing and he was just sitting there with that empty stare, and with his mouth open. Mother Hen closed his eyes, and we held hands and prayed, a 1st for me, but Mack was special. I don't know what Mother said. I hope he asked God to bless old Mack's soul.

I said "Dear God, please bring that fuckin' boot brown bar back to life so Mother and I can kill his dirty little ass all over again."

I don't think I'll ever be quite as pissed off again, no matter how long I live. You had to be careful about getting close to your buddies. You had to let an FNG be an FNG as long as possible because it hurts way too bad to lose someone you love and keep on carrying the fight to the enemy with a cool head.

It was the insanity of the boot brown bar that turned our very successful little mission into a certified goat fuck. He got my friend killed for no reason, just as sure as God made little green apples. He deserved to die for his stupidity, but guys like him always take good Marines with them.The Lt. Colonel arrived by chopper, giving us a glowing critique and a very rare promise of an outstanding after action report.

"Out fucking standing, Marines. You men did a hell of a job here today," the pompous old asshole was yelling at the top of his lungs.

Yeah. Outstanding. We had thirty-four confirmed kills. We confiscated a lot of important papers and communist arms, but it cost us a fine Marine who had done his time in hell, a poor little old FNG without a clue, the shitbird second looey, and two wounded in action.

None of that was necessary. The brass was happy, but we were all silent about it. We grieved privately, alone, miserable. We never talked about that day again.

But we'll relive it, over and over, as long as we draw breath in and out. It don't go away just because you don't talk about it.


I miss ole Mack a lot.