On my last full day, the sixth day, the old man took me out fishing on the Rainy River.
The afternoon was sunny and cold.
A stiff breeze came in from the north, and I remember how the little fourteen-foot boat made sharp rocking motions as we pushed off from the dock.
The current was fast.
All around us, I remember, there was a vastness to the world, an unpeopled rawness, just the trees and the sky and the water reaching out toward nowhere.
The air had the brittle scent of October. For ten or fifteen minutes Elroy held a course upstream, the river choppy and silver-gray, then he turned straight north and put the engine on full throttle.
I felt the bow lift beneath me.
I remember the wind in my ears, the sound of the old outboard Evinrude.
For a time I didn’t pay attention to anything, just feeling the cold spray against my face, but then it occurred to me that at some point we must’ve passed into Canadian waters, across that dotted line between two different worlds, and I remember a sudden tightness in my chest as I looked up and watched the far shore come at me.
This wasn’t a daydream.
It was tangible and real.
As we came in toward land, Elroy cut the engine, letting the boat fishtail lightly about twenty yards off shore.
The old man didn’t look at me or speak.
Bending down, he opened up his tackle box and busied himself with a bobber and a piece of wire leader, humming to himself, his eyes down. It struck me then that he must’ve planned it.
I’ll never be certain, of course, but I think he meant to bring me up against the realities, to guide me across the river and to take me to the edge and to stand a kind of vigil as I chose a life for myself. I remember staring at the old man, then at my hands, then at Canada.
The shoreline was dense with brush and timber.
I could see tiny red berries on the bushes.
I could see a squirrel up in one of the birch trees, a big crow looking at me from a boulder along the river.
That close—twenty yards—and I could see the delicate latticework of the leaves, the texture of the soil, the browned needles beneath the pines, the configurations of geology and human history.
I could’ve done it.
I could’ve jumped and started swimming for my life.
Inside me, in my chest, I felt a terrible squeezing pressure.
Even now, as I write this, I can still feel that tightness.
And I want you to feel it—the wind coming off the river, the waves, the silence, the wooded frontier.
You’re at the bow of a boat on the Rainy River.
You’re twenty-one years old, you’re scared, and there’s a hard squeezing pressure in your chest. What would you do? Would you jump? Would you feel pity for yourself? Would you think about your family and your childhood and your dreams and all you’re leaving behind? Would it hurt? Would it feel like dying? Would you cry, as I did? I tried to swallow it back.
I tried to smile, except I was crying. Now, perhaps, you can understand why I’ve never told this story before.
It’s not just the embarrassment of tears.
That’s part of it, no doubt, but what embarrasses me much more, and always will, is the paralysis that took my heart.
A moral freeze: I couldn’t decide, I couldn’t act, I couldn’t comport myself with even a pretense of modest human dignity. All I could do was cry.
Quietly, not bawling, just the chest-chokes. At the rear of the boat Elroy Berdahl pretended not to notice.
He held a fishing rod in his hands, his head bowed to hide his eyes.
He kept humming a soft, monotonous little tune.
Everywhere, it seemed, in the trees and water and sky, a great worldwide sadness came pressing down on me, a crushing sorrow, sorrow like I had never known it before.
And what was so sad, I realized, was that Canada had become a pitiful fantasy.
Silly and hopeless.
It was no longer a possibility.
Right then, with the shore so close, I understood that I would not do what I should do.
I would not swim away from my hometown and my country and my life.
I would not be brave.
That old image of myself as a hero, as a man of conscience and courage, all that was just a threadbare pipe dream.
Bobbing there on the Rainy River, looking back at the Minnesota shore, I felt a sudden swell of helplessness come over me, a drowning sensation, as if I had toppled overboard and was being swept away by the silver waves.
Chunks of my own history flashed by.
I saw a seven-year-old boy in a white cowboy hat and a Lone Ranger mask and a pair of holstered six-shooters; I saw a twelve-year-old Little League shortstop pivoting to turn a double play; I saw a sixteen-year-old kid decked out for his first prom, looking spiffy in a white tux and a black bow tie, his hair cut short and flat, his shoes freshly polished.
My whole life seemed to spill out into the river, swirling away from me, everything I had ever been or ever wanted to be.
I couldn’t get my breath; I couldn’t stay afloat; I couldn’t tell which way to swim.
A hallucination, I suppose, but it was as real as anything I would ever feel.
I saw my parents calling to me from the far shoreline.
I saw my brother and sister, all the townsfolk, the mayor and the entire Chamber of Commerce and all my old teachers and girlfriends and high school buddies.
Like some weird sporting event: everybody screaming from the sidelines, rooting me on—a loud stadium roar.
Hotdogs and popcorn—stadium smells, stadium heat.
A squad of cheerleaders did cartwheels along the banks of the Rainy River; they had megaphones and pompoms and smooth brown thighs.
The crowd swayed left and right.
A marching band played fight songs.
All my aunts and uncles were there, and Abraham Lincoln, and Saint George, and a nine-year-old girl named Linda who had died of a brain tumor back in fifth grade, and several members of the United States Senate, and a blind poet scribbling notes, and LBJ, and Huck Finn, and Abbie Hoffman, and all the dead soldiers back from the grave, and the many thousands who were later to die—villagers with terrible burns, little kids without arms or legs—yes, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff were there, and a couple of popes, and a first lieutenant named Jimmy Cross, and the last surviving veteran of the American Civil War, and Jane Fonda dressed up as Barbarella, and an old man sprawled beside a pigpen, and my grandfather, and Gary Cooper, and a kind-faced woman carrying an umbrella and a copy of Plato’s Republic, and a million ferocious citizens waving flags of all shapes and colors—people in hard hats, people in headbands—they were all whooping and chanting and urging me toward one shore or the other.
I saw faces from my distant past and distant future.
My wife was there.
My unborn daughter waved at me, and my two sons hopped up and down, and a drill sergeant named Blyton sneered and shot up a finger and shook his head.
There was a choir in bright purple robes.
There was a cabbie from the Bronx.
There was a slim young man I would one day kill with a hand grenade along a red clay trail outside the village of My Khe. The little aluminum boat rocked softly beneath me.
There was the wind and the sky. I tried to will myself overboard. I gripped the edge of the boat and leaned forward and thought, Now. I did try.
It just wasn’t possible. All those eyes on me—the town, the whole universe—and I couldn’t risk the embarrassment.
It was as if there were an audience to my life, that swirl of faces along the river, and in my head I could hear people screaming at me.
Traitor! they yelled.
Turncoat! Pussy! I felt myself blush.
I couldn’t tolerate it.
I couldn’t endure the mockery, or the disgrace, or the patriotic ridicule.
Even in my imagination, the shore just twenty yards away, I couldn’t make myself be brave.
It had nothing to do with morality.
Embarrassment, that’s all it was. And right then I submitted. I would go to the war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to. That was the sad thing.
And so I sat in the bow of the boat and cried. It was loud now.
Loud, hard crying. Elroy Berdahl remained quiet.
He kept fishing.
He worked his line with the tips of his fingers, patiently, squinting out at his red and white bobber on the Rainy River.
His eyes were flat and impassive.
He didn’t speak.
He was simply there, like the river and the late-summer sun.
And yet by his presence, his mute watchfulness, he made it real.
He was the true audience.
He was a witness, like God, or like the gods, who look on in absolute silence as we live our lives, as we make our choices or fail to make them. Ain’t biting, he said. Then after a time the old man pulled in his line and turned the boat back toward Minnesota. I don’t remember saying goodbye.
That last night we had dinner together, and I went to bed early, and in the morning Elroy fixed breakfast for me.
When I told him I’d be leaving, the old man nodded as if he already knew.
He looked down at the table and smiled. At some point later in the morning it’s possible that we shook hands—I just don’t remember—but I do know that by the time I’d finished packing the old man had disappeared.
Around noon, when I took my suitcase out to the car, I noticed that his old black pickup truck was no longer parked in front of the house.
I went inside and waited for a while, but I felt a bone certainty that he wouldn’t be back.
In a way, I thought, it was appropriate.
I washed up the breakfast dishes, left his two hundred dollars on the kitchen counter, got into the car, and drove south toward home. — Because she wasn’t listening. It wasn’t a war story.
It was a love story. But you can’t say that.
All you can do is tell it one more time, patiently, adding and subtracting, making up a few things to get at the real truth.
No Mitchell Sanders, you tell her.
No Lemon, no Rat Kiley.
No trail junction.
No baby buffalo.
No vines or moss or white blossoms.
Beginning to end, you tell her, it’s all made up.
Every goddamn detail—the mountains and the river and especially that poor dumb baby buffalo.
None of it happened.
None of it.
And even if it did happen, it didn’t happen in the mountains, it happened in this little village on the Batangan Peninsula, and it was raining like crazy, and one night a guy named Stink Harris woke up screaming with a leech on his tongue.
You can tell a true war story if you just keep on telling it. And in the end, of course, a true war story is never about war.
It’s about sunlight.
It’s about the special way that dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains and do things you are afraid to do.
It’s about love and memory.
It’s about sorrow.
It’s about sisters who never write back and people who never listen. The Dentist When Curt Lemon was killed, I found it hard to mourn.
I knew him only slightly, and what I did know was not impressive.
He had a tendency to play the tough soldier role, always posturing, always puffing himself up, and on occasion he took it way too far.
It’s true that he pulled off some dangerous stunts, even a few that seemed plain crazy, like the time he painted up his body and put on a ghost mask and went out trick-or-treating on Halloween.
But afterward he couldn’t stop bragging.
He kept replaying his own exploits, tacking on little flourishes that never happened.
He had an opinion of himself, I think, that was too high for his own good.
Or maybe it was the reverse.
Maybe it was a low opinion that he kept trying to erase. In any case, it’s easy to get sentimental about the dead, and to guard against that I want to tell a quick Curt Lemon story. In February we were working an area of operations called the Rocket Pocket, which got its name from the fact that the enemy sometimes used the place to launch rocket attacks on the airfield at Chu Lai.
But for us it was like a two-week vacation.
The AO lay along the South China Sea, where things had the feel of a resort, with white beaches and palm trees and friendly little villages.
It was a quiet time.
No casualties, no contact at all.
As usual, though, the higher-ups couldn’t leave well enough alone, and one afternoon an Army dentist was choppered in to check our teeth and do minor repair work.
He was a tall, skinny young captain with bad breath.
For a half hour he lectured us on oral hygiene, demonstrating the proper flossing and brushing techniques, then afterward he opened up shop in a small field tent and we all took turns going in for personal exams.
At best it was a very primitive setup.
There was a battery-powered drill, a canvas cot, a bucket of sea water for rinsing, a metal suitcase full of the various instruments.
It amounted to assembly-line dentistry, quick and impersonal, and the young captain’s main concern seemed to be the clock. As we sat waiting, Curt Lemon began to tense up.
He kept fidgeting, playing with his dog tags.
Finally somebody asked what the problem was, and Lemon looked down at his hands and said that back in high school he’d had a couple of bad experiences with dentists.
Real sadism, he said.
Torture chamber stuff.
He didn’t mind blood or pain—he actually enjoyed combat—but there was something about a dentist that just gave him the creeps.
He glanced over at the field tent and said, No way.
Count me out.
Nobody messes with these teeth. But a few minutes later, when the dentist called his name, Lemon stood up and walked into the tent. It was over fast.
He fainted even before the man touched him. Four of us had to hoist him up and lay him on the cot.
When he came to, there was a funny new look on his face, almost sheepish, as if he’d been caught committing some terrible crime.
He wouldn’t talk to anyone.
For the rest of the day he stayed off by himself, sitting alone under a tree, just staring down at the field tent.
He seemed a little dazed.
Now and then we could hear him cussing, bawling himself out.
Anyone else would’ve laughed it off, but for Curt Lemon it was too much.
The embarrassment must’ve turned a screw in his head.
Late that night he crept down to the dental tent.
He switched on a flashlight, woke up the young captain, and told him he had a monster toothache.
A killer, he said—like a nail in his jaw.
The dentist couldn’t find any problem, but Lemon kept insisting, so the man finally shrugged and shot in the Novocain and yanked out a perfectly good tooth.
There was some pain, no doubt, but in the morning Curt Lemon was all smiles. Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong Vietnam was full of strange stories, some improbable, some well beyond that, but the stories that will last forever are those that swirl back and forth across the border between trivia and bedlam, the mad and the mundane.
This one keeps returning to me.
I heard it from Rat Kiley, who swore up and down to its truth, although in the end, I’ll admit, that doesn’t amount to much of a warranty.
Among the men in Alpha Company, Rat had a reputation for exaggeration and overstatement, a compulsion to rev up the facts, and for most of us it was normal procedure to discount sixty or seventy percent of anything he had to say.
If Rat told you, for example, that he’d slept with four girls one night, you could figure it was about a girl and a half.
It wasn’t a question of deceit.
Just the opposite: he wanted to heat up the truth, to make it burn so hot that you would feel exactly what he felt.
For Rat Kiley, I think, facts were formed by sensation, not the other way around, and when you listened to one of his stories, you’d find yourself performing rapid calculations in your head, subtracting superlatives, figuring the square root of an absolute and then multiplying by maybe. Still, with this particular story, Rat never backed down.
He claimed to have witnessed the incident with his own eyes, and I remember how upset he became one morning when Mitchell Sanders challenged him on its basic premise. It can’t happen, Sanders said. Nobody ships his honey over to Nam.
It don’t ring true.
I mean, you just can’t import your own personal poontang. Rat shook his head. I saw it, man.
I was right there.
This guy did it. His girlfriend? Straight on.
It’s a fact. Rat’s voice squeaked a little.
He paused and looked at his hands. Listen, the guy sends her the money.
Flies her over.
This cute blonde—just a kid, just barely out of high school—she shows up with a suitcase and one of those plastic cosmetic bags.comes right out to the boonies.
I swear to God, man, she’s got on culottes.
White culottes and this sexy pink sweater.
There she is. I remember Mitchell Sanders folding his arms.
He looked over at me for a second, not quite grinning, not saying a word, but I could read the amusement in his eyes. Rat saw it, too. No lie, he muttered. Culottes. When he first arrived in-country, before joining Alpha Company, Rat had been assigned to a small medical detachment up in the mountains west of Chu Lai, near the village of Tra Bong, where along with eight other enlisted men he ran an aid station that provided basic emergency and trauma care.
Casualties were flown in by helicopter, stabilized, then shipped out to hospitals in Chu Lai or Danang.
It was gory work, Rat said, but predictable.
Amputations, mostly—legs and feet.
The area was heavily mined, thick with Bouncing Betties and homemade booby traps.
For a medic, though, it was ideal duty, and Rat counted himself lucky.
There was plenty of cold beer, three hot meals a day, a tin roof over his head.
No humping at all.
No officers, either.
You could let your hair grow, he said, and you didn’t have to polish your boots or snap off salutes or put up with the usual rear-echelon nonsense.
The highest ranking NCO was an E-6 named Eddie Diamond, whose pleasures ran from dope to Darvon, and except for a rare field inspection there was no such thing as military discipline. As Rat described it, the compound was situated at the top of a flat-crested hill along the northern outskirts of Tra Bong.
At one end was a small dirt helipad; at the other end, in a rough semicircle, the mess hall and medical hootches overlooked a river called the Song Tra Bong.
Surrounding the place were tangled rolls of concertina wire, with bunkers and reinforced firing positions at staggered intervals, and base security was provided by a mixed unit of RFs, PFs, and ARVN infantry.
Which is to say virtually no security at all.
As soldiers, the ARVNs were useless; the Ruff-and-Puffs were outright dangerous.
And yet even with decent troops the place was clearly indefensible.
To the north and west the country rose up in thick walls of wilderness, triple-canopied jungle, mountains unfolding into higher mountains, ravines and gorges and fast-moving rivers and waterfalls and exotic butterflies and steep cliffs and smoky little hamlets and great valleys of bamboo and elephant grass.
Originally, in the early 1960s, the place had been set up as a Special Forces outpost, and when Rat Kiley arrived nearly a decade later, a squad of six Green Berets still used the compound as a base of operations.
The Greenies were not social animals.
Animals, Rat said, but far from social.
They had their own hootch at the edge of the perimeter, fortified with sandbags and a metal fence, and except for the bare essentials they avoided contact with the medical detachment.
Secretive and suspicious, loners by nature, the six Greenies would sometimes vanish for days at a time, or even weeks, then late in the night they would just as magically reappear, moving like shadows through the moonlight, filing in silently from the dense rain forest off to the west.
Among the medics there were jokes about this, but no one asked questions. While the outpost was isolated and vulnerable, Rat said, he always felt a curious sense of safety there.
Nothing much ever happened.
The place was never mortared, never taken under fire, and the war seemed to be somewhere far away.
On occasion, when casualties came in, there were quick spurts of activity, but otherwise the days flowed by without incident, a smooth and peaceful time.
Most mornings were spent on the volleyball court.
In the heat of midday the men would head for the shade, lazing away the long afternoons, and after sundown there were movies and card games and sometimes all-night drinking sessions. It was during one of those late nights that Eddie Diamond first brought up the tantalizing possibility.
It was an offhand comment.
A joke, really.
What they should do, Eddie said, was pool some bucks and bring in a few mama-sans from Saigon, spice things up, and after a moment one of the men laughed and said, Our own little EM club, and somebody else said, Hey, yeah, we pay our fuckin’ dues, don’t we? It was nothing serious.
Just passing time, playing with the possibilities, and so for a while they tossed the idea around, how you could actually get away with it, no officers or anything, nobody to clamp down, then they dropped the subject and moved on to cars and baseball. Later in the night, though, a young medic named Mark Fossie kept coming back to the subject. Look, if you think about it, he said, it’s not that crazy.
You could actually do it. Do what? Rat said. You know.
Bring in a girl.
I mean, what’s the problem? Rat shrugged. Nothing.
A war. Well, see, that’s the thing, Mark Fossie said. No war here.
You could really do it.
A pair of solid brass balls, that’s all you’d need. There was some laughter, and Eddie Diamond told him he’d best strap down his dick, but Fossie just frowned and looked at the ceiling for a while and then went off to write a letter. Six weeks later his girlfriend showed up. The way Rat told it, she came in by helicopter along with the daily resupply shipment out of Chu Lai.
A tall, big-boned blonde.
At best, Rat said, she was seventeen years old, fresh out of Cleveland Heights Senior High.
She had long white legs and blue eyes and a complexion like strawberry ice cream.
Very friendly, too. At the helipad that morning, Mark Fossie grinned and put his arm around her and said, Guys, this is Mary Anne. The girl seemed tired and somewhat lost, but she smiled. There was a heavy silence.
Eddie Diamond, the ranking NCO, made a small motion with his hand, and some of the others murmured a word or two, then they watched Mark Fossie pick up her suitcase and lead her by the arm down to the hootches.
For a long while the men were quiet. That fucker, somebody finally said. At evening chow Mark Fossie explained how he’d set it up.
It was expensive, he admitted, and the logistics were complicated, but it wasn’t like going to the moon.
Cleveland to Los Angeles, LA to Bangkok, Bangkok to Saigon.
She’d hopped a C-130 up to Chu Lai and stayed overnight at the USO and the next morning hooked a ride west with the resupply chopper. A cinch, Fossie said, and gazed down at his pretty girlfriend. Thing is, you just got to want it enough. Mary Anne Bell and Mark Fossie had been sweethearts since grammar school.
From the sixth grade on they had known for a fact that someday they would be married, and live in a fine gingerbread house near Lake Erie, and have three healthy yellow-haired children, and grow old together, and no doubt die in each other’s arms and be buried in the same walnut casket.
That was the plan.
They were very much in love, full of dreams, and in the ordinary flow of their lives the whole scenario might well have come true. On the first night they set up house in one of the bunkers along the perimeter, near the Special Forces hootch, and over the next two weeks they stuck together like a pair of high school steadies.
It was almost disgusting, Rat said, the way they mooned over each other.
Always holding hands, always laughing over some private joke.
All they needed, he said, were a couple of matching sweaters.
But among the medics there was some envy.
It was Vietnam, after all, and Mary Anne Bell was an attractive girl.
Too wide in the shoulders, maybe, but she had terrific legs, a bubbly personality, a happy smile.
The men genuinely liked her.
Out on the volleyball court she wore cut-off blue jeans and a black swimsuit top, which the guys appreciated, and in the evenings she liked to dance to music from Rat’s portable tape deck.
There was a novelty to it; she was good for morale.
At times she gave off a kind of come-get-me energy, coy and flirtatious, but apparently it never bothered Mark Fossie.
In fact he seemed to enjoy it, just grinning at her, because he was so much in love, and because it was the sort of show that a girl will sometimes put on for her boyfriend’s entertainment and education. Though she was young, Rat said, Mary Anne Bell was no timid child.
She was curious about things.
During her first days in-country she liked to roam around the compound asking questions: What exactly was a trip flare? How did a Claymore work? What was behind those scary green mountains to the west? Then she’d squint and listen quietly while somebody filled her in.
She had a good quick mind.
She paid attention.
Often, especially during the hot afternoons, she would spend time with the ARVNs out along the perimeter, picking up little phrases of Vietnamese, learning how to cook rice over a can of Sterno, how to eat with her hands.
The guys sometimes liked to kid her about it—our own little native, they’d say—but Mary Anne would just smile and stick out her tongue. I’m here, she’d say, I might as well learn something. The war intrigued her.
The land, too, and the mystery.
At the beginning of her second week she began pestering Mark Fossie to take her down to the village at the foot of the hill.
In a quiet voice, very patiently, he tried to tell her that it was a bad idea, way too dangerous, but Mary Anne kept after him.
She wanted to get a feel for how people lived, what the smells and customs were.
It did not impress her that the VC owned the place. Listen, it can’t be that bad, she said. They’re human beings, aren’t they? Like everybody else? Fossie nodded.
He loved her. And so in the morning Rat Kiley and two other medics tagged along as security while Mark and Mary Anne strolled through the ville like a pair of tourists.
If the girl was nervous, she didn’t show it.
She seemed comfortable and entirely at home; the hostile atmosphere did not seem to register.
All morning Mary Anne chattered away about how quaint the place was, how she loved the thatched roofs and naked children, the wonderful simplicity of village life.
A strange thing to watch, Rat said.
This seventeen-year-old doll in her goddamn culottes, perky and fresh-faced, like a cheerleader visiting the opposing team’s locker room.
Her pretty blue eyes seemed to glow.
She couldn’t get enough of it.
On their way back up to the compound she stopped for a swim in the Song Tra Bong, stripping down to her underwear, showing off her legs while Fossie tried to explain to her about things like ambushes and snipers and the stopping power of an AK-47. The guys, though, were impressed. A real tiger, said Eddie Diamond. D-cup guts, trainer-bra brains. She’ll learn, somebody said. Eddie Diamond gave a solemn nod. There’s the scary part.
I promise you, this girl will most definitely learn. In parts, at least, it was a funny story, and yet to hear Rat Kiley tell it you’d almost think it was intended as straight tragedy.
He never smiled.
Not even at the crazy stuff.
There was always a dark, far-off look in his eyes, a kind of sadness, as if he were troubled by something sliding beneath the story’s surface.
Whenever we laughed, I remember, he’d sigh and wait it out, but the one thing he could not tolerate was disbelief.
He’d get edgy if someone questioned one of the details. She wasn’t dumb, he’d snap. I never said that.
Young, that’s all I said.
Like you and me.
A girl, that’s the only difference, and I’ll tell you something: it didn’t amount to jack.
I mean, when we first got here—all of us—we were real young and innocent, full of romantic bullshit, but we learned pretty damn quick.
And so did Mary Anne. Rat would peer down at his hands, silent and thoughtful.
After a moment his voice would flatten out. You don’t believe it? he’d say. Fine with me.
But you don’t know human nature.
You don’t know Nam. Then he’d tell us to listen up. — Church One afternoon, somewhere west of the Batangan Peninsula, we came across an abandoned pagoda.
Or almost abandoned, because a pair of monks lived there in a tar paper shack, tending a small garden and some broken shrines.
They spoke almost no English at all.
When we dug our foxholes in the yard, the monks did not seem upset or displeased, though the younger one performed a washing motion with his hands.
No one could decide what it meant.
The older monk led us into the pagoda.
The place was dark and cool, I remember, with crumbling walls and sandbagged windows and a ceiling full of holes. It’s bad news, Kiowa said. You don’t mess with churches. But we spent the night there, turning the pagoda into a little fortress, and then for the next seven or eight days we used the place as a base of operations.
It was mostly a very peaceful time.
Each morning the two monks brought us buckets of water.
They giggled when we stripped down to bathe; they smiled happily while we soaped up and splashed one another.
On the second day the older monk carried in a cane chair for the use of Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, placing it near the altar area, bowing and gesturing for him to sit down.
The old monk seemed proud of the chair, and proud that such a man as Lieutenant Cross should be sitting in it.
On another occasion the younger monk presented us with four ripe watermelons from his garden.
He stood watching until the watermelons were eaten down to the rinds, then he smiled and made the strange washing motion with his hands. Though they were kind to all of us, the monks took a special liking for Henry Dobbins. Soldier Jesus, they’d say, good soldier Jesus. Squatting quietly in the cool pagoda, they would help Dobbins disassemble and clean his machine gun, carefully brushing the parts with oil.
The three of them seemed to have an understanding.
Nothing in words, just a quietness they shared. You know, Dobbins said to Kiowa one morning, after the war maybe I’ll join up with these guys. Join how? Kiowa said. Wear robes.
Take the pledge. Kiowa thought about it. That’s a new one.
I didn’t know you were all that religious. Well, I’m not, Dobbins said.
Beside him, the two monks were working on the M-60.
He watched them take turns running oiled swabs through the barrel. I mean, I’m not the churchy type.
When I was a little kid, way back, I used to sit there on Sunday counting bricks in the wall.
Church wasn’t for me.
But then in high school, I started to think how I’d like to be a minister.
Free house, free car.
Lots of potlucks.
It looked like a pretty good life. You’re serious? Kiowa said. Dobbins shrugged his shoulders. What’s serious? I was a kid.
The thing is, I believed in God and all that, but it wasn’t the religious part that interested me.
Just being nice to people, that’s all.
Being decent. Right, Kiowa said. Visit sick people, stuff like that.
I would’ve been good at it, too.
Not the brainy part—not sermons and all that—but I’d be okay with the people part. Henry Dobbins was silent for a time.
He smiled at the older monk, who was now cleaning the machine gun’s trigger assembly. But anyway, Dobbins said, I couldn’t ever be a real minister, because you have to be super sharp.
Upstairs, I mean.
It takes brains.
You have to explain some hard stuff, like why people die, or why God invented pneumonia and all that. He shook his head. I just didn’t have the smarts for it.
And there’s the religious thing, too.
All these years, man, I still hate church. Maybe you’d change, Kiowa said. Henry Dobbins closed his eyes briefly, then laughed. One thing for sure, I’d look spiffy in those robes they wear—just like Friar Tuck.
Maybe I’ll do it.
Find a monastery somewhere.
Wear a robe and be nice to people. Sounds good, Kiowa said. The two monks were quiet as they cleaned and oiled the machine gun.
Though they spoke almost no English, they seemed to have great respect for the conversation, as if sensing that important matters were being discussed.
The younger monk used a yellow cloth to wipe dirt from a belt of ammunition. What about you? Dobbins said. How? Well, you carry that Bible everywhere, you never hardly swear or anything, so you must— I grew up that way, Kiowa said. — Style There was no music.
Most of the hamlet had burned down, including her house, which was now smoke, and the girl danced with her eyes half closed, her feet bare.
She was maybe fourteen.
She had black hair and brown skin. Why’s she dancing? Azar said.
We searched through the wreckage but there wasn’t much to find.
Rat Kiley caught a chicken for dinner.
Lieutenant Cross radioed up to the gunships and told them to go away.
The girl danced mostly on her toes.
She took tiny steps in the dirt in front of her house, sometimes making a slow twirl, sometimes smiling to herself. Why’s she dancing? Azar said, and Henry Dobbins said it didn’t matter why, she just was.
Later we found her family in the house.
They were dead and badly burned.
It wasn’t a big family: an infant and an old woman and a woman whose age was hard to tell.
When we dragged them out, the girl kept dancing.
She put the palms of her hands against her ears, which must’ve meant something, and she danced sideways for a short while, and then backwards.
She did a graceful movement with her hips. Well, I don’t get it, Azar said.
The smoke from the hootches smelled like straw.
It moved in patches across the village square, not thick anymore, sometimes just faint ripples like fog.
There were dead pigs, too.
The girl went up on her toes and made a slow turn and danced through the smoke.
Her face had a dreamy look, quiet and composed.
A while later, when we moved out of the hamlet, she was still dancing. Probably some weird ritual, Azar said, but Henry Dobbins looked back and said no, the girl just liked to dance. That night, after we’d marched away from the smoking village, Azar mocked the girl’s dancing.
He did funny jumps and spins.
He put the palms of his hands against his ears and danced sideways for a while, and then backwards, and then did an erotic thing with his hips.
But Henry Dobbins, who moved gracefully for such a big man, took Azar from behind and lifted him up high and carried him over to a deep well and asked if he wanted to be dumped in. Azar said no. All right, then, Henry Dobbins said, dance right. Speaking of Courage The war was over and there was no place in particular to go.
Norman Bowker followed the tar road on its seven-mile loop around the lake, then he started all over again, driving slowly, feeling safe inside his father’s big Chevy, now and then looking out on the lake to watch the boats and water-skiers and scenery.
It was Sunday and it was summer, and the town seemed pretty much the same.
The lake lay flat and silvery against the sun.
Along the road the houses were all low-slung and split-level and modern, with big porches and picture windows facing the water.
The lawns were spacious.
On the lake side of the road, where real estate was most valuable, the houses were handsome and set deep in, well kept and brightly painted, with docks jutting out into the lake, and boats moored and covered with canvas, and neat gardens, and sometimes even gardeners, and stone patios with barbecue spits and grills, and wooden shingles saying who lived where.
On the other side of the road, to his left, the houses were also handsome, though less expensive and on a smaller scale and with no docks or boats or gardeners.
The road was a sort of boundary between the affluent and the almost affluent, and to live on the lake side of the road was one of the few natural privileges in a town of the prairie—the difference between watching the sun set over cornfields or over water. It was a graceful, good-sized lake.
Back in high school, at night, he had driven around and around it with Sally Kramer, wondering if she’d want to pull into the shelter of Sunset Park, or other times with his friends, talking about urgent matters, worrying about the existence of God and theories of causation.
Then, there had not been a war.
But there had always been the lake, which was the town’s first cause of existence, a place for immigrant settlers to put down their loads.
Before the settlers were the Sioux, and before the Sioux were the vast open prairies, and before the prairies there was only ice.
The lake bed had been dug out by the southernmost advance of the Wisconsin glacier.
Fed by neither streams nor springs, the lake was often filthy and algaed, relying on fickle prairie rains for replenishment.
Still, it was the only important body of water within forty miles, a source of pride, nice to look at on bright summer days, and later that evening it would color up with fireworks.
Now, in the late afternoon, it lay calm and smooth, a good audience for silence, a seven-mile circumference that could be traveled by slow car in twenty-five minutes.
It was not such a good lake for swimming.
After high school, he’d caught an ear infection that had almost kept him out of the war.
And the lake had drowned his friend Max Arnold, keeping him out of the war entirely.
Max had been one who liked to talk about the existence of God. No, I’m not saying that, he’d argue against the drone of the engine. I’m saying it’s possible as an idea, even necessary as an idea, a final cause in the whole structure of causation. Now he knew, perhaps.
Before the war they’d driven around the lake as friends, but now Max was just an idea, and most of Norman Bowker’s other friends were living in Des Moines or Sioux City, or going to school somewhere, or holding down jobs.
The high school girls were mostly gone or married.
Sally Kramer, whose pictures he had once carried in his wallet, was one who had married.
Her name was now Sally Gustafson and she lived in a pleasant blue house on the less expensive side of the lake road.
On his third day home he’d seen her out mowing the lawn, still pretty in a lacy red blouse and white shorts.
For a moment he’d almost pulled over, just to talk, but instead he’d pushed down hard on the gas pedal.
She looked happy.
She had her house and her new husband, and there was really nothing he could say to her. The town seemed remote somehow.
Sally was remarried and Max was drowned and his father was at home watching baseball on national TV. Norman Bowker shrugged. No problem, he murmured. Clockwise, as if in orbit, he took the Chevy on another seven-mile turn around the lake. Even in late afternoon the day was hot.
He turned on the air conditioner, then the radio, and he leaned back and let the cold air and music blow over him.
Along the road, kicking stones in front of them, two young boys were hiking with knapsacks and toy rifles and canteens.
He honked going by, but neither boy looked up.
Already he had passed them six times, forty-two miles, nearly three hours without stop.
He watched the boys recede in his rearview mirror.
They turned a soft grayish color, like sand, before finally disappearing. He tapped down lightly on the accelerator. Out on the lake a man’s motorboat had stalled; the man was bent over the engine with a wrench and a frown.
Beyond the stalled boat there were other boats, and a few water-skiers, and the smooth July waters, and an immense flatness everywhere.
Two mud hens floated stiffly beside a white dock. The road curved west, where the sun had now dipped low.
He figured it was close to five o’clock—twenty after, he guessed.
The war had taught him to tell time without clocks, and even at night, waking from sleep, he could usually place it within ten minutes either way.
What he should do, he thought, is stop at Sally’s house and impress her with this new time-telling trick of his.
They’d talk for a while, catching up on things, and then he’d say, Well, better hit the road, it’s five thirty-four, and she’d glance at her wristwatch and say, Hey! How’d you do that? and he’d give a casual shrug and tell her it was just one of those things you pick up.
He’d keep it light.
He wouldn’t say anything about anything. How’s it being married? he might ask, and he’d nod at whatever she answered with, and he would not say a word about how he’d almost won the Silver Star for valor. He drove past Slater Park and across the causeway and past Sunset Park.
The radio announcer sounded tired.
The temperature in Des Moines was eighty-one degrees, and the time was five thirty-five, and All you on the road, drive extra careful now on this fine Fourth of July. If Sally had not been married, or if his father were not such a baseball fan, it would have been a good time to talk. The Silver Star? his father might have said. Yes, but I didn’t get it.
Almost, but not quite. And his father would have nodded, knowing full well that many brave men do not win medals for their bravery, and that others win medals for doing nothing.
As a starting point, maybe, Norman Bowker might then have listed the seven medals he did win: the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, the Air Medal, the Army Commendation Medal, the Good Conduct Medal, the Vietnam Campaign Medal, the Bronze Star, and the Purple Heart, though it wasn’t much of a wound and did not leave a scar and did not hurt and never had.
He would’ve explained to his father that none of these decorations was for uncommon valor.
They were for common valor.
The routine, daily stuff—just humping, just enduring—but that was worth something, wasn’t it? Yes, it was.
The ribbons looked good on the uniform in his closet, and if his father were to ask, he would’ve explained what each signified and how he was proud of all of them, especially the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, because it meant he had been there as a real soldier and had done all the things soldiers do, and therefore it wasn’t such a big deal that he could not bring himself to be uncommonly brave. And then he would have talked about the medal he did not win and why he did not win it. I almost won the Silver Star, he would have said. How’s that? Just a story. — You really want to hear this? Hey, I’m your father. Norman Bowker smiled.
He looked out across the lake and imagined the feel of his tongue against the truth. Well, this one time, this one night out by the river …
I wasn’t very brave. You have seven medals. Sure. Seven.
You weren’t a coward either. Well, maybe not.
But I had the chance and I blew it.
The stink, that’s what got to me.
I couldn’t take that goddamn awful smell. If you don’t want to say any more— I do want to. All right then.
Slow and sweet, take your time. The road descended into the outskirts of town, turning northwest past the junior college and the tennis courts, then past Chautauqua Park, where the picnic tables were spread with sheets of colored plastic and where picnickers sat in lawn chairs and listened to the high school band playing Sousa marches under the band shell.
The music faded after a few blocks.
He drove beneath a canopy of elms, then along a stretch of open shore, then past the municipal docks, where a woman in pedal pushers stood casting for bullheads.
There were no other fish in the lake except for perch and a few worthless carp.
It was a bad lake for swimming and fishing both. He drove slowly.
No hurry, nowhere to go.
Inside the Chevy the air was cool and oily-smelling, and he took pleasure in the steady sounds of the engine and air-conditioning.
A tour bus feeling, in a way, except the town he was touring seemed dead.
Through the windows, as if in a stop-motion photograph, the place looked as if it had been hit by nerve gas, everything still and lifeless, even the people.
The town could not talk, and would not listen. How’d you like to hear about the war? he might have asked, but the place could only blink and shrug.
It had no memory, therefore no guilt.
The taxes got paid and the votes got counted and the agencies of government did their work briskly and politely.
It was a brisk, polite town.
It did not know shit about shit, and did not care to know. Norman Bowker leaned back and considered what he might’ve said on the subject.
He knew shit.
It was his specialty.
The smell, in particular, but also the numerous varieties of texture and taste.
Someday he’d give a lecture on the topic.
Put on a suit and tie and stand up in front of the Kiwanis club and tell the fuckers about all the wonderful shit he knew.
Pass out samples, maybe. Smiling at this, he clamped the steering wheel slightly right of center, which produced a smooth clockwise motion against the curve of the road.
The Chevy seemed to know its own way. The sun was lower now.
Five fifty-five, he decided—six o’clock, tops. Along an unused railway spur, four workmen labored in the shadowy red heat, setting up a platform and steel launchers for the evening fireworks.
They were dressed alike in khaki trousers, work shirts, visored caps, and brown boots.
Their faces were dark and smudgy. Want to hear about the Silver Star I almost won? Norman Bowker whispered, but none of the workmen looked up.
Later they would blow color into the sky.
The lake would sparkle with reds and blues and greens, like a mirror, and the picnickers would make low sounds of appreciation. Well, see, it never stopped raining, he would’ve said. The muck was everywhere, you couldn’t get away from it. He would have paused a second. Then he would have told about the night they bivouacked in a field along the Song Tra Bong.
A big swampy field beside the river.
There was a ville nearby, fifty meters downstream, and right away a dozen old mama-sans ran out and started yelling.
A weird scene, he would’ve said.
The mama-sans just stood there in the rain, soaking wet, yapping away about how this field was bad news.
Number ten, they said.
Not a good spot for good GIs.
Finally Lieutenant Jimmy Cross had to get out his pistol and fire off a few rounds just to shoo them away.
By then it was almost dark.
So they set up a perimeter, ate chow, then crawled under their ponchos and tried to settle in for the night. But the rain kept getting worse.
And by midnight the field turned into soup. Just this deep, oozy soup, he would’ve said. Like sewage or something.
Thick and mushy.
You couldn’t sleep.
You couldn’t even lie down, not for long, because you’d start to sink under the soup.
You could feel the crud coming up inside your boots and pants. Here, Norman Bowker would have squinted against the low sun.
He would have kept his voice cool, no self-pity. But the worst part, he would’ve said quietly, was the smell.
Partly it was the river—a dead-fish smell—but it was something else, too.
Finally somebody figured it out.
What this was, it was a shit field.
The village toilet.
No indoor plumbing, right? So they used the field.
I mean, we were camped in a goddamn shit field. He imagined Sally Kramer closing her eyes. If she were here with him, in the car, she would’ve said, Stop it.
I don’t like that word. That’s what it was. — Fine.
What should we call it? She would have glared at him. I don’t know.
Just stop it. Clearly, he thought, this was not a story for Sally Kramer.
She was Sally Gustafson now.
No doubt Max would’ve liked it, the irony in particular, but Max had become a pure idea, which was its own irony.
It was just too bad.
If his father were here, riding shotgun around the lake, the old man might have glanced over for a second, understanding perfectly well that it was not a question of offensive language but of fact.
His father would have sighed and folded his arms and waited. A shit field, Norman Bowker would have said. And later that night I could’ve won the Silver Star for valor. Right, his father would’ve murmured, I hear you. The Chevy rolled smoothly across a viaduct and up the narrow tar road.
To the right was open lake.
To the left, across the road, most of the lawns were scorched dry like October corn.
Hopelessly, round and round, a rotating sprinkler scattered lake water on Dr.
Mason’s vegetable garden.
Already the prairie had been baked dry, but in August it would get worse.
The lake would turn green with algae, and the golf course would burn up, and the dragonflies would crack open for want of good water. The big Chevy curved past Centennial Beach and the A&W root beer stand. It was his eighth revolution around the lake. He followed the road past the handsome houses with their docks and wooden shingles.
Back to Slater Park, across the causeway, around to Sunset Park, as though riding on tracks. The two little boys were still trudging along on their seven-mile hike. Out on the lake, the man in the stalled motorboat still fiddled with his engine.
The pair of mud hens floated like wooden decoys, and the water-skiers looked tanned and athletic, and the high school band was packing up its instruments, and the woman in pedal pushers patiently rebaited her hook for one last try. Quaint, he thought. A hot summer day and it was all very quaint and remote.
The four workmen had nearly completed their preparations for the evening fireworks. Facing the sun again, Norman Bowker decided it was nearly seven o’clock.
Not much later the tired radio announcer confirmed it, his voice rocking itself into a deep Sunday snooze.
If Max Arnold were here, he would say something about the announcer’s fatigue, and relate it to the bright pink in the sky, and the war, and courage.
A pity that Max was gone.
And a pity about his father, who had his own war and who now preferred silence. Still, there was so much to say. How the rain never stopped.
How the cold worked into your bones.
Sometimes the bravest thing on earth was to sit through the night and feel the cold in your bones.
Courage was not always a matter of yes or no.
Sometimes it came in degrees, like the cold; sometimes you were very brave up to a point and then beyond that point you were not so brave.
In certain situations you could do incredible things, you could advance toward enemy fire, but in other situations, which were not nearly so bad, you had trouble keeping your eyes open.
Sometimes, like that night in the shit field, the difference between courage and cowardice was something small and stupid. The way the earth bubbled.
And the smell. In a soft voice, without flourishes, he would have told the exact truth. Late in the night, he would’ve said, we took some mortar fire. He would’ve explained how it was still raining, and how the clouds were pasted to the field, and how the mortar rounds seemed to come right out of the clouds.
Everything was black and wet.
The field just exploded.
Rain and slop and shrapnel, nowhere to run, and all they could do was worm down into slime and cover up and wait.
He would’ve described the crazy things he saw.
Like how at one point he noticed a guy lying next to him in the sludge, completely buried except for his face, and how after a moment the guy rolled his eyes and winked at him.
The noise was fierce.
Heavy thunder, and mortar rounds, and people yelling.
Some of the men began shooting up flares.
Red and green and silver flares, all colors, and the rain came down in Technicolor. The field was boiling.
The shells made deep slushy craters, opening up all those years of waste, centuries worth, and the smell came bubbling out of the earth.
Two rounds hit close by.
Then a third, even closer, and immediately, off to his left, he heard somebody screaming.
It was Kiowa—he knew that.
The sound was ragged and clotted up, but even so he knew the voice.
A strange gargling noise.
Rolling sideways, he crawled toward the screaming in the dark.
The rain was hard and steady.
Along the perimeter there were quick bursts of gunfire.
Another round hit nearby, spraying up shit and water, and for a few moments he ducked down beneath the mud.
He heard the valves in his heart.
He heard the quick, feathering action of the hinges. Extraordinary, he thought.
As he came up, a pair of red flares puffed open, a soft fuzzy glow, and in the glow he saw Kiowa’s wide-open eyes settling down into the scum.
Briefly, all he could do was watch.
He heard himself moan.
Then he moved again, crabbing forward, but when he got there Kiowa was almost completely under.
There was a knee.
There was an arm and a gold wristwatch and part of a boot. He could not describe what happened next, not ever, but he would’ve tried anyway.
He would’ve spoken carefully so as to make it real for anyone who would listen. There were bubbles where Kiowa’s head should’ve been. The left hand was curled open; the fingernails were filthy; the wristwatch gave off a green phosphorescent shine as it slipped beneath the thick waters. He would’ve talked about this, and how he grabbed Kiowa by the boot and tried to pull him out.
He pulled hard but Kiowa was gone, and then suddenly he felt himself going, too.
He could taste it.
The shit was in his nose and eyes.
There were flares and mortar rounds, and the stink was everywhere—it was inside him, in his lungs—and he could no longer tolerate it.
Not here, he thought.
Not like this.
He released Kiowa’s boot and watched it slide away.
Slowly, working his way up, he hoisted himself out of the deep mud, and then he lay still and tasted the shit in his mouth and closed his eyes and listened to the rain and explosions and bubbling sounds. He was alone. He had lost his weapon but it did not matter.
All he wanted was a bath. Nothing else.
A hot soapy bath. Circling the lake, Norman Bowker remembered how his friend Kiowa had disappeared under the waste and water. I didn’t flip out, he would’ve said. I was cool.
If things had gone right, if it hadn’t been for that smell, I could’ve won the Silver Star. A good war story, he thought, but it was not a war for war stories, nor for talk of valor, and nobody in town wanted to know about the terrible stink.
They wanted good intentions and good deeds.
But the town was not to blame, really.
It was a nice little town, very prosperous, with neat houses and all the sanitary conveniences. Norman Bowker lit a cigarette and cranked open his window.
Seven thirty-five, he decided. The lake had divided into two halves.
One half still glistened, the other was caught in shadow.
Along the causeway, the two little boys marched on.
The man in the stalled motorboat yanked frantically on the cord to his engine, and the two mud hens sought supper at the bottom of the lake, tails bobbing.
He passed Sunset Park once again, and more houses, and the junior college and the tennis courts, and the picnickers, who now sat waiting for the evening fireworks.
The high school band was gone.
The woman in pedal pushers patiently toyed with her line. Although it was not yet dusk, the A&W was already awash in neon lights. He maneuvered his father’s Chevy into one of the parking slots, let the engine idle, and sat back.
The place was doing a good holiday business.
Mostly kids, it seemed, and a few farmers in for the day.
He did not recognize any of the faces.
A slim, hipless young carhop passed by, but when he hit the horn, she did not seem to notice.
Her eyes slid sideways.
She hooked a tray to the window of a Firebird, laughing lightly, leaning forward to chat with the three boys inside. He felt invisible in the soft twilight.
Straight ahead, over the take-out counter, swarms of mosquitoes electrocuted themselves against an aluminum Pest-Rid machine. It was a calm, quiet summer evening. He honked again, this time leaning on the horn.
The young carhop turned slowly, as if puzzled, then said something to the boys in the Firebird and moved reluctantly toward him.
Pinned to her shirt was a badge that said EAT MAMA BURGERS. When she reached his window, she stood straight up so that all he could see was the badge. Mama Burger, he said. Maybe some fries, too. The girl sighed, leaned down, and shook her head.
Her eyes were as fluffy and airy-light as cotton candy. You blind? she said. She put out her hand and tapped an intercom attached to a steel post. Punch the button and place your order.
All I do is carry the dumb trays. She stared at him for a moment.
Briefly, he thought, a question lingered in her fuzzy eyes, but then she turned and punched the button for him and returned to her friends in the Firebird. The intercom squeaked and said, Order. Mama Burger and fries, Norman Bowker said. Affirmative, copy clear.
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