Have mercy on the younger generation.
Yes, Mamma. I remember those words you said in a letter. One hot afternoon here in the IV Corps in the Mekong Delta, I stood watching the Viet Cong prisoners sitting in rows under the sun and none in the shade. Sitting on their haunches, blindfolded with a swathe of cloth over their eyes. Their shirts were torn, their black shorts soiled, their legs skinny. Most of them looked no older than seventeen, like those faces in junior high schools back home.
We have boys in our company too. Mamma, have you ever had a good look at the faces in a crowd? These young-old faces that I’m looking at every day, I know them but I don’t. Some like me from the OCS, and those from ROTC, The Citadel. Sons of dirt farmers. Fathers of just born babies. Many of them will be in somebody’s home under a Christmas tree, gift-wrapped in a war photography book.
Today I saw the new boys. They were lining up to get their shots along the corrugated metal sides of the barracks. They stood shirtless, the sun beating down on them, the khaki-yellow dust blowing like a mist when a chopper landed, and enshrouded in the yellow-brown dust the boys looked like a horde of specters.
He was one of them. His name is Coy. A week later I made him our slackman. He was seventeen. How he got here I don’t know. Maybe his Ma and Pa signed the papers so he could come here and die. Today is his third day in country. Now he left the line with two other boys, each pressing down a cotton ball on their upper-arms, walking together like brothers, one much shorter than the other two, past the Bravo Company tents, past the water tower where the local Viet girls every morning would crowd together on the old pallet, washing the troops’ clothes in big round pails, walking past the wooden pallet now dry and empty of buckets, going around the cement trucks, the water-purification trucks, crossing the airstrip and stopping at a row of three connex containers painted in buff color. Dust blew yellow specks on the grass and on a pile of boots that leaned against one another.
“What’s your size?” Coy asked Eddy, the shorter boy, who was already crouched in the grass.
“Mine is twelve,” Marco, the other boy, said.
“I wear your size,” Coy said to Marco.
“Fucked-up size,” Eddy said, hand on a boot with a name tag. “They gave me size twelve. What the hell. What’s this size?” Eddy lined the boot alongside his foot. It was the same length. “Fucked-up size,” he said, spitting in the grass.
“How d’walk in them?” Coy said.
“You got twelve?” Eddy squinted up.
“How d’you walk in them?” Eddy said, snickering. “Hundred-dollar question, man. You stuff rags in the toe vamp. What choice d’you have? If I don’t get me a size-ten boot soon, I’m gonna end up with a fucked-up foot on one side and a crooked foot on the other.”
“These are dead men’s boots,” Marco said, bending to look at the name tags.
“Size ten,” Eddy mumbled, his hand hovering over the ownerless boots. “Give me. Give me.”
“’Cause you’re short, Eddy,” Coy said. “Five five?”
“Exacto,” Eddy said.
“He wears boys size,” Marco said then grinned. “Down to his boxer.”
“Size ten,” Coy said, shaking his head. They don’t make them, Eddy.”
“I don’t ever want to wear a dead man’s boots,” Marco said.
“I do, boy,” Eddy said, “I wear s-i-z-e t-e-n. How can you walk in the jungle in size twelve with your foot slipping and sliding in it? If I don’t get me a size-ten boot soon . . .”
“Dead man’s boots,” Marco said.
“Maybe they have a whole ship load here tomorrow,” Coy said. “You’ll never know.”
“More dead man’s boots,” Marco said.
Eddy was holding up a pair of boots. They looked like boots on display, neatly laced. Eddy weighed them in his hands. “Wonder why they got no tag on them,” he said.
“Maybe they’re still looking for whatever’s left of whoever,” Coy said, looking down at Eddy. Jesus Christ! He heard Marco’s voice, who had gone around the connex containers.
Coy then Eddy went behind the containers. There was a mound of body bags in the grass. The grass had yellowed in the heat and the bags were pale green, their nylon zippers white running straight down the middle. One bag had burst open and the remains, red and pulpy, spilled onto the grass. Bones, mushy flesh stuck with torn, bloodstained green cloths, intestines discolored and twisted of a maimed torso.
Marco turned away, slumping. They could hear him retch. Coy crossed himself quickly.
“It stinks,” Eddy said, swatting at a fly.
Coy held his breath. Marco sniffled, spat, but he wouldn’t turn around as he knelt on the ground.
“They musta dumped them way up from the chopper,” Eddy said.
“Bastards,” Marco said.
* * *
That boy Coy, Mamma, had a full scholarship to Duke University. He had big brown eyes. He still had pimples on his face. The way he smiled and looked at you, you’d never think he had ever left his boyhood behind. I asked him, “Can you navigate in the jungle?” He said, “Yes, Lieutenant.” I said, “What made you say that?” He said, “I’ve never got lost anywhere I go in my life, sir.” I said, “Well, you’ll be our slackman when we go out next time. You’re Ditch’s replacement.” He said, “Where’s he now?” I said, “Gone.” He said nothing, just blinked. Those big brown eyes. I said, “Your other duty is carrying the litter when we’re shorthanded. You think you can handle it?” He said, too eagerly, “Yes, sir, it’s an honor. I will never let anyone down when they count on me. Being a navigator is a heavy responsibility.”
Mamma, on that sultry afternoon he was fifteen feet behind our point man, breaking a trail. I heard a round coming over us. That unmistakably long and thin mosquito-whine sound before it shattered. We all threw ourselves onto the dirt. It went off and I saw Coy’s back red with blood, for he didn’t hit the ground, and then I heard a crack of the rifle. It struck Eddy, who was carrying a machine gun to the left of our point man, and now Coy screamed as he ran to Eddy and I don’t know, Mamma, if he screamed because he was hit or what he saw from Eddy. Then there was a steady sound of machine guns. We were pinned down, flattened to the ground, the dirt in our noses, our mouths, until we could see the muzzle blasts of the guns hidden under nets of leaves, the white flashes in the over-foliaged jungle. We returned fire, machine-gunning them as we crawled for cover in the whopping sound, round after round, of our grenade launchers.
When it was over, the edge of the jungle once heavily bushed now singed and smoking and shorn white by our artillery shells, I went up the trail and heard someone say, “He’s done, go help our wounded.” Then I heard Marco, “He’s not done, damn it.” I saw Eddy lying on his back and crouching over him was Marco and next to him stood Doc Murphy, our medic.
Mamma, you ever seen grown men argue over a wounded man who was hanging on to his life by a mere thread? Eddie was my machine-gun man. Only five feet five but he carried that twenty-five pounder proudly like a six footer. The enemy’s round had torn open his front and he was gurgling like he was choking on his own blood. Doc and me we watched him quake. Doc said, “He’s not gonna make it no sir.” I yelled at him, “You’re not gonna let him die are you,” and Doc said, “I wish there’s an alternative,” and I said, “Give him three cutdowns right now,” and we squeezed three blood bags just squeezing and squeezing them and all the while watching Eddie’s eyes roll and roll into his head until they suddenly froze like marbles. When he no longer shook, Marco was still holding one of his legs, his size-twelve boot pointed away.
“Where’s Coy?” I asked Doc.
“Sedated,” Doc said. “Over there, LT. Chopper’s coming.”
I went to the edge of the trail where the dirt was a darker yellow and dog’s tooth grass was a green-gray thick mat on which he lay sprawled, his head tilted to one side. A machine gun’s bullet had shattered his cheekbone, knocking out both of his eyes. His nose wasn’t there. Just red meat left. Had I never known him, I wouldn’t have known what he looked like before. He still had pulses. Then Marco and Doc came and sat beside him and Marco whispered to him, “Coy, hey buddy,” and Coy’s head moved just a twitch but it moved like he heard us or maybe it was just a reflex, and I said, “We’re gonna bring you through,” and I knew I didn’t mean that at all as I was looking down at his face, half of it gone now, seeing the raw meat where the nose had once been, the pink bubbles rising and breaking from the cavity. I didn’t want to turn him over, didn’t want to ask Doc about Coy’s back, for I knew it too was a sight to see. Now Marco just held the boy’s hand, said, “You’re going to make it, you hear, you’re going back home soon.” And hearing it I thought of his scholarship and his big brown eyes. We gave him more morphine. At first Doc refused to do it, then he gave in. You don’t do it at least in every two hours. Coy just lay there. If he had felt pain he didn’t show it. He was one of the boys I wanted to bring through. Now he just lay there like he wasn’t belonging. Just lying there, Mamma. Marco held his hand. Doc walked away. When I heard the chopper, the sound of its rotor pitch thumping over the horizon, I looked back down at him. He was gone.
I never cried when they sent me here. That time when they took him away on a litter, I cried.