The breeze brought the smell of dried mud and rotting rice mixed with the pungent aroma of gunpowder from the mortars and rockets. The stench drifted into the tents at the makeshift, corrugated airstrip of an artillery battery of an Airborne Division, a camouflaged unit squatting along the bank of a muddy River heading into the MeKong Delta in Vietnam.
Steve sat down, a little weary, against the trunk of a tree and stretched his long legs out on the ground. His bayonet dangled from his web belt. He grabbed his canteen and took a swig of stale water.
He and the other men were waiting for their morning rations. The breeze picked up, and the monkeys screeched in the distance as the sun rose over the trees. There had been heavy casualties on both sides and the weather was miserable. Sergeant Steve Simmons could not wait to get home. He was one of the lucky ones; he only had thirty days to go before he could return to the States and to Jennifer, his bride of ten months. They had been married only four weeks when Steve shipped out.
He recalled boarding the plane after such a brief relationship. She had stood there with her hands clutched in desperation. Tears were streaming down her face as she watched him. He knew she was wondering if she would ever see him again, but she held herself erect, with hauntingly delicate features from her inherited English stock. God, she looked so beautiful standing there in her powder blue suit, he thought holding onto the image of his wife.
Ten months in Vietnam had changed him; he knew he was not the same man.
At five-thirty in the morning, the troops lined up for breakfast.
"C'mon, move it up! Move the goddamn line up," Mess Sergeant Dagori yelled.
"Oh, shut up, you Greek schmuck," snapped Sergeant Goldstein, the non-com in charge of supply.
"You shoot your mouth off, Goldstein, and you get no more doubles of my food," Dagori replied.
"Forget the doubles; your slop ain't worth eating! And we won't bring you any more extra socks, T-shirts or under shorts."
Dagori grabbed a meat cleaver and advanced toward Goldstein. "What did you call my food, Goldstein?"
Goldstein reached for his bayonet. "You hard of hearing, Greek? I don't eat lumpy grits."
Steve watched the men, quietly. He knew that Dagori had never liked the curly haired Jew, who was always trying to make deals with everyone for supplieseven the officers.
Maurey Goldstein ran the entire battalion. Every night there was either a giant crap game or a poker game in the supply tent. It was Goldstein's racket, and he never lost. Some of the men owed him hundreds of dollars, and there were officers who owed him thousands. Someday, someone will put a bullet in his back, Steve thought, and then they won't have to pay him back.
Dagori grabbed Goldstein around the neck and wrestled him to the ground. The meat cleaver fell into the mud. Goldstein turned red. He swung his fist and caught Dagori in the face. He wrapped a hairy arm around Dagori's neck in a hammerlock. Dagori threw his arms out gasping for air. Steve stepped in, his arm on Goldstein's wrist, and with a burst of strength, he pulled him off.
"Now, Goldstein, cut it out, or I'll break your goddamn neck!"
Goldstein backed off. Steve picked Dagori up from the ground. Dagori dusted himself off, slapping at his green jungle fatigues.
"You better get back behind the mess table," Steve said. "Before it gets worse."
"Who's giving the orders around here?" Dagori snapped. "You're not an officer."
"You keep your mouth shut," Steve told him.
Dagori looked at Steve's tall muscular six-foot frame. He had a deep crop of black wavy hair and a handsome face. His coal black eyes seemed to burn through the men as they momentarily stopped arguing and fighting.
Steve knew that Goldstein had a reputation for pranks. He liked to blow up tents or set fire to Jeeps. One of his favorite stunts was loading Chiclets boxes with white-coated Feenamint laxatives. When the Vietnamese children and older civilians asked for chewing gum, he would hand out the boxes like Santa Claus and then laugh all the way back to the outfit.
The men hated Goldsteinand they loved him. His pranks kept the post from total boredom. Every few days, he came up with something new. Once he had strung up stuffed Viet Cong dummies from the telephone pole wires.
Goldstein was constantly in trouble with the officers, stealing prime steaks and cases of whiskey from their mess supplies. He usually got away with it.
Steve was in charge of the communications section of the artillery battery. His section maintained the outpost's radios and telephones from the headquarters control tent, the CPO headquarters and out to the artillery's 105mm Howitzers gun pads, the computers and the machine gun pads. The men strung barbed wire along the perimeter of the base camp to keep the Viet Cong out.
They would go out on ambush patrol through the bullet-riddled rubber trees of abandoned plantations. Then they would go down to the river and watch the water buffaloes caked with mud from the brown mucky river. Peasant farmers, with their San Pan hats, struggled to harvest the rice crops dotting the landscape.
Occasionally they would go out on search and destroy missions and patrol up and down the area of the base camp. They would also lay land mines, searching at the same time to see if 'Charlie' had set any time delay mines or other booby traps.
Time was spent cleaning and oiling their M16's and the larger artillery pieces. Sometimes they would pull a pass and go to the village. Most would volunteer for cleaning latrines and for KP duty as long as it would take them out of the field; some even paid for the privilege.
The monsoon rains hit hard, mixing in with the muddy terrain. This made for a sloppy mess considering most of the land was already muck. When the rains ended their fatigues would be caked with it and they would then spend half an hour scraping it all off with their bayonets.
Steve called the squad over to his tent. "I think you fellows deserve a break. Why don't you take off the rest of the afternoon? Stay out of sight. Don't let the C.O. or the Lieutenant see you."
"Can we go to the gin mill in the woods, Sarge?" PFC Cooper asked.
"Yeah, Cooper. Just throw some bushes over the truck as a camouflage at the back of the gin mill, and don't get drunk and don't get caught."
"Hey, you're okay, Sarge. Wanna come with us?"
"No, Corporal Miller and I are going to wander around by ourselves. Maybe we can locate the missing wire and equipment the Cong stole. So long, see you at five for chow."
Steve and Miller left in the Jeep and headed for the woods where they had a favorite Viet spot on the river's edge called the Hai-Lai Club. The non-commissioned officers whiled away their time here.
As the Jeep wound around the dirt road and started into the woods, they stopped for a moment to uncork a bottle of whiskey, which they had hidden under the seat. Steve wiped the sweat off his brow with an oily handkerchief.
"God, it's humid--damn muggy and hot," he said.
Miller took a swallow of the whiskey. "Boy, stringing that barbed wire is getting to be a pain in the ass. There must be an easier way."
"You know the Army does everything ass backwards," Steve said. "Keeping the men busy stops them from becoming bored. An active mind is a healthy mind."
They climbed out of the Jeep and leaned against it as they passed the bottle back and forth.
Suddenly, there was a rustling in the bushes on the driver's side of the Jeep. Three Viet Cong stepped out of the brush and pointed their rifles at Steve and Miller.
"Oh, my God," said Miller. He reached for his sidearm and unclasped the holster. Before he could grab his gun, he went down in a pool of blood.
Steve ran behind the Jeep and swung his rifle butt, catching one of the Cong in the head. The man reeled under the force of the impact, his brains scattering out on the dirt. Steve fired at the other Cong. The third man hesitated for a moment, frozen in fear, and then ran into the woods.
Steve turned, firing his M-16 at full automatic until the soldier was dead. Then he ran over to Miller only to discover it was too late. Miller's body was white and limp. Blood trickled down his chin onto his fatigues.
It was quiet. The smell of gunpowder filled the air. Steve tried to steady his nerves with a long drink from the whiskey bottle, however he began to shake violently and then wretch. It was the first time he had killed anyone.
"Oh, God, he thought. What have I done?" He stood there in shock until he realized that he needed to get out of there. He picked Miller's body off the bloody ground and put him into the Jeep. Slowly he began to drive down the road, constantly alert for more Cong. Inevitably, he began to speed up and soon the Jeep was ripping down the rutted road.
He passed abandoned tanks; a chopper and empty aircraft shell cases, which lay along the sides of the road along with empty mortar cases and a rocket launcher.
Suddenly, the Jeep swerved as it caught a rut in the road. A blast lifted the front of the vehicle up in the air as the land mine exploded. Steve was catapulted through the air, along with flaming debris, as the gas tank exploded in a roar of flames, totally destroying the vehicle.
Steve landed in a swampy area hidden by bushes. He wasn't sure how long he lay there stunned, before he realized that he was not hurt except for a few minor burns and scratches. He tried to move his limbs and decided that nothing was broken, but he was afraid to move.
The Cong had to have heard the explosion, he thought.
He began to crawl through the jungle toward the road. When he was finally brave enough to stand, he brushed himself off and started slowly staggering down the road, still stunned from the blast.
He felt sure he knew where he was and he headed back toward headquarters, hoping no more Cong were in the area. His fatigues were covered with mud, and his heart was heavy with sadness. The vision of Miller's body and the splattered brains of the Cong he had killed kept flashing in his mind.
He heard a vehicle and was relieved to see a Jeep from another outfit coming along. They picked him up and drove him back to the post where he reported the death of his friend, Corporal Alvin Miller, and the destruction of the Jeep.