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This page last viewed: 2017-08-16 and has been viewed 2867 times
by Emma Peel
Warnings: Swearing (lots), implied death not of major characters
Summary: How the boys got together
Disclaimers: Don't own any of 'em. 'All Along the Watchtower' lyrics (c) Bob Dylan
Comments: Need 'em! First 'nam fic, may be clueless
Authors note: For Snowy, who asked me for my take on it, with thanks to Jips for suggesting research sources.
'There must be some way out of here,' said the joker to the thief,
'There's too much confusion, I can't get no relief.'
'Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth,
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth'
They talked a whole load of crap about what it was like out there. Whole load of it, nothing kids come from nowhere dropped in the middle of the jungle, never seen a tree before, some of 'em, landed out with a coupla hundred guys just like them, got to cut their hair short and do what the man says, and they just freaked on it. Talked a whole load of shit.
They weren't career guys, see. A career man knows where it's at. He follows his orders; he's *proud* to take his orders and see 'em through. He's proud to wear his greens. And he don't come back takin' his mouth off 'bout things he don't understand.
Not that I *always* did just as I was told, but if I didn't, there was always a reason. Usually we had a man down. I'd go after them; take them home if I could, 'home' being back to base. Few times I shot 'em where they lay; no way they were gonna make it. Six guys. Remember them all. Huge bits of the rest of me missing; remember every one of them. Where we were, how they looked. And every one of them, a message to take home; every one of them a message to their mother. Not old enough to be married; barely old enough to be dating.
I didn't take the messages home myself, even after we got back. I wasn't exactly in shape for it. No, Faceman did that for me. I wrote the letters, and he made sure all the words fit together right. We spent a long time on them. You do; like their eulogy. Their last goodbye. Letters their families would keep forever. Gotta make them fit right.
The first letter we wrote; I told her about me, Mrs Carver it was. About me, that I was in the hospital, but not why. Only made that mistake once.
See, when you lose a son...
Seems to be you want to replace them. So she came to visit. That was way back. I remember, Face was careful what days we wrote letters. It took a long time, to do them all, finding days when he could break in to see me, *and* when I could speak straight to talk him through them. Six letters; took the best part of a year. And when she came to visit...
Let's just say it wasn't a good day. And no one wants a new son who's in a strait jacket, now do they? Poor woman. She'd brought baking, home cooking, for me. Thought I musta had busted insides or something. Busted brain was a hell of a shock for her. After that, well, we didn't put it in the letters, not in something they'd keep so long; but Face explained more. Explained better.
Pictures. She brought me a picture; the rest sent pictures. Every one the same; every one a copy of the last time they saw their son. Bright, clean looking guys, all spruced up in their uniforms, off to do their country proud.
Like I needed anything to remind me what they looked like. When I looked at those photographs, it was like they were staring back at me with the same pain, the same desperation.
The same look. The look that said, 'Do it. Do it now.'
The guys that made it back, they talked a lot of shit. One phrase I kept hearing over and over.
'The smell of death.'
Bull - shit.
Jungle didn't smell of death. It smelled of life, stale life, worn life. Heat, constant heat, and sweat. Not the pure, clean, honest sweat of clean, honest work, but sweat born of oppressive, stifling heat, sweat you could never get rid of, sweat that stayed with you, you'd wash it off and as soon as you stepped out from under the shower, you'd be covered in it again. Didn't spend one hour dry out there. No escaping the stench of it.
I'd spend time in the mess, every night in the mess, just trying to escape it; I couldn't. Even beneath the billowing smoke, smoke permeating every pore in my body, every fibre of my clothes, it was there. A temporary respite when I walked in, but as more bodies came in, the stench of sweat filled the room, always there, lurking beneath.
It wouldn't wash out, neither. Clothes carried days, weeks, months of sweat in them, rinsing out almost black with it, black with sweat and smoke. The stench of waste, of men shedding, decaying, casting part of themselves aside. The smell rose in the heat, wave after wave after wave, not so bad in the mornings, but come midday, inescapable. Some of them, after maybe a month out there, they just stopped getting their clothes washed. Why bother? Get them pressed, they smelled the same. Some carried blood stains on their shirts.
You can never get the stains out. Not blood stains. The colour might fade, might wash out, but you'd know; you'd know somewhere deep down in the fibres, some of it was left behind. You were walking about carrying on your back parts of men; part of their body.
You could tell the ones that'd make it. The career guys. They kept to their routine. They got up at reveille even if there was nowhere to go. They wore laundered clothes. They knew it was a job, like any other job. They didn't fight over the small stuff. They kept it for when they needed it. The things worth fighting for.
The only thing worth fighting for out there was your men.
You wouldn't know it now, to look at him, but back then, you could pick Face out as one who'd make it. He was a real by-the-book guy. Oh, sure, his methods were unorthodox, but his Colonel told him to get something, he got it; told him to jump, he said how high. Never seen no one trust their commanding officer like that.
He argues over *everything* now, but then, there's only the small stuff to argue about. Even then, he was clean, pressed, like he just walked out of the recruitment office. I dunno, it was like the man didn't even *sweat*.
We did a few deals, me and Face. I'd get him a few things he needed, maybe make the odd detour on a supplies run, pick up a couple of non standard things. Cigars, mainly, for the Colonel. Sometimes he'd find, outta nowhere, a nice bottle of wine for himself, something a bit classy. One time, I swear I don't know how he did it, a whole side of beef. In the middle of the jungle, rest of the guys living off whatever the hell animals are running about in there, I never looked too close, mostly it tasted like scraggy pork, and he gets a side of god damn roast beef. Jesus H.
So yeah, I ran a few extras for him. Made it worth my while, he got me a few things I needed.
I guess we live and learn, but you gotta understand, out there, we were a bit limited for recreation. And I'd always been high wired. So yeah, maybe he got me some.. relaxants. Nothing heavy, nothing that'd kill me, and never cut shit, always clean. Just a little pot, sometimes, was all, mainly. Never uppers; can't fly with that in your system, even days later. Can't fly on that much of an edge. It'd kill you, I seen that happen with my own eyes. Knew the guys I wouldn't fly with, under any circumstances.
And I guess he didn't approve, he sure as hell doesn't run it for me now, but then I don't need it now, and we weren't like we are now, back then. But it was business. Ah heck, I mighta done it anyway, his detours, just for the hell of it, for the buzz. The jazz. But I didn't. Maybe it was his way of keeping our deals clean. He doesn't like to be in anyone's debt, never has. And shit, if you were out dropping napalm, dropping that firewater shit, coming back in stinking of sweat and gasoline, and shit I swear some days *that* stuff smelled of death, well fuck, you'd want a little help at night too. Yeah, a soldier should be able to shut down. I wasn't a fucking soldier. In my head, I was still a fucking barkeep college boy. So sue me.
What can I say? This was the sixties, seventies. What the fuck did I know?
And I guess that would have been the size of it. We'd have come back and parted company; or maybe gotten killed.
That would have been it, if it hadn't been for one Sergeant Barracus.
"No reason to get excited," the thief, he kindly spoke,
"There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke.
But you and I, we've been through that, and this is not our fate,
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late."
It shoulda been a regular run, god knows I done a hundred of them by then. Co-ordinates set and checked, wearin' my lucky pants, my left hand man Scoot up with me, sent a letter back home just in case, few guys in the back for cover if we needed it. If. Damn, if I'd known then.... but it was sold to me different. Regular napalm drop, strip a few trees, don't look down, never look down in case you see 'em running.
I got nothing against trees, 'cept out there, it was always the noise. Always noise in the trees, insects, animals, branches snapping. The roar of the fire didn't quiet it. The heat would be burning through the bones for hours. That was another stench; burning flesh.
We all told ourselves it was animals.
Then, in the night, in the darkness, nature righting itself. The flames dying; the char settling down, flattening. Return to the earth. Crackling; protesting. Days when the rain came, hissing, smokey smell.
Couldn't say I liked it, knowing what it was doin'. But it got easier after the first time, flying in low, coming in fast and low, gliding on out, fire chasin' your tail. Almost got so's it was just a job. The flying part of it, that was beautiful, just beautiful. Beautiful so long as you never looked down.
Beautiful until that first flight with BA.
First time I'd had him up with me. Knew who he was; we all knew. Back then he usedta drink, and man, did he get in some fights, loaded on cheap hooch, so much anger in the man. Anyone fucked with him, they only did it once, and usually, they'd be drunk to do it. Saw him deck guys in one punch, dozens of 'em. Every new shipment of flesh we got in, there'd be one or two wanted to take him on, take on the big dumb black guy. Well, he was big, he was black, but he sure as hell wasn't dumb. And their jaws knew it, soon enough.
I never messed with him. Skinny runt like me? Nah. Kept my distance. Me, I didn't fight none. Too.. mellow.
So, regular run. Got the directions. Just like usual. But it was different, this time.
New territory. Hadn't been in that far before. So I guessed they were startin' to rate me, look past the shit I talked and look at what I did. Or maybe they just ran out of kids to send up there, who knows. By the end of it, I was a Captain. Get in enough shit, in deep enough, they'd give you a title. Make mom proud. Yeah, right.
So, we were going up. And guess who they gave me to watch my tail? Yeah, you got that right. The big dumb black guy, flanked by a couple of his own guys. Hanging out the side, guns blazin', lookin' for trouble.
And we got it.
I can't see it, in my head. I can't see it, but I can feel it. And I can *hear* it, just perfect.
They tell you, when you're training, what a bullet feels like. You feel it going in, and the blood comes out, and it's sharp, and you feel it beat out of you, and it burns, it burns while the blood's trying to pump out around it, trying to push its way through a space the bullet's made, a space too small for it. 'Less it just rips a chunk outta you, then the blood moves just fine.
Well, they lied. Don't feel like that at all. It hits, and you feel the pain, and the burning, but it's more like.. more like something's *sucking* it out of you. Sucking it clean out, you don't want it to go, but you can't stop it, your muscles go tight, you feel 'em spasming round it, round the hole, but you can't stop it, it keeps sucking and sucking and sucking, and I swear, you can feel the blood draining out of you, draining from the top of your head down. I don't know what the fuck they were firing with to hit us up that far. I guess they just got lucky. Or we got real unlucky.
You don't look down, on a 'palm run. You don't want to see 'em, 'cos if you see 'em, you can't do it. So I didn't know, until it was too late. Didn't see what they were shooting up at us. Didn't notice a damn thing except what a damn fine pilot I was, flying so low, so tight, so fine, riding the air. Didn't notice a damn thing until the front of the plane just..*shattered*, glass flyin' everywhere, and screaming, such a short scream, just a second, but so clear, even over the guns and the engines. Didn't notice a damn thing, until half of his brains were over my face. Half of Scoot's brains.
And the guys, they were letting rip, hammering fire back at them, those bastards on the ground, and they were firing back up on us, and a hundred weight of napalm falling out the backside of my bird and if we went down over that, we were all dead, me and the three guys still breathing in there.
And I... I just froze. Wasn't a damn thing I could do, I couldn't move, couldn't talk, couldn't even tell anyone. Looking back... first time I ever lost it. Plenty to come after that.
I forgot how to fly.
So there we were. 'Copter just about holding but ready to go down any minute, right into the flames. Me not even there.
And we were goners, for sure. Lord's prayer bein' screamed out behind me. Napalm roaring below me. Blood drippin' down my face. If I could've remembered the words, I'd've been singing the twenty third myself.
Then ... I see it now like it was happening now, right in front of me, right now.
It just doesn't seem to go into the past. It won't.
BA's climbing in the front, and pushing something out the side, Scoot, it was Scoot, but when I see it in my head, it's just... nuthin'. There's a blank in the picture where he ought to be. The kids in the back are screaming, just kids, don't know what's going on, too damn scared for it to sink in, and I can hear them yelling but I can't make out the words.
And BA's slapping me, those huge hands slapping me, no, just one hand, the other's grabbing the stick, he's taking us up, and he's yelling, callin' me a damn fool, and we're going too high at the front, and to the side, and we're gonna tip, we're gonna be out of control, we're gonna start spinning, and then finally, finally, I come back.
Felt like the blink of an eye to me. BA told me later it was a lifetime. I guess it must have been somewhere inbetween. But we get moving again, me on automatic, not thinking, just doing, and we get down, and we're getting pulled out, and next thing I know I wake up in the MASH.
And I'm a fucking captain.
Me. I'm a captain, and BA's still a sergeant. Well he would be, wouldn't he. Too much of a drunk. And maybe just a bit too black.
He never drank again, after that. I never saw him drink again. It was funny... all his anger, all that, all just... went.
You look at him now, he's real shy sometimes. Shy with the ladies, especially. Never used to be. I guess maybe it wasn't him talking those times; those times he got in fights, or led the singing - he's got a beautiful singing voice, y'know? Few times he did the slow ones, low and mellow and warm, sent shivers down your spine. Mainly it was just regular soldiers songs, though. Who fucked who, when and how. Usual stuff, quite a lot about cattle, 'sI recall.
Can't remember the last time I heard him sing. Maybe it was the hooch that had the voice.
So, there I am, on bed rest. Waiting for the next assignment. Praying for some ash and trash, just collect and drop off, because I reckon I can handle that, just about, just maybe I can handle that, taking the boys home, yeah, that'd feel ok. Just for a while, just a few runs to keep my hand in. And wondering what the hell 'captain' means. Does that mean I get some poor fucks to boss about? 'Cos I'd have to tell them, they got the wrong guy. BA, now he'd be a good leader. Cool head. Caring, under it all. He'd just proved that.
Me? Sign the death certificates now, sir. Get the body bags ready.
And I'm waiting and waiting and waiting, all these questions in my head about what happened next, and finally my CO comes in. Surly SOB. Grunts at me. No wonder they were gonna promote me, if that was the best we had. Fucker never even asked me how I was doin'.
And he tells me I'd better be ready to get out tomorrow, 'cos I'm getting a new bird. Well, great, 'cos I'm sure as hell never flying the old one again. I'm thinking maybe a medical unit, still a Huey but maybe something safer, or maybe just base to the escape route back home. Or maybe take some of the new meat up, give them a few lessons in *real* flying, 'cos what you learn back home isn't half of what you need out here. You gotta learn to fly on one engine, you gotta learn how to land a totally dead bird, you gotta learn how long a detour you can get away with if you claim engine trouble, and where the scam drops are.. you gotta learn a lot of stuff, only some of it to do with what goes on above the trees.
Yeah. Right. Me teachin', that'd be right.
A *cobra* he says. A fucking COBRA. Because I'm the best man to send in to shoot them up, aren't I? Give the guy who freezes the one with the biggest guns. Well, he's gonna die sometime, might as well make it a kamikaze job, get the benefit.
And I just stare at him.
BA came over that night, to see how I was doing. Some guy, huh? I almost killed him, and he's over seeing how *I'm* doing. And he'd got this kind of... 'something's up' look in his eyes. The one he gets now when he thinks he's found a way to get out of flying.
So, I told him about the cobra. And he went real quiet and shook his head, and started on about how all the nurses were talkin' about me, he'd bet I was gettin' plenty, and when was I coming out for a beer, and saying most anything except what I needed to talk about.
I guess I didn't make any real friends out there. Toking buddies, that was all. Keep to yourself, look after yourself. No one 'cept Scoot, really. He was a great guy, he really was. Young, stupid, but not much more 'n me. Useta take the rise out of him 'cos of his real name. Ah hell, what does it matter now? 'Cept he was the best buddy I had. He was gonna be a vet when he got home, he said. Help out on his daddy's farm. Sounded like he'd spent the last ten years with his arm up a horse's ass. We had a lot of 'how gross can you get' competitions. No matter what kinda shit I'd done to the food I served in a dozen hair-net jobs, he'd always have some animal innards tale to top it.
His letter was the last one I wrote. He never had a chance to send a message home. Never had a chance to say anything to me. It took so long to write, that one. Every time, we tried, me and Face, but every time it was just too damn difficult and we'd move on.
His mother died while I was still ... before I got a chance to go see her. Before we finished the letter. Face found out when he went to visit. Scoot looked just his daddy, he said.
And I still haven't been to... I mean, I want to visit. The memorial. It's just hard. I don't know when I'll be ready for that. If I'll ever be ready.
So. Even though he didn't say much, just sat really, it meant a lot to me, BA coming in when he did. At least he asked how the hell I was; more'n my own damn CO did.
Funny. I curse a lot, talking about how things were. I did swear a lot, when I was younger. Just all comes back to me.
So BA smiles. And he tells me not to worry, fool, I won't be flyin' no cobra. And to get some rest.
And I did. I slept like a baby.
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