The Prisoner

by Michael Ryerson

I could hear the chopper. I could see the grunts coming up the hill with the kid trussed up; stumbling, blindfolded, head bent forward, elbows wired behind his back.

Rod came over: they got a prisoner this morning, he said. Who? The guys over on the knoll, they got a prisoner from the probe last night, found him in their wire this morning. Is he wounded? No, I don’t think he’s hurt at all. How the fuck did they do that? I don’t know, all I know is they got him and they need to get him back to Dong Ha, turn him over to the VN Marines for questioning. Yeah, I laughed; the VN Marines and the spooks. Rod frowned and shook his head, yeah, probably the spooks, too.

Hey Chris, pop a smoke will ya? Chris looked up at us and nodded, reached up and pulled a smoke grenade from his suspender strap, pulled the pin and underhanded it onto the LZ. Yellow smoke billowed up and drifted quickly off to the south.

Rod lit a cigarette. They’re going to kill him, sure as shit. Yeah – maybe. No maybe. Remember when we took that woman down to their barracks in Quang Tri and turned her over? Did you see the cells? How many were there, five, maybe, six? And how many prisoners do you think we gave them during Hastings? Twenty, thirty? Where the hell do you think they went? They went in the ground, man, in the fucking ground. The French taught them how, they question them and then they squeeze them and question them some more and when they’re done, they go in a hole.

The Huey came up the valley about fifty feet above the trees, fast, maybe 70, 80 knots, then rose up and swung across our position in a wide arc with the starboard door facing straight down. He leveled out about a quarter mile to the south and came in quick with the sun glinting off the canopy and a guy hanging out the starboard door grinning. Christiansen stood at the north side of the LZ holding his rifle up over his head with both hands. The pilot dropped his tail to scrape off some speed and the yellow smoke separated into two symmetrical columns curling up into the rotor wash. The skids came to within an inch of the ground and paused before they settled down.

So they drop this kid’s blindfold so he can help get into the chopper and I see he’s about sixteen and his eyes are flying all over the place. And the grunts are talking to the crew chief and he’s nodding and they’re pointing at me. And Rod comes over and says they’re going to have you escort him to the rear and turn him over. I glance at the kid with the wild eyes and know he’s going to be beaten senseless and there isn’t a fucking thing I can do about it. Maybe he’ll talk real quick and they’ll just blow his brains out. But maybe he thinks he’s a tough guy or worse, maybe he doesn’t know anything, and they have to be sure they’ve got everything he’s got, so they hurt him, use the hotwires, smother him with the wet mask, beat him with the canes, revive him and punch him bloody until somebody decides he’s got no more to give.

It’s different with dead people, you know, different with corpses. You forget about their politics, forget about them being mean or stupid or eating with their mouth open, forget that maybe you didn’t like them very much. On the ground they just seem, well, dead, like you’re kinda looking at yourself maybe, but like an empty sack, sad, pathetic even. Petty differences are gone. I guess pathos is what’s waiting for us all. I remember seeing a guy I knew one time on the ground dead and he had this kind of goofy last name, you know – the kind that he probably got ribbed about a lot but now, on the ground, I could read his last name on his shirt front and there wasn’t anything funny about it anymore. Gook bodies are the same, except when you just finished killing them and your blood is still up, like maybe they were trying to kill you, too. So maybe then you take a leak on the body or stub out a butt on them, you know, something to reinforce your disconnectedness from the whole thing. A gesture of disrespect really meant for the living, for anyone who sees the callousness, for your own sense of lawlessness. But even then, after you calm down, when you look at them, you just see a fucking sack of meat, some poor bastard who’s never going to laugh or belch or see his home again. And then you have to back up from that real quick, ‘cause you can’t be looking down into that hole, feeling sorry for anybody. You’ve got to hold your trim. Can’t spend a quiet minute looking ‘cause you might see something you’ll have to carry around. Yeah, that’s it, you’ve got to look hard ‘at’ things because you’ve got to do your job but you can’t really afford to ‘see’ anything, because that’s too much to carry around. You’ve got to see what you need to see to do your job and no more.

But with the prisoners it was really different. They were in your control. They were no longer a threat, past being able to hurt you and if they’d survived the rage of their capture, weren’t bleeding to death and no one blew them to kingdom-come, then you had this guy, living and breathing and the question became what do you do with them, what good could they do you? What use were they? Did they have something you needed? How do you get it? And once you’ve got it, how can you be sure you got it all? And what follows is an ugly fucking business, cold, calculated. No way to avoid what it is; what it really is. This was part of it, business, maybe survival. Nobody talked about it or almost nobody. There’s no adrenalin-rush-movie-music to cover up what has to happen, no posturing. This is not God’s work.

Then the tail lifts and we rise into a sharp left bank and for a second I think this guy’s taking us out the same way he came in and I feel my stomach knotting up and I glance quickly at Rod and he’s looking down into the trees and I think we’re going to take fire any fucking minute and I feel my buttocks pulling together but then the pilot swings us into a hard right and we climb up the ridge, the green curtain of hardwood trees streaming past the open door and we drop down the other side into the Ngan River Valley and level off just above the treetops and he’s cranking at eighty knots and I settle back.

So this kid’s going in the chopper with us and nobody’s really looking at him and I’m thinking how fucking easy it would be to kick this poor bastard out, save him a lot of pain, save him from a long night under the lights at Dong Ha. How he’d be a lot better off if he’d just been killed last night in the wire and what can we get from this kid that’s going to be worth a shit to us anyway. And I glance up at the crew chief and he’s looking right into my eyes and he knows exactly what I’m thinking and I know he’s thought the same thing before and he shakes his head as if to say it’s not worth it, don’t even think about it. The rotor wash is pulsing through the open door and this kid’s long black hair is swirling around his face and lifting the bottom of the blindfold but he can’t see anything except maybe the aluminum deck and the toes of my boots and he’s shivering.

Yeah, this is what it’s come down to, I’m thinking about murdering him to save him or, more likely, to lessen my own guilt from turning him over to the interrogators. What a noble bastard I am. And what if he knows something, maybe even knows something which seems insignificant to him but when you put it side-by-side with something else, it makes a picture and we avoid being overrun somewhere. Then how noble am I? No, he’s going to stand it as long as he can stand it and then he’s going into the ground and I’m going to live with it.

Now we’re coming up on the mouth of the valley, the east end, the place where the north slope is covered with NVA antiaircraft and heavy machineguns and nobody goes through here at low-level no matter how much airspeed you’ve got and right on cue we rise up suddenly, pulling pitch, an express elevator, through twenty five hundred, cool air rushing in, three thousand, ears popping, air going cold, and level off at maybe four thousand feet and still pumping hard. LZ Crow is down there someplace, I used to be able to pick it out every time through here but it’s harder and harder to see. Hastings was a long time ago and the jungle just keeps taking back the clearings, the LZ’s.

We pick up the Cam Lo River, Camp Carroll down below, off to the right, and I flash on one of those 155mm shells coming through the aircraft and I shiver involuntarily. Out the left side, in the distance, I can see dust rising from Charlie Two and beyond it, the dark outline of Con Thien. The kid has settled down, maybe accepting his fate. Do they believe in fate?…Do we?…Do I? And we start the long descent into Dong Ha, the engine powering back, the pitch lowering, the guy next to me fumbling for a smoke, clicking a Zippo open and, cupping his hands against the wind, taking a long, deep drag, sucking the smoke way down into his lungs with that tiny smile of satisfaction we all save for our private pleasures. I wonder if he realizes that could kill him in twenty or thirty years.

The crew chief grabs the overhead and swings in toward me; we’re going to drop these other guys at Dong Ha, his face right up against mine. What? He shouts, we’re going to drop these other guys at Dong Ha before we take you on to Quang Tri, he’s nodding. Quang Tri? Yeah, they want this guy; he nods toward the prisoner, down there. Okay, I answer not sure how I’m going to get back up to Dong Ha. I look at Rod, Quang Tri, I shout and point at the prisoner and my chest. Rod laughs and says, I’ll ride along, don’t want you to get lost.

We come to a hover west of Delta Med and settle onto the pad nearest the regimental FSCC. Guys start swinging out, the prisoner moves slightly and I put my hand on his shoulder and he settles back. The door gunner leans out and looks to the rear and speaks into his microphone clearing his side of the aircraft for the pilot, the crew chief leans out on his side and does the same and we lift into a slow bank to the right, across the runway, Rod sitting on my right with the kid on the deck between us; Rod holding the radio between his feet.

I’m going to hell.

Michael Ryerson