Nice American Boys

by Michael Ryerson

When they blew Leach in half, we were still trying to stuff something into the hole in Trey’s chest. And when we came back through the wire, they said we could stand down for a day or two. Fat fucking chance.

I needed a drink, no two ways about it. My head hurt and somehow I couldn’t close my eyes. I slept Tuesday, I think, or Monday. I wanted to stick my head someplace dark, someplace where I couldn’t hear a fucking thing. What day was it? Thursday? Friday? Shit. I needed a drink, a cold drink in a dark place. Not warm beer and not here, but where? De De could get a jeep, probably had one already, so maybe the ville. Isn’t there a little joint in Dong Ha where some of the guys stop for a cold drink sometimes? De De will know. I’ve got to find him and get the fuck out of here.

Too many bodies, too much running and jumping, too much time face-down in the dirt: maybe this was the end. I was getting short and I knew it. I wasn’t going to be much good to anybody. It was too long, too much to ask, this must be my limit, my toes were sticking over the edge. These rounds weren’t even that close but Dave had stared at me with that doofis-worried look on his face and I knew I was talking gibberish. His face scared the shit out of me.

The fear had been there, in the pit of my stomach, waiting there, I knew it, it had always been there, lurking, everybody had it, you couldn’t be here and not have it but now I could feel it in my throat, taste it even and I was choking on it. I was preoccupied with every sound, every quick movement. My eyes were wandering when people were talking to me. I would stop in mid-sentence, listening. Sometimes I couldn’t pick up the sentence again. I couldn’t help looking over my shoulder, my concentration was shot, I didn’t think I could get it back. Guys aren’t coming to me for the word anymore, they know, they feel it. I’m not hooked up anymore; I’m spinning out there, loose.

Getting short. I’d seen it all before and always believed I’d avoid it, be able to force my way through to the end of this tour, to my final rotation. So much time ‘in’ and what a waste to get greased now. Does the grand scheme favor irony; is a death at the end of your tour somehow more satisfying to the gods of war than getting whacked early on? If the new guy survives, it’s just dumb-fucking luck and if the short-timer gets whacked, it’s fucking destiny. The FNG gets greased and everybody says ‘tough shit, sorry ‘bout that’ but the short-timer gets greased and everybody shakes their head and starts wondering about the goddamned stars.

I’d been pretty solid my first tour and most of my second but now, after twenty-four months, I was cooked: too much incoming, too many sweeps, too many ambushes. You know, you can only think you’ve been lucky so many times before you start thinking you can’t keep the streak going, your luck has to run out sometime, right? I was sick, where the fuck is De De?

I can get out of here this afternoon, we can be in the rear in thirty minutes, maybe get a shave, yeah that’s it, get a shave make me feel better, and a cold drink, not warm beer, not a warm coke but a cold fucking drink. Take the edge off.

And then I hear his voice and the laugh, of course always the laugh, but even his voice has gotten brittle and thin. He’s dying too.

‘What?!’ he blurts out when he sees my face, he knows. Yeah, he knows. You got a jeep? Let’s get the fuck out of here now. Where to? The rear, Dong Ha, you know a place where we can get a cold drink and I mean a cold drink, maybe stop for a shave? Yeah, anything else? What do you mean, ‘anything else’, what else? You know, women. There’s the whorehouse across from the old French Shell station. Whores? Jesus, I don’t want any fucking women, I haven’t seen my dick in a month. I want a goddamn drink and I want to be left alone for an hour!

Okay, you got it, let’s go, he says and then there are two more guys with us, I don’t know where they come from but Daniels climbs in the back with a friggin’ M-60 across his knees and Spike climbs in, too and we bounce off down the trace toward Cam Lo and the river.

We’re sliding sideways, doing fifty or sixty on the gravel and the potholes, coming up on the rise where those three guys got hit with an RPG last week, their burned-out jeep still laying on its side in the weeds. De De’s driving like a fucking madman and we all love it: go man, shove this son-of-a-bitch down the road.

My eyes are watering pretty bad but I’m sweeping the trees about fifty meters down on the right, with the muzzle of my rifle resting near the toe of my right boot. Daniel’s hand appears in the corner of my eye, his index finger extended toward the tree line. Right there, who is it? Men in green uniforms in the trees. Marines? I feel Daniels shifting his weight in the back, pulling on my seat back, raising the machine-gun. Come on guys, who are you, give us something, anything. My hands are sweating. Yeah, Marines, six of ‘em: one guy holding up a fist, smiling, nodding at us.

Up another hill and hard left, past the old battery position. Now down the hill into Cam Lo, people on the road, lots of kids, slow down, watch the village on the right, watch the kids, watch the old guy on the bicycle. Now jam it again, go hard, get to the bridge, should be some Marines near the bridge, where the fuck are they? Water running high, out of the banks to the left, flooding the road, lots of mud, slide into the turn, De De wrestling the wheel, got to keep watching the tree line, more guys walking near the riverbank, what’s left of Bravo 1/9, I think, maybe fifteen guys, poor fucking bastards. Jesus.

We go airborne on the north ramp and land on the bridge hard, the jeep fish-tailing and then straightening out, off the south ramp into two inches of brown water and slow down for Route 9, hard left onto the gravel. Lots of traffic, wider road, tanks up ahead, going our way, pass ‘em on the left, punch it De De, punch this gutless piece of shit, go hard. Relax now; just a couple of miles left: plenty of cover, lots of Marine traffic, lots of eyes. Watch the tree line across the river. Settle down, swallow, wipe your eyes. Leach. Jesus, one minute he was there, out of the corner of my eye and the next minute he disappeared. Dave never looked up, just kept working on Trey.

Daniels reaches up and rests his hand on my shoulder, I look around and Spike is looking into my face trying to see if I’m home. I try to smile, it ain’t much, I can only pull my lips back tight against my teeth, I can’t get the corners to turn up, I feel my chin quiver.

The tanks flash by, De De wheeling and dealing. We pass the first gate to the airfield, I hear ammo links hitting the steel floor behind me and turn to see Daniels breaking down the machine-gun, Spike clicking his safety on, lighting a smoke, De De slowing down, cruising. I put my safety on and slide my rifle onto the floor between the seats, reach down and grab the .45, pop the magazine into my lap and clear the chamber, the single round jumping right and hanging, spinning for a second in the air and then disappearing into the weeds.

Half a mile short of Dong Ha, we slide to a stop next the barbershop and I swing out and stand by the ditch and bend over with my hands on my knees. Daniels stands next to me and watches the road. I’m going to get my shave and the Papa-san is standing in the grass doorway smiling.

The shack is dark, almost cool, the dust from the road drifting in and muting the light from the one window. He’s smiling that brown-betel-nut-smile and nodding his head up and down and I’m saying shave only and he’s stropping a straight-razor and I’m thinking how crazy this is, I’m going to let this fucking gook put a fucking razor against my throat. De De’s standing in the doorway, cradling an M-16, smiling and chewing gum.

I lay back in the chair and close my eyes, fuck it, if this zip’s going to kill me then get on with it, I just want to rest here in the dark for a while. He’s got a hot towel and is wringing it out and jabbering some shit and motioning for me to put my feet up on a box. The towel might have been white once but now it has that organic tan color and a faint rice paddy smell but it’s hot and I feel my face muscles relaxing and I let out a long breath. I can hear somebody taking a piss in the benjo ditch outside. Some trucks thunder by; I hear Spike call out to somebody and they yell an obscenity back and laugh. Now the lather and the scraping blade, I can hear my whiskers being sheared off tight, Jesus this guy is good, smooth and quick, and he shaves up high under my eyes like they always do and makes a big deal of getting the sideburns just right and the hairline on my neck and do I want some aftershave? It stings like a motherfucker and it must be pure alcohol with some blue food coloring in it.

I pull out some crumpled piastres and give him twice as much as he wants and he smiles that watery smile and bows and I think somebody’s going to shoot this cocksucker in the wire one night and we’re going to need another barber and we leave.

The jeep is covered in yellow dust and the tanks are almost on us, so we hurry and De De jerks us back into traffic and we lurch toward Dong Ha behind a 6X pulling a small trailer. I feel better. How do I look? And I turn around to Spike and he says you’re going to sunburn and I say no, but he laughs and says you’re showing a lot of white now, you’re going to burn. I rub my jaw and chin, man are they smooth, I can feel the dust starting to build up and Daniels says are we going to the whorehouse? And Spike says right across the street, you know the place with the old Coke cooler and the real clear ice. “And the rum,” De De adds, “the rum and Cokes.”

I look around at the sun and then down at my watch, through the cracked crystal I think it says 1230 or maybe 1330, what time is it? Nobody knows but who cares? They don’t shut down the road till twilight and we’ll be long gone by then.

There they are, De De says and Spike looks around behind us and waves to another jeep full of guys, I think one of them is a captain, Fowler maybe, what are they doing down here? Oh they just wanted to tag along, Spike says, I think Max is going to be at the bar before us. What is this a fucking party? I just wanted a goddamn cold drink. Yeah, they know, they just wanted to tag along. You think Fowler’s going to pitch a bitch? He’s not, and he’s going to see that nobody else does either. I think everybody just wants to see that you get your goddamn cold drink. My stomach is burning like a motherfucker. Is it bad to drink when your stomach hurts?

And we wheel into a slot next to the little hootch across from the old French customs house and pile out. Max is there and Chris chasing an old woman out of the backroom, prodding her in the butt with his rifle, nobody in back while we’re here, he says and Bia Tiger for everybody and she’s smiling and bobbing up and down and Chris is grinning that ‘don’t try to fucking lie to me’ grin.

I sit down and for a second I just watch the sweat from my bottle run down onto the red table top, then I lift it up and let the ice cold grab my throat and I can’t even taste the beer but just the cold, all the way down through my chest burning and I can feel the wet running across my wrist and down my forearm to my elbow.

When I put the bottle down there’s another waiting and I turn it up and this time I can sort of taste the beer but mostly still just the cold. Fowler’s standing in the doorway talking to three M.P.’s, I didn’t know he was such a good guy, never had too much to do with him but De De says he’s alright.

Now a squat water glass, one finger of rum and two fingers of Coke and throw it down quick, jesus – too fucking sweet, take another, one finger of rum, two fingers of Coke and go quick. I knock an empty beer bottle over and watch it roll in slow-motion over the edge of the table, the sweat ring on the table has turned to mud and I just want to put my head down for a minute, just for a minute, until they bring the next round. Shit, I wanted the tabletop to be cool but it’s not, just warm, hot even, like everything else in this shit hole. I can’t feel my stomach.

Michael Ryerson