The country had been on fire from the moment he first landed. He’d only ever seen a big civilian city from the inside of planes or airports, and now he was outside on the tarmac—in his undress blues and carrying a sea bag, and the uncountable Falstaffs and Singapore slings were exacting their revenge on his head and guts—in a city, Da Nang, that was home to hundreds of thousands and was taking artillery fire, smoke rising like giant ghost trees from the rooftops.
Within a couple of hours he was assigned to the 26th Marines at a supply depot in the rear at Dong Ha, from which he was to run convoys up the dirt roads to the forward combat bases near the D.M.Z. at Camp Carroll, Lang Vei, Quang Tri, something called the Rockpile, and another spot that was just an airstrip, really, as it turned out—a road, a cliff, and an airstrip on a low plateau outside a village called Khe Sanh, although whatever human life in the village had been raptured lately, right before he passed through it the first time, so lately the cats were still delicately eating scraps in the hot trash heaps, the cats the souls of the sinners left behind.
Convoy orders were nice and simple: Keep going. A long line of trucks in single file, twenty, fifty, sometimes a hundred trucks. You get a flat tire, you keep going. He drove an M54, a five-ton truck with ten wheels, and you could lose a tire, as long as it wasn’t in front, and keep on up the slick road to the combat base. A truck disabled by whatever mechanical failure or land mine, you ditch that truck and keep going. If it obstructs the road you push it off the cliff, don’t matter if your mother’s inside. Do not stop. They were running candy canes and powder charges and everything in between—building supplies, shovels, canned milk—but the cargo and any disabled truck could be replaced. Two minutes stopped on a mountain road was plenty long enough for a convoy to get sighted and blown to hell from incoming.
Squads of grunts were guarding the road, on patrol or dug in, or some of them hiding in rock formations, because up near the D.M.Z. the place could have been Mars for all the cover any vegetation provided. But you hardly saw these dug-in or hiding squads and fire teams until you were right on top of them. And while the convoy headed back to Dong Ha the afternoon after a drop, the grunts guarding the road would throw a bag into your truck as you drove by, a burlap or polypropylene woven bag usually used for sandbagging but with a rock in it to make it sail like a projectile, and you’d snatch it coming in your window. Inside was a passel of rumpled lists of the supplies they needed: razor blades, rations, bullets, cigarettes, soap. Somebody wrote, Chicken soup or orange juice—we all got colds. It was Christmas every day, and Vollie was Santa Claus taking requests. Every list pleaded for beer, but he couldn’t find any for the longest time.
Sometimes the roadside grunts put mail in the sandbags along with the rock and the rumpled lists, and if they were dug in far enough from the road you had to square up, high on the mount atop the cab, where Vollie often manned a .50-calibre machine gun, to snag the thing from the air like a long fly to the outfield, and inside was a letter to Mr. and Mrs. Stanley Routenberg of Livonia, Michigan, and a rumpled note to the convoy demanding, if not beer, at least a couple of hundred pounds of grass. All Vollie had for them to drink was Coca-Cola. It turned out some guys made a casserole out of rations cooked in Coke. A Puerto Rican from the 2/9 Marines told him that was how you were supposed to cook pork, which was comical, trying to tell a Clinton County boy he didn’t know how to cook a pig.
There were whole villages made of Coke cases, and the ingenious Vietnamese had pleated together roofs for their huts out of the dissected Coke cans. The convoy had to slow up through one such village, and they should have known better because as they rolled into the village no kids were flinging themselves at the sides of the trucks, begging for candy and rations. Everybody was in a hut someplace.
Then a bomb detonated in the road. A Marine artillery shell, most likely, that had failed to explode and been rejiggered into a land mine. The mine blew off the front end of the truck right ahead of Vollie’s. Three men flew up and away from the explosion, but they still had their legs, and scrambled, flesh hanging in strips through smoldering fatigues—the automatic marine body that scrambles before it understands—into the back of Vollie’s truck. The convoy plowed teetering right over the cardboard village, right over the Coke huts, crushing who knew what, rice bags or people, under the listing axles, and the convoy did not stop. It got to Camp Carroll ahead of schedule carrying mail, tents, diesel fuel, kerosene, Winston the one filter cigarette that delivers flavor twenty times a pack, two wounded, one dead. He was Santa Claus and the mailman and a teen-ager driving tons of munitions through a monsoon-slick road in early February with rat-a-tat sniper fire in the distant hills as normal as birdsong. Winston’s got that filter flavor.
Then back in Dong Ha he found the Quonset hut where the squids were hiding their beer. If marines never stole from the Army and the Navy we could never win a war. A marine is a thief by training, tradition, and necessity caused by, Why are we always out of supplies and they’re so flush? Another marine from his convoy group lit a smoke bomb at the far end of the depot, and the squids went running to investigate while Vollie backed up his truck to the Quonset hut, and with a dolly, a ramp, and four men pushing they got a whole pallet of Hamm’s beer into his truck and covered it, and he was out of there before the quartermaster or anybody else was any the wiser. Clean cut with smoothness aged in—Hamm’s, it’s the refreshingest. Then the whole way to the Rockpile, they threw warm cases of beer down to the men popping from behind boulders, from under makeshift blinds, men joyous as retriever dogs to see the labels on the cases.
His convoy had nearly reached the Rockpile, midday, when a marine appeared like a vision hovering above the road in the distance. At first it seemed the warm beer was giving Vollie fantod hallucinations, but he’d only drunk the one, nice and slow to let the stomach take it, not even the one, a swig remained in the can he held with fingers that meantime guided the steering wheel. The marine wore a painted wooden sign around his neck. You could see his busted helmet and flak jacket, but the feet were too loose to be standing. He floated midair. A miracle. A marine with invisible wings. Then as the truck got close you could see the spike that had been introduced through his ass and into his torso, a thin spike you spied only when you were near enough to see his face—in fact a dead Vietnamese face about fifteen years old with flies nesting in the nose, dressed in old shreds of Marine fatigues. The sign around his neck read:
This road patrolled by the Magnificent Bastards
2nd Battalion, 4th Marines
And a little drawing of a sea horse for a signature.
They slept that night at the Rockpile, or anyhow under it. There wasn’t any need to drive up the crazy mountain, or any road to climb it, didn’t seem. And in the morning they drove back to Dong Ha without stopping, occasionally throwing C rations of ham and motherfuckers at the Vietnamese in their loose-fit rags who lined the roads sometimes begging for food and sometimes pretending to beg for food so you would slow down if you were stupid and they would throw a grenade in your cab.
They pulled into Dong Ha, and the grinning screeching children swarmed begging frenziedly, and the trucks pushed through with all due haste. Farther along, near the base gate, an old woman—or not so old but without any teeth, the brown smiling gums gone to leather from chewing betel nut—waved her straw cone hat sweet and friendly by the roadside. Suddenly she bent low and fished at her skirt bottom. Vollie unholstered the 1911 pistol from his shoulder, or his hand unholstered it, jutted it out the window, and aimed it, the peaceful fleet hand that did its work while the laggard mind raced to understand what was happening.
Then the old woman, unfazed by a semi-automatic pistol aimed at her face by a dumb white teen-ager in a truck, pulled her skirt up over her belly and pulled down her shapeless drawers, calling, “Fucky-fucky five dollars.”
His hand drew his pistol back inside the cab. The trucks rumbled on through the gate, into the compound, and the men refuelled and parked at the tire shop and went to the mess and then to their bunks.
He had never seen a woman’s privates before, he had seen pictures and he had dreamed dreams, but the mind so unswerving in its misguided notions and expectations could not shake all night the weirdness that the fucking part was in the front of her, whereas in the female of all the other animals he could think of you found the fucking parts behind. The frontwardness, the face-to-face aspect of human fucking was itself backward. But no, that was another lie of the discordant mind. The body didn’t know we were made to do things the wrong way—it didn’t know this thing that wasn’t true. It got a hard-on all the same to see a woman without her clothes, even a decrepit one; though perhaps the hard-on came from the pistol he had aimed at her face and had not fired.
Ham and motherfuckers was ham and lima beans and even the starvelings up at Khe Sanh didn’t want them.
Do not stop the convoy.
But then one day while they were taking apart their pallets at Khe Sanh—uncommon to stop at Khe Sanh, rumors of a hell of a ruckus up there, what with the R.P.G.s and the 130-millimetre guns, so the Marine Corps was supplying mostly from the air—he heard a noise. He was unloading into a hooch and he heard a noise. He looked around him. The four other guys unloading with him were already gone. He ran out of the tent aware he was a step behind something important, and the body knowing more as always threw itself in the trench outside the hooch and landed on a dead grunt who, wait, was not dead but crouching, ducked and covered, in a stream that, wait, was not a stream but a trench filled two feet deep with water. The grunt threw Vollie off him. Vollie landed in the water. Six men crouched half submerged. The sun was setting through the drizzle. I have heard incoming real close and so I am in a trench, reported the idiot laggard mind, and I am afraid. Then the artillery was everywhere, the surface of the airstrip around him bubbling like a boiling stew, and they stayed in the trench until the sun had set two more times. Somewhere in there he heard a whistle and saw his truck blow up and he figured he would be here at Khe Sanh awhile longer.