By Joseph S. Pfister
If there was one thing First Lieutenant Bobby Giordano hadn’t missed about Vietnam, it was the heat—and the distinctive odor that comes from having to eat, sleep, and shit alongside 22 other men. When he arrived in Japan (on his way to Hawaii for a special 10-day R&R), he had showered three times, but he couldn’t scrub the country or its stench off his skin no matter how hard he tried. Before Al Hickey stepped on a landmine outside Quang Ngai City, he commented that the country would’ve been “a real gorgeous, fucking place if there weren’t a war going on.” Bobby wasn’t so sure. Upon leaving Vietnam, he realized that he would’ve been perfectly content never seeing that godforsaken piece of earth again, with its daunting, impenetrable jungle, endless rice paddies and inescapable heat. The humidity, Bobby told Rose when he saw her in Hawaii, was comparable to jumping in a pool with all your clothes on and then being forced to walk around in them. Food simply wasn’t appealing in such weather, especially when you had to spend all day plodding through the jungle with what felt like a boulder in your stomach.
Bobby’s eight days with his wife hadn’t gone as he anticipated. He’d been secretly hoping that everything would somehow return to normal between them, as if no time had passed and they’d both forgotten the horrible things she’d written in her letters to him. The fact that she’d agreed to meet and fly from Chicago made his heart soar with possibility; he took her willingness to see him as a positive. He’d inevitably known it would take some time for them to get reacquainted; however, by the week’s end, he still felt that initial shyness and hesitancy in the way she spoke to him. He should’ve known something was amiss when Rose asked for her own room, but she had insisted she just didn’t want to rush into things. In her mind, that would only complicate matters. She said she didn’t know how she felt—Bobby had been away for a long time, and though they were married, she thought it sensible to ease back into their relationship. Besides, there was the war, and his role in it, to consider.
After nine months in the bush, it had been almost surreal returning to the real world and all its modern comforts: hot showers, a warm bed, food that didn’t come out of a can you carried on your back. Although far-removed from the war and its constant worries, his mind struggled to accept that he was no longer there. Walking through the garden at the hotel, he found himself surveying the assiduously pruned hedges for the best location to establish a command post or take cover in case of a mortar attack. He’d realized then that though his body may have been in Hawaii, his mind wasn’t; it had separated itself from him and was still wandering through the boundless rice paddies and twisting trails around Quang Ngai City. Vietnam was a whole other world—home might as well be on the moon when you were there. One of the first things Bobby learned in Vietnam was that the natural flow of time changes in a war zone—minutes feel like hours and hours can feel like days. He’d only been gone little more than a week, but for his men who had to hump from sunup to sundown, sleep in the mud, and worry about incoming mortars and sniper fire, he was sure it felt like months.
On his first afternoon back in the bush, the midday heat brought everything to a standstill. Bobby and his platoon fanned out in the shade just off the trail they’d been following in an attempt to avoid direct sunlight. Nothing moved, save for the mosquitoes and a farmer with a pair of oxen in the adjacent field. Second Platoon had been humping all morning, and according to Bobby’s field map, they’d moved roughly seven klicks closer to their objective: a no-name village south of Chu Lai. Even the illusion of an objective, he knew, made the morning’s hardships more endurable. It often felt like all they did was march, day after day, week after week, without any clear sense of purpose. They were all exhausted, and Bobby knew if he kept pushing them, they would arrive in no shape to fight.
No one had told him what kind of resistance to expect—a surprisingly common Army practice—only that the mission was supposed to be a standard search and destroy. The only thing waiting for them after their last two romps through the jungle had been a few, old papa-sans smoking opium outside their huts and half a dozen naked children chasing a chicken. The truth was Bobby had spent the better part of a month in Vietnam before he saw his first gook that wasn’t an old man, woman or child. He’d seen plenty lying bloated and half-submerged in irrigation ditches, missing limbs, but not any that were alive. The men joked that gook men didn’t actually exist; they were merely ghosts who lived in the jungle and came out at night to kill GIs and impregnate the village women. There’s some amount of truth to every joke, no matter how small, and as far as Bobby could tell, this one was no exception. Most of the time it felt like they were chasing phantoms around the bush.
The majority of his men had stripped off their rucksacks and flak jackets and laid down, even though it was too uncomfortable for sleep. Bobby rested his rifle against a banyan tree and pulled out his map and compass. His feet were raw and it felt good to sit. He figured he’d wait 20 minutes and then get everyone moving again. If they stayed in one place too long, they’d just be asking for trouble. All it would take was one opportunistic sniper to spoil their afternoon. Bobby surveyed his surroundings and saw Harralson—a black, bull of a man from Detroit—had opened his C ration and was chowing down. In between mouthfuls of pork and beans, he complained about the heat.
“Shit, man. It is hot out here. Almost hotter than Jefferies’ momma’s titties.”
“Fuck you, Harralson,” said Jefferies, who lay a short distance away with his cap pulled down over his eyes. “Besides, it’s really not that bad. If you close your eyes, you can almost picture yourself on a beach somewhere.”
“Ha. Yeah, ‘cept I’d rather be on a beach somewhere with some beautiful broads instead of you ugly bastards.”
Jefferies sat up, lifted his bush hat off his eyes and grinned.
Harralson returned to his pork and beans and then elbowed Rodriquez, the platoon’s medic, pointing to a wiry, redheaded kid hunched over a tattered Vietnamese-English dictionary. “Hey, O’Grady! Whatcha doing over there? You know we came to Nam to kill dinks, not fraternize with ‘em, right?”
Polanski took a swig from his canteen. “Ain’t no way something you learned in a book gonna save your life out here. This is the bush, man. The only thing that’s good for is gettin’ you some poon on R&R. And then, when she brings you home to meet mama- and papa-san, you can have a nice, civilized conversation over dinner and discuss how you performed in the sack.”
Several of the men laughed.
“Speakin’ of being handy with your rifle, there’s a rumor been goin’ ‘round that you were in the Pershing Rifles, Lieutenant. That true?” said Rodriquez.
Bobby nodded. He’d been pretending to study his map but now gave up all pretenses and put it away. “I joined the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps at DePaul.”
“Now wait just a minute,” Harralson cut in, pointing his fork at Bobby. “You tellin’ me you done volunteered for this shit? You don’t even have to be here?”
“Not exactly,” Bobby said as he readjusted the way his helmet sat on his forehead. “All right, 15 minutes and we’re moving out.”
Harralson turned to Rodriguez and said in a loud voice: “I just can’t believe anyone would sign up for this—”
Jefferies had been silent for some time, and Bobby had thought he’d drifted off until he said, “Hey, take it easy on the LT. He can’t help it—that’s just the way God made Italians. They got that hot blood in ‘em. They like to fight. My cousin out East, he married an Italian. She’s a real firecracker.”
“How is that sexy wife of yours anyway?” said Harralson, winking at Bobby. “I’ve seen you lookin’ at pictures of her in your foxhole. She is fine.”
“Yeah, Lieutenant,” Rodriguez chimed in, “what gives? How’d you manage a free, 10-day pass outta the Nam?”
“She’s been sick.”
A buzzing silence filled the space between them.
“How long you been married, Lieutenant?” Harralson asked.
He let out a low whistle. “Man. What I wouldn’t give for some R&R with my wife. Only four more months.”
“Hey, rub it in, you Jolly Green Bastard,” said Rodriquez. “Some of us have longer than that.”
“Why, how long you got, Rodriquez?”
“Shit!” said Harralson, laughing so hard tears came to his eyes. “Six? Ain’t no way yo’ brown ass ever gettin’ outta this bumfuck country.”
Bobby smiled. He actually recalled very little of his first six months in the bush. Being in Vietnam was a lot like being stuck in a terrible dream, one in which there seemed to be no end and events constantly repeated. For the Army grunt, every day bore a cruel resemblance to the last: the maddening routine of digging a new foxhole, knowing you’d have to abandon it first thing in the morning; mortar attacks; malaria tablets; having to hump everywhere. Even the lingering fear and ever-present threat of death became familiar until a stray bullet whizzed past your ear or a shell that landed meters from you failed to detonate, reminding you just how close you were to existing one moment and not the next.
If you were going to get it, it was better to get it in the first few weeks rather than when you were short like Harralson, and save yourself the misery of months in the bush. A select few knew Bobby was short, and that list was rapidly dwindling. As the weeks passed, each one slower and harder to get through than the last, he feared that surviving the last three months of his tour was too much to ask. Bobby had lost plenty of close friends in the past nine months. Al Hickey was one. Pete Maroney was another. But the others, he couldn’t recall their faces.
It was his philosophy to take each day as it came, and if he was still alive by its close, he was one step closer to home. Some of the new replacements talked idly of re-enlisting when their tour was up, and in his darker moments, Bobby wondered if any of them would live to see the end of their first tour. Soldiers far better than them hadn’t. It didn’t make sense to Bobby why some lived and others died, why he was still alive and friends weren’t. In the end, it all came down to luck, God, or whatever else you wanted to call it. Bobby wanted to believe there was a divine plan, that everything that happened happened for some greater good. He couldn’t stand the idea of existing in a world that was the result of mere chance.
“Six months. I can’t get over that. You sorry motherfucker,” said Harralson. “Don’t worry, I’ll be sure to think of ya’ll when I’m back in the States, screwin’ my wife. ‘Specially you, Rodriquez.”
Bobby slapped his knees suddenly and got to his feet. “All right, Second Platoon, pack it up!”
The living room around Bobby’s sister Elena lay dark and quiet. After putting her children to bed and reassuring Nathan, her youngest, that his father would be home soon, she sat on the couch in the dark, twisting her wedding band around her finger. She listened to the heat bang its way through the pipes and supposed she should get up and turn on the lights so as not to alarm Eddie when he came home. However, she had remained glued to the couch, unable to will herself to move. She could hear the soft rattle of Nathan’s snores from his bedroom and tried to distract herself by imagining the pleasant dreams of a five-year-old.
Eddie had left right after dinner. He’d finished his green beans, grabbed his suit coat from the back of his chair, kissed Elena goodbye, and then set off in search of Rose. No one had been more surprised than Eddie and Elena when his niece and Elena’s brother met at a family gathering and announced a year later that they were getting married. The present occasion for Eddie’s visit, however, wasn’t a happy one. Two weeks earlier, Rose had accepted an invitation to dinner at her in-laws—an occurrence she hadn’t partaken in since Bobby left. To the silent horror of her hosts, Rose appeared in a grubby-looking sweater and blue jeans. After Angela Giordano went into the kitchen to fix dessert, Rose pulled her napkin out of her lap, threw it on the table, and told Elena’s father that what Bobby was doing was stupid. In fact, she said, if he got himself killed, it would be exactly what he deserved. Ernesto Giordano dabbed his lips with his napkin and calmly set down his wine glass. We shouldn’t even be in Vietnam, Rose went on, her voice rising plaintively. The only thing we’ve succeeded in doing over there is bringing those people more hardship and pain. Ernesto sat quietly in his chair, not objecting or interrupting, and listened to his daughter-in-law berate his son and his service to his country for 15 minutes. His steel gaze never left hers, and when she finally fell silent, he stood and kindly asked her to leave their home.
Elena’s mother had called shortly thereafter and wept into the phone for an hour. (“You should have heard her go on. And to talk to us about hardship and pain!”) Her father had been furious—he paced in angry circles around the dining room table, every now and then shouting something in Italian that Elena could barely make out over the sound of her mother’s broken sobs. In the days following Rose’s visit, her mother had been beside herself with grief, and at Elena’s behest, Eddie had agreed to go and speak with his niece.
Elena had contemplated going to find Rose herself. After all, Bobby was her brother, and Rose was hurting Elena as much as she was hurting Elena’s parents. “Absolutely not,” said Eddie, buttoning up his pajamas one night as they got ready for bed. “It’s not your place to say anything. She’s my niece.” That had settled the matter, and though Elena was not a person who took pleasure in anticipation, she knew better than to insist on coming along. As she sat in the darkened living room, she tried to envision how their conversation would play out—what Eddie would say and how Rose would react—but she couldn’t. She would simply have to wait.
As the rain pummeled Bobby’s poncho, draped over his foxhole like a tent, it felt almost as if his family was there with him. He had the small tape player he carried in the bottom of his rucksack nestled in his lap, and the sound of his older sister Alvara’s mezzo-soprano rang high and clear through the tiny speaker. If he tried, he could see his parents and two sisters arranged around the upright piano in the parlor of his parents’ Chicago apartment. Alvara would stand beside the piano while Elena sat on the bench, her fingers prancing back and forth across the keys, his father sitting beside her and joining in on “Ave Maria,” “Impossible Dream,” or “Because.” Bobby’s mother—a delicate, Italian woman with naturally curly hair, expressive hands but not much of a singing voice—would knit and observe, smiling proudly. The apartment would smell of a unique combination of his mother’s favorite herbs—oregano and basil—and his father’s hand-rolled cigarettes. Maybe Bobby’s aunts, uncles and cousins were there, too. Once his father and sisters finished, his mother would commandeer the tape recorder. She would go into the kitchen or a quiet corner and talk to him in soft tones, reassuring him that not a day went by without her thinking of him. Around Christmas, the men asked to listen to Alvara sing carols, and they all gathered around, as silent as if they were out on ambush.
Bobby listened to the cassettes until he wore them out. The comforting sound of his family’s voices reminded him that there was another world beyond Vietnam, untouched by the ravages of war. But, best of all, the tapes provided a temporary reprieve from reality; he could forget about Vietnam and all the men he’d lost—at least for a moment. Even when he laughed and joked with Polanski or Harralson, he couldn’t forget that they were there for a reason: they were fighting a war. When he wrote his family, he tried to seem cheerful and never dwelled on who’d been killed or wounded since the last time he’d written. He didn’t talk about how he’d been forced to come to terms with his own mortality or how he constantly feared letting his men down. Instead, he asked how work was treating his father, how big Elena and Alvara’s children had gotten, and whether the old auditorium had been torn down yet. There was a certain solace in the mundane that he longed for.
During the first months of his deployment, Rose’s letters came regularly. It seemed he waited endlessly for the resupply chopper, which came once a week bearing crate loads of ammunition, hot chow, beer, and, of course, the mail. He would go through the mailbag, calling out men’s names, and his heart would swell at the sight of a letter addressed to him in his wife’s handwriting. She sprayed each one with perfume, and that night he would lay awake in his foxhole with her letter pressed to his nose, breathing in her smell. But, over time, the tone and frequency of her letters changed. He started to receive them every other week, and then once a month. The topic of the war—and her growing opposition to it—began to gradually creep into what she wrote:
“The older I get, Bobby, the more I realize there’s so much about this world I don’t understand—including this war and why you have to fight in it. War has never solved anything, and I fear all this one will do is continue to keep you from me. The waiting and not knowing is the worst.”
A number of men in Second Platoon had already received “Dear John” letters, and like everyone else with a sweetheart back home, Bobby worried he’d be next. When Al Hickey got his on a sunny day in late May, it took four men to hold him down. Afterwards, when they let him go, he sat down on a tree stump in front of everyone and wept like a child. It had been sad to see. Bobby watched the desire to live slowly leave him, and two weeks later, he tripped a Bouncing Betty and died before the medevac arrived. Bobby spent entire days missing his wife. He knew it was a dangerous distraction—he’d seen what happened when a man’s mind was elsewhere, how one careless mistake could cost someone their life. Still, it wasn’t something he could help.
As the weeks morphed into months, Rose’s letters turned increasingly hostile and she took to blaming him, as if he had started the whole war and went away to kill and maim because he wanted to:
“I’m angry, Bobby, and I have been for a while. Every day, I see images of babies blown to bits and mothers crying over their dead husbands, and all I can think is why? What’s the point? You’re fighting in this war and can you even tell me why? All our lives, we’ve been taught to believe that the state is infallible, and that we shouldn’t question our leaders’ authority. But what if it’s not? What if our leaders are wrong? The people of this country are starting to open their eyes, Bobby, and they don’t like what they see.”
She went on to tell him that he was stupid for risking his life and he was going to get himself killed, all for nothing. Bobby didn’t know what was worse: the fact that he’d lost the support of the one person who’d vowed to love him through thick and thin, until death do they part, or his country.
Bobby hadn’t slept for days following her letter. He went into HQ and requested that he be temporarily relieved of his command until he could “get his head on straight.” The Rose he saw in her letters was not the woman he’d married a year ago. Something vile had come between them, and he only hoped that it wasn’t too late to salvage their marriage. The closeness they had once shared was no longer there—it was something their letters couldn’t maintain. That was the real reason he’d gone to Hawaii on R&R. His wife wasn’t ill, at least not in the way Harralson and the others thought. Rose was a person susceptible to fits of passion, and she would throw all reason and caution to the wind. Without him there to comfort and console her, and allay her fears, her mind had been left to wander astray.
Bobby had met Rose at a family baptism shortly after he joined the ROTC. She wore a flowered red-and-white dress and smiled shyly at Bobby when she caught him stealing glances at her over the baptismal fount. In the months after, he would come to see there was something else hidden beneath her cheerful exterior. Her parents had married at a young age (largely due to her mother’s untimely pregnancy, and much to her father’s regret). Some years later, he fell in love with a woman from his office. When the woman became pregnant, the shame was too much for him to bear and, one day, Rose’s mother went out to the garage for something and found him with his brains blown out over the hood of their car. Although Rose never admitted it to Bobby, he always assumed she longed for a father figure and that was why she had bounced from one unhealthy relationship to another. While necking behind the bleachers at the high school football field, she confided in him that they’d met at “just the right time.” Bobby had never been entirely sure what she’d meant until he saw Pete Maroney blow himself up with a hand grenade.
Bobby and Rose made an unspoken pact early in their marriage not to discuss the war. His deployment had been a nameless event looming on the horizon, just out of sight, and when the time came, he’d been sure they’d get through it together. He came to realize later on that Rose’s silence had meant something very different from his own. His parents had wanted him to go to college and get a good, Catholic education. However, money was tight, and when Bobby joined the ROTC in 1965, there was little talk of Vietnam. Most of the men under Bobby’s command were on the shorter side of 20 and had either dropped out of or just barely finished high school, making them prime candidates for their local draft boards. Guys like Harralson had a zero percent chance of going to college. The Army was the best option available, an opportunity to make something respectable out of themselves and escape the poverty and despair that pervaded the neighborhoods they grew up in. Was this what they had all starved, bled and died for? Bobby wondered. A nation that never wanted them in the first place? He remembered how his father labored tirelessly at one dead-end job after another, and would continue to, just so he could put food on the table for his family. It wasn’t the rich that were dying in Vietnam. That much was certain.
It was everyone else.
Alvara’s voice on the cassette ceased abruptly, and the pitter-patter of rain on synthetic material invaded Bobby’s foxhole once again. It hadn’t let up any in the last hour, not that he expected it to. Between September and January, it could rain for a week straight. Bobby looked down at his wristwatch. 0200 hours. Lifting his poncho, he peered out into the darkness beaten by rain. It had been a long, physically and emotionally taxing day for Second Platoon. They came under sniper fire before lunch and later Hirsch spotted a booby-trapped artillery round off the trail, no doubt uncovered by the torrential downpour. The rain continued to pelt the canopy as it had done all day, and they gathered around and inspected the device as if it were an extraordinary oddity, the last of its species. Harralson suggested reburying it someplace else in hopes that some gook stepped on it, but Bobby told him he didn’t want to have to write home and explain to Harralson’s wife that he’d been killed screwing around with a landmine. No one wanted to read about that kind of ending.
In Vietnam, landmines, booby-traps and snipers were the more-obvious dangers. A less-obvious one was a foxhole. During the day, a grunt was rarely—if ever—alone, but at night, that was an entirely different story. The jungle came to life with all kinds of strange noises. It drove men batty. Pure blackness and the sound of things you couldn’t see. In a foxhole at night, you thought about things you shouldn’t. The weekend before Bobby shipped out, he and Rose had gone over to Eddie and Elena’s for a nice, quiet dinner. After the meal, when their wives were in the kitchen cleaning up and doing the dishes, Bobby and Eddie had retired to the living room for a drink.
“So, do you think you’re ready to go over there?” Eddie asked, adjusting his tie. He was a tall, dark-haired, barrel-chested man of 34 who’d seen action in Korea.
Bobby lifted and dropped his shoulders in a helpless shrug. “As ready as I’ll ever be, I guess. You have any words of wisdom you’d like to impart to me?”
He smiled. “Elena told me you’d ask. And if you didn’t, I was under strict orders to tell you anyway. I can really only think of two things that saved me: one, when the shooting starts, you keep your ass down. Second, don’t try and be a hero. Heroes get decorated with medals and come home in body bags. Ask any of their wives which they’d rather have and they’ll tell you.” Eddie tipped his glass to the kitchen. “Another thing, don’t worry about Rose. You two’ll be fine. Elena and I were. You just worry about getting back in one piece.”
Bobby nodded and listened to Rose laughing at the kitchen sink with his sister.
Elena was still sitting in the darkened living room when the headlights from Eddie’s old Ford crawled across the ceiling. She listened to the whisk of his dress shoes on the walk and, a moment later, the front door swung open. Eddie fumbled with his keys (even though the front door was always unlocked), then flipped on the light. The room exploded with color, and Elena had to blink to clear the cobwebs from her vision.
“Elena?” Eddie said, surprised. “What’re you doing up? It’s late—I thought you would’ve gone to bed already.” The suit coat he wore to the dean’s office every day was slung over his shoulder and he looked exhausted. Elena patted the couch cushion beside her.
“I couldn’t sleep,” she said.
He sunk down on the couch. “Are the children asleep?”
“I think so. They went to bed without any fuss, though Nathan came out here and wanted to know where you were.”
“What did you tell him?”
“I told him Daddy had some business to take care of, and you would be home soon.”
He nodded. “I’ll go in and kiss him good night before I go to bed.”
“So,” said Elena quietly. “What happened? Did you find her?”
“I had to ask around a bit, but I found her. She’s living in Old Town in a rented flat with several men.”
Elena felt an unexpected sense of dread and suddenly wished she had been there with Eddie when he had confronted his niece. “How did she react?”
“Not well.” Eddie’s face scrunched up and, after 14 years of marriage, Elena knew when he was treading lightly. “She’s dead-set against the war.”
“This isn’t about the war. It’s about Bobby and what she’s doing to this family.” Elena peered down into her lap to hide the anger burning in her cheeks.
“Did you get around to writing your brother?” he asked gently. Looking up into his clear, blue eyes, she realized that the resemblance between Eddie and his father was uncanny.
“No. I was too upset. I was afraid I’d just end up tearing the whole thing up and throwing it away. That woman is killing my parents, Eddie. You know that, don’t you?”
“I just can’t stop thinking about Bobby. What is he supposed to do? He’s off fighting in this terrible war and Rose is…” She trailed off, unable to put what she was feeling into words. “How could she do this to him? How could she be so heartless?”
Eddie pulled her close and rested his chin on her forehead. “I just don’t see it working out between them, not in the long run. She’s too stubborn and too selfish. You can’t save someone from themself, no matter how hard you try.”
“I know,” she said, “I know.”
There was one fact Bobby distinctly remembered about his first six months in the bush: he went 27 days without firing his rifle. During those relatively peaceful and almost carefree four weeks, all of Second Platoon remained in high spirits. They’d arrived in-country without incident and hadn’t heard so much as a peep from the enemy. It became a running joke that the NVA must have decided to pack it up and go home when they heard Second Platoon was coming. Bobby went along and laughed, but, deep down, he felt uneasy. He’d seen other platoons return from ambush or patrol, their faces caked with sweat and dirt and their eyes wide and white. Some limped, others slung their arms over two buddies’ shoulders and hobbled. No one smiled, no one laughed. Still, the closest Second Platoon had come to any real action was listening from the safety of their foxholes to a pair of 105mms pounding enemy positions.
At that point in his tour, Bobby hadn’t yet learned to sleep with his rifle wrapped in his arms. So, when a familiar sensation in his bladder told him he had to piss one afternoon, he hadn’t planned on bringing his rifle until Polanski kidded that he might need it. “What’s he gonna need that for?” laughed Harralson as he sat on his helmet and cooked baked beans over a can of Sterno. “It’s about as good as a hard dick out here.” Despite Harralson’s razzing, Bobby grabbed his M-16 and headed off into the jungle. As he unzipped, he could hear Harralson and Polanski discussing the many wonders of the male penis. Once Bobby had finished, he re-shouldered his rifle and became acutely aware of an unfriendly set of eyes on him.
Every muscle in his body went taut, and his heart pounded in his ears. There was someone watching him from a clump of bamboo trees 15 meters to his right. The other person had tensed as well; he was much shorter than Bobby—probably 5’4” or 5’5”—with bushy, black hair and brown skin. He wore a matching black shirt and pants, and his large, owlish eyes glowed in the tree-filtered sunlight. Bobby and the man raised their weapons at the same instant, but Bobby managed to squeeze off a three-round burst first. The man fell backward and vanished into the dense undergrowth.
He had just killed someone. He’d simply reacted—it had been automatic. As his mind flew from one jumbled thought to another, his training kicked in and he knew he should check and see if the man really was dead. Bobby told himself to move, to run; but before his legs obeyed, he recalled that wounded VC sometimes pretended to be dead and would wait with a grenade, which they’d detonate when anyone got close enough. For that reason, Bobby remained frozen, the rifle in his hands trembling, a short distance from where he’d just pissed. The silence of the jungle rang in his ears, and he thought he would be sick. Good God, he had actually killed someone. He’d accepted long ago the likelihood that, in the course of the war, he’d have to kill, but now that he had… Shit. He steadied himself against a spindly palm tree while the world around him tipped and teetered. Jefferies appeared a moment later with Harralson hoisting his M-60 and two full belts of ammo.
“Damn, Lieutenant!” said Harralson, grinning, though he and Jefferies both looked slightly rattled. “We thought for sure a gook zapped you while you were takin’ a shit.”
Bobby ordered them to search the body for intel and waited against the tree, still fighting the urge to vomit. They returned several minutes later, Harralson shaking his head, almost giddy with excitement, and Jefferies brandishing the dead soldier’s AK-47 and a spare banana clip.
“You lit that motherfucker up!” Harralson smiled so Bobby saw his big, white teeth. “Right through the throat—clean kill. You made a regular gook hamburger out of him.”
Jefferies said, “Sir, you don’t look so good. Maybe you should sit down. Take a breather.”
“He didn’t have nothin’ on him,” Harralson continued. “’Cept this little, red Commie flag. You want it, sir? As a souvenir? Man, who woulda thought the LT of all people would be the first one to get a kill?”
“Would you put a sock in it, Harralson?” said Jefferies.
“Fine, I’ll keep it then. Send it back to my kid brother.” Harralson took one last look at Bobby and then shrugged and started back toward camp.
After Harralson had gone, Jefferies leaned down and put a reassuring hand on Bobby’s shoulder. “Hey, don’t sweat it, Lieutenant. It was either you or him. Nothing else you could’ve done.”
It was a widely accepted fact among seasoned vets that a good night’s sleep in the bush was virtually impossible. Weariness and fatigue—though extremely common—were just as perilous as the NVA or the jungle. Exhaustion could cause a soldier to doze off during guard duty or mistake friendlies for the enemy in broad daylight. Pfc. Daniel Hirsch was the only person Bobby had ever met who could sleep soundly through the night. Polanski, who sometimes shared a foxhole with him, swore up and down that one time, when they came under an exceptionally fierce mortar attack, Hirsch slept right through the whole thing. Never even stirred. The next morning, after noticing how miserable and groggy everyone looked, Hirsch took Polanski aside and asked him what happened. And that, Polanski said, was the God’s honest truth.
Hirsch was already up when Bobby pulled on his boots and climbed out of his foxhole one steamy morning in early September. Rodriquez and Harralson had started a small breakfast fire and a pot of coffee, and O’Grady was shaving with the aid of a pocket mirror and a helmet full of water. They all looked tired and gaunt in the morning’s glare. That was what months in the boonies would do to you.
“So, what’s on the agenda for today, Lieutenant?” asked O’Grady as he trimmed under his chin.
“Hot chow and a few cold ones?” said Rodriquez hopefully.
“Afraid not. There’ve been reports of increased enemy activity in the area. Command thinks they’re gearing up for an offensive, so they want us to go out and kick the hornets’ nest a little.”
Rodriquez snorted and shook his head. “And what’re we supposed to do when we get stung?”
“That’s what we have you for, Rodriquez,” said O’Grady dryly.
Harralson frowned. “Shit, man. Just another day in the Nam.”
As was often the case on long marches, Bobby’s mind turned to thoughts of Rose. He knew it wasn’t the time or place—his men relied on him to be alert and anticipate possible scenarios before they occurred—but they’d been out on patrol for two hours and hadn’t seen a thing. The September sun burned high in the sky, and Bobby could feel its heat radiating off his back. His clothes were damp from the humidity, and the weight of his pack was tearing into his shoulders. Somewhere in the distance, a bird shrieked. The men spoke quietly among themselves and walked single file down a narrow, clay path that twisted and unwound its way through a field of eight-foot-tall, razor-sharp elephant grass. Jefferies served as point man, followed by O’Grady, Bobby, and then Bernier, the platoon’s RTO. Harralson hummed a Motown number, and Hirsch and Polanski talked baseball and how the Mets were faring in the pennant race. Bobby thought of Rose.
In Hawaii, she had refused to meet him somewhere private, so they went down to the hotel bar. Rose ordered a gin and tonic as carefree children with inflatable armbands, lathered in sunscreen, bounced past, followed by parents on their way to the pool. Bobby had felt ill at ease since he landed and was unprepared for his wife’s coolness toward him. She’d only spoke to him in one- or two-word sentences, and when he embraced her on the tarmac, she hadn’t hugged him back. She looked more beautiful than he remembered, and he found himself groping blindly for words the way he had on their very first date. She asked him if he wanted a drink (“No, I’m fine, thanks”) and though neither acknowledged its presence, the war loomed over them and their strained conversation. Unsure where to begin, Bobby inquired about Rose’s mother, and asked if Rose had been keeping up with her gardening.
“What are we doing here, Robert?” she asked abruptly. “We didn’t come all this way to talk about my parents or the flowerbeds. I came because I have to know something. I need you to look me in the eyes and say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ Are you a murderer?”
The shock of the question—and the fact that his wife was the one asking it—left him speechless. The directness and obvious disregard with which she asked stirred something deep inside him. All at once, he felt a thousand emotions coursing through him. He felt anger, sadness, humiliation, and a deep sense of betrayal. His hand clenched into a fist and, for a moment, he thought he would hit her. But what struck him most about that moment was its alarming resemblance to the feelings he had the first time he killed. Revulsion, and then a spreading numbness.
“You see?” she said after a moment, as if his silence had confirmed his guilt. “This is why I can’t be with you.”
Before he knew what he was doing, Bobby fell out of his stool and onto his knees. He could feel the accusing stares and imagined how pitiful he must’ve looked to those around them—a grown man, a soldier no less, down on his knees before his wife, begging her to wait—but he didn’t stop, he couldn’t.
“It’s only two months, Rose. Then I’ll be home and we can put all of this behind us. Just—just tell me you’ll wait. Please.”
She turned away and gazed out on the pool. “I don’t know if I can, Robert.”
Her words had echoed in his dreams and haunted his waking thoughts ever since. He couldn’t focus for more than a few moments at a time. He tried to distract himself by giving orders and reading field manuals in his spare time, but nothing helped. He wrote a long, rambling letter to his CO expressing concern that the rapidly deteriorating state of his marriage was hindering his ability to perform his duties in the field. Unfortunately, his CO told him, the Army didn’t have a surplus of officers, and he would simply have to grin and bear it like everyone else. So that was what he’d been doing every day since, as the war continued to claim the lives of men younger than him and he questioned whether his wife would still be his wife when he returned home—if he ever did. For the first time in his life, he felt utterly powerless to do anything, left waiting for the axe to fall.
“Hey, Lieutenant!” called Polanski, walking two men back, behind Harralson. “You’re from Chicago, ain’t ya? How’re the Cubs doin’ this season?”
“Don’t know,” said Bobby, realizing with a surge of guilt that he’d been daydreaming. “I’m actually not much of a baseball fan. I ran track in high school.”
“Really?” said Polanski. “You strike me as the kinda guy who—”
There was no time to shout a warning; a belch of frighteningly close gunfire split the still morning air and sent everyone scrambling for cover. Bobby’s heart was suddenly in his throat, and the abrupt jolt from hitting the ground failed to jar it loose. He buried his face in the grass beside O’Grady, listening to bullets whistle through the broken stems, inches above their heads. He tried to make himself as flat as possible, but the rounds seemed to be getting closer and closer. He wished desperately that the ground would open up and swallow him whole. He cursed the enemy, their mothers, and then himself. He’d broken the most important rule of surviving in the bush: his mind had been elsewhere—he’d been thinking of Rose while on patrol—and now it was going to get himself or someone else killed.
Turning his head, he could see two of his men—he couldn’t tell who—curled up across the trail, waiting for a break in the stream of incoming fire. The gun had to be close, maybe 30 or 40 meters. Bobby forced himself to take deep, regular breaths. His platoon’s survival depended on him keeping a cool head and thinking clearly. It didn’t matter how they’d gotten into this awful, shitty mess—what mattered was how to get out of it without sustaining any casualties.
Bobby jabbed O’Grady with an elbow. “Do you have a visual on that gun?” The rapid, pop-pop of an AK-47 and the deeper thudding of the RPK was deafening.
“Negative!” shouted O’Grady. His face shone with sweat and a wild fear. A round kicked up dirt less than a meter from them.
“What about Harralson?” Bobby yelled. “We need suppressing fire if we wanna get out of this ditch!”
Bobby had more than enough firepower at his disposal—the problem was he couldn’t bring any of it to bear at the moment. Harralson was pinned down somewhere, his radio operator was MIA, and he couldn’t reach the AN/PRC-6 radio he carried with him without exposing himself. They would have to make due with what they had. Keeping his body pressed to the ground, Bobby pulled his M-16 up to his chest when the angry drumming of the RPK ceased. The silence only lasted a second. Harralson’s M-60 exploded in a returning salvo, followed by a scattered, irregular chorus of small arms fire. Bobby’s head shot up, and though he didn’t know where the enemy was, he held the trigger down, firing blindly into the dark tree line until he emptied the magazine. He caught a glimpse of Harralson stooped over his gun 10 meters away, his cheeks bouncing with the weapon’s fierce recoil, as it sent red-hot tracer rounds flying forward in an awesome display.
The firefight lasted roughly 20 minutes, and though no one in Second Platoon ever saw the enemy that morning, the popular assumption was once the gooks realized the battle was a draw, they withdrew and disappeared into the jungle once more. The gunfire from Bobby’s men became more sporadic, and then died out completely, leaving an eerie, unnatural stillness behind. With shredded poise, Bobby instructed everyone to stay put in case the enemy was merely holding their fire in an attempt to lure them out into the open. He waited longer than was probably necessary and then slowly struggled to his feet. The truth was he didn’t want to move—every muscle in his body resisted—but the shame he would’ve felt in front of his men propelled him forward. If his carelessness hadn’t gotten him killed, his pride would.
After he’d ventured far enough that he was sure anyone with a peashooter would’ve taken a crack at him, he turned around and gave the all clear. One by one, his men picked themselves up reluctantly and reappeared from the tall grass along the trail. They met at its center and congratulated each other, grinned slyly, and slapped each other on the back. Hirsch swore he almost shit himself. “Nothing like a little firefight to raise the heart rate a bit,” Polanski said. Harralson was all smiles as he hoisted his M-60 out of the ditch, the newly-replaced barrel still smoking. A light, blue haze hung over the trail, not yet cleared out by the wind, and the thousands of spent casings strewn across the trail glittered in the hot sun.
Bobby felt an immense sense of relief wash over him. He could feel the blood, thick and rich, pumping through his veins, and the world around him seemed sharper, as if it had somehow been brought into focus. Following a close encounter with death, there was always a new intenseness to life and being alive. Ordinary moments once taken for granted gained a new significance and precious weight. And it was true: at that instant, the blue dome of sky overhead looked crisper and the ground beneath Bobby felt more solid. One of the many ironies of war, he had realized, was that the nearer to death you were, the more alive you felt. He spent several minutes squinting at his maps, allowing the men to laugh and savor the ecstasy of being alive before ordering them to sound off. They had gone through half a dozen names when they came to Jefferies’.
No one said anything.
“Hey, Jefferies!” shouted Harralson. “Where you at, boy?”
Bobby knew what had happened before Hirsch even called for him. Fifteen meters up the trail, Jefferies lay slumped over his rifle, looking almost as if he was sleeping. However, as Bobby approached, a feeling of dread lodged in his throat, he saw that the face beneath the steel helmet was gone. There was a large, gaping hole where his eyes, nose and mouth had been. There was blood everywhere, and bits of brain matter.
“He’s on a beach somewhere now,” said Harralson, resting the M-60 across his shoulder and frowning. The others nodded grimly.
Bobby had been under the impression he’d seen enough death and lost enough close friends so as to become immune to the feelings it produced in him, but it turned out he’d been wrong. Something unpleasant had risen up in his stomach, and he had to bite the back of his fist to hold back the tears swelling beneath his eyelids. Jefferies had deserved better. Better than to get wasted, at 18, on some trail in South Vietnam not deemed important enough to be labeled on any of Bobby’s field maps.
“You all right, sir?” asked O’Grady, watching him.
He nodded and cleared what had been in his throat. His voice cracked slightly. “All right, Hirsh. Tag ‘em and bag ‘em. The rest of you, take what you need off him—ammo, grenades, water. He doesn’t need it anymore. Bernier, get on the radio. Report one KIA and request a dustoff.”
“There’s a clearing a hundred meters west of here big enough for a chopper,” Bobby continued. “Spread out, secure an LZ.”
The men nodded, avoiding his gaze.
As he watched Hirsch and Polanski set Jefferies on his poncho and strip off his pack, Bobby wondered what his friend’s last, dying thought had been. Or was he alive and then he simply wasn’t? Bam. Lights out. Then he thought of Rose and wondered if he ever ended up getting greased like Jefferies, would she be the last thing he thought of?—and would it be worth it to think of a woman he loved but who no longer loved him? Would his final thought on this earth have been wasted? Bobby wanted to think that it wouldn’t.
In December 1969, Bobby’s sisters began a novena to Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Every Tuesday night, Alvara went to St. Edward’s in the city, and Elena to St. Mary’s, to pray for their brother’s safe return. Elena’s children would sometimes accompany her for the half-hour service, but on one unseasonably warm Tuesday in mid-October, she couldn’t get anyone to join her no matter how she cajoled. So, for the first time in recent memory, Elena drove to St. Mary’s alone. She sat in a pew at the back of the candle-lit church and thought of her brother. It had been three weeks since she’d last heard from Bobby, which was worrisome, considering that he tried to write home every chance he got. She knew the war prevented him from doing so on a regular basis; still, her family’s trepidation always grew the longer they went without hearing from him. Just a word, Elena’s mother said, would put her mind at ease.
Elena was 12, and Alvara 16, when Bobby was born. He was the baby of the family, and they coddled him like one. Elena recalled how she and her mother cried when they saw him up on the altar at St. Mary’s on his wedding day. He had been such a handsome, young man, she thought. Too young and innocent to go to war. Rose had been a beautiful bride, that was true. She and Bobby had looked so happy then—young and in love, with their whole lives, uncharted, before them. It amazed Elena to think how much had changed in so short a time.
After the service, in the car, she turned on the radio hoping to catch the weather. It was 6:40, and the sun had nearly set, casting colored maps across the sky. A man with a severe voice came on and went through the day’s news; however, when he started to read about the latest offensive in Vietnam and the day’s body count, she flipped the stereo off. She had seen the war's images on her TV, after the children had gone to bed. Footage of huts with thatched roofs engulfed in flames, corpses spread out along roadsides, mothers and children sobbing with an anguish and pain she hoped to never experience. Despite her brother’s well-intentioned letters, she knew him well enough to read between the lines. She saw the despair in every carefully chosen word. It was impossible not to, and she prayed on her knees at night that none of her children would ever have to go to war.
The shadows of her subdivision had grown long, and as she approached 367 Bernard Drive, she turned off the headlights and bounced their blue Buick up the steep driveway. The drapes over the picture window had been drawn, and from what she could see of the back yard, Christopher and James’ game of two-hand touch with the other neighborhood boys had long since ended. When she opened the front door, she was startled to see Eddie and the four children lined up on the couch like little pogo sticks, sitting perfectly still with their hands in their laps.
“What’s the matter?” she asked.
All at once, James, Christopher, Jean, and Nathan’s faces spread into wide, hysterical grins. “Look, Mommy!” shouted Nathan, pointing to the kitchen, hardly able to contain himself. Just as Elena turned her gaze toward the kitchen, her brother appeared from around the corner in his olive green uniform adorned with gleaming gold buttons and numerous patches.
Elena felt her mouth drop and her heart leap at the same instant. “Bobby!” she exclaimed. “What’re you doing here?”
He crossed the room and pulled his sister into an enormous embrace, muttering something about Rose and coming home early, but Elena didn’t catch the rest. Her children shrieked and bounced off the couch, and Eddie rose and placed a gentle hand on her back. She could feel the warm tears running down her cheeks. Her brother was trembling, too. She couldn’t believe it was really him standing in her home. It felt like something out of a dream, so fantastic and unreal that she was waiting for someone to wake her.
“You’re home, you’re home,” she said, over and over again.
“I know,” he said. “I made it.”
Joseph S. Pfister majored in Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he also served as a member of The Madison Review literary magazine. His fiction has appeared in Black Market Review, The Scrambler, The Binnacle, r.kv.r.y., The Foliate Oak and Black & White, among others. He is currently working on his MFA in Writing at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, NY.