Wheels

“My legs went one direction, my life another.” – Bob Wieland
Have you ever chugged beer out of a friend’s prosthetic leg? No? Well, I have and I can tell you it’s an experience like no other.
I recall that first day we saw our friend after he returned from Vietnam. He drove up in a brand-new Cadillac and parked in front of the Popcorn Bar, one of our favorite bars in college because of the owner, Fitzpatrick, known to us as Fitz. He provided free popcorn to his patrons which many evenings was our dinner. Fitzpatrick was a good-natured old Irishman who actually liked college students and we made him our honorary father. He would be part of our group of guys while we would sit at his bar drinking beer.
Our friend got out of his car with two canes, one attached to each forearm and he dragged his legs as he walked in the Popcorn to a raucous cheer and no one cheered louder than Fitz did, welcoming home one of his “boys.”
“Welcome home, Bob,” we all cheered. Bob Wieland, Wheels, was finally home.
Fitz had his bartender set a fresh bottle of Chivas Regal in front of Bob that was his for as long as he came in the bar. Fitz told Wheels, “As long as I’m alive, this bottle will never be empty,” and it never was.
To show his appreciation, Wheels removed one of his legs and had the bartender fill it with Old Style beer and he passed it around to all his friends to share. The beer was on Fitz that night too.
No one in our group of friends was free from friendly ridicule and it was no different for Bob upon his return. We called him Wheels because most of the time he would get around in a wheelchair, but today he’s called “Mr. Inspiration.” His real name is Bob Wieland. You can google him to find out more about this amazing man, www.bobwieland.net. He has accomplished more than most people ever will.
When I first knew him he was in high demand. He was a very good baseball player and the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team was interested in having him join their farm system but so was Uncle Sam and Uncle Sam won out, sending him to Vietnam where a member of his unit stepped on a mine. Wheels, a medic, rushed to give first aid but he too stepped on a buried mortar round, designed to destroy tanks. It severely damaged his legs; they had to be amputated above the knee.
Wheels is best known for his walk across America on his arms. In 1986, he completed a 3000-mile walk across America on his arms to pay tribute to his fallen comrade. That journey took him 3 years, 8 months and 6 days. He had wooden blocks with a strap going across the back to put on his hands and he wore leather pants. I forget how many blocks and leather pants he wore out on that journey, but it was a lot.
How he accomplished this feat in itself is quite a feat. He started with some friends in California who would jog along with him and drive his car. But eventually, they tired out and could no longer stay with him. By the time he reached Nevada, he was on his own.
He would drive his car to the point he wanted to get to by the end of a particular day. Here he would drop off his wheelchair. Then he would drive back to his starting point and begin his journey. When he arrived at where he had left his wheelchair, he would get in and roll it back to his car and then drive back to where he had stopped walking that day. Amazing.
Since that time, he has traveled across America using his arm-pedaled bicycle.
A few years ago, a mutual friend of ours who was also living in Atlanta at the time, told me “Wheels” was going to be in town. He was scheduled to give a motivational speech to local high school football teams at Eastside Baptist Church in Marietta Georgia. He wanted to know if I wanted to join him in surprising Wheels.
“Hell yeah,” I said.
Well, when Wheels came out to speak, his entrance was like none I had seen before, He came running into the auditorium from the back, on his hands and literally jumped on the stage.
His speech was pretty inspiring but he knew he had to do something special to really make an impression on a group of testosterone laden teenage boys.
He put a set of weights and a weight bench on the stage and put out a challenge to all the young men in the audience to come up and do as many bench presses as they could and when they finished he would match them and do one more rep than they did. You see, Wheels had just set a world record in the bench press but was disqualified because he didn’t keep his feet planted on the floor. It didn’t matter that his feet were lying in some rice paddy in Vietnam.
Bob did beat everyone who took his challenge and there were a lot of conversations going on by the audience as they left the auditorium that day.
We visited with Wheels for awhile after his speech, talking about Fitz and the guys, before he had to leave for another engagement in another city.
What an honor it is for me to be one of the few guys to know such a great American and get to drink out of his prosthetic leg so many years before.

Super Warriors: Drugged Up GI’s

HOME:

I felt the liquid creep through my veins and the tension and fear leave my body. I was mellow.
I was trying to escape all the ears in the walls. Every night it was the ears, always the ears.
Yesterday silence was the only friend I had. I thought the bottom was the only place I’d been but I wasn’t there yet. No matter how hard I tried I was always behind.
Tommy got into a fist fight. He didn’t fare well. His right ear was almost severed and he re-broke his nose and dislocated his ring finger. I didn’t know if we would be able to remove his wedding band without cutting it off. I fixed him up the best I could using my wife’s sewing kit to sew on what was left of his ear.
Thanks, Doc,” he whispered.
That night I watched the needle take another man and I silently cried once again.

Chinese Premier Chou En-lai told the president of Egypt in 1965: “Some American troops are trying opium, and we are helping them. We are planting the best kinds of opium especially for American soldiers in Vietnam…Do you remember when the West imposed opium on us? They fought the war with opium. We are going to fight them with their own weapons.

VIETNAM:
I fell in love with a Saigon butterfly of the night, a whore named Kim Lien and she kept my plumbing clean. She looked like a bottle of cheap wine and worked on Tu Do Street and swore in English like a sailor. But she was mine and I was hers. We had a need and we filled it for each other.
She told me she was a hired wife for a CIA agent in Saigon. “He had a lot of money, money to burn. The CIA was accountable to no one in the United States government. Congress did not have a clue what money they had or how they spent it. That the CIA was its own government with its own set of rules. He didn’t care what happened to his money. He said he could always get more. The mother fucker kicked me out because I could not cook his stew properly. I was not a good housewife, he said.”
She told me she started working in tea houses when she was 10 and now she only worked for her father on his Flower Boat, a sampan, and for her brothers who pimped her out on dry land.
She informed me she was 19 but I don’t think she was a day over 16.
That night I held her hand for the first time in the bottom of her father’s sampan. I kissed her for the first time five minutes later and it was then that I gave her father 300 piasters so we could spend three hours together. I gave him another 100 piasters for some opium. We smoked it before she cleaned my pipes.
I told her I loved her in front of a bar on Tu Do Street with her brother standing on a nearby corner.
I proposed to her in front of the Meyerkord hotel, ranked #11 by the GIs, #10 being the worst and #11 being beyond the call of duty.
We were wed by a Buddhist monk on her father’s Flower Boat.
We spent our romantic honeymoon in a hooch I rented for 1200 piasters a month.
I delivered our first child in that hooch two months later. A boy. He didn’t look anything like me.
Lien told me, “In my village, they call our son bui doi (“dirt of life”). I am shamed.”
I held her close to my chest as she sobbed. We shared a joint and made love.
“Don’t worry, Lien everything is going to be all right. Let’s live life like there is no tomorrow because for us, there may not be. Let’s make love all afternoon. I don’t have to be back until this evening.” We shared some opium.
HOME:
I wept at night as I thought of her and my son and what fate had in store for them. I feared my bui doi boy more likely than not, was forced into prostitution along with his mother.
I still meet her in our secret meeting place and our small son joins us. In my mind, miracles can happen. I need miracles.

VIETNAM:
It was 1969, Saigon, South Viet Nam and it was raining, again. It rained every day since we got in country.
“Name’s Pappy Smith,” he said, holding a half-empty bottle of Tiger beer which he told us tasted better than the Viet Cong Bia Hoi.
He had skin like leather and welcomed us to Viet Nam, “You are in for a helluva fight. The average age of a ground pounder over here is 19 years old. The average age of a ground pounder when he is sent home in a body bag is 19 years old. I’m 35 and I have spent three tours in Nam and three years in Korea when I was younger than you are today. I went along with General MacArthur, chasing those fuckin’ slope heads right to the Yalu River before Mr. Truman and the rest of those fuckheads in Washington stopped us. If they woulda’ let us finish business back then, you boys wouldn’t be here today.”
He stopped his orientation long enough to finish off the rest of his Tiger beer.
“You may not believe this, but the sun does shine here once in a while. You boys just missed all the fun, the big Tet Offensive. Of course, it was a huge surprise to the folks back home, and the reporters claimed it was a victory for the NVA even though we won. We set the NVA back quite a bit killing millions of the little Gooks. But you would never know it reading the Washington Post and the rest of the American press. Obviously, to our newspapers, black is white.
“You are all fresh meat, our new Cherry Boys, and I’m your caped superhero and you always trust your caped superheroes, not one of them butter bars back there,” he said jabbing his thumb over his shoulder referring to the gold bars on the shoulders of the new second lieutenants that just arrived and were being processed in behind us.
“I’m telling you up front even if you are on the right track, you will get run over if you just sit there. So always be doing something positive. Be alert it could mean your life and more importantly, mine.”
We knew now when he was around we never sat down.
“Okay, shitheads, let’s saddle up I’m going to show you how to ride the skids. You Cherries will sit in the middle and watch this time. After that, I don’t give a fuck where you sit. Just don’t sit in front of them Door Gunners.”
“Hey you,” Pappy said, pointing in my direction.
I turned around and looked at him and replied, “What, Sarge?”
“You our medic?”
“Yep,” I replied.
He looked at me a bit and finally said, “I don’t know what they told you in doc school back in the states, but here is the real story. You and me go out on the first unsecured insert and stay out and return with the last pickup. You and me are on call 24/7, 365 days a year until you either rotate out or you buy the six-by-three farm. I do it because I get the big bucks, you do it because you are the most important man here. We all need you. Now, di di mau, haul ass, and get your shit together.”
HOME:
I dreamed of Lien and our son again and woke up crying.
My wife asked me if I was okay. I wanted to tell her “Fuck no. What do you think? I’m fucking nuts. I’ll never be okay. But I told her, “Yes, everything is fine. I just had a spell.”
My wife takes me in her arms and rocks me. She’s a good woman and she loves me and I love her too. She thinks it’s PTSD that makes me cry. I don’t tell her. She wouldn’t understand.
“When do you see your grief counselor again?”
“Tuesday.”
“Do you think it is helping?”
“I think so,” I lied.
“That’s good. Do you want to go with me to pick the kids up from school?”
“I looked at her for a moment and said, “No, I think I’ll go see what Tommy is up to.”
“Please don’t do drugs again, please. The kids haven’t seen you straight in over a week. They are scared and so am I. Please, please don’t go.”
I grabbed her and pulled her close. I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t lie to her, not anymore. I felt the warmth of her tears soaking my chest. I knew I was going to shoot up with Tommy. “I love you,” I said.
I felt like a shit when I left.
VIETNAM:
Our squad consisted of Bizo, Bug, Cotton Top, Dizzy, Doo Rag, me and Pappy Smith. We didn’t know each other’s real names and never did. To all of them, I was just Doc.
We were quiet as we contemplated what we were about to do and talked in hushed tones about our families and loved ones, and what we were going to do after our tour was over.
We packed our rucks, drew fresh ammo, cleaned our weapons and filled our Canteens and tied them on the back. For me, being the medic, I made sure my Aid Bag was packed and that I had enough dressings and meds for the next 10 days. Everyone was nervous about what was about to happen.
I passed out twelve Dexedrine to each man. We would be alert!
Then Pappy yelled, “Saddle Up and climb the hill to the pad the birds are on the way.”
And then we could hear them, that distinctive sound of the Huey’s as they approached the firebase; the chopping sound of their blades getting louder and louder the closer they got. It was at that moment as they were about to descend to pick us up that the adrenaline started to kick in. We got up, crouched over, and ran with our hundred pound rucks, weapons, and ammo toward the birds. We turned around as we got there and jumped on board. We sat with our legs hanging out of the bird; we were no longer Cherry Boys. We talked about the times we went out on recon and how we forced the “Cherries” to sit in the middle.
Once the Huey’s arrived and we were situated the bird ascended and the firebase receded as we banked and headed for our LZ.
As we approached the LZ we could see all the activity around it, the smoke and artillery fire and then the final dusting by the Cobra gunships flying down below us.
Then it was our turn, the 1st Bird, we made our way down. The Crew Chief and the Door Gunner unleashed their weapons spewing rounds on the LZ and perimeter.
We rode the skids in so we could get off faster and then we made our way to the perimeter to watch and wait until the last bird dropped its load.

HOME:
The needle goes in and I can feel it relieving the pain. I smile and look over at Tommy. Is he dead? I laugh. I don’t know why I laugh because I am sad.
I start to shake and my mind goes back to Nam. Then I silently cry.

VIETNAM:
While in Nam, Dizzy would shoot up and get high and we would ask him, “How’s the war going, Dizzy? He’d respond saying, ‘real smooth. Today we’ve got ourselves a real mellow war’.
When Dizzy was killed, we tried to convince ourselves that he was just high, in a higher place, that he had taken so much dope that he was up there floating in the clouds somewhere. To help us believe this, we all smoked what was left of Dizzy’s dope.

HOME:
I was catching bass and getting drunk the day I found out I was being sent to Viet Nam where I learned to hate my brother. Viet Nam robbed me of my liberty and I realized that I wasn’t going to live forever and then I realized that I was as free as I would ever be. You do what you do. It don’t mean nuthin’.
VIETNAM:
The bombs started falling pounding my brain and all I wanted to do was disappear.
I couldn’t see the bodies for the clouds of dust. It made me wish I was in Wisconsin drinking Mad Dog 20 20 not caring where I was or what I was doing. I was just a poor boy. Many times I walked away from trouble but I couldn’t walk away from this.
My dad told me to do what I could do and do it well. Shit, I don’t think this was on his list.
I was holding Pappy Smith’s body close to mine while pressing a field dressing against the gaping wound in his stomach, hoping his intestines would stay in. We were waiting for the last bird to drop its load and come back for us. This is why Pappy got the big bucks.
The bird finally arrived. It came with the dust and left with the wind and took the rest of our wounded and Pappy from us. This time Pappy didn’t make the last pickup. I was alone.
I tried to shut my eyes and get him out of my sight, but I couldn’t.
VIETNAM:
I stared down at the man I killed, more a boy, really. There was a star-shaped hole where his left eye was. His face was bloated. He hung upside down from a branch in the tree he used for his sniper position. Strips of skin were missing from his face; he was thin, like a woman with a concaved chest. His straight black hair was streaked with blood and hung toward the swampy ground below him. I felt nothing, absolutely nothing.
HOME:
I saw Kim Lien standing in the heavy mist ahead of me on the dock by her father’s Flower Boat.
“Lien, where are you going?” I sob.
“I’m going to find Tommy. Do you wish to come along?”
“Yes,” I cry.
She yells at me calling me pretty boy and to hurry. “Di di mau, dep trai.”
She beckons to me with her hand before turning and walking to the boat
I put the needle in my arm one last time and smile before calling to her, “Lien, please wait for me. I can’t make it alone.”
WAR:
You pay for your sins and this war was filled with more than enough sins on both sides.
The Vietnam War was many things and among them, it was a pharmacological war.
A 1969 investigation by Congress found that 15-20 percent of soldiers in Vietnam used heroin regularly and that over 40,000 soldiers returned from Nam as drug addicts.
The armed forces issued over 225 million tablets of stimulants to our troops, mostly Dexedrine (dextroamphetamine), an amphetamine derivative that is nearly twice as strong as the Benzedrine used in WWII.

My Chet and Melvin Bernstein

 

I’ll never forget that day when Melvin Bernstein arrived in Cambodia. It was our first day over the fence. We were attacked by the NVA and the smell of death, mixed with cordite, napalm, crispy critters, and human waste was oppressive.

Before we arrived, we had been operating around the Song Be area in Vietnam and the Viet Cong rarely moved in groups larger than four or five soldiers. Once inside Cambodia, we were in for a surprise as they moved in groups anywhere from 20 to 100. The NVA were in the thousands.
It was the beginning of Monsoon season and it rained constantly with the humidity over 90% and the temperature at 96 degrees with a heat index of 130. We were dusting off a lot of guys due to heat exhaustion.
By that afternoon, the rains started to lift and the sun sparkled off the green vegetation surrounding Brown. It almost had the appearance of a well-kept golf course, almost.
Captain Smedley had ordered an RIF, Recon in force, at first light and we had finished field stripping our weapons. We were drenched in sweat from just walking across the firebase.
Sarge finished his meeting with the Captain and was starting to field strip his M16 and clips and had the pieces and springs spread out on his poncho and we were passing the time away by talking about a CBS News correspondent we met in Saigon a few weeks back who was walking around in his correspondent’s suit, what he considered his combat zone attire, trying to impress all the Red Cross girls and, of course, about going home.
“What’s it now, Sarge?” We didn’t have to say what “it” was, he knew what we meant. We all knew.
“Fifty-two and a wake-up.”
“What’s the first thing you are going to do when you get back to the world?”
He thought for a moment before replying, “I’m gonna fill a tub full of hot water, as hot as I can stand it, and dump a full bottle of my little sister’s lilac bubble bath into it and I am going to lie there smoking a cigar and sipping whiskey and count my toes.”
“You’re going to need someone to help you count all them toes, Sarge. Take me with you?” Robbie our RTO, Radio Operator, said.
“Hell, I got someone else in mind to help me do the counting, and it ain’t you, Robbie.”
“Hey, look at the boot. I do believe our turtle has arrived,” Walter Wilson, our 60 grunt said, pointing in the direction of a small GI covered in sweat, walking across the firebase wearing new fatigues and a steel pot. His M16 was pointed toward the ground and he was bent over from all the gear he was carrying on his back. “No way that cherry boy can hump a 60. Shit, no relief for me. Wish the Black Mamba was still here. That beast carried everything and never broke a sweat.”
The FNG, fucking new guy, stepped in front of Sarge with his head down and in a soft voice said, “I’m PFC Melvin Bernstein, sir. Captain Smedley told me to report to you.”
“What did you call me? Don’t you ever call me sir again, those ring knockers back there,” Sarge said, jabbing his thumb back toward the direction Bernstein just came from, “It’s them you call sir, not me. You call me Sarge, dick head, or whatever, but don’t call me sir. You understand, Private?”
“Yessir, I mean, Sarge,” he mumbled in a voice so soft we could hardly hear him.
“You a Heebee?” Wilson asked.
Melvin didn’t look up but nodded his head.

“Damn, I guess that makes us one big melting pot. We had us a real live Apache Indian and a couple of blacks, Swenson is a Swede, Perone is an eye-talian and Jablonski is a Polack and now we have us a Jew,” Wilson said.

“Shut up, Wilson, where are you from, Melvin?” Sarge asked.
“Maryland.”
“You go to college?”

“Yess.., Sarge, Georgetown.”
“Ewwwee, we got us another college man too, Sarge. What’s your degree in?”
“Political Science.”
“That’s good. It will help you survive your little vacation here.”
“Why don’t you get Melvin here settled in, Robbie?”
“ Come on, Melvin, I’ll show you around Palm Beach. Did you take your big orange CP pill?”
“Big orange CP pill? What’s that?”
“Birth control, Melvin. If Charlie catches you, he is going to get your cherry and you don’t want to end up pregnant. We got good docs here, but none of them has any experience delivering little baby sans.”
Berstein stared at Robbie, with his mouth open.
“It’s a malaria pill, Melvin.  Don’t listen to him,” Wilson told him. “Get your shit together and get back here most ricky-tick. You’re a boonie rat now, Melvin. You are going to earn your CIB, combat infantryman badge, but you better hide that if you ever get back to the states. Those assholes back home hate us almost as much as the slants hate us here.”
Robbie took Melvin around introducing him to all the squad members. When he got to Frankie Perone, Robbie warned, “He’s a double veteran. He went dinky dau so just keep your distance.”
“What do you mean, a double veteran going dinky dau?”
“FNG, you don’t know shit, do you? Double veteran is a crazy mother fucker. He killed a woman after he fucked her. Sarge was real pissed. She was a VC. Perone’s Dinky dau- crazy man, don’t you know? Stay away from him. This place is in his head, man. If he makes it out of here, his mind will stay here. Ain’t right in the head,” Robbie said, tapping his right temple.
We all had a lot of fun at Melvin’s expense. We did everything we could to disrupt his morning rituals. He began each day by sitting up and placing one hand under his chin and the other at the back of his head and he would twist his neck until it would make a popping sound. Next, he would pluck any nose hairs that he could see protruding from his nostrils and then he would squeeze out a strip of toothpaste exactly the diameter and length of his toothbrush and brush his teeth. After a few minutes of vigorous brushing and swishing of mouthwash, he would slowly and deliberately shave his face of all facial hair. He was the only member of our squad who did not sport a mustache.
“Come on, Melvin, Mr. Charles awaits us. Quit your fuckin’ around and let’s go!” Wilson yelled.
After all his preening, Melvin still looked like shit and we let him know it every day; every day that is until Sarge got it. Sarge was at 39 and a wake-up.
“No boonie hats, guys. Put on the steel pots and your frag vests.”
“Aw, come on Sarge, really? Those fuckin’ pots are heavy.”
“You heard me, Smedley’s orders and each of you pack five frags. Also,we’ll be wearing two bandoliers each with seven clips. Put only nineteen rounds per clip. I don’t want any jams. Make every fourth round a tracer. If you are upset about wearing your pots, you’ll love this. Everyone will be wearing a bandolier of 60 ammo. M16’s don’t fire through this bamboo and we are going to be in the middle of it. Wilson, do you think you can carry a thousand rounds for the 60? We’ll be shootin’ a lot of sticks before we can get at Charlie.”
“I got it, Sarge.”
“Swenson, you got the thumper, the M79 grenade launcher, and the extra barrel for the M60.”
Swenson wiped the sweat from his face and nodded his head. The sun wasn’t up yet and we were already sweating.
“Okay then. Kit Carson will join us today. Perone, you got a Thumper too and you take point with Kit and Melvin, you’ll be walking slack. Make sure we don’t leave no evidence, no footprints, no tall grass pushed over, no litter on the ground, no nothing, you got it?”
“Yes, Sarge.”
Be ready to move out at 0500 hours. That’s it get outta here and saddle up.”
“Fuckin’ A, Melvin, we are going to mix it up with Charlie again today. It looks like it’s beans and dicks for dinner again,” Robbie laughed.
At first light, we were already humpin’ it looking for signs of Charlie or the NVA. The temperature and humidity were over ninety degrees and it had been raining all night and all morning with no sign of a let-up. We were all covered with black leeches that seemed to be everywhere.
Our Kit Carson Scout was worth his weight in gold. He was a former VC guerilla who changed sides and was trained under the Chieu Hoi, open arms program. He was on a vendetta. He wanted revenge. He was a committed warrior. He was familiar with the terrain in Cambodia and understood VC tactics in setting ambushes and bobby traps. He also knew what VC bases and assembly areas looked like and where they might be
We crossed a red ball, what looked like a main road, and followed a blood trail to a spider hole and Sarge turned to our Kit Carson and said, “Didi mau,” – go quickly, and take the mighty mite and shoot some gas down that spider hole before you drop in.”
Our Kit went in. Soon we heard a burst of M16 fire and Kit emerged, dragging out a dead VC.
We booby-trapped the body with a couple of finger charges and left it lying in the middle of the trail for when his buddies came back for him. We moved on.
The jungle was very thick, a triple canopy; nothing compared to Vietnam. Sores and bamboo cuts were all over our bodies and feet and sweat continued to pour
into our eyes. We tried to stay off the trails but the thick bamboo kept forcing us back to the well-beaten paths.
“I can’t take much more of this,” Robbie said. “Please God, get me out of here alive.”
“Cradle your M16 and flip the safety off just in case,” Sarge commanded in a harsh whisper, as we slowly and deliberately moved forward. We hit a gully that ran next to a river and we continued to the top of a knoll. Then we all froze. Up ahead, just a few yards, we saw what looked like a small footbridge over a creek. There was a sign that looked like it had been written in blood. It read, “My Chet.”
“What does that mean, Sarge?” Melvin asked.
“GI’s Die.”
It wasn’t long before we made enemy contact and found ourselves in a cluster fuck, a real ballgame, and we really had to buckle for our dust.
Sarge pointed to sandal tracks that slid into a gully. The gully wasn’t that big about an eight-foot drop down a muddy trail. It ran about fifty feet to where it went back up a hill on the other side.The river was on our left. Robbie radioed a report back to Captain Smedley in the command post that we encountered a gully and there is a blue line (river) on our left with a boat load of fresh sandal tracks all over the gully”.
Frank Perone said we shouldn’t enter the gully, but Sarge didn’t listen to him. By the time we started to slide down into the muddy gully, Sarge was struggling in the mud to get up the other side. We noticed an enemy bunker across the river facing right at us. Frank Perone put up his hand to stop the squad from moving further. Robbie dropped back and called Captain Smedley to let him know we discovered an enemy bunker across the blue line pointing directly at us. Then two eight-round-bursts of automatic fire shattered the stillness. Everyone dove to the ground, into the mud. At the first sound of gunfire, you get that sick feeling that grabs you deep inside your stomach while your knees turn to butter and you feel yourself growing weak. Then you make a quick assessment of your body to see if you are hit.
Sarge struggled in the mud to get up the other side of the gully and was unable to survey the area. He turned to lend a hand to, Wilson who was humping our 60 and a thousand rounds of ammo up the hill behind him when an enemy soldier shot Sarge through the back of the head and hit Wilson in the butt. There was total silence. Not another shot was fired for several minutes. During that time we hoped the NVA were running away. They weren’t. They formed a banana shaped ambush, completely covering the gully pinning us down.

Before we could call in support fire, our Kit Carson grabbed Wilson and helped him get back up the other side of the gully where our medic began first aid. Wilson told us he saw eight or nine NVA soldiers on top of the other side of the gully and saw one of them shoot Sarge in the back of the head, He confirmed that Sarge was dead. Everyone was quiet. Sarge was a good friend to all of us. He looked out for us. He spoke of his younger sister often. Even though he appeared older, he was only 21 and barely needed to shave. A sick feeling enveloped everyone. The harsh reality that Sarge was gone hit us hard. We were numb.
It was then that Melvin did something that logic couldn’t define. One of the things you learn in battle is that the difference between a hero and a coward is an extremely thin line; just because someone was a hero once didn’t mean they would be again. Whatever decision they made, they made in a split second with no regard for their own welfare and often without thinking of the consequences. Melvin became a hero. He looked like John Wayne with his M-203A1 on fully automatic he fired a burst and ran to a log and came up behind it firing again. Then, without regard for his life, he threw down his own weapon and ran to Wilson’s machine gun that was left halfway up the hill. Melvin knew we needed an M-60 to get out of there. Sarge was dead and Melvin was going to retrieve our M-60 to get the rest of us back to safety. He didn’t make it. Just as Melvin went to grab the machine gun a North Vietnamese soldier reached down the hill grabbing the M-60 leaving Melvin weaponless. Melvin dove away from the hill and tried to find cover. There was none.
We looked up along the ridge line and realized that the NVA could have killed us whenever they wanted. They were on the edge of the gully above us and we had nothing to hide behind. Shooting up from the gully did not give us a decent shot at them. The few soldiers that we had on top of our side of the gully were still administering first aid to the wounded and Robbie’s radio was jammed.
So the NVA played with us. They started with Melvin. They shot off his trigger finger, then his middle finger on his right hand. Then they started picking away at the side of his face.They took his jaw off, from the ear to the bottom of the mouth.This was over the course of several hours. We thought Melvin was dead. If he wasn’t, he should have been. Melvin made us all proud that day.
Robbie finally got through on the radio and was pleading for an M-60 then for a react, a unit to come to our aid. He finally called in our coordinates so they could rain down holy hell on the NVA and us all in the form of mortar fire.

Finally, the snakes came, the Cobra Gunships, and they took care of business

We ended up with two walking wounded and one wasted, Sarge, and one possible expectant, Melvin, and one with a million-dollar wound, Wilson. He would be going home. We called for a dust off and soon popped some smoke to let the chopper know he was coming to a hot LZ.

The sound of the slick, a UH1 Huey, approaching brought a feeling of relief over what was left of our squad. We loaded our wounded and dead and headed back to Brown.
The next day Sarge would have been at thirty-eight and a wake-up, but he went home early, in a box and he took a part of us all with him.

The Young Apache Who Could Fly

 

The Young Apache Who Could Fly

We met in Nam in 1969, He came home sporting a hundred dollar habit. I heard there was something in the chemical makeup of Indians where they couldn’t handle alcohol, well, evidently they can’t handle drugs either. He couldn’t get away from the White Rabbit.
“Before Nam,” he said, “I had a dream that I could fly. Did I tell you that, White Eyes? So I jumped off a cliff and flapped my arms like a bird. I did fly until I lost altitude and crashed into the rocks. I broke my wing in two places. When I was assigned to the 101st Screaming Eagles, I told them about me flying and breaking my wing. Sergeant McGuire told me I should have used a parachute. Hell, before I was drafted, I never heard the white man’s word, parachute. Apaches do not have a word for parachutes. Sergeant McGuire asked me once if Indians celebrate the 4th of July? He said it’s not like you were set free or anything. Sure we do, I said. Yeah, we do. My dad died in the Philippines, fighting for this country, the same country that tried to kill him for years. Then I went to fight for this country and now it’s killing me too. Ha, nobody told me my senior trip would be to Vietnam, White Eyes, nobody told me.”
“I know. We were so young when we arrived in country, our balls hadn’t dropped. We were still boys chasing Charlie in the swampy rice paddies in the Mekong Delta while the rich college guys were running around campus chasing skirts.”
“Ha, they did not know they were missing out on all the fun, did they White Eyes?”
“I guess they didn’t.”
“Ha, we went in boys and left men, is that not so, White Eyes? At least those of us that left.
I dream, White Eyes, do you know that?”
“Yes, I do. You always did. You told me some of your dreams while we motored along the Mekong River on our way to Laos. I remember.”
He saw a small bag of grass sitting on the counter next to a dirty coffee pot, with an inch of thick, black, coffee, scorched from being left on all night, coagulating on the bottom. He got up and walked over and grabbed the grass and looked around for rolling paper.
He found some and rolled a joint. Bending over, he lit it from the pilot light on the gas stove.
“Yeah man,” he said dreamily as he slowly took a toke and held his breath. A few seconds later he gasped and the smoke exploded from his mouth.
“Now they’re giving tours down that river, into those swampy rice paddies,” I told him.
“Hmmm, why would white people want to travel through that swamp? Remember Danny? Danny McGuire? What an asshole, eh?” He nodded his head dreamily.
“Yeah, he was an ass,” I replied.
“I think I’ll call Danny but what will I say? He’ll ask what’s new and I’ll say nothing what’s new with you? Nothing much he’ll say.”
I looked at him standing there in his dirt stained t-shirt and noticed something under his left sleeve. I pulled the sleeve up and saw the picture of a naked woman tattooed on his arm.
“Who is that?” I asked.
He stared at the tattoo and tried to concentrate. He squinted his eyes, crinkling his forehead.
“Damn, that’s my best friend, Eagle Feather’s, wife. Shit, she had her friend do that. I remember it hurt like hell. Eagle Feather will not be happy.”
“I don’t suppose. Are you all right?”
“The tat hurts a bit.”
“No, I meant you. You know, do you think you can come out of this?”
He looked at me and took a deep toke and sat down on the floor.
“I need to get my wits about me before I try to stand, White Eyes. How did you know where I was and that I was so fucked up?” he asked, as he stood and shuffled into the kitchen scratching his balls and rubbing his stubble of hair on the top of his head. His hair looked like it was cut off with a knife.
The last time I saw him, he had long black hair. He looked like an Apache. Not now.
“I heard on the wind, from the birds, and felt it in the sunlight,” I said.
“Ha. White Eyes. you are not Indian. The wind and birds do not talk to White Eyes, only to Indians.”
“And your sister called. She said the only talking you did was to dogs and old tractors.”
“Ha, I thought my sister might have something to do with it. My sister, how does she know you?” He took another toke, holding his breath before expelling another puff of smoke. The joint was burning down to the clip.
“She said she got my name from some of my letters that were scattered on the floor. Unopened, by the way.”
“Ha. Shit, White Eyes, it smells like rain and feels like hell. Where do I belong, man?”
“I don’t know brother, but I don’t think it’s here.”
I looked at him closely and noticed his face was gray, sagging like wet paper. His eyes were yellow and rimmed in red and held up by multiple bags. It looked like he lost all of his muscle tone. He was an old man at forty.
I noticed the hole in his left arm where all his disability check goes. I watched him last night climbing walls while he sat in a chair and I tried to keep him awake.
He told me when the sun comes up he gets a little spark like he used to but he is running out of time, he just doesn’t know it. I know that any day could be his last. Damn, time goes by so fast.
He’s an Indian, an Apache. He says his home is the hills and the trees around him and the sky is his ceiling that holds the stars and moon above him.
Grass and heroine temporarily take all his troubles away, or so he says, until the evening comes to take him home; but it has also taken his life away.
I wanted to get him to talk to me. Talk about his old life. The Apache ways, the life he loved before the White Rabbit destroyed him.
“Are you a Shaman,” I ask, “or whatever you Apaches call a man who has visions?
“Yeah man, last week I had this vision. It told me to go to Phoenix. I went and stood on the bridge, waiting for a vision. What river is that, the Gila?  Pale Moon came by and asked me what I was doing there. I told her I was waiting for a vision and she was my vision. She took me home and we smoked and I shot up again then she said I was not an Apache no more and she cut my hair.”
His eyes started to well up with tears and soon they were running down his face
“Then we got naked and she held me while the shakes took me where I did not want to go.
I messed up White Eyes, Pale Moon gave me her soul. She tried to love what was left of me but I would not let her. There is nothing left to love, White Eyes. She left me now.”
I felt sorry for him. He started to ramble, a sign he was losing his hold on reality maybe what was left of his life.
“I am not sure of nothing no more just that old folks grow lonesome. I am old White Eyes. When did we ETS? It seems like so long ago. Man, I hated Laos, more than anything. Hot LZ’s, C4, smell of that shitty country still is in my nose. Ha, you would think with everything I snorted up there it would be gone, but it is not. It is like we are still there. I can hear those two M60’s firing from the choppers as they come into the hot LZ. It hurts White Eyes. My head. It hurts.”
I saw his beaded and fringed deerskin jacket lying on the floor. What looked like vomit coated the front and a big cigarette burn on the left sleeve ruined it. He showed that jacket to me a few years ago. He took pride in wearing it. He told me his mother spent hours putting on the beads, so he would have a beautiful Apache jacket to wear to events. He said that was when he still wanted to be an Apache.
“White Eyes, do you remember the song “White Rabbit” by The Jefferson Airplane? They say that rabbit makes you feel ten feet tall. I often wondered why they didn’t sing about how it felt when you fell ten feet. The fall is hard, White Eyes.”
Today he smelled like death. What happened in Nam, took all the fun out of his life and left him with horrifying memories and his long lost dreams.
“White Eyes, I am on fire and this freight train is running through my head. I need the White Rabbit.”
I light my cigar and watch him as he shoots up. It won’t do any good to try to stop him. I stare at his ancient hollow eyes and want to say, “Hello in there, hello, but I knew it was too late. I would stay with him to the end. It wouldn’t be long now. He was wasting away. He lost so much weight. He wasn’t eating and when I could get him to eat something, he threw it up minutes later. I could hear him in the bathroom.
In a few minutes, he staggered into the room. I noticed he was soaking wet. He’s running out of time, I thought, but he believes there’s a lot more standing here than what he sees live each day.
“White Eyes, I am ready. When the rooster crows, I will be gone.”
I want to say, “Come on, brother, you gotta fight this,” but I don’t. I know it’s no use.
“I am overmatched and just plain tired, or maybe just too damn old,” he whispered.
We both searched for words. He spoke first.
“Hey, White Eyes, did I tell you I write poetry?” His voice was beginning to get scratchy and it was losing volume.
“No, you didn’t.”
“Here, listen to this,” he said walking back into the room with a sheet of yellowed paper.
“I call it A Soldier’s Cry. I think it is pretty good. Let me know what you think, brother,” he said as he sank into the couch.
He began to read it to me.
Every night when all is still
I feel a paralyzing chill
I lie awake consumed with fear
Waiting, for those eyes to ‘ppear
I lock and load and wait alone,
On this piece of land I own
Those shining eyes that are so still,
Staring at me from on that hill

Every night they call to me
Taunting me to lose my will,
I vow to fight with my last breath
I’ll fight them ’til my certain death
I close my eyes and see them still
Staring at me from on that hill

All my brothers who dropped and fell,
They lost their lives in this living hell
They were some of America’s best
Those shining eyes put them to rest
They disappeared in this burning pit
And I vowed to them I won’t forget
Never to be heard from ever again
They were some of my best friends

I watch those eyes as they come for me
But I stand fast, I won’t flee
I will battle them to my last breath
As did my friends, as bullets ripped their chest
They were some of America’s best

They kept their loved ones safe and sound
swallowing bullets, round after round
But here they come those eyes so still
Staring at me from on that hill
I lock and load and wait alone,

Sitting here in fear’s cold sweat
Knowing they won’t get me yet
Lord, I pray, I’m not done
I pray for one more morning sun
As he finished, the paper dropped from his hand and floated to the floor and his eyes rolled up into his head and he gasped his last breath.
“Don’t quit on me, dammit, don’t quit on me! You damn Indian, why’d you have to start on this stuff?”
Now tears were rolling down my face. I angrily wiped them away.
I realized through the poem, he was finally able to express the anguish that had been haunting him since 1969.
I took a deep breath and picked up his deerskin jacket and covered him with it, hoping his friend, Eagle Feather, wouldn’t see the tattoo of his naked wife.
I reached down and picked up the paper and looked at it. It was blank. He wasn’t reading anything.
He had that poem written on his heart and it died with him. As it should, I guess. He suffered long enough.