The Criminal and The Kid
Copyright © 2014 Marques Watson
All rights reserved.
“…The jury finds the defendant guilty.” A short, balding white man who appeared to be in his early 40s said in a loud, firm voice.
Justin Barry’s chin dropped down to his chest as he let out a long, weak sigh. He looked down at his chained wrists. They were red and irritated, as he had futilely attempted to break them apart. Whether he ever had a chance of breaking free, his tall, slim frame answered that question. His dark palms were calloused and filled with old scars, as were the knuckles on the back of his hands.
“Good riddance, nigger!” A woman in the courtroom crowd screamed at Justin.
His expression did not change.
The judge, who appeared young for his chosen profession, banged his gavel loudly. “Order! I will have order in this court or he won’t be the only one hearing a sentence today!” The courtroom quieted.
“Now, Mr. Barry, you have been found guilty by a jury of your peers.” The judge continued.
Barry looked over to the jury and chuckled under his breath.
“What’s funny, boy?” One of the jurors yelled towards Justin.
“My peers, huh? Sure.” He returned his head to the position that it had rested in before the ruckus.
The judge shot an angry glare at the juror, prompting him to sit back in his seat and relax his angry scowl.
“Mr. Barry, you have been convicted of a crime, tarnishing the trust that American society holds for you, one of its citizens. It is the job of the justice system to ensure that those who choose to break the law are either removed from the population for their safety…” He paused. “Or to ensure that that trust is re-established. Our country is embroiled in a turbulent fight for freedom and our military needs able-bodied men to fight for America. This is why I am offering you the choice of serving your prison sentence in its entirety or enlisting with the United States Army to serve in Vietnam. You can choose to devote years of your life to your country or years of your life to a jail cell.”
Justin’s mind focused on the word “life.” He had forgotten what it even meant to him. The mind of a normal man might have actually weighed the two options against one another. A normal man might have considered the relative safety of four walls in America as preferable to the uncertainty in the Vietnamese jungles fighting a war that had already killed over 7,000 American men. A normal man might have heard “life” and thought of his future. Justin could only think of his past, and because of this, “life” no longer had any meaning beyond the very second in which he was living. Like a normal man, he did think of the possibility of death. The likelihood that he would be sent off to that strange country, take a bullet, and never return to the United States. Again, unlike any normal man, that thought was a dream for him.
“Vietnam.” He said with veiled enthusiasm. “I want to serve my country.” There was so much pragmatic untruth in those words that he almost gave away his disdain for America and his desire to simply escape.
“Very well. You will be taken back into custody until we can get a representative from the Army in here to take you off of our hands. Best of luck.”
The crowd gathered in the courtroom let out a long angry groan before breaking into a rabble. The bailiff and a number of other officers in the courtroom moved to quiet the crowd and escort Justin back to his cell.
“He took my love! He took my life! You can’t let him get away with this!” A man in a dark-blue suit yelled. He appeared to be the plaintiff in the case. “She doesn’t love me and it’s because of him!”
“You’re gonna let that damn monkey fight with our boys?! I don’t believe this!” Another woman screamed.
Justin lifted his restrained hands and raised a middle finger towards the woman. She replied with a large glob of saliva. One of the bailiffs topped it off with a shot to Justin’s kidneys. He bent over in pain, but after less than a second, he straightened up and took on a defiant expression upon his face. He noticed that his posture had worsened, his shoulders were lazily drawn forward and his chest pointed towards the ground. He thrusted his shoulders back and pushed his chest out. If pride were a physical entity, he would have oozed gallons of it from his body.
The officers walked Justin out into the hot summer air to a waiting vehicle.
“I, for one, think this is shit. They take scum like you and send over there with our heroes. Those boys don’t need some criminal punk like you running around with a gun.” The officer said with clear disgust in his voice.
“Don’t worry, officer. I don’t plan on being there long. I’d just rather die in some random jungle than live in a damn cage here.”
The officer scoffed. “A cage is where animals like you belong, boy. But I guess a dead one of you is the best scenario, right?” He stuffed Justin into the back of the car.
“Yeah, I can’t really disagree with you on that point, sir.” Justin added. “So how long is this going to take?”
“This process. I’m going to your jail until they can send me off, right?” Justin inquired.
“I don’t know. A couple of days, a couple of weeks. You’ll get a taste of the cage, regardless.” The officer laughed as he drove the car off.
“So you one of them dumb niggas or one of them dumb niggas?” Justin’s temporary cell mate asked. He was a short, ugly man who had entered the early stages of male-pattern baldness.
“What?” Justin asked without any indication of actual interest.
“Are you one of them dumb niggas that think he bein’ a patriot goin’ off and fightin’ this White man war or are you one of them dumb niggas that think a war ain’t as bad as the shit you in right now?”
“I’m one of them niggas that don’t give a damn.” Justin replied, waving his hand to signal his disinterest in the conversation.
“Boy, you don’t give a damn? You know folks go over there and they die, right?”
“Good, ain’t shit worth living for here anyway.” Justin stood up and walked to the front of the cell before leaning against the cold iron bars.
“What the hell you do to get in here anyway, huh? Kill somebody? Rape someone? ‘Cuz you got a messed up way of seein’ things.”
“Don’t worry about what I did. I did what I had to do. You think fighting this White man’s war is any worse than living in this White man’s country? I ain’t got a damn thing here, but misery. The only thing stopping me from blowing my own brains out is that I’m tryna get to heaven and I heard God don’t accept nobody who kill theyself.”
The old man shook his head. “So much youth and you ain’t got no love for it? How old are you, boy?”
“Boy! I done lived three of your lifetimes and made the best out of every one of ‘em. Even when I been here.” He pointed to the ground, representing the jail cell.
“We different people, old man. You ain’t lived my life. This shit ain’t worth livin’!” Justin balled his fast and leaned his weight away from the cell bars. “Ain’t nobody here for me. Ain’t no money here for me. Ain’t no ladies here for me. Ain’t SHIT here for me!”
“You ain’t been here long enough to feel that way. You ain’t seen enough. You got blessings in your future and don’t even know.”
“Man, you don’t know a damn thing about me, old man! You know why I told them ‘Vietnam’? Because at least a bullet might take you quick. It won’t suck you dry for years. It won’t sell you a dream and then never let you reach it. I’d rather die in a random jungle than live this life…it ain’t even living. Hell, at least they might even call me a ‘hero’ one day. That sounds like a solid deal to me.” Justin’s eyes had begun to fill with tears. He turned back to the cell bars to hide his face from the old man.
“I ain’t no preacher. I ain’t really even no man of God, but I will tell you one thing. I feel like you got something in your future. That bullet you praying for, I don’t think it’s gonna come when you want it to.” The old man chuckled and laid his body down onto his prison cot.
“Yeah, whatever.” Justin dismissed his words and stared off into the dimly-lit halls of the jailhouse.
The sheriff’s department held Justin in custody at their local jailhouse until his processing into the Army could begin.
A single ray of sunlight darted through the bars on the jail window, striking Justin in the eyes. He awoke to the sounds of his older cellmate humming some song, it sounded like a church hymn.
“Do you sleep?” Justin asked as he stretched his arms and let out a massive yawn.
“For what? I got a million years of sleeping to do after this old body gives out on me.” The old man replied.
“A million years? You don’t believe heaven?” Justin paused. “Or hell?”
The old man went into deep contemplation as though this was the first time he had been asked that question in decades…It was.
“I… do.” He answered half-heartedly. “It’s just hard sometimes, boy. You look around at the situation you in and you wonder, why?”
“Why the hell is a man like me locked in this damn room?” The old man grew angry as he struggled to hold back tears. “Everyday for thirty years, I dropped to my knees and thank God for my life. I ain’t never been rich. I ain’t never had no nice car. I ain’t really had nothing, but I thanked him for it. Now, look at me. Fifty-five years old and trapped in a box. This is my repayment for all those prayers?”
“I never asked you, old man. What are you in here for?” Justin sat up on his cot.
“My boy…My son was thirsty. It was probably the hottest day of the summer and he was thirsty. I took him to the drinking fountain for us.” He pointed to his arm, implying that he took his son to a fountain for colored people. “But that one wasn’t working. My son looked up at me, crying because he was thirsty. It wasn’t nobody around so I took him to the “Whites only” fountain and told him to be quick. Some White man saw it and came after my boy. I stepped in and told him that we would leave, but he was so angry. I turned to walk away and he pushed my boy, so I hit. And I hit. And I hit him. By the time I had finished with him, he was damn-near dead.”
“Did you run?” Justin interrupted.
“Of course I ran. I’m lucky the sheriff caught me or them crazy ass White folk woulda lynched me and my boy.” The old man replied.
“Damn… That’s crazy.”
“Yeah. So sometimes I wonder what all that prayer was for, but most of the time, that’s all you got. Prayer and Faith. I been trying to get back into praying. Praying for my son. It’s been twenty years that he done had to grow up without a daddy.”
“Where is he now?” Justin asked.
“Somewhere out West. I told him to get the hell outta here before the same thing happen to him. I ain’t heard from him in long time. Hell, he might be over there in them jungles that they sending you to.” The old man laughed softly.
Justin had never heard a laugh like it. Inside that laugh and hidden behind that smile was pain, hope, happiness, and anger. The sum of the old man’s life rolled into one expression.
“I’m sorry, sir.” Justin looked up at the man.
“Sorry for what? You ain’t done nothing.”
“I know. I’m just sorry about your story. Why you’re here.”
“Listen, boy. Don’t worry yourself over my life. Just take care of your own. We all make mistakes.” He paused. “We all make decisions in our lives and we have to deal with them. No matter what. You can try all you want, but your past is yours forever, ain’t no running from it. You better off finding the specks of gold in all that dirt that you came from and holding on to those.”
Justin thought about the man’s words. “Ain’t no gold in my past.”
“Everyday turns into yesterday and everything you see becomes a part of your past. If you can’t find the gold now, just give it some time. We all got a little somewhere.” The old man replied, lying down onto his cot.
“Yeah? I guess we’ll see. I should probably tell you what I did to get in here since you told me.”
“Barry! Justin Barry, the Army processing folks are here for you.” One of the officers yelled as he walked down the hall towards Justin’s cell.
“Don’t worry about it, son. At the end of the day, does it really matter?” The old man turned over in his bed and threw a thin sheet over himself.
“What the hell do you mean you ‘tried’?” A loud, angry, boisterous male voice flooded the Kingsley household and quite the household it was. A lavish two story home furnished with everything from a stuffed bear carcass in the den to a giant crystal chandelier hanging over a 40 foot-long table made of British Elm wood and beveled glass. The house was so large that the voice had seemingly unlimited space to echo almost incessantly.
“I don’t pay you to fucking try! I pay you to do, and the letter that I am staring at right now tells me that you aren’t doing your job!”
Between the fiery lambaste and its echoes, a woman’s sobs also populated the rich air of the home. The Kingsley family was distraught. The immense emotional tension was heavy enough to feel in the air.
John Kingsley slammed the telephone handset down onto its base, cracking the glass table that it sat upon. Seeing the expensive glass fracture into a spider web-like pattern only angered Kingsley even more. He grabbed the side of the small table and heaved it to the side, shattering the glass into a million tiny pieces and sending the telephone flying across the room.
“I don’t believe this! All of that money…for nothing!” He yelled and looked to his wife, Jenny, as though he were hoping from some hopeful answer from her.
She just kept crying.
The front door to the home opened before the final furious band of words had finished bouncing from wall to wall. A young man of about 20 years stepped into the home with a smile on his face that quickly rotated into a confused and concerned frown. He hurried over to the den area and saw his mother crying and the broken glass strewn across the floor.
“What did you do?” He frantically asked his father.
“Not enough, apparently.” John paused and looked into his son’s eyes. “I’m sorry, Edgar. I’m so sorry.” He turned and walked out of the room.
“Dad, what is it? Dad….Mom, what’s going on?” Edgar asked.
She kept crying and pointed towards a small coffee table. On top of the finely polished table was an opened envelope and a folded sheet of paper. Edgar picked up the paper and unfolded it.
“Selective Service System
Order to Report for Armed Services Physical Examination
Attn: Edgar John Albert Kingsley”
He dropped the letter and placed both of his hands atop his head. His eyes stared into nothingness, going completely blank. Two minutes passed, yet it seemed like an eternity for him. He hadn’t breathed since he read the words. His arms went weak and his legs soon followed as he crumpled to the ground.
Edgar woke up to a bright light shining into his eyes and a nurse by his side. His mother was seated in the corner of the room, her eyes red from the endless crying.
His parents had transported him to the hospital after he fainted in their living room.
A doctor walked into the room. “He just had an anxiety attack. I’m sure you can imagine how that could have happened given the recent news. Good news is that he is perfectly healthy otherwise and ready to be released.”
Jenny sat in the corner, the tears had never stopped streaming from her eyes. Her voice had grown hoarse from the wailing. She looked up at Edgar, but could not keep her gaze on him. It hurt too much. She would turn her eyes to see her child’s face and see it bloodied and battered, before dropping her face back into her hands.
“Yea, good news. You think you could break my legs or something, doc. I can’t go to Vietnam!” Edgar said in such a way that the doctor couldn’t tell if he should give a serious answer or not.
“Uhm…” The doctor turned and walked out of the room.
“What am I going to do?!” Edgar looked at his mother with tears in his eyes. “I’m not supposed to be picked! I’m not some poor black bastard or some country hick! Dad!” He yelled. “What the hell?! What is your money for, anyway?”
His fear quickly turned to rage. His mother’s tears stopped and her sorrowful frown twisted into one of worry.
Justin stood up from his bed and stormed out of the room. “Dad! John! Where are you?!” He rushed back and forth frantically.
John Kingsley came running around the corner with two bottles of cola in his hand. The same worried look on Jenny’s face covered his.
“Son, what is it?!” He stopped just in front of Edgar. He reached his hand out, offering one of the colas to his son.
“I don’t want this!” He slapped the drink from his father’s hand. “I want to fucking live!”
“What did the doctor say? Are you okay?” His dad worried.
“Yes, you imbecile. I’m fine! I’m talking about Vietnam!” Edgar stormed back into the room with his mother.
“Look, son. I’m going to do everything that I can to get you out of this. Just be calm. You’re scaring your mother.”
Justin became incensed. “Scaring her?! What does she have to be scared of? I’m the one that’s going to be blown to bits fighting some other person’s war!” He walked over to a table in the room and knocked a number of medical instruments off of it. His violent outburst seemed to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Edgar fell into a fiery rage attacking the walls and his bed. Soon, a number of security guards rushed into the room restraining Edgar. A doctor followed them in and injected a syringe into his neck. The enraged boy’s body fell limp and he quickly descended into a deep sleep.
A week had passed since the episode in the hospital. Edgar had returned to school as he awaited the entrance date for his selective service call-up.
The school bell rang signaling the beginning of the lunch period. Edgar walked to a table and placed his tray next to another young male.
“I heard about it, man. I’m uh…I’m sorry.” The boy said.
“Thanks, man. I don’t know what to do. I’m terrified! I’m still a kid. I shouldn’t be fighting a war. It’s not even our war.” Edgar began to panic again.
“Calm down, man. I mean, maybe it will end before they send you over there.” His friend attempted to reassure him.
Edgar sighed. “That’s wishful thinking. I hope so too! I have so much to live for, man. I mean, I’m better than all of those kids that get sent over there. I just am. I don’t deserve this.”
His friend almost chuckled. “You had better get rid of that mindset if you do end up going over there.”
“You’re going to be fighting with those guys that you’re so much better than. You don’t even know them.” His friend replied.
“So what? I know how they are. They don’t have any goals in life, that’s why they just go over there.” Edgar pushed a spoonful of applesauce into his mouth.
“We don’t even have any of them here.” He actually chuckled this time. “Like, there are no Negroes here, no Mexicans, everybody here has money. Have you ever even met a Black person?”
“That’s not important! I just know how they are.” Edgar’s body language closed off, hinting that he wanted the conversation to end.
“I knew one kid from the city. He got sent over there and died the first week. Man, so many people went to a little funeral they held for him. They loved him. He was Black and Mexican.” The boy chuckled.
“Shut up! I don’t need to hear that. That’s going to be me!” Edgar said angrily.
“No it won’t. No one’s going to go to your funeral.”
They both chuckled softly, as the school bell rang again.
“You’ll be okay, man. Just don’t embarrass America over there.” Edgar and his friend rose up and walked back to their classes.
“I hope I don’t but if it means not dying, I’d wipe my ass with the flag.”
A dozen soldiers lay shirtless in a dirt clearing, baking under the sweltering Vietnamese sun. Justin Barry, noticeably more muscular, leaned forward, raising his upper body into a sitting position.
“Goddamn it’s hot!” He exclaimed, scrunching his face in disgust.
“We know, Barry! This is the 213th time that you’ve said that…today!” Another one of the soldiers said, prompting light chuckles from the rest of the men.
“Fuck you, Peeno!” Justin replied, flipping his middle finger up towards the huge soldier.
Peeno was one of the guys assigned to Justin’s platoon. He was a gigantic, intimidating figure with the heart of child and a sense of humor to match. He was an odd character at the time because he was African-American, but he voluntarily enlisted into the Army more out of a sense of adventurism than patriotism. His real name was Joe Adams, but everyone in the Army called him “Peeno” after discovering his affinity for Pinot Grigio wines.
By now, Justin had already spent some time in Vietnam, the entire platoon bonded over having not seen a single death over the last three months. Justin and Peeno had become particularly close friends. From the moment that Justin jumped off the helicopter into his base, his and Peeno’s personalities simply clicked. Nothing specific about their backgrounds seemed like it would make them more likely to get along, but their mindsets were strikingly similar. They both went to Vietnam to leave something behind, to leave their pasts in the past. One’s choice was a bit more voluntary than the others, but when Justin was offered a choice between prison and Vietnam, he never even fully considered the option of spending his time locked in a cell. In a way, Peeno was the same. While his record was squeaky clean, he felt as though he was facing a jail cell in the form of his life back in the United States. His adventurous spirit could only handle so much of the boring rural lifestyle he maintained back home.
“I bet you want to, but I got a girl already, sweetie.” Peeno shot back.
“You mean a kid, right?”
“No babies for me buddy!”
“No, I mean a kid. Like a goat. I hear that’s what you guys do in Arkansas. Fuck goats.”
All the men erupted in laughter as Peeno rose to his feet and walked over to Justin. He reached down and, with the strength of a bull, lifted Justin from the ground and into a huge, crushing bear hug.
“Hey man…” Justin struggled to speak through his compressed lungs. “I’m not a goat!”
Peeno released him and he fell to the ground.
“I hope you idiots aren’t that friendly to the enemy.” The deep, gravely voice of Robert Rodriguez, the platoon’s highest ranking enlisted man, caught the soldiers off-guard. They all jumped their feet and into a rigid attention.
“Relax. I’m not here to tear into your asses. If I was, you’d already be six feet under.” Sergeant First Class Rodriguez smirked and walked over to the edge of a steep hill near where the soldiers were lying. “We got a new mission. Simple patrol. There’s a supply road that we recently recaptured from the enemy. A couple of you guys are gonna go make sure there are no surprises waiting for the supply convoys that are gonna roll through there eventually. A couple of the officers are saying that we haven’t been putting in enough work. They say our casualty records are proof of that, so I took this mission to show ‘em something. It should run real smooth, just watch yourselves and watch my back and we’ll all get back on one piece.”
Justin’s face lit up. “Finally, some goddamn action.” He thought to himself.
“We’ll head out at 0900. Get set!” Rodriguez clapped his hands together before turning and walking away from the group of soldiers.
Justin waited until the Sergeant was out of ear’s reach. “Alright 20 on Coco! Anybody else wanna throw some out there?”
“Fuck you, Barry! And it’s Cuoco!” Vincent Cuoco, one of the other soldiers, said.
Cuoco was the son of two Italian immigrants living in New York. He boxed back in his hometown and had the build and look of a middleweight champion. When he first arrived to the platoon, the guys had trouble pronouncing his last name, so Justin decided to call him “Coco” and the name stuck with the rest of the guys. Cuoco didn’t like it very much but he dealt with it.
“I’ll put 30 on him!” Peeno laughed and threw his arm over Cuoco’s shoulders. “I’m gonna miss you buddy, but this is a damn good investment opportunity.”
Before missions, the men would place bets on who they thought wouldn’t be coming back alive. Of course, over the last three months, none of these bets paid off, but it was the way the men kept the mood loose. A morbid tactic to say the least, but it did its job. None of them ever expected to actually pay or accept a bet if one of them were to die, so it was all done in jest.
“You know what? Screw all of you guys. Always putting that bad juju on me. I’m a goddamn maniac with my baby, Emma.” He pointed to an M60 machine gun propped up against a wooden supply crate. “Why don’t you put a damn bet on one of these other bastards or freakin’ John Lennon over there?”
The other soldier, John Lennon, was actually named Jeremy Barnes. He was a scrawny teenager who had been working in a convenience store before receiving his draft papers. He wore thick, round-rimmed glasses, which drew comparisons to John Lennon’s trademark spectacles. He also had been seen listening to some of John Lennon’s anti-Vietnam war statements and music, which just reinforced the nickname. He had a look of dread on his face after hearing of the new mission. He was terrified during his entire three months in Vietnam. A California boy, he never envisioned himself in the jungles of Vietnam fighting a war. He had never even been in a fight. Violence had evaded him his entire life and it was obvious from the way he conducted himself in the jungles.
“Maybe because I trust John Lennon, that one,” Justin pointed at Barnes. “and the real one, with a weapon more than I trust you.” He laughed.
Cuoco turned away and picked up the machine gun from the ground. “Yeah? Whatever, boy. With Emma in my hands, I’m practically a god. I’m invincible. Untouchable. Those gooks’ll piss their pants if I let off a solid 10 rounds at ‘em… and don’t short change John Lennon. I think he’s gonna crack one day and kill 100 of those sons of bitches at once.”
“Hey, watch how you say “boy,” boy!” Justin warned Cuoco. “Anyway, I still say 20 on your ass.”
“Fine, 20 on your ass, too…boy!” Cuoco replied. “Your loss. Remember, I’m invincible!”
Justin shot a death stare at Cuoco and the Italian responded with a shrug of the shoulders.
The soldiers walked through the dense vegetation, being careful with every step to avoid stray vines that might grab a foot and bring a man down. The humid air caused streams of wet to run down the faces of every man, stinging their eyes. The mosquitoes buzzed back and forth, stopping only to feast on the blood of the weary Americans as they creeped through the lush Vietnamese jungle. They had already been walking for over an hour. Fatigue began to set in with some of the men. Justin’s head remained on a swivel, turning at the slightest sound of a bird taking off from the branches above or a serpent slithering underneath his feet.
“There’s nothing but bugs and snakes in this goddamned jungle. Fuck!” Cuoco whispered.
“Shhhhh!” Justin placed his finger over his mouth. His eyes widened and his ears perked up as he focused intently on his surroundings.
Sergeant Rodriguez was at the front of the group. His large frame crouched over slightly as he scanned the environment. Suddenly, he raised his fist in the air, causing all of the men to stop and crouch lower. Each of the soldiers dropped to a knee and raised the stocks of their rifles to their shoulders.
The jungle was silent except for the sound of crickets chirping. Justin could hear his own heart beating as he scanned from side to side searching for any odd movement. A snake slowly slithered over his bent leg as though it were nothing more than a log in the mud. Justin maintained his composure, never taking his eyes away from the sights of his rifle. It was nearly impossible to see more than twenty feet ahead as the dense canopy blocked the soft moonlight.
Although they were all on a knee, Peeno’s head was still as high as one of the shorter soldiers’ head would be if he were standing. Justin turned and signaled to Peeno using his hands.
“Get your damn head down!” He mouthed silently.
Peeno squinted his eyes and leaned forward in an attempt to decipher Justin’s message.
Peeno fell to the ground as the unmistakable sound of a 7.62mm AK-47 round broke the silence. The bullet hit a tree behind him causing a small explosion of wood splinters and and dust.
“We got contact!” Justin yelled out before falling on to his stomach. The cool, thick mud covered the front of his uniform and splattered on to his face. He reached up with his left and wiped the slimy mixture of dirt and water away from his eyes. Just as he finished, he saw the shadowy figure of a North Vietnamese soldier. He turned rapidly and focused his rifle sights on the shadow before pulling the trigger.
It was Justin’s first time discharging his rifle in combat. The round missed his target. Justin fired off two more shots, each of them missing. He rose up from his knee and sprinted after the shadow. The pitch black sky had been set aflame by a quartet of night flares launched by the Americans. Justin could now see his target: a short boy of no more than eighteen years with a dirty olive drab shirt, matching pants, and a helmet covered in foliage. He was carrying an AK-47 in his arms, firing short inaccurate bursts as he sprinted through the jungle. Justin had eluded the Vietcong soldier’s attention as the sounds of war hid Justin’s panting and loud steps through the brush. The chase continued for at least thirty more seconds before the Vietcong soldier stopped near the base of an enormous tree. He steadied his rifle against his shoulder and took aim at his target, Private Cuoco. Justin increased his speed to catch up to his enemy. When he had closed the distance between them enough, he leaped into the air like a panther. Gripping his rifle tightly with both of his hands, he brought the weapon down onto the helmet of the Vietnamese soldier. By this time, the soldier had already fired off two rounds from his rifle, but the blow from the butt of Justin’s M-16 forced him to the ground. He rolled in an attempt to escape Justin, but an unimaginable fury had already taken control of the American. He knocked the helmet away from the soldier’s head and began to pummel him with his bare fists. Left, left, right, right, left, left, right. Justin’s hands were covered in blood before he fully realized the situation that he was in. The Vietnamese soldier had died long before Justin finished his barrage of punches. Justin, hearing that the greater battle still raged on and realizing his vulnerability, picked his rifle up from the ground and ran back to the sounds of gunshots and explosions. By the time, he reunited with the rest of his platoon, the skirmish had ended. The remaining Vietnamese were overpowered and retreated, leaving twelve of theirs behind.
“Peeno! Where are they? Let’s go after ‘em! Come on!” Justin excitedly rambled to his friend.
Peeno’s head hung low and his eyes emanated a regretful sadness. “No, man. Let them go. We’ve gotta take care of our own.”
Justin furrowed his eyebrows in confusion. In his excitement over getting his first combat kill, he had forgotten that war works both ways. Seven of the men in the platoon had been killed during the fight. Without another word being said, Justin realized there were casualties.
“Have you seen Cuoco?” Peeno asked despondently.
Justin looked down in thought. he remembered back to his encounter with the Vietcong soldier. The scene played in his mind again. The soldier stopping and aiming his rifle, himself leaping to attack the soldier, the soldier firing off two rounds before Justin could reach him. He raised his head, looking into Peeno’s eyes.
“Did someone say my name?” A dark figure emerged from behind a tree. The shadows had returned as the flares died off, but the voice was unmistakable.
“Cuoco!” Peeno walked over to him, shaking his hand vigorously. “We thought we lost your cocky ass!”
Cuoco laughed. “Didn’t I tell you I’m invincible.”
Justin placed his rifle behind his back and walked over to the two men. “How many did we lose?”
“Seven.” Peeno replied.
“Seven?! Fuck, man!” Cuoco started to pace. “That’s the most we’ve ever lost at once.”
“Who were they?” Asked Justin.
“Robbie Leonard, Manuel Garcia, Blake Williams, Joe Adams, Derrick Merrill, James Jordan, and Jeremy Barnes.”
“John Lennon!?” Cuoco asked in disbelief.
“Yeah, found him all by himself about forty yards away from the rest of the platoon. One shot to the head. It was a .45 caliber round and his 1911 was still in his hand.” The M1911 was the official sidearm of Army soldiers in Vietnam, it fired a large .45 caliber round.
“Wait. He did it to himself?” Cuoco asked.
“That’s what it looks like. I guess it was all too much for him to handle.” Peeno turned and walked towards a group of soldiers sitting together smoking cigarettes.
“Damn…killed himself while the rest of us were fighting for our lives. Fucking coward.” Cuoco shrugged his shoulders and followed behind Peeno.
Justin walked over to the same group of soldiers and asked them to direct him to John Lennon’s body. They nonchalantly pointed off into the distance. None of them seemed to care, so Justin followed their fingers to a small ditch about thirty yards from his location. He walked around in the darkness, his eyes opened wide to capture as much ambient light as possible. He searched for five minutes with no success.
“I’ll never find it until the sun comes up.” He thought to himself. As he finished that thought, he stumbled over what he thought was a vine protruding from the ground.
“Goddamned vines!” He turned to see the vine and discovered that it was a human arm. He followed the shape of the arm up to the rest of the body. There, he saw John Lennon’s face. Blood covered the thick lenses in his spectacles. His eyes had shot open after he fired the shot that killed him. It was a gruesome sight, but Justin was transfixed on it. His eyes never left the body. He knelt down next to Lennon and touched him as though it was the first time that he had felt a dead body. He had just beaten a man to death twenty minutes before, yet this was strange to him.
“Damn, he must have really been scared.” Justin remembered seeing John Lennon earlier in the day. He never seemed comfortable in Vietnam. None of the men liked being there, but they had grown accustomed to the routine. Lennon never seemed to be able to accept his situation. Vietnam was foreign to them all, they felt as though the didn’t belong, but Lennon always talked about how he did not even belong with the group. It has taken more of a toll on him than the other guys.
“I guess he figured the unknown was better than the hand he was dealt here.” Justin thought to himself. His musing about Lennon’s final thoughts reminded him of the time when he stood in front of the judge back in America. Since hearing about Lennon’s suicide, Justin had been filled with an emotion that he could not identify. Cuoco was angered. Peeno was sad, but Justin felt neither anger nor sadness. All at once, he realized what he was feeling. An odd combination of sympathy and envy.
“He looks like he’s at peace now, at least.” Justin delved deeper into his own jealousy. In the same way that Lennon chose the bullet to escape Vietnam, he had chosen Vietnam to escape his past. He even pondered whether Lennon had been braver than he to take his own life. Justin had decided to come to Vietnam hoping a Vietnamese bullet would kill him. Yet, there he stood, having outlived Lennon and the six others. He began to question why he shouldn’t follow Lennon’s lead. He looked down at his sidearm, the same type of pistol that Lennon used. He moved his hand from Lennon’s body and gripped the handle of his weapon, slowly pulling it from his holster.
“Hey buddy, we’re getting out of here.” Peeno startled Justin, who dropped his pistol on the ground and jumped to his feet.
“Yeah. Yeah, man.” Justin knocked mud from his knees, looking back at Lennon’s body one last time.
“The medics will take care of him after we make sure the area’s secure.” Peeno reassured Justin.
Lennon’s body faded into the darkness as Justin walked away, but those thoughts stuck with him.
A massive cloud of thick dust covered much of the small landing area that had been carved out for incoming helicopters. The rotors of a UH-1 “Huey” helicopter cut through the air sending of a loud, reverberating rattle that sounded like muffled machine gun fire. From inside the helicopter, Edgar could neither hear nor see anything outside of the aircraft. For fifteen more seconds, his destination would be unknown to him.
“You ready?” One of the helicopter crewman yelled to him over the sound of the rotors.
Edgar stared at the crewman with disdain before raising his middle finger.
The crewman chuckled. “Well, alright, nice guy! It’s time. Go!” He slapped Edgar on the back, signaling him to exit the aircraft.
Edgar swung his feet out the side of the helicopter and pushed himself forward and away from the craft. He fell from the Huey about two feet and braced his legs for the landing, but the solid ground that he expected wasn’t there. He let out a weak yelp before crashing into the ground and rolling about four feet away from where the helicopter eventually landed.
The dust cloud dissipated in time for Edgar to see the crewman displaying his middle finger with a giant grin on his face. As the landing skis touched the ground and the rotors slowed, the rest of the incoming soldiers piled out of the helicopter. Seven men, including Edgar, were flown in as replacements for soldiers who had been killed in combat. They were all fresh out of infantry training, some voluntary enlistees, others, like Edgar, were drafted into the Army.
“Check this guy out, boys! Twenty seconds in ‘Nam and he’s already taking a dirt nap.” Cuoco laughed, pointing towards Edgar as he scrambled from the ground.
Edgar brushed the dust from his body as the rest of the newly-arrived soldiers walked by him chuckling at his predicament. “Screw you assholes!” He yelled before scurrying behind them.
As Egdar walked by one of the flimsy bungalows that made up the Camp Cook, he spotted a strange contraption inside. It looked like a makeshift christmas tree built from thin metal wire. It was about four feet tall and sat atop a wooden table. He saw a number of ornaments hanging from it, but couldn’t discern anymore information from the short time that he saw the tree.
“What the hell do they have a christmas tree for? It’s the middle of July.” Edgar thought to himself. He quickly passed the thought out of his mind and continued behind the rest of the soldiers into a much larger building on the other side of the camp.
“Welcome to Vietnam!” Sergeant Rodriguez stressed every syllable of the country’s name as he addressed the crowd of fresh-faced soldiers. “You boys are now a part of your country’s frontline of defense against the evils of communism. Can any of you tell me exactly why we are fighting communism in this hot ass sauna of a country?”
One of the soldiers opened his mouth to speak. “Becau-”
“Wrong!” Rodriguez interrupted. “Whatever you think you know about politics and strategy and why the world is the way it is, throw all of it out the window. You are here fighting because you’ve been told to do so. You will keep fighting because the man to you left and the man to your right is your brother. That is all you need to know. As of now, each and every one of your lives depends on someone else in this room or out there in those jungles. That is war. You win by killing enough of those bastards and by saving enough of our bastards. Now, we got a lot to go over before you kids get your first taste of some action, but I will tell you now, the violence has stepped up over the last month or so, so you will see some action.”
Edgar swallowed hard at Rodriguez’ warning. He had hoped that he might be sent to Europe to replace some soldier who was previously stationed there. That didn’t pan out. He had hoped that maybe he would be sent to a part of Vietnam far away from the front lines. That didn’t happen. Now, here he was being told that he would definitely “see some action” while there. The same terror that overtook him when he opened his draft notice returned.
“Excuse me, sir!” Edgar raised his hand.
Rodriguez shot him a death stare. Edgar didn’t seem to notice. “What is it, Private?”
“Edgar Kingsley. Uhm, I understand that there are many logistical jobs. Like, office jobs. Where do we go to apply for one of those?”
The entire room erupted into raucous laughter. Edgar looked around in confusion.
“Son, even our cooks keep rifles on them. We’re on the front. No matter what you do, you’re probably going to end up getting shot at. What’s your name? Kingsley?” Rodriguez ran his finger down a list on his clipboard. You’re infantry. So you’d better buck up and get used to it. Now, all of you, get the hell out of here and get settled in. We got a long day ahead of us.”
The soldiers rose from their seats and funnelled out of the bungalow. Some of the men were still laughing at Edgar’s question.
As Edgar made his way to the tent where he would be sleeping, he noticed the distant sound of artillery cannons firing their huge explosive rounds. The thunderous booms stirred fear in the boy as his reality set in.
“I can’t believe that I’m in Vietnam. I shouldn’t be here. I don’t belong here.” He thought to himself.
Edgar pulled apart the slit at the front of the tent, peeking his head in before entering completely. It was empty. He sighed in relief and shuffled towards one of the beds lining the ground. There were six in total. He chose the one furthest from the opening because he assumed that it was the safest place in the tent if the camp was overrun by the enemy. He threw himself onto the low, rigid bed sending a cloud of dust up from the old sheets atop the mattress. The dust caused him to gag and cough briefly as he fanned it away from his face using his hands.
“I hate this place!” He growled intensely through his teeth.
Once the dust dissipated, he sat up on the edge of the bed and reached into one of the large pockets on his pants and pulled out a small leather-bound book. He opened the book to a half-empty page. The last words on the page read:
“There’s nothing for me in this damn country. Everything I love is back in the states.”
He patted his pockets, searching for a something to write with, but he was unsuccessful.
“Private Kingsley!” A voice called out. “Get your ass out here!”
Edgar ran out of the tent and into the chest of Sergeant Rodriguez.
“When I said ‘we got a long day ahead of us,’ I meant now! I want this camp prepared for the rest of the day. That means latrines need to be taken care of, supply crates need to be moved, everything! Oh, and you all need to meet the rest of the men you’ll be living, fighting, and maybe even dying with. Understood?”
The group simultaneously responded. “Sir, yes, sir!”
Night had fallen over Camp Cook as the exhausted soldiers finished their long day of work. Some of the men headed to the enlisted men’s break room to fraternize over some prohibited drinks. Edgar decided to walk back to his sleeping quarters.
He sat down on his bed and picked his journal up from beside his pillow. The cloth ribbon that he used as a bookmark was still on the page that he had left it. He opened the journal and read the line again:
“There’s nothing for me in this damn country. Everything I love is back in the states.”
He flipped those words to the side and began to write on a blank page.
“It’s worse than I expected. Not only am I in this backwards country fighting in a war that no one understands, I’m also surrounded by all of these backwards people. It’s like everyone here is from the lowest rung of society except for me. They all seem so comfortable with it. I would hate myself if I were like them. I don’t know how I’m going to make it. The kinds of guys here are awful. There’s this one guy, a negro, named Justin. He’s not here because he loves his country or anything. He’s a criminal. My life is in the hands of criminals and idiots. Then there’s sergeant Rodriguez. He thinks he can just tell me what to do because we’re over here. If we were back in America, he’d be working for my dad or something! But the worst one has to be this big, tall, happy negro. They call him Peeno. I don’t know what it is, but I just can’t stand him. He always has a smile on his face. We’re in a damn warzone, in some random country, and he’s always smiling. It’s like he’s constantly mocking me. I hate it! I don’t know how I’m going to make it out of here!”
Edgar closed the book and threw his head down onto his pillow, quickly falling into a deep sleep.
“Alright, boys! Listen up!” Sergeant Rodriguez paced back and forth in front of a large map. “We got a Huey that crashed about four kilometers north of our position. We’ve lost contact with the crew so we don’t know if anyone’s alive. But as you all know, we don’t leave any man behind. Since we’re the closest to the last position of the aircraft, we’re going to go out and get them back. We believe the helicopter was shot down by enemy fire and I’m sure the damn Viet Cong are going to be looking for the crash site just like we are, so we gotta move fast. We know there’s been a lot of enemy activity in this area recently, so we’re gonna need go in heavy. All you new guys, you’re going out too. Congrats, you’re gonna get to see some action.”
Some of the soldiers that came in with Edgar smiled at each other in anticipation of finally going into combat. Edgar’s stomach turned. His forehead glistened as every other soldiers did in the hot and humid Vietnamese air, the weather belied his nervous sweating as he envisioned his demise.
“Ready, rookie? The shit gets real, now!” Peeno slapped Edgar on his back, nearly knocking the wind out of him.
Edgar looked up at Peeno with clear disdain and walked out of the bungalow.
“Screw you too!” Peeno chuckled. “Hey Barry, get your ass over here.” He waved to Justin. “Watch my back out there, man.”
“You don’t even have to ask.” Justin replied. “That guy’s got problems.” He pointed to Edgar.
“Yeah, he does…but we all had our issues when we first got here. A couple of AK-47 rounds by the ears will get rid of all that.” Peeno answered.
“Ha, I hope you’re right.”
The men walked the four kilometers to the crash site. There was still a chance that the same anti-aircraft fire that brought down the first helicopter would be in the area. By the time they reached the area where the crashed helicopter was believed to be, many of the men newer soldiers were exhausted. The more seasoned men, like Justin, Peeno, and Cuoco, had completed numerous treks like this one. They were on high alert, knowing that the enemy might be in the area.
“Everyone, get tight!” Peeno whispered loudly to the men.
The soldiers had discovered the crash site. Alongside it were three bodies wearing the jump suits of American helicopter crew members.
“How many were on that Huey?” Justin asked.
“There’s supposed to be six. The other three aren’t here.” Cuoco answered.
“You think they took ‘em prisoner?” Peeno asked the question that none of them wanted to think about. They had all heard about the conditions that U.S. prisoners of war were kept in. Stories of what would be known as the “Hanoi hotel” haunted every soldier going into combat.
Justin opened his mouth to speak, but before he could muster a word, a burst of gunfire rang out to the north.
“Those are M-16s! Those must be our boys!” Cuoco yelled as he took off towards the sounds of gunfire. The rest of the soldiers frantically followed behind him.
Edgar was one of them. He ran behind the rest of the group, not hoping to reach the sounds, but only wishing to not be left behind in the unforgiving jungles. The rest of the soldiers sprinted forward. Their eyes signaled an intensity rarely seen outside of warfare. The battle-hardened Justin, Peeno, and Cuoco showed even more earnest. The newer soldiers’ eyes hinted at a more adrenaline-driven passion. Edgar’s eyes showed fear and uncertainty.
After about two minutes of rushing through the vines and brush, the men were close enough to discern where the M-16 fire was coming from and where the AK-47 fire was coming from. They looked towards the sounds of the M-16s and saw the three remaining crew members of the helicopter engaged in a savage firefight with a group of North Vietnamese soldiers.
Before they men could even stop to develop a plan of action, one of the newer soldiers was hit by an AK-47 round in the shoulder.
“Ah! I’m hit!” He screamed. Edgar, the closest man to him, fell to the ground. He sat up and saw the blood shoot from the young man’s shoulder. Edgar was paralyzed with indecision. The pressure of combat had hit him too hard and too soon. He didn’t move. After about seven seconds of screaming from the soldier, Edgar saw a chunk of mud tossed into the air by a round object.
“Grenade!” The injured soldier screamed as the live explosive rolled towards his body. “Grenade” He screamed.
Edgar rose to his feet in time to dive behind a nearby tree. The grenade exploded and the young soldier’s screams ceased. Edgar looked towards the location where the grenade landed and saw no evidence of any soldier. He stood up and grabbed his rifle. Before he could move, he bowed over and released a stream of pink yellow-tinted vomit.
“Fire in the hole!” Justin yelled as he tossed a grenade towards the enemy. As it exploded, he sprinted through the vegetation and gunfire towards one of the helicopter crewmen. “We’re here to get you out!”
“No shit!” He replied. “We gotta get rid of these sons-of-bitches first!”
“You’re goddamn right!” Justin lifted his rifle and fired off a volley of gunshots.
“Be invincible, boys!” Cuoco yelled, as he let out a long, thunderous stream of bullets from his M60 machine gun. His fire cut down four of the enemy soldiers.
The fighting raged on for ten more minutes before the North Vietnamese began to retreat. The three survivors from the helicopter crash had managed to live through the firefight. Other than the young soldier killed by the grenade, all of the rescue party had survived as well.
“Jesus Christ! That was intense!” Cuoco lifted his machine gun to rest against his shoulder, barrel pointed towards the sky. “Where’s Peeno?”
“I don’t know.” Justin replied. “Where’s that new guy, too? Kingsley.”
Cuoco and Justin set out to search for Edgar and Peeno. It wasn’t long before they found the two. Edgar was on his knees, sobbing, his hands covered in blood. Peeno lay on his back, a dead North Vietnamese soldier no more than two feet away from him.
“Peeno!” Justin cried out as he ran towards his friend. “What happened? Where are you hit?”
Peeno struggled to speak, coughing up blood as he attempted to talk to his friend. “I did good. Nobody left behind.” He forced these words out.
“What happened?!” Cuoco questioned Edgar.
He didn’t respond. He was still trembling. His eyes peered off into the distance. It was as if he was not there at all.
“Snap out of it, soldier!” Cuoco yelled.
Edgar kept trembling.
“Don’t blame…” A stream of blood shot from Peeno’s mouth.
“Shut up, man! Just shut up! We’re gonna get someone to help you! Medic!” Justin screamed.
“Don’t blame…..” Peeno’s body relaxed and his eyes lost focus. His breathing stopped and his head dropped.
“Medic!” Justin screamed again.
“He’s gotta go, man. He’s gotta go!” Justin paced back and forth. “He got Peeno killed. It was his first mission, and he got Peeno killed.”
Two days had passed since the rescue mission.
“I don’t like the kid either, man, but what are you gonna do about it. He’s here. We just gotta deal with him.” Cuoco replied, taking a swig from the beer can gripped in his bear-like hands.
“We get rid of him, man. We gotta frag him. He ain’t gave a shit about no other man but himself since he been here and now Peeno’s dead because of that. We gotta frag him. I mean, he was just sitting there. I’ll tell you what happened, man. He got shook up and ran. Peeno went after him. Some fuckin’ bastard jumped out and stabbed him, while Edgar watched. Peeno, being the badass that he is, killed the guy, but it was already too late for him. And the entire time, he probably just sat there with his head in his hands.” Justin referred to “fragging,” the act of killing a friendly soldier if he had broken the soldiers’ code of conduct.
“You think you can get away with that?” Cuoco puffed a cigarette, then took another drink from his beer can before exhaling the smoke from his lungs.
“Why not? No one here likes him. No one. I could do it anywhere and someone would back up my story.”
“That’s damn true. That kid ain’t got no friends around here.” Cuoco laughed. “Well, if you decide to do it, I ain’t heard nothing about it. In fact, I seen ole’ Kingsley cleaning his rifle with a bullet in the chamber.”
“Tonight. I do it tonight.” Justin cracked open a beer can and took a big swig from it.
Justin tiptoed through across the camp as a crescent moon hung over the Vietnamese landscape. He made his way towards the tent that housed Edgar. He peeked in and saw a dozen or so soldiers tucked under their thick green blankets. A dim glow softly illuminated the interior of the large tent as Justin snuck towards the cot that was assigned to Edgar. As he arrived at Edgar’s sleeping place, he noticed that his target was not in the bed. Instead, there was only a small leather-bound book with “Edgar Kingsley” embroidered onto the front. Justin looked over his shoulders confused as to why Edgar was not asleep with the rest of the soldiers.
“He left about fifteen minutes ago.” A voice startled Justin. “He was writing in that book, then he just got up and walked outside. Haven’t seen him since.”
Justin bent down and picked up the book. He sat on Edgar’s bed and opened the book to the last page with writing on it.
“There was so much noise. So much. Even in between the gunshots, explosions, and screams, there was still noise. I can’t describe it. I couldn’t focus. I had just seen a man blown apart by a grenade. I’m a kid. I froze up. I couldn’t move. I just sat there by this big tree trunk. At the time, I couldn’t think of anything. It was like my brain was trying to carry two tons of stuff and just couldn’t handle it. I would have died there. I know I would have died there, but he grabbed me. He picked me up by my shoulders and shook life into me. He said to me ‘If you don’t live right now, you will never live again! I’m with you!’ It was the big guy… Peeno. These words made me feel okay. I felt like I had a brother there. As much as I had disliked everyone and I’m sure they disliked me… I felt like he was my brother. I guess the bombs, bullets, and blood changed everything. I can’t explain how, but in the midst of combat, I had found a family…And it ended so quickly. We moved to flank some of the Viet Cong. We were trying to get the jump on them. We did get a couple of them. I killed a man. I would have froze again if I didn’t have Peeno there, but just having him with me made me feel like I was doing what I needed to do. He was a warrior. He must have killed three of them by himself. We had gotten farther away from the rest of the guys than we wanted to, so we turned back. As we made our way towards Barry, Cuoco, and the other guys, one of the enemy jumped out at me. He had a bayonet on his rifle and he tried to stab me with it. Peeno saw it and moved in front of it.”
The next few words were smeared by water droplets, likely tears.
“The bayonet was already in his gut before I could do anything. I took out my knife and ran behind the Viet Cong bastard. I cut his throat. I didn’t even think about it for a second before I did it. But it was too late. I tried to help him, but it was too late. I knew he wasn’t going to make it. When he first grabbed me, he made me a warrior like him. I felt okay. Then, he was gone… and I went back to before. I thought about everything that had just happened and it scared the hell out of me. I couldn’t speak. Barry came to me and I couldn’t even speak to him. I still haven’t. I’m a coward. These guys are heroes. For a little while, one of them accepted me and now he’s gone. Now I’m alone, again.”
Justin flipped the page, but the writing had stopped. He closed the book, stood up from the bed, and walked out of the tent. Before he exited, one of the guys lying on a bed spoke. “What did it say?”
“I…I gotta talk to him.” Justin stuttered.
He stepped out of the tent and took four steps before he saw Edgar walking in his direction. His heart began to race. As they grew closer, Justin struggled with conflicting emotions. He had come to the tent to kill the boy, yet after reading his journal, he only wanted to hug him. He had invested so much of his own energy into hating Edgar, yet now he found himself seeing him as a fighter and a brother just as tormented by Peeno’s death as any of the men.
“Hey.” Edgar barely raised his head. The sadness in his heart was evident on his face.
“Hey, Edgar… I…Can we talk, man?” Justin asked. Their eyes never connected. Both seemed to be ashamed but ashamed for vastly different reasons.
“Uh… yeah…yeah, we can. What’s up?”
Justin and Edgar walked over to a stack of crates near one of the smaller bungalows in the camp and sat down.
The two men sat in silence for what seemed like an eternity. Neither of them knew what to say. It was a silent night at the camp. Only the sounds of invisible crickets and birds covered the deep silence.
“I don’t know anything about you Edgar. I won’t act like I do. When you got here I didn’t like your attitude. I saw it as disrespect. We had all been here for months before you showed up and we had all seen combat and death. We became brothers through the fire and we were afraid that a guy like you would come in and mess all of that up.”
“Listen, I never wan…”
“No, wait. Let me finish. Justin interrupted. “You ever heard of fragging?”
Edgar shook his head in confusion.
“It’s crazy out here. Guys are dying all the time. It’s real easy to off a guy and get away with it if you do it right. After I saw you next to Peeno and I held him in my arms before he died, I just knew that you had to go.” He paused. “I planned on killing you tonight. I thought that you got Peeno killed. I didn’t want you to be a problem for us anymore so I was going to take it into my own hands.”
“I really wish you’d do it. I don’t deserve to live.” Edgar surprised Justin with these words.
“What? What do you mean?”
“When I got my draft notice, I was scared. I had never been that afraid before. I had everything to live for. I had money, a good family, a promising future. That was life to me. And now the government was asking me to stand in front of bullets for something I didn’t even understand. I just didn’t want to die. Before I got sent here, I had nightmares about Vietnam every night. In every single one of them, I was alone in jungles that looked exactly like these. I stood there by myself, afraid, and confused. Then, a bullet ripped through my chest. As I fell to the ground and bled to death, I always noticed that I was the only human in the jungle. There weren’t even any Vietnamese. Just me. At first, I didn’t know what it meant, but now I do. I was afraid of being alone. I’ve always been an asshole, man. I mean, even after how I’ve been, Peeno still grabbed me and wanted me to go with him. He still trusted me. None of my friends back home…none of them would even think about putting their lives on the line for me. And that’s what I was so afraid to leave? That’s what I wanted to go back home to? Why? In those ten minutes with Peeno, I felt closer to him than I had ever felt with anyone in my life. Then, it was gone. He was gone. And after that, I wanted to be gone. When that fucking bayonet went into his gut, I wished it was me. I wanted to die. Not because I didn’t want to live. No. I wanted to die because I wanted people to know that I had lived. To give your own life for someone else is living. At first I pitied you guys. You didn’t have my money that I had. You didn’t have the good life that I had. You all were at the bottom back home. Then, I realized that I was jealous of you all. I was jealous of you. I was jealous of Rodriguez. I was jealous of Peeno. I wanted what you all had and for those few minutes, Peeno gave it to me. I killed that North Vietnamese bastard, but had to watch Peeno die…and the entire time I was confused by so many feelings. Peeno was the only one who had cared and now he was gone. How could I ever recreate that? I turned back into my old, scared, useless self. You guys hate me and I understand why. I would hate me too. That’s why I think you should’ve just fragged me.”
Justin stared at Edgar for a moment before dropping his head. He placed his hand on Edgar’s shoulder and gave him a friendly shake.
“I’m not gonna do that, Edgar. You’re not alone out here, man. I guess it just takes time for us all to really figure ourselves out. I…I came here because I wanted to. I wanted to die here. I didn’t have anything back home to live for. No real family. No money. No future except a jail cell. So, I planned on coming here and catching a bullet as soon as possible. It wasn’t until I got here and met these guys that I had a reason to live. It wasn’t until the bullets started flying and the bombs starting exploding all around us that I realized I had found my family. These guys would jump in front of a bullet for me. What more could you ask for? It would be so selfish of me to willingly throw away something that, even if I didn’t value it, these guys saw as precious enough to die for. I realized that I couldn’t want to die because that would mean that I wanted these guys to feel the same pain that I’m feeling now that Peeno’s gone. It’s the same way I’d feel if any of you guys were to die tomorrow. I know what it means to be loved and to have a family that cares about me. Don’t worry, Edgar. The guys won’t have problems with you anymore.”
“Thanks. This really means everything to me.” Edgar smiled and patted Justin’s hand. “Hey, I got a question.”
“What is it?”
“What is that thing? I saw it when I first came into camp, but I never figured out what it was.” Edgar pointed to the metal tree-like structure in one of the bungalows. It was visible through the open door.
“Oh, that. That’s the Dog Tree.” Justin reached into his pocket and pulled out a pair of dog tags. “Whenever a guy goes down, we hang his tags up there like an ornament. That way, he never leaves us. We leave the door open so we can always see it and remember our brothers. I’m glad you reminded me.”
Justin stood up and walked over to the tree with Edgar. They stared at the dangling pieces of metal for a moment.
“Here. You can do it.” Justin handed over Peeno’s dog tags to Edgar. The metal was warm from Justin’s hand. Edgar squeezed the tags and placed his fist close to his heart. He then unraveled the chain attached to them and placed it onto one of the “branches” of the metal wire tree.
For that short time, even the birds and the crickets quieted, seemingly in respect for the dead warrior. That silence was broken by the unmistakable sound of a slow propeller-driven C-130 Hercules flying high above. The sound grew closer as the plane soared overheard and then grew distant as it passed by.
“Hey.” Edgar turned to face Justin. “You said you were looking at jail time if you didn’t come here. What’d you do?”
The soft swoosh of the C-130 was replaced by the deafening roar of an enormous explosion. The entire camp was rocked by the sound. The two men darted out of the bungalow and looked towards the source of the sound. There they saw the remnants of an enormous fireball dissipating into the sky. A white mushroom cloud, shaded gray by the dark of night and the faint moonlight began to grow towards the heavens.
“What the hell was that?!” Edgar yelled.
“Must be a Daisy Cutter. The biggest goddamn bomb the Air Force has. I guess they forgot to tell us they were dropping one this damn close.”
The rest of the soldiers on the camp ran out to see what had caused the sound.
“It was a Daisy Cutter, boys! You can go back to bed.” Justin yelled.
“A Daisy Cutter?” Cuoco replied. “And I missed it? Dammit!”
The soldiers stayed out and watched the cloud grow and fall before turning back to their tents. Justin and Edgar did the same.
The crickets and birds returned to fill the night with their music.
A Huey helicopter buzzed overhead as Justin and Edgar sat atop an ammo crate at the base, smoking cigarettes.
“I feel like these things are probably killing us or something. Think about it. We ain’t breathing in nothing but hot ass smoke.” Justin stared at the cigarette in his hand.
“We’re sitting in the middle of a jungle, in the middle of a war, surrounded by thousands of angry Vietnamese, snakes, mosquitoes, and booby traps…and you think a cigarette is going to kill you?”
The two men laughed, drawing the attention of a nearby Cuoco.
“What are you two fairies laughing at?”
“Your haircut!” Justin replied, drawing even more laughter from Edgar and a steely look form Cuoco.
“Yeah, Yeah, Yeah. Well, you better hope this haircut isn’t the one watching your book when those assholes come after you…” Cuoco pointed into the distance. “Because I just might let ‘em take you out.” He laughed.
“Keep dreaming.” Justin impersonated Cuoco’s voice. “With this baby right here, I’m invincible. In-vin-ci-ble.”
“You know what? I’m gonna leave you two dickheads alone. I don’t have time for this.” Cuoco turned and walked away.
“We’re still here in Vietnam.” Edgar took a final puff of his cigarette before tossing it to the ground and smashing it with his boot. Justin still had more than half of his cigarette left. A weak breeze caught the two and loosened the tension from their bodies. They seemed so comfortable, as though they were at home. Edgar ran his hand through his thick blonde hair. The sweat from his forehead acted like a thin mousse, slicking his hair back. “Man, we’ve been here for awhile now. It’s crazy to even imagine what it’s going to be like when we get back to the States. Like, I don’t even know what the hell I’m going to do.” Edgar picked up a group of small rocks and began throwing them into an empty rice basket that was confiscated by the men as a souvenir.
Justin bent down at the waist, resting his elbows on his thighs. “Back in the States?” He took a long drag of his cigarette before flicking it off into the dirt. “Hell, I guess I’ll go to school or something. Or maybe just get a job. Who knows? I didn’t have shit when I left so I know I won’t have shit when I get back…but, at least I’m kinda looking forward to it now. That’s the crazy thing. I came here looking to escape my life back home. I came here to get popped by some crazy little Asian and just be forgotten. Now, I actually wanna give life in the States another chance.”
“That’s good, man. You’re a good guy. When I got here, I honestly thought I was better than everyone. I thought that it was a mistake for me to be here. My life in the U.S. was way better than the stuff that you guys grew up in. I thought that meant that I was better too. Man…I’ve realized that life is about a whole lot more than a bank account or what part of town you come from. I feel like being here, even though it’s still a shit hole, has made me into a better man. A part of me will probably never leave Vietnam.”
“Yeah, I hear you. It’s crazy that we’re gonna be losing some guys soon. Camp’s gonna be real different without them.”
“Who’s going home?”
“Rogers, Tank, and Cuoco.”
“Shit, Cuoco’s leaving. We gotta make sure we give him a nice going away surprise.” The two men laughed.
“Yeah, he’s got like another week before they send his ass outta here.”
Night quickly fell upon the camp, the moon rising high and full into the sky. Many of the men had gathered together in the enlisted men’s club to play card games and socialize. Justin, Edgar, and Cuoco were among them. It was another quiet night, yet the tranquility was eerie. There was an unidentifiable tension hanging in the air, as though the explosions and gunfire of an entire war had held themselves back in wait for the perfect moment to erupt.
As if the gates of hell had opened on Earth’s soil, furious gunfire and ground-shaking explosions shocked the men. The force was so magnanimous that each and every one of the soldiers froze for at least one second in utter confusion. Once their warrior instinct took over their bodies, they all rushed out into the camp. Flames from exploding artillery lit the landscape. Screams of soldiers tore through the still cool air.
“They’re trying to fuckin’ overrun us!” Cuoco yelled as he sprinted to an enclosed position for cover.
The men poured out into the camp and readied their rifles. Some of the North Vietnamese troops had already made it inside the camp. They were overwhelmed by the rush of American bullet fire. The men were able to repel this wave without much trouble, but AK-47 fire continued to come in from farther out. In addition to this, artillery fire ripped across the camp. The Americans were sitting ducks in the camp and they did not know where the cannon fire was coming from.
“We have to shut that damn artillery up!” Sergeant Rodriguez yelled out.
Edgar yelled back. “I’ll go out and find it’s position! Radio in air support!”
“You’re not going by yourself!” Yelled Justin.
“And you two assholes aren’t going without me!” Cuoco added as he let loose a volley of machine gun fire.
Rodriguez paused in thought. “Goddamit. You know that’s as close to a suicide mission as you’re gonna get, right?”
Edgar replied. “If we don’t take out that artillery, we’ll be dead anyway!”
“I’m going home in a week, sir! Let me get one last hoorah!” Cuoco stopped firing to reload his weapon.
“Alright! Take Welles with you.” Rodriguez pointed to another one of the soldiers crouched behind a wall of sandbags. Welles was a radio operator trained to call in airstrikes in situations like these.
The four men gathered at the south end of the camp, farthest away from the enemy onslaught. Their plan was to exit the camp into the jungles on the east side and take a half-circle approach around the enemy infantry. They would listen for the sounds of the artillery in order to locate it.
“You guys ready?” Justin asked the group.
“Shut up.” Cuoco replied before taking off into the trees. The other men followed closely behind him. After fifteen minutes of running through the vines and trees, the men saw movement under the bright moonlight. By now, the sounds of exploding artillery shells had been replaced by the rumble from the barrels as they were fired. They knew they were close. Out of the corner of his eye, Justin saw a North Vietnamese soldier creeping through the foliage. Edgar spotted two more and Cuoco located another. These were sentries, responsible for keeping the location of the artillery guns from being discovered. They had not seen the Americans yet, so the four men thought quickly of a plan to either kill or get around them. The roars of the artillery were so close and so loud that Cuoco figured they could stealthily pick the sentries off without being heard. He motioned to Justin, informing him of the plan. They waited for the next booming shot from the cannons and Justin took his shot. The bullet drove itself into the soldier’s neck, dropping him instantly. Edgar took the next shot. The result was the same. The other two North Vietnamese soldiers were over forty meters away from the path of the team. Knowing that the camp had been under heavy fire the entire time, they decided to continue their search for the artillery without killing the other two sentries.
As they neared the sound of the big guns, the team radioed in that they would need air support as soon as possible. They were informed that fighter jets with thousand-pound bombs would be on their way shortly. They push through a thin wall of vines and leaves to find three artillery cannons in a small clearing hidden under camouflaged netting.
“Call it in, Welles.” Justin patted the radio man on the back.
Welles raised the radio headset to his ear and began to read off the coordinates of the artillery guns. “We have spotted enemy artillery firing from grid…”
“Come again. We could not make out those coordinates. I repeat, we could not hear those coordinates.”
“I repeat. We have artillery fire coming from gri-” Welles’s head snapped back and his body went limp.
“Welles is down! We got a sniper!” Justin yelled to Cuoco and Edgar. They all hit the ground immediately. Justin’s call to his teammates alerted the soldiers firing the artillery and some began to fire in the direction of the Americans. Cuoco rolled to his left and knelt behind a tree. From there, he noticed the two sentries that they had decided not to kill were moving towards his position. He opened up with his M60, cutting both of them down in a hail of bullets. He turned back to face Justin and Edgar, but was knocked off balance by an AK-47 butt to the face. He stumbled backwards before catching himself and charging his enemy.
Justin fired his M16 in the direction of the artillery. He took out two of the enemy soldiers advancing towards him. “We gotta get that airstrike in!” He yelled as he fired off another volley.
“I thought he called it in!” Edgar asked frantically.
“They said they couldn’t hear him!” Justin replied.
“You’ve got to be kidding me.” Edgar mumbled to himself. “Justin, did you hear the coordinates?”
“Yeah, I did. I can’t get to the radio Too many bullets.”
“I’ll cover you, you sissy! On three! One! Two! Three!” Edgar rose up from his stomach and fired a burst after burst from his M16.
Justin rose up at the same time and dove towards the radio. “The artillery is at …”
“Copy that, we’ll be there in no time.” A voice broke through on the radio.
Cuoco still wrestled with the North Vietnamese soldier. Their fight was brutal. They both used everything at their disposal. Fists. Knees. Elbows. Teeth. Then, the Vietnamese soldier was able to pull his knife from it’s sling. The two men fought over it, each trying to gain control over the weapon. Finally, the point of the blade plunged through dirty, tattered cloth and into the flesh of the heart.
As Justin lay next to the radio, firing his rifle at the incoming troops, he noticed an object hit the ground, throwing up chunks of dirt. “Grenade!” He yelled. From his seated position, it was impossible for him to move far enough away from the explosion to survive it. Time seemed to slow down.
Edgar heard Justin’s call and his mind traveled back to his first combat mission. He saw the face of the young soldier right before the explosion that killed him. In a split-second, Edgar dove towards the grenade landing a few feet short. He scrambled to place his chest on top of it and placed his ear to the dirt. In his mind, there was only silence. He looked over towards Justin, their eyes made contact. Edgar smirked and raised his eyebrows as to say “my turn”. The explosion lifted him off the ground before gravity tossed him back into the dirt.
“Edgar!” Justin screamed. The roar of the fighter jet’s engines rushed through the air. Justin hurried over to his friend’s body. As he reached it, the explosion from the aircraft’s bombs ripped through the atmosphere. Justin covered Edgar as to protect him from the bombs. The force of the explosion tossed them both through the air and knocked Justin unconscious.
“Wake up, loser.” A voice familiar to Justin’s ears greeted him as his eyes opened. Cuoco stood next his bedside, held up by a pair of crutches. A pounded pain coursed through Justin’s skull.
A bright white light shined from the ceiling into his eyes. This only intensified the excruciatingly painful migraine that he was dealing with. There was a low chatter around him, much different than the buzz of mosquitoes and Huey helicopters that he had become used to over the past few months. The temperature was cool and comfortable, his forehead was dry for the first time that he could remember since deploying. What was most different was the smell. The air smelled clean, no creeping stench from the latrines and no choking smell of diesel fuel from the trucks and aircraft. He raised his head slightly, triggering more pain. He managed to capture a glimpse of his surroundings before lowering his head to assuage the pain.
“Where the hell are we?” Justin rubbed his hand along his jaw, massaging a dull pain in it.
“Triple Medical Center, Hawaii. Surfing and subcranial hemorrhaging.” Cuoco chuckled.
“Don’t worry about it. It’s doctor-speak for what’s wrong with you. You’ll be alright. You’ve been out cold for over a week now. The last couple of days you’ve been in and out. You remember anything?”
“No. Last thing I remember was….shit….Edgar. Did he…”
“No, he didn’t make it. But he saved the hell out of our lives. I had a dead VC on top of me and a grenade ten feet away from me. You were about the same distance away, sittin’ on your ass with that radio. If he didn’t hop on that grenade, we’d be dead.” Cuoco adjusted his crutches.
“That asshole.” Justin scoffed, but it wasn’t an angry or dismissive scoff, it was as if Edgar had won some sort of contest between them. “He knew I was the one who wasn’t supposed to make it back.”
“I’m gonna go get some grub, they don’t bring it to my bed anymore. Lucky bastard.” Cuoco turned and swung away on his crutches. He turned before he exited the room. “Oh, there’s his journal. A couple of the guys said we should give it to you. Let you get it to his family.”
Justin looked to his left and saw the leather-bound journal on a small desk next to his bed. He reached over, doing his best to ignore the pain surging through his body, and picked up the book, opening it to the last written page.
“Though my life is at its worst, my life is at its best. Though I was taken from my family, I have found my brothers. Though everyday I face death, everyday I learn of life. That is Vietnam for me.”
The page was dated a week before the attack on the camp. Edgar had stopped writing in his journal. Justin sighed and lowered the book to his chest. He closed his eyes and a tear rolled down his cheek. After a long moment, he turned to the desk and found a small pen. He turned the journal up and began to write:
“Dear Mr. and Mrs. Kingsley,
You do not know me, but if you’ve read this far, you know of me. I have never met you, but I do know you. My name is Justin Barry and I am your son’s friend…”
He scratched out “friend” and replaced it with “brother.”
“Because of him, I am alive today… and for that, I am forever grateful. Edgar told me a lot about his parents and his life back in the States and at times I was envious. I wanted his life. Now, I see that I shouldn’t have been because envy is weak and lazy. Now, I simply admire his life. The love you gave him. The lengths that you went to in order to keep him safe. These things have showed me that I can build a life full of love and happiness, too. You must know that you should feel no sorrow and no guilt for our loss. You produced an amazing man and it was my greatest pleasure to have served with him as a fellow soldier and as a brother. Though we shall never see his smile again, we cannot help but see his spirit in all the good that we do. We will always see his heart when we look up at the flag, and we will always hear his voice when any speaks of sacrifice and love. Edgar, in death, has shown me life and I hope that these words will ease your pain:
Your son is a true American hero.”
Justin closed the book and began to sob. His body, still weak from his injuries, succumbed to his fatigue and fell asleep.
The room was dimly lit by sun rays weakly passing through cloth curtains. Justin opened his eyes to see a woman’s face, still asleep. As he rolled out of the bed, she whispered to him “Good morning.”
“I must be dreaming if I get to wake up next to you.” He chuckled. “Hold on, let me pinch myself.”
She laughed softly.
Justin opened the curtains and a rush of bright sunlight flooded the room. It was a small bedroom decorated with military memorabilia and old drab furnishings. He stood up and walked to a mirror. He smiled into and began to look himself over. He rubbed his fingers along a scar across his forehead. Behind him, he saw a framed picture of himself, Cuoco, and Edgar with their rifles slung across their chests. His smile dropped from his face as he thought of Edgar.
“Thank you, brother.” He whispered to himself.
After being released from the hospital, Justin was eligible for a medical discharge due to his injuries. He and Cuoco never returned to Vietnam after leaving Hawaii. Back in the States, Cuoco helped Justin get a well-paying job as an insurance salesman. With the money, he was able to find a steady place to live and get a car. He also met a woman, Lisa, who worked at one of the local diners.
“Because of you, I have a life here that I can be proud of.” Justin thought to himself.
A telephone started to to ring in one of the adjacent rooms. Justin walked over to it and lifted the handset to his ear.
“Hey, you loser!” Cuoco’s voice broke through the telephone. “A couple of the other guys are getting out and heading back to the States. We’re all going to get together and reminisce about the awful shit that we had to go through.”
Justin laughed. “Alright, man. Just let me know when they get back. I’ll be there.”
“Alright, don’t flake on me, man!…Can I get another round?!” Cuoco yelled to someone else.
“Goodbye, Cuoco!” Justin yelled with a smile before placing the handset back on the telephone’s base.
“That crazy bastard.” Justin walked over to a large leather chair and sat down. He began to think back on his time in Vietnam. He remembered John Lennon’s last moments. He remembered Peeno’s huge grin and even bigger heart. He remembered going to kill Edgar and reading his journal. Then, he remembered the Dog Tree. All of the names of his friends and brothers dangling from the metal branches. He wondered whether Edgar’s tags were ever placed on the tree or if they had even found them. The possibility that his tags were never found saddened Justin, but he figured he could make some calls and have someone check the tree, if it was even still around after all the artillery rounds the camp took.
Just then, there was a knock at the door. Justin rose from his seat and limped to the brown wooden door. The knocking continued rapidly.
“I’m coming!” Justin yelled.
He reached the door and turned the knob. A man was standing in front of the doorway, dressed in a dark-blue suit. The suit was torn in places and covered in a layer of dirt and dust. The man held his chin to his chest, keeping his face unseen.
“Who are you?” Justin asked.
“You…you think you can just run away from what you’ve done? You think you don’t have to pay for your crimes. You took my love. You took my life!” The man yelled. He raised his face and Justin immediately recognized him. Before Justin could move, the man raised a revolver to Justin’s face and pulled the trigger. Justin heard the click…and nothing more.