Caribou Detail

Fiction
Louis M. Abbey


Sandbags
Photo Credit: Adam Henning

At four o’clock that morning, walled in by sandbags, I stood pissing into the open end of an empty rocket tube buried half its length in the ground. This acrid splatter, I thought, might have been the last worldly sound Sergeant “Ace” Card had heard the previous day at sunset when he’d been standing at the very same piss tube. A single bullet, from the Vietnamese village across the paddies, hit him in the forehead and exited just behind his right ear, exploding a sandbag beside him. He never heard the shot, nobody did. He was probably staring at the flame-red mimosa trees along the edge of the ville. We all loved those mimosas, the way they flashed scarlet then faded into black with the sinking sun. A clever sniper might have fired from beside one of those trees to blend the muzzle flash into the red. Even someone watching wouldn’t have seen it.

A volunteer patrol, including Ace’s best friend Freddy Peroni, took an APC out to the ville but they came up empty. Nobody had seen a thing. Freddy was violent with grief, ready to shoot everybody, even baby-sans. “Burn the fuckin’ place to the ground, they’re only animals anyway!” Freddy shouted, but somebody held him back. I heard later that Hernandez convinced him Ace wouldn’t have approved. Ace was a friend but on mission he was Sergeant Card and we were subordinate to the mission. Love for Ace and Hernandez stopped Freddy from doing a stupid impulsive thing that might have gotten more people killed right then and there, or in a sapper attack during the night. Fear had kept me back at the LZ that day, filling sandbags and piling them higher around the piss tubes. Love, fear, and hate, personal, intense, and interwoven, held us together. But like yarn in a sweater, if you pulled the right strand… we were all on a hair trigger. Our infantry company protected the artillery battery on LZ Flatiron, a small, treeless firebase with an airstrip on the only high ground among the rice paddies west of Danang.

I buttoned my trousers and watched a red crack open and spread along the dark jungle horizon. Soon the whole eastern sky would bleed a reverse of the sunset. Early morning and sunset were about the only beautiful times on Flatiron.

Back at the hooch, I washed and shaved in non-potable water, shrugged on a flak jacket over my fatigue shirt, and set my steel pot on my head. M-16 in hand, I headed for the command bunker and the night sergeant.

“Go on down to the airstrip and wait for the plane,” Sergeant Hall said. “Crew’ll help you. You ain’t never had Caribou detail before, eh, Kendall?”

“No, sir.” I said.

“Treat ’em with respect, don’t forget.”

“Yes, sir.”

About-face and I ducked under the low beam of the door. If I ever get to leave Vietnam, I thought, I’ll miss some things and people like “Ace” but I’ll sure as hell never miss Caribou detail.

A deep cool breath washed the bunker mold out of my lungs. All day we breathed either smoke from burning latrine barrels or cordite the 155s blasted into the air, or both. Re-supply flights dulled our hearing and whipped up throat-parching dust that gritted between your teeth, even after the planes left the ground. That morning, though, all I heard was the peaceful whine of generators.

The pre-dawn red crack faded into streaked yellow. Fragments of the orange sun flashed through holes in the tree lines and silhouetted a guard bunker. Two red dots glowed inside where the guards were smoking. A chill zigzagged up my back. I shouldered my rifle and humped toward the far end of the runway.

The heft of the 16 reminded me of hunting with my father on the Olympic Peninsula. He’d take me out of school for a day or two and I’d tote his gun while we hiked into the mountains that marched right down to the edge of Puget Sound. He gave me a .22 rifle when I was fourteen. I remember exactly what he said, “I trust you with this, son. I’d never give it to you if I didn’t trust you. It’s your license to kill, like the deer rifle’s mine. Learn to be accurate so they don’t suffer. Enjoy the pride of the hunt.” He was totally honest. For him, a gun was a natural extension of a man. My job was to be a man first and above all.

At the aircraft turn-around where the Caribou would stop and take on its load, I sat down on a sandbag berm. The pale sun began to burn the mist off a hectare of green rice between me and the village. Shouts of farmers sloshing and maneuvering water buffaloes drifted across the dikes.

Caribou detail’s work lay behind me in the soft yellow light: five body bags, thirty-two mil black plastic, stacked like cordwood, crumpled and stiff with night-cold. I kept turning to look at them, waiting there for me to load. Each had one journey left… back to the world. Sergeant Card was there, so were Booker, Shorty, One-eye and Werner, or at least pieces of Werner.

I don’t know why fuck-ups happen together, sometimes two or three in a row when you’re in the field. Just the day before Sergeant Card was killed, Werner and Booker were driving a Jeep back from a boom-boom run to the ville. Initiation run, they called it—short-timer like Werner takes a cherry like Booker out to the village, introduces him to the local whores. Before they left Flatiron, Booker kept making excuses, wasn’t sure he should go… had a girl back home. We’d egged him on, called him a pussy, gave him little shit like that. He didn’t want to look scared. Theory was the run took longer than they expected. They raced back to Flatiron so as not to miss chow… didn’t even see the fresh dirt in the road… ran right over a 155 round. Blast was only a kilometer away; everybody heard it, our first hit. We were all jumpy, pissed and scared. Without a thought, I volunteered for the “recon” patrol. Ace led us out to the ambush site. When we got to the big hole in the road, some guys stood motionless, just stared at the mess. The Jeep was bent in the middle, bucking bronco style. Booker got thrown clear and was almost whole. His fatigues still had fold marks and he hadn’t even sewn on his rank. We never found all of Werner… left the Jeep there.

Shadows shortened and the sun jacked up the heat. I still haven’t killed anybody, but losing guys like Booker and Ace… well… things change. My Uncle Roy was a Marine in Korea and he’d killed people.

*

I was just a kid, staying on Orcas Island with Aunt Helen, Uncle Roy’s wife, the day he came back from Korea. She was so excited she pushed me in my wagon with a broomstick all the way down her street to the ferry landing in the middle of town. Roy looked so beautiful when he strode down the gangplank in his uniform, with rank and medals. They embraced… held each other compressed into one person, rocking from side to side. Except for the uniform, I could hardly tell them apart. We walked back. They held hands and talked, laughing and kissing, stopping along the way to look at a butterfly and flowers. I pulled my own wagon.

Later in the kitchen, the amazing thing happened. My uncle took off his jacket and tie and rolled up his sleeves. Aunt Helen was getting him a drink and I noticed the drawing. A smiling yellow and black bumblebee in a sailor hat with a cigar in his teeth was flying down Uncle Roy’s arm holding a tommy gun aimed straight at me. I touched the soft skin where the bee was with my finger. Roy jerked his head around and said, “Duck, boy, that bee’s got a gun aimed at you!” And he pushed my head down on the table like he was saving my life.

“What is it, Uncle Roy?” I asked, head squashed under his big hand.

“A tattoo… ink picture, somebody drew on my arm.”

“Does it wash off?”

“No, they make it with a needle. It’s there forever.”

“Does it hurt?”

“Naw, it don’t… if you’re a real man.”

“Why’d you put it there?”

He looked at me hard, squinted his eyes, extended his arm and aimed a finger-gun at me. I shrunk back and he pulled the trigger, made a gun sound with his mouth.

“I used to shoot people in the war,” he said, menace in his voice. “People like you are alive ’cause I killed them Korean gooks before they could come over here and get you and Aunt Helen.” Then he lunged and wrapped his arms around me, laughing. He hoisted me up on his shoulder while he danced around the room, circling Aunt Helen and stealing kisses. I laughed all the fear out of my body. He’d turned nice again.

“Stop that kind of talk, Roy!” Aunt Helen said.

When I went home, I snuck a ballpoint pen from my father’s desk to make a tattoo on my arm like my uncle. Aunt Helen sold poppies on Memorial Day for the American Legion. We went to the parades in Seattle. I saluted when soldiers marched by with rifles, blaring horns and drums that beat so loud I could feel the noise in my chest. That, I thought, must be the feeling of glory men get coming home from war.

Years later after I got my .22 and still hadn’t shot anything but a target, I heard that Aunt Helen was having a problem with rabbits on her farm. Uncle Roy had died and she lived alone on Orcas Island. Dad said I should go over and help her. He set it up. I took the .22 and hopped the ferry to Orcas.

Next morning at first light, I tiptoed through the wet grass in the pasture beyond the barn. Everywhere I looked in the field I saw rabbits. Some just showed their heads and others head and shoulders above the grass. I don’t think they were scared, only looking around. On my third shot, a big one did a flip and lay still. I snuck up on him ready to fire again in case he moved. He lay stretched out there in the grass, no obvious breathing. I couldn’t see blood, though, or the bullet hole… poked him with the barrel. My hand shook, but I picked him up by the ears, held him out in front of me like I’d seen in pictures of Greek warriors holding up the heads of their kills for all to see, enemies and friends alike… my first kill. I thought I felt a rush of pride but I was alone and birds chirped in the bushes. When I looked again, all around me the rabbits were back, heads above the grass, looking around.

I got drafted and volunteered for Vietnam. My father threw a party for our family and friends… first time I ever got drunk. Dad and I teamed up, arms around one another and sang old war songs Uncle Roy used to sing. I hoped I’d come home with a medal.

*

A trickle of sweat ran down my back. From the other side of Flatiron, whumps of an early fire mission were followed, seconds later, by the familiar thump of the blast in my chest. Beyond the dikes, gook farmers and boom-boom girls bent over knee deep in water, planting rice.

I reached out and pressed in the side of one of the body bags with my hand. It felt like a sandbag. Ace Card’s wife in Jersey would be waiting in long anticipation, I thought, like Aunt Helen. With Ace killed, the strings of anxiousness in her gut had drawn into a knot of loss, confirming her months of fear and dread. Her Ace couldn’t make the journey himself. They carried him to the aid station, stuffed him into a bag, piled him on the truck and stacked him here for the Caribou. Somewhere in that transit he stopped being Ace. She’ll be waiting and he’ll arrive all packaged up like a sewing machine, no ferry, no descending the gangplank. Only thing is you can’t plug him in and make him go. She and Sergeant Card will both know dead—from different sides, not like rabbits in the field. I started to gag from the thick rotten odor rising from the bags.

I spotted the speck in the sky out over the green paddies to the east. The Caribou was coming to bear the killed home so they’d become the dead. It drew closer, slowly descending in the yellow haze. The plane’s outline blurred in the heat waves. It resembled an ungainly gull, wings held high, tail raised, wheels reaching for the ground. It wavered as if trying to gain control of its awkwardness then dropped like a stone at the far end of the runway. Reverse thrust roared and slowed with a palpable vibration that would wake anyone from natural sleep. I drew my goggles over my eyes. It turned in the wide circle where I waited. Dust and pebbles pelted my chest and the wind flattened my uniform against my skin. I staggered back for balance. It jerked to a halt without pretense of grace and the great mouth of the cargo bay opened, lowered and finally licked the ground like a giant tongue. The crew chief hustled off the ramp as my ears blocked in self-defense. The roar and the gale didn’t permit meaningful sound, so we talked with hand signals.

He grabbed the head and I the foot of each body bag. At the top of the ramp, we swung it back and forth like a sack of grain—one… two… three… then heaved the precious reeking burden atop the growing stack of carnage. We did that five times. Somewhere between the third and fourth bag I felt stuck inside a cocoon, assaulted by noise, wind and exhaust. Tears washed from my eyes like I had no goggles on. I gave up all the reasons and motivations I’d borrowed from others all my life and lifted the plastic rim to let them drain. The crew chief didn’t notice, I guess. But he slapped me on the shoulder after the last bag… gave me a thumbs-up. The ramp rose, the pilot gunned the engines and the wind and dirt and pebbles returned to blow me backward onto the berm. The Caribou lumbered to the other end of the runway. I got back up and brushed off my uniform. The plane turned, raced toward me and lifted just as it cleared the last piece of tarmac. I stood at attention, sinuses throbbing from the dust and stench, saluting until the tiny speck disappeared.

pencil

Louis M. Abbey is a retired oral and maxillofacial pathologist from VA Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from VCU and has published both poetry and fiction in journals such as Toasted Cheese, Indiana Review, The MacGuffin and Hayden’s Ferry Review, among others. One of his poems was anthologized in Blood and Bone: Poems by Physicians. He currently lives and writes in the Boston area. Email: LNCABBEY2004[at]yahoo.com

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