literary magazine, creative writing, poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, clackamas literary review, clr Home | Announcements | From the CLR Editors
Authors/Works/Issues | Contests | Submissions
Subscriptions/Ordering | About CLR | Email CLR
Previous Work             Next Work             Return to Contents
Also by H. Lee Barnes:
Candescent | Changing Hands | Hueco Tanks | Tunnel Rat | Stonehands and the Tigress | A Lovely Day in the A Shau Valley

Tunnel Rat

Young people were messy then—the war, the draft, plentiful drugs. Rowe and Betty were singularly so. They'd lounge-hop the Strip, starting at the Pussy Cat a' Go-Go, the Flamingo Sky Room, to the International, dancing, drinking, popping uppers then back to the Pussy Cat and him with no sleep off at daylight to work for Grady. Sometimes Rowe wore a T-shirt with a Superman emblem emblazoned in red and yellow. Betty slept while he worked.

When she found she was pregnant with his baby, she cleared her clothes out of the closet in their apartment and left behind a half- drunk bottle of tequila, a baggie of cross-tops, and a short note declaring she'd run off with Tom, a former lover. Rowe held the note, his hands ossifying as he stared at it, then his legs gave way and he collapsed into a recliner Betty's father had given him.

Rowe’s mother had warned him Betty would break his heart. Now she had. Eventually he popped the note into his mouth and chewed it to a wad compact enough to swallow. He dropped three cross-tops and chased them with the tequila. He didn't bother to lock the door, just slammed it and headed into the night. One strong kick started his 650 Bonneville. He rode nonstop from Vegas to San Francisco where he found a squalid Haight-Ashbury flat to hole up in.

Earning money under the table, he laid carpet and stayed stoned or drunk for the next two months.

Across the hall lived a self-proclaimed guru of the free love movement named Lonnie, who pushed acid and peyote. An avowed social revolutionary, on the side he interned as an entrepreneur, pimping fifteen- and sixteen-year-old runaway girls. One evening he and Rowe had a difference of opinion over a girl who said she wanted to leave if Rowe only would be so kind as to give her a ride to the bus terminal and send her back to Spokane.

Lonnie caught Sunshine in the hall with her bedroll slung over a shoulder and pulled her to a halt by her ponytail. He insisted he loved her. Rowe told him to let go. He refused, so Rowe busted Lonnie's jaw and two fingers. The girl's loyalty wasn't as unsettled as Rowe thought. She called the police. Fatigued from so much peace and love and fearing arrest, Rowe kick-started his Triumph in hopes it would hold together long enough to get him to L.A. It did.

Against the wife's objections, Rowe’s Uncle Harve sheltered him in his Bellflower home. They were blood, Uncle Harve contended, no matter how Rowe smelled or how unkempt he looked or even if he was a federal fugitive, which he might be.

Rowe dialed his mother who said his draft board had turned his name over to the F.B.I. He told her it was a strange world where a guy couldn't go off to mend a broken heart without becoming a criminal. She said he owed her twenty-two dollars on a phone bill she had to pay after he'd left. Rowe said he'd send the money from prison or Vietnam or Sweden. His mother said she wouldn't hold her breath.

Rowe called Grady who informed him Betty had returned, alone, had aborted the baby, and Tom had dumped her at the door. She was still too upset to come to the phone. Grady, who owned a construction firm, a downtown casino and a ranch in Montana, had about half the money in the free world, but Rowe didn't hold this against him, in fact liked him though he'd made a mess of his daughter and two sons who were a bit off-axis. On the other hand, Grady loved Rowe like a son and told him so.

"F.B.I.'s looking for me, I think," Rowe said

"I'll hide you, put you to work and pay you under the table, double scale. I'll tell Betty you'll be comin' back. Won't bother me to see her marry you. I got a fondness for you."

"Probably won't work out," Rowe said, meaning marrying Betty. Besides he'd decided a fugitive's life wasn't for him.

"Don't worry, boy, I know people who can fix anything."

Rowe thanked Grady just the same and wished him and his daughter well. His one chance to avoid jail was to find a charitable recruiter, plead ignorance and join up.


The recruiter looked up. "May I help you?"

"I understand you're looking for killers," Rowe said.

"Beg your pardon?"

"Killers. Men to kill Viet Cong. I want to kill some."

The recruiter smiled. "That's the best damned reason for joining this man's army I heard all week. You're a romantic, damn few of your sort left."

"Thank you."

"Ever think of the French Foreign Legion?"

"In what terms?"

The response baffled the recruiter. Rowe explained about the draft board and the F.B.I. The sergeant took Rowe's Social Security number and gave him a test, telling him in confidence that the score didn't matter all that much, that indeed boys who wanted to kill weren't as easy to find as one might guess. Rowe scratched down answers as the recruiter phoned the draft board in Las Vegas to tell them to call off the feds, that Rowland Thomas Hobbes was about to serve his country as a soldier in arms.

"How'd you get a moniker like that?" the sergeant asked.

"My mom did crossword puzzles instead of being a mother."

The next morning Rowe parked his oil-leaking motorcycle in his uncle's garage and thanked him for the kindness. Uncle Harve said Rowe would probably get himself killed, but maybe that was what he wanted. Rowe told him he was too young to know what he wanted, especially about something as serious as dying, but that when, at last, he found out what it was he did want, his uncle would be the first to hear. The recruiter picked Rowe up at 7:00 a.m.

"Well, how do you feel, Killer?" he said.

"Stupid at the moment," Rowe answered, "but I'm sure I'll feel a lot dumber later."

The sergeant seemed disappointed to find that Rowe wasn't such a romantic after all, but that revelation didn't deter him from his duty. By 3:00 p.m. Rowe was raising his right hand and mumbling words about the Constitution of the United States of America. Already he was feeling a lot dumber.


As the tailgate dropped, hot air funneled in and brought with it dust and a stomach-turning stench. Every face in the plane reacted. A trooper gagged. The one next to him told him to breathe through his mouth. This was Vietnam, Rowe figured, and whatever waited outside was home for however long they were here, a fact he resigned himself to.

The load master motioned for them to deplane. They hefted their gear and headed toward the rear with a sense of resolve. The big turbo props of the C-130 screamed as the plane readied for a quick turnaround back to Tan Son Nhut.

Rowe stared at the fallow surrounding the strip. Shielding his eyes, he gripped his duffel bag and hurried through the prop blast. The others followed. A bored-looking staff sergeant with skin like redwood bark met them at the edge of the strip and formed them into a line. An artillery piece went off. Then the throttling plane lunged down the runway and launched itself into the cobalt sky.

"Welcome to goddamn Cu Chi," the sergeant said. "Grab your gear and follow."

The guy beside Rowe asked where the hell they really were. Rowe shrugged. Again the artillery piece went off. They fell into step, bound for a city of tents and Quonset huts appearing much like an olive-drab ghetto constructed by a sailmaker.

"What's that smell, sarge?" the man behind Rowe asked.

"What smell?"

"Smells like shit," the replacement said.

"You'll get used to it." As they marched, the sergeant meted out congenial in-country wisdom. The village was VC, he warned, "Men, women, boys, girls, goddamn pigs, goddamn goats, and even goddamn dogs. You can get anything there, dope, pussy, French cigarettes, a goddamn black market stereo, and things you don't want, tuberculosis, clap and goddamn dead."

The 155mm sent another round beyond the perimeter.

Cu Chi, the sergeant explained, had been fertilized for centuries by human shit, which accounted in part for the odor—but just in part. Headquarters sat in the middle of a lowland plain near Highway 1 atop a catacomb of tunnels dug by guerrillas. "Goddamn vulnerable to sapper attacks."

He elucidated how a new tunnel occasionally would be located and engineers would blow the opening and declare it harmless. "Once one's harmless, it's harmless no matter how many sappers crawl outta it," he said. An artillery round punctuated his every ninth or tenth sentence as if timed to emphasize his point. "If you're pullin' guard near a hole that's harmless and you see a fuckin' slope crawl out with twenty pounds a C-4 and a goddamn detonator, it's a goddamn illusion. The whole country's a god damn illusion. If you're bleedin' to death, it's a goddamn illusion."

The guy behind Rowe whistled under his breath. Tha-boo! The blast went through the soles of Rowe's feet.

They halted at a Quonset hut with a sign reading "Repo Depot" where the sergeant turned them over to three spec fours who casually thumbed through files. When Rowe's name was called, the interviewer motioned him onto a fold-out chair. The clerk's name tag read Hoffman. An unlit cigarette dangled from his lips as he spread Rowe's file and looked at the test scores.

He studied them. "Hobbes, can you type?"


"How'd you end up in the infantry?"

"Lucky, I guess."

"You're going to find this hard to believe, Hobbes," he said, "but I'm like God, life and death right here." He held up a ballpoint pen.

"I don't find anything hard to believe," Rowe said.

Hoffman lit his cigarette and exhaled. "Rifleman," he said and looked away. "Okay." He ran his finger over a list on a clipboard. "After charm school, you'll be going to the Wolfhounds. You're lucky."

"How's that?" Rowe asked.

"You'll get to meet new people on a regular basis—if you live long enough." He stamped a series of forms, initialed them and casually closed the folder. "They've got the highest casualty rate in 'Nam."

They fed at a nearby chow tent after which they returned to the repo depot and, with files in hand, waited for rides. A deuce and a half crunched to a halt on the dry clay and spewed a knee-high cloud of orange dust. The driver said three mechanics belonged to "Thirty-fourth Armor." Two P.F.C.s and a spec four tossed their gear in the bed. Cooks or quartermaster clerks or medics went, like the mechanics, straight to their units.

Hoffman stepped outside and lit a cigarette. "You'll remember me in a week, Hobbes," he said.

"Why's that?"

Hoffman walked away without answering. A moment later a sergeant stopped in a jeep and got Rowe's attention. "You the one for charm school?"


All day and all night at twenty-second intervals a 155mm fired outgoing toward some nebulous point on the map—the 25th's version of Western Union, thousands of dollars' worth daily. Thaboo! You could set your watch by the report. Thaboo! Sixteen paces while marching. Thaboo! Twenty-two normal heartbeats. Thaboo! Thirty-four heartbeats if exercising. A monotonous, maddening ritual, it soon became a comforting sound, a lullaby of sorts. The sound made Rowe homesick, and he thought of Betty, pictured Grady telling her she should be glad to have a boyfriend like him.

He couldn't step outside and take in fresh air. There was none, only smells he couldn't quite get used to. Each and every day somewhere someone was burning shit with gasoline. Black smoke billowed up and drifted over the compound and brought with it more stink. Rowe got somewhat acclimated to the heat and learned different ways Charley could kill a grunt, got used to the sounds of artillery rounds and bombs and machine-gun fire at night, but he didn't adjust to the smell of urine and feces, of dust and mildew. At night he thought of Betty.

After Charm School, where he was shown a few booby traps and land mines and told the three hundred and seven painful ways to die in 'Nam, Rowe was officially ready to join his unit. He'd learned a new vocabulary—A.O., dust off, di di mao, boom-boom, xin fuckin loi. Though not a bit wiser than on his first day, he was measurably more scared. And Hoffman proved right; Rowe remembered him in less than the week predicted. Hoffman was already despised, a Rear Echelon Motherfucker who swilled beer or smoked grass, watched movies and sneaked into the cardboard-shack village with a fistful of black-market piasters to court boom-boom girls. To forget him, Rowe went to the E.M. Club, where he drank beer and thought of Betty.

One night Rowe met a door gunner at the club. Over his fifth or sixth beer the gunner told a story about unloading Vietnamese soldiers into a hot LZ near Dak To. One froze in the seat and refused to go. The gunner claimed he shot the Vietnamese and tossed him out when the chopper gained altitude, said it was him or them, meaning the crew, and he didn't intend to wait until the Vietnamese got in touch with his manhood. The pilot, he alleged, gave him thumbs up as he pushed the dead Vietnamese out. The next night Rowe bumped into the same gunner at the same club. He told Rowe not to believe anything he'd said the night before, that it was all bullshit. Rowe told him he had a girlfriend named Betty who was the best-looking gal in Las Vegas. The gunner nodded and turned to his beer as if to say he detected bullshit.

At dusk a rangy buck sergeant name Belcher approached Rowe outside the billets. He was tall and blade-thin with gray eyes.

"You Hobbes?"

"Yes, sergeant," Rowe said.

He looked Rowe over and said, "Belcher, just Belcher."


He told Rowe to grab his gear and follow. The unit, he explained, was out in the boonies most of the time. At present they were on stand down, but this was its last night. They were heading out to a new area of operation. As they neared the squad tent, Belcher said, "We lost Humby and Naider. Guys won't talk much for a while. Don't push. They're okay."

An NCO in Charm School had warned how NFGs were treated at first, how grunts often felt like a new guy was in some way connected to the death of a buddy, or just plain bad luck. No logic—but this was 'Nam.

Belcher spread the tent flap. A naked overhead bulb dangled from a tent post. Three bare-chested men played cards on a cot. They glanced up briefly, then returned to the game. They were all frame and wire, no casing—field-hardened—and they glistened with sweat.

"This is Hobbes," Belcher said.

They were unimpressed. Rowe got a nod or grunt as Belcher named off the squad. The fire team leader was Rains, a blade-thin Spec Four, whose smooth black skin seemed to have a gloss on it. Then there were Leonards, another black soldier called "C's"; Apple, the M-79 man, a white kid from West Virginia who'd been drafted by Cleveland his senior year in high school and drafted by the Army after his first season in the minors; Johnson, a kid from Montana who'd never been out of the state until the Army claimed him; and Orlando Esteban Rodriguez-Paez, a draftee from El Paso. They were supposed to number eleven, but they were just seven, and Rowe was the seventh.

Paez swung his feet down on the pallet. "Well, welcome to III-Corps, vacation spot of the tropics. Free tan, free food, free lodgings, and all the exercise a man could hope for."

C's reached under his cot without sitting up, pulled out an M-60 and rested its stock against the edge of the cot. "Big sonofabitch like him aughta carry the pig," he said to Belcher. "You said next man comes gets it."

Belcher handed the weapon to Rowe. "You're our man. Get a crib. We're goin' out tomorrow."

Paez smiled, and Rowe did the same only because Paez had. Rowe spread his poncho liner, lay down atop the cot next to Paez and pulled the mosquito net closed. Paez lay on his side, his head resting in his hand.

"Where you from?" he asked.

"Las Vegas," Rowe said.

"New Mexico?"

"No, the real one."

"Ah." He turned his back to Rowe and muttered, "He's too damn big to go into tunnels."

"Paez," Rains said. "It's in your blood."

"Time to dream," Paez said.

The card game folded and the men fell silent as they packed and loaded rounds into magazines in preparation for the coming day. Rowe looked about, snatching glances of them cleaning rifles or writing letters in the glow of the bare bulb.

Once the light was snapped off, they drifted to sleep, a sleep best likened to anesthesia. The 155 fired. Rowe lay awake listening to it and thinking of Betty, remembering her naked to the waist, leaning back her arms supporting her as she looked up, her breasts firm, nipples erect. He wanted badly to masturbate but didn't dare.

He awoke scared and looked about in the dark. The tent walls rippled in a slight breeze, but inside the atmosphere was thick. Snoring flooded the room, and sweaty animal smells dominated the close air. Rowe lay staring at a crease in the tent, wondering if he'd ever again sleep well.


They bent under the swirling props of a Huey. Belcher, face painted black and green, told Rowe to clear the chopper as soon as they hit the LZ, especially if it was hot, no dogging it. The M-60, the pig, was their lifeline and Rowe carried it. Belcher patted Rowe's helmet and swung into the seat to his right. Then they were hanging in a cloudless sky above a Kelly-green quilt of rice paddies and berms, a work of cubism, streams and hedgerows and red clay roads that crisscrossed.

Paez, loaded down with bandoliers of 7.62mm rounds, plus ammo for his own weapon, sat to Rowe's left. He smiled. Rowe smiled back.

"What you smiling at, meat?" he shouted.

The noise of the whirling blades sucked up words.

"Nothing!" Rowe said.

Paez removed his helmet and took a picture out of the liner, one of a girl with long black hair and big dark eyes. She was holding a cat and waving. "My girl!" he shouted.

Rowe said his girl was named Betty. It seemed important to have one. Paez motioned to say he couldn't hear. Rowe hollered that Paez's girl was "pretty." Paez put the picture away.

Below, flanked by towns and villages with names like Trang Bang and Chau Thanh and Ben Cua, the most perilous stretch of road in the world, Highway 1, spanned north and south. To the west flowed the Vam Co Dong River, and on the east the Saigon snaked to the fertile Delta. Further east lay the Ia Drang Valley. Rowe saw for the first time Nui Ba Dan, Black Virgin Mountain, at the verge of the Cambodian border, its peak encircled by clouds. It seemed something concocted to fit a fairy tale.

The squad was too preoccupied to take notice. They'd seen too much of it up close to show interest. The door gunner locked his fist on his M-60 and leveled the barrel during the descent. As the ground rushed up, minute details grew to exaggerated proportions like a slide brought into focus on a microscope. Before Rowe expected it, the chopper rotated right and hovered about two feet off the ground.

Like crabs at low tide, they scrambled chaotically. Rowe followed Belcher through muck ankle-deep. He half hoped to take fire, just to get it over, a desire that passed soon enough. He caught his toe on a rock, tripped but kept his footing with Paez's help. "Do that often?" Paez asked.

They set up on a berm where Rowe locked the butt of the pig into his shoulder. Except for scattered tufts of grass and mud pools, the field was sun-hardened clay. Flies swarmed everywhere. Rowe sweated from places he'd never before sweated, sweated until he couldn't see. His ears were wet. He wondered just what the hell he'd gotten himself into.

Sergeants ordered them to dig in and establish fire lanes. A plot at a time, they alighted like claim-jumpers, elbowing into position for the best views, seizing a spot of red clay as if snatching property with a lake-front view.

Paez stripped to the waist, grinned, then jabbed the blade of his entrenching tool into the clay. When Rowe slipped off his shirt, Paez said he was too white for the sun. Rowe muttered, tossed the shirt aside and picked up his tool to dig. They worked silently, shoveling dirt into sand bags which they stacked around the edge as the hole grew.

Breaking the silence, Rowe asked, "Why'd you end up with me?"

Paez shielded his eyes and looked up at the sun. "Gloria."

"Your girl?"

"My charm. I figure Charley's going to kill someone, and it'll be you, not me."

"That makes no sense."

"Look around, meat. Nothing here makes sense."

A platoon of engineers came in with the next wave of choppers and encircled the camp with concertina. The air was still and hot, but the troops kept at their tasks. There was no respite from the sun until holes were dug. Before the engineers finished stringing the last of three aprons of wire, the company had dug in, and one at a time tent halves and ponchos blossomed above the foxholes. The camp looked like a landfill covered with olive-green rags.

Paez and Rowe, legs dangling over loosely, sat on the parapet. "You got a girl, Hobbes?" Paez asked.

Rowe started to say yes, but let that lie go. "No."

Paez considered this and said, "You look like the kind who gets dumped."

Rowe looked at the hole. "Hole looks pretty small."

"Plenty big," Paez said. "I've been in tunnels a quarter that size." Before the draft, he'd studied mining engineering at the University of Texas, El Paso, and this, in part, he said, accounted for his interest in tunnels.

Choppers from Cu Chi landed hot food and free beer. Mess kits suspended by their thighs, the men formed a chow line. Paez kidded with others and ignored Rowe. Forks scraping their aluminum pans, the two of them sat on their helmets and ate beef stew, creamed spinach and pasty peach cobbler cooked from canned peaches.

To make conversation Rowe asked about Paez's girl. Paez swallowed. "Since you brought it up, I'll marry her and raise a dozen kids." He aimed his fork and glanced about. "When I get out of this fucking place."

Rowe took a bite and stared off.

"I know what you're thinking," Paez said. "Does Paez always talk like this? I get on people's nerves."

Cox, the platoon sergeant, came around with a second ration of beer. "Get your smoking done now," he said.

"Sarge, The Stars and Stripes. Does the Army expect us to live without scores?" Paez asked.

"Paez, does the Army ever forget The Stars and Stripes?"

“Could be. The mail's sometimes a little lost."

Cox asked if Rowe was getting along okay. Paez answered for him, saying he was fine.

“What next?" Rowe asked when Cox had left.

“Nothing, and a lot of it. Get used to it, meat."

“Name's Rowe."

Paez shrugged and looked west where the sun bled into the horizon and a halo of red capped the tip of Nui Ba Dan. He nodded, something wild gamboling in his eyes. He swallowed his beer, crushed the can on his helmet and said in a near-whisper, "Civilization underground, hospitals, fueling stations, whorehouses. I am not a little crazy."

That night Rowe slept fitfully, partly from fear, mostly from sunburn and visions of Betty. He thought to write her a letter saying she'd ruined two lives. In the morning he reconsidered that idea.


The fire base was in Tay Ninh Province east of War Zone-C fourteen klicks from the Cambodian border. It was the dry season and hot. A shovelful at a time holes expanded into bunkers connected by intricate trenches linked like lace work. Dust abounded, a fine, choking dust that hung over the camp. It infiltrated their pores, their noses and lungs; it pursued them into their sleep and greeted them at dawn.

Boom-boom girls from nearby villages posed around the perimeter ready to trade themselves for money or cigarettes, all the while charting the company's defenses. Dressed in colorful silk, they looked delicate at a distance but up close were sun-darkened country girls with brown teeth that showed when they giggled. It would have been okay if they'd carried spiked clubs and looked like Russian potato farmers. Johnson expressed the prevailing opinion when he said, "It's hard to find red-blooded American gals willing to do the same." Lonely and hyper-hormoned, the soldiers sought comfort and sex. If one wanted a girl, he went over the berm with a VC boom-boom girl, but took rifle and buddies along to stand guard, for in Tay Ninh Province everyone not American was VC.

Idle moments led to talk about home, shared experiences, growing up, girlfriends. It was talk that made Rowe long for home. He never mentioned Betty. When talk made him lonely enough, he went to the berm where he fantasized that she was the brown-toothed woman under him. When finished, he felt a terrible sense of shame. He didn't want to feel that way but did. He'd say, no more. But what else was there?


He tried writing letters, but knowing some REMF clerk would be reading the words inhibited him. So he wrote the mundane, and everything sounded plastic. He'd write a letter and tear it up. He decided on a log, passed time jotting down observations, thinking someday it would come in handy.

"Five shovelfuls of clay fills one sandbag. The tip of Nui Ba Dan is often circled by doughnut clouds. Belcher must masturbate at night or he can't sleep. Paez wakes up whenever he snores. The sound of bombs dumped by a B-S2 on the far side of the mountain reaches us four seconds after the initial blast."

He stored the journal in his back pack and allowed no one to see it.


When they came out of the rubber plantation, they realized it was a bad spot. Open paddies spread before them, and there was no cover. Leonards spit on his hands for luck. The platoon formed a column and moved out. On point some twenty-five paces ahead was Elsworth from the fourth squad. Belcher advanced, then Paez. Fifteen feet behind, Rowe carried the M- 60.

Elsworth's trousers were black from wading through the rice fields. His jaw had a three-day stubble, and his eyes a nine-month hunger. He knew signs and could smell and hear like an animal. He motioned for the platoon to stop and climbed the berm of a paddy to see the other side. Atop, he crouched, his head swiveling, nose turned up as if sniffing the wind. He motioned it was okay.

As they stood, Paez muttered something that distracted Rowe. Then, hard and sudden as an unexpected uppercut, an invisible force knocked Elsworth off the dike. A distinct pop came from the far wood line. The platoon bellied up to the ground. Shaking, Rowe jammed the butt of the pig into his shoulder.

Paez crawled over. "Welcome to the show, meat."


It was Pham Cua on some maps, Bui Cua on others, a village, nothing, seven huts, a dozen women and children, brown-spotted chickens bobbing heads, the smell of Vietnam allover it. The squad had called on Pham Cua before, seen the inviolable expressions on the villagers' faces, stares that communicated scorn. They searched huts for caches, found nothing and left taking a well-worn trail to the west. At a rocky clearing overlooking the rice paddies, Belcher raised a hand. "Smoke 'em if you got 'em," he said as he kneeled down and clamped his own lips on a cigarette.

The men scattered among the boulders, all but Paez who was taking in the sights. Happy to unload it, Rowe lowered the M-60 and propped it against a boulder. He'd lugged it too long already. It was a sweat-maker, a ball-buster, a cross, and he had yet to fire it. Diaphanous thermals shimmered where the sun bore down on the emerald paddies in the lowlands, and the glassy pools mirrored the blue sky and the scattered clouds that floated overhead. To the west the verdant land spooled into rocky hills where the vegetation congealed into a dark-green curtain too intense for the intellect to grasp. It was fairytale land.

"Find a rock, Paez," Belcher said.

Paez turned ninety degrees and framed a picture with his hands, a cigarette dangling from his lips. "Wish I had a camera."

"Goddamit, Paez," Belcher said.

Apple stood to shrug out of the straps that held the radio. The round, sounding more like a ping than a shot, struck the PRC-25 and slammed Apple to the ground. Belcher shouted at Paez to get down, but as if deaf, Paez held the cigarette to his lips and gazed nonchalantly at the woods.

A second shot whistled off a boulder, but Paez didn't move, just kept smoking until a third sprayed dust near his feet. Then he pointed his finger where the jungle tapered to a crest. Taking a final draw, he flipped the cigarette aside and headed toward the woods, strolling like a sightseer.

"He on drugs, Hobbes?" Rains asked.

"Just crazy," Rowe said.

Belcher hollered for Apple to get a spotter plane up. Apple shouted that the sniper had killed the radio.

"Tell the goddamn world,” Belcher said. Paez pointed to his crotch. "Hit this, you slit-eyed motherfucker," he said, raised his middle finger to the sniper and began singing La Cucaracha.

"Get 'im, Paez!" Leonards shouted.

Belcher ordered full rock and roll. The squad unloaded on the woods for thirty seconds, pulverized leaves and branches, chiseled stone and chewed roots and scattered nearby animal life half way to Thailand, after which the quiet that followed seemed holy. Paez walked back, flopped down behind a rock and lit another cigarette. Closing his eyes, he took a long, deep draw. Belcher grabbed him by the collar and lifted him to his feet.

"Can't a guy just enjoy damned smoke?" Paez asked. "I mean, can't he without someone trying to shoot him or someone yanking him by the collar?

The sniper fired another round just to let them know.


Rowe was reading The Pastures of Heaven when Paez slouched down and peered at the open pages. He asked if the book was any good. Rowe nodded. Paez claimed Steinbeck was a liberal of convenience, not to be placed on a pedestal.

"Why care?" Rowe asked.

"I don't."

"You're not getting this one," Rowe said.

"Don't want it."

Rowe had to hide books or they disappeared. "Yes, you do."

"Dos Passos," Paez said. "There's a writer with his fingers on the pulse. He'd tell us to throw down our arms and walk away."


“So, Steinbeck's a fucking Hawk.”

"So are we."

"Who's Betty?" Paez asked. "You talk in your sleep."

“A cartoon," Rowe said. "What would Dos Passos say about tunnels?”

Paez winked. "Look for the light at the other end. All will lead to Rome. Some shit like that."


A Chicom 7.62 ripped a perfect round hole in Johnson's helmet, and until the medic removed it, no one could tell he'd been hit. Simpson, a new guy, walked two steps away and puked in a rice paddy. Later they swept a village where the indigies looked at the soldiers as if they knew all about Johnson, where he'd come from, the color of his mother's hair, every detail including the name of the doctor who gave him his first swat.

Monks, a guy in the first squad who hung with Johnson, lifted up an old man's chin and said, "Nice day. How'd you like your old dick shot off?" His eyes puffed full of hate, he stuffed the sight blade down the front of the ong's pajama bottoms and stared. But the old man didn't seem to care one way or the other.

Belcher sat on a log and propped up his leg making himself comfortable. He a lit a cigarette. He told Monks to make sure the M-16 wasn't on full auto because it would make a terrible mess, then he blew a stream of smoke up at the sky. He puffed on his cigarette and dreamed of fields of corn and pumpkins in October, or whatever, on such occasions, went through the mind of a Kansas farm boy.

Monks flicked the selector switch. He intended to emasculate the old man, and no one in the platoon moved to prevent it, until a kid named Benjamin laid a hand on his shoulder and said, "Be easy, be sound, man. Ain't worth it. Come on now, think about what your mama would think if you was to harm this ol' fella."

Benjamin was right—it wasn't worth it. The platoon took body count, the Viet Cong kept score.

As he drew away, Monks stared over his shoulder at the old man. "Got VC goddamned tattooed on his ass. I know," he said. "Hell, we all know." He ran a thumb up and down the barrel of his M-16, shouting that he'd remember that old man, that one day he'd see him again.

Belcher finished his smoke and ordered the squad to search. They'd dumped over baskets and were bayoneting piles of straw when the rest of the platoon appeared. The lieutenant ordered them out, claimed the indigies were friendly. Rowe wondered how the hell he knew. Was it indexed on the map?

About half a klick from the village a group of boys, the oldest probably ten, greeted them. The soldiers craved anything American, especially the mundane—hamburgers, hot showers, ice-cream, a girl in tight jeans, the smell of a new-mown lawn. Here they settled for kids with irresistible grinning faces vending over-sweet soft drinks and tasteless rice cakes. "Hey, Joe, numba one sweet, same, same, boom boom. You buy." Kids being one of their weaknesses, they bought soft drinks and sweets.

Rowe gazed at Nui Ba Dan, its peak ringed in clouds. He thought of the clouded peaks of the Bitterroots, and of Betty and summer in Montana—a night when he'd heard the splash as she urinated in the bathroom, and he'd reached over and had run his hand up and down the sheet where she'd lain. It was warm and smelled of her. Intimate, wonderful.


Rain pelted the ground and puddled on the floor of the bunker. While the monsoon drummed outside, they sat cross-legged on cots and passed the pipe around. Apple handed it to Paez who took a long, languorous hit and held the smoke deep in his lungs. He passed the pipe to Rowe. Rowe took a hit and passed it on.

Everything was damp, the whole camp a mound of mold. Mildew formed on T-shirts overnight. The fire base was a huge fungus. Some acrimonious grunt had named it Green Acres which became its designation and was decidedly appropriate. They hung a sign that read, "Welcome to Green Acres, home of the jolly Green Giant and a few ugly elves."

"How come you got no more picture of Gloria, Paez?" Apple asked.

Paez, who'd lost the picture in a tunnel, exhaled and leaned back, letting the drug take him. "Got her up here," he said, pointing to his head.

"Probably the only place she's ever been."

Paez gave Apple a glassy-eyed look. "Don't mess with her. Fuck with my food or water. Gloria's off limits."

Rowe took another hit and passed the pipe.

"Yeah, leave the man alone, Apple," Rains said. "Man's girl's sacred. Scripture say a man and woman be each other's temple."

Apple's face glowed like a white moon in the thin light of the gas lantern. "Here we go. The Bible. What's it say about the goddamn monsoon? Tell us a story."

Besides the days that rolled one into the next and the ever-present sight of Nui Ba Dan, continuity existed mostly in their stories. C's ordered a travel guide to the best inns in Europe and read the itinerary as if leaving the next week; Apple got drunk, fell into a foxhole and slept through a mortar barrage; Belcher fished a river with a hand grenade.

"Got no story."

The pipe went the circuit again. As Apple reloaded it from his stash, he asked what day of the week it was. No one seemed quite sure. It wasn't a Friday or Saturday and not a Sunday, for Rains would know. They settled on Tuesday. Apple puffed off the pipe and nudged Belcher's forearm.

Apple coughed out the smoke, "Where were we? Days?"

"Hobbes knows," Belcher said. "He keeps track of every shit he takes. Puts it in his journal. Things thicker 'an a . . ." He gazed at Rowe, his eyes dope-thick, and asked him what it was thicker than.

"Thicker than the bullshit in here," Rowe said.

They measured days by casualties, for they were operating above the plantation lands. The days had been mostly lucky days after Johnson’s death. Near Chau Thanh the company had lost three on an operation with an ARVN Battalion because the Vietnamese didn't block the retreating VC, and the platoon lost two on a sweep through a village east of Black Virgin Mountain. But Rowe's squad was charmed.

Pages in his journal had become frayed and fat, the cover warped. He recorded what he could, though every event seemed part of a continuum—the same villages, same trails in a palling cycle—and wherever they went, if there were holes, Paez checked them out. Any progress in the war had little effect on them. At least they couldn't tell any difference. Body count didn't matter. A dozen, a hundred, two hundred dead didn't stop the war, didn't slow it, and the only territory they rightfully claimed was in front of their sight blades. They held what they held because of fire power. This was absolute. The platoon could dispense as much havoc as one of Genghis Khan's entire armies, but all that did was keep some of them alive to the next day.

Paez passed on the pipe as did Rains. Leonards, who'd been silent, sat holding the pipe in his lap. He said he needed a new charm. His were wearing out. Water trickled down the sandbag wall behind his head.

"Take Rowe," Paez said. "He dropped out of school, ran away and joined the Army. Talks about a girl in his sleep, but won't talk about her to his best friend. Man's memories are sacred."

The pipe went out as it came to Apple. He leaned near the lantern as he lit it, his face contoured in flickering shadows. "Thick as bullshit," he said.

"We shouldn't get high. It's un-military," Belcher said.

"What's that have to do with Gloria?" Apple asked.

Belcher shook his head. "Who's Gloria?"

"You ever saw her, you'd go crazy," Paez said. A drip of water splattered his nose. He stared at the leak. "Are we sick of rain? Why're you so damn quiet?" he asked Rowe.

Rowe shrugged. He was thinking about being dry, being in the dry heat of the Mojave, a mild autumn, red-rocked rims and sparse vegetation. He remembered a letter he'd written home, a short, cautious fabrication saying he was in a safe place, that he'd landed a job as a clerk and spent most of the time reading. He'd asked for books, paperbacks, and ointment for athlete's foot. He hoped they'd come.

"I got books coming," he announced.

"You heard 'bout Noah and the Ark. 'At's more rain an we'd ever see," Rains said.

"What's Noah got to do with anything?" Paez asked.

"Man can't complain's all. Bunch of sinners. An' books don' make you no less'a one."

Paez put on his helmet to block the drip. "You know, Rains, we said no religion. Who's hogging the pipe?"

"Know what I think?" Apple asked and passed the pipe.

Paez sucked on the dead pipe. "Needs a reload, Belcher," he said, then to Apple, "What do you think?"

"This sounds like a bunch of fucked-up dope talk."

They bent over laughing.

When the laughter died, C's coughed and leaned back. "Man, I been thinkin'. You know, thinkin' serious."

"Sure you have," Apple said.

"Hey, man, I'm serious. I don't wanna go home no freak. Don't wanna be no armless or legless man everybody stare at. I mean, anything but that. You guys is my pals. Don't let me go home no freak." He touched an index finger to his temple.

It was as if a whistle calling for silence had been blown. They sat unmoving as the rain beat down and C's looked from man to man. Then his eyes settled on Rains who said, "Don't look at me."

"Dope talk," Apple said. "Crazy goddamn dope talk."

"Dope talk," Paez said."

Belcher packed the pipe with hash. As he leaned to pass it to Paez, a mortar round exploded. Rains doused the lantern, and Paez missed the handoff. As the pipe splashed into ankle-deep water, he shouted, "Shit! We'll never find it."

"Charlie's got no respect for a man. I mean, what's sacred?" Apple said.

“A-fucking-men," Paez said.

Another mortar round hit the camp.

"Let's get," Belcher said as a third exploded, this one closer.

"Shee-it," Apple said.

They headed into the rain-soaked trenches. Stumbling and sliding in mud, Rowe asked why Paez told the squad about him talking in his sleep.

"Don't you just love the rain?" Paez answered. "It purifies the world, don't you think?"


The fire had come from an area infested with tunnels, so they rounded up the villagers. Noticeably absent were young men, as if some singular pestilence had descended on the country and claimed every living male between the ages of sixteen and fifty. Belcher radioed the fire base to say they had command of fifty indigenous personnel, whom they called "gooks" or "slopes" or "indigies," for it was easier to herd indigies out of their homes and torch huts than to make humans suffer.

The indigies gazed at them with patient expressions, the kind long- suffering people possess. They compliantly moved into a clearing, took the offered cigarettes and squatted down. Young women nursed their infants, old Ba's chewed betel nut, old men smoked. They'd seen conquerors—the Japanese, the French—knew what was required.

Apple used his Zippo to light the skirt of a thatched roof. Division had a policy against torching huts, but there were no generals in the field. They dumped incendiaries inside the huts, and the villagers watched their homes consumed in orange flame. In 'Nam fire seemed to burn hotter and smoke turn blacker. The villagers stared into the flames, waiting now for the platoon to leave so they could pack up what little they had and carry it to a relocation center.

Leonards said the squad was "Pissin' off the get-even god." Belcher shrugged. Rowe figured it was hard to find a moral high ground. The smell of charred straw and wood drifted from the village. They found a tunnel. Shedding backpack and bandoliers, Paez pulled out a flashlight and took the lieutenant's .45. He tied himself to the rope, raised both his arms and squirmed into the opening.

As the men smoked, Rains fed out line. From time to time he tugged on it. Paez had been down fifteen minutes. Then Rains had no more rope to feed and found it had gone slack. Belcher removed his helmet and sat down by the hole. The lieutenant said to give the line a tug. Rains wrapped the rope around his wrist and reeled it in. The squad crowded around, peering down as he gathered in rope an arm length at a time until the running end hung over the opening.

"Call him up," the lieutenant said.

Belcher squatted over the hole, cupped his hands to his mouth, and pausing in between, hollered Paez's name three times. "Maybe he's lost." Still looking down the hole, Belcher stood up.

The lieutenant said they could borrow Simmons from another platoon to go down and take a look-see.

"He'll come out," Belcher said.

"I'll go down," C's said.

The lieutenant shook his head. "Ten minutes, then we get Simmons."

Belcher reluctantly agreed, and gave another call.

"What's all the shouting?"

Paez stood next to Apple, who hadn't taken notice.

"Where the hell'd you go?" the lieutenant demanded.

Paez said he came up where a papa san was staring him in the eye like he was expected. "I shook his hand and wished him a nice VC day," Paez said.

The lieutenant said, "Blow the hole."

As they plodded through the entrance to Green Acres, Paez said, "There's one that runs to Hanoi and back to Saigon. We just haven't found it.”


The field was like something cooked to a lumpy paste and dumped on a plate to spoil, and flies were everywhere. Paez crossed himself and kissed his fingers.

"I thought you didn't believe," Rowe said.

"I don't, " Paez said.

Medics issued stretchers and body bags and handed out a balm to apply to nostrils and advice—wear bandanas and watch for unexploded rounds while digging for bodies. Rowe stepped out and immediately sank to his ankles. Flies blitzed about so thick the men could reach out and grab a handful. Some walked away to puke.

Paez told Rowe to grab a pair of legs. They turned the body over to lay him face up and zip him in a bag. It was like lifting a barrel of water. At the count of three they hoisted him onto the stretcher, then grabbed the handles and picked up the load. They heard a moan and quickly unloaded the stretcher.

The body rolled back into the hole where it lay motionless, its blank face seemingly indignant, but dead, very dead. Paez noticed dirt shifting beside the body and dived down on hands and knees, digging furiously with both hands, pitching fountains of loose dirt up in the air.

"He's alive," he said. "Imagine!"

Rowe shouted for a medic and joined Paez, digging until they unearthed a man thin as a wheat stalk. His pulse weak, but a pulse nonetheless, he lay gasping for air. Rowe sprinkled canteen water on him and gently wiped away dirt so he could see. Like Lazarus, he'd been to the other side and could tell the tale with his eyes. When they opened, he looked at Rowe and tried to squirm away. This wasn't quite the Viet Cong heaven he'd anticipated waking up in. Paez told him to take it easy, as if he understood. Paez said a doctor was coming, and soon a medic was cutting away the uniform with surgical scissors.

The medic studied the wounds.

"How bad, Doc?" Paez asked.

"Shrapnel," the medic said, "in the upper back." He probed around. The V.C. was tough, didn't show the pain though he had to be feeling it." And a piece . . . near the spine." His hands, sure and quick, the medic started an I. V. and cleaned their man—for by then he was theirs. He bandaged the wounds and shot morphine into the feeder tube. He said he'd call a dust off A.S.A.P and told them to cart the man to the helipad.

Apple and C's peered down.

"You the luckiest fucker in 'Nam," C's said.

Word of the miracle spread. A modest crowd gathered to watch as they hoisted their man onto the stretcher. They toted him to the LZ where they guarded him jealously as others came to have a look see. Some reached down to shake his hand. Others touched him gently or stuck packs of cigarettes or chewing gum on the stretcher beside him. One scratched initials on a bullet and put it in the man's hand. Others simply looked and shook their heads. Awe on every face.

The lieutenant hung around after his peek. "Don't you two think he'll be okay?"

"Sir?" Paez asked.

"Do you have to . . . ? I mean."

"Sir, we pulled him out," Paez said. He held a lighted cigarette up to Lucky's mouth.

The lieutenant nodded. "So you did. Carry on."

They took turns keeping his lips moist with canteen water and holding cigarettes for him while he smoked. As they lifted him onto the helicopter, he looked up and said, "Chet roi," meaning dead.


They tried to nap which was difficult. The heat was despotic, and by then the odor had permeated everything. Paez wrote to Gloria telling her what a beautiful day it was and how he'd made a friend. He read the letter aloud. Rowe asked how he could lie like that.

"It's what she wants to hear. If you had a girl, you'd know."

Two Chinooks landed. Out of their bellies came two bulldozers followed by a unit of combat engineers who donned masks and went to work. The company sat atop bunkers and watched the bulldozers scuttle back and forth, puffing spouts of diesel smoke and plowing with tireless energy as if there weren't enough dirt in Vietnam for them to move. Methodically, they rent a hole wide enough and deep enough to accommodate the dead.

The pit finished, the operators turned their machines to the bodies after which three medics poured gas over the remains. A sergeant pulled the pin on an incendiary, looked away from the mass grave and tossed the grenade. A wall of orange burst from the pit. Sitting more than a hundred yards away, the squad felt the heat as the sky blackened. When the fire died, the bulldozers plowed again, and the flies swarmed the camp. Paez said Green Acres was a perfect name for a cemetery.

Battalion helicoptered in hot food, beer on ice and a movie, The Sound of Music, along with a dispatch heralding the company. The men filled their trays but picked at the food. Rains stared at the mound, muttering, about what Rowe couldn't tell. Belcher lit a joint and passed it, and Rains, who never smoked dope in his life, took a draw.

"The Sound of Music?" Apple said. "Who the fuck's in charge of this war? I mean really."

In his journal Rowe wrote "Today the captain said we killed seventy-two but didn't mention the one we saved whose name was probably Nguen; they're all named Nguen. He smoked too much. Paez lied to Gloria. Rains lost God." Rowe had so many stories. He thought of whom he'd want to hear them. Grady? Maybe. Betty? Then soft in his head, Betty.


A kid named Newman came back from R&R. Somehow he ended up in Hawaii by mistake. He'd met a nurse, he said, and shacked up with her for four days. He walked around letting anyone who wanted to sniff his fingers, claimed it was the smell of round-eyed pussy, grade- A American. He said he was thinking about cutting off a finger and preserving it. When he told this to Rowe's squad, Apple said, "Why don't you cut your dick off and preserve it?"

"Soreheads. Just jealous. I'm probably the only grunt in the history of this fucking war who got to Hawaii."

"Cut your dick off anyhow," Belcher said.

Paez set his book down. He was reading Malory's Tales of King Arthur, which he'd picked up from some helicopter pilot in trade for a Montagnard crossbow. "Guy's full of it," he said.

Rowe looked up from cleaning the M-60. "So."

"I been thinking, " Paez said. "We're subterranean by nature. We long to be inside things. The womb's our first home. A cave. A blanket's a womb. What's the first thing you want to do with a woman? Get inside of her, see what's hidden beneath her clothes. Another cave. The womb again."

"What's the point?"

"The point? There is no fucking point," he said.

"Do you write Gloria about going into tunnels?"

He took a drag off his cigarette and stared off toward Nui Ba Dan. "That mountain's full of tunnels. Most dug by the Viet Minh. A regiment could hide in them. Hospitals. Barracks. Service clubs with beer on tap. Health spas. Hotels with maid service. Tile entries. Baths like Romans had. It's a big mountain. Think of the possibilities." He crushed the cigarette out on a sandbag and turned to Rowe. "I write her about blue skies and dumb grunts like Newman." He looked at the mountain, its peak covered with wispy clouds. "Let's put in for R&R in Hawaii. You, me, on a beach. Gloria can meet us. Bring one of her cousins, one of the less-fat ones."

"Hawaii? You heard what Newman said." Rowe touched some oil to the trigger housing.

"He's full of shit."

That afternoon they signed up at the headquarters tent for R&R. Marshall, the company clerk, a draftee from Mendocino, California, said, "Where the officers go?" He was a small man with un-military sideburns.

"That's where we want to go," Paez said.

"Officers and senior noncoms. Grunts like you could be an embarrassment."

"An embarrassment? Rowe knows important people. He's got a cousin in Congress. MAC-V wouldn't want an inquiry over R&R, would it?"

"Who's Rowe?"

"Hobbes." Paez aimed an index finger at Rowe. "This guy, my buddy."

Marshall looked Rowe over.

"Don't let his appearance fool you," Paez said. "I've seen pictures of him in a tux at the governor's ball."

Marshall shook his head. "Not likely." He handed over the forms to fill out. "I don't care, but get this straight—you're not going. This is the fucking Army, and the Army doesn't send grunts to Hawaii for R&R."

They were summoned to headquarters to see Lt. Bredlau, the company executive officer, who tossed the requests down on the table. Grinning at them, Marshall opened himself a soft drink and downed it in two gulps.

"It's not policy exactly," the lieutenant said. "but enlisted men don't go to Hawaii. Not grunts."

"Sir, they let REMFs go, at least that's what I hear, and they're nothing but butt licks," Paez said.

Bredlau shook his head. "Bangkok. All the whores you'd ever want, Paez."

"Hawaii, sir."

"And you, Hobbes?"

"Hawaii," Rowe said.

"Paez, you think being a tunnel rat gives you license around here?"

"Sir, just the privilege of going down."

"Well, it doesn't."

"How about you, Hobbes? You think you're privileged?"

"Sir, it's enough privilege to serve in a place like Green Acres."

Marshall went into coughing spasms. Lt. Bredlau told him to go outside and get some water and said to Rowe, "I'm not laughing." He weighed matters thoughtfully and asked, "What's your cousin's name?"

"Cousin, sir?" Rowe asked.

"The one in Congress."

"He'd rather not say, sir," Paez said.

Lt. Bredlau shuffled papers from one side of the table to the other. "I'd rather he say."

"Sir, if it's all the same I promised I wouldn't," but it suddenly occurred to Rowe Hawaii might not be such a fantasy, for Grady knew senators and congressmen. He'd introduced Rowe to more than one on occasions when they'd eaten lunch.

"It's not all the same." With a shrug, Lt. Bredlau signed the forms. "Not until March," he said. " And there's a good chance you'll go to Bangkok or Singapore."

Paez winked at him. "Sir, maybe they don't understand what we do."

On their way out Marshall grabbed Rowe's arm. "You really have a cousin in Congress?"

"Would Paez lie?"

Marshall shook his head. "How would I know?"

"You wouldn’t,” Rowe said, then asked, "Can you get me a call stateside?" Rowe figured Grady might appreciate a ring. Besides Betty had been in his thoughts. He'd even composed letters to her, which of course he never sent.

"Maybe," Marshall said. "I'm interested in Hawaii."

"Planning on deserting?” Paez asked.

"Put in a request," Rowe said. "I can fix it up.”

"Same time as you guys?"

"Sure,” Paez said. "Tell the lieutenant you're in, but don't expect one of Gloria's cousins."

They left him asking who Gloria was.


Though they could see barely twenty feet ahead, they scaled Black Virgin Mountain. The trails were steep and slippery. Division had sent handlers with three German shepherds to sniff out the enemy, but a third of the way up the animals began to cough. The mountain was too rough, a handler explained. One dog coughed up pink foam. Its handler stroked it and talked gently, but it died anyhow—pulmonary arrest. The lieutenant sent the dogs back.

Not far from where the dogs gave out they came upon a tunnel, a deep one.

"We can just blow it,” the lieutenant said which was only a formality as Paez never refused.

Paez looked up at the black sky, then at the lieutenant and nodded to indicate he'd go. They hadn't eaten, so the lieutenant called for a chow break first and the men opened their Cs. Paez took Rowe’s Oreos and Rains' peaches and wolfed them down. Finished, he stripped off his poncho and gear. C's unhooked his tiger's claw from his neck and placed it around Paez's.

"Luck, man,” he said.

"Don’t untie,” the lieutenant ordered.

Rope about his waist, and flashlight and gun in hand, Paez disappeared just as the clouds burst. Rain beat on the forest with a sound as deafening as a waterfall, and water channeled down trails transforming them into rivers. The mountain seemed alive. The men kept an eye on the trail and one on the tunnel while wishing they had a third to watch the mountain.

They were startled when the rope went slack and Paez popped out of the hole unexpectedly. He scrambled away, shivering, his lips chalk-white. He held the gun, but the flashlight was gone. He pointed at the opening, said, "Blow it," and stumbled to the side where he sat down on a boulder and stared at his feet.

Rains and Apple tossed in concussion grenades. The hole, like a gaping mouth, spat out dirt and black smoke as the ground rumbled. The lieutenant ordered them to head down. Only then did Paez look up.

"What'd you see down there?" Belcher asked.

Paez shook his head. "Can't see in the dark."

Paez didn't move. Rowe handed over his gear and helped him to his feet.

They stayed two more days at the base of Nui Ba Dan, and Paez, his smile gone, kept to himself and wouldn't talk. Rains and Apple urged Rowe to find out what had happened, but two attempts earned a mere shrug. As they loaded onto Hueys to return to Green Acres, Paez told the lieutenant that he wasn't going down anymore but refused to say why.


In January they were helicoptered to Cu Chi for a stand down. Rowe was glad to leave behind Green Acres and the smell of death that never quite dissipated. Though the camp was behind, the reminders of death seemed stronger. C's claimed the field was haunted; few doubted that.

Division billeted C-company near the motor pool where diesel oil and solvents mixed with the odors of Cu Chi and human sweat made breathing unpalatable. They strung up a net and played volleyball. Rumors circulated—operations north, supposedly in Binh Long or a search and destroy in the Delta or the Iron Triangle. They ignored rumors and smoked dope and drank beer.

It was a sweltering day, too hot to do anything. The walls of the tent were raised to capture whatever gypsy air decided to slip through. Occasionally a breeze informed them Cu Chi smelled no better than Green Acres. Paez lay on his cot scanning The Stars and Stripes as Rowe field-stripped the pig and cleaned it. Paez lit a Lucky Strike. His smile had returned, and though he refused to discuss Nui Ba Dan, he was talking again. He snapped the paper. "The Great Gringo says we're turning the war around."

"You don't say,” Rowe said absentmindedly.

"No, I don't. The Pres. does. Trouble with gringos is they don't listen. It's straight from his lips. War's all but over. That all right?" 12"

"Doesn't matter."

Paez rolled his legs over the edge of the cot and sat up. "What does?"

"Jock itch," Rowe said, "athlete's foot, sore arches, rash, leech bites, and a dose if I could find a whore."

"I've been thinking about Lucky," Paez said. "Let's pay a hospital visit and see what happened to him."

"How the hell would they remember one VC?"

Paez drew off his cigarette and used the tip to burn a hole in the photo of Lyndon Johnson. He blew smoke at the ceiling and spread the paper. " An unmanned craft landed on the moon over two weeks ago. The Great Gringo wants a ten-percent surcharge on taxes to lower the budget deficit. He means, of course, to finance the war."

Paez lowered the paper. "We'd win this if they'd hire the Mexican Army. Trouble is Americans feel too underpaid to get themselves killed. Take a Mexican, he'd gladly go out and get himself killed for this kind of money." He turned to the sports page. "Green Bay beats Oakland. Oakland, where all those antiwar punks smoke dope and get laid." Paez looked over the top of the paper. "You may as well be my wife."

"You don't have one."

"But I will. And you, pathetic Gringo, will die old with shriveled balls."

Sgt. Cox, his fatigues black with sweat from hefting the mailbag slung over his shoulder, threw open the flap, looked around and sniffed.

"What's that smell?" he asked and dropped the bag on a cot.

Rowe said, "The rose of Southeast Asia."

"Hobbes, you're starting to sound like Paez."

Paez tossed the paper aside and asked if he had mail though there was always mail—his mother, sisters or Gloria.

Cox said, "Do I bother to look, Paez?" which was what he said to anyone who asked before the mail was handed out.

"Ah, Sarge, you look for sexy parts so you can pound your pud. Everyone knows."

"You're a draftee, aren't you, Paez?" Cox asked.

"Guilty," Paez answered.

Cox shook his head and tossed two letters to Paez. "Be thankful for the war. Peace-time Army wouldn't put up with your shit, Paez."

"I'm very thankful, Sarge."

"Hobbes, you got a letter." Cox, who'd not yet been promoted to Sergeant First Class, blamed Rowe's squad which he claimed was full of mutinous dope fiends. He flipped an envelope to Rowe, turned the remaining mail over to Paez and said, "Tell Belcher to get the tent cleaned up."

The envelope, addressed in a flowing cursive, had been taped closed by the censors. Rowe broke the seal. Embossed in bold lettering on white linen paper was an invitation to join in celebration as Betty A. St. James and James A. Norber take vows before God and man, the wedding to take place February 2, 1968, at 7:00 p.m. Enclosed was an R.S. V.P envelope. Not even Tom! A bead of sweat trickled from Rowe's nose and splattered on the splendid white paper. Folding it in two, Rowe stuffed it in his shirt pocket.

Shouting came from near the motor pool. Rowe walked to the tent flap to see what it was about. Some REMFs were getting up a game of softball. They tossed a ball around warming up, which seemed ludicrous as every muscle that needed warming up would be overheated by the time they got around to playing. Rowe asked Paez if he wanted to go watch.

Paez looked up from his letter. "Gloria says she'll meet us. No cousins, but you, her, me in Hawaii, on the beach."

Rowe wondered how Paez would feel if he got a wedding invitation from Gloria. He said grunts didn't go to Hawaii and he could get all the tan he wanted in 'Nam.

"Very cynical. What came in the mail?"

"Nothing. A card." Rowe said he was going to watch the game.

Paez lay back to reread his letter. Rowe stuffed his hands in his pockets and aimed toward the makeshift diamond. The pop of the leather ball in the gloves was a piece of home. A player hollered they were short a man. Rowe shook his head, ambled to the center of the compound and loitered by the mess hall until he spotted an empty latrine that wasn't burning. He took out the invitation, read it several times, brushed his fingers over the splendid embossed lettering. He held it to his nose and took in the orchid smell, reminiscent of an altar, then he wadded it into a ball, dumped it in the cavity and unbuttoned his fly.


On the morning of January 31, Cu Chi came under mortar attack. Division was near full strength as most units had been lifted out of the field. Sappers tried to breach the perimeter but failed, this followed by more incoming. In the distance to the south the battle for Tan Son Nhut erupted, and in the predawn mechanized units were sent out to break the assault on the air base whose outer defenses had been breached.

The next day C-company camped by the helipad ready to go out. Paez and Rowe sat in harness back to back, napping under ponchos. Belcher informed the squad the whole AO was on fire, which seemed pretty self-evident as Division artillery fired outgoing every two or three seconds and naval guns had pelted the corridor between Cu Chi and Tay Ninh relentlessly from dawn to dusk.

At nightfall a strict blackout was enforced, and the company was posted on the perimeter where Rowe caught random flashes of the distant battles. Just before dawn the camp filled with a sense of urgency as the tracks warmed up and helicopters throttled to life. Almost immediately the first of the Hueys lifted off like bees abandoning a hive.

Tracks departed the gate, a harsh grinding of diesel engines marking their passage. Artillery blasted away relentlessly at positions to the south. As the last of the APCs rolled out, C-company was ordered back out to the tarmac.

Belcher asked where Paez was, but no one knew. As Rowe's squad lined up behind the third squad, Paez came running with his web gear in tow, shouting he had to stop for a piss. It was too dark for Rowe to see clearly, but Paez was smiling, though not his normal smile. As Rowe helped him with his strap, Paez winked and said, "Fuck the Army," which meant much more.

Low clouds hung over the camp. The deep growl of words flowed among them, mixed tones of macho-ness and anxiety. A round-face major called them to attention and said, "Light 'em if you have 'em." A spec four from the 3rd squad with "Sweet Death" printed on the back of his flak jacket, lit up a reefer. Seeing this, Apple lit up one.

Paez handed Rowe the joint. Rowe passed it on without taking a hit, as did C's. Belcher drew on it and held the smoke in his lungs, then passed it to Rains who shook his head. More Hueys were landing. Sergeants looked the other way as the weed circulated, even Cox who walked up and down, telling them for the umpteenth time to check their weapons.

The company lined up to board. Every sound took on inordinate clarity—helicopter blades feathering, metal clattering, boots clopping. Rowe thought to think of something other than what was ahead, and what came to mind was Betty's wedding. He smiled, for this was a great day to attend a wedding.

As they strapped in, Paez asked what was so damned funny. Rowe motioned that he couldn't hear. The Huey shuddered and lurched, then hesitated an instant as if unaware of having breached gravity. It lifted itself smoothly through the light mist, cool, moist air spilling in its open doors. Rowe felt he'd forgotten something and was seized by a momentary panic when he realized it was his journal. He had things to say. How would he remember them?

He asked the door gunner if they could go back for his journal. The gunner pointed to his ears and then the rotating blades and shouted, "Won't be long!" He seemed to want a response, so Rowe nodded and said Wilt Chamberlain was the best.

At two thousand feet the sky cleared. Stars wrapped over the edge of the earth. Save for the sounds of the engine and the whirling blades it was blissfully silent. The door gunner stared out, face tense, as he aimed his M-60 downward and swung its barrel back and forth.

Over Saigon rocket fire crossed the sky. Passing Hoc Mon the choppers took ground fire, green tracers arching upward gracefully and fading away. A round dinged the side panel and ricocheted off the door gunner's helmet. He looked at Rowe as if to say what luck. Won't be long, Rowe thought.

Crossing Hoc Mon, the craft dipped and circled. Paez was smiling. Rowe shouted for him to give up the goddamn smile. Paez pointed to his ears. Rowe glanced at Rains, whose head was bowed over the barrel of his M-16. The escort ships angled down over a stretch of rice paddies and let go with rockets. C's licked his lips and clutched his tiger's claw, mumbling something. What exactly, Rowe was unsure, but it had to do with dying. The crew chief signaled and the men crouched at the edge of the door.

The craft leveled over a paddy where the air erupted with incoming from AK-47s and Chi-com machine guns. C's hesitated. Belcher hollered for him to move, lifted him up and pulled him out. Apple landed first, followed by Paez and Rowe, then Rains and C's and Belcher. Running in the mud was like taking on fifty pounds of added gear.

While a second chopper landed, the first rose, hung suspended as if in doubt of its condition, then burst into flames, disintegrating as it fell. Rowe sank in a hole to his waist. A bullet snapped overhead and inspired him. C's dropped to his knees cupping both hands over his throat. Rains turned back to help. Paez wheeled about, but Rains shouted for him to go on, shoved C's to the ground and covered him with his own body.

A bullet slapped the dike and spat mud in Rowe's face. He wiped mud from his eyes, notched his finger on the trigger and squeezed. The feel of the stock hammering against his shoulder, the steam and the smoke smoldering from the barrel got blood pumping to his ears. He fired until Paez tapped him on the helmet and told him to stop.

He laid his head on the damp grass and felt the rise and fall of his chest. He thought of Grady's ranch, Montana nights, Betty splayed out beside him, her hair covering the pillow, his hands exploring her, everything new and wonderful. He wanted it to last forever. He could feel her breath as he cupped her cheeks. A warmth filled his belly. Those moments had been God to him. They swallowed his soul. He blinked once and was back on the dike. There was only this, the cool grass, the smell of nitrates and the cries of wounded asking for help.

They lay listening to helicopters circle and ferry in the rest of the company. Apple said, "They got C's bad." He shouldered his M-79 and pumped a grenade into brush just to do something with his anger.

Paez leaned toward Rowe. "Don't forget Hawaii," he said, as if to say, "Remember the Alamo."

Belcher threw himself down next to them and asked Paez where his helmet was. Paez touched his bare head.

Cox crawled over to say he was calling in artillery.

"Where's the lieutenant?" Belcher asked.

"Chet roi. Him and a bunch, even the company clerk."

Rains dragged C's, who was drowning in his own blood, to the foot of the berm. A medic ran over and applied a compress to the wound, shook his head, said he was sorry. He swooped up his medical kit. Rains aimed his rifle at the medic, told to him to come back, that he'd shoot if he didn't. But Rains didn't shoot, and there was no reason for the medic to return.

Rains inched up the slope where he sat with his back to them, his arms crossed over his knees. "Couldn't say goodbye," he said. "Took his voice box. Is 'at right? I mean, is it?"

The artillery came.

Apple and Rowe tried to pull Rains down, but he pushed them away. Arms folded, he sat the duration of the barrage and remained unharmed as if C's charms had consigned their power to him. Dust offs landed to pick up casualties. Rains refused to notice Apple and Belcher carrying C's body across the field.

Belcher found a helmet, handed it to Paez and asked Rains what the hell was going on. Rains said he quit.

"You can't quit," Belcher said.

But Rains said that was the case. He'd stopped, gone on strike, quit the Army. Belcher said to Paez and Rowe, "You didn't hear this," and reached inside an ammo pouch. He pulled out a shot of morphine which he clenched between his teeth.

Rains asked, "What you doin', man?" and tried to get away, but Belcher grappled him to the ground, jabbed the needle into a thigh and called for another. He gave Rains two more doses and held him until he quit struggling. When it was over, Belcher took a long breath and said, "Keep him close."


At dawn they found themselves in a field of smoldering holes surrounded by fractured earth and splintered trees. The sun rose over the roofs of Hoc Mon and outlined the palm trees, an exotic, postcard—like rendering of paradise, except for the smoke. They heard diesel engines. Between the company and the shimmering sun a column of APCs churned in slow motion over the charred earth. The nearest ran over a body which sank into the mud except for one stiff arm.

"Wolfhounds, come on!" a track commander called out.

Rowe’s squad followed two APCs through deserted streets lined with skeletal dwellings, paths littered with men, cats, dogs, rats and pigs, all dead. Rowe wrapped a bandanna over his face. Paez asked what day it was. Rowe had no idea. Neither did Belcher or Apple. Nor did Rains who said he didn't even know how many days they'd been fighting this damned thing. Paez said that's because he was stoned most of the time. Rowe vaguely remembered a variation of this very conversation.

"It's Tuesday or Wednesday," Rowe said. "Or Thursday."

The day didn't matter. They'd been through something. It had been big and terrible. It seemed important to seek some anchor—a day of the week, an outside event, something that marked the moment, so they could look back and know, so they could point to that and say they remembered.

As they advanced on an undefended bridge, the chime of a bell came from behind. It repeated itself—ca-ching, ca-ching. Rowe looked over his shoulder. A girl, perhaps fifteen and dressed in white silk, balanced her bicycle and tried to pass the file. Not far behind another followed, and from the same direction a Vespa rode out of the smoldering ruins, its engine hacking like a morning cough.

The girls carried school books strapped to their backs. They didn't acknowledge the marching soldiers any more than they did the randomly strewn dead or the clouds of black flies or the smoldering craters. The soldiers stepped to the side. The girls passed on with phantom aloofness, seemingly untouched, the sheer white tails of their ào diàs sailing behind like pennants as they rode on calmly and purposefully.


His name tag read Digbus. He was a lieutenant in charge of morale—which meant R&R as well. He'd not yet seen a tracer round and had a mama san who cleaned his room and another who polished his boots. He sat behind his desk, shook his head and told Paez and Rowe to take Bangkok—the best he could do. When Rowe said they'd requested Hawaii months before, he told them Bangkok, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong were great, tried to sell the price of whores and booze.

"Sir," Paez said, "we survived Tet. Grunts. See?"

"Whoop-di-fuckin'-do, Paez."

Paez said, "No offense, sir, but I just don't want to go where there's a bunch of dinks, even if the prices are next to free. You understand, don't you?"

"No." The officer stamped their orders for Bangkok and handed over the travel vouchers. As he was also in charge of emergency phone calls, Rowe told him an adopted sister had gotten married and he wanted to congratulate her. The lieutenant, smelling victory, made arrangements for him at the Red Cross.

It took ten minutes to get Grady on the line.

"Rowe, you here?" He sounded amazed to hear from Rowe.

"Grady, you have to say over when you're finished. I'm still in 'Nam, over."

"Hell, boy. We been 'spectin' somethin' terrible."

Rowe explained again that it was necessary to say over at the end of a sentence. On a static-filled line they talked small talk for a minute until Grady got used to the idea of saying over, then Rowe asked for a big favor, fast.

"What you want, Rowe? Over."

"I've got R&R coming and this lieutenant wants to send us to Thailand. Paez, that's my buddy, and I want to go to Hawaii. We asked for Hawaii months ago. Over."

"What's this lieutenant's name? Over."

There was a waiting line of soldiers and Marines. Rowe explained how a call from a senator might influence matters. Grady said he could probably do it. In the corner of his eye Rowe saw the Red Cross lady pointing at her watch.

"I've got to go, Grady."

"I got a job waiting for you, and you forgot to say over."

"Over, Grady."

"Over, Rowe. I'll call them, right now. Over."

"Bye. Over."

"Don't you . . . Hell, Rowe. Goodbye . . . Over."


Pale clouds floated above, the ocean shimmered below. The only enlisted men on the flight, they sat in the last two seats behind NCOs and officers, many non-combatants who lifted ballpoints and courageously initialed documents. Flight attendants with frosted-pink lips served up cheerful smiles, in-flight meals and drinks. They placed pillows behind the soldiers' heads and said it was nice to have them aboard. They bent close so the smell of their perfume and the graze of their mint breath would remind the soldiers of all they missed.

Their smiles were something vaguely remembered and made Rowe wish he was meeting Betty in Honolulu. He'd settle for less, though, in truth, he expected nothing. A rosy-cheeked redhead with a ponytail made several out-of-the-way trips to their seat. She hung around to ask questions about their comfort—did they want a magazine? another soft drink? She looked at Rowe affably, but Paez commanded her attention. When he looked up with his wet brown eyes and said he'd like a copy of the Los Angeles Times editorial page, she shot away. She smiled, handed him an editorial page from the San Francisco Herald-Examiner, and said, "I like bright men."

He snapped the paper open, said, "This is more like it," and began reading about Bobby Kennedy announcing his run for the presidency. Rowe looked out the window and watched a ship plow over the ocean; it reminded him of a Monopoly board piece. Terry reappeared to see if Paez was enjoying the paper. She asked where he was from. He told her Texas, and she said, "My favorite state after Hawaii."

"I don't want to go back," he said, and to make things clear added, "except for my girl." He said he was supposed to meet Gloria in Hawaii. Terry said sometimes girls don't show up. He smiled as if remembering a joke and said, "It's nice of you to pay us so much attention."

Rowe said, "Us?"

To be cordial, she asked Rowe's hometown. When he said Las Vegas, she smiled politely and said she was from Vermont, which she described as unlike Las Vegas, beautiful but provincial. As the plane descended for the final approach, she checked their seatbelts, leaned over and handed Paez a note upon which she'd written her name and the hotel where she was registered.

They taxied onto American soil and deplaned to face scenery that looked all too familiar—palm trees, tropical vegetation—no protesters, no signs, just a man with an electronic megaphone shouting instructions, and a dozen Hawaiian women in grass skirts waving tiny American flags. As Rowe and Paez stepped onto the ramp, Terry whispered in Paez's ear and kissed his cheek. Rowe got a cordial handshake.

As two women strung leis over the soldier’s necks, three musicians, two with ukuleles and one with a string guitar, accompanied a troop of women who sang and danced a hula. Then the soldiers were hustled onto buses by the man with the megaphone, who also handed out itineraries and tourist guides.

Paez and Rowe were booked into the Hilton Hawaiian Village, where Paez asked the desk clerk for messages. "Nothing for a Mr. Paez," he said and asked about baggage. Paez showed him a carry-on. As he handed over the keys, he told them if they needed anything to visit the shops and charge everything to the room as Grady St. James was picking up the tab.

"Grady?" Paez asked.

Rowe had mentioned the name, as he had other friends, but had never talked about his relationship with Grady or his wealth. He decided not to start now and settled on saying, "Grady has a little money."

Paez stepped inside the suite and whistled. "This is living," he said. "How much money?" They wandered about touching fabrics and furniture. Paez flipped on the TV; turned down the volume and picked up the telephone. Rowe left him to his conversation and went to the shower where he lathered up for a half hour under a hot spray and rinsed until his skin wrinkled.

Paez was slumped on the couch watching television with the volume off.

"What's up?" Rowe asked. He said Gloria was out with friends and he'd talked to her mother. "She didn't call me Paco," he said. "She's always called me Paco." He shrugged. "Maybe I'm too old for Paco. I need a shower."

After shopping, they dressed in sandals, flower print shirts and matching shorts that underscored the whiteness of their legs and strolled the beach. They bought hot dogs and Cokes and sat under a cabana. A breeze blew in. Children dug in the sand, and men in dark sunglasses sat and stared at bikini-clad women as surfers paddled out looking for waves. Three teenage boys tossed a football and made diving catches into the gentle breakers. Their mother pulling them along, telling them not to bother people, two small girls stopped passersby to say hello.

Paez raised his paper cup. "To Hawaii."

Rowe tapped his cup to Paez's. "Hawaii." He started to toast again, to America this time, but a sudden pain hit the back of his skull.

"You okay?" Paez asked and checked Rowe's eyes.

Rowe shook it off. "Fine. Let's walk."

Though he felt dizzy getting up, Rowe was better once he stood. They stepped out of their sandals and carried them so as to let their toes sink into the warm sand. They took in every sight—women, ocean, hotels, surfers staying with fruitless waves. They found an uncrowded spot and sat down near four young women in string bikinis. They sat with their backs to them so as not to perturb them. Rowe just wanted to hear them laugh.

Paez leaned back on his elbows as they stared at the waves. Rowe thought about Betty, which made him feel small and lonely. In time the sweating returned. As it beaded down his forehead, he began to shiver and a transitory pain reeled about the back of his skull. His skin broke out in goose bumps and his ears began to ring. Paez told him his lips were white.

"As white as my legs?"

"I'm serious."

Figuring whatever it was would pass, Rowe insisted he was fine, and the shivering did pass—momentarily. It returned uncontrollably. Paez became a blur. The beach swirled. Rowe pitched forward and threw up. Paez grabbed him and patted his back, encouraged him to stand, but Rowe was too weak to do so.

The young women gathered up their belongings, One said, "Disgusting," as they shook sand from their blanket.

"Animals," another said.

They narrowed their eyes and looked at Rowe. One asked why soldiers didn't show more respect for people.

"My friend's sick," Paez said. "You ever been sick?"

"Soldiers!" the one carrying the blanket said.

They carried their belongings and replanted themselves down the beach, complaining to people nearby. It didn't matter; Rowe couldn't hear anything clearly by then.

Paez laid Rowe's arm over a shoulder and hoisted him up. As they walked by the women, Paez said, "Ever been sick?"

"Drunks!" one hollered.

"Bitches," he muttered as he guided Rowe off the beach.


Paez explained to the house doctor they were on leave and had only a few days to enjoy, that Rowe was Army property and truly only Army doctors were permitted to malpractice on him, which made the doctor smile. After listening to Rowe's chest and looking down his throat, the doctor wrote a prescription.

"Probably a stomach virus," he said, "I can't be sure without tests. Symptoms match a dozen illnesses, and food poisoning."

"No tests," Rowe whispered.

The doctor shook his head and stood. "I should report this to the health department. He may have something that could infect many people." Paez smiled. "He hasn't got the clap if that's what you're thinking."

The doctor nodded. "No tests. I hope he feels good enough to enjoy his stay." He looked at Paez. "Keep the room dark and let him sleep. If the fever gets out of control, put him in a tub with ice and run cold water. Call if you need me." He handed over his card and left.

By then the chills were severe. The ceiling whirled as if it were going to fall. A vague outline by the bedside, Paez propped Rowe's head so he could drink, and later bought hot ox tail soup—a Hawaiian version of the Jewish mother's chicken broth—to restore him. Rowe awoke from the fog to see Paez dial the phone only to hang up. Another time, though Rowe couldn't tell whether it was in a dream or not, Paez was in a heated conversation and slammed down the receiver. Then later still Rowe felt a damp cloth on his forehead, and Paez was beside him, assuring him he was doing fine.


Rowe awoke the morning of the third day rejuvenated but parched. Sounds and colors, even the white ceiling seemed to take on an intensity that was too much for his senses. Whatever had hit him was over and had left him with renewed awareness. He called to Paez who didn't answer. After showering, Rowe went to the living room and sat on the couch, feet propped on the coffee table as "Rhapsody in Blue" played on the radio. He ordered lunch with a bottle of Beaujolais as it sounded good, then opened the curtain and watched sailboats atilt on the bay.

Paez returned at dusk. Rowe was on a second bottle of wine. Paez tossed himself down on the couch and said, "You're better." Rowe asked where he'd been.

Paez held out a clean glass. "Got tired of watching you sleep," he said.

"Gloria?" Rowe poured wine into Paez's glass.

"No, Gloria," Paez said and looked pensively at the glass of wine. "Terry."

That said everything. "Oh."

Paez shrugged and stood to turn on the TV. "She helped with you, so I felt obligated to go to the airport. "

They downed the bottle and ordered another along with two porterhouses, salads, baked potatoes and cherries jubilee.

"You asked for Betty," Paez said.

"Grady's daughter. You were right all along. I'm the kind women dump."

"I'm sorry about that. Well, here's to her and Gloria," Paez said and raised his glass.

"To them," Rowe said.

"We'll be needing wine, " Paez said.

Rowe ordered two more bottles and tipped the room waiter fifty dollars on Grady's credit. They drank the first bottle, praising the wine's splendid attributes though they had no idea what the qualities were other than alcohol.

"The aftertaste of a Julie Andrews' kiss," Paez said.

Rowe grimaced. "The texture of Cornish raspberries."

"Winsome on the palate," Paez said, and they toasted.

They were watching a rerun of a "Beverly Hillbillies" episode when Paez began to wipe his eyes with the back of his hand. With his other, he held his glass for Rowe to fill and stared as if watching the screen. He drank and talked about everything but Gloria. He wiped his damp eyes with the back of his wrist and held the wine glass out.

"I didn't go to the airport because of Terry," he said. "I was going to desert, go home and find Gloria."

"Why didn't you?" Rowe asked. Paez's eyes seemed as hollow as the hole on Nui Ba Dan, and he looked at Rowe as if he should know, should realize this one thing. Paez had come back because of him. Rowe told him he understood.

"You want to know about Nui Ba Dan?" Paez asked.

Rowe poured wine and Paez explained how he'd crawled around a curve, and suddenly he wasn't alone. He could hear them breathing. One touched him. Then a hand snatched the flashlight and shined it in his eyes. It was, he claimed, like confronting evil. "I thought I was charmed, but I wasn't, was I? I lost it that day, and then . . . her."

Rowe said he was sure Paez was charmed.

It was clear Paez didn't believe it. He said, "No. In the mountain she took the charm from my life."

Rowe suggested they sit on the beach and listen to the surf, but Paez shook his head and went to the balcony where he stared at the stars. Even when Rowe brought wine and joined him, he kept staring off. Rowe gave him his glass.

"We've got to salute Grady St. James," Rowe said. "Besides you, my only friend."

"To Grady, who I don't know, but who got me to Hawaii."

They stayed drunk three days, then flew another jetliner back to 'Nam.


They were promoted to spec 4 the day they returned, then the Army separated them, Paez going to a new squad. They stayed in the same platoon under a new platoon sergeant, Mug Tailor, a large, muscular black from Arkansas, and a new platoon leader, James Bull, an OCS second lieutenant from Alabama. The company was operating in Boi Loi woods.

Rowe had seven months in the boonies; Paez was working on ten—no scratches. It was time to consider mortality, time to think about Cu Chi, bumming shit and watching movies. Rowe requested a transfer; Paez volunteered to be a tunnel rat.

Rowe told him he was nuts.

Paez wiped sweat from his cheek. "It's cool. Wine makers could store barrels, let them age forever. Bring a whole new industry to this shit hole when the war's over."

The jungles of Boi Loi and Ho Bo Woods, located between the Michelin and Filhol Plantations northeast of Cu Chi, were infested with underground networks and booby-trapped trails. Charley hid in thickets too dense to penetrate with human eyes. Sometimes the soldiers would walk down a trail and know Charley was watching; sometimes they'd clear a village and have the sense Charley had been laughing at their backs.

Paez no longer dawdled over The Stars and Stripes; he rid himself of Gloria's letters; he eschewed talk that went beyond hello; he smoked pot daily, and his smile became an introspective, self-knowing smirk, a turn of the upper-lip.

One day the platoon found a papa san on a trail. He'd been shot through the neck and left dead. As they passed by, each of them shook the old man's hand and wished him a good day. When Paez's turn came, he lit a cigarette and stuck it in the dead man's lips, then sat and chatted. He said that he felt certain the papa san was Lucky's father.

Belcher asked what had happened to make Paez so weird.

"His girl never showed in Hawaii,” Rowe said. “Kind'a shit happens,” Belcher said. “Nothin' to get weird about. Probably found some Jody.”


It was a clear morning, dry and tolerable. “A day for picking daisies,” Belcher announced as they spread out to enter a village north of Ben Cat, ten huts that didn't show on a map. Sleeper, a big man, a transfer to the squad, looked over, and claiming this was his last ville, said, “I'm so short I have to look up to see my knees.”

A handful of women and children and one old toothless ong were on hand to greet them; if looking at the ground with cool stares can be called a greeting. The platoon herded them into the open and searched huts. They found no weapons, nothing but some rice stored in baskets, hardly enough to supply a VC squad. This village was destitute. The scout screamed and ranted at the old man who sat mute. James Bull shrugged, said it was a waste of time. He ordered the platoon out.

Paez's replacement, an NFG named Henderson, walked to the left of Sleeper as they stepped over a hedgerow. There came an unexpected pop. Henderson looked to his side, and seeing the Bouncing Betty hanging in the air like a lost can of green beans, hollered, "Holy shit!” Rowe saw the flash as Sleeper was thrust aside as if hit by a car. Though the blast knocked Rowe down, Sleeper's wide body had saved him from the shrapnel.

A pillar of smoke hung where the mine went off. That, Henderson and Sleeper bleeding on the red clay and the ringing in the men's ears, told the story. Each man inventoried body parts before standing. They got up slowly. Henderson was dead. Sleeper strained to get up but couldn't with just one arm. With his one remaining eye he saw the shredded limb that used to be his left arm. He tried to crawl to it, but that was as futile as trying to stand.

"Someone really messed up," he said and lay on his belly.

Medics zipped Henderson in a body bag and called in a dust off. As he lay on a stretcher watching, Sleeper said, "So short 1 had to look up to see my knees, and some NFG . . . Ain't it a bitch."

Belcher held his one hand and said, "It's a bitch."

James Bull assembled the platoon. These were his second casualties, and he took it harder than a platoon leader in Vietnam should. Men watched him with narrowed eyes as he shed tears and told them losing a man was like losing one of his own family. He said they weren't alert and that's why soldiers die, that from now on their single mission was to kill ten Charleys for every guy they lost.

Paez asked, "Who's keeping a ledger?"

The grunts closest to Paez nodded in agreement. They'd been hardened by Tet—guys got wounded, buddies died, the war went on. This came down to getting home. Body count meant little if you weren't alive to do the counting, and survival amounted to spitting in the right direction.

Lt. Bull wheeled about, turned to Mug Tailor~ said, "Shake the men down for drugs. I know some are using them."

The lieutenant stood at the front as Mug Tailor searched in a haphazard, apologetic manner, overlooking the occasional stash he found while digging his fingers in a man's pack. He'd turn the trooper around, take off the backpack and run his hand around inside. The men could see in his eyes when he found something suspicious, but he didn't report it. He had neither the inclination to rollover on a grenade nor the desire to see his men humiliated.

"Nothin here, sir!" he'd shout, then whisper in the soldier's ear, "Be cool, be cool."

Paez placed his stash atop his backpack and stood with a vacant expression. As he stood over the pack, Mug Tailor swallowed and looked up at the heavens. He picked up the baggie and asked, "What's this."

"Oregano, sarge," Paez said absolutely deadpan.

Sergeant Tailor grimaced. James Bull threw his shoulders back and charged over. Lt. Bull told Tailor to hand over the baggie. After smelling it, he paced back and forth. Paez didn't change expression. The platoon leader stopped and propped his fists on his hips. He told the men to smoke, but no one lit up. He towered over Paez who gazed about unperturbed.

"Paez, this is marijuana," the lieutenant said.

"Sir, it is? The local said it was oregano."

"Paez, do you think I'm stupid?"

"Sir, it's great with spaghetti. I recommend it."

It was theater. They thrived on the ludicrous and smiled as Paez delivered it on stage, a fact not lost on James Bull.

"And you cook a lot of spaghetti here?" he asked.

"Never enough, sir. Not . . . enough."

The lieutenant said he'd give him a chance to change his story, but Paez didn't crack, even when threatened with a court martial and being busted to private, even when Mug Tailor said he'd put him on point for the rest of his goddamn tour.

Mug Tailor motioned the lieutenant to a tree where they conferred out of earshot. Other than Grady, Paez was the only person in the world Rowe could call friend. He hoped the moment would resolve itself and Paez would come out of it the same smiling guy Rowe had met in Cu Chi months before. James Bull walked back, dumped the contents of the baggy on the ground and crushed it under his boot. "I'm going to overlook this, but I'll be watching," he warned. "Sergeant, get these men harnessed up and ready to go."

That afternoon the platoon came across a hole at the edge of a rubber plantation. They secured the perimeter, and James Bull called Paez over to order him down. The Lieutenant must have envisioned refusal, certainly reluctance, but Paez quickly shed his gear and accepted the flashlight and pistol from Tailor. He looked at Rowe, mouthed the name Gloria and descended.

The platoon waited in the heat, measuring minutes in sweat that beaded on their heads and drenched their fatigues. From time to time the lieutenant would ask Mug Tailor what Paez was doing down there. "Does he think we can hang around being targets forever? Just what the hell does he think he's doing?" Mug Tailor had no answer.

James Bull kept one eye on the hands of his watch and one on the hole and paced back and forth. When twenty minutes had elapsed, he tossed off his helmet, bent over the hole on all fours and called down. "Paez, get your ass up here! Do you hear, Paez? That's a goddamn order!" There came no answer. Belcher smiled sardonically at Rowe who'd positioned himself near the hole.

James Bull called Mug Tailor over to summon Paez out of the monkey hole. The platoon sergeant came away with the same response. The lieutenant sat on his helmet. He looked at Rowe and said to no one in particular, "This war isn't a joke, and he won't turn it into one."

James Bull waited another hour, shouting red-faced orders down into the hole from time to time, before he summoned Loftin, a slight kid with acne, who didn't talk unless drinking and then wouldn't shut up. Lt. Bull told him to go after Paez and get him out of there or someone would face a court martial.

"Sir, he's got the .45 and the flashlight," Loftin said. "'sides if he's comin' out, we'd just butt heads."

"Are you afraid, soldier?"

"Sir, anyone is who isn't a fool or Paez."

Nevertheless Loftin went down. As Loftin descended Rowe pictured an ever-narrowing tunnel, one so pinched it pinned Paez's hips so that as the hole got dimmer and dimmer and the batteries drained off, Paez could neither go forward nor withdraw. When twenty minutes later Loftin came up out of another hole beyond the perimeter, he reported following a maze, tunnels that crisscrossed one another, but no Paez.

"No Paez?" John Bull asked as if he'd not heard.

"No, sir. Nothing but tunnels and a bomb shelter near as I could tell."

"But you couldn't see?"

"No, sir."

Twice more Loftin descended, and twice more came out alone with nothing new to report. The rest of the company proceeded on the operation leaving the platoon bivouacked on the spot. That evening a chopper brought food in and a flashlight and another .45. After eating, Loftin went down and found two camouflaged openings and another bomb shelter, but no evidence of Paez.

That night, after watch, Rowe lay beside the hole and covered his shoulders with his poncho. The sitting shadow of James Bull hovered near the other side of the opening. He'd not moved since chow. Rowe sent thoughts down into the tunnel until his eyelids fluttered.

Before dawn Rowe awoke and sat up. The lieutenant still sat in the same spot. His anger had faded, and his puffy, heavy-lidded eyes were filled with bafflement. He looked at Rowe and said it had been a long night.

When the others were up and moving, James Bull called a meeting of squad leaders. He asked Belcher and the others what they thought, but no one came up with an explanation. All the while, Rowe sat by the hole, transfixed. Even when it was apparent Paez wasn't coming out, even as James Bull said, "We've stopped the war long enough for this," and commanded the platoon to form a column and head out of the plantation, Rowe sat and stared.

James Bull ordered him to his feet. Rowe wanted to rise. His legs simply refused to move. James Bull said he was refusing to follow a lawful command, but said it with compassion. "Come on, son, we don't need trouble, do we?"

Rowe remembered what he'd said in the recruiter's office about wanting to be a killer. He'd said it for the sake of shock. That was long ago. Now he didn't want to shock anyone, just couldn't move.

Belcher came over and gently hoisted Rowe. He braced him against a shoulder. "Him and Paez, they're buddies," he explained. "Went through Tet together."

James Bull, who by then had recovered some of himself, nodded and said, "Get him up and moving, sergeant." He left to join the center of the column.

Belcher sought help from another soldier and together they urged Rowe away, Belcher assuring him Paez had found an opening and was somewhere nearby laughing. "Remember how he joked, always the joker."

Rowe couldn't remember. Just that hole. And Belcher had used the past tense—all the evidence Rowe needed.


In order to shorten his enlistment, Rowe took a three-month extension in Vietnam. It didn't matter. The Army was the same everywhere if you weren't in the boonies. He wore clean fatigues and drank cold beer, stood guard at night and listened to that relentless artillery piece chuck bulletins out to Charley.

He was initially delegated to an officers' club as a waiter, but by accident found an assignment in the 18th Military History Detachment because the lieutenant in charge of keeping records of the Wolfhounds wanted a well-read soldier who could "slip through the smoke screen and write an accurate, readable battle summary." He monitored casualty figures, tracked bulletins and names of MIAs and POWs and KIAs. He was interested in only one. The rest was boring—filing photographs and composing synopses of dispatches, mostly unnecessary work made to seem important.

Rowe spent those months listening to Lieutenant Horn talk about going out in the boonies with his own platoon. He envisioned himself a leader, spoke of the glory of combat. Rowe didn't bother to wise him up, no point. Division history was as close as he'd ever come to war. Short and round, he wore glasses that could magnify a blade of grass to the size of a tree, and he talked alternately in clipped, military jargon or blocked-up, semi-academic speech. Rowe liked him. He made no demands of him and seemed to enjoy Rowe's company.

"What was it like, Hobbes?" he asked as he had many times.

"This time, sir, I'll tell you the truth. It's like having a nightmare as a kid and you wake up and it's still there and you're a part of it, but you don't think you are. You know what's going down and your body acts, but your mind keeps telling you it's a dream. I guess we just distance ourselves from it, even the guys who were dying acted as if they were watching it happen."

"Is that really how it is?"

"No, sir, that's all bullshit. In fact, it's one big non-ending orgasm, a pulsating sensation that swells and shrinks and swells again immediately. Imagine a two-foot hard-on in all that noise and the confusion. The only trouble is it's a wet dream. And that's how it really is."

"Hobbes, you're a philosopher."

"No, sir, just a nothing REMF."

"Don't be hard on yourself. Did I ever tell you about the second battle of the Cynocephalai?"

"Yes, sir."

"Put the Romans in charge of everything. We've been the Romans. Now were holding onto a dying civilization that never had culture except for jazz and baseball."

"Sir, may I go to the EM club for a beer?"

"Sure, but remember your toxic reaction."

"Yes, sir."

When Lt. James Bull's name showed up KIA, awarded the Purple Heart and recommended for a Silver Star, Rowe felt no satisfaction or sorrow. Bull couldn't be held accountable. He was dead, a name, a statistic along with many. Belcher caught an RPG while sitting atop a track near Dau Tieng. Half the platoon was killed or wounded in action. Rowe was lucky. All he had was malaria.

He figured out on his own he'd contracted the disease. Malaria was what had hit in Hawaii. Despite identifying the attacks for what they were, he avoided treatment. It was easy to take a day or two away from cataloguing photographs and writing one-paragraph battle summaries. It wasn't as if there was any rush to record the history of a war that kept replicating itself.

He kept seizures to himself, lied and said he was hung over when the fever hit. He informed Lt. Horn he had a brain disorder much like epilepsy, but not, and one of the idiosyncrasies of the condition was the occasional toxic reaction to alcohol. Horn pushed his glasses up and said he understood, that if he'd gone through what Rowe had experienced, he'd turn to booze himself. When asked why he didn't report to sick bay, Rowe answered that the Army would discharge him. Being a graduate of The Citadel, Horn figured that Rowe was simply being honorable. Rowe wondered how he'd feel about honor if he was in the boonies with thirty-five grunts who wanted to burn a village.

Rowe also kept quiet about his symptoms because he'd heard the Army postponed discharges for soldiers who came down with incurable diseases. There was rumor of a secret island for soldiers with incurable VD. The Army kept it like a leper colony, but there only penises rotted off.


Occasionally the muted racket of a distant encounter drifted into camp, a battle at some far-off dot on the province map, sounds that seemed almost benign and left Rowe to wonder if he'd actually experienced something out there. Perhaps he'd just imagined everything, even Paez. War seemed inconceivable, something that happened once upon a time when he was stoned—or was he straight? He felt like a malingerer or quitter, and now and then, a coward.

Once a week he'd hitch a ride on an A PC or flag a helicopter flight into Saigon where he'd ring his mother. If he got in a second call, he'd dial his Uncle Harve in his office or Grady who was always full of questions, the main one being when Rowe would get tired of playing soldier. Rowe wanted to know about Betty, her marriage and all, half hoping it had failed, but that was one subject he never brought up. There wasn't much time for a lot of chatting, which didn't matter for there was little to be said. Familiar voices were what Rowe was after, connections with loved ones who didn't go down holes and never come out.

When they'd hang up, he'd feel utterly severed, a reaction just the opposite of what he'd hoped for. It was always the same. Their world had spun smoothly on its usual axis. He'd find himself staring at blank space, projecting himself into the field where he'd watch Paez go down that hole, again and again and again.


It was Rowe’s turn to mount the stairs and climb aboard a freedom bird. He counted the steps and stopped at the door where a flight attendant welcomed him into the air-conditioned cabin. His seat was just behind the wing on the left side by a window. Attendants came around with their tidy clothes and sure smiles to remind the men to buckle up and put the seat backs in an upright position.

The plane taxied down the runway gaining speed. There was a last tire skid and the heaviness of the earth slipped away as if a carpet had been yanked out from underneath the wheels. The cabin erupted in cheers. Rowe didn't root, barely heard the racket in fact. He gazed northward to the quilted countryside, rice paddies and rubber plantations, and beyond in the direction of the Boi Loi woods which appeared soft and grainy like a picture slightly out of focus.

From that distance the canopy seemed the texture of a cotton bath mat, something soft God could dry His feet on. Somewhere in that dense, harmless-appearing foliage was one hole, barely big enough to accommodate a small man, and deep inside it Paez, burrowing like a badger, was digging his way to America while Rowe was taking the easy route.

A terrifying sensation, a dark panic engulfed him. He felt as if in his haste to go, he'd left something behind, something he couldn't remember. Already clock hands were turning inside Rowe’s head, ticking off time on the face of a void that soon would be filled with living in the world—perhaps some bourgeois life, some dull-dream he would not be able to escape, of if he were lucky, something better. But he felt as he sat watching out the window that some day in the future a phone would ring, a blaring ring, like an alarm, and he would rush to answer it. And on the other end of the line he'd expect to hear the Tunnel Rat's voice . . .

The plane tilted, and the sun's blinding glare shot up from the mirrored surface of a rice paddy. When Rowe again could see clearly, Boi Loi and the Black Virgin Mountain and all of Tay Ninh Province and War Zone-C had evaporated on the horizon. He felt a tug on his sleeve.

"What will you have, sir?" the attendant asked.

She must have repeated the question without him hearing. He looked as if at an apparition, which she was anyhow. Didn't she know she was an illusion, an image of what they were supposed to believe war was about?

“Do you have Mai Tais,” he asked.

“Sorry, just miniatures."

She held her smile as an outfielder holds a ball barely caught on the fingertips of his glove—hesitant, hopeful. She knew about them. Anything might set them off.

“I’ll have a Jack Daniel's," Rowe said. “On ice." Saying it sounded terribly civilized.

Printed in the Spring/Summer 1999 issue of CLR

H. Lee Barnes

H. Lee Barnes teaches English and creative writing at the Community College of Southern Nevada. His fiction has appeared in several literary journals, most recently in Clackamas Literary Review and Echoes, and two stories are forthcoming in Flint Hills Review. In 1997 he won the Clackamas Literary Review fiction award and in 1991 the Arizona Authors Association award for the short story. Gunning for Ho, his collection about Vietnam, has just been released from the University of Nevada Press.

You can find H. Lee Barnes on the web at:
—  Arizona State University Creative Writing
—  Printed Matter
—  Gunning for Ho
—  Boston Review
—  Amazon
—  Barnes & Noble

Published by Clackamas Literary Review, in print and on the web at,, and
Copyright © 2001-2002, Clackamas Community College