Fiction by Ken Williams: Be Careful What You Bring Back

By Ken Williams

Ken Williams worked as a social worker for the homeless, primary the mentally ill, but including veterans, women, the elderly, drug and alcohol addicted and the physically disabled in Santa Barbara CA for over thirty years. His dedication to his clients has been acknowledged by the Board of Supervisors, the State Senate, State Assembly, A.C.L.U. Santa Barbara Chapter, Housing Authority, California chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, Mental Health Association, Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse and others. The late Paul Walker highlighted his work in the documentary, SHELTER which Paul produced. His writings include the novels: CHINA WHITE, SHATTERED DREAMS, A STORY OF THE STREETS and his current release, FRACTURED ANGEL. THERE MUBST BE HONOR is a non-fiction collection of his writings interwoven with his autobiography. His work has appeared in numerous media outlets. He is a combat Marine veteran of the Vietnam War.


 

 

Searing pain tore at his chest.  The adrenaline rush pumped Wayne’s heart to the breaking point.  He briefly wondered if an eighteen year old could suffer a heart attack?  If it wasn’t for the crackling fire of AK 47s and the pounding of the artillery, he was sure he would be able to hear his heart beating in overdrive.  As it was, he was hoping that it wouldn’t thump free of his chest, bursting forth looking for escape.  He wouldn’t blame it; he too was looking for escape.

The incoming whoosh of an RPG gave him a second to lower his head.  He felt the warmth of the portable missile of death when it sailed past his head missing by inches from taking it off.  Enough of this shit! he told himself and dived into the rice paddy that straddled the trail he was on.  Immediately he pushed himself into the muddy trench wall that was holding the water captive when a barrage of mortars walked down the trail that he had been running on seconds before.  How in the hell were they able to see in the dark!  Perhaps the mortars had sensors geared onto­ his personal smell?  Maybe he shouldn’t take it so personally.  Maybe they, the cold, impersonal mortars had all their scent—the platoon’s that is: Their scent of fear. Their scent of guilt.  He squeezed his eyes tighter. Tears welled up behind them with so much force that it threatened to pop free off his skull

Dear God, please, I’ll be good from now on. Please!  Slowly lifting his head from the mud he sniffed.  Smoldering bamboo, smelling a lot like the dry brush that burned yearly in Southern California, was heavy upon the land.  He was glad it was night.  He didn’t want to, had no need to see the burning remains of what had once been a village.  Damn them to hell!  Why did they level the village?  For what purpose? Lowering his head, he choked back the truth.  It wasn’t they; it was we, all of us.

He knew where he was, back to the nightmare except this was a waking one.  A glimmer of hope was born.  That’s it! A nightmare.  None of this was real.  He would wake to find himself back in the world, back in California.  But the coldness of the water threatening to cramp his legs cut into that escape.  This was real. As real as his fear was. As real as reality would ever get.

Slowly. Trance-like he reached out to the water with his hand.  Never again would he find solace and joy in water.  He knew surfing was something he would never do again.  That is, if he lived passed the next few moments.

Scooping up the water he splashed his face as quietly as he could.  Thirst sandblasted his throat raw reminding him that he had had his last drink hours before, in the midst of a blistering, one hundred–twenty degree day.  It was just before the NVA had walked their mortars into the middle of their column, shredding and scattering Marines to hell and back.

Cupping water in his hands he brought them up to drink.  But then his hands stalled in mid-action.  A tremor ran down his arms.  He struggled.  He brought them closer, the tremor turned into ongoing shakes.  The closer he brought them to his lips the harder they shook.  Then to his surprise he opened his hands releasing what was left of the water.  The violent tension fled his body along with the water.  A cracked smile came to his bloody lips.  He couldn’t.  He wanted to drink but he couldn’t.  Didn’t know why not. But knew it was important not to.  Maybe, just maybe the answer had something to do with sin.  You were supposed to suffer for doing wrong.  He was comfortable with that.  That was the way he had been brought up. You paid for your sins.  He was about to get real close to this particular comfort zone.

Déjà vu glued itself to his skin like he had been rolled in cotton candy.  In spite of the brown, mucky water that he was partially submerged in, the dread of being here before was sticky and suffocating—like someone or something was trying to rob him of breath.  He became light headed from the lack of oxygen.  Breathing became even more painful.  Please let it not be there.  But he knew it would be.  Like a junkie to drugs, he was forced to look.  Lifting his head he saw the blackened mound by the flash of a bursting bomb.  Was it only the day before that they had set up base camp here?  The mound was the top of a shallow bomb shelter where two NVA soldiers had holed up refusing their one and only request to surrender before they had been tear gassed, burned by Willey Peter (white phosphorous) and incinerated with napalm.  Their lieutenant had used them as the excuse to fry the village and turning the inhabitants of the land into “crispy critters.”  Because of two stay behinds?  Two left behinds?  Two deserters?

Wayne sighed and tried to keep his thoughts off his constricting throat.  What he would give for a root beer float.  He could feel the ice cream melting in his mouth satiating his taste buds with sweet vanilla.  “Damn that man!”

Wayne looked nervously about.  He had spoken out loud.  Hadn’t meant to, but there it was.  He leaned his feverish head against the cold metal of his M-16.  There was no reason, none at all for what they had done.  He tried escaping into the rational.  What could he have done?  He was only a private. A grunt. A new guy at that.  It was the officer who had made the decision to call in arty and air on the village.  It was out of his hands.  What could he have done?

But the two dead gooks that fouled the air with their odor was another story:  They were the enemy.  They deserved to die!  As soon as he thought it he knew it was a lie.  His heart told him that violence; the indiscriminate violence of war, any and all wars was the real enemy.  It was a violence that gave birth to fear. That in turn became corrosive and ate away at his heart.  He may be a new guy but he knew that turning people’s houses into burnt chambers of death was wrong.  That the killing of men, women and children, even the killing of the so-called enemy was wrong.  After all, what made them the enemy?  Speeches by old men safely encased in capitals of the world another reality removed?  The fact that they had taken up a gun to defend family—community from such violence as had been visited upon this village?

In thirty years would they still be the enemy?  Would anyone care? Care about them or what happened here?  Or would they simply be forgotten. Replaced by others: Enemy of the day much like they sold ice cream by flavors of the month.

Rapid movement from down the patty disturbed his thoughts along with the water.  Water sloshed, sounding like the heavy waves at the Wedge back in California.  He suddenly realized that the mortars and the crack of enemy rifles had stopped.  And it had been a long time since he had heard Marine M-16s coughing back.  No! Not enemy rifles.  No more!  The only enemy he had, he decided, was the violence of war.  Still, he swung his M-16 around ready to cut loose a barrage of death.  The sound came closer sending ripples lapping at his waist.  Bringing his rifle up to his shoulder he dug it hard into it when a crouching silhouette approached.  He tightened his finger on the trigger and tasted cold sweat that tickled his upper lip.  Then the words of his father rang out loud in the night, “The war will last thirteen months for you, son. Survive that.  Then you must live with your conscience for the rest of your life.  Be careful what you do. What you bring back with you so you can survive the absence of war.  That’s the hard part.”

When Wayne had first heard his father tell him that he assumed his father meant the first part of the statement.  Now. He knew better.  “Be careful what you bring back.”  Guilt was a bitch!  Lowering his rifle he remembered how sad his dad had been when he enlisted.

His old man had served in the Corps in the Pacific in World War II.  He never understood why his dad didn’t share war stories with him, not like some of the other kid’s fathers had.  Then he remembered his dad’s disgust with those who had served safely in the rear having the bravest, fondest stories of war.  He was beginning to understand his dad for the first time:  The intensity of the man—the depths of his sorrow.  He lowered his rifle, letting it slip from his hands into the water.  He hadn’t consciously meant to, but there it was.

A body fell on him.  A grunt, a soft curse. An American curse.

“Who?  Who is it?”  Wayne whispered hoarsely, his throat hurting with the effort.

“’Who is it?’  What kind of challenge is that?”

Wayne went stone cold.  The voice was that of the Lieutenant.

A loud explosion threw dirt high but at least it was still on the trail.  It gave Wayne temporary sight of the man cringing next to him.  The man’s expression was wild. His lips were pulled tightly back. Eyes flaring wide open and skin whitewashed, aging him considerably beyond his twenty-seven years.  He held a .45 tightly to his chest.

“Are you wounded?” the Lieutenant whispered in the excruciating quiet that follows explosions.

“No.”

“What’s your name?”

“Surfer.”

“Surfer?  Your name numb nuts. Not those stupid nicknames you give each other.”

“Surfer.”  Wayne was surprised, then delighted that he no longer wanted to claim any other identity other than the nickname that had followed him from boot camp.  It was his way of divorcing himself from this insanity that surrounded him.

“Does a rank come with that?” the Lieutenant asked sarcastically.  “What’s that ungodly smell?” he asked in his clipped speech after sniffing the air.

“Your work,” Wayne replied.

“My work?”

“The smell of rotten eggs?  That would be white phosphorous.  You know, not even water will put it out.  It’ll burn right through a human body—from one side clear to the other.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“And the other smell, the acrid one is fried human flesh.  And of course, then there’s the smell of the toasted village.  God know how many crispy critters you made there.”

“Are you nuts?  Shell-shocked?  Don’t think so, so give it a rest.  A Section 8 won’t do you any good out here.”

Silence crept into the paddy.  In some ways it was worse than the noise of rifle fire and the loud explosions of bombs going off.

“You’ve seen anyone else?”

“Anyone else?  You mean us?  Them?  The villagers?  The two guys…”

“What the hell’s the matter with you?  What are you babbling about?”

“Death?”

“Death?”

The moon, breaking free from the clouds cast a brilliant white light.  The Lieutenant looked askew at Wayne.

“Where’s your rifle?”

“Lost it.”

“Lost it?  You are one for the books.  How about a canteen?  Got any water left.”

“Nope.”

“Figures.”  The officer took his own canteen out and began to unscrew it.  He submerged it into the black water.  Bubbles gently filled the night air.  Bringing it up, he poured half it down his throat before coming up for air.  “Want some?” he asked offering the canteen to Wayne.

Panic welled up in Wayne.  He vigorously shook his head.

“Thought you didn’t have a canteen?  When did you last have a drink?”

“Long time,” came the garbled reply. He noticed a new sensation. His throat hurt like hell from lack of water. He was sure he couldn’t even muster up spit if his life depended on it.

“Then have some!” the Lieutenant demanded pushing the canteen hard at Wayne.

“No!  Be careful what you bring back!”

“What are you babbling ‘bout now?”

When Wayne refused to answer, the Lieutenant pushed himself up to the bank’s edge and peaked over.  “Damn them gooks!”

Even though the man had whispered his curse Wayne recoiled like he had shouted it.  Never before had he heard, REALLY heard how awful that word sounded.  In shame he relived the moment minutes before when he had said the word within the confines of his skull.  If war was the problem then racism was the tool that allowed men to dehumanize each other so they could kill each other as abstracts, not as flesh and blood with souls attached.  His chin dropped.  He had a lot to learn-—that is unlearn.  He had a lot of soul cleansing to do.

“Goddamn them gooks, they killed my men!”  This time the words were spoken louder.

“And you…? That is, us, them.”  Wayne’s words were mere whispers.

“What?” the Lieutenant said, sliding down.  Wayne heard the click when the officer took the safety off his 45.

“Don’t you see?  We kill them because they kill us.  And they kill us because we kill them.  It’s savagery plain and simple.”  Swallowing hard, he continued.  “Why do you invoke God’s name?”

“Because he would want us to kill them bastards! Carpet bomb the shit out of them!”

“Really?  What about the First Commandment?  The very first commandment.”

“They’re godless communists!  They aren’t Christians!  We’re doing his work here.”

“’Thou shall not kill.’  It does not say thou shall not kill only Christians.”

Wayne could feel his life being weighed on some inner scale of the officer.  In time he heard the click.  The safety was back on.  An easier breath came to him.

“Perhaps we need to be quiet or risk giving our position away,” Wayne suggested having no death wish to press his luck.  Besides, everything was said that needed to be said.  “I suggest we wait here for morning and pray to God the company mounts a rescue mission.”

The Lieutenant tensed and took another hard pull from his canteen.  Mercifully, Wayne heard no more from the officer that night.  Time seemed to have taken a side step.  He tried to figure out what to tell his dad but nothing that would make sense came to him.  Finally, near morning, calmness settled over him.  That was it!  There was NOTHING to say.  Like his dad he would have no war stories to glorify hell with and beguile those who had never tasted its bitter fruit.

He must have passed out from exhaustion, thirst and adrenaline overload for the sound of the Lieutenant drinking water brought him back into the immediate present.  Bright sunlight broke the horizon.  He cocked his head to one side when the womp of approaching choppers demanded his attention.  The Lieutenant stood cautiously and looked about.  All was as quiet as a morgue.  The noise of the rescue choppers grew louder till a flight of them streaked overhead.  Either for good measure or for the joy of killing, they let loose with a barrage of rocket and machinegun fire.  The officer smiled. Stretched and climbed up the muddy embankment.

He stood like a proud peacock with his forty-five firmly grasped in one hand and a partially empty canteen dangling in the other.  Turning back to face him, Wayne saw the boastful smile of the Lieutenant turn to one of horror.  First the pistol dropped. Followed by the canteen crashing to earth.  Then the man dropped to his knees.  Dry heaves shook his body.  Wayne stood. His face turned soft with question.  He also turned.  His sight was dragged to the far end of the small rice patty.  His look of question became deeper.  He had no idea that human remains could decompose so fast in the humid conditions of Viet Nam.  The dozen or so bodies bobbing in the water were grotesquely bloated—their skin blackened.  They were in transition: somewhere between a solid and liquid state.  “Be careful what you bring back.”  A wounded look came to him.  He had his war story for those who insisted on the glory and honor of war.  And the Lieutenant? He had a war souvenir that would remain a part of him as long as he lived.

 

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