I interrupt. “Don’t call me Freddy,” I say. “I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. Call me Fred. Call me Fredrick. Call me anything you want to, but don’t call me Freddy.” I know this is a colossal waste of breath, since Bill always calls me Freddy, but for me, it is a point of pride. My ninth grade gym teacher, the sadist, called me Freddy. Both of my ex-wives called me Freddy. My first lieutenant, long dead, called me Freddy. Lots of people I would just as soon not remember called me Freddy.
“Fine,” Bill continues, “As I was saying, Dickhead, McGovern doesn’t stand a chance. Not a snowball’s chance in hell. Not a virgin’s chance in a harem. It’s not even a remote possibility.”
“You’re wrong,” I reply. “I’m telling you, the times are changing. The war’s going to end, the Pirates won the World Series, and for God’s sake, the Beatles even broke up last year. I’m telling you, the times are changing. Have you ever even listened to Dylan?”
Bill takes a long hit off a joint, smirking at me through the veil of smoke. “Freddy, Freddy, Freddy,” he says, shaking his head as he passes me the joint. “You really don’t get it, do you? Out with the old in with the new. Blah, blah, blah. The more things change the more they stay the same. The war’s ending. Big fucking deal, the virus is played out in that little corner of the world. It’ll raise its ugly head up again soon enough. Someone has to win the World Series, and the Beatles, well that can be summed up with one four-letter word.” He pauses, smiling condescendingly. “Yoko.” Reaching over, he pats me on the shoulder. “Smoke the dope, don’t be a dope,” he says.
I take the joint. Bill has a way of boiling things down to their bare essentials. Sometimes Bill really pisses me off. Even so, he is my best… actually my only friend. We were in kindergarten together. He was best man in both of my weddings. We spent thirteen months together in hell on earth and were then and therefore will always be brothers in arms. I hit the joint hard, holding the smoke deep, uttering—without exhaling—the most overused phrase in modern dope history. “Good shit.” I am so thankful that marijuana is not addictive. If it was, I would be in some very serious trouble. I love the stuff. I smoke it every day, pretty much all day, not because I have to, but because I want to. Someday, I’m sure I’ll quit. Maybe when I get a real job. Right now, I’m the caretaker of an old rooming house. The place is a dump, home to local college students and outpatients from the mental ward at the V.A. hospital. I don’t mind the students, but the outpatients scare me—not in a physical sense, but in a general sense. I just don’t like hanging around crazy people. It’s like they know some terrible secret that has driven them crazy and I worry that if I hang around them long enough, I might discover the secret and go crazy too. Thankfully I am not, at the current time, crazy. I am, however, a compulsive liar. Really, you can believe me. I pass the joint back to Bill.
My compulsivity relative to truth telling started after a firefight in Nam, when our C.O. asked us for body count numbers. I decided right then that whatever Bill’s number; I would beat it by one. From that day forward, if Bill said he killed two people, I’d say I killed three. If Bill said he killed six, I’d claim seven. This annoyed Bill, since he considered war to be a very serious endeavor, and he was a very good soldier, a very good soldier indeed. Good soldiers never doubt their mission. Good soldiers know that they are on the right side. Good soldiers follow orders. Me—I just wanted to survive thirteen months, get back to the world, and stay high for the rest of my life. I only know for sure that I killed one person. Most of the time I just kept my head low and fired wildly into the jungle. But Bill—Bill’s numbers were high and Bill’s numbers were accurate.
Bill hits the joint again, the smoke rolling from his mouth, then disappearing up his nostrils. He stares off into space for a long moment, and then looks at me. “Do you ever think about Bobby D?” he asks.
I lie. “No.”
Bobby D rotated into the platoon as a KIA replacement. He didn’t curse, he didn’t drink, and he didn’t smoke grass. In Nam, everyone cursed—it was part of the soldier’s language. It was as common as breathing. Fuck was a noun, a verb, an adjective, an adverb. It was the all-encompassing descriptor, used in every sentence, on every occasion, whenever or wherever it could possibly fit. There were several in the platoon who didn’t smoke pot, there were even a few who didn’t drink, but everyone cursed. The soldiers in the platoon assumed the soft-spoken boy from central Missouri would learn the language soon enough. They assumed that after a few search and destroys, he would need a drink, and maybe, just maybe, he would eventually need some dope.
Bobby had been at base camp for two weeks, in two days the platoon was scheduled out on a zippo mission. I approached him in the mess tent line. “Bobby D, in two days we go out,” I said, wrapping my arm around his shoulder. “So tonight we’re going to Dog Patch. It not an option, it’s a tradition. Call it a sacred tradition.”
Bobby looked anxious. We took our trays and moved along the food line. “What exactly is Dog Patch, sir?” he asked, taking a plate full of chopped beef and gravy.
“First of all, don’t call me sir,” I replied. I stuck a fork in a piece of meat, brought it to my nose and inhaled. “It’s dead, that’s for sure. The question is, how long has it been dead?” I smiled at the server. “How long ago did you kill the dog?” I asked. The server smiled back and raised his middle finger. We continued down the line and found an empty table. “Dog Patch,” I continued, “is a little slice of paradise, a place where you can pretty much get whatever you want. You want a hot dog, you can get a hot dog. You want ice cream, you can get ice cream. You want whiskey, you can get whiskey. You want grass, you can get grass. You want a woman, you can get a woman. Or two, or even three if you prefer.”
Bobby set his fork down and raised his eyebrows. “You know I don’t drink, sir.”
“Don’t call me sir.” I said. “Then don’t drink. Look, you know we’re going out on a search and destroy in two days. I’m guessing you’re a virgin, right?”
Bobby’s face reddened.
“No one, especially in this God-forsaken parcel of land, should die a virgin, understand?”
“I hadn’t planned on dying, sir,” Bobby said earnestly.
“None of the soldiers who die plan on dying, Bobby D. But die they do. It happens. And don’t call me sir,” I said, as I stuck my fork in the meat, pushed my tray away and stood up. “Now, whaddya say we get out of here and have some fun tonight?”
“Well, it has been a while since I had a hot dog,” Bobby said.
Dog Patch was a cluster of tin roof shanties, located a couple of klicks from base, consisting of bars, bordellos, massage parlors, dope dealers, and even a barber shop. Technically, it was off limits, but unless there was big trouble, the MPs usually turned a blind eye to the soldiers who frequented the area. We sat in a small, dimly lit bar. I was on my third whiskey, Bobby on his second hot dog and Coke. “You sure you don’t want a drink, Bobby D?” I asked.
Bobby bit into his hot dog. “I’m sure sir,” he said, chewing as he spoke.
I reached over and cuffed the back of Bobby’s head. “For the last time, don’t call me sir. I’m not an officer and I’m not your fucking dad.” I finished my whiskey, then ordered another.
“Sorry s—Freddy, it’s how I was raised,” he said sheepishly. “I didn’t mean to make you angry.”
“First of all, soldiers don’t get angry,” I said. “Soldiers get pissed off. Soldiers get real pissed off. Soldiers get real fucking pissed off. Second of all, for the next thirteen months, you need to forget everything your mommy and daddy taught you. You need to forget everything your Sunday school teacher taught you. You need to quit being so fucking nice, understand? You want to survive, you can’t be fucking nice. Underfuckingstand?
“You sure you don’t want a drink?”
The bartender set my whiskey on the bar. I lifted the glass, looked at Bobby and took a swig. “You don’t know what you’re missing,” I said. I smiled at the bartender, a small, middle-aged, balding Vietnamese man. “Hey, Hoang, you holding anything behind the bar for me?”
Hoang smiled broadly. “I always holding for you, Freddy. Always holding for you.” He reached beneath the bar, pulled out a small bag of marijuana, and handed it to me.
I opened the bag, brought it to my nose, and inhaled deeply. “Man, that smells good,” I said, “What do you call it this week?” I asked.
“Vietnamese black,” Hoang replied. “Good shit. Promise.”
“No need to promise, it’s not like we’re getting married,” I replied, putting the bag into my shirt pocket. “I know it’s good. Your shit is always good. That’s why I’m here.”
“Isn’t that against the law or against the rules or something?” Bobby asked, nervously glancing over his shoulder.
I chuckled. “We’re in a war zone, buddy. There are no laws. And yes, technically it is against the rules, and you need to learn the rules, so you know which ones you can break.”
Bobby looked puzzled. “I don’t understand.”
“Look, around here some rules are very important rules. If you break them, you will die. Other rules are just kind of important rules. If you break them, someone else might die. And some rules are totally fucked up rules. They’re just in place because the fucking rule makers are totally fucked up.” I took the grass and a packet of zigzags out of my pocket, smiled at Bobby, and began rolling a thin joint. “Don’t need much of this,” I said. “It’s a lot better than the shit back in the world. This really is good shit.” I paused, nodding at Bobby. “Never stand up during a fire-fight—very important rule. Never salute an officer when you’re on a zippo mission—kind of important rule. Don’t buy drugs—totally fucked up rule.” I finished rolling, licked the paper, and tucked the joint behind my ear. “Understand?”
“I think I understand,” Bobby said. “I should never stand up during a fire-fight, right?”
I smiled. “Now you’re getting it, Bobby D. Now you’re getting it.”
Bobby finished his Coke. “How many missions have you been on?” he asked.
I held up three fingers and drained my whiskey. “Three questions, that’s all you get. Three questions and then we’re getting out of here.” I motioned Hoang for another drink. “You sure you don’t want a drink?” I asked Bobby D.
“I’m sure. Maybe after we come back, though.”
I stared at Bobby for a long minute. “Ahh, let the dogs of war rip at your flesh first, eh?” I said quietly. “Good call. You’ll need a drink.” Hoang set another whiskey on the bar. I lifted the glass and stared at the amber liquid. “I don’t count missions. I count day’s left. One hundred and fifty-three days and I’m gone.” I set the glass back on the bar. “And I’m never looking back.”
“What’s it like?”
“You’ll see soon enough,” I said, glancing at my watch. “Thirty-six hours to be exact. Remember the rule?”
“Never stand up during a firefight.”
“Good. Never hesitate. You see movement, you pull the trigger—very important rule. God willing, we’ll be back here in eight days and one of us, or maybe both of us will be having a drink.”
Bobby lifted his empty Coke glass. “Amen,” he said.
I raise my drink. . “Hallefuckinglujah,” I said, clinking our glasses together.
“Do you ever pray before you go out?” Bobby D asked, setting his empty glass back on the bar.
“I don’t see the point of prayer,” I answered. “God’s supposed to know all things, right?”
“Right,” Bobby replied.
“Then what’s the point?”
“If God knows all things, he already knows what you’re going to pray about, right? Why bother praying if he already knows what you want?”
Bobby looked at me and smiled. “Freddy,” he said, “I’m not praying so he knows what I want, I’m praying so I know what he wants.”
I finished my whiskey. “Far out,” I said. “Searching for the mind of the almighty.” I set my glass back on the bar, reached over a patted Bobby on the back. “Let me know how that works out for you, kid. And while you’re at it, put a good fucking word in for me, okay.”
Bobby D smiled back at me. “No problem, sir. Consider it done.” He stared at me for a moment, the smile gone from his face. “One more question,” he said. “Have you seen a lot of men die?”
“That’s four questions,” I replied. “It’s time to get out of here. Let’s go fire up MaryJane and go visit some lady friends.” I tossed some bills on the bar and stood up. “Remember, everybody dies. Some die sooner and some die later, but sooner or later everyone dies, my friend.”
“I never look back. I don’t drive with a rear-view mirror,” I say, reaching out with my hand. “Don’t bogard the joint. Dope doesn’t grow on trees, you know.”
Bill takes a clip and attaches it to the end of the joint. He takes another hit. “If you don’t remember where you’ve been, you’ll never be able to figure out where you want to go,” he says. He hangs on to the joint.
“I don’t really care where I’m going,” I reply. “I just want to live a perfectly meaningful meaningless life. I thought you understood that. Is that too much to ask? Now pass me that joint.”
“You know what I think?” He hits the joint again. “I think you like this stuff way too much,” he says, answering his own question, as he waves the roach clip in the air.
“You know what I think? I think I really don’t care what you think.” I say, pausing for a moment. “Isn’t that the pot calling the kettle black?” Of course, Bill is absolutely right. I do like the stuff way too much, but it’s not something I care to discuss at the current time. “After all,” I continue, “you’re the one holding the joint.”
“Here’s the difference,” Bill says. “I don’t smoke dope morning, noon, and night. We’ve been back in the world—what—seventeen, eighteen months—and you’ve been high all day every day. That’s the difference.”
“Five hundred and thirty seven days,” I say.
“Five hundred and thirty seven days. We’ve been back in the world five hundred and thirty seven days and I’ve been high all day every day.” I pause. “Just like I planned. I’m living the dream, my friend.”
“Yeah, well you might want to think about waking up.” He passes me the joint.
“About time,” I say.
“So you don’t look back and you don’t care where you’re going,” Bill says. “The prophet Bob Dylan tells you the times are changing and you get a hard-on, right? McGovern’s going to end the war and everyone’s going to live happily fucking ever after, right?” He leans over and taps me on the chest. “Listen,” he says, “Nothing can change what’s already been done. And you have to decide what’s yet to be done. It’s all up to you. The problem is you’re so scared shitless of your past, you’re afraid to face your future.”
I take another hit off the joint and look calmly back at Bill. “Maybe I happen to like the present,” I say. “And by the way, I’m not afraid of anything.”
Bill stares at me and says nothing.
“So, what if I do think about Bobby D?” I ask. “It doesn’t change anything.”
“I liked that kid.”
“You ever think about the lieutenant?” Bill asks.
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
The lieutenant was a shake and bake, fresh from OTC, anxious to prove himself the leader that he was certain he was destined to be. We were four days out from base, and he was pushing us hard, ten or twelve clicks per day. Our uniforms were filthy, wet with sweat and humidity, and we were getting restless, anxious to get back to base. Many of the soldiers in the platoon were short-timers, beginning to daydream of girls and cars back home, daring to believe in the possibility of their own survival as we humped through the hot fetid jungle. It was now near dusk. I was at point, moving slowly, quietly, deliberately pausing at each step, listening intently, trying to sense anything out of the ordinary. I liked being the point man, and would volunteer for the job, just to keep a cherry from getting the assignment. A cherry would inevitably step on a Bouncing Betty or cross a trip wire or lead the entire platoon into an ambush. I had never led the platoon into an ambush, and had never failed to spot a booby trap. I didn’t worry too much about snipers, because I knew any decent sniper would let me pass in order to increase the kill ratio when the entire platoon came into range. I was following a narrow path, overgrown with vines, when I spotted the trip wire, strung low across the trail. I stopped and raised my arm, signaling the men behind to take cover. I moved to the edge of the path and stepped silently over the wire, crouching low, peering intently into the jungle. There was no movement. I stood frozen, watching, moving only my eyes. After a moment I saw the overhead. It was three feet high, camouflaged with vines. Several yards away there was another, and yet another, and still another, each one covering a mid-size bunker. For several minutes I remained perfectly still, controlling my breathing, trying to control my fear, watching for any movement, listening for any sound. I saw nothing. I heard nothing. Slowly, carefully, I stepped back over the trip wire and made my way back to the troops.
I found the lieutenant and sergeant and crouched down beside them. The lieutenant looked at me expectantly. I had seen the look before—the impatience, the anticipation, the fear and excitement in the eyes of those who had imagined combat, but never actually experienced combat. The look would change soon enough. “What did you see, soldier?”
“It’s a bunker complex, sir. Too many for Charlie. Must be NVA.” I paused, glancing at the sergeant, “Bill, there could be anywhere from a platoon to a company.”
“You’re not talking to the sergeant, you’re talking to me,” the lieutenant said impatiently. “Did you see the enemy?”
“I saw no movement, sir.”
“So the enemy isn’t there?”
“I saw no movement, sir.”
The lieutenant shifted his glance to Bill. “What do you think?”
Bill nodded at me.
“The bunkers could be abandoned. The enemy could be out on patrol. Or they could be waiting for our platoon to advance so they can kill every last one of us,” I said, looking at Bill.
“That’s not very precise information,” the lieutenant said, shaking his head.
“It is what it is,” I replied.
“We’re taking those bunkers.” The lieutenant stood up. “Get your squad ready to advance, Freddy.”
Bill yanked hard on the lieutenant’s leg. “Sir, get down. Don’t stand.”
The lieutenant crouched back down. “Listen,” he said. “There’s still some daylight left. We’re taking those bunkers.”
I spit on the ground. “That is a very bad idea.”
The lieutenant glared at me. “I didn’t ask what you thought, Freddy.” He looked a Bill. “What so you think, Sergeant?”
“That is a very bad idea, sir.”
“In terms of ideas, that’s a number ten-thousand sir,” I said.
The lieutenant looked intently at Bill. “Okay, Sergeant, tell me what you think we should do.”
“We should pull back a klick or two, dig in, set out claymores and trip flares, wait out the night, and call in an air strike in the morning,” I said. “That’s what we should do.”
“You don’t listen too good, do you soldier?” the lieutenant said tersely. “What do you think we should do, Sergeant?”
“We should pull back a klick or two, dig in, set out claymores and trip flares, wait out the night, and call in an air strike in the morning,” Bill said. “That’s exactly what we should do, sir.”
“Listen,” the lieutenant said tersely. I’m in command here. I don’t go backwards. Understand?”
We remained silent.
“Did you hear me?”
Bill nodded. “Yes, sir, loud and clear” he replied. “Get your squad together, Freddy,” he said.
“Hold on a minute,” I said, shaking my head. “What about a mad minute?”
Bill nodded. “Good idea.”
“Mad minute? What the hell is a mad minute?” the lieutenant asked.
“A mad minute, sir,” Bill replied. “We open up with every thing we’ve got right at the bunkers. Rifles, grenade launchers, even the M-60. Everything we’ve got for one minute. Believe me, if they’re in there, they’ll return fire.”
The lieutenant was quiet for a moment. He looked from me to Bill. “Okay,” he said. “We’ll try the mad minute. Get the men ready.”
The soldiers took position, staying low, taking whatever cover they could find. I motioned for Bobby D to move closer to me. “Remember the rule?’ I asked.
“Don’t stand up,” Bobby D replied.
“If you see movement, what do you do?”
“Pull the trigger.”
“Good.” I slapped Bobby on the back. Now pray that Lieutenant Dumb Fuck doesn’t get us all killed.”
The lieutenant was several yards away from us. He looked up and down the line. “Ready?” he yelled.
I tapped Bobby’s shoulder. “You ready, Bobby D?” I asked.
“Keep your head down. Do not stand up,” I said.
We opened fire. The sound was deafening, awesome, fearsome. It shook the jungle, pulsing into our chests. After one minute it stopped. Everything was still. The lieutenant looked up and down the line, then stood up. “Let’s go men,” he screamed.
Bobby watched the lieutenant stand. “Sir, don’t stand,” he yelled, rushing toward him in a low crouch. He hit the lieutenant hard at the waist. Bullets tore into Bobby’s back, twisting his torso, slamming his body into the lieutenant, throwing them both back five feet. They landed hard and were both still, the lieutenant on his back, Bobby sprawled over him.
I scrambled over to them, turned Bobby over and cradled his head. His eyes flickered as he looked at me. “Don’t,” he murmured weakly. A blood bubble formed on his lips. I turned my head. “Medic,” I screamed. I looked back at Bobby and saw the exit wounds, large gaping holes, pouring blood. “Stand,” Bobby said. Then Bobby died.
I let go of Bobby, then looked at the unconscious lieutenant. I started to raise my rifle, then felt a hand grab my shoulder. “Don’t do it, Freddy,” Bill said.
“Bobby’s dead.” I looked at Bill.
“I know,” Bill replied. “C’mon, we’ve got company. There’s work to do.”
Small arms fire erupted from the jungle. The muzzle flashes were visible in the fading light, heavy fire, spreading wide. Bill crouched and ran to the end of the line. “Don’t let them flank us,” he screamed. The M-60 machine gunner was dead, shot through the head, slumped over his gun. Bill pushed him aside and laid down a wall of fire, driving the enemy back toward the center of the fight.
Grenades exploded, spewing shrapnel and dirt. Men screamed. The fight see-sawed back and forth, first in one spot, then another. Shadows moved in the jungle. A chaotic dance of death, no one knowing who was leading. And then it was still. Darkness was upon us.
Everyone waited, staring hard into the night. It remained quiet. Bill found me at the center of the line. “Find the medics, get a body count, check the wounded.”
“Already done,” I replied. “Six dead, including both medics. Three wounded, none serious, not counting the lieutenant.”
“What’s with the lieutenant?” Bill asked.
“Concussion. Bullet wound in the side. He’ll live. I gave him enough morphine to keep him down through the night,” I said, shaking my head. “Fucking idiot.” We peered into the dark jungle. “What do you think?” I asked.
“They weren’t more than a platoon, thank god,” Bill replied. “I think they’re gone. They know an air strike will hit in the morning. They did enough damage. ” He stared into the night. “They’re gone.”
I nodded. “I’ll check the perimeter and get the boys ready for the night.”
It was pitch black. The men spoke in whispers, passing along the names of the dead. Alone in the night, they grieved for the fallen, but were thankful that they themselves were not among them. The soldier’s conundrum. Minutes ticked by in the darkness. They waited, hoping, praying the night would pass uneventful. They could taste the fear in the back of their throats. Winning or losing no longer mattered. Right or wrong no longer mattered. Staying alive was all that mattered. The minutes turned to hours. Soldiers began to nod off, unable to withstand the adrenaline crash.
There was an explosion in the dead of the night. Bill found me near the center of camp, staring down. He flashed his light to the ground. The lieutenant’s body was grotesquely twisted, torn nearly in half. Bill shook his head in disbelief. “Fuck, Freddy,” he whispered hoarsely. “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.” He raised his eyes, looking at me. “What the fuck, Freddy?”
I looked back at Bill. “Must have been an RPG,” I said. “You’re in charge now.” I turned and walked into the darkness. We never spoke of it again.
I lick my thumb and forefinger, then squeeze the end of the joint, listening to the sizzle as the ember goes dead. I put the roach into a small matchbox, and smile at Bill. “I’ll save it for later,” I say. “Roach dope, it’s the best, you know.”
“So they say.” Bill stands. “I have to split. See you tomorrow, Freddy.”
“Don’t call me Freddy,” I say.
He stops, putting his hand on my shoulder. “See you tomorrow, Fredrick. See you tomorrow.”
Bill leaves. I walk into the bedroom, open the top dresser drawer and look down. I begin reading the obituary for the five hundred and thirty-seventh time.
First Lieutenant Donald Jensen, 23, lifelong resident of Des Moines, Iowa, died Saturday, December 13, 1969 in Vietnam, as result of hostile action…
I look up, into the mirror hanging above the dresser. “I’m not afraid to look back,” I say to the man in the mirror.
“I know,” he replies.
“There’s just nothing back there worth looking at,” I continue.
“I know,” he replies.
“Which came first?” I ask. “The chicken or the egg?”
“You tell me,” the man in the mirror replies. “Which came first, the pain or the addiction?”
“It doesn’t matter, they’re both here.” I stare at the man in the mirror. “Tomorrow, I’m going to quit.
The man in the mirror gives a sad laugh. “Maybe tomorrow,” he says. He lights up another joint. “Not today. Maybe tomorrow.”