Thursday, September 22, 2011

Day in the Plain of Reeds, A short story

I'm taking a break from Will's Civil War journal to present one of several short stories I've written over the years about my year in Vietnam. I hope you enjoy it.

Day in the Plain of Reeds
©2011 Christopher Newlon Green

Through my field glasses I studied a flock of gray crane flying overhead toward the marshlands west of us, unbothered by war. Their distinctive red heads and black-tipped wings contrasted the clouding sky.

Now with the naked eye, I watched the cyclist traverse a narrow, wood bridge over the muddy canal stream-bed a half-kilometer away, his black hair flowing under a white cap. He then disappeared among a hedgerow, then behind a tall berm. Was he headed our way or toward a grove of palms about one click south of us? The lugging putt-putt sound of the motor bike became louder coming our way as the rider curved to the right of the LZ and approached the village.

“What d’ya think went wrong, Sarge?” I asked.

“Somebody fucked up”, he replied, “Zung, where are ya?”

I had to chuckle to myself how the Sarge’s last words directed to Zung seemed to sum up his prejudice and disdain toward our interpreter. To the Sarge they were all gooks. Zung was learned, and the Sarge couldn’t handle that. Our interpreter could always sense the NCO’s mean streak and, for his own good, managed to hold his own anger in check. He glanced at me as he cautiously left the protection of the quan coc to join the Sarge in the middle of the road.

The cyclist slowed down and stopped in front of our small group in the middle of the road. A slender anh, a young man, in a white long-sleeve dress shirt and dark western-style pleated slacks, dismounted and secured his bike. He quickly began combing his black hair back as he walked toward us. Pinned on his shirt pocket he wore the small red cross of the government medical corps, Quan Y. I wore one on my left fatigue pocket, strictly non-reg, but so was my soft jungle hat.

With much deference his eyes darted back and forth to each of us, for our body language was saying WE WANT ANSWERS! With a big smile, displaying a gold front tooth, our visitor bowed, saluted, offered his hand, and greeted each of us with “Ong manh gioi, khong?” Yes, I’m fine and you? Anh and Zung then conversed in hushed tones about our situation here in the village.

The Sarge interrupted them and got to the point, “What the fuck is goin’ on?”

“He say order not received. I think someone forgot to arrange”, Zung summarized the situation to us.

Anh Thanh, standing there nervously smiling, was working at damage control. Someone had simply dropped the ball and neglected to inform the farmers, nearby villagers, as well as the Moc Hoa Quan Y, that the American “doctors” would be in town.

A gray cloud moved overhead and it threatened rain; we took our meeting inside the quan coc.

“Let’s get the word out now to the villagers that we are here,” Sarge suggested. No, that would be impossible our visitor replied through Zung, not enough time. Without a field radio to call in a chopper for a pick up, it appeared that we were stuck here for the day. The sun broke through the clouds.

The young man took the break in the weather as his cue to get out of this out-post; he couldn’t get back on his bike fast enough. Thanh promised to call Co Van My Bluebird, our My Tho HQ, when he got back to Moc Hoa.

“Oh yeah, like the Army is goin’ drop everything and send a limo out to pick up our sorry asses”, the Sarge summed it up with a sardonic chuckle.

So, we stood there, wetted by intermittent showers, and watched Anh Thanh cross over the bridge and disappear from view. Like Sarge said, two fuck-ups. Would there be a third?

The showers let up, and sweat dripped again off our faces. With the Sarge’s OK, I sent Do out beyond the LZ, down the Moc Hoa road to stand guard. I soon noticed he had found a lean-to by a water wheel near the bridge. He gave me the high sign with his rifle barrel once he was in place.

By 1130 hours Sarge and I had each finished off a bowl of pork and noodle soup, and started working on our second “Ba Moui Ba”, a weak rice beer, with the number “33” on the label. It’s close to drinking watered-down formaldehyde I was told, far better than drinking the water, though. But, as long as I took my little white pill, I could eat and drink almost anything. I’d suffered from the GIs for the past couple of months; it was no big deal now.

Boredom started to kick in, so when the owner’s teen-age daughter delivered Sarge’s and my second bottles of poison, I told her, with Zung reluctantly translating, that I thought she was pretty, and that I wanted to take her photo. At that, the Co’s face flushed and she dashed to the back of the quan coc and disappeared into the living quarters before I could un-sling my camera from my shoulder.

“What the hell happened, Zung?” I asked.

“Many Vietnam girl never told they are pretty and words make them timide,” he replied using the French word for shy.

I didn’t see the Co the rest of the day. Her mother, the Ba, cleared the bowls off our tables without a word, and without looking at me. Then, she went to the back of the quan coc and tied up a hammock in the breezeway for the Sarge.

After that, Zung retreated from the quan coc, to escape from the Americans, I suppose, and to find a secluded spot where he could read his book, I was sure.

It began to rain again. Across the plain the clouds dragged along the ground all around us. Raindrops, now banging the metal roofs, were loud enough that I sometimes found myself yelling back at the Sarge, as we exchanged jokes and stories, both watching a tree line, each keeping his un-ease and feelings of isolation to himself.

Finally Sarge grew silent. That was okay with me; I was tiring of his bullshit stories anyway. Sarge’s boot heel crushed his spent Marlboro into the dirt floor and he settled into his hammock, Carbine on his lap, to watch the LZ and the far levees.

As the rain ceased, I was overcome by ennui. I was weary of Sarge’s twangy voice, and his “Johnny Reb will rise again” take on things, his swagger. I was a California Boy. The Civil War? ... Get over it, man.

A long silence followed as Sarge finished off his second beer. His brown fluted beer bottle with the “33” label reminded me that we were in a combat zone, and not some American beer joint, time to spread out and watch the perimeter. And like Zung, I yearned to find a secluded spot, a different look out.

I stowed my journal in my field pack, grabbed my weapon, and with two bottles of warm “33” stuffed into my fatigue pockets I left the quan coc. Seeming to want me to leave, the Ba cleared a path through the shack and offered me a tall glass of ice on my way out.

“Hey Sarge, I’m gonna check on Do and Zung.”

“OK,” Sarge replied while eyeing the hedgerow beyond the LZ through his field glasses, “I want you to watch that grove of trees to the southwest; it’s outta my view.”

I gave a lazy salute back and headed outside to check the roads, touch base with Ha Shi Do and Zung, and after downing two beers, to get to the outhouse.

Up ahead under the shelter of a frond-covered lean-to I spotted Do surveying the eastern levee road, and called out to him as I headed for the latrine. He raised his weapon slightly as a salute. You have to love his Tommy gun. I didn’t see Zung, but he had a way of disappearing.

Coming back from the outhouse I paused to study the roof line of the “circus” building west of the quan coc. I heard again what I thought were squealing sounds coming from within its walls. It began to sprinkle again, so I headed for its door to find shelter and to investigate.

I entered its low doorway, and my eyes immediately fixed on the bamboo cages, a dozen or more, along the wall to the left of the doorway. Glancing around the inside of the Big Top, I noticed a six-inch wooden center post that supported a peaked roof made of a patch-work of materials, plywood, metal, all just thrown up there with no apparent plan.

The rain dripped through here and there into buckets or made small puddles on the dirt floor. Two wood steps led to a raised floor area along the side of the building hanging over the canal. That’s what I had earlier thought were jail bars. An assortment of boxes, cans, a table, chairs, oil lamps, rope, barrels, baskets, and carpentry tools cluttered up this area.

A chorus of squeaks and chirps rang out from the cages on the left. I backed up a few feet to take it all in. I saw several stacked bamboo cages that housed blackish-brown bats, with fox-like snouts and claws, shrouded upside down from wood perches, one to a cage, except for three or four housing mothers and pups.

These were no small animals, but about the size of our house cat, Tigger. Our tabby didn’t have claw hooks, a canine snout and a pair of three foot wings, though. Some bats enveloped their furry bodies within canopy-like wings and appeared to rest. Others preened, stretched and yawned, and made chattering and squeaking noises to one another across the room and back.

I got over my initial surprise and recalled that I’d encountered bats before while on all-night guard duty at My Tho HQ. During my roof-top vigil I would watch them swoop silently down from the dark sky. With a jagged, but quick flight they captured insects buzzing around the big floodlights that shone out into the jungle surrounding the compound, the Seminary, as it was called. On guard duty, I would relieve my boredom by lying in wait and swinging a broom at them, or with whatever else I could find. I never could hit them though.

I was not alone in this workshop. An older man, an Ong, apparently unaware or unconcerned with my arrival, busily tended to his work bench tools. The Ong sported a scraggily Fu Manchu moustache and a dozen long chin whiskers. He dressed in tattered white cotton shorts, a stained singlet and shower slippers. I greeted him with a slight bow and “Chao Ong”. Quietly, and with a nod of his head, he replied, “Chao Anh”. He then returned to clearing off his work bench.

I offered Ong one of my warm beers. He politely declined, as he raised his tall glass of tea to his lips. It seemed as though he accepted my presence in his shop after I offered him an American smoke. “Ah, Salem!” he said with a satisfied smile.

It was now pouring outside, so I found a chair and a place to prop up my feet in the raised floor area among the cages and where I had a view of the south western perimeter and the grove of trees, Sarge mentioned, through the bamboo slats. I could also watch the Ong going about his workshop tasks. I put my beers and glass of ice down on a small table within easy reach.

I then became aware of four brown eyes staring at me. A cage to my right, three feet away, housed a mother and her pup. As I settled into my chair the little one moved closer to mother, his eyes trained on me still. Mother opened her wings slightly and the youngster scooted within her folds.

The pup’s face reminded me of the eight-week old Collie mix I had brought home one day when I was ten, little Pandy. A sudden roar of the rain on the metal roof and squealing interrupted my reverie.

Finally, the sun broke through allowing me to scan a hedgerow one click southwest. I saw human silhouettes out there, shadowy figures, moving this and that way. Clouds dragged the deck, obscuring a clear view. I was hoping to soon hear the sweet chop-chop sound of a Huey.

My wishful thoughts were jolted by a high-pitched frantic screeching, and I spun my head around toward Ong. He had reached a gloved hand into a cage near his workbench and had grabbed and was pulling out a struggling creature from its roost, wings flailing. The thrashing and cacophony drew the pup closer to mother.

With a sudden and swift swinging arm motion the Ong slammed the animal’s small head against a blood-stained post to the right of the work table, stunning it. He held the dazed bat up high by the tip of the left wing. The knife blade in his left hand severed the artery in the armpit of the right wing. Blood spurted, then gushed from the wound and down into an awaiting white plastic pail on the dirt floor.

Once the blood ceased to pour from the cut, Ong threw the dying animal into a large wooden crate just beyond the “whacking post”. Flapping sound from the crate filled the shop for only brief seconds. An occasional wing tip claw would appear on the rim of the wooden box, only to fall back again and become still.

I sipped my beers and shared my smokes with this man while he repeated the gruesome task a half dozen more times. Some weird fascination made me stay there.

The Ong was now working his way toward the mother and pup’s cage. Did the pup sense danger and fear from his mother’s rapid heart beat? What was the point of doing this killing, for a half-pint of blood? Did they eat these creatures? I had seen served in the villages a coagulated blood dish sprinkled with peanuts, looking like pizza, Tiet Canh, and never would try it. Was he making that stuff? And for whom, for the half dozen people of Vinh Loi?

I lit another cigarette off the butt-end of the last and started working on the second Ba Muoi Ba. The sounds around me and the three beers must have gotten to me - the wind through the caning, the screeching, rain hitting metal, the sporadic wings flapping, the scratching of claws, the mother’s soothing coo, and my own thoughts.

I peered through the bamboo siding toward the west levee road and tried to focus on the shadows and movements beyond and through a far tree line, toward nowhere. I tuned out the screeching and wracking sounds, and I began to reflect on past cruelties and killings. A stream of images started racing through my mind – stoning the water snake at Lexington Dam when I was a kid, or when I watched the older neighborhood boys drown the cat in the flume. And closer to the moment, the beating of a Viet Cong prisoner in the flickering shadows of a village fire pit, the beheading of the two American Advisors, touring a battlefield covered with enemy dead, the firefight at Mo Cay, or us firing on a band of VC running along a tree-lined levee at Tan Hiep airstrip. Did I hit one?

The sound of someone calling my name brought me back to the present. I then recognized the faint “whop, whop, whop” sound of the blades of an incoming helicopter.

“Yeah, I’m in here; I’m coming!” I yelled back to the voice. I glanced at my watch hanging from my fatigue shirt lapel; it was just past 1500 hours. My supply of ice was now reduced to a dozen rice husks floating in a glass of water. I must have dozed off. The rain had ceased, and the wracking sound of aircraft blades, Sarge’s limousine to the comforts of the Seminary, got my attention.

I finally blinked after a long stare at mother and pup and the crate. I approached the Ong and handed him my half pack of cigarettes. And in not the best Vietnamese and with much hand gesturing, I pleaded for their lives. My pronunciation must have been awful. I headed for the door of the bat house, but then turned toward him again. For good measure, I pointed toward the mother and pup and repeated my plea in French, “Je vous en prie, ne tuez pas ces deux animaux!” That should do it.

Out the door I ran to join the others. I bumped into Zung near the back of the aid station; he was on his way to find me. We ran through the village and past the outhouse.

“Hey, Zung, you know what that ong is doing in there?” I continued my story as we both quick-timed toward the LZ.

The Sarge, ahead of us on the right, dashed toward the Huey as it landed; on the other side of the chopper, I spotted Do running backwards toward the craft, fanning his weapon right and left. The whine of the turbine engines changed to a lower pitch as the blades began to slow to an idle. Sarge signaled us to hurry.

“So, what’s he doin’?” I asked as Zung and I quickened our pace onto the LZ.

“Let’s move, soldier!” Sarge barked from the open chopper door.

Ha Shi Do was already in when Zung and I scrambled onto the Huey’s nylon sling bench and buckled up. I sat at the open starboard door with Zung in the middle with Do; Sarge surveyed the perimeter on the port side. I checked the clip on my M4, “Grease Gun”, and took it off safety; I was a door-gunner for the flight back.

Zung tilted his head toward mine and, with lips pursed, yelled over the shaking roar, “Ong make mau doi drink; Chinese people like it. Drink bat blood with liquor. I don’t like.”

The hissing whine of the turbines increased in pitch and volume, and the craft shook and rattled. The pilot brought the Huey up off the ground ten feet to a hover. He then nosed it down and throttled up the engines. We swooped up into the air at a sharp angle, faster than the Rocket Plane ride, swirling a dust cloud below.

At 300 feet we leveled off, banked and circled Vinh Loi. Today’s rains made the Plain of Reeds appear wetter than this morning. I could see clearly a labyrinth of snake-like canals. One minute the water’s surface twinkled back at us, a brownish reflection of the sun; the next, dark, as patchy cloud cover obscured the clear sky. I glanced northward and imagined the Khmer temples of Ankar Wat, just a few clicks away in Kampuchia. I squinted toward the west into the sun to catch sight of the marshlands where the cranes go, just a hint of green.

As the craft banked starboard, I looked straight down now at Vinh Loi, that tiny, dusty, piss-hole of a place that we called home for a day. This poor village in the middle of the Plain of Reeds certainly took on a whole new meaning for me since touching down this morning. I knew I would never again harass the flying foxes back at My Tho, and I’ve seen enough pain and suffering during the past few months to last me, although more may lie ahead.

The Co, who had disappeared for most of the day, now stood next to the Ba near the quan coc, watching our ascent. I waved down to the Co; she waved back tentatively. We then disappeared into a wisp of clouds.

©2011 Christopher Newlon Green