Wednesday, February 24, 2010

John Wayne in My Tower (short story)

Note: I first wrote this story over twenty years ago. This version remains fairly true to the original, but has substantial changes--hopefully, for the better.


Billy Green and I walked across the tarmac that night toward our guard post, and the monsoon sky opened up with black rain splattering off our ponchos, and had I believed in omens at the time, the ugly downpour might have qualified. But as it happened, I was nineteen and ignorant, and so the two of us just trudged down the flight line heading for the perimeter, oblivious, M-16’s slung over our shoulders, and Billy toting a rucksack and a bandolier of claymore mines.

Billy was from Arkansas and, therefore, given to bragging about Verla’s tits. “Ain’t she got a pair of dandies?”

I nodded, and water poured off my head. “You bring the pictures?” She’d mailed him three nude photos: Verla standing beside her horse and showing off her dandies; Verla riding the horse at a gallop, her dandies bouncing; and Verla’s dandies sprawled across the hay in the barn.

“Nah. They’s back at the hootch.”


The rain eased a little, and ahead we could see the glowing lights of the perimeter, our first line of defense, a bad-assed place full of obstacles and lurking guard towers. But during that particular time in 1970, and at that particular firebase in the Central Highlands, the enemy had apparently forgotten all about us: They hadn’t launched a single mortar or rocket, or sent even one sniper or sapper for a visit in months. But nonetheless, on any given night a commie or two might infiltrate and blow something up. We’d been told by the Officer of the Day, Lieutenant Reets, to keep our eyes peeled and our cocks stiff. That night—and every night we pulled guard duty—the choppers were the objects of our responsibility: Whatever happens, don’t let Charlie blow them up. That sounded simple enough. As we walked along, the Cobras and Hueys squatted inside the walls of their revetments.

Our tower—number eighteen—was twenty feet high and built with creosoted beams, sandbags, sheets of tin and lumber. A roofed platform was perched on top. From there, you could look down into a defoliated no-man’s land of row after row of concertina wire, stacked two- or three-high. And then there were the hidden trip-flares and mines and free-fire zones and other inconveniences. It was supposed to be Charlie’s worst nightmare.

I said, “You plant the trip, I’ll plant the clacker.”

Billy nodded okay.

We walked past the tower to the concertina wire, where he pulled two claymores from the bandolier and handed one to me, along with a roll of electrical wire and a clacker, a triggering device. The mines were about a foot wide, six inches high and two thick, sheathed in olive-drab plastic, each loaded with C-4 explosives and shaped so that when the C-4 detonated, about 700 steel balls would blast across a 60-degree kill zone. In Army nomenclature, the mines were known as an “anti-personnel device.” I unfolded the thin scissor legs on my claymore, knelt down onto my knees and shoved the legs into the sand. Now the mine faced the perimeter. The funny part was this: Its convex face had FRONT TOWARD ENEMY embossed on it. To win a war, I guess, you have to keep things simple. But of course, that didn’t work in Vietnam. Anyway, I secured the wires to the mine and backed away, spooling out the wire as I went.

Billy set his claymore about ten yards away, to my left, directly in front of the tower. Its trip wire was stretched taut a few inches above the ground.

Back at the tower, I climbed the ladder, taking the spool with me, and Billy followed. The accommodations weren’t much, just a Prick-25, two chairs and a small cot. I fastened the wires to the clacker and set it down on the sandbags. To detonate the mine, all I had to do was squeeze the clacker.

Billy leaned his rifle in the corner. “You takin’ the first look-see?”

I set my ‘16 beside his. “Sure.”

We’d alternate throughout the night: two hours on duty, then two hours of cot time. The Prick was a standard Army field phone, a hot line to the guard shack and Lieutenant Reets. The rucksack contained food, four Cokes and some different colored hand flares. According to that night’s SOP, green meant “contact to my front”; white meant “my position is overrun”; and red meant I’ve kissed my ass goodbye—or something like that.

Billy set the phone on a chair, dialed in the freq and ran a commo check: “Hey, Reets, ya got yer ears on?”

“Roger, eighteen, Go ahead.”

“How’s the hammer hangin’?”

“What the hell’s your sit-rep, Specialist Green?”

“There ain’t no need fer ya to git yerself all bowed up. Eighteen’s snug as a bug.”

“Roger, and out.”

We settled in for the night, and there wasn’t much to do except shoot the bull, but Billy wasn’t too keen on that, and we’d had a six-pack of Hamms after chow, so he lasted about five more minutes before his head started nodding. He shucked off his poncho and crapped out on the cot, pulling a thin blanket over himself. “Time fer some shut-eye and dreamin’ ‘bout Verla.”

I took a seat, propped my elbows on the sandbags and checked the perimeter for the slightest sign of enemy movement. There wasn’t any. Right away Billy started snoring, and then moaning—quietly at first, but then with growing passion, until he cried out, “Ride, baby, ride!”

I nudged his shoulder and he shut up and rolled over. He claimed the towers were phallic symbols and, as such, they inspired fantastic wet dreams about Verla, and he truly believed that if you dreamed on something hard and long enough, it was bound to come true, but since I was stuck with him for eight more hours twenty feet up in the air in a foreign country where unknown numbers of bullets had my name written on them, or with “To Whom It May Concern,” I wasn’t in the mood for his dreams, wet or dry.

Tower eighteen was perched on a little rise of ground, and I could see the perimeter lights all around the firebase, a ring of bright pearls in the dark. It was too damned beautiful and, in truth, a bit disappointing, since I was itching for something far uglier. During the months I’d spent in Nam I hadn’t seen one live commie, either a VC or an NVA. I felt cheated and unpatriotic. There was a morning a few weeks back, when seven VC were stacked up by the horseshoe pit, shot to shit in an ambush, but that was nothing to write home to Mom about. She was only interested in the live ones, too.

I got to thinking about how, when I was a kid, I was the cherry pit spitting champ, so I leaned over the sandbags and peered down at the ground, searching for a likely target. I spotted a rusty can, worked up a nice wad of spit, accounted for the elevation and wind, factored in the wad’s viscosity, and then let it slide off my lip oh-so-oh-so carefully. It bulls-eyed, splashing into the rainwater in the bottom of the can.

Boredom worked me over in a funny way. I stood, pulled my poncho up, stepped over to the ladder, unbuttoned my fatigue pants and let a stream of Hamms beer loose. I tried writing my name in the sand, in cursive. The trick is to start the first letter before the first drop lands, and to be successful it takes a keen eye, fine motor skills and visualization. I almost finished before things petered out. The penmanship was bad, and I hadn’t dotted the i.

I zipped up and sat back down again and chewed a stick of Doublemint and thought about Carol, my girlfriend back in The World. She hadn’t sent me any nude photos, but with my imagination I didn’t really need them. The main problem with thinking like that is it makes a guy lonely, or horny, or homesick, or depressed, or crazy. As I recall, it made me three out of the five.

I looked out across the wire and imagined scenes from “The Sands of Iwo Jima,” which I’d seen twelve times as a kid. I was John Wayne, aka Sergeant Stryker, the hard-drinking, tough-talking platoon leader. Stryker lights up a Camel and turns his back to the perimeter—only for a moment—and when he pivots back around a thousand gooks have slithered into the wire. They’re half-invisible, camouflaged with the freshest jungle foliage. They’re damned good at blending in, but no match for Stryker’s eagle eyes. Their leader, a colonel with facial scars and sneering lips, leaps to his feet and lets loose with a bugle blast, and the foot soldiers rise up and charge forward in the banzai fashion … and Stryker mows them down in his fashion: from the hip, eyes steely, helmet perched at a jaunty angle, chip strap unfastened.

And then my actual ears said to me, “Hey, there’s a REAL noise coming from out there.”

I shook my head to clear the dead bodies out, and then peered down into the rows of concertina wire. I didn’t see riddled bodies or a sneering colonel or anything out of the usual. Then, from out of the deepest shadows on the far side of the perimeter, and just inside the farthest snarls of concertina, a lighter shadow haltingly emerged. My eyeballs locked on … and it dissolved quickly into nothingness. Maybe I was seeing things. I remembered a night-vision technique they’d taught us in basic training: let your gaze drift around the edges of what you want to see, and your peripheral vision kicks in, which is better for seeing in the dark.

There was something there, alright, a dark blot creeping low to the ground, then halting, then coming closer. It could even be a REAL enemy. Shit. I grabbed my M-16 and fumbled it to my shoulder, then looked at it dumbly, momentarily clueless as to its purpose and functionality—and why, oh why hadn’t the Army stamped POINT TOWARD ENEMY somewhere on the damned thing.

I nudged Billy, trying to wake him, but he just moaned and rolled over.

Then I heard a low and throaty whimper, a sort of agonized whine, and the unnerving sound somehow gave a familiar shape to the shadow. It was a dog, a mangy reddish-brown one with white spots, and it was picking its way through the wire toward me. I almost phoned Reets, but what the hell would I say? That I’d need a different colored flare, maybe russet, for “dog in the wire”?

Its head slung low and tail dragging, the mutt lurched into the middle of a coil, and then staggered down the center of the looping wire for a ways. It lurched sideways into the wire, jarring the coils stacked above and loosening a pelting shower of water. It yelped and jerked away and limped its way directly to a spot in front of the tower where, like some dogs do before they lay down, it hauled itself around in a couple of worrisome circles, as if obeying an ancient bed-making instinct, but then its rear legs just collapsed and it heaved into the sand. It pulled it self forward a yard or so by its front paws, and then let out a sharp yap and rolled over onto its side and lay there panting.

She didn’t look like a commie dog, just a very pregnant one—her belly swollen, her teats swollen, her tongue lolling out the side of her mouth.

And by the looks of her she was hurt bad. The fur on her left flank was matted dark with what looked like blood, and her panting was so ragged you could hear it over the rain’s soft patter on the roof.

I’d grown up with my own dog, Queenie, part elkhound but all her other parts were unknown. She littered three times, and we gave all the pups away—and the next thing I knew the dog in the perimeter was birthing pups too. She did a full-body shiver and the first one began to emerge, and she kept shivering and licking at it until it slipped all the way out and onto the sand, where she tongued it some more and then nosed it to a teat. She lay there for a minute recuperating, with that one pup latched onto a fat teat. Then she let out a piercing whine, and out slipped another pup, faster this time, and then two more, one right after the other. She sniffed each the just-born pups as they were born and nudged them to a teat, and then her body just uncurled itself flat and she didn’t move at all, not even her tail or her ears. It seemed as if another pup might have half slipped out of her, but she still didn’t move.

Billy moaned in his sleep again, and both Sergeant Stryker and I didn’t know what to do next.

I ejected the clip from my ’16, leaned it back into the corner and slid three rounds from the clip. I tossed all three and they arced downward through the yellow light and twanged off the wire and she still didn’t move.


I stepped over to the ladder and climbed down and stood on the wet ground staring at the dog, about thirty yards away. Surrounded by the wet and dark night, without a weapon and a dead mother in the wire, I wished I’d brought my helmet: Maybe the steel shell would have helped my head think better. I walked around the base of the tower and headed toward her, wondering what I was going to do once I got there, and just before I reached the concertina, I remembered Billy’s trip wire. It was a couple feet in front of me, about toe-high. The mine was behind and off to my left side. I’d halted one step short from being really fucking stupid. I couldn’t help but laugh, but it felt hollow, like when you’re in a dark cellar and something cold brushes across the back of your neck, and then your heart jerks a beat and your hand jolts up and swats a sticky strip of dead flies hanging from the ceiling. I laughed how your heart laughs when it figures out it will beat again.

I stepped over the trip wire very carefully, lifting one foot ridiculously high, and then the other foot equally high, using the same kind of extreme caution I’d used when I’d fumbled on my first live rubber.

The mother dog still hadn’t moved, still sprawled over on her right side in the middle of rusted coils of tough-assed steel razor wire, and the four squirming pups had their faces buried in her teats. There was a fifth pup, and it wasn’t moving. And I’d guessed right about the blood: She had an ugly crease of seeping flesh along her flank. Maybe she’d been shot.

I got down on my hands and knees in the wet sand and reached through a gap in the coils, trying to reach her leg and drag her to me, but it was just beyond my fingertips, so I shouldered against the wire and bent it back. I grabbed her back paw and pulled her toward me, and the four live pups clung to her teats, and the dead one was pulled along by the afterbirth. A razor snagged my poncho, and another sliced into the lobe of my right ear.

To this day I sometimes find myself reaching up to that tiny jag of healed-over scar tissue. It’s almost impossible to see or feel, and no one’s ever asked about it, and it’s too bad they don’t give Purple Hearts for wounds like that.

I pulled one of the warm, blind pups from a teat, its tiny mouth smacking, its eyes pinched raisins. It was a male, maybe four inches long, and its brown fur was slick from rain and birth. I tucked him inside my poncho and into a pocket of my field jacket, and then gathered up the others, all females, and settled them down into the same pocket. I scooped out a shallow hole in the sand, held the dead pup for a moment in my cupped hands, lifted my face to the night and felt the tears come hot and blinding. Then I laid it in its perimeter grave, which seemed a good enough place for it, an in-between ground.

I pulled the mother out of the wire, scooped her limp body into my arms and carried her back to the tower—careful to avoid the tripwire. One rung at a time, I climbed the ladder to the platform, where I stepped over to the cot.

Billy was snoring away, curled up with his back to me. I laid the mother down beside him, so her back was up against his back, and he must have felt her there because he turned over and, still half asleep, he draped an arm over her body and pulled her against his chest. He must have been dreaming about Verla because he wore a shit-eating grin, but he was as dead to the real world as the dog.

I tugged on his sleeve. “Billy, wake the fuck up!”

He grumbled and tried to turn over again but I grabbed his shoulder and squeezed it hard and he startled awake. He sat up and saw the dog and jerked away from it. “Gaww damn! What ’n tarnation?”

I pulled the four pups out of my pocket, stroked their tiny bellies a few times, and then held them out for him to see, and his eyes galloped between me and the dead mother and her pup. I said, “I need you to dream up four of Verla’s dandies.”

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