Monday, February 20, 2012

A Hero's Death

Letter to my son, Jack
Sunday, 19 February


Recently I was rummaging through some books I keep stored in the car.  There are too many books for me to keep in my room all at the same time.  As my interests shift I bring some to the house and move others back to the car.  Anyway, I came across a pair of sandals I’ve kept stored away.  They were once referred to as Ho Chi Minh sandals.  I brought them inside and placed them where I could see them, near where I work.  They belonged to a man I first saw many years back in the spring of 1968.  My platoon was providing security for a convoy that transported supplies from Da Nang to Phu Bai, a large Marine base, just south of the city of Hue.  We headed north on Highway 1, a two lane road that roughly followed the coast and was only occasionally paved, the rest of it being either dusty dirt or slippery mud depending on the weather.  There’s a river called the Song Thu Bon that empties into the South China Sea a few miles north of Da Nang.  A small village named Tui Tui (Two-ee Two-ee) sits along its south bank.  Beyond the river the road we follow begins a steep, winding climb over some mountains that reach all the way to the water’s edge.  The trucks at the far head of our line slowed with the strain of their ascent, backing the convoy up to the point where our truck was brought to a complete stop.  Jack Boyd, my team leader, sat sprawled in the truck's open bed along with maybe three or four other guys, just taking it easy.  I stood watch behind the canvas top cab.  There wasn’t much going on.  Here we were stuck in traffic right in the heart of Tui Tui.  The people still looked National Geographic exotic to me while they went about their business in straw hats and black pajamas, old men with spindly chin beards and women showing black enamel teeth from the nuts they chewed.  The kids ran about and they would love it if you tossed them some candy or even a cigarette.  It all looked pretty normal, except for the man by the utility pole. 

He was young, bigger than most people in these parts, with very broad shoulders, athletic body and with all the appearance of being military bred and trained… except for his clothes.  I’m not sure how to describe what he wore except to say they were a bit too flamboyant to be called casual.  They were the kind of attire you’d find a man wearing whose business it was to be in the company of women.  And he just didn’t look the part.  He was standing alone, separate from all the others and I watched him as he surveyed us.  Think what you will but I didn’t like him for the look I saw on his face.  It was one of disdain – like he nursed a secret pleasure of going undiscovered while in our very midst.  I felt certain the team he was rooting for definitely wasn’t ours.  What do I know?  Let it go.  What would I do, anyway?  I kept the thought to myself and eventually the convey lurched to a start and we were again on our way.       

No more than a couple two or three weeks passed and our platoon was again in the area of Tui Tui.   It was known for NVA and Viet Cong infiltration into the Da Nang area.  We were running squad size patrols during the day, regrouping as a platoon for a meal in the late afternoon then dispersing once again after dark, setting up ambushes near suspect trails and along the river bank.  In the early morning hours of that first night four men slipped a boat into the Song Thu Bon and silently paddled across the river towards the bank not far from the village.  They made it ashore and that was it.  I can only say the brief time left to them was desperate.  Once the sun rose and light revealed those that died I immediately recognized the man wearing an NVA officer’s belt and side arm as the person I saw from the convoy in Tui Tui.  I got hold of his wallet.  It was carefully wrapped in plastic to keep its contents dry.  Inside there were a number of photographs, all of a personal nature.   There he was, his arms around his proud parents in a park somewhere, warm smiles all around.  There was a picture of a young woman, probably his wife.  There she is again with him as a couple.  More pictures of people, family members and friends, I suppose.  I don’t remember seeing any kids.  I put his pictures back in the wallet.  It would probably find its way to G2 – military intelligence.  A quick, anonymous hole would be dug for him, and that would be that.              

I removed his sandals and slipped them into my pack.  He was someone I knew before in life.  If I hadn’t seen him once alive he would have meant less to me dead.  His wallet and its contents might well have gone overlooked by me.  I couldn’t help but think what a Boy Scout he was.  He did everything right in his world.  If he’d grown up among us we would have called him an All American – respected, admired, loved.  War brings people together that way.  His was a dangerous mission.  He knew the risks.  He did it right but that’s never enough.  Luck wasn’t with him and his compatriots that night.  I wonder what kind of story got back to his parents and loved ones.  It’s probably something like - he died a hero’s death - and that seems good enough.    

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