We've done many things to encourage people to write for Mimosa, including
everything from excessive amounts of shameless flattery to outright bribery. Once
in a while, however, things come our way almost by accident. Take the following
article, for example -- it's a continuation of a series that began last issue, as a
result of Nicki naively asking the writer if he'd ever been outside the United
States before. Sometimes it's better just to be lucky.
Hot wind in the summer of 1970 stirred the dust on the hilltop overlooking the South China Sea. Dirt and sweat stained my fatigues from weeks in the field. The company commander assigned my platoon to sit and wait while others patrolled up and down the slopes strewn with jagged volcanic rock. I looked for something to fight the boredom.
Some soldiers passed around a months-old copy of Playboy. Looking at the photographs on the stained and wrinkled pages only increased my dissatisfaction. Despite what some claim, few red-blooded American boys actually read the magazine. The airbrushed fantasy of what we were struggling to return to left me uncomfortable.
I gravitated toward my sergeant, a devout Mormon from Utah, tall, slender, tanned from months in country. I asked if he had anything to read and he handed me a paperback Western. In it two hell-raising cowboys clash with the authorities in a small Texas town. In the end they ride off happily, their six-shooters blazing.
I finished the book in little more than a day under the blazing sun. I wondered who'd sent it to Vietnam thinking it would make a G.I.'s tour of duty easier. Crawling out of my pup tent, I returned it to my sergeant to see if he had any more suitable escape literature. He had only another Western, and he was still reading that himself.
"Where'd you get them?" I asked. "They have anything else?"
"The BX," Sgt. Pierson said. "They had plenty of other stuff."
A week later we returned to Camp Randolph near An Khe in the Central Highlands for a brief rest. I hurriedly showered, put on clean fatigues, and headed for the base exchange (BX).
While my more materialistic buddies ogled the electronic equipment, I looked for reading material. In the back of the BX, I discovered rotating metal bookracks. The REMF's (Rear Echelon Mother Fuckers, support troops who outnumbered us grunts 10 to 1) had nearly stripped them bare, as if by defoliant.
Overcoming dyslexia as a child, I become a voracious reader by my teens. Keying off a list of the supposed hundred best works in world literature given me by a not completely objective English teacher, I read such classics as Don Quixote, Vanity Fair, Crime and Punishment. Much in them was beyond my years to understand, in itself a valuable vicarious experience.
But here were no classics. Among the few remaining books, one with a blood-red cover caught my eye. It was a dictionary, The New Merriam-Webster Pocket Dictionary, employing attention-grabbing color in what I now seeing as common practice among reference books to compete with entertainments. I was momentarily disappointed. I wanted lively fiction to counterbalance the drab prospects of my drab surroundings. But in the absence of fiction, I thought a dictionary would at least keep my situation from reducing my word skills to mere functional literacy.
Clutching it, I continued to search the racks. I spotted one with the painting of a strange aircraft on a pink cover. Having read some science fiction in high school, I quickly realized what it was. Why the others had passed it over, I don't know. In the absence of great literature, I took it, The World's Best Science Fiction 1970, edited by Donald A. Wollheim and Terry Carr.
Back at the barracks across base, I opened the pages of the science fiction anthology. Inside I found stories by authors whose names sounded vaguely familiar but whose works I'd never before read. I started in the evening light, continuing until the mountain shadows became too deep. There was a blackout within the camp to avoid giving the enemy easy targets, and the lights in the barracks stayed off.
Floodlights surrounded the camp, facing outward, illuminating the grassy no man's land beyond the barbwire with an eerie brightness, like that in a deserted shopping center parking lot. Light enough to read wasted on the enemy. I sulked in darkness until sunrise the next day. Word of our next mission came down, ending our brief, uneasy peace.
I wondered where to put the books. The thigh pockets in my jungle fatigues were easily large enough, but a few days of sweat and rain turned paper into worthless pulp. Stories of the Bible in a soldier's pocket stopping a bullet and saving his life were to me religious wishful thinking.
"How you keep things dry in the field?" I asked Sgt. Pierson.
"Ammo can," he said.
The ammo cans resembled the pails in which elementary school kids carried their lunches, only slightly larger and heavier. In each came a 200-round belt of machinegun ammunition. Although designed to the ammo dry, the can quickly became excess weight to a grunt humping through the jungle.
I claimed one from the scrap pile. In it I placed my wallet (already showing signs of jungle rot), stationery, pen, pencil, money, and books. Only later, when our machinegun repeatedly jammed on the new guy carrying it because of rusted links and corroded brass did I doubt the wisdom of exposing the ammo to the elements.
Over the next week, when time and sunlight allowed, I read "When Legends Die" by Robert Silverberg, a story about idlers in the far distance future resurrecting heroes of the past for their own amusement; "Death by Ecstacy" by Larry Niven, about a man pleasured to death; "The Haploid Heart" by James Tiptree, Jr., about an extreme generation gap in an alien society; "A Boy and his Dog" by Harlan Ellison, about divergent societies in a postholocaust world; and "Nine Lives" by Ursula K. LeGuin, about nine clones who all die after an accident kills one.
Beside the title of each in the table of contents, I placed a pencil checkmark after I finished it. Disconcertingly, they all seemed to speak to my condition but offer no answers. Stark interior illustrations by Jack Gaughan only added to the effect. I stopped after those six. The other stories somehow seemed either superfluous or irrelevant.
I offered to lend the anthology out to get something else to read. Someone handed me The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis. I was ready for some light reading, even a juvenile book. I enjoyed the story of children escaping the horrors of war into the realm of talking animals, ignoring the nonsensical message of a royal elite coming to save the world. No flesh and blood Aslan was coming to save me or my buddies. In the tropical heat of Vietnam, the eternal winter of Narnia sounded inviting.
I carried the book safe in my ammo card as the entire infantry company in a torrential rainstorm crossed a broad valley toward a new position. We shivered in the 80-degree heat, soaked to the skin. The point man in the lead squad cautiously entered a large clearing and approached a huge tree near its center. A few wasps buzzed him and he swung at them. The entire nest, hidden in the branches above, responded. The man and those immediately behind him ran wildly to escape.
The rains stopped as the company regrouped. With the point man too much in pain to concentrate on continuing to break trail, the company commander looked for someone else to lead. A baby-faced 17-year-old full-blood Cherokee brave quickly and eagerly volunteered. His mother had signed the papers to allow him to join up.
The Captain, seeing no other volunteers, reluctantly agreed. A hundred yards farther along the steep slopes of the valley wall began. The young Indian hacked a path through thick cane with a machete. The rest of us, carrying weapons and 70-pound packs, struggled just to keep our feet. The sun came out, heating the air and making the humidity in it oppressive.
Suddenly someone yelled, "Medic!"
"He's stepped on a booby trap," Tom Dietz, the only other blond, blue-eyed grunt in the company, speculated behind me as the medic crawled forward. The thought of punji stacks, bamboo stacks sharpened to a point and covered with human excrement, came to my mind. I had seen them along a well-worn trail between villages on an earlier mission, placed to impale unwary soldiers diving for cover in an ambush. But here we were making our own trail.
"What happened?" we asked the smiling medic 5 minutes later as he slipped past us back down the mountainside.
"He tripped and whacked himself in the shin with the machete."
We mused that the only danger to the point man was himself. We started moving again but only advanced a few more feet before again stopping.
"Medic!" The overeager man had whacked himself in the other shin. Dejectedly he limped past us, white gauze showing through cuts in the fabric of both pants legs.
Back at Camp Randolph, the Indian, passing my cot still limping, saw the book on my cot with its fanciful illustration of a lion and children on the cover and surprised me by asking about it. Somehow I'd thought him more intent on proving brave than literate. Even after I pointed out to him that the book was a children's story, he said he wanted it. I never found a chance later to ask what he thought of it.
In the fall we slowly passed the days digging foxholes around a village near Camp Randolph. Between patrol, I saw on the air mattress in the foxhole of a G.I. in another squad The War Against the Rull by A. E. Van Vogt. The picture of a man in a clean space-age uniform with a high-tech rifle astride a giant, savage beast of burden appealed to me. I envied him, mud caking my own boots and rifle from playing soldier.
I asked if I could have the book after he finished. He told me he'd promised it to his squad leader, Sgt. Kerry. Kerry and I had barely been civil toward each other ever since I'd refused to share with him the catsup my mother had sent me from home. A single bottle of catsup doesn't go very far in covering up the taste of C-Rations and I had myself and the buddies in my own squad to think of first.
The next day someone found an unexploded mortar round outside our perimeter. To alleviate the danger of it accidentally going off and wounding anyone, the mortar crew packed C4 plastic explosive around it and detonated it. The brass tip of the round flew into the air and came down on the air mattress on which the day before I'd seen the science fiction novel. The projectile pierced the mattress with a perfectly cut hole, leaving it a useless slab of rubber. I grimly chuckled to the soldier. Had he not sought cover elsewhere, the projectile would have made a much uglier hole in him. If I couldn't have the book, at least I could have some entertainment at the expense of those to blame.
In December my division received orders to go home and with it anyone who had at least nine months in country. I had only six. Most of my buddies stayed behind, too. We received orders to report to the 101st Airborne Division, stationed in the northernmost part of South Vietnam. Books became the last thing on my mind. After two weeks in transit and reorientation, 60 of us were waiting in Phu Bai (Vietnamese for City of the Dead), an Army base built on a cemetery, for the trucks to take us to the heliport to airlift us to the field. A staff sergeant in crisp, clean fatigues walked up.
"Anyone here can type?" he asked. "I need two clerk-typists."
Only Tom Dietz and I saw the question as a chance to escape more hazardous duty. Those around us were all black, Hispanic, or whites with little formal education. Dietz and I, after all, had been to college. We overcame the fear of volunteering and raised our hands. The sergeant took us to a long building constructed of corrugated tin panels. In a small room inside he had us sit down at wooden tables behind manual typewriters.
"I'm giving you a 5-minute typing test," he said. "Take as long as you want."
Fifteen minutes later, when I had my typing speed on paper up to 45 words per minute, I turned my test in. I passed. Saved from returning to the field, I joined the REMF's I'd learned to despise. Tom Dietz joined, too.
The sergeant assigned me a bunk in dry hooch with electric lights. I asked my new hoochmates what they did to pass the time and they showed me the company library. I discovered why the soldiers in the field had such little selection in reading material. The REMF's hoarded the best for themselves. I saw shelves and shelves of paperbacks. Remembering the anthology, I took every science fiction book I could find, novels by Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Clifford Simak. Having served my time as a grunt, I felt no guilt. I felt only distaste for the REMF's who'd been nothing else.
Twenty years later, I've never re-read the stories in the science fiction anthology. I rarely reference the pocket dictionary anymore. They occupy space in my bookshelf, wedged between other more presentable paperbacks. Their covers, on which I had first judged them, are faded and stained, tattered and torn. The spine of the anthology is bent, broken by other readers, but all the pages remain attached. The books kept my imagination alive and passed the time, when time was the enemy.
Their sentimental value to me far exceeds their cover price.
All illustrations by B. Ware