The Little Bridge

By Michael W. Rodriguez

(A Vietnam War story. No one except Mr. Novak and Parker should imagine themselves as characters in this fiction.)

There it is, just like Mr. Novak said it would be.

We're gone for three weeks, and this is what happens. Hotel Company leaves the Badlands for a few days, and this is what happens. 'Course, knowing it was gonna be there don't help; seeing it there is the believing.

Damn me, thinks the point man...

Holding his shotgun close, he carefully pokes his nose through the undergrowth at the edge of the river's bank. The river is maybe 25, 30-feet wide at the crossing; heavy jungle foliage covers both sides right up to and into the water line. The banks are -- what? -- maybe ten feet high? Close enough.

The point does not move. Instead, like all good point men, he listens. He listens first for birds, for whatever ought to be in the neighborhood. He then listens also for what should not be there: little people.

He hears birds close by and is reassured. Birds would sky out if Carlito was around. He looks up at the hot and humid Vietnam sky and wishes he were somewhere else, like back in The World.

He snorts. Fat chance of that, esé. He brings his eyes back to earth and stares some more at the other side of the river, then at the water below him, then back to the opposite side of the little bridge.

Well, shit, he thinks. Not looking at it didn't make it go away; maybe, if I stare at it long enough, it will. The point man hears the soft rustle of cloth behind him. He doesn't turn. The platoon commander crawls up next to him.

"Well?" asks the lieutenant, adjusting the glasses on his nose. The point nods in the direction of the bridge. Mr. Novak's eyes barely clear the foliage. One glance is enough.


"There it is," says the point man, in a calm and steady voice. He does not feel calm or steady.

"Shit. Told you, didn't I?"

"Yeah, Skipper. Sure did." The term "Skipper," in the way of the Marine Corps line companies, is normally reserved for the company commander or the man in charge. The point man does not trust the captain; he does trust the lieutenant. Besides, he reasons, the lieutenant is the man in charge.

"Told you the little people were going to build a gate across over there, didn't I?"



"We still got to get across; you know that?" Not a question; more like a request. The point man sighs. His eyes lightly roam the opposite bank of the river. He doesn't worry about this side; his people are spread out, watching.

The gate is 10 or 12 feet high. Built of bamboo, it is tight and dense and obviously laced with a half-dozen mines of every sort. The platoon has an engineer assigned to it, so blowing it won't be a problem.

The problem, as both the point man and the lieutenant see it, is this: Is the little bridge itself mined, and what else is mined on the other side?

The problem, the point man thinks, is how am I gonna get across without getting me killed?

Both men know the platoon can't stay where it is. They are screwed if they stay here overnight. Nothing like a known and fixed position to let Carlito call in his mortars and night ambushes. They need room to manuever, to get back inside the Badlands. The little bridge is between them and the Badlands.

They have to get across the little bridge today.

They have to get across the little bridge now.

The lieutenant backs up, goes to call his platoon sergeant and squad leaders to him. Parker, the radioman, stays close to his officer. The engineer will get his orders, soon enough.

The three rifle squads that make up First Platoon are in a loose perimeter, two of them facing the river; one squad faces the rear, toward battalion.

The point man has not moved. He stares through the undergrowth, continues to face the river and the little bridge.

Some bridge, he thinks. A bunch of bamboo poles lashed together form the footpath; more poles are crossed together to make up the support structures; call it eight support structures in all. Any of them could be mined. Not real likely...but possible.

I keep calling it a gate, thinks the point. It's not a gate, more like a barricade. No, he amends. It is a door. It is the door to the Badlands, and we gotta go through the door to get where we wanna go.

That thing's better than ten feet high and eight feet across. It's a fucken wall. The point's backup man, Sanchez, slides up to him, bringing the Skipper's binoculars. The point takes them and brings them up to his eyes, trying for a closer look at the bridge and at the bamboo supports. Can't see shit, he thinks.

Foot mines, grenade mines. Who the fuck knows? Worse: trip wires laid across the bridge, a 500-pound bomb hanging down in the river. Trip the wire: Boom!

The point stares again at the bridge itself. One foot in front of the other; the damn thing is too narrow for more than that.

"Why not just call the Four-Deuce mortars back at battalion, esé?" asks Sanchez. "They could drop their rounds all over the fucken place. Boom, boom. All over."

The point doesn't take his eyes from that little fucken bridge. "Here's why, 'mano. Mortars ain't 106mm rifles; they ain't accurate. They drop their rounds, maybe blow up the bridge; how do we get across? And we got to get across today! We stay here; we're fucked."

Sanchez grunts. Oh, yeah...

Bird calls are loud.

Nothing moves across the river.

Sweat runs down the face of the point. Hot, he thinks. Scared, he adds. Goddamn right I'm scared. Nobody in his right fucken mind wants to do this.

Noise on this side of the river is muted, but hurried. The point knows the lieutenant wants to send a patrol to find the closest alternate crossing, but the platoon sergeant will tell the lieutenant what he already knows: There ain't none, and we ain't got the time for that shit, anyway.

The point man wipes the sweat from his eyes. He lays on his stomach, hearing the platoon behind him. No one approaches him, and he knows why they do not. The point knows exactly what every man in the platoon is thinking at this exact moment: Sorry it's you, motherfucker; but better you than me.

Right now, thinks the point, I hate that fucken bridge.

The point man stares at the bridge and at the barricade. He hates the bridge.

He hates the barricade (gate; whatever!) He is scared to death.

He does not want to cross the bridge but knows he is going to have to do exactly that. Ten fucken months in The Nam, he thinks; and it all comes down to this: I got to cross that little fucken bridge. He uses the binoculars again to scan the bridge, inch by inch. Nothing. He sees nothing.

Don't mean the little people didn't rig anything, just means I can't see it, he thinks. He takes his eyes from the binoculars and stares again at the bridge. I abso-fucken-lutely hate that bridge!

He brings the shotgun up beside him. The urge to start shooting into the barricade is almost overwhelming! The point man's teeth begin to chatter with the raw and physical need to do violence to the bridge. Fuck!

He stares at the gate (barricade, whatever!) and can imagine: five rounds in the magazine, one more up the pipe. Six rounds of double-ought buckshot, shot the size of .32 ammunition. Six rounds will blow that gate to shit! What the fuck am I doing here, anyway? Whoever said I could do this job, this point man shit? All I'm gonna do is get my people killed, get 'em all fucked up. I got no business doing this.

I ain't good enough!

The point man rolls onto his back and stares up at the Vietnam sky. I am fucken scared to death!

I do not want to do this!

I d o n o t w a n t t o d o t h i s . . .

He closes his eyes and slows his breathing. Don't matter what you want, homeboy...still got to cross that fucken bridge. You don't, somebody else is gonna have to cross it for you. You want them to do that? You die, tough shit. They die, 'cause of you; that's worse than you dying.

Shit shit shit!

He opens his syes and turns his head. Sanchez! Well, hell; he'd forgotten all about Sanchez.

Impassively, Ernie Sanchez stares back at his point man. Sanchez has seen all this before. The point man thinks too much, gets himself all worked up. Then he does what he has to do. But this time...?

The point takes his eyes from Sanchez and glances again at the bridge.



Would the gooks mine the bridge?

The answer: No (or probably not...same thing...maybe). They need the bridge, too.

The gate, then.

Most definitely. (Christ, I can see one grenade trap from here. Is that a Claymore at the base of the gate? Am I just fucken seeing things??)

The trail behind the gate?

Bet on it.

The sides of the trail?

Oh, absolutely.

Fine. Far out.

Blow the gate, cross the bridge. Sanchez got the backup; the engineer crosses behind him. The gate blows, wait for secondary explosions; then haul ass across the bridge. Order of assault: Point, Sanchez, Engineer. The engineer gets across, the platoon follows, stays on the trail and --

The point man begins to turn to Sanchez, to tell him to call the lieutenant, when he pauses. He returns his gaze to the bridge.

He stares so long at the bridge that Sanchez starts to fidget.

"Come on, esé, what --"

The lieutenant returns. "The Captain says we got to get across in the next hour, no more. We're wasting too much daylight."

The point man takes his eyes from the bamboo bridge and nods his head, whether in agreement with what the lieutenant said or something else. He looks at his lieutenant and offers the man the smallest of smiles.

"The bridge ain't mined," he says.

The lieutenant stares at his point man, then shifts his gaze to the bridge. His brain is racing, almost feverish with the speed of thought: The captain says we got to get across; the point man says the bridge isn't mined; we're losing daylight. The lieutenant adjusts his glasses but doesn't see what the point man sees, then understands what his man has been saying to him. The bridge is not mined.

To mine the bridge means the little people deprive themselves of the crossing. Drop the bridge in the water means they can't move about in the Badlands as fast as they want to. The problem with this line of thinking is...if I'm wrong, my people are fucked.

The lieutenant turns to his point man and locks the other man's eyes to his. "The gate?"

The point man shrugs, turning his face back to the bridge, not wanting his lieutenant to see the fear in his eyes.

"Probably; but the little people don't want it to blow into the bridge, either. Means it's just supposed to stop--"

"You," finishes the platoon commander.

"Rodge'. Means I got to do it now before I lose what's left of my nerve."

The platoon commander stares at his point man a moment, then turns his gaze to the bridge. Damn damn damn.... He looks for his radioman, finds him and says, "Tell the Captain we're going across right fucken now."

His decision made, he faces his man. The lieutenant ruthlessly floors all emotion, all second-guessing. The time for that shit is past.

"Go," he says. I don't have to like it; but that's why I'm the lieutenant, he says to himself.

The point man wipes his face one last time and squeezes his eyes with thumb and forefinger. He blinks them clear, then decides, Aw, the hell with it! He comes up on his knees.

"Vamanos, Sanchez!"


The radioman calls, "Hotel Six. Hotel Six. Hotel One-Actual advises we are moving on the bridge. Say again, we are moving on the bridge. Request prep fires at Grid Bravo now. Say again, prep fires now."

His words no sooner spoken than all hands hear, or believe they hear, the Four-Deuce mortars, back at battalion, cough their rounds.

Two seconds, three seconds, four seconds...

Splash! Splash!

The point man feels his blood in his face. Adrenaline, already laying low at the base of his spine, now floods his system; and his eyes bulge in their sockets. His eyes locked on the gate, his heart in his throat, and his shotgun aimed shoulder high to his front, the point man takes one step onto the little bamboo bridge and sets himself.


One round fired! Part of the gate shatters in a shower of bamboo and dirt. Another step on the bridge.

BOOM! Another round from the shotgun!

The gate explodes! Grenade!

Another step on the bridge.

Shrapnel flies in every direction, including theirs. The point man flinches, feeling a sharp sting in his leg. The little bridge begins to sway beneath him.

BOOM! The gate disintegrates and another mine explodes! Shit! Cain't see a fucken thing!


"I'm here! Go!"

BOOM! Halfway across the bridge.

BOOM! Bamboo and dust explode. The bridge is swaying left and right and left and right. Fuck this!

The point man step step steps, one foot in front of the other, breathing heavy, step step step--the bridge is rocking wildly--step step step-- He's across. Sanchez is across! If I trip a Claymore, I am fucked!! screams the point man's brain.

BOOM! The point man hits the deck and fires the second-to-the-last round remaining in the shotgun.

Goddamn Goddamn Goddamn Goddamn ! ! !

Sanchez fires, one round at a time...Thack! Thack! Thack!...into the rice paddies to their left flank.

BOOM! The point man fires his last round into the hedges to their right, sees too late the olive-drab C-ration can some little slope-headed motherfucker placed there where some dumb fucken Grunt can kick it aside don't tell me that shit don't happen didn't Carter do the same Goddamn thing this past summer and shit here I've done it too the blast of the shotgun round sending the can flying off the berm 4 seconds I got 3 seconds "Sanchez get down!!"

THOOM! the berm absorbs the exploding grenade which showers them with dirt and rock. Fuck!

"Reloading!" shouts the point man.

Sanchez shifts-fire to their right.

One round at a time...Thack! Thack! Thack! On his belly, blinking sweat from his eyes, the point man furiously shoves double-ought-buck rounds into the 12-gauge shotgun.

"Fire the flanks! Fire up the fucken flanks!"

Sanchez wants to go limp with relief.

The platoon is across!

"Parker!" calls the lieutenant. "Tell the Captain we are across! Abernathy, secure our flanks! Get a perimeter set up!"

"Aye, aye! You heard the man! Cruz, you got the left! Hughes, get up the middle! Moore, clear that fucken treeline!"

The Marines of First Platoon move out, doing as they are told.

"Six, Six. Be advised, Hotel One is across the river. Say again, we have crosed the bridge."

The radioman listens; then, "That's affirm. We are across. No casualties this pos."

The radioman listens some more. "Roger that. Hotel One-Alpha, out."

The point man is laying on his side. The shotgun is loaded up, five in the magazine, one more up-front. His hands shake as he asks Sanchez for a cigarette.

The lieutenant approaches and kneels. "You guys did good." Then he sees the blood on the point man's leg. "Have Doc look at that."

The point man grins weakly and nods. He is glad to be alive.

The racket of small arms fire moves past them as First Platoon clears their front and flanks. A distant "Fire in the hole!" says one of the guys found something.


"All clear!" The Grunts move on.

The radioman finds his lieutenant. "The Captain says Third Platoon is moving up now. Second Platoon's got the rear; then they cross."

The lieutenant nods his head: He heard every word. He does not take his eyes from the two men in front of him. "You did good," he says.

Sanchez turns to watch as Third Platoon makes their way across the little bridge. "Ain't much of a bridge, huh, Skipper?"

The lieutenant looks over at Sanchez, then turns his attention to the bridge. Third Platoon is across; they move further on up the trail, urged on by their lieutenant. They glance briefly at the three man laying off to one side of the trail.

Sanchez says, "No ambush tonight, right, Skipper?"

The lieutenant laughs. Relief is plain in his voice as he says, "No. You guys skate the ambush."

The three men look again at the bridge and at what's left of the wrecked and smoking gate that protected it.

"Lucky the little people didn't jump us," offers Sanchez.

"Why should they risk it?" asks the lieutenant. "They got us here for the next five weeks. Lots of time to fuck with us."

Third Platoon is almost across; and off in the distance, they can hear the platoon sergeant: "Moore! Clear that fucken flank, goddamnit! Cruz! How's your left!"

"Let's go, guys," says the lieutenant. "Time to get back in the war."

The point man and Sanchez stand shakily, shouldering their gear and weapons.

"I got the point," says the former. Sanchez nods his agreement, and both men go in search of a corpsman.

The lieutenant pauses and looks back at the little bamboo bridge, then lifts his face to the Vietnam sky.

Just another day in The Nam, he says to himself; and all we have to do is stay alive for five weeks in the Badlands.

He hefts his M-16 and turns to catch up to his people. The bridge is history, already forgotten, as the twenty-four-year-old lieutenant of Marines tries to decide:

Which squad gets tonight's ambush?

The End

"The Little Bridge"
By Michael W. Rodriguez
Copyright © 1996 All Rights Reserved