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
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
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
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,
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:
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,
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
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,
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?
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
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.
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...
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
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
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
"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
The lieutenant approaches and kneels. "You guys did good." Then
he sees the blood on the point man's leg. "Have Doc look at
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
"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
Which squad gets tonight's ambush?
"The Little Bridge"
By Michael W. Rodriguez
Copyright © 1996 All Rights Reserved