His chair tipped against the wall as he stared empty-eyed into the dusty leaves of a plastic palm tree leaning on the corner of the stage.
He was a freak that stood out in a room full of freaks. A faded and torn military field jacket hung from his skinny, meatless shoulders, a pair of greasy, lifeless wrangler jeans were stuffed into unlaced jungle boots that looked as though they might have just slogged through a rice paddy. His long stringy hair grew from a dirty red bandanna tied over his head Geronimo-style.
I had waited a long time to see him. Twenty-seven years of fitful sleep while nightmares and pain from little pieces of shrapnel floating near my spine reminded me to keep looking. And looking at him now, he seemed no more real than the picture I carried in my head of Cronkle lying in my arms, his hot guts oozing blood over his lap and mine.
The last thing I whispered to Cronkle before he died was, "I'll get the son-of-a-bitch for you!" And finally here he was, stoned out of his mind in a cheap strip joint outside Topeka, Kansas. I'd found him.
The bartender saw me looking at him and, as he wiped his hands on a dirty apron, said "Hey mister, if you want to talk to him, you'll have to get here sooner. He's out of it now. Gets like this every day. He just sits there not talking. Some woman comes and picks him up about six every night. Some woman! He's here every day and she don't ever forget."
Finding him here like this didn't surprise me. I'd looked just like him a few short months before. I'd given up on everything. I drank 'til drinking didn't do any good. Tried drugs too but I never could find any that did just what I wanted them to do. I either got too high or too stoned or too depressed. Booze did it most of the time. It made me numb enough to quit thinking and feeling but then I ended up in a VA hospital. My kidneys quit working and I turned yellow. They told me to lay off the booze or I'd die. Dying sounded good. And I'd be right back out there now, trying to do myself with a jag, except getting sober caused me to remember my oath to Cronkle. So I figured that before I died, I should even up the score for my dead friend.
My mistake was not pulling out the pistol I carry and wasting him right there on the spot. Without thinking. That's how we did it in 'Nam. You didn't think and you didn't feel. Prisoners, women, sometimes kids. It didn't matter once you learned how. It would have been easy to do him right then but maybe I'd lost my edge and didn't know it. I'd thought a thousand times since 'Nam that I'd like to do somebody. Maybe the real desire wasn't there anymore. Maybe I lost the ability to do it without thinking.
See, right at the moment my hand touched the gun in my pocket, I remembered why we called him Eyes. I would have forgotten his real name was Matt except I found a letter I wrote home to my sister. That was before Cronkle died. I told my sister in the letter about how Eyes got his name.
We were humpin', that's marching, through this vill' one day. Matt is in the lead, walking point. There's Vietnamese all around us. Mamasans, Papasans, kids and a whole lot of guys the wrong age. You know, the age to be either in the ARVN outfits or the NVA or Viet Cong outfits. We were all feeling kinda' spooked. Then Matt, he steps back from point and says to me real low, "They got guns."
I glanced around and didn't see any guns but I had that hair-raising feeling he was right. We were near the middle of this little 'vill and I yelled, "hit the treeline!"
Guys started running and Vietnamese started shooting. Only one of our guys got hit in the back of the leg. We called in 'boo-coo' shit and that ''vill was no longer part of any map. And if it hadn't been for Matt we'd have all been dead. Me and the first team leader wrote him up for a medal. Later the Captain called a formation and called Matt up front.
"Lance Corporal Barrow, there are no medals for seeing well, although I think in your case there should be. I want to thank and congratulate you. Your eyes saved your squad."
What struck was, "Eyes saved the squad." We clapped and cheered and pounded him in the back. That's when he announced he would be the squads' permanent point man. Because of his superior vision he'd walk up front to spot booby-traps and ambushes.
And he did. Eyes always took point. The old guys forgot how and the new guys never learned. Eyes liked his hero status. He was always being the good guy. One time out in the field this new guy, I don't remember his name, he got killed a week after this thing I'm telling about took place, pulled off his boots and his pink, stateside feet were a mass of blisters. Somebody asked him if he'd been changing his socks.
He said, "Hell, I ain't wearing any socks. I thought they'd cause blisters."
Everybody laughed at this dumb-ass but then Eyes pulled out this brand new pair of socks and gave them to the new guy. He did stuff like that and here I am standing here wondering how I'm going to kill him and I'm remembering the good shit. I should have offed him before I started thinking. Then I remembered the time Cronkle and I went on R & R to Manila. That was only about two weeks before he got it. We had a good time. We both got girls from some GI joint called Sam's or George's or something. And we spent most of the time in bed. It just felt good to lie down under a roof on a mattress and not worry about your ass getting blown away while you slept. But we stayed pretty uptight. You couldn't leave all that shit behind just because your ass was wrapped in a clean, white sheet.
The second night we were there we got drunk and went home to the hotel to sack out. I just got my eyes closed when the Filipino girl that Cronkle was with, I think her name was Luz, came running into my room. "Come back quick GI," she yelled. "Your friend, he go crazy maybe." I went running down to his room and there stood Cronkle standing naked with his K-bar in his hand. Feathers were still floating in the air and scattered all over the room.
"Are you all right?" I asked him. He looked like he felt pretty silly and said, "Guess I had a little dream." That was all he ever said about it and I didn't mind and he stayed drunk 'til we got back to the bush.
When we got back, Eyes does this totally chicken shit thing and Cronkle ends up dead. And not just an easy dead. His death wasn't fast and neat, you know, like you'd always like it to be.
We were humpin' a trail and there was a big explosion. It knocked me down and I remember seeing Cronkle fly over my head. Fly, just like he'd sprouted wings. It seemed funny then as I lay on my back trying to get my breath back. Here's old Cronkle in the middle of a firefight taking time out for soaring. I snapped back to reality when the screaming started. God, I hate screaming. It's unmanly and weird. Stays in your ears too long afterwards.
I checked first to see if I had any leaks and couldn't find any. That's because I got hit in the back. Then I looked behind me to see where Cronkle landed. I saw he was hurt bad. He was lying on his back moving his arms and legs slow like he was a bug in water.
I crawled over to him. His pants and shirt had been blown off and I saw gray gut hanging from his belly. I almost couldn't make myself say anything to him. Then I said something real stupid.
"Hang on Cronkle. Looks like you got a little hole. We'll get Doc to patch you up. Corpsman up! Corpsman up here, goddamn it!" I yelled.
I knew when I saw him that he was as good as dead. No way he'd last 'til a Dustoff arrived. "Help me buddy! I'm scared," Cronkle whispered and bloody foam oozed out of his mouth. That's when I lifted him in my arms and tried to scoop up his gut and put it back in, but it wouldn't fit. I just sat there rocking him and holding my hand over that bloody mess, telling him that I would even up the score with Eyes. I didn't know that Eyes got medievacced too.
They sent me to a hospital ship and tried to get all the shrapnel but left some in me. I was sent back to duty and never says Eyes again, until this joint in Topeka. I just stood there looking down at him trying to remember how much I hated him for Cronkle's sake. I tried to remember that I was going to kill him, but I kept remembering the other shit instead.
There was a night on Hill 881 up by the DMZ. I read somewhere recently that we took that hill and gave it back four times. Well, this was the first time we took it. We lost over a hundred guys getting to the top through some rough fighting...hand to hand and all.
After the hill was secured, Cronkle, Eyes and I ended up on a listening post together. We all figured we'd die there because the NVA were all over. We were whispering in the dark to keep our brave up. We talked about women, round-eyed women, the kind back home.
"Man, this chick I got at home is so sweet she'd make you shitbirds cry." Eyes said. Cronkle razzed him. "Hell man, you ain't ever been with a sweet girl. She's probably some old barroom hooker."
Eyes rummaged around in a beat up billfold and pulled out a snapshot and handed it to Cronkle. He bent way down in our foxhole and flicked his lighter to see it. I bent over too. "You must have stolen the picture, Eyes. She's sharp!" "Turn the picture over," he said. Cronkle flipped it over and read the back. "Matt, I'll miss you a lot. Don't forget all our good times and don't forget the night at you know where. Love, forever, Connie." "Hey, no shit!" Cronkle said. "Where'd you spend the night?" "Oh, at some motel outside of town. The Topeka Inn, I think." "Decent, man!" I said. "Yeah! Decent." Cronkle added. That picture was why I remembered he was from here, and now I wasn't too sure how to pull of what I'd come to do.
I looked at my watch. It was going on five o'clock. If somebody came after him at six, I didn't want to be around. I damn sure didn't want it to be Connie in the picture. I carry a five inch fold-up knife. It would have been easy to stick it under his ribs and up into his heart. He probably wouldn't have made any noise. Shock sets in immediately. Noise wouldn't have mattered any how. I'd planned on doing myself when I was done so I wasn't afraid of getting caught. Instead, I put my arm on his shoulder and shook him.
"Hey, Eyes! It's me, look at me!" I guess I kinda hissed the words. He didn't move. He just sat there like he was dead. That pissed me off a little. "Hey, you asshole. It's me. Talk to me!" He turned so fast, I jumped. Then he stared right into my eyes the same way he'd been staring at the palm tree and he kept staring without saying anything for a long time. Finally, his mouth opened. "Where's Cronkle?" He asked in a flat, slurred voice. I stared at him, my hand on the gun in my pocket and then I said, "Cronkle's dead. You got him killed."
His mouth sagged. His eyes went even dimmer. "Dead? Is he really dead? Are you sure?" "Yeah, I'm sure" I said. "He shouldn't of been on point. You knew he couldn't see very well." "Sure he shouldn't have. He was there because you wouldn't be, remember?" I said.
"No, man. He was on point because you got pissed at him. Remember he fell asleep during our last night of ambush. You were so mad you hit him in the mouth. Then, instead of writing him up, you told him he could walk point the next day. I told you not to let him."
Eye's couldn't have hit me harder with a sledge hammer. I knew then that he was right. I remembered putting Cronkle on point. I must have changed it all around in my head while I was on the hospital ship. Somehow I had decided Cronkle died because Eyes wouldn't take point that day. There I stood, right in the middle of twenty-seven years of shit I had caused myself. That's when I ordered a drink. And another, and another. I went home with Eyes that night and stayed. He's got a woman. I don't remember her name. Me and Eyes don't talk much about stuff. We mostly just sit and drink. It's what hurts the least.
Robert Sasse is a Vietnam Veteran born and raised in the Crazy Mountains in Montana. He joined the Marines in 1966 and served with Company K, Third Battalion, Ninth Marines, Third Marine Division. Robert is currently living and writing in Glenwood, New Mexico.
Robert can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org using this automatic email form. He would like your feedback or comments.