In the last week of January 1968, I was a member of a Marine recon unit stationed at Khe Sahn Firebase. Our work was in the mountains, but at Khe Sahn, we had a comfortable tent with cots, a generator, refrigerator and a tape player with enormous speakers. We were rarely there, but when we were, it was home.
On January 28, the North Vietnamese Army attacked Khe Sahn. The rockets and artillery started about midnight and continued for 77 days. The ammunition dump detonated during the night, shredding our tent, blowing its sandbagged walls flat. We piled into slit trenches with no overhead cover.
We started digging at dawn. We groveled and dug, but our wounded took priority and the 500-meter run, duck and shuffle to the med bunker was a long haul under fire. And there was the dead. We spent most of those first days evacuating wounded and carrying our dead to Graves Registration.
My impressions of the first week of Khe Sahn are a blur now, shards of events, as if seen through a kaleidoscope. I remember a particular morning, though.
We were standing in the open, gouging-out a bunker. We bounced picks off the brick hard laterite, and dug with tiny collapsible shovels. Rounds still cooked-off from the ammo dump, the bigger stuff exploding, but the smaller munitions air-bursting in a magnificent pyrotechnic display. The sound was permeating: the keening shriek of incoming rockets and slamming of artillery backed by a roaring so loud it traveled from timpani to viscera. It was a sound not as much heard as felt, pressing down on Khe Sahn like an invisible, infinite mass.
Fragments filled the air and lashed the littered ground. Orange flames and greasy smoke roiled from the fuel farm, and the wreckage of a C-130 smoldered on the airstrip.
There was a kid named Larry Price digging with us. I remember Price as utterly forgettable. The perfect Marine. He was a kid with a past so unremarkable no one knew where he came from, and a present marked only by his donkey-like resignation to the inevitable. He was a non-entity among us. He wasn't smart, funny, or particularly skilled at his work. He was a just warm body who humped his weight in the bush, tossed a grenade or pulled a trigger. He did what he was told. Nothing more.
Evacuating wounded, he'd been twice hit himself: one a sliver in his cheek, the other several fragments in his right arm. The white gauze and adhesive tape of his battle dressings turned the greasy vermilion of the Khe Sahn clay, and because of the metal in his arm, he could only wield his pick with one hand.
I was digging with Price and some others. Digging, diving down when the fire came in, then getting up and digging again.
After a while, Price stopped diving for cover. He simply stood his ground, hacking away with his pick. He was smiling.
Beneath the mortar fire, the artillery and rockets howling in from Laos, the rest of us groveling on knees and bellies, Price stood straight up, proud and erect with his pick and bandages, and said:
"Well, it just doesn't get any worse than this, does it?"
His smile became a grin. A huge, sincere, kid-at-Christmas grin under that grimy battle dressing. It was the happiest, most authentic grin I'd ever seen.
Hunched belly down in the raw dirt, I lifted my head and watched Price and the devastation surrounding him, and was struck by a stray slap of memory, struck as hard as the fragments that whipped though the air. I recalled, suddenly, and with absolute clarity, a child's reverie from a bad neighborhood in a big city.
I thought of the blooming weeds and flowers that grew from cracks in the alleys, playground tennis courts, and parking lots where I lived. They came up tough and wild among rusted shopping carts, beer cans, sparkling green glass, and skeletons of junked cars. Once in awhile, I'd pick some, bring them home, arrange them in a jelly glass, and center the glass on the kitchen table.
I liked the idea that life sprang from concrete, rose up and flourished amid neglect and indifference. The flowers came each spring: bright, vigorous, and promising. They wilted in the summer heat, but persevered until it was time their time to die in the first frosts of fall. When I was a kid, those bright weeds provided me a sense of hope and constancy.
That transient blip of memory puzzled me, but it assuaged my fear that morning. Its peculiar nature felt like a benediction, a homily for the day, a lesson for the weeks that would come.
The Marines, who fought for that sparse and ravaged sliver of runway and bunkers, did some strange things to cope with the adversities time, place, and circumstance flung their way. Sometimes, at Khe Sahn, the line between craziness and just getting through the day was barely discernible. Other times, there wasn't any line at all.
"Don't mean nothin'," we would say back then, "Don't mean a thing."
After awhile, those words made sense, and we spoke them like a prayer.
But, over the years, I've learned differently.
Every sandbag, every shovel of dirt, every person, every day, and every death was significant.
Every moment, every swallow of air, and every final breath carried an immensity of power and weight, an energy harder and more unyielding than the red Khe Sahn clay, an energy more vigorous than bright weeds pushed through pavement, a strength so immutable it fortified the flesh and sustained the spirit.
I think back to that morning with a twinge of regret. I always meant to thank Larry Price. I wanted to let him know about those flowers.
In his unassuming way, Price would have liked that story,
but, the way things were at Khe Sahn, I never did get around to telling
it to him.