The Sound Of Whirling Blades

July 1996, Richardson, Texas

Heard a lot of helicopters lately. Most of the old flinch and dodge reflex has died away; but it's getting close to the day that Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, and I always get like this every year about this time...Apollo 11, Tranquillity Base, it was 1969.

- But what DAY was it?! -

Every year I notice the choppers...then I realize that Apollo 11 is coming up...and I can't remember the date. As soon as it arrives then passes, I can remember it and think, "Oh Yeah, that was July __, 1969," filling in the date.

- Then I forget again 'til next year...July something, 1969. -

Hell, I watched him do it on TV. One small step in grainy black n' white. The Eagle has landed. My mom and dad and I watched the first man on the moon, live on TV. My bags were packed, my hair cut short, my leave was over. The very next day after the Eagle landed men on the moon, I kissed my mom and dad, got on the plane, and left for VietNam.

- July something, 1969. -

Looking back on it, the stewardess said, "Welcome to the Void. Your life, as you know it, is over. Your future, if any, is unknown."

But that's not really what she said. That's what she SHOULD have said. Neil Armstrong was out of this World, and so was I. He went further, but I stayed longer.

That year, July to July, was a rip in the fabric of space-time. Another dimension. Missed Woodstock altogether. Heard about Kent State. Silly bastards! You don't shoot kids for throwing rocks! You shoot kids...for throwing grenades!

Anyway, I was busy tryin' to keep the Hueys off the GT line and second guessing where the FO and grunts REALLY were in 400 square miles of hostile rubber plantation.

Straddling the Cambodian border. Keepin' track of mines and booby traps so the lanyard-pullers wouldn't stroll into the shit before we got'em cleared.

The Chinooks offloaded the 105 ammo in the minefield. A squad got ambushed and the gooks downed three MedEvacs as they tried to get the wounded out...1...2...3...Shit! We couldn't shoot support because we were tiptoeing the ammo out of the mines.

Twenty-five VC stood in the middle of a paddy in God-Knows-Where, Cambodia, waving white flags, wanting to Chu Hoi. But we had no grunts to go police'em up. All the grunts were busy invading Some-Place-Else, Cambodia.

After about an hour of wavin' white flags in the helicopter traffic, they began to lose interest. When they started dropping the flags and recovering their weapons from the mud, we gave up, too, and called over a Cobra jockey to hose'em down.

Somebody said that, back in the World, a bunch of loonies had killed some actress or other, and the headlines were plastered all over every flat surface in California. Charlie Manson and Sharon Tate. BFD. I was busy.

Continuous fire-missions, round the clock. Near-direct fire on the mother of all bunker complexes. Night-time tracer action in 360 degrees, from here to the horizon. Red and Green. Puff-the-Magic-Dragon between puffs on a shaky cigarette. Snipers enough to satisfy everyone's death-wish.

"The air is loud with death,
The dark air spurts with fire,
The explosions ceaseless are..."

Isaac Rosenberg, KIA, France, 1918.

- No Shit! Someplace, Cambodia, 1970! -

Our E6 cook got diced when a rocket took out the mess hooch. There was a minor Armageddon when a Huey ran outta gas tryin' to find the refueling pad in the fog and crashed into the ammo dump. A squad of engineers got vaporized by an uncooperative cratering charge.

Played Sniper-Tag with a gook-with-a-gun on a moonless night in the motor pool parking lot. I'd hit the treeline with my flashlight, he'd shoot at me, and the guys in the tower would try to zero his muzzle flash. They finally saw it and discouraged him with a few M-79 rounds. Thump! Thump!

One of our FNG gun-bunnies decided to have a smoke one night, standing on top of the berm, and got his brain pan emptied by a sniper bullet. We friendly-fired three of our own grunts when the four-deuce got a tree-burst. Shit!

There was probably a lot of stuff goin' on back in the World, too, but I missed it.

Nui Ba Den is a mountain, 20 or so miles west of Dau Tieng near Tay Ninh. It rises straight up, cone shaped, from the flat jungle and paddies. At sunset it was always black against a sky of red, orange, purple and white. At near dark, the US camp on its peak turned on their perimeter floods; and, from 20 miles away, it was a diamond bracelet draped over a woman's breast. Later, in the pitch black, it was a chain of bright stars hovering a thousand feet over the dark land.

After I got back, I taped the Julys firmly together and pretended to be a regular guy.

Graduate school, marriage, my first son. Cool. Got the job, got the house, had my second son. Cool. Coached Little League and both sons grew into fine men. Got the divorce, got the house, got the debt, still like the job, and the lawn mower usually cranks after a few pulls.

- So why does the sound of helicopters still clench my guts?! -

Every year about this time, the calendar that I thought was spliced shut, July to July, gapes open and little blobs of memory dance out. It always surprises me because I never remember that it's coming...the day after Armstrong walked on the moon.

- July something, 1969. -

Copyright © 1996 James M. Hopkins
Image: Nui Ba Den seen from Dau Tieng, RVN, J.M.Hopkins, 1969