The team leader blinks, gets his bearings. Fuck me, he thinks. It be fucken dark in The Nam. The time is oh-dark-thirty and the team leader thinks, This is true. Fucken dark.
No humidity moon hangs above the squad as they lay in ambush formation in the Badlands of I Corps, Vietnam.
While a Marine rifle squad numbers 14 men in peacetime, this ain't peacetime. This squad counts itself lucky to have 10 men, counting the corpsman.
The night has been quiet. The squad drew the duty, so here they are.
Fuck it, thinks the team leader. Time to go home. The squad leader and team leaders shake the men next to them; break formation. Each man stirs or nods, depending on whether they have on watch or asleep.
Hand signals from the squad leader: Let's get outta here. He turns to his point man: Take us home.
They break ambush and make their way back to the platoon's night position. The point man moves silently, carefully putting one foot down in front of the other. He listens and feels for the unexpected, for the smallest sound or tug at his boot that can cause death or mutilation.
The point man pauses...
He sniffs the wind...
Satisfied, he moves on, the squad trailing behind him. The point man moves from memory, knowing where the platoon is, or is supposed to be. He listens constantly for noise in front of him and behind him. He hears nothing, nothing but his own breathing.
Dawn has not yet broken the inky blackness of the Vietnam night. The slightest dip in the trail tells him they are almost home. If he has been careful up to now, he is most afraid at this moment. Up ahead are 40 Marines who want to kill anything that moves to their front.
Hotel, calls the point man, softly, ready to hit the deck at the first weapon coming off safe. He hears men at his front and lowers his body to the deck.
Heatbreak, he whispers, just loud enough for the men at his front to hear.
Hotel, he hears, and relaxes... barely. Ain't home yet.
The point man moves through the platoon perimeter and turns to count his people coming up behind him.
.. Six, seven, eight, nine...
Safely inside the platoon perimeter, he turns to the squad leader. Nine!, he says.
The squad leader hears his point man and freezes. Shit! His brain, for one brief moment, refuses to function. Then training takes over. He remembers where he is and what he is.
Everybody stop!, he whispers savagely. Fucken stop!
The squad halts in its tracks. All hands turn to stare at the squad leader. What the fuck, over?
The squad leader moves among his people, counting noses. Shit!!
He turns to the second team leader.
White, he says. The seond team leader stares at his squad leader.
What?, he asks.
The squad leader, a corporal, 20 years old at his last birthday, grabs the collar of the team leader's flak jacket.
White, you motherfucker! Where the fuck is White?!
The team leader is stunned. No, he says. No.
The corporal is pissed! Where the fuck is White??
The team leader turns, dreading what he knows he will not see. No White.
Fuck! Dumbfounded, he turns back to the squad leader.
He stammers, I don't know. I thought--
Think? Think! I think! You fucken count!
The corporal hears movement behind him and turns. His platoon commander, trailed by his radioman, is in his face.
What's going on?, asks the lieutenant.
Fuck me, thinks the corporal.
I'm one short, he says.
The lieutenant frowns, clearly pissed. Well?, he demands.
The corporal turns to his second team leader. Go find him, he says. Go find White.
The team leader feels his blood freeze. He wants desperately to look at his watch, knowing it can't be too far past 0400. Fucken dark in The Nam, man. He thinks it; he doesn't say it. Instead, he says, What?
The corporal leans into his team leader, let's the team leader see his half-mad eyes.
What? Did I stutter??
The point man says, I'll go with 'em.
Can't ask it, says the squad leader.
Yeah, says the point. I know.
The platoon commander is on his knees with the rest of his people. He does not want them to go back out there, but this call belongs to his squad leader. He knows, if he second-guesses his man, that leadership dies here; never mind what happens out there. Still, the lieutenant agonizes: They left a man behind...
The corpsman wants to go. The squad leader says no.
No?, asks the corpsman.
The squad leader turns, clearly pissed. I fucken said NO!
The squad leader does not say, I lost two corpsmen this past summer; will not lose another one.
He frets: Four men is too few; five men is too many. They gotta get there fast and get back fast!
The second team leader, a Lance Corporal, takes his weapon off safe. He turns to the squad's point man. You ready?, he asks.
The point man sighs. Man, he says to himself, when are you gonna learn to keep your mouth shut?
Yeah, he says to the team leader. I'm set. I got the point.
The point man tunnels his vision to the trail to his front and takes the lead; three men trail behind him.
The time is just past 0400 and still darker'n hell. The point man knows the little people may have followed the ambush squad back to the platoon, but he also knows he has to risk retracing his steps. White might be trying to get back on his own, not waiting for someone to come get him.
Got to do it, he knows. If White isn't dead, he's gotta be terrified right outta his gourd.
If White is dead...
Oh, well... They tried.
The four Marines move slowly, deliberately, into and through the darkness, the blackness, of the jungle. They are bathed in sweat. They are scared to death.
Fuck!, thinks the drag, the last Marine in this tiny column. Fucken White better be dead; if he ain't, I'm gonna kill 'im!
The squad leader, platoon commander, and the rest of the platoon, now at 100 percent alert, watch as the early morning darkness swallows up the fire team.
Unsaid, they all think the same thing: Sorry it's you, guys, but better you than me. They turn their attention back to the perimeter, anxious for the sound of gunfire. They are, to a man, scared for the fire team.
The squad leader is sick at heart. No matter what happens now -- White alive or White dead -- the squad leader knows he is the one responsible for White, for all his people. He left a man behind. As far as he is concerned, he is through as a squad leader, as a leader of Marines.
As if reading his thoughts, the platoon commander softly claps a hand to
his squad leader's shoulder. He understands the agony of leadership; he's
had the training. He knows the squad leader has not. He knows no one can
prepare for this most awful of scenarios: A Marine was left behind.
The point man pauses, feels the early morning breeze brush his face. He sniffs the wind, sniffs for gook or nouc mam or American.
He hears nothing; smells nothing. Nothing disturbs the dark cloak surrounding them. Reassured, he takes a step back to the team leader.
Let's move faster, he says. I don't feel anything out here.
The team leader wants to say, No. Take all the time you need.
Go, he says.
The point man picks up the pace, still moving slowly, but faster than the step-pause step-pause-look-step he typically uses at night. Adrenaline forces superhuman vision into the eyes of the point man, making his teeth want to chatter. His hands are slippery on the stock of the shotgun he holds in front of his body.
The team leader eyes are wide, and he continually shoots a glance behind him, needing to be sure his team members are still with him.
I d o n o t w a n t t o d o t h i s, thinks the Marine behind the team leader. Fucken White! Told 'em, told 'em all! That little fucker gonna get us all killed someday. Fuck, it's dark!
The point man slows the pace; they are just outside the old ambush site. The drag slowly lowers himself to one knee, watching their backs, weapon off safe.
Now's the best time, thinks the point. If the little people are gonna jump us, fuck us up, now's the best time...
The team leader wipes a palm dry and slides left; the remaining team leader anchors the center. The point man glides to his right, ducking beneath bushes and branches, looking for White.
They all look for White.
The team leader remembers White's last position, and so makes his way there. He is keenly aware of every movement and noise made by the jungle and its inhabitants, as he is aware of every movement he makes.
White, where are you?!
White, you motherfucker!
So fucken cold, he thinks. Gotta be 70 degrees, anyway. Right here. I left you right here! He looks wildly around him.
White, you little shit! Where are you?!
The squad leader, platoon commander, and the men manning the platoon's perimeter do not speak.
They listen. They listen for the splat-racket of gunfire, the dull thud of a small mine, for the flat whack of a hand grenade.
They hear nothing, and the silence screams at them in the dark.
The platoon is ready to go.
They are saddled up, loaded up. Full magazines in their weapons. Helmets lay on the deck beside them, soft covers on their heads.
They do not smoke.
They do not speak.
They do not move.
Eyes outboard, they wait.
The squad leader is agonized.
I fucked up, he thinks. I fucked up twice: I left a man behind, and I sent four more back after him.
I am stupid. I am a fucken idiot! I do not deserve to be a squad leader of Marines. Need to be shitcanned to the rear. I am so --
A soft movement next to him breaks his train of thought.
The lieutenant whispers, You fucked up. Don't let it happen again.
Godawmighty, thinks the squad leader.
The point man sees the smallest of movements. Almost nothing. Gone as soon as he saw it.
Where? Where did I see it? Little people? Be like 'em, the little fucks. There...
The point man slides left, hunched over, low, shotgun off safe. He stares at nothing, letting his other senses walk him through the bush. He does not smell gooks.
His brain screams at him: Find White and let's go home! He shuts off the scream, and the fear the set off the scream, forcing himself to listen and feel. He feels --
The center man, the one left to anchor the escape if they gotta run for it, has never felt so alone in his whole fucken life! He knows the drag man is only a few feet back the trail; he knws the team leader and the point man are just behind him, looking for White. He could be on the fucken moon!
He doesn't have the feel for the bush like the point man. He doesn't have the time in The Nam yet to get a handle on this nightfighter shit. The night is so goddamn dark! Shit! Whatever happened to the moon. He can't see shit!
He wants to scream: Where is everybody!
He waits. Weapon gripped tightly in his hands, he waits.
He prays: God God God God.
I am, he thinks, scared to fucken death!
Not movement, realizes the point man.
He turns his head, letting his peripheral vision see what his eyes cannot. If it ain't my people, gonna go rock'n'roll, he thinks. He moves closer.
The platoon commander's radioman whispers softly into his handset.
Be advised, he says to the company net. We have people outside the wire. Say again, outside the wire. May require immediate assist. Mark -- he gives the platoon's coordinates -- for possible react. Stand by one. He looks up as his lieutenant crawls over to him.
Tell Company, says the lieutenant, to stand by for medevac... just in case.
Aye, aye, says the radioman.
Six Actual, says the radioman. Stand by for possible medevac. He listens.
Negative, he says. Unknown number of possibles. Say again, Number unknown.
The Company Actual gets on the net. Be advised, he tells the radioman. React platoon is on alert; medevac standing by.
.. Rodger, says the radioman. Read you five-by-five. Alpha One, out.
The radioman sits back. He waits.
Sqaud leaders move among their people.
Stand by, they say. Stand by...
The point man approaches the cloth.
The team leader.
In front of him, curled up, sleeping like a baby: White!
Squad leaders move among their people: Steady, steady. Don't get stupid. Stand by for the Word.
The lieutenant kneels in the center of the perimeter; his radioman is at his right hand. He hears anything, anything at all, he calls down the wrath of Phantom jets and Army gunships. He can call for the react platoon, waiting anxiously at Company. He can do --
Right now, he can do nothing.
Nothing at all.
All he can do is wait. He shoots a glance at his radioman. The radioman stares back, impassively.
Ain't shit we can do, thinks the radioman.
The Company is at full alert. Battalion has been briefed by the Company Actual. Four-duece mortars are laid on, their crews waiting for a fire mission.
The lieutenant does not smoke, but he fumes; he feels the urge: He would kill for a cigarette. Dammit! Goddamnit!
The point slides silently up behind the team leader. The point man's system
is so full of adrenaline that he has to bite hard on his back teeth to keep
them from chattering; he feels his tongue thick and heavy, and he is afraid
he might swallow it.
The team leader has forgotten where he is, where they all are. All he sees is: White, you motherfucker! 'Cause of you, I am at the top the squad leader's shit list.
White sleeps on, totally unaware.
The team leader's hand, unbidden, checks his weapon's safety. Off-safe. The team leader doesn't think; he doesn't feel. All he sees is White before him.
White: Sleeping like a baby.
The drag is half-nuts. He is fucken scared outta his gourd. Fuck me, he thinks. Find that little shit! Fucken White Fucken White Fucken White!!
The anchor man desperately wants to leave his post. He has got to know what the fuck is going on! A small worm of caution crawls through his brain: Don't leave, says the worm. Don't leave. The anchor man's hands are sweaty, slick with fear sweat. He wipes them on his trousers, wipes his face with them. He hunkers lower into the bush of the ambush zone. Goddamnit!
White sleeps on. Like a baby.
The team leader thinks, So easy... S o o o o easy . . . And all my troubles go away...
Too many gooks, whispers the point man, jarring the team leader.
What, says the team leader, jerking around.
Too many gooks, whispers the point man, again. You start shootin', wake up the whole fucken world; then what?
The team leader stares at the point, then glances up at the night sky. Christ, he thinks. First light's almost here. He remembers... Yeah, then what?
He looks down as the point man kneels and sets his shotgun off to one side. One hand moves up to cover White's mouth and the other grabs the front of White's utility shirt. He sets himself.
He jerks White by the shirt as his hand clamps down hard on the sleeping man's mouth.
White's body jerks in fear and surprise. Abject fear causes tiny mewing noises in White's throat. He starts to thrash and the point man sits on him.
White!, the point man whispers, savagely, his mouth close to White's ear. Goddamn you! White!
White's eyes are huge on the face of the point man, huge swollen orbs trying deperately to jump out of their sockets. White jerks, harder, trying to break the other man's grip.
His voice softer, the point man whispers, White...
White finally recognizes the point man. He stops fighting and jerking, his eyes never leaving the face of the point man. We got to go, White, says the point man. Gooks everywhere. We got to fucken go now!
White relaxes and tenses again. Gooks!
The point man relaxes his grip, ever so slightly. Okay?, he says to White. Okay?
White nods, still tense. His fear is different now, and the point man knows the fear for what it is: Fear of what White thought was certain death is now the fear of imminent death.
Fuck this, thinks the team leader. Already kneeling, he leans forward. We gotta get the fuck outta here!, he pleads.
The point man glances at him, nods his agreement. He releases White and picks up his shotgun. Let's make our hat, he whispers. I got the point.
The platoon is staged, ready to go. False dawn lets them see small bits of light reflecting off the moisture of the jungle's vegetation. Light enough, they think. Never mind that shitbird White, we gotta go find the rest of our people.
The lieutenant agrees. He wants to go now!
The platoon sergeant crawls over to his officer.
Wait, sir, he says. Wait just a bit. Give 'em a few more minutes. We go diddy bopping down that trail, you can bet your ass -- sir -- that goddamned point man's gonna start banging away with that shotgun he carries. Won't make no difference who we are.
The lieutenant thinks, then decides. He sits back. He sighs, Yeah, you're right, Sarge.
The platoon commander turns to his squad leaders. Wait a few, he says.
Crap, thinks the rest of the platoon. Let's go get 'em. Now!
The point man sweats from every pore of his body. Just enough light, too much light, not enough light. He steps carefully, toes inboard, a slight pause-shuffle in every step he takes. He keeps his eyes unfocused, letting his sense of hearing take over.
Won't see 'em, he knows; will have to hear 'em. Hear them first, he hopes.
The patrol's order: The point man, backup, team leader, White, the drag. The drag divides his attention between what he hopes is not behind the team and what he knows is to his front: White. White's back.
The drag is so pissed and so scared, all he wants to do is blow that little shit away.
You, White, you motherfucker! 'Cause a you, I'm out here! Fuck!
The backup to the point watches every move made by the man in front of him. How do you this, he wonders. I am so fucken scared I cannot fucken see!
The team leader wants to get back, yet dreads facing the squad leader and the goddamn platoon sergeant.
I am, he decides, truly fucked. He refuses to turn around; he does not want to look upon the source of his problems: White!
The point man makes good time, driven by the fear of ambush. Enough light to see indentations in the trail.
Good, he thinks.
The patrol reaches the old jump-off point. He slows the team.
Up ahead... Up ahead...
The point man freezes and raises a hand signal: Stop. The team freezes in its tracks and goes to ground.
Hotel, calls the point man. He lowers his body to the deck. He sees the smallest movement to his front and hopes -- prays -- the movement is Marines.
Heartbreak, he calls, softly, aware they did not take the time to change passwords ...
Hotel, he hears.
Fuck me, he thinks. We're home.
The react squad moves out to meet the patrol. They cover the flanks as the point man and his people move into the perimeter.
The point man falls to the deck, feeling adrenaline leave begin to leave his body. Goddamn, he says to himself, panting. I am so fucken tired. Just wanna sleep--
He dimly hears the platoon sergeant's urgent hoarse whisper, Saddle up. Saddle up! Let's go! Let's get outta here.
Panting his relief, the point man rests on his hands and knees, thoroughly
Damn damn damn. He looks up to see his platoon commander's face.
We got to move, says the lieutenant. We got to go now.
.. Yeah... I know... I know...
Third squad's got the point, says the lieutenant.
.. Good, says the point man. Good...
His breathing still heavy, he asks, White?
The lieutenant says, Don't worry about White. We'll take care of White.
Rodge', says the point man. Rodge'...
The platoom moves out. Third squad has the point. First squad, from last night's ambush, has the center. Second squad has the rear.
The platoon's radioman is on the net: Six, Six. One Actual headed yours. Say again, headed yours.
He listens to the voice on the radio. Rodge', says the radioman. All present and accounted for.
The radioman listens some more. Negative, negative, he says. No casualties. Say again, no casualties this pos. Stand down the react.
He listens some more.
That's a roger, he says.
We're coming home...