1968. Part 26

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He did have a sort of a regular job, playing guitar on the street. He usually wore his fatigues from Basic Training and a boonie cap from Vietnam that a guy traded him in exchange for a sixpack. Every now and then someone would give him a hard time about Vietnam, but he'd just smile and nod until he or she got nervous and left. Twice he was spat on, but he let that go by, too. After his experiences in Walter Reed and outside the gay bar, the last thing he wanted to do was get into a fight.

He went out every day it wasn't raining, at least for a couple of hours. He had a regular route, mostly bus stops, and even wound up with some regular customers, who would say h.e.l.lo and give him a dime or a quarter eveiy time, and sometimes ask for specific songs.

He also made a little money as a small-scale purveyor of pharmaceuticals. He picked up his Valium every fourth Friday at the VA hospital dispensary, and it was twice as much as he needed, so he sold half of it on the street through a hippy who came through Hooch City now and then.

He wasn't bothered by dreams as long as he could wash his evening pill down with whiskey. Beer if it was cold. Warm beer tasted like Vietnam; he couldn't swallow it.

He knew it was no health pill, whiskey plus Valium, but figured it was temporary. He was saving a few bucks here and there. When he started school in January, he might have enough to rent a room for the semester. Get off the street.

And this is how he ended the year, 1968:On December 31st he was kind of broke but not unhappy. He had made good tips the couple of weeks before Christmas, having learned a few carols on the guitar, but had spent most of it. He'd spruced up his packing crate with a carpet remnant, an aluminum folding cot, and a wool blanket, and had bought a smoked turkey for everybody, Christmas Eve. He had eight dollars in his pocket earmarked for a couple of bottles of cheap champagne to take back to the hooches tonight. Bring in the New Year like real people.

It was cool that day but not too cold for playing guitar. He had some woolen army gloves modified by snipping off the fingertips. He couldn't do anything fancy, like barre chords, with them on, but eight plain chords sufficed for most of his repertoire.

One of his most lucrative spots was a bus stop in a poor section downtown; he went there just before five and played while people came home from work. On this last day of the year, he was almost to the bus stop when a carload of laughing teenagers went by him and threw out a holiday firecracker. Spider didn't see it bounce off a parked car and roll between his feet.

The Valium, and maybe the whiskey, helped Spider with anxiety in general, but they didn't do much about his hyperreactivity; his startle reflex.

The firecracker was a red two-incher Salute. It was about as loud as a single shot from an AK-47.

When it went off, Spider hit the dirt, hard. He landed on his guitar, which made a bad "crunch" sound.

Spider turned the guitar over and looked at it. The back was pretty much caved in, the wood split lengthwise in two places.

He tried to play it but it just kind of buzzed. He tried various ways. If he held it really tightly against his chest and plucked the strings down by the nut, he could pick out a recognizable melody, but chords still sounded like s.h.i.t. He held his face tightly, too, holding in words more than tears.

One of his regulars, a tall skinny Rastafarian with tight greasy braids, got off the bus and walked up to where Spider was sitting on the sidewalk.

"Spidah? You gonna catch cold down there." He reached down to help him up but Spider shook off his hand. "What the f.u.c.k, man?"

Spider tried to speak but all he could do was shake his head. He turned the guitar around and showed the man its busted back.

"Somebody stove it in? Be some tough s.h.i.t, man." This time Spider did let himself be helped up, and then led to the bench by the bus stop. "Ah, s.h.i.t." The man looked around. "You wait here."

He ran across the street, dodging traffic, and went into a p.a.w.n shop. A few minutes later, he came out with a guitar similar to Spider's old F-hole. He pried the old one away from Spider and gave him the new one.

Spider strummed a couple of chords. It was in tune and sounded crisp and beautiful. He found his voice.

"I can't let you do this, Royce. I can't take this."

"Ah. What you can't do is you can't tell me what to do, white boy." He held out the broken guitar and admired it. "Some day you be a famous music dude and I sell this mother for a million bucks." He walked away laughing, the old guitar jaunty over his shoulder.For a long time Spider played the same chord over and over, staring at a spot on the sidewalk. Then he snapped out of it and put his hat down at his feet. He salted it with three quarters and began to sing a song about a man in trouble.

Life is but a dream The tall, older man who had been given the job of making sure the dead were dead, and killing the wounded, was being punished. Punished for being Chinese, punished for being a scholar, punished for hating war and showing compa.s.sion.

Shi-Jung Han was born in the Cholon district of Saigon in 1941 to Chinese parents who had emigrated from San Francisco in the thirties. They spoke a little English around the house, and he studied it in school. At university he studied Chinese literature and took a few courses in English, and was delighted with his graduation present: His parents sent him to San Francisco in the summer of 1961. He stayed with relatives in Chinatown and wandered through the city, reveling in its strangeness.

When he returned to Saigon, Han took a job in a bank, and amused his fellow clerks with tales of the cool foggy city, its hills and cable cars, its bridges and bay and beatniks. When American customers came in, Han was the one who had to figure out what they wanted and respond, which embarra.s.sed him.

He understood English well but spoke it terribly, and usually had to communicate by written notes.

The bank failed in a cynical takeover during the disastrous year of 1964. Han's parents were thrown out of their house, and the three of them lived in a succession of mean rooms, just making enough from sewing and labor to cover rice and rent. Han detested the puppet government that had brought him and his family to such a state, and so, like many of his friends, he joined the Viet Cong.

For some reason he was not allowed to stay in Saigon. They sent him a couple of hundred miles north, to Tay Ninh, where he had two weeks of arduous training in a secret camp, and was then a.s.signed to this company, which moved around in the forests and mountains of the Central Highlands between Dak To and Pleiku.

He was supposedly the company's translator, but they had never taken a prisoner. In fact, he had never seen a live American soldier, since he was not exactly a front-line rifleman. (His marksmanship training had consisted of twenty rounds fired with a rattly old bolt-action rifle, the Chinese Mauser that he carried now.) He had never fired an AK-47 before. He clicked the selector switch to single-shot and stepped up to the first dead American. The shot was a flat sound, m.u.f.fled, and the result was as horrible as he had expected. His boots were spattered with blood and brains. He wiped them off on the dead soldier's tunic.

He had never seen a live American soldier but he had felt the fury of their weapons. His company specialized in hara.s.sment, hit and run, and what they ran through was often a hail of artillery and air support. A few months ago a napalm strike had blossomed only a few tens of meters away, close enough to singe his hair. He had been stung by small bits of shrapnel several times. None of his wounds had been serious, but he had no illusions. He was not going to' survive this war.

He stepped up to the next body and swallowed bile.

He had no doubt that an American bullet or bomb would kill him, but he couldn't hate the Americans.The ones he had met in San Francisco had been sometimes foolish, always friendly, never malicious.

"Laid back," as they said. He had seen the newspaper accounts of peace marches and draft-card burnings. He knew that most of the black and white men who lay strewn across this b.l.o.o.d.y clearing had been sent here against their will.

This time he didn't close his eyes when he fired, and he didn't bother to wipe his boots. They would just get dirty again.

This last action had been pure serendipity. A messenger returning from the headquarters bunker had seen the small American unit crossing the stream and knew they would probably come up the trail toward the company's bivouac. He took the ridgeline trail and got to the bivouac an hour before them. The company set up two heavy machine guns in a cross-fire covering the clearing, along with riflemen and grenadiers.

The Americans never stood a chance, evidently.

Han had not watched it. He stayed a couple of hundred meters away, by a bunker, along with two reserve squads and some supernumeraries, notably Lieutenant To, the unit's political officer.

It had been obvious from the sound how one-sided the engagement was, and when the first men ran back with their accounts of how complete the butchery had been, Han showed more honesty than intelligence. He remarked to the medic how terrifying it must have been and what a horrible price was paid for even a complete victory such as this; they were just men like us, after all.

Lieutenant To overheard. He gave Han a quick loud tonguelashing and then switched rifles with him, and ordered him to do the cleanup. All the others would fall back to an a.s.sembly area a couple of kilometers away, to avoid the inevitable artillery and helicopters.

Where was the artillery? Maybe they hadn't had time to call in. Third body.

As Han lowered the muzzle to this one, he started to rise up feebly, not quite dead. He jerked the trigger reflexively and the bullet blew the top of his skull and a ma.s.s of brains back into his helmet, which rocked back but remained attached by its chinstrap. Dying, the man threw his arms up as if in supplication. Han yelled at him furiously in Chinese, the first man he had ever killed. Until now there had been a chance he would never have to live with that.

He slumped, looking at his handiwork. He could just wait here for the artillery, for the gunships. But that would be suicide. One new sin per day was enough.

The next two he could skip. One was in a sitting position, slumped over staring at the cooling blue coils of entrails piled in his lap, on his hands, like a j.a.panese warrior contemplating the results of his pride. The other had no head to shoot.

A big black man, chest-shot, rigid, eyes open and filming, lips drawn back in a grimace. He shot him in the mouth for no reason.

A pair of legs with no body attached; that was a rarity, he supposed. There was a lot of bloodslick on the ground, and small bits of flesh, a length of vertebrae, most of a hand with a gold ring. It was as if the man had burst. Han reached toward the ring and pulled back, disgusted with himself.

Two together, one a medic killed while wrapping the other's shattered arm. The medic had flopped over on his patient, flinging the gauze out in a stark white ribbon. The patient may have been slightly alive; he shuddered when the bullet shattered his forehead. The medic was firmly dead, two matching exit woundsin his back exposing lung tissue and ribs. He shot him in the back of the head anyway, leaving a relatively clean round hole.

Now three together, who had all died while operating, or trying to set up, a belt-fed machine gun. A fortuitous rifle grenade had landed close enough to destroy the weapon and kill all three men, boys. One must have been very handsome, in a movie-star way. His jaw had been blown off, or blown into his neck, but Han could block the gore off with his hand and see the perfect nose, the high cheekbones, the strange blue eyes and the pale hair. He had drawn a complex mandala on his helmet cover, ornate lettering spelling out "San Francisco Hippy."

There was a faint squeaking sound. The boy was trying to breathe through his shattered jaw and throat.

"I'm sorry," Han said in English, and killed him. He shot the other two quickly.

For a minute Han wiped his eyes and studied the clearing. Had he missed anybody? There, one over by the trees.

He walked toward the body. At first it looked as if he could skip this one, dead of a head wound, but on closer inspection he could see that the blood was superficial, from a cut on the forehead. He carefully set the muzzle on the center of the line that joined the man's eyebrows, slightly higher- When the hot muzzle touched his skin, his eyes opened wide. Han could read the terror there, and felt a moment of sympathy and self-loathing, but he pulled the trigger.

Nothing happened. But there was plenty of ammunition. The AK-47 had jammed.

The boy's eyes were closed again. He was waiting to die. Han had no idea how to clear the AK-47 and make it fire. He had little inclination to experiment.

He remembered a thing a beatnik poet had said to his audience in San Francisco, six summers before.

He'd been amused because the poet had said it was an ancient Chinese curse, and Han had never heard of it.

He spoke it softly to the boy in nine flat syllables of bad English, and moved on. For the rest of his life, Spider would hear that phrase in his dreams, and never decipher it: "May you live in interesting times."

Acknowledgements and dedication A lot of Vietnam veterans helped me with this book. Thanks to Bill Hutchinson and John Chambers for checking me out on ground combat memories; special thanks to Bob and Patience Mason for their expertise in helicopters and PTSD. Their booksChickenhawk andRecovering From the War were especially valuable.

There's not much science fiction in this book, but I got a great deal of help from the science fiction readers and writers on GEnie's SF Bulletin Board, who saved me a lot of library footwork when I needed to know the color of the walls in Walter Reed in 1968 and how doughnuts are made. It's pretty science-fictional to have a group mind of over a thousand brains just one modem call away.

And then there are two veterans whose names I never learned.On the 4th of October, 1968, I was in the army hospital at Tuy Hoa, Republic of Vietnam, my first day on crutches after being confined for several weeks to bed and wheelchair with multiple bullet and fragment wounds.

The hospital was suddenly crowded to overflowing with injured Vietnamese civilians, mostly women and children. It had been Election Day, and the Viet Cong decided to demonstrate against the election by simultaneously attacking various polling places.

The hospital was a madhouse, a charnel house. Orders came down to transfer to other areas every American patient who could be moved. I hobbled aboard a crowded DC-3 borrowed from Air America, the CIA's airline, and as I moved toward the rear I pa.s.sed the man who would become the rough draft of Spider.

Most of the pa.s.sengers were obviously wounded or ill, but this man was tanned, healthy-looking, smiling-and strapped down to a stretcher, confined within a straitjacket, staring, evidently Thorazined to the gills. Pinned to his straitjacket was a tag saying paranoid schizophrenic. I sat down behind him and wondered about using him in a story-maybe youhad to be crazy, to make sense of this crazy war. This crazy time.

Two years later, happily out of uniform, I was visiting patients in the neurological wing of Bay Pines VA Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida. There were some sad cases there, and no doubt some of them are still there, but the one who sticks in my mind is certainly dead by now. He was about ninety, the hospital's only patient left over from the Spanish-American War. He was legless and blind. They said that for forty years he had done nothing but call out for his mother.

This book is for those two men, obviously, and for men and women everywhere who are trapped day and night, locked away in the dark prison of their memories of war.

The End

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1968. Part 26 summary

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