I wonder whether the airplane or the rifle is the biggest dick in this war, thought Nemo as he stepped onto the baked airstrip and wove among the squatting klatches of irregular Vietnamese soldiers and their families. He blocked the high pitch of a language that to him was always jabber and walked up the dropped, rear hatch of an olive drab twin-engined army Caribou transport. The nineteen-year-old scanned the interior of the plane for a place to sit. In the center, his squad sergeant bent over and checked the thin, metal bands that fastened the bucket loader to the floor. In front of the loader two stacks of eight-foot-long, three-foot-wide sheets of psp—pierced steel planking—were also banded onto the floor of the cargo bay. Like thin green slices of Swiss cheese, the plates had lines of round holes punched out of them to reduce weight. They then could be strung together over raw earth to form a quick landing strip for planes like this Caribou.
Nemo cursed. He’d spent an hour breaking his back loading the pieces, and in a few minutes he’d break his back again unloading them on the airstrip at Prek Klok. He knew little about Prek Klok except it was a Special Forces camp and the VC had chewed up the airstrip. His sergeant volunteered the squad to fix it.
Nemo eyed a seat against the front of the compartment, facing the banded psp, beneath the cockpit and aside a ladder that rose into the pilot’s cabin. He leaned toward it, but two Vietnamese children rushed onto the plane and grabbed the seats first. Nemo chose another spot on the right side of the bay and strapped himself into a harness. The rest of the squad joined him on that side while a group of Vietnamese filled the other side of the plane, resting their carbines between their legs.
The hatch closed. With a deepening whine, the engines gunned and the plane nosed round for take-off. Nemo felt the sudden surge of powered acceleration as the Caribou first trotted, then loped, next galloped, and finally broke into the sprint that enabled it to pull itself into the air and quickly turn into a steep, spiral climb. He hoped it was only snipers and not rockets the maneuver was meant to avoid.
As the plane settled into its flight, Nemo studied the Vietnamese. They seemed almost clones even though their camouflaged uniforms didn’t match. He thought about War Zone C below. Somewhere down there existed the mysterious Viet Cong National Command; a Xanadu hidden under triple canopy forest. Only Nui Ba Den, the Black Virgin Mountain, a 3000-foot extinct volcanic cone, rose out of the flat Vietnamese coastal plain, though the coast was eighty miles distant.
The mountain and its legend, that of a Vietnamese girl who threw herself from the mountaintop in anguish for her lost lover, never left him. In his mind her straight, black hair reached the small of her back, setting off her clean, dark skin kissed by only one man. Her breasts were small, erect and untouched. At other times she wore the white, conical, sun hat, silk blouse and trousers of a university student. She often rode a bicycle—always on a rain-washed, paved section of Highway 1, always under the green of cultured banana trees. And when she made eye contact, it was always a glance from a lowered face with only the hint of a smile.
Somewhere beneath the wings and the green, thousands of her men hunted each other in small, hidden groups that spewed fire, blood, and life in a hundred private encounters.
The Caribou veered into a steep dive. Nemo felt his stomach churn as the plane pulled up and bounced onto a runway. With a roar the propellers reversed their pitch and the plane shuddered against the sharp strain of its braking. He heard a sharp, metallic snap and the thin, metal bands that held the steel plankings to the floor broke. Like sticks of gum tapped from a packet of Spearmint, the planking shot toward the front of the plane.
For Nemo, the two Vietnamese children had no chance, and it all slowed down.
A horizontal guillotine, the planks took aim. At some giant metal press sweating in the summer heat of Cleveland, or Pittsburgh, or any one of a thousand other swing shift plants, a man punched out the round holes on other pieces just like these and felt good that his sweat supported the wheels that carried the planes that held the soldiers that save these lands that Jack built.
One sheet of steel caught the boy just under his chin, sliced through his neck, and embedded itself in the firewall beneath the cockpit. His head sat neatly atop the planking. His arms jerked spasmodically, as if motioning for help—not panic, just an urgent motion telling Nemo that if he acted quickly he could reattach the boy’s head and nothing would be wrong; no one would notice.
Nemo unsnapped his harness, stood up and tried to steady himself, knew instinctively there was nothing to be done except watch the blood spill across the flight deck. The young girl sat crushed under other planks against the firewall, her eyes dull and vacant as her brother’s. And then came a wail from the other side of the bay, a long, vacant sound that transcended even the noise of the plane. A Vietnamese soldier pulled at his hair and the two soldiers holding him. Nemo and his sergeant joined other Vietnamese as they tried to gingerly move the psp off the bodies, but the rumbling, rolling, and turning of the plane mocked the attempts.
Before the plane had stopped turning, the rear hatched dropped and a jungle-hatted major jumped on shouting, “Clear the plane! Move it! Move it! Grab your gear and move! In-coming’ll get your ass in a minute. Move it!”
The sergeant changed direction, grabbed a pair of bolt cutters and snapped the metal bands tying down the bucket loader. Someone jumped on, turned the ignition, and the loader burst the bands Helms hadn’t gotten to and zoomed onto the runway. The major screamed over the roar of the engines, “Grab this shit! Clear the plane!”
Nemo turned, grabbed a piece of psp in one hand and his rifle in the other then followed the bucket loader. Others did the same.
Outside Nemo dropped his rifle and the psp and ran back onto the plane for another piece. It was wet with blood. He dragged it out of the plane and dropped it onto the runway. He looked at the blood on his hand and felt his face contract. He straightened and held his hand in front of his face. His body recoiled, but he could not look away and suddenly as if swept away in a time warp he was staring beyond his fingers.
What he saw before him was not Vietnam, but Verdun. The camp was nothing but a low mound of reddish, earthen walls cased in barbed wire. A battery of 105s fired sporadically from a raw, shallow pit to the right of the camp. Shell and bomb craters dotted the clearings surrounding the runway. To the left trees were chopped and splintered into crazy patterns. In every other direction the forest was the stark gray of winter.
Where is the green? he thought. The green of Tay Ninh and the jungle organic and primeval? This place could have been Potter County in January, 19— it didn’t matter. 1916, 1943, 1967, — it didn’t matter. The major shouted again, “That’s it. Fuck the rest.” He signaled the pilot. A crowd of Vietnamese was still inside with the two children as the hatch closed and the Caribou roared down the airstrip and lifted itself into the air.
The sergeant gave Nemo a shove. Nemo bent down, picked up his rifle, jiggled it, and sprinted toward the camp.
(Prek is the Cambodian word for river.)
This piece was previously published in The Nemo Poems: A Martian Perspective (1990)
Rodger Martin’s third poetry volume, The Battlefield Guide, (Hobblebush) uses locations on battlefields of the Civil War to reflect upon America today. Small Press Review selected The Blue Moon Series, (Hobblebush) as a bi-monthly pick of the year. He received an Appalachia poetry award, a New Hampshire State Council on the Arts Fiction Fellowship, and fellowships from The National Endowment for the Humanities. He has been translated in On the Monadnock: New Pastoral Poetry released in China, 2007. He serves as an editor in The Granite State Poetry Series.