On my next day off I noticed that the incense burner that Jerry had given to me was no longer tied around the frame of my bunk. Every time I went to pull the covers back at night the burner would be right there where I grabbed the corner of the blanket. On this morning As I pulled my covers back up I saw that it was missing. “Huh,” I thought. “That’s a weird thing for somebody to steal. Those things cost about twenty cents. I guess nothin’s safe.”
I returned to my bunk after the morning head count and missed breakfast, but had no worries about that. A quarter of a mile behind my battalion was USARV, the big, three story concrete headquarters of the whole damned U.S. Army presence in the Republic of South Vietnam. At least, that’s what we were told. They had air conditioning, flush toilets, and a snack bar where hamburgers made of real beef could be bought, and french fries and a Coke too. If I put on clean fatigues that still had a little crease left in them I could walk in, order and eat my burger and fries, take a dump and flush it, and then walk out before anybody would begin to wonder if I belonged there. I had attained to the rank of E-5, and rank really does come with some privileges. Anyone lower than an E-5 would attract a bit of attention and cause the military police security detail there, most of whom were bored stiff with their duty but who nevertheless understood that they had a pretty gravy detail, to ask questions.
I only bought my lunch on that day, my other biological needs having been met, and after eating it I returned to my battalion area. The day was warm, as all of them are in that part of the world, and I decided to set up my perch on the water tower. The tower was a platform about twenty feet in the air which supported a 500 gallon rubber tank that supplied water for our showers. Me and the guys would oftentimes carry lawn chairs, a cooler full of beer and a bag of Saigon bombers up onto the platform and try to pretend that we were sunbathing at Pacific Beach in San Diego, for my part, or some other beach by a lake or river depending upon where the other guys came from. I opened up my chair and sat back in it in only my olive drab underwear, opened a cold beer, lit a joint, and after consuming the joint sat farther back into the chair and ignored the book that I had brought along with me.
Down below the Vietnamese workers had arrived to begin cleaning our hootches, making our beds, gathering our laundry, performing mess duty and generally doing all of the shitty work that soldiers in more civilized areas of the world have to do for themselves. Across the wire fence which separated our unit from the broad, green Delta there was not a bit of movement to be seen. Not one farmer, not one water buffalo, not a kid sitting by a stream with a fishing pole. Nothing.
I sat in my chair absentmindedly taking this all in, when I became aware of a tan and white terrier poking its nose into and out of the sandbagged bunker next to our hooch. I had seen the dog the evening before and suspected that it belonged to somebody in a nearby company. We had a snake for a pet to keep down the rodents in our Mekong Delta environment. Most other people had cats or dogs.
The dog raised its leg and peed on a sandbag and then disappeared into our hooch. “Damned mutt” I thought. “Did I put away the food that I got from home last week? And if that shiteater gets into Phiz’s sausages there’ll be the devil to pay.” And that was about all that I thought of that. I lit another Saigon Bomber and drew its smoke deep into my lungs and sat back even deeper into my chair, dreaming of a good steak dinner or winning Elizabeth Solis’ affections when I got back home to San Diego (an event less likely than time travel) or any of a million other disconnected and improbable schemes, when I was startled by the head and shoulders of another G. I. appearing above the platform of the water tower.
“What the f—” I spluttered, flicking my half-smoked joint which made a lazy arc through the air and landed on the roof of my hooch. “Who the hell are—. Oh, hi Jerry. I didn’t see you coming.”
Jerry climbed the rest of the way onto the tower and sat down on the platform, leaning back against the water tank in its shade. “Yes you did” he said with a smile.
I was a little bit irritated by that comment and told him so. “I didn’t see you or anybody else for the last half hour or so” I told him. “Where the hell did you come from?”
“What did you see that was alive in the last thirty minutes?” he asked me, getting comfortable against the water tank and pulling a Saigon bomber of his own out of his shirt pocket. “Got a light?” he asked. I flipped him my Zippo and thought about what or who I had seen in my general area recently but there was nothing or nobody who came to mind. Nothing but that dog.
“All I’ve seen” I stated, “was a dog that is probably a rat-catcher from the 566th over there.” I pointed in the direction of a collection of hooches between me and the wire. Jerry took a big drag on his joint and passed it over to me. At length he exhaled, and as he did so he reached into his pants pocket and extracted an incense burner with a yellow ribbon and extended it to me. I didn’t take it, but instead looked at it numbly.
“Yeah, OK. You already gave me one of those.” I was more than a little annoyed that Jerry had showed up in my life again and was making me uncomfortable with his mysterious crap and wild stories. “I’ll never see his crazy ass again” I had thought when he left that last time and had ceased to think about him at all.
“Do you still have the burner that I gave to you?” he asked.
“No, I don’t know where it is. Somebody ripped me off for it. Are those things worth something?”
“Not that I know of” Jerry replied. “But take a good look at this. There’s a tear at the base of the ribbon where it connects to the burner, and a place where the brass is tarnished next to one of the holes where you put the incense. Do you recognize these?”
I stared at the incense burner and indeed the things that Jerry pointed out were there, just as he said. Just as they had been on the burner that Jerry had given to me two weeks earlier. “What the fuck—?” I began, but Jerry interrupted.
“Yes, that’s the same burner I gave you. If you’re not going to smoke that thing man, pass it to me.”
I was too stunned to move and Jerry just reached over and relieved me of the joint that I was hanging on to. I continued looking first at the burner and then at Jerry, and then back at the burner.
“Well, you can see that it’s the same one, can’t you?” Jerry asked as he exhaled a cloud of marijuana smoke. At last I found my voice and said “How in the hell did you get this? What kind of game is this?” Jerry didn’t really smile but instead took another drag off of the joint, sent it sailing to join the other still smoldering butt that lay on the roof of my hooch, and then exhaled.
“OK man, I’m going to give it to you straight. I lifted the burner from you last night. It was the easiest thing to do. You were introducing your friend Ray and three of his buddies to the Rolling Stones 8-track that you had just received in the mail from your friend Wes back in the Real World, and while you were looking for some liquor to replace the bottle of scotch that you knocked over and broke I slipped in and relieved you of it. You were so worried that Ray’s friends would kick your ass that you didn’t even notice me. Oh, by the way. Those guys did want to kick your ass but Ray told them that you are pretty cool, for a white boy, and that it would be a personal favor to him if they would leave you alone. And while we’re at it, Ozzie in the hooch next to yours really did have a bottle of Jack in his locker and was bullshitting you when he told you he was out of booze. That shitbird is not your friend. You’d do well to get you ass over to the PX and buy a couple of bottles for Ray, and cut Ozzie loose.”
I sat in my chair and looked a Jerry like he was something that had just walked out of a flying saucer. “How in the hell do you know all of that? This pisses me off! I don’t like being stalked, and you’d better clear some shit up or get the fuck out of my face before I hurt you!”
Jerry didn’t seem the least bit fazed by my outburst. “Cool it man. Let me explain. Then, if you still can’t get your head into this I’ll just disappear. I know all of this stuff because I was there. I was that dog you thought was from the 566th. How else could I know all of that shit? I was sitting on the porch when you were listening to the Stones. I lifted the burner after you took those four guys to the EM Club and bought them rounds to make up for the broken bottle of scotch. In fact, I just went into your hooch and put on some of your own fatigues.” Jerry pointed to the name patch on the left side of the fatigue shirt that he was wearing, the patch that said ‘DURDEN’. “I can turn into a dog, but I have to leave my clothes behind. That becomes a bit of a problem sometimes.”
I looked at the patch, then at Jerry’s face, and finally at the incense burner that he still held out towards me. My addled brain could not address all of the information coming its way and so I just sat back into my chair, speechless.
“OK, I’ll take your hesitation to mean that you’re willing to hear a story that might help you with this. If not, you tell me any time that you want me to split and I’ll be gone” Jerry snapped his fingers “just like that.”
I was irritated and confused by Jerry’s persistence in his impossible story and would have preferred it if he hadn’t returned, but I was comfortable in my chair and was enjoying no little buzz from the beer and the weed. I decided to hear Jerry’s story.
“OK man, I’ll listen to you, but this had better make sense.”
“Oh hell, man, none of it makes sense” Jerry laughed, ‘at least not from where you’re sitting. It makes all of the sense in the world to me though because I’ve been living it for the last ten years. I’m hoping that you can just set aside logic and reason for a little while and listen to my story.” I agreed to do that and Jerry, after liberating one of the cold beers from my cooler, popped it open and laid back more comfortably against the water tank, began to tell his tale.
“After I faced down Dutch and put that ball into Charlie’s face I embraced my new power like a lover. I call it a power because it completely changed who I was. I wasn’t any stronger or any faster than I had been before my change. I didn’t have X-ray vision and couldn’t leap over tall buildings in a single bound. What I had was focus, an indifference to pain, and no hesitation to retaliate if attacked. I also felt a new urge to attack first, which was hard to control and had to be tamed with a good deal of effort. Do you remember when Dutch got the living shit beaten out of him? Damn near put him into the hospital?”
“Yeah, I remember that. Dutch said that a gang of guys from North Park jumped him and beat him up. Some of Dutch’s friends went to North Park and jumped some other guys for paybacks. Almost started a war. Mostly both groups were just assholes though and I didn’t care if they killed each other.”
“Well, it wasn’t the North Park guys that put a whuppin’ on Dutch” said Jerry. “I administered that beating and enjoyed every second of it. But it was what I did before that that I liked the most. Once I learned how to make the transformation at will I began to go out at night and change into whatever breed of dog I chose. Anything too big would draw people’s attention, as would anything cute. So doberman pincers and springer spaniels were out of the running for my evening strolls. I preferred to become a mutt about the size of the little guy you saw pissing on the sandbag down there just before I came up here. That way nobody gave me a second glance.
So I would go into the back yard and take off my clothes and make the change, and then roam the neighborhood. You have no idea how different it looks from one foot off of the deck! As a dog I could run faster than I could as a human, and when I would be around other people I would hear stuff that you wouldn’t believe.”
“I’m hearing stuff that I don’t believe right now” I said.
“Yeah, yeah. Shut up and listen. One night about a month after I put Charlie down I was over near Van Dyke Avenue and I realized that Dutch lived somewhere over there. I loped over to where I thought he lived and waited for him to show his ugly face, which he eventually did. Dutch was walking home from somewhere and I changed into a doberman and charged as he approached his front door. I was snarling. I was barking. I was snapping at his heals and even gave his calf a good nip as he ran up to and through his front door. As soon as he was inside I split, in case his mother had a gun in the house.
I went home after that and laughed all night at the thought of Dutch in his house cleaning shit out of his underwear.” At this point in his story I laughed and relaxed, as I was beginning to enjoy it if not really believe it. “I decided then that I would haunt Dutch’s ass for a while, just to put a good measure of fear into him, and every night that I could get out and find Dutch on the street alone or even with one or two other guys I would charge them as one breed or another, but always in a place where I could let them get away from me.
One night I was a big-ass rottweiler and chased Dutch and Kurt up a tree. Kurt actually peed his pants; I saw the pee soaking through his pants and I could smell it, too. It was like that for a couple of months. I would chase Dutch every time I cold find him for a week or two and then let off and let him get comfortable, and then chase his ass again. After a while Dutch was a wreck; I could see it in his face at school. He was tired and jumpy. I remember one time Evelyn Fleenor knocked a bottle of paste off of the table in Mrs. Garnett’s class and Dutch jumped and actually screamed when it landed behind him. God, I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed that.
I finally got tired of toying with Dutch and went out to find him as a human. It took me a couple of nights to find him alone on 42nd Avenue, up by the Catholic church on Orange, but when I did I walked up to him without saying a word. Dutch looked relieved that I wasn’t a rabid pit bull but that didn’t last long. I unloaded a couple of years worth of anger and pain and humiliation and, I have to admit, hate on Dutch. There wasn’t one place on Dutch’s body that I couldn’t hit or kick him at will, and it was long after he had begun to cry and beg me to stop that I finally stepped back and told him that if he ever said so much as a syllable to me again, or if I ever saw him bullying another kid, I would deal him that much punishment again, and worse. ‘Don’t worry’ I told him. ‘I won’t kill you next time. That would be letting you off too easy. You’ll be begging for me to kill you though before I’m done, and that’s a promise.’
Man, it felt great to even that score! I went home and removed my clothes in the back yard and turned into an Australian shepherd, then ran down Highland to the canyon behind Knox and ran up and down those canyons, all the way down to Home Avenue and back. You wouldn’t believe all of the creatures that live in those canyons. Their trails can be seen when you’re a foot off of the ground and keep your eyes open and your ears sharp. I just ran for joy, feeling the quickness of my limbs and sharpness of my senses, and the dirt and bushes and grass and animals in that canyon were a buffet of sensate pleasure that was intoxicating.
Eventually I got home, put on my clothes and enter the house. It was after ten o’clock and Dad was mad. I apologized and said that I had lost track of the time and wouldn’t do it again. I don’t know if Dad noticed that my knuckles were skinned and red, or that I had a red blotch on the left side of my face where Dutch got one punch through my defenses; a punch that I was only barely aware of when it landed. If he did notice it he didn’t say anything, and after a short lecture I went into my room and prepared to shower and go to bed.
I felt great! I had paid back all of the years that I had suffered, and as I showered and the warm water flowed over my tired body I felt the anger wash away with the dirt. What I didn’t expect though was that the pleasure of the beating began to wash away too. It began to dawn on me, slowly at first, that it was no great feat to beat Dutch so badly. It was like pulling wings off of a fly. It was a needless cruelty, and by indulging in that fun I had myself become a bully. Part of my power seemed from the fact – and it WAS a fact – that I could beat Dutch any time that I wanted, and all of his punk friends too. I wasn’t defending myself. Instead I was doing exactly what Dutch had done, and if I had so much more power than Dutch had that meant that I could be that much more of a bully, and that thought didn’t feel so very good to me.
I went to bed that night but didn’t sleep well. I kept replaying the beating that I had given Dutch, and alternately felt pleasure and shame. By morning I had determined that I would use my abilities only if necessary to defend myself or somebody else, and would otherwise change my form only for the pleasure of running in nature or viewing a side of the city that you would never see any other way.
Of course, Dutch couldn’t say that Jerry Warnock had kicked his ass, so he made up that bullshit story about being jumped. I let him get away with it. Every time I saw him after that thought I saw fear and hatred in his eyes and I feasted on it like a steak. I knew that I didn’t want to be Dutch though, so I checked my attitude and didn’t even allow a smirk. I just made sure that I knew where he and his friends were at all times and otherwise ignored them, and they were more than happy to ignore me.
So there you have it. I know it sounds crazy and I’m taking a wild chance that you might believe my story. It IS my story however, and after all of these years I just had to tell it to somebody. Lucky you.”
Jerry shifted his weight a little, settling a little more comfortably back into the big, heavy rubber tank. He reached into his fatigue shirt pocket and pulled out another joint. “Can I get another light?” he asked, and I pulled out my Zippo once again. Jerry lit the joint, took a big hit and finally exhaled, and then a long pull on his can of beer. I was making my mind up what to tell Jerry as he did all of this, and finally said “Look, Jerry. You don’t look crazy even if you sound that way. Maybe I’m too stoned to move off of this tower so I’ll stay here and listen to this. But if you want to convince me of this crazy shit why don’t you turn into a dog right now? Or do you need a full moon for that?” I felt clever with my little ‘full moon’ wisecrack.
I don’t want to do that” Jerry replied. “I don’t mind you seeing it eventually but it’s important to me that you believe me without that proof. I have been living with this by myself for ten years. I haven’t told a soul about it because I didn’t want to be locked up in a looney bin someplace by people scared of something that they don’t think is possible and therefore must be evil. You have no idea how lonely that has been. I’ve sometimes wondered if getting the shit beat out of me on a daily basis was better than the loneliness of being what everybody else would call a freak if I ever made a slip and let it show what I can do. Yeah, I’ll show you sometime if it moves to that point from here, but for now I’ll only offer my story and supply any details that you want. You’ve seen me an heard me, and I’ve offered the proofs of wearing your fatigues and returning the incense burner. Oh, and by the way, those were your own joints that I was pulling out of your pocket here, so thanks for those.”
After saying this Jerry passed the point over to me and looked out over the flat reaches of the Delta in front of us. I took a hit on the joint and stared first at Jerry, and then out at the Delta in the direction that he was staring. A few hundred meters into the Delta a water buffalo was being guided by what looked to me like a Vietnamese kid with a long stick. I watched the boy and his buffalo as they walked in the direction of Highway 1-A. This was closer than anybody usually came to our perimeter wire but still a good distance away.
“I always wondered how those little kids control those big-ass buffaloes” I mused, as much to myself as to anyone else. Those buffalo were as big as a small truck, and yet seemed perfectly docile when guided by little Vietnamese boys.
“That’s no little kid” Jerry replied. “He’s small, but that’s a full grown Charlie. My guess is that he’s taking a look at your wire from as close as he dares to come. If you go down to your side of the wire you’ll probably see a Papa-san raking or picking up trash or whatever. He’s looking at the same view from this side. There’ll be others as you go along the wire towards 1-A. They’ll compare notes tonight and, if they see anything that they like they’ll do this again in a week. An attack would come within a week after that, before your MP’s could find the weakness and correct it. And your perimeter looked weak to me when I came in. You want to make some brownie points? Go tell you Commanding Officer what you saw and what you think. He’ll blow you off, but maybe will mention something to post security. Then, when the shit hits the fan in the next couple of weeks he’ll look good and you’ll be owed some favors if you’re still alive.”
“Shit man, how do you know all of this?” I almost shouted. The idea of a Viet Cong spy walking right in front of my eyes gave me a shiver, and the way Jerry explained the whole thing was very matter of fact, like he’d done it a hundred times before.
“It’s what I do. I’m in Army Intelligence, and while the joke is that the two terms are mutually exclusive the truth is that we’re pretty good at finding things out. As you might be able to guess, with my peculiar advantage I can find out things that nobody else can.”
I stared back out at the ‘boy’ who had slowly moved well to my right and was now in front of the engineering battalion that was our neighbor in that direction. Jerry at length lost interest an stood up. I hadn’t said a word about believing or not believing his story; in fact I was so lost in the thought that we were being cased by the VC for a possible attack that I had nearly forgotten that Jerry was even there. I jumped when he stood and stretched.
“Oh, I forgot about you” I said.
“It’s OK” Jerry replied. “Ill take the fact that you didn’t tell me to shove off to mean it’s possible you’ll think about what I’ve told you. I’ve been lonely for a good many years and don’t mind waiting a little bit longer if it might change things for me. I’ll let you think about this stuff a little bit longer and get back to you later.”
Jerry made for the ladder and for some reason I impulsively said “Jerry, wait!” He stopped and looked at me. “I don’t know why but I don’t think that you’re crazy. I can’t believe your story, but I don’t think you’re just screwing with me either. So I guess I’m just confused. I think you’re probably an alright guy, even if I can figure any of this shit out. I’m going to get down too and to tell the C.O. what you just told me, and we’ll see what happens. Like you know, I get another day off in two weeks. If you’re around, and if some Papa-san hasn’t caught you as a dog and sold your ass in a Phō stand on a Saigon street corner, come on by and we’ll talk some more. I think I might be the crazy one now, but I’m interested in your story.”
Jerry’s face was creased by a broad and genuine smile He threw me a left-handed salute and disappeared below the platform of the water tower. I finished the joint and beer that I was nursing and by the time I began my descent down the ladder Jerry was nowhere to be seen. I left my cooler and chair on the tower platform, since I had not nearly finished loafing up there in the sun, and walked up the wooden walkway towards the headquarters building where the C.O. would be relaxing in his office in front of two large fans. Colonel Bannock was a big man who hailed from Maine, and he didn’t like the heat any more than I did. Consequently he could usually be found in his hooch or in his office with two or more fans on him, and sometimes with a glass of scotch whiskey somewhere close at hand. I entered the building and waved at my friend Vince Kazmirowski who was the Battalion Clerk.
“Is the Old Man in?” I asked.
“Yeah. Been in there since breakfast.” Vince replied, pointing towards the Colonel’s door with his chin as he typed some sort of paperwork.
“Bitchen. How is he today?”
Vince shrugged his shoulders, which told me that the Colonel was either not in a good mood or was in a mood made very good by several snorts of whiskey. I shrugged my own shoulders back at Vince and walked up to the door to the Colonel’s office and gave it a quick rap.
“Come in!” was the command, and I entered the office with as much decorum as I could muster, being as how I was standing there in a T shirt, shorts, and sandals. I gave the Colonel a salute which he returned, and I noticed that his eyes were as red as my own probably were. “Is he tokin’ weed back here?” I wondered, but quickly came to the point of my visit.
“Good afternoon Sir” I began. “I’m sorry to come here undressed and uncovered (which meant not in standard working clothes and without a hat) but I have something to tell you that I think deserves a little haste.” Colonel Bannock shifted in his chair and waved away my apology, which surprised me, and instructed me to go on. I told him about the kid and the buffalo and their closer proximity to the wire than we normally saw. “Also, Sir, I had the feeling that this was not really a kid at all. He looked short, sure enough, but there was just something about him that said ‘adult.’ Whoever it was he cruised slowly off towards the 289th and seemed to be checking out their wire too. Anyway, Sir, this didn’t look right and I thought that you had better know about it.”
“So you saw a kid with a water buffalo” Colonel Bannock said. “What’s so strange about that?”
“Shit” I thought. “Didn’t he hear me?” Well Sir, he was closer than I’ve ever seen anybody out there. He moved slowly, and he didn’t really look like a kid to me. I may be pulling this out of my ass Sir, but it just smelled wrong and I knew that you are the person who should know about it.”
The Colonel leaned back in his chair and made a tent out of his fingertips, resting his chin on the peak of that tent. He thought for a minute and then said “Well done, Durden. This probably doesn’t mean anything at all, but I admire your entirely unexpected watchfulness and initiative. Thank you for bringing this to my attention, and you are dismissed.”
I saluted and did a little military pirouette, and then walked out of the Colonel’s office. “Jerry was right!” I thought to myself. “He blew me off!” Vince saw me walk out of the office and raised both hands, palms up, in a “well?” gesture. I flipped the bird at my beltline towards the Colonel’s office and Vince chuckled, and then returned to his typing. I returned to my tower position in order to watch our perimeter and also watch to se if the C.O. left our headquarters building to go share what I had told him with anybody, but if he came out of the building I missed it.
After a while I gave up my new occupation as lookout for movements by the enemy or by the Colonel. It was getting on towards five in the afternoon and dinner would soon be served in the mess tent. I wanted to eat and get a shower before the convoy of seven buses rolled into camp, bringing home the guys who had finished a twelve hour shift at the port. I climbed back down the ladder and walked into our hooch and toward my bunk, which was in a rare single room in the corner of the building. I don’t remember now how I rated a single room, but I had one nevertheless. I entered the tiny cubicle and noticed right away that a set of fatigues was laid out on my bunk.
“That’s strange” I thought, and then I remembered that jerry had worn a set of my clothes. “If he didn’t sweat in them I can wear them tonight” I thought, and raised them to give them the sniff test. As I brought the shirt toward my face I noticed several tan and white threads on the inside of it. “No,” I thought, “they’re not threads.” I looked more closely and the realization struck me like a train. The threads in my shirt looked exactly like dog hair; the same color as the dog that I had seen earlier in the day!