PURPLE HEART

PURPLE HEART

It was 9:45 in the evening and nearly time for the Enlisted Men’s Club to close.  Almost two dozen boisterous soldiers of the 537th Company, 63rd Battalion of the Eleventh Transportation Command were alerted that they had fifteen minutes to slurp down the last of their cold beer and return to their hooches for the night.  What they did once they returned to their prefabricated aluminum quarters was their own business.

The EM Club was a wooden structure that was slightly larger and a little bit taller than a residential hooch, which could sleep twenty four men.  It was constructed of materials scrounged from the stream of goods that flowed through the river port operated by the 63rd.  The wooden planks that formed the sides of the building, the aluminum that made the roof, the fiberglass insulation that stood guard between the revelers inside and the grueling heat that ruled the daytime over the flat Mekong Delta outside; all of it was collected from shipments destined elsewhere but which lost their way in the fog of war and ended up at the 537th.

Larry Ordonez tended the bar, sold jerky and pretzels and whatever else came through the supply line legitimately or otherwise, and opened several hundred cans of beer in a twelve hour day.  He was taller than average at 6 feet 1 inch, and weighed around 220 pounds, making him imposing enough to prevent most trouble from breaking out in his club.

The customers were mostly smaller and younger than Larry; hardly more than boys.  It was 1967 and the draft was still feeding young men into the war in Vietnam, men who in some cases had been high school seniors going to baseball games and drinking sodas at the Tastee Freeze, and hoping that some pretty girl would go with them to the Senior Prom less than nine months earlier.  These boys in olive drab fatigues frequently got drunk and got stupid but only rarely did they get rowdy.  Larry’s presence went a long way toward ensuring that things stayed like that.

Larry’s assistant was Mike O’Reilly, a private first class who had once been a buck sergeant.  Mike was not as tall as Larry but he weighed more, and there was little fat on him.  He had previously served in some unit of the 199th Light Infantry Brigade where he had committed some act serious enough to get him reduced in rank to private, but not so serious as to result in spending time in the infamous Long Binh Jail that was known to all soldiers in-country simply as LBJ.  Nobody knew what that infraction was and nobody asked.  If Mike wanted anybody to know he would tell them, and he wasn’t talking about it.

Ten o’clock struck and Larry yanked three times on the cord that was attached to a brass bell.  The rich tone of the bell cut through the white noise of the small building, announcing that it was time to take their party elsewhere, or perhaps go and crawl into their bunks and get some sleep before starting another hard twelve hour shift at the port in a few hours.  The bell had been removed from a small Vietnamese freighter that had been rocketed and sunk at the port many months earlier.  It sank right in front of Deep Draft Berth 3, rendering that dock unusable for 2 1/2 weeks until it could be hauled out of the water by a huge floating crane and placed in a yard to be salvaged.  The bell disappeared, only to reappear in Larry’s EM Club, no questions asked.

The men drank up and filed noisily out through the door.  The last man through was Phil Ostercamp, a soldier who usually occupied a table by himself in a corner of the club.  Even when other men shared a table with Phil he still drank alone.  Phil was 22 years old, making him senior to many of the other occupants of the club.  He was deeply tanned wherever skin could be reached by the sun.  He never wore shorts or went about shirtless as many of the others did.  Fatigues and boots and a floppy bush hat were all that most people had ever seen him in.  He congregated with others very little and spoke less.

At last the EM Club was empty.  Larry and Mike began to clean the tables of empty beer cans and to wipe the tabletops and bar counter clean of spilled beer, cigarette butts and other detritus left behind by the thirsty man-children.  At least tonight there was no vomit on the floor.

After a wait of about ten minutes a knock was heard at the door.  Larry crossed the room and opened the door, allowing Westy Dunfee, Mark Morrissey and a new kid, Earl or something like that, to enter.  Larry had seen this new guy around recently but had not interacted with him at all.  He had heard other men speaking to him and they called him something, and it wasn’t Earl.  Nicknames were common in the Army, so that did not strike Larry as unusual.

“Welcome to the After Hours Club boys,” Larry said with a grin and a flourish.  The three filed into the room and waved at Mike.

“How do Fellas,” Mike said as he waved back.  “Y’all here to help clean up?”

“It’ll cost you a beer,” Mark called back.

“Help y’self,” Mike responded.  “Y’all know where the cooler and the brooms are.”

Westy walked toward the cooler while Mark went to the back room and retrieved two brooms and a mop.  The third soldier stood by the bar and waited to see what was going to happen next.  Westy extracted three beers and opened them.  Mark threw one of the brooms to the new person  and gave the other to Westy, keeping the mop for himself.  Westy handed out the open beers and then turned back to Larry and Mike.

“Fellas, I think you all know Weasel here,” he said as he waved at the new person in the group.

“Oh, I thought that I heard you called Earl somewhere,” Larry said.

“That’s what my parents call me,” the man replied.  “But I’m just fine with Weasel.”

Mike laughed and Weasel turned menacingly toward him.  “You got a problem with my name?” he growled.

“Whoa, hold on now,” Westy said.  “Mike don’t mean no offense, and you don’t want none of him anyway.”

“Yeah,” Mike said.  “No offense intended, but where’d you get that name?  Ain’t everyone who comes in here calls himself Weasel.  Ain’t got no badgers or squirrels or raccoons neither.”

“Huh!” Larry snorted.  “We got no shortage of squirrels that come in here night after night.”

“Yeah, but they don’t call themselves Squirrel now, do they?” Mike asked and then turned to to Weasel and asked, “How’d you come by that name, boy?”

Weasel seemed to bristle at the word ‘boy’ but answered without making a fuss over it.  “When I was at Fort Hood I was in a shit detail company.  We didn’t have nothin’ official to do, so they would call us out to morning formation, count us and send us to breakfast, and then we were supposed to go back to the barracks and wait for somebody to pick us for some crappy job that somebody else in a real unit didn’t want to do.

“I didn’t have time for that shit, so I would just vanish like most of the other guys, only they would go to the snack bar or the PX or other predictable places where they would get pinched by the First Sergeant and put on those details.  I knew how to not be found.  Top Sarge hated me for that and called me a weasel.  I kind of liked that, so I ran with it.”

Larry and Mike laughed out loud at Weasel’s story and that seemed to take a little of the edge off of his belligerency for the moment.  The men fell to wiping and sweeping and mopping the floor, and in a very little time the little wooden building was mostly clean and ready for the next day’s work.  The five men sat at a round table and began their second beers.  The air conditioner that poked through the wall was no longer working against over two dozen sweating human bodies and had begun to make headway against the heat that reigned sovereign over this corner of the world.  Weasel pulled what looked like an unfiltered cigarette out of his shirt pocket and lit it.  He took a deep drag on the ‘cigarette’ and drew it into the bottom of his lungs.

“Ah!” Westy said.  “Pass it over, my friend.”

As Weasel passed the joint to Westy, Mike asked him, “How long you been in-country, boy?”

“I got in a month and a half ago,” Weasel replied.  “And I got your boy hanging.  Don’t call me that again.”

“Whoa, simmer down son,” Mike replied.  “No need to get yourself hurt over nothing at all.  We’re all friends here, less’n you don’t wanna be.”

“Easy now,” Westy chimed in.  “Mike’s from the South, and I don’t mean Atlanta or Nashville.  Boy’s just a term of endearment where he comes from.  That right Mike?”

“Right as rain.  I’m from the town of Adel in South By-God Georgia,” Mike said with an easy smile.  He was not overly worried about Weasel.

“Yeah, he don’t speak good English,” Mark added.

“Like you do?” Larry asked Mark, who then flipped some condensation from his cold beer can at him.

Weasel seemed to accept the explanation of Mike’s use of the word ‘boy’ and also noticed that nobody at the table was impressed with his machismo.  He subsequently ratcheted down his prickly attitude.  The joviality of the other four men and the effects of the strong Cambodian marijuana that they were smoking soon made for a more mellow atmosphere in general.  Mike passed on the joint as it came around to him saying, “No thanks.  I’d rather get my high out’n a bottle than smokin’ them funny cigarettes.”

“Cool,” Weasel said as the joint came back to him.  “More for me.”  But you could tell that the animus had departed from him.  He took a long drag on the joint and passed it along.

 

The conversation the drifted from topic to topic, but as usual the three younger men spent a lot of time telling tales of their sexual prowess back in the world before being drawn into Uncle Sam’s all-expenses-paid vacation in the tropics, and how they were going to resume their studly ways when they returned after their tours of duty in Veitnam.  Larry and Mike, having heard such stories many times from the younger soldiers, listened without letting their doubts show.  Weasel, being the youngest and most given to general machismo, painted a most vivid picture of his exploits.

He lit another joint and took a long drag.  After holding the smoke in his lungs for nearly a minute he exhaled and asked, “Who was that guy that was sitting in the corner?”

“What guy?” Mark asked.

“What corner?” Westy asked at the same time.

“That corner over there,” Weasel replied, pointing to the table in question.

Larry followed the line of Weasel’s pointing finger and then replied, “Oh, that was Phil Ostercamp.  That’s sort of his private table.

“What’s his trip?” Weasel asked.  “How come he gets his own table?  He sits there and doesn’t say nothing, just looks at his drink and doesn’t hardly even drink it.  It’s kinda spooky.”

“Phil’s a short-timer,” Westy explained, referring to the soldier’s eminent return to the United States, or at the very least his departure from Vietnam.

“So he’s short,” Weasel replied.  “That doesn’t entitle him to his own table.  The dude could still talk to somebody.  How come I never seen him at the port?”

“He’s usually on convoy, so you won’t see him at the port,” Mark explained.  “He’s sort of crazy; always pulling gunner on a jeep.  Volunteers for it too.”

 

“I thought that MP’s provided convoy security,” Weasel said.

“They usually do, and sometimes the 11th Armored Cav does,” Mark replied.  There’s gaps though, and he signed up for the duty.  It turned out that he’s pretty good at it, too.  Now he’s working a 60 in the back of a rear jeep all the time.”

“Dude must be a nut bag,” Weasel observed.

“Not really,” Larry interjected.  “Working where I do I get to know a lot of people around here.  Phil’s all right, or at least he used to be.  He was never the life of the party but he was as cool as anyone else was.”

“So what turned gloomy as a grave digger?” Weasel asked.

“Six months ago he got a Dear John letter,” Larry explained.

“Oh, that sucks,” Westy observed.

“That ain’t the half of it,” Larry said and then continued.  “His wife was pregnant when he was sent over here.  He expected to go see his wife and baby in Hawaii when his R&R came around.  They send married guys to Hawaii to be with their families, you know.”

“Yeah, we know that,” Mark said.  “Me?  I’d rather go to Bangkok,”

“Well, you’re not married and a father, which is probably a good thing,” Larry replied and then continued his story.  “Anyway, Phil got the letter two weeks before his R&R started.  His wife told him that the baby wasn’t really his and she wanted a divorce so that she could marry the baby’s real father.”

“Holy shit!” Weasel exclaimed.  “I’d go home and shoot somebody.”

“They don’t value shooting people back home the way that they do here,” Mike observed.  “Phil talked about doing just that, back when he talked much at all.  He told me later that he crossed that option off of his to-do list for when he got home; said that rotting in jail didn’t sound like a great future.  That was a few months back.  I don’t know what he’s thinking anymore.”

“So he likes to ride gunner now,” Mark said.  “That much I know about him.  What’s he doing?  Is he trying to take his revenge out on the Cong or trying to get himself killed?”

“I couldn’t tell you,” Larry answered.  “Maybe the one or maybe the other, or maybe even both at the same time.  They say that he doesn’t flinch in an ambush.  He stands there looking for movement or muzzle flash or anything to guide him, and then just whales away with that 60.  Shit’s flying past him like yellow jackets to a piece of meat on a picnic table and stuff’s blowing up all over the place; he just stands there and makes ‘em pay.”

“I knew some fellas like that in the infantry,” Mike said.  “The gates of hell would be open’n up and they’d just be like taking their sweet time and pouring it right back to the bad guys.  Crazy som’bitches!  Some of ‘em would get lit up but others seemed to be born with a four leaf clover up their asses and never got touched.”

“Ain’t no way that I’d let any chick screw with my head that way!” Weasel declared.

“You ain’t gonna know that until some chick does screw with your head, junior,” Mike replied.  “Phil loved that girl; least he said he did, ’n I suppose that’s true.  It’s not like breaking up with your eighth grade girlfriend, or it shouldn’t be.”

“Especially when there’s a baby involved,” Larry added.

“Especially when you thought that the baby was yours, and it wasn’t,” Mike continued.  “At least that’s what he was told, but then she lied about other things, so how do you believe that this or any other part is true?”

“That stuff will really mess with your head,” Larry said.  “You don’t know how you’ll react until you’re in the middle of it.  I’ve heard it a couple ‘a times over here, being a bartender and all.  And the thing is that it got worse.”

“The hell you say!” Westy exclaimed.  “How does it get worse than all of that?”

“Well, Phil was in shock and didn’t know how to deal with that information.  Two weeks after getting the letter he went on that R&R, not knowing what the hell else to do.  It was like he was numb and couldn’t make any kind of a decision, or even process what was happening around him, so he did whatever came next when R&R came around.  He  went and stayed in that place that the Army had secured for him and his family, and it empty as a tomb.  I think that’s when he really snapped.”

“Why didn’t he just pick up somebody on the beach or in a bar and spend the week with her?” Weasel asked.  “Thats what I would have done.”  The others at the table either scoffed or remained silent after hearing that.  Weasel scowled at the rejection of his attempted logic and then Larry continued his story.

“When he got back here it was like he was as empty as that house in Hawaii was.  He volunteered for the gunner position every chance he could.  Once they saw how good at it he was they put him there on every convoy.  Now he’s got three weeks to go before he goes home or wherever they send him.”

“I heard that they sometimes send the really crazy ones to the Philippines or Korea or somewhere so that they can try to straighten out their heads a little before the go home,” Mark said.

“Yeah, I heard that too, but I don’t know if it’s true,” Larry said as he picked up his story again.  “They offered to let him stay back at base camp the last three weeks but he wasn’t interested.  He’ll go on convoy the day before he goes home if they’ll let him.”

“Wow, that crazy bastard walking around on the streets back in the Real World.  That’s not the best idea that I’ve ever heard,” Westy observed.  “Maybe it would be better if he succeeded in getting himself killed in the next three weeks.”

“I don’t know anything about that,” Mike said with a frown.  It was obvious that he was not impressed with Westy’s comment.  “I don’t know if he’s really trying to get himself killed.  This is just my opinion, but I don’t think he hates the Cong and I don’t think that he really wants to get killed.  It’s just that he doesn’t care if he gets killed or not.  I think he feels like he’s dead already, in the middle of his soul at least, and he’s just getting into the thickest part of things so that he can feel a little bit alive again, even for just a while.  Unless you’ve been in that shit, you can’t really know about it.”

“Well, I think that’s enough of this for me,” Mark said.  “I’ve got to get a little shut-eye before we have to do it all over again tomorrow.  You all coming or staying?”

“I’m done,” Westy said.

“Me too,” Larry agreed.  “I’ll lock the place up.”

“Light weights,” Weasel said, but he got up too and walked to the door with Mark and Westy.  On their way back to their hooch the three friends paid little attention to the flares in the nighttime sky just beyond the perimeter of their battalion.  Flares were not an uncommon thing in the Vietnamese sky after dark.  Upon their arrival at their hooch however they discovered a buzz of activity

“What’s up?” Westy asked a soldier who occupied the bunk next to his own.

“Where’ve you been man?” the soldier replied.  “Haven’t you heard?”

“Heard what?”

“Phil Ostercamp took one from a sniper.”

“Kiss my ass!  You’re shitting me, right?  I saw him just an hour ago.”

“Yeah?  Well, it doesn’t take an hour to get your ass dusted by a sniper.”

“Oh, crap.  How is he?  Did they waste him?”

“I don’t know.  He was talking when I saw him, but he was blubbering shit that I couldn’t hear well.  Bleeding like a stuck pig, too.”

Mark and Weasel heard that conversation and came across the hooch to where Westy was talking with the other soldier.  “So he got his wish, huh?” he said.

“What wish?” the soldier asked.

“Oh, nothing,” Mark replied and returned to his bunk.  Weasel had the bunk next to Mark’s.  He sat down on the edge of the steel bed and looked at Mark, his face white as a sheet.  Mark noticed that the bravado and macho talk had escaped from Weasel like gas out of a ruptured balloon.

“Yeah kid.  The shit’s real here.  This ain’t no damned John Wayne movie.  People get hurt and people die, and that happens in a lot of ways.  I hope that bullet didn’t kill Phil.  Hell, I hope that maybe it brought him back to life somehow.  Either way we gotta do our stuff again tomorrow, so let’s get some sleep.”

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