A lot of good men died in Vietnam. I died, and was reborn there. Now sometimes I just get tired of waiting for me to feel like me again, and on days like that—late nights actually—I just pull back the final perimeter of my sanity, hunker down into my chair, get black‑faced in my mind, ready to slip under the wire for one last patrol.
I am gone—quietly, quickly, past the concertina on the downward slope of my nightly fears into the no man’s land from which my instinct draws the knowledge to explain in dream symbols all I failed to see when I first lived it.
Tonight I am moving smoothly, and I am missing nothing. I am a one-man search and recollect mission. Back—way back, the way I came in. This time maybe I’ll find it—whatever the hell it was that went wrong.
Here I am, again. Careful, just like it was real life. Step over those trip wires the way I did the first time. Can I fuck up? Can I blow myself up? Can I die in a late night reverie? Can I change the past and be dead all along?
Here is the pagoda where I drop my Zippo, and bend to pick it up as the rounds hit the wall above me like freight trains, and I am one of the few guys in history who can honestly say that cigar smoking saved my life.
I am moving better now, and my guts tell me that in the next few minutes I will be reunited with myself in that irrevocable moment of truth: when last my mind and body, heart, and soul were as one.
There it is. The church in the rain, on our side of the canal from Laos. On both sides the flood rises, the war worsens, and the monsoons are no more interested in the soldiers from either side than typhus or the plague.
Through the storm the church looks like a shadow, and in my mind it has ever remained so. That night when we were bushed, I was certain it was the only building left standing between Nam and Fort Benning, Georgia.
In the morning, I left the shelter of the church preferring the rain and the danger to the roistering inside where cooking fires were burning and the men rode each other’s shoulders to drape their wet clothing over the support beams; pitifully decorated with faded pink crepe paper, scalloped and twisted by some long gone custodian of the faith. I turned to leave, noticing that the dais was covered with flat sheets of uncut French grape soda cans; and on the podium an erect, decapitated statue of Christ stood, His head placed reverently at the base.
Outside, I sensed a man’s presence before I found him, barely awake, almost directly at my feet. He might have weighed 90 pounds, and I could have killed him with my bad breath. Instead, somebody had shot him five times in the chest and belly and it appeared that he had crawled out of the water to die on the thick mud outside the church door. The flood left little room.
Even in the rain and in the faint light of the church his wounds were atrocious. He might have been the VC who almost capped me earlier, when I dropped my Zippo. Hard to say, but here he lay in the mud with three rounds in his black pajama covered belly. I pulled his web gear off of him, trying to make him more comfortable, and noticed the name Nguyen An written on it in marker.
I sat with him in the mud and put a soggy cigar to his lips to allay his fears of me.
“Toi com biet,” I don’t understand, he whimpered.
I was silent. He was in unbearable pain. He moved his head with great effort (and even greater meaning) to the .45 at my side.
Back inside the church, the muffled puff, which blew Nguyen’s lights out was barely discernible above the storm, but for me it still echoes. I went inside and stopped by the dais and spoke directly to Christ’s head.
“Toi com biet.”
Major Paul Jackson is a Vietnam veteran who lives in Georgia. He currently teaches English on the college level. He writes mostly fiction, and articles about writing fiction. He has been a living historian for about 20 years, a chaplain about 15, reenacting the period of America’s War Between the States. At this time, he serves as chaplain for the 5th Ga Infantry, and does an historical impression of General Gabriel Raines. Major Jackson has three novels published, and one more that should come out soon.