Previously in our serialization of this, the uncut version of Larry Winchester's recently re-discovered masterpiece:
The young soldier Harvey, forced to join the army or face jail time after shooting his mother’s boyfriend in the leg and shooting and killing the boyfriend’s dog, returns after his hitch to his home town of Disdain, N.M. At the roadhouse where his mother works Harvey gets into a fight with the local bully Bull Thorndyke. Sheriff Dooley walks in, breaks it up, and sends Bull off to see the doctor, Harvey having smashed a beer bottle in Bull’s face. However, Bull comes right back in with a shotgun. The sheriff stands protectively in front of Harvey, but it looks like this might not stop Bull. A mysterious and attractive couple (Dick and Daphne) walk in just then, distracting Bull for a moment. Harvey draws the sheriff’s gun and shoots Bull dead.
The local big rancher, Big Jake Johnstone, who has been cowering in the men’s room through all this, comes out and greets Dick and Daphne. Later, apparently at Dick and Daphne’s request, he hires Harvey to act as the couple’s “guide”.
And it’s still only Harvey’s first day back.
(Click here to read the immediately previous chapter. Go here to return to the beginning.)
No sooner had Harvey landed in Vietnam than he was sent right out to an infantry outfit in the boonies. Morale there was low to say the least. This whole regiment had gotten mauled earlier that year in the Tet Offensive, and everyone’s number one priority now was survival. Things were relatively quiet in that area for the time being and everybody just wanted to keep it that way. Just about nobody from the rank of noncom on down really wanted to engage the enemy, and in fact they did their best to avoid the enemy at all costs.
The men realized that their officers had at least to go through the motions of patrols and ambushes, and they accepted this. The officers for their part realized that if they pressed too hard they were very likely to be fragged by their own men, so they falsified reports and invented or exaggerated bodycounts. Fortunately most of the enemy in the AO seemed to be as unmotivated as the Americans. They had gotten their asses kicked even worse during the Tet. They wanted to live, too, and they, at least for the time being, preferred setting booby traps and laying landmines to fighting. But every once in a while there was a firefight, all of a sudden out of the blue the pop pop pop of rifles, the rattle of AK-47s, and then just complete chaos with nobody really knowing where the enemy was, everybody firing on full auto every which way and yelling and throwing grenades, just as much chance of one of your own guys killing you as Charlie doing it. Harvey did what the other guys did, firing his M-16 in short bursts in what he hoped was the right direction, popping out empty magazines and shoving in new ones and firing until everybody else stopped firing. Sometimes a grunt got shot, sometimes not. A couple of times after it was all over they found a dead Charlie, some crumpled dead rag doll of a motherfucker, but in the few firefights Harvey was in or near he never once saw a live enemy soldier.
And for once karma was looking out for him because he’d only been out there a month, thinking fucking Christ, eleven more months of this bullshit, sweating his balls off in the heat and breathing that boonie stink and getting eaten up by mosquitoes and ants, and listening to all the positive-ass motherfuckers saying this AO had been too quiet too long and it was only a matter of time before the shit hit the fan again, and they were being Huey’d back in to their base one day and this gunner had brought a canteen of JD for them to drink and somebody had some weed and they all got all fucked up flying back in, and then when they were coming down Harvey jumped out too soon and broke his damn fool leg and he never got anywhere near to combat again which was fine with him.
The reason he never saw combat again was he was in the hospital one night and his leg was hurting so bad he couldn’t sleep. So he got his crutches and he left the ward and there was nobody around and there was this little room where they kept medicines and they were locked up but he figured maybe he’d find some aspirin lying around or something and he pushed open the door and there in the pale light from the window was this doctor Major Green putting the blocks to this blond nurse, Lieutenant Puckett, on this little table. Everybody looked at everybody else and held still for a second and then Harvey just let the door swing shut again and crutched himself back to his bed and jerked off in a wad of kleenex and went to sleep.
Come the morning and there’s old Major Green sitting by his bed and offering him an Old Gold.
“Y’know, I don’t think I have to bullshit you, Harvey.”
Major Green leaned in close so nobody could hear what he was saying except Harvey.
“Do you want to stay out of combat, Harvey? Do you want to never go out in the bush again? You’ve done your bit. You’ve been wounded for your country.”
Harvey wondered if Major Green even knew or cared about how he’d really been “wounded”.
Major Green pulled back the sheet and glanced at Harvey’s broken leg in its cast.
“I think I can safely recommend that for medical reasons, following your release from hospital and a suitable convalescent leave, that you be assigned strictly non-combat duties for the rest of your term of enlistment. Would you like that, Harvey?”
“Good. And remember, Harve --”
Major Green touched his index finger to his lips and then held the finger out in silent admonition.
“Discretion, Harve. Always the better part of valor.”
After the hospital and the convalescent leave came the cushy job unloading the body bags in Saigon. It was the easiest job he’d ever had. Some days they only had to unload two or three bodies and that was it, so Harvey and this intellectual pot-head guy Fred would just sit around and read and talk and get high all day. Except for comic books and certain sections of his mom’s Harold Robbins novels Harvey hadn’t ever actually read a book before, but Fred opened up a whole new world to him and before long Harvey was reading about a book a day. Fred turned him on to J.D. Salinger and Richard Brautigan and Herman Hesse and Kahlil Gibran and The Lord of the Rings and The Stranger by Albert Camus and something called Chaos and Night by this French dude Henry de Montherlant that he liked a lot and Catch-22 and The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot which he read one night with Fred while they were tripping with Fred reading the footnotes and explaining them to Harvey; that was really weird and for a couple of months after that Harvey walked around with the shiny grey and black paperback in the pocket of his fatigues and he’d take it out and look at it at odd times all through the day. He never could figure that motherfucker poem out.
Fred taught Harvey how to play chess, but even though Harvey soon was kicking Fred’s ass at it on a regular basis he found the game insufferably boring. He invited Fred to teach him something else, so Fred started him in on French. After a few months Harvey was puzzling his way through Fred’s paperbacks of Baudelaire and Beckett and Camus, and he especially liked Rimbaud, especially when he was ripped on good weed.
At night they would sit behind a hangar smoking the good weed and playing John Coltrane on Fred’s little 8-track player while looking up at the sky or the artillery flashes in the distance, and Fred would explain to Harvey the larger picture of why they were all there in Vietnam and the larger picture of why man was even on the face of the earth. It was karma why they were here in Vietnam. It wasn’t good karma but it was something they just had to get through, preferably without killing anyone if they didn’t have to and then they could go back to the World as new men, ready to live new lives of peace and love.
Harvey wasn’t sure about this karma business. It sounded fishy to him; but then he realized he was young and ignorant, so he kept his mind open on the subject. As for the peace and love business, well, Harvey hated to be a downer, but peace and love did seem to be stretching it a bit, at least in this life. He was however determined to try to live right. And he really did want to do something about this propensity he had for finding himself in violent situations.
After his discharge he decided to come back to his home town just one more time, say goodbye to it, and then leave. He wanted to find his own path through the cosmos.
So here the fuck he was.