The Screaming Eagle
Larry Grathwohl didn’t realize math geeks fought war from coffee stained spreadsheets on conference tables in smoke filled boardrooms until he’d already earned a Purple Heart and a friend’s brains wound up on his fatigues.
Themis is something untranslatable, a gift of the gods, a marker of civilized existence, order. Themis, a Greek God was the daughter of Heaven (Uranus) and Earth (Gai). To Homer, she personified order and justice, the thematics of her being—do the right thing.
Leadership fought Nam without—
The disorder of sixties radicalism, grandfather of PC, ensured dysfunction didn’t replicate the order of his father’s good war. By the time a VC bullet carried brains onto him, Larry had long since figured out the point that he, nor his formally living friend were of as much consequence to the college agitator as that of jelly slathered on Wonderbread.
Vietcong mutilating children for eating Hershey bars handed soldiers pervaded his anger.
Larry spent seven straight months on the line; a fourth of his men killed or injured before he left the field.
His father rode Gooney Birds to war and jumped with the 101st.
Larry stepped into battle off of Huey’s.
For all the death around him.
For dead friends.
And brains on his fatigues—
—it was what was, and wasn’t, for him, his near death that haunted most, moreover its specter in the flesh years later reminding him in a living nightmare that it could have been him, but should have been someone else instead of either.
Larry made a friend in jump school.
A West Texas kid, scared of heights. He couldn’t run either.
Larry pushed him along on timed runs, jockeying him into the middle of formation runs, away from the gazelles up front, and the accordion like slow runners to the rear getting picked off at random by instructors out to cull the herd.
By attrition and ability, Larry made squad leader shortly after arriving in country.
One day they learned they were going to A Shau over in Th’a Thiên province.
Huey’s lifted them ’em out of Ripcord and the slicks dropped em on LZ Dog in A Shau and that’s where Kenner got it.
After the command-and-control bird peeled off, the Huey’s doglegged dropping their noses towards the LZ and when they did the air lit up with DShK and PKM fire, shit heavier than AK-47s and that told them all they might very well be fucked.
Larry’s bird led first in as gunfire shredded grass arthritically gnarled by rotor wash, exploding it into bits of torn green flesh.
No stranger to a hot LZ, before they got down, they all swung their legs onto the skids and readied to jump because, as experience dictated, the never knew when the pilot would tell ’em to “get the fuck out”.
Some jumped once from 20 feet.
Huey gunships lit up the tree line either side of the valley.
Didn’t stem the fire.
Dude named Karl was first out off the front skid, Larry jumped from the middle onto this little red patch of mud he thought nothing of, ran eight steps and went to ground.
With all that fire and shit and maybe only four steps from the bird, a heat and a pressure pushed him faster into the prone taking a firing position his body’d led him into. Without a thought, he fired two, three round bursts over the torso tall grass towards where the gunships laid their rain. With his second thought, he realized something’d gone off behind him, he could barely hear the firing of the ring of his ears.
His third thought, wiggled his fingers, toes, legs, arms and clenched his butt and felt for the sense of clothes burning on his back.
Strangely, his hearing returned quickly.
Odd sounds; un-synchronous clanking, grinding, oily coughs and disjointed drafts of air above him had him twisting his chin over his shoulder shifting his eyes as far as they could towards the noise of a Huey limping for altitude, a crimson stain splashed from belly to door and a pilot slumped behind a shrapnel pocked door a black tendril of smoke pointing towards the bird’s belly as if to say, “that was me.”
Lifting too far, rounds zipping over him put him back to ground.
He knew without thinking and he pictured without thinking, the tendril of smoke from the hole where Kenner disappeared rose as if to grab the skid and ride to salvation than spend eternity in Vietnam.
The tendril followed the coughing bird skyward, itself bleeding smoke and oil into the hole it escaped.
This was all fairly quick.
The squad had gone wide around him behind ant mounds, higher grass and scrub and poured on fire.
Without thought on what’s behind, Larry thought ahead and signaled to drive on.
Gone that quick. Gone just gone.
Gunships suppressed the fire, squads made the tree line without taking casualties and took stock of the work the birds’d done--8 VC KIA, 1 Anti-Aircraft gun, 1 RPG captured with 8 RPG rounds in the backpack of 1 VC, 1 round (unexploded) in the remnants of pack apparently hit by a round that set off the other RPGs with it and did the rest of the work in its owner--top of a scalp with a face attached here, arms over there, legs over there and a red ratted backpack mush in the middle of it all.
Three soft bunkers faced the LZ’s direction of approach with three rat trails off each joining into one disappearing into the bush, broken foliage marking their retreat.
No one knew why the VC ziggy’d. Sergeant Major and wanted movement-to-contact but CP ordered ’em out and the Lieutenant didn’t argue.
Ten minutes after clearing the bunkers, a half-click either side up the tree line, the rat trail, gathering dropped weapons, anything of intel use off the dead and ensuring a secure LZ, the slicks came for them.
Larry drove on thinking of nothing.
On the bird and above the green, green canopy of Vietnam, he realized--
Kenner jumped out the bird on the spot. The exact same spot Larry’d hit off the bird.
Ex-fucking-zact, Larry thought.
Should’a been me.
His mind’d been alight with fire and maneuver with no purpose driving on the enemy in tune of sorts with the chaos around him, but now, in the bird, the cooling air seemingly drew this adrenaline from him, the air, the engines and the rest of his men around him unscathed, he looked over at the bird he knew carried the bag, the mostly empty body bag of a spine with a chest, two shoulders and a head along with scraps of Army fatigue thrown in as if baby’s breath.
In shame, Larry pushed his shoulder into the crook of pilot’s bulkhead pressing a splayed dirt and cordite stinking palm into his face and wept.
First time to feel the grief and it’d taken that long... that long.
That long chewed on him till today and the fact it should’ve been him chews him raw.
That’s a haunt of war, for him, one of them. It’s in a memory, a thing that lives in the shadows of the mind to come forward when coaxed or, if you let it, when the emotions surface then it grips you, and shakes you and makes you think of it until you shake and fight and may not release you till the bastard thought has had its taste of your tears.
It’s just one haunt--it companions with thoughts like, I didn’t fight hard enough, I should’ve made this decision, should’ve done this, or that, or it should’ve been me in that body bag in the dark where you’re too dead to matter or care and you know at last if there’s a heaven or hell or you just simply know nothing at all--some wish for it. Some got so many haunts they wish for it.
Something tangible is worse.
Some wont visit The Wall so’s not to face the ghost. Some hate The Wall because it came too late and some hate it more because the “welcome home” came too late for their buds that survived the Nam but died at a home that had yet to offer its hand.
Some hate other things--justifiable things, ideals against what they stood for as American soldiers, hell, as Americans, people that stood against them at home while they fought, people who, in fact celebrated every American death in Vietnam for the sake of the communists yet for Larry, evil personified rules two-fold in a man named Bill Ayers.
The ruling on Ayers is a matter of political opinion, aside being an American, which by definition he isn’t--he’s a terrorist and in Larry would think, as many would agree, Bill Ayers is a living, breathing piece of soft voiced dinosaur shit with pride in his walking-cane collection and a piano talent he displays for the Chicago elite at parties.
But no, for Larry it’s not as simple as hating a confessed terrorist--see when Larry got dropped off in the bush, he took point more often than not for his sense of surroundings, his concentration and hyper-vigilance that made him feel alive, that kept him alive.
Larry mostly took point; except--
Once he had a migraine.
Opted to go, but bowed out of point, justifiably. Couldn’t do it. Couldn’t concentrate, he’d get himself killed or someone else but damn.
Two fucking weeks? Lieutenants going to put a kid on point been in country two weeks and had two patrols? Two.
Kid had a twin. Not really just someone the spitting image thereof but this ghost wouldn’t surface till the end of the sixties and still hasn’t been put to rest.
The birds took them out and dropped them at the LZ. Kid took point and headed for the trees on a rise as planned.
Headed for it like a schoolboy after the joy-ride on the playground, his M-16 gripped in his right hand like a kid grips a lunch pail.
He didn’t stop, look or listen and got too far ahead before a stunned squad could drag his ass back and then he got hit.
Crack! Crack! Crack!
Three rounds from an AK.
One found him.
Hit in the right shoulder, the bullet traversed through his lung, nicked his heart and exited.
Larry’s adrenaline cured his migraine and rushed up with the Doc under covering fire and pulled the kid away.
Once clear, everyone took cover, eyes towards the sound of the shots but no more rounds, only the sounds of pissed off birds scattered to the periphery and the gurgling of a man’s punctured lungs struggling to keep its air.
He didn’t speak.
When the Doc rolled him on his side to check the exit wound, kid’s heart stopped.
Doc rolled him back over and pounded on him till it beat again.
This went on till the birds came and they loaded him on.
A man short, they went on mission and when they got back, learned the kid quit as the skids left the earth.
Didn’t remember his name or much of him except he volunteered for it from the safety of a deferment in his rich Chicago and if it the guilt he didn’t take point weren’t enough for Larry, the mother fucker was the spitting image of Bill Ayers.
As it happened, at home, the kid’s twin Ayers busied himself smoking the communists’ pole shitting on Larry and his brothers, setting plans even to kill them perhaps, and, admission, “guilty as hell, free as a bird,” Ayers brags about hating Larry’s America and more than ever. The bastards face in the news from time to time, returns Larry to the anger and frustration at the FBI’s hiccup that let the weasely bastard slip away.