The American University, Washington D.C.
Billy Ray never talked much about the war. But then none of us did in those days. We just found each other in that golden autumn on that wonderful campus a long way from the killing jungles of Vietnam. We were pilgrims in paradise blessed with a strange alchemy. A look, a nod, and we knew each other without speaking. I later thought it was much like that strange, almost shy, unbelieving look survivors of a firefight give each other.
We had made the journey from hell to this sanctuary of green lawns and ancient oaks in Northwest Washington, its tranquility of peace washing over our burned-out souls like a healing balm. When we got to know each other, and after more than a few beers, we would show each other our battle scars, the ones that showed at least. But only to each other. We never told the other students we were vets. We just hung out together, savoring the wonderful new world we found ourselves in.
I still can’t believe the cosmic coincidence of running into Billy Ray here on campus. I thought he was dead. I had seen him go down after firing all the .30-06 rounds from his sniper rifle and then firing his .45 at the oncoming NVA when he was hit. And I remember Charlie Dumas, his spotter, dragging him into the helicopter. Billy Ray’s chest was covered in blood and his face was pale as death. And I was sure he was dead.
Then one day, I was sitting in Mary Graydon Center having coffee with a girl from my Lit class, when she mentioned that one of her sorority sisters was dating a former Marine and that I had to meet him. Then, looking over my shoulder, she waved to someone and when I turned around there was Billy Ray. We looked at each other in shock, then threw our arms around each other and started bawling.
Billy Ray had a long, jagged scar on his right shoulder where he had been hit by an AK-47 round and I had an identical scar on my left shoulder where the shrapnel from an AK-47 round that had spalled off the receiver of my M14 and dislocated my shoulder when our Marine Force Recon team was running for our extraction helicopter in Laos. When we took off our shirts to show the boys, Billy Ray announced, “Here we are boys! I’m Captain America!” pointing to his scar, “And this is my twin brother Smiling Jack!” he said, pointing to my scar.
“Huh,” T-Man, a former Green Beret, snorted derisively. “You two look more like Jack and the Beanstalk to me! Didn’t they ever feed you fucking Jarheads? Or was it all that running instead of fighting you did?”
“Ooooorah”! Billy Ray and I shouted in unison.
Tommy “T-Man” Smith was a short, muscular man with a thick red beard, and a receding hairline like many of the Green Berets I had met. Like the rest of us, his face still carried the remnants of the deep tropical tan we had all brought home from Vietnam. One night when we were pretty well-shit faced, he did tell us about one of his experiences over there. It was so weird as to almost be unbelievable. But then, there were a lot of weird stories that had come out of Vietnam and some of them were true. And knowing T-Man we believed his.
T-Man, who was then a captain, and his staff sergeant, had been running a company of Montagnards up in the Highlands when they got tasked with a mission to snatch a North Vietnamese colonel that Intel said would be coming down the Ho Chi Minh trail. After giving it some thought, T-Man decided the best way to do it would be to use a baseball bat to knock the guy out and then grab him.
T-Man had his staff sergeant practice on a pumpkin, hitting it just hard enough to crack the skin a little. They figured that would cold-cock the guy without killing him.
“Well,” T-Man said, “Like all the best laid plans, it all went to shit when the shooting started. My staff sergeant with the ball bat was so pumped up on adrenalin that he hits the gook so hard his head comes off! No shit! So I grab the head and put it in my rucksack and we didi out of there. When we got back the spooks wanted to know where the colonel was. I told them we got into a running firefight and couldn’t take him with us. One of the spooks says, ‘well you guys really fucked up. We needed to know what was in that guy’s head!’
So I said “No problemo!” And pulled his head out of my ruck and threw it on the desk.
“Here ’tis”! I said. Everything you want should be in there somewhere!”
We all howled with laughter. “Good fucking job, T-Man”! Jungle Jim said. “Just what those CIA pricks deserved!” With which we all agreed having been screwed over by them in various ways ourselves.
I guess each special ops unit imprints a certain look on its men after a while. We Force Recon guys were always lean and whippet looking from all the running we did, while the Navy SEALS I knew in Vietnam looked to me like tobacco chewing juvenile delinquents with their beards and doo-rag head gear. They (and the U.S. Navy PR department) certainly thought a lot of themselves being a new unit and trying to make a name for themselves. But when we were shooting together at the range in Udorn with a SEAL team that had just come in from the bush, we took five cases of beer off them, beating them five out of five and smirking at them after each bulls eye went up on our targets.
“They might look like a biker gang but they can’t shoot for shit!” one of our guys chuckled snidely after firing a perfect score at 500 yards. But the SEALS were tough bastards nonetheless and they seemed to catch most of the Phoenix Program assassination missions for some reason which was fine with us.
T-Man had warm brown eyes with that strange, bemused look of combat veterans who seemed to have looked beyond the veil of normal reality and seen something there, maybe the face of God, I don’t know. He had lost part of his ear when his Special Forces camp had been overrun in the A Shau Valley and an RPG round had exploded in his bunker. The scar spread down the side of his neck and, as Jungle Jim observed, it looked like it had been raked by a furious Amazon.
“What’d you do to that bitch anyway?” Jungle Jim had asked sarcastically. “Try to fuck her in the ass?”
“Yeah, I did!” T-Man shouted back defiantly, and we all laughed.
“ Jungle Jim” Kane, another Force Recon Marine, had a small jagged scar running across his cheek that seemed to leak like a miniature lightning bolt from beneath his blue eyes. We called him Jungle Jim because he had escaped from a North Vietnamese patrol that had captured him when his team had been wiped out in an ambush. When the patrol stopped for the night, Jungle Jim had killed his guard with a quick twist of his head, breaking his neck and then had slipped quietly away into the jungle. Three days later he stumbled into a Special Forces camp in the jungle, dehydrated and starving.
“Fuck those little bastards,” He had told the Green Berets with the requisite bravado, “They can’t cook for shit. The lizards I was eating in the fucking jungle were better than their stinking fish heads and rice!”
The Green Berets, who were known as “snake eaters” because they allegedly had to bite the head off a live snake during survival training, were hard men and not easily impressed. But for Jungle Jim they were willing to make an exception. “Well goddamn!” one of the snake eaters had exclaimed sarcastically. “What we got here is a real life Jungle Jim”! And the name stuck.
Now, Jim had let his hair grow into a long blond mane that made him look like a California surfer dude from Santa Cruz, which in fact he had once been in another life. His Hollywood good looks would have been insufferable but for his self-deprecating good humor and our knowledge of how he’d gotten his name. The girls loved him of course, telling each other that he looked just like Jim Morrison, the lead singer of the Doors, which in fact he did. He must have seemed like some unapproachable masculine god to the young girls away from home for the first time and they found him irresistible. And he didn’t mind letting them feel that way.
My name is Jack Phillips, so they started calling me Smiling Jack after the long ago cartoon jungle fighter. I didn’t mind, even though I didn’t smile a lot then. And couldn’t sleep much either. But we soon noticed that our fellow students would eye us warily when the campus antiwar protests would erupt spasmodically like adolescent acne.
And then there were the girls. Barefoot hippie chicks with blue toenail polish, tight faded jeans and braless beneath their high-waisted peasant blouses… just those wonderful young breasts jigging beneath their tie dyed tops. And the sorority girls in plaid skirts and knee socks with penny loafers and impeccable makeup and hairdos, flirting at Jungle Jim with smiling eyes as they passed. They at least seemed to appreciate his service.
“Oh, thank you, Lord”! T-Man shouted, throwing his arms to the sky as we sat on the bench in front of the Mary Graydon student center, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer from long necked bottles wrapped in brown paper bags and watching the parade of girls strolling across the green lawn. We found out later that the hippies on campus routinely passed joints around right in front of Mary’s, but we weren’t that confident yet. Even drinking alcohol was allegedly against campus rules so we thought we were pushing the envelope as it was.
“Thank you, Lord!” we all shouted together like a thankful congregation in exaltation of God’s goodness. And then we laughed with a giddy joy when one of the sorority girls would give us an apprising look and whisper something to her girlfriend and they would both giggle. We had died and gone to heaven.