Blackness. Silence. Nothing. I did not exist. No pain, no joy, no fear, no relief. Nonexistence offers surfeit of dearth. Abundance of absence. Peace. Where there is no place, there is no place to be. While existence is overwhelmingly complex, nonexistence is overwhelmingly simple. Where everything is nothing, nothingness is the ding an sich. Where I’m not, I Kant.
Sensation, awareness – existence. Distant sound, indefinable. Swirling, ungrounded, floating, falling. Pain. The sound, loud and jarring, persistent, shrill. Vibration, shaking, jerking, slamming, all in blackness. I had no extremities, I could not grab or kick or stand or touch. I could not talk. I could feel – awful – and hear – terrible – the sound becoming loud and painful. I couldn’t move though I sensed horrific pain. It shot through my body like liquid fire, burning through me, searing my flesh and broiling my internals. Jarring images in the blackness, extreme shafts of blinding white light, pounding, like stone: light stone blocks as big as the pyramids slamming around me, boxing me in, crushing me under their weightlessness.
Faces, nondescript, indefinable, some angry, spewing rancor, others terrified, cringing, melting back into themselves. Melting faces and all the while the sound, a scream, long, unrelenting, unyielding as an engine wound too high, past the redline and revving till the inevitable snap and crash, the big crash – steel bursting through steel, flames and glass suspended for an instant eternity, then hurling as bullets through crazy crowded air, an explosion of activity and none of it good. I saw her face, beautiful, young, naïve, laughing as we danced, the music swirling around us, the lights flashing frenetic.
Then that young beautiful happy face, the mask of terror as brutality was unleashed upon it at the hands of the pathetic and deranged – the crying, the knives, the blood. The screaming, the engine revved to bursting but running, running. What was this horrible sound?! I needed to cover my ears but could not reach them; they were so far away I could hardly hear them. Sound. A definable sensation. I was me, I had regained existence. It was not a pleasurable regaining. As each new level of consciousness returned, I longed for the luxury of that nonexistence. It’s peace.
I came to in a field hospital in Dong Ha, South Vietnam, about 130 clicks from Da Nang just south of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), vomiting. I rolled to my side then off the cot and onto the dirt floor, slamming the ground hard, evacuating what appeared to be a combination of blood and bile. The smell was horrendous. I rolled back onto my back, my back pain all behind me. I don’t know how long I’d been out. One look around made it clear I wanted back in. Everything was a haze, my mouth was dry, I was empty, famished. The sound, that horrible screaming noise was revealed to be a fan rattling away on a work table several meters from me in the humid tent.
“So, Mr. Hammer, feering bettel?”
Ah, it was to be the agony and the irony. I inhaled and exhaled with significant effort, like I’d been running for hours in high altitudes. My body ached as though I had been beaten by monkeys with truncheons during the entire run. I struggled to focus, the half vast canvas tent dark and cavernous, humid medicinal air filling my nostrils with an acrid chemical burn. I looked up at him, looming above me, enormous and imposing.
He was a slight Asian man, of military deportment, likely 5 foot tall in boots. He looked down on me, a wide smile across his sadistic face; it was the vicious Colonel Ming. I looked at him puzzled. His smile disappeared. “I am the vicious Coroner Ming.” See? I told you. “So, Ming–” He kicked me hard; I fell back into the dirt. “Coroner Ming, asshore!”
I shook my head, caught my bearings and responded, “Excuse me, Colonel Ming asshole.” While lacking anything even approaching fundamental sense, I somehow maintained the wherewithal to catch his boot as he predictably kicked me again. Grasping it hard, I twisted with all my strength, flipping him down, face first onto the steel frame of the bed next to mine. Then, a wild flurry of movement as they kicked me unconscious.
Blackness. Again. This was turning into a dark chapter of my life. I needed to be more proactive in this….
The sun shone down upon the beautiful people of southern California, basking in the smarmy narcosis of empty excess in their splendiferous pointless glory. While nice for them, it didn’t help me one bit in the hell of Vietnam in 1970. Not that Vietnam isn’t a beautiful country; it’s just difficult to maintain aesthetic appeal with hundreds of thousands of tons of high explosives dumped on you, more in fact than all the weapons expended in all of World War II dropped in an area smaller than Japan. Napalm didn’t cut it as a beauty treatment. Agent Orange actually made things very brown.
I lay still, breathing labored, pain wracking my body, eyes closed – I heard voices. I maintained total stillness, listening as long as I could before being again subjected to the capricious brutalities of authorship. I gathered no English, but my French could prove useful in the former colony, especially if they didn’t know I spoke it. The old saw, “A person who speaks multiple languages is called poly-lingual, a person who speaks two languages is called bilingual, while a person who speaks one language is called American” might offer me a slight benefit as long as my bias was universal. In this place, how could it not be?
Try as I might, I found no aptitude for the Vietnamese tongue – even in the blackness it still sounded like a cat with a gastric disorder rutting with a sitar. I focused on repeated yowls and thought I discerned some names: East, Vang Pao, Po and Ming. My old buddy Ming. I could only imagine what delights he had in store for me. Well, then write it down.
I knew my ruse wouldn’t last long and as the name Ming appeared in my hearing with more frequency, and in hushed tones no less, I sensed things were about to change for me. Through my closed eyelids I sensed a darkness, frenzied movement, then, “Ming!!!” I remained motionless, yet sensed that had I opened my eyes I would have seen some form of extremely sharp blade hanging Damoclean over my precarious perch, my delicate condition in the fingers of a mad man. And Ming was a problem too. But now a distinctive voice, an American voice, stood out and Ming was stopped in his tracks. “Coroner Ming!” He raised his hand to smack me then the voice, “Ming! Stow it. You don’t want any part-a that.” The hard smack to my face, open handed, brisk, blasting my ear and sending a spasm through my head. I cried out, “Ahhhh!!! Shit! Motherfuckers…” I opened my eyes slowly and took in the sights:
Lashed to a medical cot, I was in the back holding area for the patients that would likely survive a wait or not likely survive any treatment, not a comforting place to wake up, especially after walking out of Madison Square Gardens. Maybe the Round ones, sure, but this was proving to be a difficult transition regardless, geometry be damned. Flanking me stood two SVA soldiers holding AR15s on me, vacant behind the eyes. At the foot of my little hell hammock stood Ming, Colonel Ming and a very gung-ho American officer.
“Gulliver East, Lt. Colonel USMC.” He looked at me with a strange compassion; I was the only other white man in the place. A quick glance around made it clear that either of us had at least a head height over anyone else in the tent. Once again I was one of two prominent white guys among many others of color, this time, the hated one. Assuredly the hurted one. I looked at East, avoiding Ming’s* gaze, a large red gash across his face, a lump on his head. He had been knocked out by my defensive action, the only reason I was alive at that moment. If he had remained conscious after my attack, he would have killed me on the spot without issue. Instead they merely kicked me into a bruised wreck of a man.
“What the fuck is this about, Colonel?” East and his SVA counterpart looked at each other, then East responded diplomatically, “Control.” I looked at my bonds and motioned with them emphatically, “Well, you’ve achieved it. Seems a lot of effort for your end result. Certainly a lot of pain.” East looked at me kinda perplexed. “Well, there ya see, you’re wrong; we haven’t achieved it. What we want is control, what we got is containment.” I looked at him majorly pained, in need of major pain killers, likely some heroin, as I’m sure they had hooked me to that awful shit again. Now it looked as though the Colonel was going to go all John Galt on me.
“You’ve contained me and thus controlled me. Why?” East shook his head; he really wanted a speech. “If I had controlled you, would you talk to me or Colonel Ming with such disrespect? Would you have injured the Colonel? In fact, in that, you showed that we hadn’t even contained you, which as you know is essential to control.”
I interjected, “You can only control my behaviors with force. If you seek to control my thinking, you need me receptive, which presently force isn’t achieving.” East realized he had a live one; no clipped English, heavy accented, labored responses or feigned understanding. He could speak as an American to an American.
“Well, ya see, you’re an exception. The whole reason you’re here is that your thinking is all fucked up. FUBAR the applicable military terminology. The control we’re working for demands right thinking people and you don’t seem to be in that camp.” He was early thirties, crewed cut, rigid conservative, a fairly average white guy. His tolerance of me was only in our pigmentary commonality; he had no use for liberal thinking, anti-war thinking. It seemed wise to me to work that commonality, see if it could be expanded to include some mercy, maybe breakfast.
“That’s what I don’t get. This right camp. What particular aspect of my thinking negates my virtue? ‘Cause to tell you the truth, I’m at a fucking loss.” I had him with that; he didn’t know shit about me. I was a hand-off from a hand-off, these assholes officially unable to keep their hands off me. He probably didn’t even have a dossier, a simple file on me. “Well, let’s take a look…” He opened a thick file folder and began rifling through it. “Stealing government property, assaulting federal agents, dick punching the director of the FBI,” he paused and a slight smile crossed his face, his eyes never leaving the file, “unauthorized access to Agency intelligence, MKULTRA violations, tsk, tsk, tsk, you’ve pissed off some folks here, Art.” He looked at me. “Like I said, ya just ain’t thinkin’ right.”
“I suspect that I am not here for correction, yes?” This confused him as it wasn’t a question so much as a demand for confirmation. He twisted it around in his simple rigid mind, then, “Yes. No. Not for correction.” Here the vile colonel of the SVA spoke with a satisfied smile, “Erimination.” I fixed him with a perplexed glower. “Erimination?” He scowled at me, his hand reaching for his pistol when East again interceded in my behalf, “Colonel Ming. Perhaps you’ll leave me to question the prisoner. You can be sure you’ll be the first one I call when it comes time to eriminate him.” East winced as Ming scowled at him. Slamming his suddenly appearing riding crop down on my leg, Ming snapped to attention and saluted East, who casually returned the salute. As he scurried off, his soldiers marched behind him in close cadence.
“Ming is with the PRU. The Provincial Reconnaissance Unit for the Phoenix Program. He is exceptional at eliminating problems with suspected VC. I’m surprised you got the drop on him. Happy I got back before he chopped you into pho.” Though I understood, I still wanted to hear him say it, drive that commonality. “Happy? I thought I was here as catch of the day.” He leveled with me. “Sure. Just good to talk with an American for a change.” I suggested, “Hell, there’s Americans all over the place. Even ones you don’t have on the menu.” This pleased him. “We’re the last forward post and pulling back. Haven’t talked to anyone from the States for over a month. Least in person. We’re less than 20 clicks from the fuckin’ DMZ.”
In the near distance I became aware of explosions, which seemed to be getting closer. I was in a bad way in a terrifying place. “It’s lonely at the front?” He shook his head at the irony of his position. “Soldiers get camaraderie, spooks get a lot of solitude. This whole offensive is 20th century white guys trying to get these 18th century brown guys to stand up and fight.”
I considered the futility of his position. “Seems they did pretty good chasing out the 20th century Japanese and French.” This didn’t please him. “Oh, they fight. Little bastards fight like crazy. But their loyalties are all fucked up. Don’t know what’s good for them.” I shook my head in disgust. “Hard to instill right thinking when they don’t know what you’re talking about.” He could see that we weren’t simpatico and my snide remarks weren’t improving my position. “Ya wanna play with the big boys, you play by their rules.”
I looked at him; he truly didn’t understand. He could only see what he wanted, not what it cost, not what it demanded. He proposed an ideology of Pax Americana, peace on U.S. terms. You play by their self-inapplicable rules and enjoy relative peace, or fight them and rest in peace. Or in pieces. “What if they don’t want to play with the big boys? What if they want to be left alone?” This annoyed him. “Fuck ‘em. We say you play, you play. The Great Game isn’t optional. One plays, all play.” Perhaps I could find a deeper understanding. “The Great Game?”
“Don’t read your history, boy? The Great Game has gone on for centuries, West versus East, the battle for control. For resources.” I stared at him. “Oh, I know of the Great Game, its futility and loss. Suppose I didn’t consider it on an institutional level.” He dumped a horribly wounded patient off a cot near mine and drug the cot over, sitting on the edge of it. The patient began to wail but then realized who he was wailing at, and wisely chose to wail quietly to himself. “Well, hell, it isn’t gonna play itself, boy.” Thoroughly lashed to the flimsy cot, I swung the emptiest dick imaginable, “Man. I’m a fucking man.”
East smiled at me. “Of course you are. A very stupid man.” I considered my plight, he was right. “Your file, dossier on me…Where’s that come from?” He glanced at it then back at me, a twinkle in his eye. “That’s an Agency file.” I looked at him. “Aren’t agents, owing to the covert nature of their profession, compelled to lie as a matter of course? Protect identities and missions and such?” He still wasn’t clear on where this stupid man was leading. “Yeah?” I dug in, “Yet with full knowledge your profession is predicated by deception, you accept at face value a report that is frankly pretty improbable, when you think about it. Dick punching Hoover? I’d have never survived the flight.” He perked up at that. “That’s where you’re wrong. Your enemies are clearly very strong. But you got a couple-a allies that make you an exceptional case.”
Allies? That was news to me. My friends didn’t even call. “Allies?” He smiled at me lying there impotently. “Hell, the only reason you’re alive now is ‘cause-a your buddy the Governor.”
Did I get a last minute clemency call? I had no idea he held transcontinental jurisdiction. “What the fuck is this shit? The governor?!” He could see I was getting pissed; I was jonesing and starving at the same instant, my body ached and throbbed and shot with pain; alternately, then in concert, a rondo of agony, the chords all but knocking me out.
“Easy, Hammer. No need to beat yourself up –” I exploded with frustration and rage, “No, you’ve taken care of that just fine haven’t you?! Some kinda work you’re engaged in, torturing citizens who oppose torture. Murdering them –” I coughed and shuddered, my strength sapped, resolve all but diminished. He shook his head, condescendingly. “In Viet Nam, American life is cheap. You’re nobody here –” I interjected with contempt, “I’m nobody anywhere, asshole.” He continued, annoyed, “Well, here, you get to be the honored dead. And advance our domestic work in the process.” I looked at the tent above me, dejected and contemptuous – I was to be murdered for defending myself from criminals with badges. “You are going to kill me, I get it, Ming –” From elsewhere in the tent a shout, “Coroner!!” I continued, fairly daunted, “Colonel Ming waits in the wing. But what did I do? What crime has led me to this ignoble end? Could you tell me that much at least?”
East got up and paced around; I wasn’t crazy screaming enough for him to despise me. In fact, he kind of respected me, the whole dick punching affair standing me in high favor with many in the know. The dossier told of activities, events, but not the why. Why would I attack federal agents? Why would I have done anything in that file? Only I could offer that. But even though he appreciated my vocal tonality, those answers offered only dissonance and discord. The poor bastard he displaced from the cot had crawled back onto it, partially, while East paced. He again dumped him on the hard dirt floor and pulled the cot close to mine and sat down.
“Well, it doesn’t specify in any direct terms, but then nothing we do over here is offered in the exact. You pissed off somebody with suck; you made an unfortunate enemy. But owing to your connected friends and family, just whacking you would lead to questions. There are apparently plans for the governor. So the cover is that you joined up to support your nation in its time of need, got blown up saving some nuns, and got shipped home 10 kilos heavier.” He looked at me almost paternally. “You’re a God damned hero, boy.” He slapped my leg hard and stood up, invigorated, “Yee haw!” I lunged toward the sharp spasm of pain, but as I was securely bound, my lunge only exacerbated my distress. “Son of a bitch!”
This called several of his SVA irregulars over, their AR15s at the ready. He picked up a tightly wrapped bundle from within an open duffle bag on a nearby table. “You know what we got here boy?” East displayed a kilo of heroin before me, smug, pompous. I pushed it, stupid, arrogant. “I’m a man, not a boy. Asshole.”
He smacked me hard, his SVA irregulars flanking me, writhing around like a fool lashed to the cot. He continued unabated, “Why, that’s nigger poison.” He waved it under my nose for dramatic emphasis. I seethed contempt at his stupidity and racism, so much in fact that it pooled on the dirt floor below me, making a little bilious muddy puddle, which East in his arrogant struttery, slipped in then stumbled back, slamming onto a table, sending charts and drugs flying.
Righting himself, he kicked me in the side and continued unruffled. “Yessir, pure gold, spice of the Orient. With the help of citizens like you, we are able to ship tons of this back home, right there in your personal effects. Our front men hand it off to the distributors, the distributors sell it to the wholesalers, the wholesalers sell it to the retailers and the retailers spread it among the target communities. What doesn’t kill them off just gives us more control over them. And the beauty is, they pay us for the privilege of poisoning them, even if they hafta steal it.”
He laughed at the sheer wickedness of his work and, looking at his SVA assistants, scowled at me. “You got some well-connected friends, boy, to go through all this trouble over ya.” He looked at me and his gaze softened. “Hero.” I stared at him, as I winced in pain, “Edgar’s an ugly little cocksucker.” He smiled at this. “Edgar? Wrong acronym, Skippy.” He jerked his head and the SVA soldiers freed me from my recumbent constraints, grabbed me, shackled me and dragged me from the tent.
I could barely stand, let alone walk, and was driven from the tent by the mini-troopers who all but carried me to my destiny, which turned out to be the mess tent, surprisingly orderly and remarkably clean given its unfortunate nomenclature. I sat at a table across from East, two SVA troops behind me, blocking any hope of escape. I fought the urge to eat the delicious-yet-awful food fast; my guts were so torn up I didn’t want to risk puking, and I nursed each bite as my last. East considered me. “Our friend Ming is a bit of a hunter. Saw the movie The Most Dangerous Game once too often, if ya ask me. But he’s a real beast when it comes to tracking. He’s taken out lotsa locals, who know the terrain. You won’t last long.”
I glowered at him. “You can take comfort in that.” He looked at me, tired. “Listen Hammer, whatever you think of me, I love my country. I fight every day to protect it from outside forces. I’m right here in the thick of it, right on the God damned front lines. I’m a patriot, Hero.” I swallowed the nasty concoction and prepped another bite. “You profit from the desolation of your country and the destruction of other countries. Perhaps a little less ardor is called for.” This didn’t please him and he narrowed his eyes at me. “A real smart ass, huh? Looks like it’s paying off big for you.” I chewed slowly, my stomach aching, gas building to an explosive peak. At the perfect moment, just as a low flying jet had cleared our position, I expelled a gargantuan fart, quite impressive really, a real canvas rattler, and moved as if to duck. The flatulent shock wave the instant after the fly-over caused the panicky SVA soldiers to dive for cover, which inspired the startled East to duck as well.
“Well, beats being a dumb ass, I would rectum.” They looked up at me sitting there calmly, just eating my dinner. The soldiers snapped back to attention, covered with dirt, looking at me as the demon itself. East crawled back up over the edge of the table, perplexed, and shook his head at me. On one hand he was furious at my ability to drop them to the floor without lifting a finger, while on the same hand he was still a guy, and guys tend to find shocking farts hysterical. He didn’t know what else to do, so he started laughing. The startled SVA soldiers followed suit and before I knew it, I was again rolling in pain because I was laughing right there with them, like an idiot. Painful laughter, the happy hurt.
But I wasn’t happy – more crazy with the circumstances. Holding my sides, I ached beyond belief, and haltingly caught my breath, tears pouring out my eyes. I wiped them away and looked at East. There must be some way to appeal to his humanity. “What can I do, Colonel? What can I do to survive this?” He looked across the table at me, dirt all over his shoulder and sleeve. “It’s outa my hands. You’ll just have to be creative. Ming will give you a twenty minute lead.” I shook my head in despair. “Twenty minutes? Capital. In my present condition I should make about a hundred meters from camp. Hell, he might even need to aim to shoot me. Real fucking sporting.”
East looked at the soldiers, who looked east at East as east was the direction they were looking; they were just boys, the oldest maybe 20. More of Ming’s minions: murderous militant munchkins muscling meddlesome malcontents maliciously, manifesting malaise among a majority of minds. Like the NVA, Pathet Lao, Viet Minh, the Khmer Rouge to the south, these hard soldiers were given a simple choice: join or die along with your family. The choice of no choice, the hopeless hope. Their lives were ruined, a complete shambles, their home a battle scarred tableau of explosive brutality and unrelenting pain. In short order these simple people had battled off the Japanese, the French and now the full weight of the U.S.A., all for real estate the invaders didn’t want, with the stated objective to purify minds they didn’t care about. We’d teach them to be communists.
“How do you live with yourself? How do you justify all this crime, all the suffering, despair?” I couldn’t appeal to humanity nonexistent, perhaps I could trigger vestiges of shame long dormant. “Don’t have to. When the government does it, it’s not a crime, it’s policy. Like Kissinger says, ‘Governments have no friends, only interests.’” Apparently not.
“Listen, I don’t care, I don’t wanna die. I don’t like being beat up, or shot, or addicted to drugs – at least drugs not of my own choosing. What’s it take with you guys? What the fuck does it take?” He fixed me with a hard stare then stood. “The takin’ time is over soldier. Time has come to give. This case, your life for your country. Enjoy your meal.”