I sat down on the bar stool to his right and ordered a beer. He turned to me briefly, red-rimmed eyes wet with grief, and said, "What do you know about guilt?"
I looked at his face; tears were beginning to run down his cheeks, leaving glistening trails mapping the full extent of his sadness. He turned back to his drink, something pale and poisonous in a shot glass.
What did I know about guilt? Not a helluva lot. Guilt was the province of Catholics and Jews, mother's milk and stock-in-trade for born-again preachers, nothing I could ever feel. I won't allow it. Not me. Never. I build my walls firmly, every emotional brick in place, held fast by the best intellectual mortar my rationalizing mind can make.
He turned to me again, this round-headed, red-eyed stranger, his cheeks wet with shining misery...and a wall began to crumble. Images flooded my mind, 16-year-old pictures of blood, pus, and tears in Paradise.
I looked down at my hand and wiped some more pus off of it, giving it a gentle squeeze. Another piece of shrapnel popped out. "Just like popping a pimple," I thought to myself, looking around at the other pimply faces surrounding me.
The Sniper was sitting on a dike fiddling with his weapon, his sallow, pasty face showing white through the grime. The Bummer--our platoon sergeant--was resting on the edge of the rice paddy, soaking up the sun.
We were standing down, waiting for Dustoff to pick me up. I was being medevac'd because, two weeks earlier, Doctor Pepper couldn't get all the shrapnel out of my hand that I'd picked up when my LP was ambushed; and now, it was infected and swollen like a rubber glove filled with water from a faucet.
All of us were pretty pooped; for a couple of weeks, we'd been chasing an NVA battalion, with a communications company attached, with little success. We'd been getting ambushed at night pretty regularly, been in a couple of running firefights, and lost a few men.
I'll never forget Doc's face the morning he buried Pederson's leg. It was just a bloody stump in a boot, and nobody wanted to touch it; so, Doc went over, picked it up, and buried it in a hole. When I looked at Doc's face, I saw something grim and horrible, as if it were his own leg he had buried.
And I knew that, in a sense, it was; because Doc cared about his men and took every casualty as a personal affront.
But, that beautiful morning, while we were waiting for Dustoff, some of the guys were laughing; we'd been joking for a week about "The Commo Man". We'd been finding bits and pieces of communications gear--a length of wire, a handset, some batteries--but the jokes were grim ones under the silliness, about what we were going to do to "The Commo Man" when we finally found him.
We were all tired and bone-weary--dirty, scared, pissed off and frustrated from our losses and lack of rest, so this temporary respite from humping the paddies was a welcome one.
It all began innocently enough... I was sitting in the shade of a palm tree when an old man dressed in white pajamas and wearing a long, white, scraggly beard suddenly appeared on the trail. He looked like Father Time himself, somewhere between 70 and 90 years old. At his side was a young kid about 5 years old, his grandson probably. He didn't seem startled to see us but instead put his hands together in the traditional Buddhist greeting and motioned for our permission to pass along the trail.
I looked at him, and then at the Bummer. Sarge glanced at the old man and the kid, and said, "Go ahead and let him through."
I motioned to the old guy and told him he could pass. His face broke into big smile and after a profusion of head-bobbing and bowing he took the kid's hand in his own and, still smiling, began to walk through our lines and down the path.
It was a touching scene; my own grandfather and I had walked for miles through his citrus groves in Florida, an old man and a 5-year-old kid, hand-in-hand, walking in the early morning sunshine. Even though my hand throbbed, I felt a sense of peace at the memory.
That's when the trouble started. The Sniper, that dough-faced kid from Youngstown, Ohio, said, "Hey, Bummer! That looks like The Commo Man!"
Everyone laughed at first. Then the Sniper piped up again. "Hey, Bummer! You gonna let The Commo Man get away?"
I started to get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.
Other guys were joining in the refrain. "Hey! That's The Commo Man! The Commo Man, The Commo Man, The Commo Man!"
They were chanting in unison now. "Come on, Sarge," the Sniper said again. "You gonna let The Commo Man get away?" flashing the Bummer an evil leer.
The Bummer lazily got to his feet and walked a few yards out into the rice paddy. By now the old man and the kid had disappeared from my view around a bend in the path.
I knew what the Sarge was going to do, but I didn't say anything. I just watched, as if in a dream, unconnected from the world around me, paralyzed, impotent. I could have stopped it. The Bummer and I were close. All I had to do was say "Bummer, don't do it." Just four little words, and the spell would have been broken. Instead, I said nothing, and watched as Sarge put his rifle to his shoulder, took aim and fired.
The shot was loud in the peaceful morning air. It echoed into the distance, a sound of finality carrying its message of death. There was a silence in the still air for about 15 seconds. No one said anything. The quiet was complete.
I was already running down the path when I heard the wail. It was a solitary cry of anguish, long, drawn out, ululating, as if someone's soul were being rent in two.
Suddenly, I was there, at the scene of my silent crime, standing over a little boy and a bloody bundle of white rags lying on the ground. The kid was staring at me, open-mouthed, snotty-nosed, tears coursing down his face leaving tracks on his dirty cheeks, looking in my eyes and asking but one question: "Why?"
We stood there what seemed an eternity, the skinny American soldier and the little Vietnamese kid, looking at each other, both knowing "The Question," neither knowing the answer.
One of the new guys came over while we were standing there and took a photo of the scene with his 35mm camera. I knew the picture he took would fade with age, become old and torn and yellowed, forgotten in a scrapbook, stored in an attic and thrown out with the rest of the litter one young and warm and comfortable morning like this one.
But the picture I took would never fade unless I built a wall around it. A sturdy wall. A strong wall. A great wall to hide a great crime. I looked around for the Bummer, but he had already walked back to the edge of the paddy. I looked at The Sniper. He was watching me with an ugly grin; satisfaction glinted in his eyes. I wanted to wipe that leer off his face with a burst from my M-16, for it was he who had instigated this murder, this treachery, this sin; and he was pleased with himself.
I heard the whump-whump-whump of a chopper in the distance and knew it was mine. I looked back at the kid, at his dust-and-tear-stained face, still asking me The Question without accusation. I looked down at my throbbing hand, pus oozing onto my fingers, leaving a trail in the grime like the kid's tears; and I turned to collect my gear under the palm tree.
I thought to myself that I could have stopped this murder. But could I have stopped all of the murders I had seen in the last 9 months? Could anyone?
Dustoff was about to land. I picked up my gear and walked through the marking smoke to the paddy, angry with myself in my misery and guilt. As the chopper was lifting off I looked over the scene below me--men in dull green resting on bright green, a speck of red and white in the dust, a smaller speck kneeling by the red and white speck; and I knew I would never go back to the field. The wind from the chopper's pounding rotors felt cool on my face. I looked down at my still throbbing hand and wiped off the accumulating pus.
I was back in 1983, at Tiki Bob's, on the corner of Taylor and Post in San Francisco, my still cold beer in front of me. I looked at the voice, the round, Oriental face streaked with tears; and I said, "I know."
I was crying, too. He stared at me for a moment. He knew, then, that I knew. I put my arm around him, and we sat there together for a long time, he crying into his shot glass of pale poison, me crying in my beer, sharing a misery that overflowed the walls men build.
This story was originally dedicated to Zebedee Whindleton, Jr., known to the men of D-2/8 First Air Cav as "Dr. Pepper," the best medic our unit ever had, but known by me as my best friend for all the years since.
I think we became friends the night (after half a dozen of us had been sleeping spoon-fashion to keep warm on top of a bald mountain during the monsoon--when one guy turned over, *everybody* turned over,) Doc and I sat up talking late; and he turned to me and said, "Y'know, Pete, I think you're the first white boy I ever liked" and grinned like a Cheshire cat.
A month after I was medevac'd, Doc showed up at Cam Rahn Bay with malaria. Sometime during one of our long conversations on the beach after hours, he told me I was gonna marry the girl I'd been writing to. I told him he was full of shit, but he insisted that I was gonna marry her. I told him if I did, he'd have to be the best man.
Well, sure as Westmoreland got medals, I got married. In East McKeesport, PA, with Zeb as my best man. It was only a couple of years ago that he told me how blown away he was when we showed up. In fact, he said, the entire neighborhood was blown away, because Sandy and I were the only white faces within 5 square miles.
It never even occurred to me... All I knew was that I was going to keep my promise to my friend.
Well, "Sam" and I are divorced now, have been since 1973 or so. But Zebedee and I are still friends and will remain brothers until the end of time.
I told him on New Year's Eve, 1994, that he was the best friend I ever had. Zeb laughed out loud and said to me, "Well, Pete, you're the *only* friend I've ever had."
As is our habit, whenever we're together, we both laughed until tears ran down our faces.