The Shadow Patrol was my name for our infantry squad, otherwise called “the Fuck-Up Platoon.” The name “Shadow Patrol” was suggested by the shadows of our stripes, which had been unceremoniously ripped off. The seven of us had been demoted, stripped of rank. We were incorrigibles, rejects, misfits, dog soldiers. We were men who couldn’t cotton to army discipline.
I was eighteen… When a rat makes a wrong turn in the maze he gets an electric shock. When he turns the right way he gets a sugar cube. We, the members of the Shadow Patrol, were rats who were immune to conditioning. We were rats who thrived on heavy jolts of electricity and shunned the sugar cubes. We fattened on punishment. This credo was neatly expressed in one of the few speeches I ever heard tall silent Stringfield utter. We were on permanent KP and Stringfield was chopping cooked chicken with a Chinese cleaver. The mess sergeant, who’d been ragging Stringfield all day, told him to speed things up: “You better step and fetch it, Sambo.” Stringfield said nothing, as always. But after a few moments he stopped work and walked deliberately to the sergeant’s desk, holding the cleaver in front of him. “Remember this, honkey,” he said in a coarse, scratchy whisper, rapping sharply on the desk with the cutting edge of the cleaver: “When it gets too tough for everybody else, it’s just right for me.” Our outfit, the 504th Airborne Infantry, 82nd Airborne Division, was scheduled to participate in maneuvers, in preparation for Vietnam, a three-month long mock war to be fought in the vast wilderness of Louisiana’s bayou country. It was a massive operation which included the 11th Airborne, the 101st, the 187 Regimental Combat Team and much of the Third Army, divided up into “American Troops” and “Aggressor Forces.” We had a plan, the seven of us who made up the Shadow Patrol. On a previous similar operation in the Montana wilderness we’d gotten separated, quite by accident, from the 504th—the ‘04. We remained happily on our own in the bush for three weeks, before reluctantly drifting back to rejoin the others. No disciplinary action was taken. This seminal experience gave us a bright idea. We’d pull off the same caper, this time on purpose, and for a longer period, maybe the entire duration of the “war”. We had no intention of going AWOL or deserting. It was simply to be a little vacation, snatched from the dreary routine of army life, an opportunity to get away from the officers and the sergeants and the rest of those dress-right-and-cover-down bastards. We got hold of a map of the drop zone and fixed a rendezvous point. There was a clump of trees off to the west of the DZ sufficiently distant from the assembly point where we were to form up. The plan was simple. As soon as our canopies opened we would “slip,” by tugging on our risers, toward the welcoming trees of the rendezvous point and away from the assembly point. Once on the ground we’d count heads and lose ourselves in the bush. A day’s march, we were certain, would put plenty of distance between us and them. It had come down from Division Headquarters that the Shadow Patrol would jump as combat soldiers, that is, with weapons. Afterwards, we’d revert to our usual duties in the field, permanent KP, garbage detail and the digging of latrines. Since I, in my former rank as corporal, had commanded ex-specialist Enrique Castillo, my machine gunner, I should have been jumping with nothing more than a 45 on my hip—a “Hollywood Jump.” But since Castillo was too small and too weak to jump with the machine gun, my ballast, besides my horseshoe pack and my M16, included a 30-caliber machine gun plus the tripod and an ammo case of blank ammunition, all packed in a GP bag, which I carried in front of my reserve chute. If you had to pop your reserve, and you had a GP bag, you had first to pull the quick release of the GP, then the reserve. It was a situation that rarely came up, but you had to be prepared. As things turned out, it was a piece of cake. I had a good strong exit and a tight position. My canopy blossomed beautifully and I started slipping for the trees. Helped by a brisk westerly breeze I scudded across the sky like a snowflake. Luckily they’d dropped us at 2000 feet instead of the usual combat 500 so I had time to gain some distance on the soldiers forming up at the assembly point. When I saw the tops of the trees I hit the quick release on my GP bag and the light 30 dropped down on its cord. I came in at a sharp angle, pushed along by the wind, but the gun, landing first, acted as a sort of anchor. I did a perfect PLF, popped the quick release of my chute, unpacked the gun and ran into the bush. I was joined by Castillo, Bluestein, Michelowski—“Iron Mike”—then a few moments later, by Stringfield. Then former master sergeant Jim Tyler came striding through the woods, binoculars dangling around his neck.
“They’ve formed up,” he announced. “Going the other way.” He looked us over quickly. “Where’s Smitty?”
Nobody knew. “We’ll wait fifteen minutes. Castillo, you go have a looksee. Keep to the trees.” Smitty—Devoe K. Smith—was the only member of the Shadow Patrol who wasn’t a rebel. Smitty wasn’t insubordinate. He was stupid. He was cheerful and willing, but he had the mind of a child. Black as a tar baby, he had no teeth. When rebuked by a sergeant, he would cry. But usually he was happy. He was forever giggling, simpering, covering his toothless mouth and rolling his eyes, half-doubled over with silent, seemingly baseless mirth. His fatigues didn’t fit, and even his boots often seemed to be on the wrong feet. He was terrified of the dark. The business about the footlocker display—the razor blades, the toothbrush—that was beyond him, as were the simplest orders. Call out “right face” and Smitty invariably turned left. It wasn’t that he wouldn’t follow orders. He couldn’t. Smitty was the only one of us, besides Bluestein, who’d never made any rank beyond private. As a soldier, Smitty was useless; he had to be watched over. He was at best a good-hearted and amusing mascot and at worst a burden we had to bear. His only utilitarian quality was as a weather prophet. Smitty was somehow able to divine, almost to the minute, when it was going to rain. Former sergeant first class Guillaume Stringfield came to us from the 187 Regimental Combat Team. He’d been decorated for valor in Korea and had survived three years in a POW camp. In addition to the wound in his throat that took out his voice box, his torso was deeply fissured with scars. Stringfield’s whispery voice was seldom heard. He was a man of long brooding silences that erupted in sudden violence. Right after joining the ‘04 he tried to strangle a light colonel and did a stretch in the stockade. Stringfield was a dangerous man, an unpredictable man. He belonged in a mental hospital, not in a soldier suit. In a sense Stringfield was still a prisoner—a prisoner of the past. The war was still with him, would always be with him. During breaks on marches, when he snatched a few moments of sleep, his head resting on his horseshoe roll, his handsome features twitched violently, as if in dreams of dead faces. Ex-corporal Stanislaus Michelowski—Iron Mike—arrived at our outfit after serving in 77 Special Forces, and after hitches in the Polish and Belgian armies, as well as the French Foreign Legion. Runty and misshapen, Iron Mike was easily forty. In the field, when he didn’t shave, his sparse ratty beard was flecked with white. Flabby, weak and alcoholic, he hadn’t the stamina for forced marches and survived these only because Jim Tyler and I frequently carried his pack and weapon. Just what use Iron Mike could have been to 77 Special Forces, America’s elite shock troops, was something I could never fathom. It can only have been his knowledge of European languages and foreign armies. Although he’d once been a corporal, as the shadow on his sleeve signified, Iron Mike was at heart a dog soldier, a professional private who knew no life other than the military. Sometimes, when we were drinking at the PX, I pressed Mike to tell me how many men he’d killed. Mike’s answer was always the same. They marched your ass up to the front or they dropped you from the air and you took up your position and you fired. Iron Mike didn’t kill soldiers. He simply fired his weapon. Mike was at the bottom a mercenary soldier. He didn’t care what army he was in as long as he had a billet. A barracks, a bottle and a woman: Iron Mike asked nothing more of life. Ex-specialist Enrique Castillo’s outstanding quality was loyalty. But it was a loyalty that extended only to myself and to ex-master sergeant Jim Tyler. Like the rest of us, Castillo was intractable. Underneath this pudgy little man’s mild and affable exterior lurked a fanatical streak of stubbornness, a dogged refusal to obey, an unassailable determination to go his own way regardless of the consequences. Castillo had a history of insubordination. He’d frequently gone AWOL, and he’d done time in the stockade. Like me Castillo had been offered a Section Eight—unfit for military duty—but like me, he refused to take it. Castillo came from Big Spring, Texas. Only nineteen, he was already losing his hair. Although not physically strong—I often had to carry his weapon on marches—Castillo lacked nothing in courage. He was a capable gunner and a brave and resourceful comrade. Morris O. Bluestein, like me, like Jim Tyler, hailed from New York. He was an anomaly, an alien being, an anachronism who might have been at home on the plains of Moab, but never in 20th Century America. His cheeks, even freshly shaved, glinted gun-metal blue, and his back and shoulders were covered with thick matted hair, as if he had been some species of ape. To the world Blue presented a dumb facade. His heavy triangular face with the thickly-lidded eyes, thick blue lips, the bent nose, was inscrutable. The Jews I knew in New York were all of a kind—bright, articulate, urbane, but Bluestein was a stupid Jew, something I’d never seen before. Or so it appeared at first. But as I got to know Bluestein, I realized that what seemed to be stupidity was in reality a clever defense. It was a refusal to understand. If Smitty was a tar baby in appearance, Bluestein was a tar baby in action, or better, in inaction. In psychological terms such behavior is called passive aggression. Whatever it was, it worked. The sergeants and officers couldn’t do a thing with him. “Ignorance is Strength.” That was Bluestein’s unspoken motto. Former master sergeant Jim Tyler was the finest soldier I ever met. Six feet six inches tall, he was post heavyweight boxing champion. His skin was eggplant-purple and he had a gold star on one of his front teeth. With his broad shoulders, tiny waist, long muscular arms and legs, classical features and kingly bearing, he looked like a Masai warrior. Jim Tyler’s decorations included the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, the Distinguished Service Cross and the Korean Service Medal. But for me Jim Tyler’s most impressive decoration was the shadow on his sleeve left by his absent master sergeant’s stripes, three up and three down. This decoration meant that Jim Tyler couldn’t be dominated, couldn’t be bought, couldn’t be intimidated, not by any combination of punishment or rewards, that the spark of individuality that blazed within him could not be extinguished. Jim Tyler was considerably older, about thirty. Despite his extraordinary appearance, majestic bearing and innate dignity, he was not a natural leader, and this was because he was essentially a loner who had no desire to control others. The very essence of the Shadow Patrol was that it was made up of individuals, incorrigibles, isolatoes. We waited. Castillo returned. He’d seen nothing. We moved out, with me walking point. After half a mile I heard a shout about a hundred yards off in the bush. “Take cover.” Jim Tyler motioned for everyone to get down. He handed the glasses to Bluestein. “Go on up ahead. Come right back.” Blue was back in a flash. “It’s Smitty, Sergeant. He’s in a tree.” Smitty was unhurt, just scared and shaken up a bit. It hadn’t been any picnic, dangling a hundred and fifty feet off the ground from the limb of that big live oak for nearly an hour, shouting at the top of his lungs. He was delighted to see us. After we got going again Jim Tyler made the mistake of putting Smitty out on point. We marched for about two hours and then I heard a scream. “That was Smitty,” someone said. We hurried forward and found Smitty clinging to a submerged log in a sinkhole, half covered over by a floating carpet of duckweed. “Damn that nigger,” Jim Tyer said. “If he’s not up a tree he’s buried in quicksand.” After contemplating for a few moments the sight of Smitty clinging to the log and waving crazily, spitting water, his eyes darting out of his head, Jim looked steadily at me. “Harry.” “Jesus, I don’t know, Jim.” “Castillo?” “Ay mi madre!” “Bluestein!” “I can’t swim, Sergeant.” Before this insipid palaver was over, Stringfield walked fearlessly into the swamp—only up to his tall man’s armpits—and pulled Smitty out. After we’d made camp in the swamp and a day or so had passed, I told former master sergeant Jim Tyler that I was going out to look for food. “Good luck, Happy Harry.” He tossed me a mock salute. “Listen, Harry, take Castillo and Bluestein with you, okay?” “Happy Harry,” my nickname, what did it mean? My sunny disposition, obviously, but there was more to it. Jim Tyler, with his quick intelligence and lofty disdain for the institutions of men—there was little that passed his lips that didn’t have a subdued, sardonic meaning. What he meant, I believe, by this slaphappy sobriquet, was the bulletproof quality of my innocence, which, as a man of vast and bitter experience, he might well have envied. Blue and Castillo and I walked along an old rutted road through the woods. After a mile or so we came to a kind of clearing where yellow oak leaves were suspended in a huge concentric spider web. There was a barbed wire fence, a dry pasture, and—a cow. A beautiful black and white cow, attended by several stately white egrets. There was no farmhouse and not a soul in sight. We stood facing the brute, sizing him up. “Do you think we can do it?” Bluestein ventured. “We can try, amigo.” “Wait,” I said, “Keep going. Don’t want to spook him.” We continued along the dusty road and crossed the barbed wire. Our docile prey stared at us for a moment, then continued grazing. With elaborate casualness, we ambled closer to the monster. I could hear the creature’s breath hissing through its dilated nostrils, and the crooked munching of its jaws as it masticated the tough, dry grass. We moved a few steps closer and several of the egrets took flight. “Fix bayonets!” I snapped. “It’ll never work,” Blue muttered through clenched lips after he had complied with my order. “You escared?” Castillo squeaked, with a sharp, mocking glance at Bluestein. “Three men,” I said firmly. “We can take him.” “Forget that shit!” Bluestein interjected suddenly. With a theatrical gesture he reached over his left shoulder into his pack and came out with a clip of live ammo. “Where do you get this thing?” Castillo blurted. Bluestein snapped the clip into his magazine and offered his M16 to the pudgy little man. “You fired expert, Castillo.” “Si, with a mach-cheen gun.” “Can’t you fucking hit him?” “Can you?” “You do it, man! Or you. O’Donovan, you’re a corporal.” “I was a corporal, Blue. I’m a dog soldier, just like you.” “Just the same, you’re in charge of us.” “Give me the fucking gun for Christ’s sake.” I didn’t bother to aim, just pointed from the shoulder and dropped that cow with one shot, right between the eyes. You can’t cut much with a bayonet. But Castillo had a switchblade. We managed to hack off a leg and something roughly resembling a pot roast. These viands we hastily wrapped in a poncho which I slung over my shoulder after giving Bluestein my rifle and pack to carry. Back at camp we reported to Jim Tyler, who immediately dispatched Stringfield, Blue and Castillo with machetes to cut up and bring back the rest of the cow. “Harry—Happy Harry,” Jim exclaimed with a huge grin, motioning for me to sit down by the fire. “You are indeed my main man. You from what’s happening, brother. The Big Apple. You and me, brother. The Big Apple! Harry, have a drink.” He handed me a pint of Canadian Mist. “Jim, it was Blue, actually. He had some live ammo—” “Shee-it! Those motherfuckers couldn’t have did shit without you, Harry. You are a goddamn soldier. Go ahead, take a real drink.” The next day we discovered that the 11th Airborne was digging in about two miles off to the east. Bluestein and Castillo paid them a visit and came back with 5-gallon cans of water and cartons of C-rations, crackers and sausage patties, plus some more live ammo, including rounds for the rocket launcher. Whether they’d bought, requisitioned or stolen the supplies they didn’t say. In the morning I pressed Bluestein to show me just how much more live ammo he had stashed. Blue led me through a stand of stately live oaks dripping with Spanish moss to a black-water bayou. On a muddy bank covered with delicate prints of splayed bird-feet was a huge rotten cypress log that was hollow at one end. Blue got down on his knees, reached inside the hollow log and came out with a steel ammo box. It was quite a cache. Five more M16 clips, a belt for the light 30, six clips for the BAR, five grenades and three exploding rounds for the rocket launcher. “Take anything you want, Corp!” Bluestein did a gleeful little dance, rubbing his palms together like a demon, his thick lips flecked with foam, his tiny green eyes glittering crazily. “We’re in this together, aren’t we?” “Let’s go hunting,” I said to Castillo, my machine-gunner. We set out across the jelly-like land on a path through the bush. I carried the gun on my shoulder, while little Castillo lugged the tripod and the ammo. I was hoping for a cow or a deer. But all we saw was a couple of rabbits that bounded away before we could get the gun set up on the tripod. We crossed the sleeping water of a silent lagoon on a crumbling old wooden plank bridge. On a distant rise feathery black trees brushed against a cloudless sky that was starting to glow like a sapphire. It would be dark soon. Across a sloping meadow that pitched downward from the line of trees an ancient farmhouse perched on a knoll. We headed for it. After we’d walked in silence for 15 minutes, sometimes sinking to our ankles in black muck, I heard a cluck-cluck-clucking sound, a staccato clucking and cackling—chickens, a lot of them. I glanced at Castillo. His shiny black eyes were full of confident mischief. Bursting with eagerness we climbed over a broken-down wooden fence and tramped across a plowed field. Some rusted-out cars and other decaying machinery squatted under a big live oak. On the other side of that was a tiny fenced dirt yard teeming with frantic white chickens. The old ramshackle farmhouse was still a good distance away and there was no one in sight. It looked perfect. Castillo snapped open the tripod and I placed the gun. The little man settled down cross-legged behind the gun, inserted the belt and chambered a round, then looked up, awaiting my orders. The chickens continued their idiotic pecking and clucking. Those brainless birds didn’t suspect a thing. I dug in my pack and unrolled the duffel bag I’d been carrying, our “game bag.” We were ready. I scanned the distant farmhouse with the field glasses. There was no movement whatever. It was as if they’d all gone to the moon. I spoke quietly to Castillo. The shooting would have to be quick and accurate and then we’d snatch up our booty and haul ass before the farmers, wherever they were, got wise. “Ready, Castillo?” “Ready, mi amigo.” “Fire!” White feathers flew, broken wings flapped and red blood spurted, as Castillo fired six quick bursts. In seconds better than half of the chickens lay in clotted lumps in the bloody dust. It was a fine piece of shooting. “Correle, hombre!” We raced out and grabbed the warm, bleeding carcasses and stuffed them in the duffel bag, then took off at a run, with me packing the gun and the tripod and Castillo doggedly dragging the loaded duffel bag through the jungle bayou by its long strap. It was a glorious feast that night in camp with the chickens—fifteen birds in all—turning on spits over the open fires. The BAR was excellent for rabbits because of the stability afforded by the bipod. I’d set up in a meadow and wait in the prone position, gazing through the extended rectangular sight, for the bunnies to come hop-hop-hopping along, then I popped them off with crisp short bursts like ducks in a shooting gallery. On one bonanza day I’ll never forget I picked up eight rabbits in the morning, then a possum shortly after noon, also with the AR, then, in a densely-wooded area near a stream I ran into a herd of wild pigs and used up what was left of the rounds for the light 30. Firing from the hip with the machine gun on a strap I waded into the porkers and knocked down three pigs. One yellow-tusked boar, only slightly wounded, got up and charged, but Castillo, having fixed his bayonet, neatly dispatched him. That night, at the camp, it was a wonderful mixed grill—rabbit, possum and wild boar, plus an unexpected treat, rack of lamb. Bluestein had been out foraging on his own and had pitched a hand grenade into a meadow teeming with docile grazing sheep. The grenades turned out to be a good thing. In a secluded bayou deep in the forest we came upon a huge alligator sunning himself on a muddy bank. Castillo lobbed a grenade. It landed with a dull thud in the muck, only inches from the gator’s toothy snout. I thought the damn thing was a dud, that it would never burst. Before it did, the gator, with remarkable prescience, slid off the bank into the coffee-colored water. But it was too late. That pretty little pineapple went off, blowing a death-pit beneath it in the mud, a Black Hole of Calcutta, a hellhole without a bottom. After the ruckus and the smoke cleared away, and we poked our heads above the foliage, we saw the giant gator floating belly-up, along with several sleek catfish that had also been stunned to death by the concussion. The catfish, cooked on spits, were delicious, but the great gator tail, which was all we saved of him, hacked off by our machetes, was superlative. In taste and consistency it was remarkably close to lobster, and there was easily 75 pounds of it. Another day we spotted a monster steer in the middle of a gigantic meadow. We started to walk up on him, but he was spooky. So we stopped, maybe a hundred yards off. As usual, it was Bluestein, Castillo and myself. I surveyed the brute with the binoculars. What I saw was powerful muscles rippling like ropes and cables under a tawny hide as the behemoth pawed at the earth and hooked to the right and the left with his prodigious horns. I wouldn’t have been surprised in the least if brilliant orange flames had issued from his nostrils. “What do you think, Corp?” “That’s prime beef.” “Can you take him with the AR, Corp?” I took another gander at our quarry with the glasses. It was a damned long shot. “We’ll use the rocket launcher,” I declared. “Blue!” Bluestein quickly knelt and placed the metal tube on his right shoulder and pressed his eyeball into the sighting aperture. “Got him, Corp.” “Castillo?” Castillo gingerly inserted one of our precious rounds into the gleaming tube. “I yam ready, amigo.” “Fire when ready, Blue.” There was a sound—whoosh—and—pffft!—as the explosive-tipped projectile left the tube and an instant later a thunderous report and a brilliant explosion as the great steer detonated like a bomb. It was a hell of a fine shot and also it saved us the trouble of butchering the animal. One fine morning I heard mortars chugging, not very far off, then the spiccato chatter of a light 30. I walked over to the fire where Jim Tyler was heating some water in his canteen cup. “Jim—” “I know, Harry. I heard it. We’d better get ready to chogie. Why don’t you send up a scout and we’ll see what we’re looking at.” I dispatched Bluestein who reported back two hours later. “Legs,” he said contemptuously. “Third Army. It’s an infantry company. They’re getting ready to bivouac. No sign of the Eighty-Deuce.” “Good work, Blue.” Bluestein’s disdainful reference to the Third Army “legs” meant that the soldiers were “straight legs,” as we paratroopers called any men who were not airborne. Such creatures we automatically held in utter contempt. I had a confab with Jim Tyler. “Do you think we ought to try to rip off some of their rations, Jim?” “Naw. Let’s scratch gravel. We’re doing okay in the food department. Thanks to you!” We broke camp and plunged into the forest. Our idea was to work our way deeper into the drowned world of the bayou country, thus putting distance between us and the mock battles that would be held mostly in open terrain. It was strange how we kept some semblance of army discipline. It wasn’t at all like friends walking through the woods. Usually, for example, I walked point, carrying the BAR on a strap. I’d used up the rounds for the light 30 and had pitched the gun into a swamp in order to lighten our load. Next, after me, was Stringfield, with an M16, then Smitty, same thing, and Iron Mike, and then Blue, bringing up the rear with the rocket launcher. Our squad leader, former master sergeant Jim Tyler, armed with a 45, walked alongside the column, ranging from man to man, controlling our movements through the bush with deft assurance. I was happy, yes, as I glanced over my shoulder at my comrades. I felt elated, and I was glad and proud to be a member of the Shadow Patrol. We had cut our ties with Them. That was true and it was true of each of us. We were incorrigibles, we were unredeemable, and this knowledge pleased us immensely. Our divorce from Them was final. We had crossed our Rubicon, and for us the die was cast. Having gone beyond the boundaries, our sense of freedom was absolute. We belonged to no Army or Navy. We pledged allegiance to no country and to no man. The next day I was walking point. Blue caught up with me at a clearing in the bush where a turkey buzzard was perched on a sloping moss-furred palm trunk. “Corp, it’s Sergeant Tyler.” “What about him?” “He’s gone.” I called a halt and doubled back alone. Jim couldn’t have been captured, I figured. We hadn’t seen any troops since entering the swamp. A natural disaster? Quicksand? Jim was too experienced for that. On a hunch I followed a narrow footpath that led into the bush. In my nostrils was the smell of decaying vegetation. The forest floor was littered with dry palm leaves and rotten logs. Here the trees, stained with red and green blotches of lichens and mosses, appeared to be painted. Everywhere there were dangling goatees of Spanish moss. Finally I came to another little clearing. I saw a weathered raw-boards shack, some black water, an ancient crumbling dock, and a sleek pirogue tied up in front. Feeling very nervous and out of place I went up to the door. A stunning black girl appeared. “Excuse me, ma’am…” Just then Jim Tyler stepped into the room, naked except for his skivvies. “Harry, this is LuAnn…” “You fixin’ to take my big handsome paratrooper away?” “No, ma’am. Nothing like that.” Jim and I had a little confab. I was to take the men on ahead and find a good spot to bivouac, sticking close to the bayou, not more than three days distant, and Jim would catch up with us as soon as he could. Jim disappeared into the bedroom with LuAnn. I could hear them talking. “Honey, he’s just a kid…” “Don’t worry about Harry.” “Honey, you better get started back.” “Naw, he’ll be all right.” “That little white boy? Why, he’s just a baby!” I felt uncomfortable in my new role as substitute squad leader. Logically, of course, it should have fallen to Stringfield. I could have approached Stringfield and asked him if he preferred to lead. But one didn’t approach Stringfield. So I put Castillo out on point and let the rest of them fall in as they pleased, without saying much of anything. If Stringfield had stepped forward I would have deferred to him instantly. He was twice my age and had a vast experience of men and war. But Stringfield apparently preferred the anonymous security of a dog soldier’s status, that of a professional private. He trudged forward, as he had at Inchon, at Pyongyang, at the Yalu River, at the Chosen Reservoir, his weapon at ready, one of us, yet utterly alone. We marched two days and made camp. We were deep in the cypress swamp. Branches of oaks and willows and cypresses formed an interlocking arch of shadows above our heads. We had reached the edge of the bayou. After the evening meal the air rang with a constant chorus of frog cheeps punctuated by occasional tuba-deep bullfrog burps. Blackness enveloped us like a shroud. I’d given Smitty the first watch. He kept stumbling back to the fire where I was perched on a cypress log drinking coffee with Castillo. “What is it, Smitty?” Smitty stood leaning on his rifle barrel, gazing into the impenetrable darkness. “They be some bad motherfuckers in this here sloo, Copril.” “What do you mean? Legs? Aggressors? Eighty-second? Is it the ‘04? Sit down for a minute. What are you trying to tell me? Is it our outfit? Or is it the Third Army?” Smitty shook his head and kept on shaking it. “Bad motherfuckers…” “Ghosts? What? Tell me what you mean.” A shriek rang out, dull, distant, unutterably lonely. Smitty’s eyes were bugging as he edged closer to me on the rotten cypress log. “That was an owl, Smitty.” “I knows that, Copril. But what he know? He know sumpthin’, Copril. He know sumpthin’.” “You get some sleep, Smitty,” I said. “I’ll take the rest of your watch.” Just past midnight I woke up Bluestein and poured some coffee down him. We sat by the fire while I broke my AR down and cleaned it. “You’re jumpy tonight, Corp.” “I know it.” “You worried about Sergeant Tyler?” “Not hardly, Blue. I don’t know… This place just doesn’t feel right. Smitty’s spooked, too.” “Hoo-doo? For Chrissakes, Corp, you don’t believe in that shit…” “I don’t believe it or disbelieve it. Smitty knows things, Blue. Smitty’s stupid, but he’s smart, too. He always knows when it’s going to rain, for example. A dog knows when there’s going to be an earthquake. Birds know it too. Smitty’s like a dog. He’s like a barometer. Keep your eyes open tonight.” The next morning Bluestein reported to me, almost in a panic. “They’re out there, Corp. I heard a water-cooled 50, off to the southwest, about a mile.” “That was a woodpecker, Blue.” It was strange when we encountered the Gypsies. They’d driven their campers and wagons and ramshackle vehicles deep into the woods and so it seemed, they were waiting for us. There were at least 20 of them and they were armed. We were six, Blue, Castillo, me, Stringfield, Smitty and Iron Mike. The leader of these people was a strapping middle-aged man with dark, drooping mustaches and a forbidding air. His deep-chested, brawny presence was disconcerting, to say the least. Instantly, in my mind, he became “Stromboli.” I didn’t bother to inquire if Stromboli spoke English. It was obvious from his demeanor that he scorned every vestige of American culture. As leader of our group I had a responsibility to keep us intact. I knew I had to resist this tyrant. Therefore, very quickly, I assumed an authoritative attitude: “This is government property, my friends. You must account for yourselves. May I see your driver’s license? What about your Social Security documents? I’m referring of course to the card that you carry in your wallet. It’s a very exacting system that we have here, but it’s very democratic, also. Everyone is held accountable. Have you been long in the United States? What is your mother’s maiden name, may I ask, for our records? I don’t mean to be too personal, but this is necessary. We’re not a nation of despots, you understand, but we do like to know where you stand, politically and so on. Makes it easier for us to classify you. And that’s the important thing, you see…” I knew I could count on Stringfield to act swiftly and decisively. A glance told me that he had his safety catch off and his finger on the trigger. Stringfield was no stranger to butchery. Castillo would fire if I fired. I was certain of that. Bluestein I wasn’t sure of. He might fire but he might freeze. He might even shoot us in his fright. A few tense moments passed and Stromboli made no response. I’d thought to control the situation with a bluff. But Stromboli was not a man to be intimidated. I’d made a serious error in judgment, one that might easily cost us our lives. It seemed unavoidable now that we would have to shoot it out. Even at this crucial moment I was still concerned about conserving our ammo for hunting. I hated the thought of wasting our precious bullets on men. The Gypsies leaning against the ramshackle trucks tensed. They shifted their feet and raised their weapons ever so slightly. As the silent standoff progressed I caught almost imperceptible movements: fingers tightening around triggers, safety catches being released, hard brown eyes focused on me. My men shifted slightly, doing the same thing. Eyes met eyes and flashed away. The tension was terrific. Each tiny movement now meant life or death. Suddenly Iron Mike stepped forward and spoke to Stromboli in a language that was utterly strange to me. Stromboli’s expression softened. He said something to Mike and Mike responded. Something extraordinary was taking place on that black-water bayou under the live oak trees. Iron Mike and Stromboli were communicating. Now the armed Gypsies leaning against the campers relaxed a bit and began talking among themselves, with jerks of their heads in the direction of Iron Mike. They seemed to be saying: “That odd-looking little fellow over there. He’s a good sort. That’s plain enough to see. Am I right, fellows? Speaks a bit of our language, too. He’ll put that damned smartass American kid in his place. Just wait and see.” Stromboli was earnestly addressing Iron Mike. He seemed to be saying: “So you’re a European, eh? Then you know how things are with us. These damned Americans, why, they’ll let a man die in the street. Heartless is what they are. They’ve got no souls, these devils. Land of plenty, is it? Aye, plenty for the rich!” Mike was grinning like a monkey. He planted his rifle butt by his boot and leaned on the barrel, then he took off his fatigue cap and wiped his whiskered mug. All the while those utterly incomprehensible yet magically effective words continued to tumble out of him. At the same time, parenthetically, he called out to the knot of men near the campers, seeming to say: “Michelowski, that’s my name. They call me Mike—Iron Mike. Yanko, is it? Glad to meet you, Yanko. I’m a Legionnaire, you know. Liberation of Paris? I was there, lads. I’m not as young as I look, boys! The showdown in Germany, sure, I got in on the very tail end of it. Oh, my brothers—that Bohemian corporal and his dirty Huns—we kicked their ass from hell to breakfast!” Now Mike changed his tone and began talking directly to the Gypsy leader in a more serious and confidential manner. It sounded very much like my harangue and I conjectured that the content was similar. “Stromboli, my friend, I don’t mean to put you on edge, but there’s a whole bunch more of us out there in the bush. Now as you know I’m a man who’s been on good terms with Gypsy people all his life. But the unfortunate thing is, there’s any number of these devils out there who don’t see things my way at all. These are the sort of buggers who have to dot every “i” and cross every “t”, if you know what I mean. Well, I don’t have to tell you, old fellow, what I think of their kind! But the sticky part of it is, this whole kit and kaboodle out here is government property, and you’re right smack-dab in the middle of it. And if these jamokes should run up on your camp here, and catch you trespassing on U.S. Government property, well, they could commence to make things plenty hot for you, and you and your lot could wind up in the chokey, just quicker than the winkin’ of an eye. I’ve seen it happen, seen it many a time. But I’ll tell you what I can do, tell you what I’ll do. I’ll take these men of mine and sashay on up to our outfit and we’ll tell the Skipper, I’ll tell him, Skip, we got to make us a detour, got to make a detour because there’s a whole passel of quicksand and a bunch of bottomless pits and evil-smelling swamps up ahead just crawling with hog cholera and dysentery and malarial mosquitoes, and we’ve got to go around it, Skip. Got to go around it. That’s all there is to it. We got to go around it. No, no, no, don’t thank me, Stromboli, my friend. You’re a man. You’d do as much for me, wouldn’t you?” To me Mike said quickly in English, out of the corner of his mouth: “Move out now. Walk slow. No look back.” He touched my arm. “No look back.” “Comp-nay, ten-shut!” I howled, “Port harms! Right shoulder harms! Forward…march!” It was a full two days later, after we’d pitched at a fine campsite on a broad lagoon to await Jim Tyler’s return, that I had a confab with Iron Mike, for whom—I hardly need add—I’d conceived a new and profoundly increased respect. As Iron Mike struggled, in his fractured English, to tell me exactly what had transpired back there at the Gypsy camp, I was amazed to learn that the exchange between Mike and Stromboli was not at all as I’d surmised. “Gypsy Man see planes, many like hell. Many soldiers come from sky. Gypsy Man hear many shots. Boom! Big noise, big like hell. Heem take woomans away, hide. Heem say Rooski Man come. Rooski Man fight Americaner Man. Fight like hell. Gypsy Man scared heem die from Rooski Man. Gypsy Man scared die, scared woomans die. I say Gypsy Man, I am Mike, I Americaner Man. I am Iron Mike, strong like iron. I say Gypsy Man, I kill Rooski Man, kill like hell. Gypsy Man, heem happy like hell. Heem say Mike, you kill Rooski Man I happy like hell. Gyspy Man no die, woomans no die. Rooski Man die. You do good thing, Iron Mike, heem say. Heem say I pay money you for kill these Rooski Man…” Our new campsite was in a spacious clearing on the bayou. It was a perfect spot, firm ground for our tents, an abundance of firewood and water, lots of game and fish, and we were far removed from the American military forces. We christened the place “Happy Camp,” after my nickname, “Happy Harry.” Two weeks passed in idyllic fashion at Happy Camp, except for mosquito bites and ground itch. Then late one afternoon Castillo, standing guard, reported hearing a small-engine craft approaching. I walked to the mud bank of the bayou and took the glasses from Castillo. “What did you see? Who is it?” “No se, amigo. Yo creo un barco.” I peered through the glasses.
“It’s a boat, all right.”
I saw, through the binoculars, the black silhouette of a pirogue with a tall figure poised in the stern.
“It’s Jim,” I announced. “It’s Sergeant Tyler!”
“No me digas?”
“Here, look for yourself.” I handed the binoculars to Castillo as Bluestein and Smitty joined us at the bayou’s edge.
“You are right, my friend. It is Sergeant Tyler.”
“It’s Sergeant Tyler!”
“He looks different!”
“Corp—are you sure that’s him?”
“Where’s his uniform?” The boat approached at a steady pace. It was Sergeant Jim Tyler, all right, in a handsome pirogue. He came to us like a man from another world. We got the boat tied up, then we looked at our leader. First off, we noticed that he’d partially discarded his uniform. He was still wearing his fatigue cap but he’d exchanged his fatigues for a gaudy Hawaiian shirt and a pair of plaid Bermuda shorts that reached almost to his combat boots. He’d kept his canteen belt, canteen, bayonet and machete along with his 45, and he’d added a bandoleer of cartridges slung across his chest as well as a huge Brazilian bush knife. And he’d grown a sinister goatee. He looked wonderfully disreputable and unspeakably dangerous. It was Castillo who noticed that Jim Tyler’s master parachutist’s badge was missing from his fatigue cap. “Where is your wings, Chim?” “Gave ‘em to my lady, Blood.” Jim Tyler doubled over with silent mirth. “Gave ‘em to my lady.” He was in tremendously good spirits. “You smell like a French whore, Sergeant,” Bluestein blurted out, then he gulped and blushed beet red after Jim Tyler shot him a mock-stern glance. “Everyone accounted for, Harry?” Jim inquired. “Present and accounted for, sir,” I shot back, cracking off a comic salute. “Help me unload, soldiers.” I stepped into the pirogue and helped Jim pull back the tarp. Bonanza! Revealed were heaps of fried chicken, cornbread, jars of marmalade and okra pickles, cartons of eggs, several slabs of bacon, as many hams, and oranges, apples, and ceramic jugs of homemade whiskey, sacks of cornmeal and flour, dozens of green tomatoes and yams, bags of butter beans and black-eyed peas, as well as fishing tackle and boxes of rounds for Jim’s 45. I cooked breakfast, even though it was almost dusk—bacon and eggs, grits, cornbread and hush puppies, and we washed it all down with homemade bayou whiskey.
The days that followed at Happy Camp were delightful. We wandered over the still waters in the pirogue, fishing and hunting, living like carpetbaggers off the land. From time to time Jim left us, taking the pirogue back to LuAnn’s where he collected ample provisions. Swimming, hunting, fishing, the days passed heedlessly. I did the cooking, Smitty rounded up some poke salad in the bush, and we all picked berries and got eaten alive by Louisiana mosquitoes. Sometimes we’d see brilliant flashes in the sky, very distant, flares, or artillery fire—“the war.” It was taking place, out there, on the plains, the mock armies going against one another, the blank bullets fired off, the harmless mines exploding, the fake shells bursting without appreciable effect. Like about everything else about Them, it wasn’t real.
One afternoon Jim Tyler and I had a talk over a canteen cup of Bayou Lightning. We were sitting at the bayou’s edge. At our feet tiny yellow leaves floated in the dark brown water and water bugs darted aimlessly, as if life were nothing but a meaningless whirligig. The “war” was almost over, Jim informed me. The ‘04 would be pulling out in approximately two weeks. A week’s march, he figured, would put us back in the general vicinity of our outfit. “You can report in to the Third Army or anybody. They’ll load you on a deuce-and-a-half and take you back to the ‘04. As long as you report in. That’s the main thing.” Gradually, as Jim Tyler spoke, it began to dawn on me that he was giving me a set of instructions concerning what I was to do over the next week and how I was to move the men around. “What do you mean, Jim?” I handed him the canteen cup. “I’m not going back, Harry.” Jim Tyler took a big swig and wiped his mouth, then stripped off his dog tags and tossed them into the drink. “These motherfuckers have seen the last of my black ass.” We kissed Happy Camp goodbye with a final dinner, cooked by me. We had a big haul of crayfish, alligator tail and catfish. I made hush puppies again because the guys insisted. And there was plenty of Bayou Lightning. By sundown we were all sitting on the muddy bank gnawing fish bones. Stringfield, like a man awakening from a trance, “came into the present” for the first time since I’d known him. “This is good,” he whispered. “You cooked this, didn’t you? Really good, you understand what I’m saying…” Finally it was time to part. Jim Tyler stood on the bank at the prow of his sleek pirogue. “Harry, keep your belly full, your nuts busted and your head bad! You hear me?” “Good luck, Jim.” We shook hands, then embraced. “Happy Harry… You’re a soldier!”
Jim got back into the boat. I stepped into the black water and pushed him off. Everyone waved and shouted. Jim stood at the stern dipping with a paddle. When he reached the channel he shipped his oar, started the engine, then turned and waved, a tall figure, distant, majestic.
“Goodbye , brothers!”
After a four-day march we came upon a big Third Army encampment. I told the men we would pitch along the river and turn ourselves in the following day. But, as I soon discovered, I nearly had a mutiny on my hands.
“We ain’t surrenderin’ to no fuckin’ laigs, Copril,” Smitty summed up for the group.
We marched for two more days. I was afraid the ‘04 had pulled out. Time was getting short. Then we heard gunfire and I sent Iron Mike up to see what was going on. In fifteen minutes he was back.
It was the 187 Regimental Combat Team, Stringfield’s old outfit. We walked up on them and turned ourselves in. They were pretty decent. We had a fine feed, bedded down, and the next day before dawn they loaded us onto a duece-and-a-half, just as Jim Tyler had predicted. There was one officer, a first louie, who looked at us strangely, as if he’d noticed that none of us had stripes on our sleeves and moreover, that most of us had shadows of stripes. He knew there was something funny about us, but he didn’t know what it was, and he apparently didn’t care.
“I’m sure gonna miss Sergeant Tyler,” Bluestein said, as we bounced along some godforsaken road, listening to the growling of the gears.
“Me too, Blue. But he’s got himself a good deal.”
“Corp—have you ever—been with a woman?”
“A few times. It’s been a while.”
The truck ground to a halt. We were back in the Army now for sure. Hurry up and wait. The sky was black and frogs were cheeping warily.
“I wish I could be like Sergeant Tyler…” Bluestein’s voice trailed off. He gazed in silence off into the creeping miasma of the swamp, as if the words he was searching for were tucked away among the shadows. He started to say something, then stopped. I could hardly see him but I could feel his brute anguish and bewilderment squatting beside me in the darkness.
“What is it, Blue?”
“Corp—I don’t want to go back. I hate those bastards. Always making fun of me.” Blue was choking back tears. “I like being here with you and Castillo and Sergeant Tyler. This has been the happiest time of my life. You’re a good guy, Corp. You’re always in a good mood. Is that why Sergeant Tyler calls you ‘Happy Harry’? Corp, listen—I’ve got 36 dollars. How far is Brooklyn from here? I’ll buy some civvies, I’ll get on a bus—”
“Blue, listen to me. I can’t order you not to go. I’m speaking to you as a friend. Jim’s got something to go to, a place to be, he’s got a life here with LuAnn. They’ll never find him in this bayou. But it’s different with you and me. How far do you think 36 dollars will take you? New Orleans, maybe? Beaumont? If you run now and they find you, you’ll go to the stockade, maybe even Leavenworth. You and me, Blue, we’re short-timers. What have you got, six months? We’re not AWOL yet, remember that. We got separated from our outfit. That’s our story. Remember, it worked before. All we’ll get is company punishment. Can you dig a six-by? Shit, it’s a piece of cake. Then we’ll get on steady KP, or on the garbage trucks. I’ll stick by you, Blue. You and me. If they put my ass on garbage, I’ll ask for you. We’ll do the garbage run, Blue! Remember how it was? I’ll drive, you sleep! It won’t be so bad. A man gets used to anything… Remember the day we found the smoked salmon? Officers’ Mess, wasn’t it, Division Artillery? Lox, Blue, lox! Listen, Blue, I hate those bastards as much as you do. But you can’t run now. We’ll stick together, Blood, we’ll stick it out. We’ll do our time and, in six months, eight months, we’ll be out of this shit-farm forever.”
I took off my fatigue cap and held my airborne wings up in front of his face. “Do you see this, brother? They can take our stripes, they can take our pay, but they can’t take this. They can’t take our wings. You earned your wings, Blue. You’re a man, you’re a soldier. You’re a paratrooper. They can’t take that away from you.”
I heard a rumble in the sky. Sudden raindrops were falling. The air smelled clean and fresh, and the trilling frog cheeps increased a hundredfold. A squirt of water from above and the little buggers were crazed with happiness.
An hour went by. The truck started up and sleeping soldiers awoke as we lurched forward. The frog cheeps died away and all you could hear was the growling of the gears and the sound of the rain pelting on the canvas roof of the deuce-and-a-half. It was growing light in the east. Blue was coming around. I could tell by his voice. Plus I could see his face clearly now. He was smiling.
“You’re right, Corp,” he said. “We’ll do our time…”
Gregory Heath reviews
by Donald O'Donovan
"TARANTULA WOMAN is a book which reeks of sex. And it's not sanitised, airbrushed sex, either - it's animalistic, sometimes violent sex, described by a narrator who lives in a world of whorehouses, drunkenness and hopeless dreams. But what a narrator Jerzy Mulvaney is: you can open this book at virtually any page and find a series of effortlessly convincing phrases, transporting you to 'the Real Mexico', with 'the pulse of the music, the drinks poured down the gullet...the heat-damp-touch-throb excitement, the gut-level sex-joy, and the trumpets of the mariachis showering despair over it all.'
For the most part, Jerzy's story is brilliantly told, and the range of characters we meet are never less than fascinating, from Angel Mike, the macho bartender, to Reymundo, the cross-dressing hairdresser, to Ysela, the deeply religious prostitute from whom the novel gets its title. It's only towards the middle of the book, where an incongruous 'dear reader' style of narration appears on occasion, that O'Donovan breaks the spell he has cast.
That's not a major criticism by any means and, a couple of minor structural issues notwithstanding, it's the only one I really have. The 'heroes of love' that populate this gritty and philosophical novel make it one of the most grimly entertaining things I've read for some time, and I'll be recommending it widely."—Gregory Heath, author of THE ENTIRE ANIMAL and Thoughts of Maria