Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to times thou grow’st;
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
– Sonnet 18, William Shakespeare
There are four of us in that sweltering bunker; SGT. Eddie Devaney, Trenton, New Jersey, myself and two newbies just in from the real world. It’s April 16, 1970. We’re playing low-stakes poker under a single hanging light bulb, shirtless, enjoying the fruits of good fortune; of Victor Charlie’s misfortune. A bit of last-minute providence means we’ve surged ahead in the monthly body-count race, earning ourselves a second stand-down in as many months. It’d looked as if Delta Company had it sewn up, but we’d lucked out pulling that last ambush. It was an ambush alright; a clear, starry night, two squads of Alpha Company strewn across a low valley spilling out of Cambodia. A dozen VC stumbled right in, small men in black pajamas beneath straw hats, slouching along in floppy tire-tread sandals holding hands and giggling quietly. Few escaped under the glare of flickering parachute flares.
We’ve just drawn cards when the birthday-cake-sized satchel charge spins in from the dark night. Devaney and I react instinctively, toppling chairs and scrambling for the bunker door, the newbies confused and rooted. The blast blows me clear, dazed and head-ringing, I stagger to my feet to be instantly engaged by a screaming, bayonet-wielding enemy. I embrace the lithe youngster, kicking and grappling until we go down in a pile and I’m able to subdue him. Complete chaos erupts, the generator going up and the world suddenly black.
I run, weaponless, NVA sappers seemingly humping in from every direction. I dive into a blasted bunker, quickly playing hot potato with an interminable succession of hand-made concussion grenades until my nerves can no longer keep pace and I huddle into a corner as several detonate ineffectively in the roofless hooch. I’ve ceased to even hear them, kicking away the sputtering fuses, blinded by silent flashes. A VC soldier abruptly joins me and we wrestle over his AK until he releases it to produce a knife and I’m able club him with his own weapon and escape the claustrophobic hole. I rush through a melee, seeking escape, desperately shooting anything that moves.
Two hours later it becomes eerily quiet, but for the occasional animal groan or child-like whimper. I fall into an empty mortar pit to catch my breath, feeling consciousness slowly ebbing away, fighting it, but surrendering to it in slow increments.
* * *
It’s July in the real world, in the northwestern Colorado of my youth. The extensive burns on my torso have healed, but there’s debris to shake from the bed sheets each morning, sand and fragments sloughing from my skin still, that will continue to do so for years to come. My left eardrum has been successfully reattached, my hearing not 100-percent but intact. I sleep irregularly, holding onto myself tightly through the night, awaiting daylight, when it’s safe to let myself go once more. There’s a morning, a month after my return, when my lovingly naive baby sister ventures to serve me breakfast in bed, entering silently and waking me tenderly. I send the tray of food scattering and nearly choke the life from her before I’m jolted to by her gasping sobs. My father tries to talk to me, only to be run from the room with vial curses and incriminations, my mother in the door having a nervous breakdown. I only want to be left alone. I sense I am now feared by my own family.
Uncle Erwin’s a towering, powerful man who runs his own construction company like a dictatorship, a converted Mormon with strong convictions but the rough edges of his former life as an Army Master Sergeant who survived two tours in Korea; something he refuses to talk about. He arrives from Utah, no doubt at the behest of my mother, his older sister. He simply appears, steps into my room and closes the door behind him.
He leans a couple long boxes against the wall, moving a chair precisely to the edge of my bed, leaning forward, elbows on knees. I feel like a trapped animal under his gaze. He sits there waiting for me to speak, only the ticking of an electric clock filling the emptiness.
“Boy, this is no good,” he says finally. “You’re not doing yourself any good. You ever stop and think of anyone else’s feelings?” He sits there regarding me with hard eyes, unblinking, solid as oak. “You’re being a selfish little baby,” he adds tersely.
I look him in the eyes with a flash of anger, my head swimming while he sits unflinching, staring me down with those steady gray eyes, the blood vessels at his temples suddenly visible through tanned skin.
“You don’t know…” I blurt, quickly cutting myself short, my
emotions suddenly taking a different turn until I’m struggling to hold onto myself. I can no longer look at him.
“You’re wrong there,” he says with an edge, then suddenly softens to talk quietly once more. “Just remember one thing; you’re alive and there’s no shame in living. And, by God, I’m not allowing this to go on any longer.”
We talk a long time. We talk for hours, my uncle sitting on the edge of that chair unmoving, patient and soberly articulate. When I cuss he doesn’t flinch. When I cry he doesn’t reach to comfort me. But he listens and he talks softly and when it’s nearly midnight he leaves the room but is there again in the morning, rational and serene as stone. He stays a week.
* * *
The boxes my uncle has arrived with turn out to be an elegant Browning Explorer recurve, a dozen “Quality Ferbenglas Shaft” wood-grain arrows. He bought me my first bow when I was in diapers. We have bowhunted together annually since I was 13, stalking mule deer in the rims above Irish Canyon north of Dinosaur National Park. To avoid my over-bearingly worried family I take to roving for hours on end with my new bow, sometimes trekking all day across the sand dunes and prairies west of Craig, directing arrows at cow patties and grass clumps, prairie dogs and jackrabbits, recalling the joy that comes from the simple flight of an arrow. These hikes create an appetite that allows me to join family meals and encourages some semblance of sleep though the nightmares remain, granted less intense and abstractly real.
Uncle Erwin shows up late September, one of his construction trucks loaded with camping gear. He’s arrived unannounced, to collect me for our annual archery deer hunt that only Vietnam has interrupted during the past seven years.
We camp in our usual place, down in the fragrant cedars below towering rims that cast spooky moon shadows nights. W
e’ve camped here for years, and since our last visit BLM has installed sturdy cement picnic tables and vast grated cooking grills that appear built to last. We string a tarpaulin between shading trees and will sleep on the ground gazing up to count meteorites skipping across a furry velvet sky. Stars begin to appear, a half-moon edging over a cliffy rim as we finish thick grilled steaks and chili beans, tossing paper plates into the fire that we stare into like an enlightening oracle.
“What was left of our platoon was pinned on this lone hill,” my uncle says suddenly, breaking a silence punctuated only by chirping crickets and fire-popping cedar. “The Koreans just kept coming, we just kept shooting them. We were up there all day moving one way and the other so they couldn’t fix us with their mortars, watching for them humping up that hill, coming in another wave. Didn’t make any sense. There were just maybe 15 of us up there and a whole darn war out there, but they just kept coming up one after another and we’d shoot them like dump rats.
“Our luck ran out, though. We were shooting one way and they came from another and got us pinned, then a mortar came in and blew us to shreds. It was touch and go ’til dark, shooting all the time, scavenging ammo off the dead. It just didn’t make any sense. The whole darned Korean army was out to kill just a handful of us.
“Come dark all of us were hit somehow but I could still walk. And that’s what I did. I slipped right out of there. Left the rest to their gruesome fate. And I’m alive and they aren’t.”
I absorbed this in silence, understanding what he was giving me. “I may have shot some of our own people,” I offered quietly. “I was running scared and shooting anything that got near me.”
“May’ve?” Uncle Erwin says, quick as a bullet. “You know that, or is that guilt speaking?” I couldn’t answer that question, but its nexus will invade my sleep in feverish repetition.
* * *
I rim out at daybreak, heat already arriving, my camouflage soaked through with sweat. I’m pulling from my canteen when a speck of movement catches my attention well off in the middle distance. Through the leather-covered field glasses it turns into a handsome muley buck, wearing a heavy, deep-forked rack with just a hint of junk on one side. I notice with some amusement that my hands have already begun to flutter slightly. I mark the moving speck carefully while moving to a ledge of sandstone to sit on and steady my glasses. The buck weaves across a relatively open bench, lost occasionally behind a squat pinon or cedar, ambling slowly.
After a time the buck pauses near a skeleton of ancient cedar, paws momentarily and drops from sight as if swallowed by the earth. I watch for long minutes but he’s ceased to exist. I check the wind then circle, dropping into a line of low-laying pines to close the gap. The dead cedar’s as distinct as a signature and I force myself to slow my pace and think this thing through.
When I reach the tree edge after circling, the cedar skeleton is 300 yards distant and showing in pieces from behind a ground-hugging pinon half that distance. I remove my boots and began picking my way closer in slow, careful steps that avoid purplish prickly-pear cactus as much as provide stealth. I make the screening pinon in 15 or 20 minutes, being overly cautious, but the most challenging part of the stalk lays ahead. I edge around the shadowed side of the pinon, training my glasses on the base of the dead cedar, peering for what seems an hour but likely is only 15 minutes before tine tips are suddenly resolved clearly. I’ve been looking right at them all along and only abruptly do they reveal themselves.
What follows is two hours of slow belly crawling, the heat rising but a merciful skein of low clouds drifting in from the west, the pungent perfume of sage filling my nostrils until it nearly makes me nauseous. I meet dead-ends in rings of cactus that require backing out and attacking from a different angle. I place my bow at arm’s length, wiggle ahead on my belly, reach the bow, struggle ahead, pausing to set twigs and sticks and rocks aside to create a clear path. After gaining 10 or 15 yards I lay and pant, catching my breath. After perhaps an hour I push up in slow increments, using the glasses to probe beneath the cedar. The banana-like tines show above wisps of sage but are still a world away.
The sky’s growing increasingly woolly by the time I reach that place where hard decisions must me made–to take the long shot, or gamble on pushing closer for the sure thing. I can see the buck’s rear, studying the situation and seeing that only one sage remains in way of dependable cover. I decide 10 more yards will be all I need. Gaining those 10 yards will require half an hour.
I see the buck’s antlers turning and expect the worst, but they swivel to aim over his shoulder and not at me. He senses something nearby, a coyote, another deer perhaps. I take the opportunity to nock an arrow and swing my legs before me, setting my bow in my lap with the Ace Jet-tipped arrow between my knees so I can sit up slowly. The buck shows clearly through nodding sage tips and I lean back once more to gather my thoughts. I can’t shoot now. The buck’s attention is directed over his shoulder, his neck and head blocking much of his vitals, and bedded shots are always tricky. I wait impatiently, talking to myself silently, encouraging calm.
The buck stands suddenly, turning to seek the thing that has caught his attention, offering his opposite side. I take a deep breath and bring the bow up and draw in a single smooth motion. The buck continues staring. I snug an index finger into the corner of my mouth and chant silently, “Choose a hair. Choose a hair. Choose a hair.”
And the arrow arches away, spinning in slow suspension, looking good all the way, until that final instant when it doesn’t drop in and the buck also senses something, the thrum of bowstring, the hiss of feather slicing air, and drops just slightly. The arrow cuts over his back and buries into the hard cedar with an ax blow report. The buck throws up dust and sends sage sticks spinning. I howl an oath, feeling that all-too-familiar anger welling, on my feet suddenly and in a spin to launch that bow to the horizon. I catch myself, just holding onto the bow, stopped still, breathing through my mouth. I watch that gorgeous buck bound across the bench, mounting the rim above, stopping on its crest for one last backwards glance before sinking over the close horizon.
I step off 43 yards to the cedar and understand it was too far, producing a knife to work the imbedded broadhead from the soft, weather-aged wood. I begin to laugh out loud. It’s only the first day. I’ve plenty of time. There will be others. I may not connect, but nothing else beats this.
And it occurs to me like a jolt that I’ve thought of nothing else this morning but the hunt, of wind and stealth and straight shooting. It’s something. For the time being Vietnam is very far away. It’s a start, something to hold on to. It’s the beginning of something better in the world.