Writing a novel taking place in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s entails endless research on aspects of life during those times such as slang, top music, news events, clothing, cars, appliances, cigarette and liquor names, political viewpoints, gender roles, and New Age beliefs among other things.
Since there are chapters taking place in the Viet Nam War, research on the various aspects of the events, experiences, slang, and situations in the war were necessary as well. I did not know this when I started typing words on the computer for the first chapter, but I soon found out.
Even though I lived during those years, my memory serves me less than I would desire, so I spent the first year reading, researching, and taking copious notes in spiral notebooks for reference, filling three file boxes to the brim with research material. If I had known differently, I may have chosen to write a story that took place in the present because it would have been easier and faster to write; but then this story would not have been told.
I have been working on the novel, “Colorado Gothic,” for quite some time while life kept getting in the way and it has been a difficult although enjoyable and satisfying project. To protect copyright, I have not included a detailed synopsis, but I can summarize the nature of the work as a 1960’s and 1970’s hippie style ‘X-Files’ novel. I hope you will enjoy reading this rough copy of one of the novel’s chapters and I would welcome feedback.
L. L. Paulson Howe
A novel by L.L. Paulson Howe
“The nocturnal canopy of the heavens stretched from the Pacific shore on the east to the border with Cambodia on the west, covering the sins of the Viet Nam War in a black velvet shroud. Dawn would not arrive for a few more hours and it was dark out here … too damn dark, Ray thought, as he sat quietly on watch in a shallow mud trench located deep in the jungles of Southeast Asia. He knew he was somewhere in the Iron Triangle near the Cambodian border, but he had lost touch with place and time. Soon, the sickly sun would be emerging above the eastern horizon to bring another dim day full of death. The musky smell of the tropical jungle was like the smell of decay, over-powering and thick as molasses. He wiped his nose with the back of a grimy hand and stared as the black mud earth blood as it oozed from the ground into a brown pool near his boots. Tropical rainwater looking like colorless intravenous fluid dripped from the slashes and gashes in the large green palm fronds looming over his head.
Fatigues soaked with perspiration and grime, PFC Raymond Wayne Roswell cowered alongside another member of his squad in a shallow ditch while they waited nervously for the rest of their team to arrive. The mortar rounds and B-52 bombs exploded, sounding like loud, lingering thunder claps in the green jungle canopy all around them. Once in awhile, bullets from AK-47s whizzed over their heads. Charlie was getting too damn close, he thought, absentmindedly stroking the M-16 across his lap for comfort. Dooley snored fitfully beside him with the staccato sound from his throat cutting through thick air that smelled like burning sulfur mixed with explosives.
Ray leaned his head back to gaze into the night sky and tried to divert his thoughts from the horrors of war before he went crazy. Like a bad acid trip, nothing out here made any fucking sense, including that cosmic canopy over his head. He could see thousands and thousands of tiny orbs of light hanging helter-skelter in the night sky, suspended in what seemed like a drug soaked hallucination above the napalm scorched earth. Maybe those stars were the ghosts of all the gooks he had killed. They seemed to glare angrily down while they waited for the Grim Reaper to sling him straight into the throes of Hell. He gulped. Here he was in the middle of one of the craziest conflicts of the century, and Ray felt the flames of the infernal pyres of Hades licking at his ass. Unfortunately, the Devil did not discriminate.
He rubbed his eyes, sighed, and looked at the dark sky overhead. It was true that those visible pinpoints of light above his head made up only a small portion of the cosmos … a very small portion. Because science could only perceive objects that reflected light, the world had considered those tiny suns to be the only objects that existed for millennia. Wiping his nose with dirty fingers, he shifted his gaze from the stars to the millions of light years of Stygian space between them. That formless, colorless dark matter, as the scientists now called it, was without dimension or time. To him, it looked like it was flowing through the randomly placed galaxies like a river, cleansing them in a supernatural rite of unholy baptism. What lay in the mysterious, murky cosmic waters between the stars was beyond the limitations of the human senses to see or understand. There could be other worlds out there – invisible worlds that absorbed light, instead of reflecting it. Humans, completely oblivious to their existence, were like mere mindless viruses living on a humongous dirt ball rolling through space. Even futile attempts at logic brought him full circle back to the madness all around him. This damn war was turning his mind to mush. A mortar exploded in the distance followed by a muffled scream that sent a violent shiver straight up his spine beneath his flak jacket. He needed some dew. He was just too fucking scared all the time.
In the slowly emerging glow of the sunrise, he wiped the sweat from his brow and glanced over to where Dooley leaned against the mud wall, snoring away with his mouth wide open. The tropics were full of the biggest fucking bugs a person could imagine and a slackened mouth was an invitation to the innards, a dangerous situation for the sleeping. The last thing the Drool needed was a bug for breakfast, so Ray leaned over to nudge the soldier on the arm. Dooley moved his arm away before closing his mouth and falling asleep again. Ray leaned back with a yawn and realized he had not gotten any sleep for weeks. He was exhausted. No wonder he was having panic attacks.
It was a dark, dank Thursday in June of 1968. A giant black fly landed on his neck and bit into the sweaty flesh, causing pain to shoot up the back of his head. Slapping the insect dead with a dirty hand, Ray grabbed the crushed carcass between his index finger and thumb, and peered closely at the yellow entrails spilling from the abdomen. So a fly dying in Viet Nam might have a ripple effect on an unsuspecting bastard in Denver, he thought. Maybe at that very moment, some motherfucker sitting in rush hour traffic on the I-25 was having excruciating chest pains and gasping for breath – the old beating of a butterfly’s wings philosophy, not that he cared. If the ripple effect worked, he hoped the fly’s death would eliminate all the assholes in this crappy war. Right now, he did not give a shit. He would give anything to be back in Colorado, instead of sitting in this hellhole in the fucking muck. He was sweating heavily under his jacket and his fatigues were soaked. Must be over 100 degrees with a humidity index to match, he mused. The mold was probably growing in all of his body crevasses like weeds up his ass and he would have to use bleach and sandpaper to scrub it off. Things just rusted and rotted in this crappy climate.
Years ago in college, he swore he would never wear a damn corporate straight jacket because he hated uniforms. They represented conformity to him and that idea repulsed him. Now, here he was in military fatigues, which was the same fucking thing. Hell, he should have slipped over the border into Canada and just disappeared years ago. Rumor control had it that the hippie havens where all the draft dodgers lived in Vancouver were places where nothing but sex, drugs and rock-n-roll ruled. That old ‘make love, not war’ thing sounded like his kind of town. He wanted out of this recon mission and out of Nam so bad, he had entertained the notion of giving himself a million dollar war wound, so he could go home. He just did not have the balls.
Ray was not in a good mood. He needed a shot of something with a kick to it to numb the fear in his chest. Maybe some Ba Mu, he reflected, as he remembered a night of unbridled revelry in Saigon. That Vietnamese brew coated the lining of the stomach and the brain for hours. Better yet, he yearned for some good old American beer. Back home, Coors was his best friend. He could just smell the hops. Wetting dry lips with his tongue, he reached into his C-rations and pulled out a can of beans and dicks. They didn’t have any kick, but they would fill his growling stomach.
“Hey, man, wake up! You got your John Wayne handy?” he shouted over at his trench partner.
Dooley snorted, scratched under one armpit and grinned at him through greenish brown face paint. The Drool looked like two disembodied eyeballs staring out from a round cesspool of gangrene and brown sewage above a yellow-toothed smile. He figured he must look the same way. He watched as Dooley reached into a pocket and threw him a can opener. Ray caught the opener in one hand, twisted open the can, and scooped the hot dogs and beans into his mouth with his combat knife. The thick pasty meal tasted good on his swollen tongue. He gulped down the contents as he watched his squad partner pull a little leather sack out of his fatigues pocket, withdraw a small white paper, tap the contents of the sack into the crease in the middle, lick one edge, roll the paper and light one end with a Zippo. Ray noticed that the papers looked moldy. A bowl would have been better for smoking dope, he thought. Not noticing, Dooley inhaled deeply on one end of the hand rolled cigarette and closed his eyes while he held the smoke in his mouth to savor the numbing effect. Ray sniffed the marijuana wafting in the humid air around them. It smelled like old eggs rotting in the heat. When he had cleaned out the can of beans and dicks, he threw it over the edge of the ditch, replaced his knife in its sheath and handed the opener back before picking up his canteen and drinking the warm liquid inside. It tasted foul; but at least it was wet.
“Hey, dude, want some dew?” Dooley asked, while extending the filthy hand-rolled hashish butt in Ray’s direction.
Thank god for friends. Forgetting about the fungus for the time being, he grabbed it and took a long drag, letting its euphoria wash over him in waves while the natural anesthetic numbed his fears and calmed his nerves. Tilting his helmet back, he rested his head against the muddy trench wall to gaze at the dark ominous clouds, which had covered the stars overhead. Tinged on the underside with a brownish yellow hue from all the bomb and mortar smoke, the developing thunderheads boiled with rage in the emerging dawn. The thunder gods weren’t the only things that were mad as hell, he mused. He quickly took another hit on the joint before passing it back. Dooley inhaled on the dirty butt and let the air out slowly. Enemy fire echoed through the air and mortar shells exploded in the bush.
“You, freaking out like I am?” the Drool winced under the rim of his helmet.
Ray nodded and answered sarcastically, “Yeah … just crapping my pants.” He’d never tell.
“Better take some CP pills, Roz,” Dooley chuckled.
“Shove it up your ass, Drool,” he retorted.
Everyone had nicknames out here. It made them feel like brothers away from home … and, in a way, they were. A volley of rockets raced across the smoky vault above their heads and the air became thick with fireworks, raining mud, palm fronds, and broken fern leaves down on them as they cowered in the dirty ditch. Ray ducked and patted his flak jacket as if to reassure himself of his invincibility. Deep down inside, he knew it was merely wishful-thinking on his part; but it made him feel better to view the whole situation that way. Glancing over, he could see the Drool staring at him wide eyed as if he were scared shitless.
“Jesus, put your pot back on, dude,” Dooley sputtered as he nervously grabbed his M-16 and peered just over the edge of the shallow trench. “Maybe we should start firing back at those mother fuckers.”
“Hold your fire. We don’t want to give away our position,” Ray responded as he lowered his helmet back over his dark perspiration soaked hair and forehead. “Don’t wig out on me, Drool. We’re just disposable grunts, you know.”
Dooley glanced over his shoulder at Ray. “You just figure that one out, you dumb shit?”
“Hell, no … Ever wonder what the inside of a fucking glad bag looks like?” he asked, not that he ever wanted to know. The Grim Reaper was all around them, just waiting …
“Like wearing shades painted badass black or something. Don’t freak out on that morbid shit, man,” Dooley muttered, wiping the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand and peering over the edge of the ditch again. “It’ll drive you fucking crazy.”
The Drool was probably already there, he thought. Just in case, Ray checked to see if the safety was off on his M-16 and tugged at his web gear to make certain it was tight. A claymore mine exploded in the distance with a thundering boom that reverberated through the thick air. He could hear a scream echo from within the green jungle growth. He hoped it was not one of the men in his squad. The Drool snubbed out the hash and stuffed the butt back into his jacket pocket to finish off later.
“Where are the others anyway?” Dooley asked. “They’re taking too damn long to get here.”
Another explosion filled the air, this time closer. It sounded like a beehive round. At least the sun was rising and they could see what was out there now.
“You got that right. We’re just sitting ducks,” Ray muttered, sinking lower in the ditch.
“It’s a damn shooting gallery out there!” Dooley yelled as he raised his rifle. “Blam! Like I hope it’s not Charlie that walks away with the prize!”
“Hey, man, that prize is our fucking heads if we’re not careful!” Ray made the slashing sign with an index finger across his neck. “Like they do in Cambodia … they put the dead heads on poles because the soul is in the skull, you know.”
“Shut the fuck up, Roz. Your crappy comments make me sick. Maybe we should get on the hook and report that gooks are closing in on us. You know, Operation Roadrunner is cluster fucked anyway,” Dooley stated as another mortar exploded closer to the trench.
He waved his hand in the Drool’s direction to dismiss him. “Hang loose, man. We need to wait for Licker. In case you’ve forgotten, he’s the CO here.”
“Christ, you know he’s a shake ‘n bake. A real green horn,” Dooley muttered back. “We’ve been in this hellish war longer than he has. Besides, he isn’t even here right now … in case you haven’t noticed.”
Ray nodded and shrugged. “We’d better fucking wait, Drool. It could be the firing squad – our firing squad – if we don’t.”
He stretched to peer over the edge of the trench to where the dark wood line started. Within the thick dark foliage, he could see a glow through the vines off to the right. The fire gave off dirty beige smoke that curled through the trees and almost covered the sky as it wafted toward their trench with foggy fingers. Maybe it was a Zippo raid somewhere in the jungle, he thought. Where, the hell, were the others? Between the thunder of exploding mortars and satchel charges, he could hear the whirling chop-chop sound of rotor blades off in the distance. He couldn’t see much because the CS gas made his eyes burn and water like hell.
“Hey, Drool? You hear that?” he asked, sitting back down in the mud again.
Dooley nodded. “Yeah, probably Birds.”
“Air Cav maybe …”
“Coming to get us, I hope,” the Drool mumbled as he crouched low against the mud wall.
Ray looked up again as the smoke parted to reveal a small patch of yellow sky between the clouds and a green Cobra attack helicopter flying northward, its machine guns and heavy artillery glinting in the dull morning gloom. He pointed over his head, signaling for Dooley to look up. Just then, a glowing flash came out of nowhere, growing larger as it closed in on the Red Bird’s tail. At first, he thought it was probably another Cobra reflecting light at the high altitude; but, the closer the luminescence got to the gunship, the less he recognized it. It was like nothing he had ever seen. It tumbled and turned into an undulating surface the same size as the helicopter, and reflected the surrounding thunderclouds like a large cosmic mirror. Sucking in his breath, he watched as the fabric of the heavens quivered around the Cobra like Jell-O.
Dooley noticed the same thing. “A bird dog maybe? Could be sun shining off the hull,” he whispered.
“Don’t think so. By the way, you don’t have to whisper. They can’t hear us.” Ray reached into his rucksack, pulled out his binoculars, and raised them to his eyes as a machine gun rattled in the distance, echoing loudly against the trench walls.
“Maybe an F-4,” Dooley suggested with his voice louder.
“Too close to the Red Bird,” he answered, the smoke closing in again and shielding the gunshipfrom view. Ray lowered his gaze before glancing over at Dooley. “That Cobra knew something was climbing up its ass,” he told him as he raised the binoculars to the sky again.
The smoke cleared to reveal the bird taking a hard turn to the left in a vain attempt to lose the unidentified object in its tail wind.
“Shit! Whatever it is, it is definitely dogging them!” Dooley exclaimed. “It isn’t letting that Cobra out of its sight.”
As the chills raced up his spine, Ray thought of another possibility. “Hey, man, it could be a foo-fighter, you know.”
“Say what?” Dooley turned to look at him in amazement. “Did I hear you right?”
“I said it could be a fucking foo-fighter!” he yelled above the noise as he watched the unidentified flying object cluster fuck the bird, leaving visible waves like water parting through the clouds. “That’s what it looks like to me.”
“Come on, dude. You mean, like in UFO?”
“Right on … They’re supposed to look like clouds … and the air was vibrating. You saw it like I did.”
“That’s bullshit! Give me those binoculars!” The Drool grabbed for the glasses.
“What else could it be?” Ray posed as he watched the mystery unfold overhead.
“Johnson didn’t sign no deal with fucking aliens, dude,” Dooley replied before lifting the binoculars to his eyes.
“If he did, we’d never know,” Ray replied. “Doesn’t matter what you say, Drool. That’s a foo-fighter for sure.”
“No, it isn’t, asshole.”
“Yes, it is …”
He watched as the heavens rippled and trembled in the wake of the gunship and the mirrored object; then he saw the Cobra try to align itself to shoot it’s pursuer out of the sky to no avail.
“Shut the fuck up, Roz.” Dooley lowered his gaze and passed the binoculars back. “It’s got to be a weird rocket or a predator drone or something.”
Ray raised the lenses to his eyes and watched the sky again. “Hey, ever see a rocket do hard right angles like that?”
Just then, the iridescence contracted smaller into a pinhole until it blinked out. It was as if someone had flipped off a switch. Ray gulped as the Cobra began fading in sections before his very eyes until it, too, had disappeared. He saw everything clearly through the binoculars, but he found himself wondering if he was dreaming. The sky looked like an empty gray shroud full of thunderclouds arching over their heads now. There was a B-52 flying at about 15,000 feet, but that was all. Another bomb exploded in the distance.
“You dig that weird scene, Drool?” Ray asked as he lowered the binoculars to his lap and looked over at Dooley who was still staring at the roiling clouds.
“Where, the hell, did it go?” the private mumbled, quickly scanning the sky. “It was there a minute ago …”
“Fucking gunship just cut out,” Ray mumbled with a shrug. “Now, you explain that one.”
“Aw, come on, man,” Dooley shook his head. “It must have cruised behind those big thunderheads or something.”
Ray cupped his palm around one ear to listen. “And where’s the sound?” He could hear the bombs exploding, but no whirling chop-chop from helicopter rotors anymore.
“I know what you’re driving at, asshole!” the Drool yelled as he glared straight at him with those vacant eyes. “And you’d better stop screwing with my head!”
Dooley was tense and Ray figured he was scared shitless. “Fuck you, Drool. You saw the same thing I did.”
“So, you think asshole aliens got them?”
“You’re a fucking flake, Roz … a real mother-fucking flake!” Dooley shouted while he waved his hands in the air for emphasis. “They should put you in a damn straight jacket, shove you in a padded cell, and throw away the key! You keep talking like there’s an invisible alien flying around in a cloud in the sky and they will zap your brain with a thousand volts of electricity or … or sever your frontal lobes with an ice pick, dude, so shut the fuck up!”
He just sat there, watching Dooley rant and rave at him. The Drool was touchy … too touchy, he thought. Dooley should be the one locked in the padded cell, instead of him. If there were aliens flying around in those weird clouds, they were not at all interested in two filthy soldiers sitting in a muddy trench … for the time being anyway. Ignoring the private, he put his binoculars away and reached into his rucksack for the SP pack. He withdrew the Marlborough’s, pulled one out, stuck it between his lips and lit it with a Zippo; then he inhaled and gazed at the boiling thunderclouds overhead. Something strange had happened to that Cobra. He was sure of it. Suddenly, a body in a camouflage uniform ran up to the edge of the ditch and jumped in, landing on one of his jungle boots. Globs of mud blood shot up and hit him in the face. Ray let out a yelp and looked up into white eyes surrounded by brown and green face paint. It was Jackass Jamison.
“Hey, man, watch it!” he spat out before reaching down to rub his ankle and then wiping the mud off his cheek.
Frank squatted down next to them. “Sorry, Roz, that hellish CS gas is making my eyes burn. I can’t see worth a damn!”
“Where’re Licker and Sam?” Dooley asked over his shoulder as he peered over the edge of the trench. “I’m ready to get the hell out of here.”
“They fell behind. Had to skirt around a mine field,” he replied, shifting his weight to his other foot. “They should be here soon.”
“Hope they burn rubber. Charlie’s crawling up our ass,” Ray mumbled, taking a frantic drag on the Marlborough with muddy lips. He just didn’t care anymore.
“Sam got hurt – took shrapnel in the arm. It looked pretty bad,” the soldier explained, ducking low as another loud explosion filled the air. This time, it was closer. “He was leaning on Sarg to walk last time I saw them.”
A second boom followed by two smaller explosions rolled through the trees and Ray watched as Frank pulled out the silver cross hanging around his neck, kissed it with eyes closed and murmured in a whisper, “God help us.”
“Stop that religious crap, Jackass!” Dooley shouted, picking up a sloppy handful of brown ooze and slinging it at him. “If your god existed, we wouldn’t be crawling around in ditches in this fucking muck!”
Jamison ducked and yelled back. “Dooley, don’t be a damn fool. God’s all we got now.”
The Drool wildly waved a hand in his face. “Just shut the fuck up. We got drugs. They work quicker … ”
“I don’t do drugs,” Frank replied as he tipped his helmet back and scratched his head with dirty fingers; then he sat down in the mud and checked his M-16 with nervous fingers.
“And that makes you fucking better than me?”
Ray could see that the Drool was pushing for a fight. He always did that when he was high.
“No, I didn’t say that. Just let it be, okay?” Frank motioned to Ray to pass him the smoke for a quick drag. Inhaling deeply, he let the smoke out all at once, relaxed and passed it back.
Dooley smirked in Ray’s direction. “Man, he’s drunk on God,” he replied before turning back to Frank. “Hey, where’s your god now? Shooting craps with the Devil? He’s sure as hell not here.”
Frank was ignoring him, but Ray knew the man was no fool either. Religious or not, Jamison would fight back vehemently if a person gave him too much shit, he thought. Dooley was testing him, for some reason. The Drool was on edge and a bit too jittery for Ray’s comfort. All they needed now was for the private to freak out. The atmosphere in the trench was heavy until Frank spoke.
“Where’s the piss-tube?’ he asked in a restrained voice.
Ray motioned to the far end of the trench where he had shoved the plastic pissing tube down into the dirt. Frank crawled down the ditch, unzipped his pants, and took a leak.
Watching Jamison’s back at the other end of the trench, he waited a moment while he took a long drag and blew it out again; then he asked, “Did you see that Cobra?”
“Yeah, sure did,” the soldier replied, zipping his pants up and crawling back to where they sat. “It looked to me like it was crossing over the fence.”
“You dig that weird light following it?”
“Maybe a log bird or an AHB,” Frank answered with a shrug and squatted down low. He rested his back against the muddy wall, pulled out his canteen and took a swig.
Wagging a thumb in Ray’s direction, Dooley leaned toward Jamison and whispered, “Hey, Jackass, get this skinny.” He glanced over at Ray with a smirk. “That gnarly dude thinks it was a foo-fighter.”
Frank chuckled. “A flying saucer? Are you for real?”
“Yeah, yeah, that’s what I said – an actual fucking foo-fighter,” Dooley confirmed.
“That right, Roz?”
Ray nodded while the rockets whizzed above the trees and exploded loudly when they hit the ground.
Frank automatically ducked again before looking over at Ray for an answer. “You got to be kidding … you mean, like in ‘unidentified flying object?’”
“Sure as hell do,” Ray replied, with a scowl in Dooley’s direction. “Don’t mind him. He’s pissed at me.”
Not caring what they thought, he took one last drag on the smoke and threw the butt down on the ground where it glowed until it went out. There were more explosions overhead and smoke filled the trench in waves. It made them all cough hard. When the smoke dissipated, Jamison placed a hand on Ray’s shoulder and looked him in the eye.
“Hey, Roz, your mind has turned to mush from all the stress,” Frank replied with condescension. “Just forget that extraterrestrial shit, okay?”
“That’s cool. That’s cool,” Ray muttered, swallowing his pride and trying to remain calm. “But I know what I saw and it just split, man. Poof … and it was gone.”
“That’s insane. Besides, I was too busy creeping through the brush to see much of anything,” Frank replied with a shake of his head as he put away his canteen and then checked his M-16 again to see if it needed cleaning.
The Jackass was ignoring him, Ray thought, but he persisted. “The sky quivered like Jell-O and swallowed up that Cobra like it was a marshmallow,” he explained as he tightened the helmet strap around his chin. “You have to admit, Frank. Things don’t just fucking disappear like that.” He could see that Jamison was not buying into it.
“… Except marshmallows,” the soldier chuckled as he rubbed the shaft of his gun with his hand to get the mud off. “Hey, chill out, Roz. It probably flew behind the clouds.”
Dooley twirled his finger near his temple. “Don’t mind him, Frank. Ray has come uncorked. His New Mexico namesake blew his fucking balls into his brains,” he replied, grinning while his teeth shone through the ghastly face paint. “You get it? Namesake … Roswell … you know, where that weather balloon that people thought was a saucer crashed?”
Fuck those assholes, Ray thought as he heard more bombs and mines exploding in the distance and hoped they were safe in this shitty ditch. He could not wait to get the hell out of here.
“Well, this obviously wasn’t the work of weird aliens,” Frank said, dismissing the idea with a wave of his hand. “The idea that extraterrestrials exist is just a bunch of damn nonsense anyway.”
Ray shook his head knowing it was useless to press the issue, so he decided to let it go for now. Frank believed humans were the only living beings in the Universe, a viewpoint that Ray found ridiculously arrogant … and the Drool? Well, Dooley was just a first rate, pain-in-the-ass alien agnostic, he concluded.
Just then, Staff Sergeant Froehlich and PFC Struthers rolled into the ditch, stirring up wet mud and splashing it into Ray’s face again. He spat the soil out of his mouth, wiped his cheek and gave them thumbs up. Licker nodded back as Sam collapsed in a dirty heap against the muddy wall. There was blood soaking through his uniform jacket sleeve and running down one hand onto the ground. Ray saw he was holding his arm with the other hand and wincing in pain.
“Looks like Satan bet on our soul brother,” Dooley commented, looking down at Sam’s bleeding arm.
“The Devil’s not going to win this round, if I can help it!” Licker sputtered while he ripped the private’s sleeve up the middle with his K-bar and exposed the wound.
Ray watched as Licker retrieved the first aid kit from his rucksack and applied tape and gauze to the bloody black arm just above the elbow. Sam rocked and moaned in pain. Staff Sergeant Froehlich removed the syrette and hypodermic needle from the case, jabbed it into the private’s skin and squeezed the end of the tube to release morphine into his system. Sam’s face relaxed almost instantly. Ray saw the Drool look longingly at the morphine syringe. He recognized that look. Dooley was an addict. He was probably going through some serious withdrawals out here in the bush, Ray concluded. Now, that thought was not at all comforting.
As Licker pulled the comics out of his rucksack and scanned them for their position, he shouted over his shoulder, “Dooley, you can get on the hook now and radio for a medivac.”
The mortar rounds filled the air and it was hard to hear for a minute. The Drool lay down his M-16 and pulled the prick 25 off his back, positioned it on his lap, turned it on, and grabbed the horn. The crackling of the short wave indicated that the signals were searching for a receiver somewhere in the distance; then he started speaking into the mouthpiece.
“Three – TOC? … Roadrunner here … Do you read? Over.”
The radio crackled loudly and Ray could hear a faint husky voice on the other end.
“Roadrunner? … Three – TOC here … I copy … Position? Over.”
Staff Sergeant Froehlich held up his fingers to indicate the grid coordinates and Dooley relayed them over the radio. The operations center radioed back asking for their situation report. A grenade exploded and CS gas wafted over their heads again. Ray coughed and wiped his eyes as Dooley lowered his head and kept speaking into the horn.
“Roger. Contact … Ballgame FUBAR … Do you copy? Over.”
Ray realized the Drool was right. This damn roadrunner operation was fucked up beyond all recognition. They needed out. An enemy mortar round echoed from the trees.
“Copy … Dust-off? … Over,” the disembodied voice breaking through the static replied.
“Roger … Have GSW … Do you read? Over,” the Drool replied.
“Copy … Lit-up? … Over.”
The Drool responded, “Roger … Will radio LZ later … Do you read? Over.”
The Sarg folded up the comics and shoved them back in his rucksack. It sounded to Ray like they would leave the trench and radio for a rescue bird later when they found a safer position closer to the blue feature. Bullets whizzed over their heads and he could hear two more claymores blowing up.
“Roger … Over,” came the radio reply.
Dooley took license with the hook. “Hey, Big B? … What’s the skinny stateside? Over.”
“I copy … Got sad news … Robert Kennedy was assassinated yesterday …,” the solemn voice informed them over the wire.
When Ray heard those words, he felt his stomach tighten. He gripped his rifle until his knuckles were white. Frank shook his head in disbelief and Staff Sergeant Froehlich gasped. Sam just lay there against the muddy wall with his eyes closed.
“Holy shit,” Dooley mumbled.
On the other end, Big B continued, not missing a beat. “…Shot at the Ambassador Hotel in L. A. on June 5th … Fucking shame … I was going to vote for the guy … Do you read? Over.”
“Roger … Kennedy – King – Kennedy … Curse of the three Kilos … Over,” the Drool answered.
“Copy … That’s good … Three kilos … Right on … Cronkite, over and out,” the radio voice signed off.
The Drool turned off the radio and the crackling stopped. He replaced the hook in its slot and closed the radio lid as they all looked at each other in bewilderment. The only sound came from the rockets and mortar rounds above their heads. Finally, Frank coughed and Sam moaned again, breaking the silence.
“Hey, man, that wasn’t Cronkite,” Struthers finally mumbled in an attempt to make light of the news.
“Hell, no,” Dooley replied with a grin. “That was Bruiser, the Barf Bag – big difference.”
“What the hell is happening? Whole world’s going crazy!” Frank shook his head.
Ray looked over at Licker. “What’s next?”
“I think we should find a safer ditch to hang out in – maybe somewhere west of here,” Froehlich said, tightening his helmet strap and shifting the rucksack to balance the weight.
“What about him?” Dooley asked, nodding his head in Struthers direction. “Doesn’t look like he can navigate very far with that arm all busted up.”
Sam saw his nod and moaned, “Hey, Honky, shove it up your white ass. I can make it.”
“He can manage okay if he leans on someone,” Froehlich replied. “I’ll help him for a few klicks.”
“Well, let’s get the fuck out of here,” Dooley replied as he half rose to his feet, his knees shaking. “I’ve had enough of this mud crap.”
Froehlich and Frank had to pull Sam out of the trench first and drag him into the bush, but they managed to do it without incident. One by one, Ray and Dooley crawled over the edge of the ditch and slithered into the jungle wood line on their bellies. The air was suddenly full of rockets and bombs, but Ray had the feeling the gooks still didn’t know they were there. That was fine by him. Covered by the ferns, vines, and thick jungle growth, he and the others stood up cautiously and followed Dooley single file through the trees. Frank was right behind Ray with Froehlich and Struthers pulling up the rear. Once in awhile, a large snake uncurled itself from a low hanging branch as if checking him out and he had to step aside to avoid the flickering reptile tongue.
All of a sudden, Ray heard a faint whirring chop-chop and peered up through the palms and trees to see the Cobra suddenly reappear in the angry sky again. He slapped Dooley’s back in front of him and motioned with his hand for him to look overhead. Dooley stopped in his tracks and looked up, while the others followed suite. Ray could see the Red Bird lose altitude and descend until it disappeared behind the thick emerald green canopy.
“Damn thing is going to crash,” the Drool sputtered.
Froehlich waved everyone forward. “They’ll need rescue. The Drool and Roz, take the lead with Jamison and head in that direction.”
Ray, Dooley, and Frank ran through the thick undergrowth toward the downed gunship, leaping over logs and ducking around tree trunks. Fog was starting to form near the ground. As he ran through the tall trees behind the Drool, he thought that everyone had seen the same thing he did. The scene would vindicate him because that Cobra had come back out of space. Something weird was happening. He just knew it. For one thing, the chopper had not exploded upon impact and that was strange … very strange. The mist got thicker as they ran along a shallow creek and entered a small ravine with towering jungle growth on either side. The Drool was running so fast, he was kicking up creek water and soaking the legs of Ray’s fatigues; but Ray pressed on, his jungle boots making a squishing sound with every step. Around the bend, the fog became so thick that he could barely see Dooley now. Froehlich and the wounded Struthers had fallen way behind, but he could hear Sam moan with every step. Their black brother was a strong son-of-a-bitch, he thought. He only hoped they would all make it out in one piece.
As he rounded a large rock in the ravine, Ray could hear Dooley stop dead in his tracks. He slowed down so as not to bump into him. The fog parted slightly and he saw the Drool just standing there, staring off to the right as if hypnotized. He could hear Frank breathing and thrashing through the ferns behind him in an attempt to catch up to them. As Jamison joined them, Ray took a few steps over to where the Dooley stood and turned to behold the horrific sight in front of them. There, hanging in the entwined branches and vines of the thick tropical trees about ten feet above the ground and tilted towards them was the Red Bird. Foggy tendrils floated back and forth in front of the chopper, obscuring it from view every so often and giving the crash site an eerie, haunting quality. The sight made Ray’s flesh creep. There was a curl of smoke rising from the engine, but the gunship was still intact. It looked like a large green dragonfly caught in a giant tropical spider web veiled in mist. Dooley raised his M-16 and waved Ray and Frank forward, urging them to approach the downed chopper. Ray stepped through the ether into a small clearing under the gunship and stopped dead in his tracks at what he saw. Holy shit! The hideous content of the cockpit was clearly visible from where he, Frank and the Drool stood. They all froze in their tracks and moaned from the abject horror of it all.
“Jesus Christ!” Frank whispered and then he gagged.
“What the fuck?” Ray could feel the bile rising in his throat.
What he saw in that Cobra cockpit would haunt him for the rest of his life. Someone or something had horribly mutilated the dead pilot and copilot. It looked as if they had been part of a ghastly scientific experiment that had gone terribly awry. The copilot was resting the side of his face on the chopper consul while blood ran freely down his neck. Ray could see large black holes where the copilot’s eyes had been and there was nothing but a big red slash in the area of his missing ear. His teeth and gums protruded through the gash where his lips should have been and he looked like he was grinning ghoulishly at them. As for the pilot, that poor motherfucker had fared even worse. He was leaning back still strapped into the broken seat. All the flesh was gone from his face and bloody fat, meat and protruding bones were all he had left for a head. Ray gasped. He only hoped the pilot had died first. Not able to swallow the bile any longer, he spun quickly around on his heels, ran a few feet into the bush and heaved into the grass with gut wrenching fury. When he thought he was done, he stood up unsteadily. He could hear Frank heaving and gagging behind him and the smell of raw vomit became overpowering. So much for the fucking beans and dicks, he thought, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. Mortar rounds thundered through the trees. Dooley was still staring at the mutilated pilots as if he was in a deep trance. Staff Sergeant Froehlich stepped through the fog into the small clearing with his arm around Struthers. They, too, stopped dead in their tracks when they saw the sight.
Licker mumbled, “Jesus Christ!”
Ray glanced over at them. Sam’s good arm was slung around Licker’s neck, leaving his bad arm hanging lifeless and bloody at his side. He figured the soldier would end up losing that arm, but he didn’t say anything. He watched as they both stared at the Cobra and its dead contents, a look of shock on their faces. Like a curtain closing on a stage, the fog poured in from either direction and filled in the gap, obscuring the grisly scene from view. It was a brief respite for a few minutes before a slight breeze came out of nowhere and cleared the air around the chopper to reveal the gruesome sight again.
“What the hell …?” Froehlich sputtered. He lowered Struthers to the ground and walked slowly up to the wreckage.
“Don’t sweat it, man. They’re deader than road kill,” Ray replied, stepping back into the clearing. “Nothing we can do now.”
He took off his helmet, ran his fingers through his thick hair, put the pot back on, and swallowed hard. Those black holes where the co-pilot’s eyes had been gaped back at him and he could swear there was nothing inside that bastard’s head. All he could see was just an inky black void beyond the eye sockets. It gave him the chills under his flak jacket.
“Only damn heathens would do something like this,” Frank muttered, shaking his head while he pulled out the gold cross hanging around his neck, lowered his head and started mumbling the Lord’s Prayer.
Dooley jumped on him. “Hey, dude, your god can’t help those dead dickheads anymore, so shut the fuck up!”
“Chill out, Drool! It’s the least we can do for the poor mother fuckers,” Ray shouted in defense of Frank.
He rubbed his perspiring face with a dirty hand and realized his own comments surprised himself more than anyone else. He didn’t believe in God; but, just in case he happened to be wrong about the whole cosmic order of things, he didn’t think a little prayer on Frank’s part would hurt anything. He just didn’t want the Jackass turning his religious fervor on him. When Jamison was through with his little ritual, Ray watched as the private crossed himself and kissed the cross again before slipping it under his shirt. He knew Jamison believed that those pilots were probably growing wings and strumming harps as they sat among the clouds of heaven now or some such bullshit. In a weird way, he had to admit he envied Frank his spiritual fairy tales because they seemed to give him some kind of inner strength that Ray felt he, himself, lacked. As it was, he could not take his eyes off the mutilated corpses in that cockpit. All he could see was the corporeality of their tortured death sentences and it shouted to him of his own mortality. He was mere flesh, blood and bone … nothing more … and he did not like that thought at all. In his mind, this incident proved that aliens had abducted those pilots. He didn’t care what anyone else said.
Feeling extremely vulnerable as the chills ran up his spine, he whispered, “Those poor bastards were tortured, you know.”
Froehlich coughed nervously and stared at him, “You got that right. Gooks did it.”
The Drool pointed at the pilot and copilot. “No, Roz is referring to little green men. Like he’s flipped his fucking lid.”
Ray looked up at the chopper again and shrugged. “Hey, that Cobra cruised into nothing … and that strange foo-fighter cut out, too. Gooks can’t do that.”
Licker responded, “Or maybe we just couldn’t see it, man. It’s got to be that we didn’t see it.”
“We didn’t hear it either, remember? The Drool saw the ball of light following it,” Ray added.
“Yeah, but I didn’t fucking say it was a UFO, Roz,” Dooley corrected him while giving him the bird. “There’s a difference.”
“Probably particles from flares or something,” Frank murmured. “Aliens don’t exist.”
Ray could hear a sub-machine gun rattle down the creek, but he kept at it this time. All the frustration and anger of this war was welling to the surface. He had had enough flack from the Jackass. “Okay, Smartass, how the hell do you know?”
“It damn well says so in the Bible,” Frank replied with conviction.
“How about that ‘sons of God and the daughters of men’ shit in the Book of Genesis?” Ray shouted, stepping close enough to yell in his face. “Explain that, mother fucker!”
Frank angrily shoved Ray in the chest. “Back off, you damn atheist!”
“Keep your skuzzy hands off me, you religious dick head!” Ray shoved him back.
Something just snapped inside both of them. Soon, the two men were fighting it out in the middle of the clearing with the dead pilot and co-pilot gaping unblinkingly down at them. Ray swung wide to hit Frank in the chest and knocked him down; then Jamison got up again and hit Ray in the chin with a sharp left, knocking him back in the brush. Frank lunged for him and dove into the brush where they rolled around wrestling with each other. The fog was getting thicker in the clearing again and the sound of machine gun fire was getting closer.
“Are you fucking retards or what?” Sergeant Froehlich yelled, as he stepped forward to halt the scuffle. Neither one responded, so he grabbed Frank’s arm and pulled him off Ray; then he reached out for Ray’s hand, pulled him up and yelled, “Hey, you two dickheads, you’re not the only ones feeling the pressure here! We’re all getting sick and tired of this damn war … or hadn’t you noticed?”
Dooley started shouting back. “Hey, Sarg, we’re sharing a squad with two fucking fugazi flakes! One’s a damn Jesus freak and the other is playing patty cake with ‘My Favorite Martian!’”
“Shut up, Dooley!” Licker yelled back. “We’re all in this hellish war together!”
Ray straightened his helmet, adjusted his rucksack, and tried not to look in Frank’s direction. He peered up through the fog to see the dead pilot skeleton grin down at him, bared teeth shining wide from the center of a skinless face. That poor motherfucker knew they were all crazy in the head, he thought. This whole fucking war was a freak show.
“Nothing we can do for those stiffs, so let’s split,” Froehlich ordered. “Frank, help Sam.”
After picking up his M-16, Frank nodded solemnly, glared at Ray out of the corner of his eye, and walked over to pull the wounded man up again. Sergeant Froehlich took the lead this time and disappeared through the fog into the bush. Dooley motioned for Frank to follow Licker; then he stepped between Ray and Frank to keep them as far apart as possible. Probably a good idea, Ray thought. Frank just got under his fucking skin sometimes. Frank got under everyone’s skin sometimes. The others turned to leave the clearing and slowly disappeared into the dense foliage. He followed them, but a faceless voice in his head told him to look back over his shoulder at the gory sight they were leaving behind. He could see that the fog covered sections of the downed chopper now. When he stopped in his tracks and turned around, something mysterious began to happen. He could have sworn that the air around the Cobra had begun undulating the same way the mirrored object in the sky had done before the Cobra disappeared. He blinked and looked again, but the fog had enveloped the whole crash site now and he couldn’t see anything. He was tempted to walk through the fog to check and see if the chopper with its dead pilots was still hanging in the trees, but that faceless voice told him it was gone now. Chills ran up and down his spine at the thought. Not wanting to fall too far behind, he turned to sprint into the tropical forest and caught up with the rest of his squad.
Shaking, Ray passed Frank and Sam on the trail and soon joined Licker and Dooley. The underbrush was getting thicker and harder to navigate. Licker had pulled out his machete and had started hacking the branches in his way. Ray and Dooley did the same, leaving a semblance of a trail for Frank and Sam, who brought up the rear. Pushing huge palm fronds aside with his left hand and slashing vines with the machete in his right, Ray followed the Sarg through the thick mist and ruminated on what he had just seen. He couldn’t get the horrifying image of the bloody corpses in that gunship out of his head. He had always assumed that aliens were benevolent entities involved in saving humankind; but, if extraterrestrials had abducted and tortured those pilots, the opposite was true. The frightening picture that burned itself into his mind after seeing those rotting corpses contradicted his past assumptions about extraterrestrials in a disturbing way. Instead of technological angels, humans would have to deal with technological demons instead, he concluded. That realization unnerved him more than the threat of dying in this shit hole. He shivered hard under his sweaty fatigues and peered ahead to try to make out the outline of Staff Sergeant Froehlich through the thick tropical humidity.
Then it happened. BLAM! The shock wave from a large explosion ahead slammed into his chest, almost knocking him down. A billowing cloud of dust rolled over them, filling the air with the smell of death. Ray stopped in his tracks, wiped his burning eyes, and tried to peer through the thick smoke as Dooley stepped up beside him.
“What the fuck?” the Drool shouted, as pieces of fatigue fabric, a rucksack strap, a canteen, a pack of cigarettes and god knows what else rained down on their heads.
Ray stepped back as an unidentified soft object hit him on the cheek and fell to the ground. He looked down near his feet to see part of a bloody hand in the grass, its fingers reaching upwards through the mossy carpet as if beckoning for help. There was a stained pack of Marlborough’s next to the torn body part. He recognized the wedding ring as Licker’s and gagged. Dooley stepped in front of him and slowly began to move in the direction of the explosion. Ray let him go. He could hear Frank let out a howl behind him, sounding like a wounded animal. Enough is enough already, he thought. Deciding not to waste anything, he reached down with a sweep of his hand to retrieve the pack of Marlborough cigarettes lying next to the grisly fingers and stuffed it into his jacket pocket. Funny how so much gore made a person feel nothing after awhile. He was on fucking autopilot now. Concluding that Froelich’s wife would want the ring, he gingerly picked up the severed hand and pulled the gold band off a bloody finger before tossing it back into the brush. Taking a deep breath, he slid the ring into his flak jacket pocket, grabbed the M-16 and reluctantly followed Dooley through the brush. Frank and Struthers were a hundred yards or so behind him and he could hear Sam cry out in pain. The wounded soldier needed more drugs; but he would have to wait, he thought, as he pushed the tropical foliage aside with his free hand.
Somewhere ahead, he could hear the Drool begin to scream. It was a blood-curdling shriek filled with fear and pain, which made him cringe. Ray was almost certain Dooley had gotten his leg blown off or something. It was that bad. He pushed the ferns aside and saw the shaking soldier down on his knees looking at something in the brush. Intuitively, Ray knew that Dooley was staring at parts of Staff Sergeant Froehlich’s dead corpse lying under the leaves. He personally didn’t want to see anymore, but he joined the Drool anyway. There, lying in the grass was the severed head of Licker, eyes wide and staring up at the sky. He gasped and gagged again. Licker was nothing but road kill now! The Drool just kept screaming … and screaming. Ray wanted to as he stood immobile, but he held back with extreme difficulty. For some reason, he felt dead inside. Froehlich was gone and that was that. He could hear Frank call out from the jungle behind him.
“What the hell’s wrong, Roz?”
“Hey, man, Dooley just went bananas,” he managed to shout back over his shoulder.
“What happened?” Frank yelled through the mist.
“Licker just got blown to bits,” Ray shouted, looking back down at those dead eyes staring at him from that bloody face in the brush. “And bloody body parts are all that’s left of him now.”
He didn’t feel anything when he said it. No pain … no grief … no nothing. Licker was dead. Just like the inky void in those dead chopper pilot’s eyes … a black nothingness oozing out like dark matter. He felt empty inside.
“Jesus Christ, what’s next?” Frank shouted back. “Where are you, Roz?
“Where’s ‘here?’” came the voice through the foliage.
Like that fucking mattered right now, he thought. Ray heard something move in the bushes up the creek. It could have been an animal or it could have been the Viet Cong. It was hard to tell. Dooley quickly stood up and started shooting the M-16 like a crazy man, screaming the whole time; then he began running deliriously in the direction of the noise, firing round after round, spraying everything in his path with bullets. Ratta – tack – ack – ack- ack! Ray watched as the large palm fronds were torn to shreds in his wake. Thinking quickly, he decided to cover him, so that the Drool didn’t end up dead like Licker. Not that he cared anymore. Running through the mist after the hysterical Dooley, he leaped over rotting trunks and jogged around rocks with difficulty. He could hear the soldier still screaming ahead of him between the loud sounds of the M-16 rounds. Suddenly, another larger explosion filled the air. Boom! He went deaf and Ray saw bright light for a brief instant before his world went completely black.