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GENERAL BUDDY

excerpted from a short story by

By Pat Christian

General Buddy hunkered under the twisted, gray tropical tree.

It was as drunk as an Elizabethan lord, its fury head between its legs in a hazy stupor.

An Khe, Vietnam.

Sky Trooper base, Headquarters Company, Headquarters 1st Cavalry Division.

The base resembled a monstrous red dirt parking lot, Sergeant Cain Lamb thought — dotted with temporary buildings tents and unwashed vehicles.

It seemed to Sergeant Lamb to exist as a flat, remote island world under a blue-gray sky.

“This probably was one emerald Isle before we showed up, General Buddy.

Sergeant Lamb couldn't remember when he began talking to the monkey.

Started as silent conversations in his head he guessed

But sometimes he wondered if the monkey had initiated them.

It just happened. One day he noticed he was talking out loud to it. Said to himself, “No big deal, I just won’t let anyone catch me at it.”

Sergeant Lamb sat in the shade of the tree cleaning his black-market 38-caliber revolver.

“We probably bulldozed some farmer's rice paddy — scrapped the last blade of grass from it.”

“D'ya ever wonder who was here, exactly right here.

“Where d'ya think they are now?

“Dead.”

General Buddy didn't look up.

Flies drank at its infected eye. More flickered around the dried turds littered about the tree.

No one cleaned them up, only the merciful Asian storms did that.

Sergeant Lamb didn't know how General Buddy came to the public affairs office.

It had no name. Actually it had many names.

Whoever brought it must have rotated back home, Sergeant Lamb figured.

He didn't know who cared for it now.

He knew he didn't. It was just there, mascot to some, father confessor to others.

Seemed General Buddy had always been there, chain binding its neck, the other end tied to the trunk of one of the few trees on base. It was some kind of tree monkey about a foot high, graying around its crew cut head.

Its fur seemed to blend into its world defined by 19 feet of chain and the denuded circle made by General Buddy’s random pacing.

Jubilation had turned to terror when General Buddy's had escaped weeks earlier.

Sergeant Lamb was convinced it had been the most joy he had experienced since coming Vietnam.

How could General Buddy have been so fast? Never before, never since, had the beast of the tree seemed so alive.

Members of the PAO chased it all over the compound, then through the MATS weather station next door.

It was probably the drinking. Boredom had its role. But someone started shooting, wildly, barely missing General Buddy and its pursuers. Sergeant Lamb feared General Buddy might be killed more than he feared he would be hit.

“I wasn’t trying to kill it; I was only trying to herd the damn critter back to his tree,” said drunken cowboy from South Dakota after he had being punched in the face and had the gun wrestled from him during a few tense minutes when Sergeant Lamb feared someone or something might get killed.

After the scuffle, the chase went on with Sergeant Lamb and the others finally too winded to continue, laughing hard at their failure. He hadn't laughed like that before or since.

A full can of beer finally captured General Buddy. Someone overturned an empty wooden ammo box, propped it up with a small pointed stick, tied the can to the stick. And General Buddy’s addiction imprisoned him.

“The brass probably. They did the denuding so the enemy couldn't sneak up on us, eh? Buddy.”

Sergeant Lamb reassembled his hand and stood up.

“Got to go.”

“My turn to burn. At least you don't have that crappy task to do. Bad business, but isn’t everything here,” he said saluting before walking away.

General Buddy made eye contact only for a second.

The monkey had a pair of places it stayed, the first fork of the tree six feet up, and there on the ground near the trunk.

Most often it sat with its head between its legs habitually sucking its testicular sack as a child might a thumb.

It only rose to life when someone walked by it with a bottle, then it went psychotic, screaming, tugging at the end of its chain.

If it was lucky it got a sip of beer. Really lucky, it might get a quarter-full can or a fifth of Jack Daniels with a few drops left.

General Buddy would then scampered back booty in paw, jump into the fork drink it down. Some days a dozen cans or bottles were strewn around the tree.

Sergeant Lamb had once given General Buddy a half-filled Coke can. It drank, dropped the can, stared back at him with red hate glowing from its eyes.

It chased him until it was jerked off its feet at the end of its tether, barred its teeth screeching its murderous intentions.

That had terrified Sergeant Lamb more than he liked to think about. For the first time an understanding began to emerge like a half-faded myth — there’s something to this beast to be respected and feared.

From underneath the 12-seater wooden outhouse, Sergeant Lamb pulled out cut-in-half 50-gallon steel drums brimming with human waste, also containing not a few liquor bottles.

Off in the distance, General Buddy watched, pacing back and forth, more quickly each trip, finally climbing into the fork of his tree. Chattering nervously, he watched Sergeant Lamb pour a layer of diesel fuel on top of the brown liquid followed by a thinner layer of gasoline.

Whump!

The barrels exploded into billowing flames, then backed off into a more controlled conflagration. Black billows of smoke climbed into a mushrooming column.

The sound of a mini firestorm roared from the gamboling red flames. There’s some kind of powerful apocalyptic beauty here Sergeant Lamb thought as the heat seared his face.

General Buddy’s vocalizations had stopped. Its head between its legs sucking, its body jerked hiccup like, stomach convulsing as if trying unsuccessfully to purge something.

Occasionally it looked over its shoulder at the glowing fire.

As Sergeant Lamb waited for the waste to burn to a dry crisp fertilizer that could be dumped on a pile, he thought how useful the 50-gallon drums were.

Cooks immersed heaters in them and wash kitchen equipment.

Atop a wooden platform, Sergeant Lamb showered under a 50-gallon drum.

It made him feel cleaner, but not clean. Vietnam was in the water. It came from the Bong Song River and was the color of the country’s earth.

Vietnam was the reason its soldiers might never be clean.

Sky Troopers filled 50-gallon drums of teargas then dropped them from helicopters. An explosive ripped them open just before they hit the ground, spreading the irksome powder over the jungle.

Sergeant Lamb had also heard of Sky Troopers using helicopters to drop napalm drums on villages.

The red glow of burning waste transported Sergeant Lamb back to a cardinal night months ago. It had come after a scarlet sundown, a lot of drinking and sunset watching that had made him homesick.

Wasn’t a good Idea to burn at night. It lit you up as targets. Someone new must have lit the drums.

But it had been so beautiful, the glowing dancing fire roaring, and night seemed to intensify the noise.

Drunkenness led to dancing in the flickering shadows cast round the tree.

Sergeant Lamb watched, enjoying the younger soldiers’ escalating wildness.

Circling the tree, they laughed and began chanting.

Taunting the monkey, they started bowing to it offering sacrifices of booze and peanuts, continuing to circle in the moving red glow. The terrorized monkey screeched baring its teeth, but it only seemed to incite them all the more.

Sergeant Lamb’s interest in the festival faded into a realization that the wildness had descended into psychoses, and he began sharing the fears of General Buddy.

* * *

Sergeant Lamb sat near a puddle of thickening blood.

Before the medivac helicopter lifted off, he started sickening from the fresh smell of the scarlet coagulating pool.

But the wind now blowing from the opened doors of the flying chopper was beginning to calm his stomach.

Minutes ago he had been sitting in the PAO tent shooting the bull with colleagues.

While he had still been tending the fires, A Company, 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry had come under attack. Two dead so far, a pretty hot firefight still going on supposedly. 

Somebody from headquarters, next tent over, ran over to tell those in PAO of the story opportunity, and Sergeant Lamb grabbed his camera and notebook and drove down to the medivac pad to hitch a ride to the action.

The dust-off chopper had already made one trip to the landing zone, bringing back victims and Sergeant Lamb was aboard for the second rotation.

He didn’t know where the chopper was headed. Sometimes it was difficult to know which way north was, flying over a gray-green jungle all looking the same.

“Twenty minutes out; one hot LZ,” the crew chief as said as the dust-off had lifted off.

Dust off? I guess it's because when a guy bites the dust, a dust-off fly’s him out, Sergeant Lamb thought, snickering at his own black humor.

Actually pretty good at it, he always tried to figure things out on his own. Hardly ever would he ask anyone about things he didn’t know but thought he should be acquainted with, that is unless of course, he was interviewing for a story. But even then he wouldn’t asked anything he thought the interviewee might expect him to know. He was good of filling in the gaps however by asking someone else.

Sergeant Lamb didn't want to be, but he was treated differently. Members of his family were influential publishers back in the world. Like so many others, he had been drafted.

But as heir apparent of a publishing empire, higher ups fawned over him as if he were of higher rank, while his peers felt awkward around him and assumed he was too stuffy for them. To himself, he was just Sergeant Cain Lamb, an Army reporter. 

Family connections probably could have saved him from the draft. But his family wasn’t that way, and he didn’t want special privileges anyway.

Sergeant Lamb's love for the game of bridge, which he played nearly every night with First Sergeant Brad Wilcox and Lt. Albert Graz, was confused by some as snobbery.

He preferred the field, on assignment. Those he ran into out there didn't know who he was; so they treated him like anyone else.

A hand touched his shoulder and he turned. The crew chief pointed at 2 O'clock. In the distance a column of blackish-gray smoke climbed a thousand feet into the countryside sky.

“Get scared time!” Sergeant Lamb said under his breath. His heart started pounding harder. It was unlikely, but he thought he could smell the blood again.

“We're circling. The LZ's too hot,” the crew chief said.

The circle grew smaller.

In the middle of it, there was a clearing with sparse trees. Out further were green rice paddies. A road ended in the clearing and extended past the rice paddies.

Soldiers were all at one edge of the clearing that faced the road.

Explosions erupted just past the Soldiers. Sergeant Lamb figured it was American artillery fire supporting the pinned down Sky Troopers.

At the edge of the clearing, Sergeant Lamb saw soldiers moving from position to position as if they were still under fire, but he couldn't make out any enemy soldiers.

He saw a burning tank. Could see maybe two bodies lying around it dead or wounded on the ground.

They're abandoned; they must be KIA, dead, dusted. Oh great! Sergeant Lamb thought.

“Still taking fire, but not as much; so we’re going in,” the crew chief said.

Sergeant Lamb was already sitting on the floor of the chopper with his feet out the door.

He stood up on the runners as the chopper sped into the landing zone.

Sergeant Lamb sized things up. Smoke everywhere, lots of noise from automatic weapon fire. He figured, considering the situation, his adrenal glands were working just about right — enough for clear thought and quick reactions, but still short of the terror zone.

Before jumping, he chose his cover. The chopper was still flying low into the LZ and everything seemed to be happening in slow motion, Sergeant Lamb thought.

He jumped as the chopper still hovered six or five feet off the ground, with one hand holding his camera straps close to his chest and the other hand out for balance.

It wasn't that way, but he felt like a cartoon character with its feet running in the air. After his feet actually did hit the ground, it only took him about three seconds to run for cover where two soldiers, one black, the other white and baby faced, were hiding behind a stone grave marker.

That's why the clearing. It's a Vietnamese cemetery, Sergeant Lamb thought.

“How's it going?”

“Better than a minute ago,” one of them said.

“It's kind of backed off a bit,” the baby faced soldier added.

Sergeant Lamb already had his notebook out, scribbling notes. He asked a few question, and took a couple of close-ups with one of his cameras, a photo of the black soldiers sighting down his rifle. He wasn't firing, and Sergeant Lamb figured the pair was in a defensive mode and maybe Charlie was in retreat.

“I think we may lost a few. We . . .”

“You did,” Sergeant Lamb interrupted.

“ I just came in on the dust off. Crew, said there were two dead, at least three wounded. They were supposed to pick more wounded this trip.”

Sergeant Lamb looked around for the chopper, but it was already gone. Probably loaded the remaining wounded while still hovering. It would be back for the dead later.

During his short interview, Sergeant Lamb learned the unit had been patrolling nearby villages with a lead tank and had stopped at the cemetery for lunch. 

That’s when they came under intense fire from two separate positions – automatic rifle fire from the road in front of them and a grassy knoll at their flank.

The Knoll was linked to the road behind them by a narrow footpath going through a rice paddy. And from somewhere, they had also been targeted by mortar rounds.

The tank had been knocked out by a Viet Cong Soldier with an over the shoulder Chinese rocket launcher.

The soldier to Sergeant Lamb's left was probably 19.

A gaunt face and dark eyebrows that touched in fine hairs in the middle, he had that look in his eyes they called the 1,000-yard stare.

(end of excerpted sample)


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