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Memorial Day 1999 essay

By PAT CHRISTIAN

    Thank God our grandparents fought that war to end all these damned wars. 

   Except wars have continued. 

   So one beautiful night I found myself sleeping near a cemetery in Vietnam, watching a breathtaking crimson sunset. 

   The wide green valley looked deceptively peaceful. 

   I thought I could live here in this simple place and write fiction instead of writing about and photographing this damned fact-muddled war. 

   The sun slid beneath the horizon as the 1st Air Cavalry Division unit I was with finished securing camp for the night. 

   I dug my one-man foxhole. 

   Sitting on its edge, I was fine tuning notes I had scribbled during the day and also labeled film cassettes. 

   A couple of us got killed today. But outnumbered, Charlie, suffered many more casualties. 

   I got the story and photographs. 

   Right now, Charlie was somewhere across the beautiful green rice paddy on another dry rise. 

Killing Charlie

   I always thought it was strange we called those guys we were killing by my father's first name. Dad was a P-51 pilot and fought Germans in World War II. 

   Charlie just had to be admiring the same sunset while waiting until nightfall to creep into our camp -- and maybe finish one or more of us if he wasn't zapped  first. 

   He was home here in this beautiful place. And I was here because I was drafted. 

   On this particular night, Charlie must have been on the creep. 

   A young lieutenant was calculating in the dark with a slide rule. His radio man transmitted the officer's coordinates for ground zero to artillery men on one of the far off hills ringing this valley. 

   Lob the explosive 155 howitzer fire close to us, but not too close; that was the idea. 

   Drop 'em in the creep zone where Charlie might be approaching close enough to silently toss a grenade at us. 

   If Charlie really was on the move, some unlucky "kaboom" might kill him. If it didn't, the bright flash might pinpoint him so we could shoot him or chase him away with M-16 fire. 

   But the lieutenant must have mismanaged a digit or two. 

   Three off course rounds exploded in our camp before the radio man could nix the fire order. At least one of the Willie Peter (white phosphorus) rounds landed about 50 yards from me. 

   Everybody either dove for cover or ran to dodge the deadly rain of hot phosphorus. 

   No direct hits. But through the darkness, I heard that a couple of our guys were burned. I didn't hear how badly. 
   It was all over in seconds, and before long, I was out like 
 a turned off light, off to some dream -- or nightmare. 

Clinging to life

   Sometime this or that side of midnight... 

   Kraaaack! 

   My silent night was shattered. 

   Damn to I hate waking up to the sound of a grenade exploding nearby. 

   I think there may have been two -- one that side of dreamland and another after I had been jerked out of sleep. 

   In a heartbeat, I figured out terrain and trajectory and ran to hug a headstone, putting it between me and where I believed Charlie lurked while hurling his deadly fast balls. 

   I clung to the grave stone, afraid Charlie would toss another. But he was probably headed back to safety by now. As far as I knew, no damage was done. 

   Fifteen feet to my left, two riflemen pointed with their fingers down a rise, whispering with some amount of  intent. Now breathing easier because of the passing minutes of renewed quiet, I moved over to where they were surveying the darkness with a starlite scope. 

   "Down there. I think someone's moving around," one said. 

   Occasionally somebody would fire a single shot into the darkness. 

   When I looked through their scopes, I saw a mostly out of focus green image. I could make out bushes and rocks, but I'm not sure I saw Charlie. 

   "I think I may have hit him," one of the guys said. 

   We didn't find a body next morning, but maybe Dead Charlie had been dragged away by comrades. 

   I returned to my foxhole to finish out the night. 

   Puff the Magic Dragon flew over us. The slow flying twin engine plane roared whenever its Gatling guns fired into the creep zone near us. 

   I watched its bright tracers arc into the rice paddies. 

   It was deadly, yet beautiful. It was also the last thing I saw just that one night in Vietnam before sleep returned. 

Day to remember

   Now, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day, are just any other day, that's what they are. 

   Or maybe not. 

   The photographs I took and didn't take occasionally put on a slide show in my head. Especially today and on Veterans' Day they do. 

   Thanks to the doughboys at the start of this century, the ones who fought the war that was supposed to end all wars. 

   Only, they continue. Even as we are about to close a chapter on this century -- the wars continue. 

   So here's to you veterans everywhere. Have the safest and finest Memorial Day. 

   I drink a special toast to all you army journalists who were in Major Cannon's USARV office in Saigon and Major Jones' First Cavalry Public Affairs office in An Khe. 

   Montoya: The photograph I took of your thousand-yard stare hangs on my wall -- so I won't forget. 

   Morgan: The photograph of you, well, I still have that, too. 

   Cain: You radical. Please don't mellow out too much. Somebody's got to tell those boys in Washington: "Hell, no." 

   Graham: How's life under fire at the helm of the Washington Post? I just bet you don't still play bridge every night, or do you? 

  Tillstrom: You always knew what I meant when I walked into the chow hall and quickly turned my head (as if I had just been slapped in the face). 

   Amaral: What a coincidence two guys from the same high school in California ended up in the same office writing about the war. 

   Puckett: You photographed Korea and Vietnam. Almost too much. 

   Cosgrave, Bradley, Frank, Anthony, Cleveland, Denton, Fleming, Griffin, Conant, Morris, Pigati, Thomas, and the rest of you whose names I've regrettably forgotten: We shared some times, didn't we? 

   Ferguson: Thanks, Dixie, for your service as a Red Cross doughnut Dolly in An Khe. You civilian gals were some of the unsung heroes, and in my book are right up there with the rest of us veterans. 

   Hope: Thanks. Your USO show was just what we needed at the time. 

   By the way, all you veterans, I've given up on the stupid idea of a war to end all wars. 

   Personally, I'm waiting for that long peace to end all wars. But maybe it's just another of my crazy ideas.  


   A version of this this story appeared in The Daily Herald
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