Thou Shall Not Kill
The chopping sound of incoming helicopters announced their arrival before they became visible. In rapid succession a number of Hueys emerged above the dense jungle canopy descending on a clearing where plumes of green colored smoke targeted their landing. Soldiers scampered to help their wounded buddies board these choppers as others lifted a rubber bag containing a comrade onto a helicopter.
An hour earlier the corporal smelled the decaying vegetation of the jungle floor. He tasted the salt from his sweat. With a loaded semi-automatic rifle in hand, he performed his job. As point man he scanned the forward position for signs of the enemy. He located and marked Charlie’s booby traps by draping pieces of toilet paper on the trip wires. The white tissue informed the patrol following him of eminent danger. A single error earned him a trip home in a body bag.
Richard Ames observed each chopper ascend and disappear above the adjacent jungle canopy. He listened as last sputtering sounds of the helicopters drowned in the distance. He just witnessed his first combat death.
He swallowed hard. His eyes were fixed on a patch-work of a deep blue late morning sky broken by silhouetted branches and leaves forming the roof of the near-by jungle, but Richard failed to notice the branches standing still absent a breeze. His inner-eyes looked elsewhere. They focused miles away. His vision was of a family… the dead corporal’s family. Richard barely knew the corporal, and he was bothered to realize he was unable to even remember his name. He envisioned the pain the corporal’s family would know. He knew there would be tears.
Richard’s mind raced vividly. It traversed from the home of the unknown family to a community from his memory. It entered his father’s corner grocery store. The old man was standing behind a large butcher block table cutting meat. A smile on Mr. Ames’s face was one much like Richard once had. It wasn’t a full smile, but it could easily be determined as a smile.
It was a nine-year-old Richard the old man watched approaching through a short aisle of canned goods. The boy’s hands and knees were packed with dried mud. “Where have you been?”
“At the plot.”
Mr. Ames’s smile vanished. His wife and child were buried in the plot, one small spot in a cemetery containing memories of love, times of enjoyment and finally the awful pain of an unsuccessful child birth. “How is it?”
“Weeds were growing in the flowers. I cleaned them out.”
“Oh… one day we’ll get a stone. You know we can’t afford one….”
“That’s okay dad. Mom likes flowers.”
Mr. Ames’s smile returned. He was proud of his son. The boy had an inquisitive mind and enjoyed learning. He could lose himself for hours in books he brought home from school. Mr. Ames wondered where the kid’s mind would lead him. Surely he would be better off than this struggling grocer who lost customers when a super market opened at the edge of town eight years before. What would Richard be doing in ten or fifteen years?
Richard continued to gaze into the sky above the nearby canopy. He rubbed the palm of his left hand in expectation of crusted mud. It was there, but it was a different mud he picked up from the jungle floor. He despised mud. Mud seemed to always be associated with bad events in Richard’s life.
He remembered how these same hands had once been clean. He would hold a T-square and plastic triangle with his left hand as his right hand would guide a sharp pencil precisely over a sheet of tracing paper. He was only in his teens, but Mr. Williams gave him a summer job at his architectural practice. Mr. Williams spent hours teaching Richard how to draw and use his mind to understand how each line could affect the construction of a building. It was something the man didn’t have to do, but he seemed to enjoy doing so.
Mr. Williams would stand with one hand resting on Richard’s shoulder and the other braced on the drawing table as he scanned the drawing Richard had just completed. “Much better… now eliminate the clutter in the entry, and I think it will work.”
“What can I do with it?”
Without saying a word, Mr. Williams tore a piece of yellow tracing paper from a roll and placed the paper over Richard’s drawing. He picked up Richard’s pencil and rapidly sketched lines over the images Richard had drawn. Richard watched every stroke, and he learned.
Richard continued to work for Mr. Williams during summer breaks from school and for a few hours after school. He knew he would someday become an architect. Nothing would interfere with his dream. He never could envision future events. He never acknowledged there was a place known as Vietnam.
Another helicopter could be heard in the distance. Richard listened to the muted chopping noise as he remembered the one that carried away the corporal. He knew there would be a coffin and pain for loved ones. Richard remembered three other coffins. The first two… one large and one small holding his mom and a brother he never knew. They were buried next to each other. The third was more recent and very painful….
“DAMN IT AMES! I SAID, MOVE OUT.”
“I’m moving Sergeant,” Richard replied as he grabbed his gear, slipped on the shoulder straps and buckled the belt around his waist. He lifted his rifle into position with his right index finger near the trigger and began walking following others of his platoon toward the jungle.
“Ames, keep your spacing,” the Sergeant barked.
“Ten to fifteen yards… I will.” The Sergeant referred to the distance soldiers needed to maintain between others in the platoon. Richard understood the importance of the spacing. An exploding grenade or booby trap could only cause a single casualty.
The patrol moved forward along a foot path carved into the jungle. Such paths were prime real estate for Charlie to set up booby traps. Richard kept his eyes busy scanning for trip wires the soldiers in front of him may have missed, and watched for markings of toilet paper others in the squad may have placed as a warning. He also scanned into the jungle on both sides of him although he couldn’t see much through the denseness of the vegetation.
A few hours earlier, the setting had been similar. It was when Charlie had opened fire on the platoon. Richard never saw the enemy during the brief encounter. It was less than a minute. Charlie was gone, and the corporal was dead. Other soldiers were wounded including the lieutenant who had been the platoon leader.
Richard glanced at the sergeant, now in charge of the platoon, who was four positions in front of him. Richard was petrified with fear. He did not want to be the next to be zipped into a body bag.
Richard maintained his vigilance, but as scared as he was, he still allowed his mind to race. He envisioned his wife and daughter living back in Kent, Ohio. How far away they were. If he could keep from becoming a casualty for a year, he could be with them again. Maybe once this mission ended he would have a letter from his wife waiting for him. He wondered how long it would take for her letters to find him.
Since he last saw her three weeks before, Richard had written her every day. Had she received any of these letters yet? Richard wondered how he would write about this day. How would he tell her about his first encounter with combat… seeing his first casualty? Would he address his fear? Richard didn’t want her to worry any more than necessary. What if he were the next man zipped into a rubber bag? What if his dog tags were attached to the bag? How would she handle being a widow? She would cry. His daughter would probably cry, but she was too young to know why….
“OKAY MEN, LET’S CHOW DOWN.”
Richard smiled. How stupid he was. He knew he had to be insane to think such thoughts. He’d go mad if he continued the same way for the coming year.
The smile faded away. What if he died? Would it be so bad? Numerous times during his life he had experienced the pain and hell of living. Would returning home be worth living for? He knew there would always be pain. Will the future good times offset this pain?
“HEY, AMES! DICK AMES!”
There would be the Army life insurance policy to sustain his family.
As Richard pulled from his thoughts he answered, “Yes.”
“You’d better eat while you have a chance. We won’t be stopped long.”
“Oh, yes… thanks Willy.” Richard pulled a carton of C-Rations from his pack.
“You all right, Dick?”
“Sure,” Richard answered. “Why?”
“You don’t seem right. What’s got into you? Is it seeing Foster killed?”
Richard laughed, “No. I’ve experienced death before.”
“Well, what is it? You seemed miles away.”
“Haven’t you ever dreamed?”
“Sure I have, but not in the bush. It’s a good way to get killed. You don’t want to get killed. Do you?”
“Just joking, Willy… I’m just joking.”
“I hope so. I don’t understand you, Dick. You’ve only been here a week, and you’re already acting crazy. You said you’ve a wife and kid waiting for you. If you ever want to see them again, take my advice and stay on your toes.”
Richard retrieved a can of beef and potatoes from the small cardboard box of C-rations. Using a small zinc can opener attached to the chain of his dog tags, he opened the can. He took a few bites and set the can aside. It tasted terrible. It was greasy and probably would have tasted better if warmed. He opened a small chocolate bar. It was more palatable. A four pack of Chesterfield cigarettes were also included with the rations. After tearing the cellophane wrapper from the pack, he fished out a smoke and patted down the non-filtered end, placed it between his lips and lit it with a match torn from a book also included in the rations. He took a deep draw, exhaled, and said, “Willy.”
“What did I do?”
Richard momentarily showed his father’s smile. “Just thanks for talking.” He thought how ignorant he had been to have his earlier thoughts. He wanted to return to his wife and daughter. He wanted to return at once. He knew he could not. All because of the damn Army and the stupid war they called a conflict.
During his childhood, Richard would have fantasies of being a soldier. Almost all of the grown men in town had returned from the Second World War and were held in high esteem in the village. Almost all of them belonged to the American Legion, including Richard’s father. The Legion would hold family picnics and Fish Fries. Richard remembered listening to these men recounting their heroics. Then there was the Memorial Day Parade. It was known as Decoration Day back then.
The men would all dress in their old military uniforms. Some no longer could zip up their flies due to enlarged stomachs. The parade would start at the school and proceed to the cemetery at the edge of town. Four men in white sailor garb were always in front as the Honor Guard. The American and Legion Post flags were carried by the two men in the center, and the other two men, one on each edge, carried rifles on their shoulder. Next were the one-time soldiers who marched in step. Each also had rifles. Richard was always amazed how every step from each man was so precise. They moved as though they were one. The parade passed by rows of houses lining the street where small American flags had been placed in the lawns.
There were few spectators. Most of the people from the town were part of the parade. Those who watched were the very old or mothers with small children. Each waved small American flags as the procession passed them by.
Following the soldiers was the High School Band, the village fire truck, Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts. Richard, wearing his prized blue shirt and yellow scarf around his neck, was one of the Cub Scouts. Next were the bicycles that were mostly ridden by girls because most of the boys were Scouts. The wheels of each bicycle were decorated with red, white and blue crepe paper interwoven into the spokes.
The parade passed the grocery and Richard’s home on the second floor above the store. The procession passed the Sohio gas station, two taverns, the post office and drug store. Each was closed for the holiday. Walking became a bit more difficult proceeding onto the gravel road into the cemetery, but eventually all were in position for the ceremony.
Father Paul from the Catholic Church read scripture, and he was followed by Reverend Boyd of the Methodist Church offering a prayer. Both of the village’s denominations were represented. Then Mr. Hill, the Superintendent of Schools, read Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
Seven of the Legion soldiers held their rifles at chest level.
The rifles were raised to the horizon.
A volley of gunfire emitted grey smoke lingering above the riflemen. This happened two additional times, a twenty-one gun salute.
The rifles were lowered to a vertical position in front of the soldiers’ chests. The Scouts raised their arms in a salute, and others placed their right hand over their chest. A cornet player on the band played Taps, and somewhere in the woods below the cemetery a second musician copied the sound of the first horn providing an impression of an echo.
“ORDER ARMS!” All dropped their salutes.
“DETAIL… DISMISSED!” The soldiers did an about-face and walked away. The young boys in attendance scurried to scoop up the spent cartridges littering the ground where the men had just honored their past comrades. Richard had prized the one he successfully retrieved for years.
“OKAY MEN, LET’S MOVE OUT!”
“Dick… hey Dick!”
“Oh, yeah…. We’re moving out.”
“Remember what I said about dreaming?”
“You’re going to fool around and get yourself killed.”
Richard grabbed his gear and slipped his arms through its shoulder straps. He knew he did not want to die. Seeing the grenades attached to the front of his shoulder straps he wondered if he would ever have to use them. He knew to survive he might need to kill someone. He feared he would not be able to. Always holding a strong Christian belief, he struggled with taking another man’s life.
The patrol moved on. It was late in the afternoon. It would be a few hours before the darkness of night would engulf them. Insects of all species constantly harassed the men who had given up on swatting them. It was useless. Richard could hear what sounded like rain falling against the foliage above, but the only moisture he felt was the soaking of his clothing by sweat caused by the awful heat.
“You hear that Dick?”
“Sounds like rain.”
“It is. It won’t make it to the ground for a couple of hours. That’s how thick the trees are.”
“A couple of hours?”
“They’ve got a place in Florida, down in the Everglades, where it takes days for the rain to reach the ground. It’s so bad there that air can’t even get through the trees.”
“Come on now, Willy.”
“No. I’m serious. The air is so bad there it can kill you.”
“That’s strange.” Richard didn’t know if he should believe Willy or not. He hadn’t known him long enough to know if he typically exaggerated or not.
The soldiers continued to move. The sun began to set and the rain had stopped prior to their reaching a clearing next to a river. There had been no signs of the enemy.
“We’ll hold up here for the night. Brown, take Eaton and Miller and clear the area.”
Richard watched as three men disappeared into the nearly dark clearing. They returned, and the patrol followed them back into the clearing. The soldiers paired off. Richard accompanied Willy. They dug a small trench into the waist high grass covered ground. By the time their excavation was complete, they were engulfed by darkness.
Willy stated, “It’s too dark to set out our claymores and flares. It’s too dangerous to do so now.”
Claymores were explosive devices and flares could provide light. These would be placed to their forward position along with trip wires to set them off should the enemy attempt to sneak up on them.
They laid down on the newly exposed soil.
“You get some sleep, Dick. I’ll catch the first watch.”
Richard remained awake for a long time. The night sounds of the nearby jungle and river were haunting. He could hear what he hoped were animals brushing against branches in the jungle and the thick grass of the clearing. Because he was new to the habitat, Richard was not sure of what kind of animals they might be, and he was not positive they were animals. Earlier, in the jungle he saw a few monkeys. He had heard about tigers but wasn’t sure where in Nam they roamed.
He was scared. Did Charlie know his platoon was there? Would they use the cover of darkness to attack? Richard’s active mind, and fear, kept him awake. Occasionally the sound of grass rustling would intensify. Mosquitoes were making a meal of him. He stayed awake and he listened. After a while the sounds became rhythmic. It was as though there were no sounds at all.
“What was that?”
“Not so loud. You want Charlie to hear you?” Willy was calm. He spoke softly, and he amazed Richard by his composure. “It’s just some animal watering by the river probably being attacked by a crock.”
“There’s nothing to be sorry about. You’re scared. I know what it’s like. I was new here once. Now get some sleep.”
Richard rolled on his side. He tried to sleep, but his mind remained too active for sleep. Willy mentioned a crock. Were there crocodiles in Vietnam? In addition to the possibility of being killed by Charlie, was it possible of being a meal for a crock? Finally his mind began to formulate a dream as his mind visualized his daughter on his lap. He was almost sleeping, and…
“Huh?” Richard responded jarred from his near sleep.
“You don’t snore? Do you?”
“Yeah, you know… when you sleep.”
“What the hell… do you think I listen to myself sleep?”
“Don’t think I’m stupid, but snoring carries a long way in this night air. We don’t want the Gooks to find us because we snore. Anyway, I just wanted to let you know. If you snore, I’ll wake you. You do the same if I snore. Okay?”
“Sure.” Richard closed his eyes. His mind was active again, but his mind quickly visualized his wife and daughter picnicking with him on a blanket next to Tuttle Creek in Kansas….
When Willy awoke Richard, Richard didn’t remember his dream. All that occupied his mind was that he had just closed his eyes. He was tired. It couldn’t be time to awaken.
“It’s time for you to take the watch.”
“I just fell to sleep.”
“You’ve been out for about three hours.”
“Okay, Willy… you sure it’s been three hours?”
Willy laughed. “Yes… remember, Dick. There are no Claymores to protect us. Charlie will be able to sneak right up on us and cut our throats, and we’d never know what happened. Stay awake and listen. You’ll be able to hear him. And Dick… if you hear him, don’t shoot. The flash of your weapon will give away our position. Throw a grenade.”
Willy stretched out, closed his eyes and was sleeping. Richard was amazed. How could Willy fall to sleep so quickly? How could he feel safe enough to sleep with a new man on watch? It was Richard’s first watch in Nam, and he was scared and tired. What if he couldn’t stay awake? What if he didn’t detect the approach of the enemy? What gave Willy the right to not be scared?
Richard couldn’t see anything except for the silhouette of the nearby jungle canopy and a hint of a partial moon reflection on the river. He heard everything, and he strained his ears in hope he would not miss a sound. Branches moved in the jungle, and occasionally he heard them snap. He heard grasses rustle around him. He heard the trickle of water moving down the river, and he heard the insects. He thought how nice it would be if some of the insects could be fire flies. They could help light the night. They weren’t fire flies, so Richard had to rely on his ears.
Branches continued to snap. They were crisp cracks, and they echoed in his mind. Grass continued to rustle. He could envision each blade pressed flat and its fight to straighten. He saw something. There was a dark mass before him. It appeared to be moving. It was moving in his direction.
It had to be Charlie. He grabbed a grenade. He pulled the pin from the grenade. Clutching a grenade in his trembling hand Richard knew he was about to kill for the first time. He strained his eyes trying to see in the dark. He was sure it was Charlie, and he was getting too close. Regretting his action, Richard launched the explosive. He anguished remembering, “Thou shall not kill.”
The blast echoed from the nearby jungle as a flash of light temporarily interrupted the darkness.
“What is it?” Willy commanded as he broke from his sleep and grabbed his rifle.
“They were out there. I threw a grenade.”
Richard pointed to the front. “Out there.”
“Well, if there was something out there, it’s either gone or dead, so don’t…”
“Everything okay over there?” came from another trench about thirty feet away.
“Yeah, Sergeant. Ames is a little shaky.”
“Get him squared away. Will you?”
“I tell you I could see them. There was someone out there.”
“I believe you, Dick. Believe me…. I do.”
“No you don’t. I can tell.”
“Damn it, I tell you I do. There was something out there, but it probably had four legs.”
“How can you be so damn sure?”
“I’ve been here so long that I’ve added an extra sense.”
“Your senses tell you?”
“Yes, my senses tell me. Now, damn it, shut up and listen for a second.” All was silent except for the insects and the trickling sound of the river. The other noises were gone. The explosion from the grenade had a silencing effect. “Now, if you hear something it won’t be an animal. They’ll remain silent for quite a while, but man is too stupid.”
Willy stretched back out. Again he closed his eyes, and he was sleeping. Richard didn’t take time to be amazed at Willy’s ability to shut off the world around him this time. He was alone and he realized it. Nothing moved including Richard. He tried to hush his breathing. If something did move, he wanted to be sure he could hear it. But nothing moved until the wild life slowly regained confidence. The night sounds slowly regained their prior amplitude only to die as the darkness gave way to daybreak.
The river took a bend at the clearing where the soldiers were dug in. One bend extended into the direction of the rising sun. Never before had a sun rise been so beautiful for Richard to see. With light came the ability to see again, and to see was magnificent. He focused his eyes to where he had thrown the grenade, and he saw a swarm of flies attracted by the carcass of a water buffalo. He realized Willy’s senses were right. It had four legs, but Richard was surprised a grenade could kill a water buffalo. He figured it must have been a direct hit. He then turned his attention back to the sun rise.
The sun climbed slowly until a blood-streaked sky graduated to a large luminous orange ball as the center axis for fingers of orange projecting away like spokes of a wheel. For the first time Richard could understand how the design of the Japanese Rising Sun Flag had been conceived. They copied the actual rising of an Oriental Sun.
Richard tried to remember any physical thing he had ever witnessed that was more beautiful than this sunrise. There was none. He remembered events in his life that were wonderful. Marrying a woman who was compassionate, giving and bore him a daughter. As the sunrise was able to momentarily calm Richard’s nerves and fear, Richard remembered the day of his graduation from high school. Something happened that day confirming his belief in miracles.