Hazy Elegies From the West Ward Window, 1969
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foggybeach

The view ain't too bad.


Hey Ma,

I saw something beautiful today.

Thanks for handing me grandpa’s buck knife before the bus for Travis took off. I’m sorry I never got a chance to use it before crap hit the fan and everybody scattered to the winds. The last I ever caught a glimpse of that elk-horn grip was that morning, before the column headed out, where it was wedged at the bottom of my ruck between a pack of Philip Morris cigs and canned weenies—all stuff that I doubt I’ll ever get back, if at all. Because there’s no way the folks coming out of the scorched woodwork are gonna resist raiding someone’s leftovers for just a little more smokes, food, or ammo. I only hope that someone bailing out of the helos found it. It’s not much of a comforting thought, but it sure beats either rusting buried a foot under the grass or in some ratty hand scraping the embroidery off a pair of fatigues.

Today, after the customary morning jab of morphine, the ARVN1 nurses—middle-aged women who jabbered and fussed if just a little bit of blood got onto their smocks—finally caved in and transferred me away from intensive care. I’ve been waiting for that moment for two damn weeks for them to bail me out of the hellhole. A hellhole populated by comatose, or near comatose guys letting off whimpers at times of the day as they sucked broth out of plastic tubes while hunchbacked green doctors charged up and down the stairs, balancing trays loaded with medication and one-way Western Union telegrams.

The only thing that kept me sane for that whole time, floored by the bedsheets and the bloodied scalpel sitting on top of a Bible only a stone’s throw away, was my rifle manual. Well, it wasn’t truly mine, because mine decided to take a swim in a paddy and disintegrated. When the kid from Arkansas with the mangled chest passed on the second day I was thrown in there, leaving behind a dime-store novel and candies from his mother which arrived just hours too late and a tally mark for the mid-day’s bird, the nurses cleared his bed and started to toss his stuff out.

I asked.

They sent it my way, along with a good helping of the stink eye.

It’s a flimsy little thing, composed of dog-eared laminated pages backed with the crusted over droplets of fetid water. I’ve made a habit, lately, of cracking it open every night, tracing with a finger the soiled hatching marks, trying to wrap my concentration again around the every whims and nuances of a chunk of milled steel and polymer named Maggie. When I got to the end, staring into nothing in particular and trying to picture oiling and fitting together parts that I no longer could fit together, much less hold, I would turn it back over. I would do that several times, until my eyes gave out and I buried my head under my pillow.

I actually tried to give the damn thing another read over this morning, before the nurses yanked me by the crook of my arm and hobbled me downstairs, but it was useless. The whole novelty of it all long had worn away, and after that shot entered my arm I felt like I was staring straight into an abstract painting while my old art teacher babbled on and on about dead Picassos…my mind converging into one track of tensioning mantras:

-

“Let me tell you somethin’!

Your M16A1’s

one of the finest

military rifles

ever

made!

Lightweight

easy to handle

puts out

a lot

of lead!”

-


By some stroke of sheer dumb luck, I ended up in the West Ward. It’s an older, four bed section on the ground floor butting up just behind the examination rooms. Peeling leek-green paisley wallpaper and a portrait of Pasquier2 framed a porthole window which looked out to the morning bustle and the South China Sea beyond.

Even from my vantage point—blocked this way and that by trucks and tuk-tuks throwing shadows across the opposite wall as they flew by, I could see them. A girl scratching at the sand. Fishing dories nosing for shore. Locals, picking along the nubby rocks as waves lapped the shoreline out of the mist, cloaking the shapes of cruisers and river boats anchored offshore waiting for their orders to sail upstream and torch the banks of the Mekong.

I don’t want to think about it. I wished that I didn’t want to think about it. The only thing that hellhole of an intensive care unit was good at was misting all forms of coherent thought. In the strange barnyard where the nurses bawked, playing a drunken Napoleon, waddling back and forth in their roost while the doctors crept through the mesh, clutching their prize in their fangs, being just about brain dead like an egg was preferable to thinking straight.

I don’t want to think straight. I don’t think I can think straight. The linchpins holding the shelf up had been yanked out, long before the oil-nub eyes of Pasquier glanced off my bandages and I pressed my face against the window. I really didn’t, but as I just stood there dumb, drumming my fingers on the leaded glass, I couldn’t help it. And…for this one track mind, when the tape’s clamped tight around the heads, the tendency is to start reeling it back and play it all over again.

The heap of a South Vietnamese tank burning in the middle of the road. The twisting forms of Ruff Puffs3stumbling away as their commander burned to a crisp over the turret. A jeep swerving off the road, slamming headfirst into a ditch. Armored personnel carriers in deadlock. Screams. Cut short by deafening flashes from the treeline. The twitching mass of what once was an altar boy from Des Moines dropping away in the humid air. Machine guns opening up, raking lead into the trees. A radio croaked for helos and barbeque. I hit the ground running. Something perched up on the crown of a tamarind dropped straight down with a sickening crack—even now, I don’t know whether that was a loose branch or a person.

But it didn’t matter.

It didn’t matter at all.

Because I steadied that thing—one of the so-called ‘finest military rifles ever made’, and pulled the trigger. Pulled it again, again, and again, feeling that bolt cycle, kicking into my shoulder, ejecting brass cases that cauterized my knuckles, and, when the pin shot forward into nothing, thumbed for the catch. I must have sent ten, twelve slugs into the brush before that too, ran dry, and, when I was about to fish out my last mag, I was shot. Shot in the sense that some searing hot rod had been impaled clear through my stomach…I felt myself sway. Sway and fall to my knees. In those last few seconds before the napalm hit, setting the entire world ablaze, crushing the wind out of my lungs as it drew in what little air that still hung around, I caught a good glimpse of the backside of my hand. It was still wrapped around the magazine. Quivering, bloodied fingers crusted over aluminum and glimmering brass.

God, I should stop thinking. But I couldn’t. Because when the tape loosens and starts to slip back, softly falling for the floor, the instinct is to reach out and grip it back, as if it really was something worth a second listen to—even when that tune—that music—lost all time, all meaning. So I kept drumming those fingers, smelling of laundry detergent and watered down rubbing alcohol against the windowpane…

And you know what….Ma?

I saw something beautiful today.

It was just right near the corner, you know, when I caught it. I had to brace my shoulder against the frame and crane my neck and head the right way to see it, and then some. Even then, ‘cause of either these tired ol’ eyes or the tint of the frame, it was hazy. But I could see it—all just the same.

A girl, maybe about sixteen, seventeen, was dancing. Dancing to the tune of an old man’s erhu, where the curb of the road evaporated into rippling sheets of sand.

Dancing girls weren’t anything special—Saigon was chock full of them, dressed in skimpy leotards that rotated in and out at all hours of the night through the watering holes and hookah lounges. But unlike the night doves, who always attracted a packed house, gyrating their hips under sickly red, blue, and green hues to the tune of the tinny stereo system as airmen, caught up in visions of SAMS swatting their birds out of the sky in a flaming heap over the Ho-Chi Minh Trail, stuffed their purses full of bills while knocking back beers and rice liquor, nobody stopped to watch.

A policeman heading upstream clutched the crown of his cap and hurried across the road.

Moped riders and truck drivers gunned their engines and whipped by.

Helos and bird dogs circled overhead.

The world turned ever on.

Still, she kept on dancing. There was something cathartic yet pained in the way she moved, looming together her hands and shuffling back and forth in time to the dappled strokes of a weathered bow scraping over strings, stretched too loose, too soft…too lost, over snakeskin.

Eventually somebody stopped. A mother, dabbing a black scarf to her face and holding her baby in another. She came up the road, bouncing him up and down…trying to coo him back to sleep after a blast went off somewhere in the mountains to the east, rattling the windowpanes and empty crystal IV bags. She stared into the girl’s eyes as the old man continued to play, shifting his instrument’s tune, the slow warble that spoke, spoke of days I never will know, with a one track mind like this, staring out the window… ever higher. It spoke…spoke of days, days simmering in the still heat, untouched by fatigues, cordite, napalm and M16s. Before the foxholes and brass casings sunk their jowls into the soft dirt, and kids from the backroads of Arkansas still laughed at dime store novels.

She didn’t stop dancing. How could she? Turning on her feet, she lifted and tossed her hands. They flew past the ruined road, past callused, pockmarked asphalt with blue exhaust lingering over the potholes, past the sky, a sheet of rolling gray and mist that stretched down to envelop the sea, past the boys digging for clams along the shore, past the bridges of the cruisers, the corvettes, wreathed with oil bunkers, filling their keep to spray more jungle, more huts…more people with fire…until her hands stopped—stopped to touch the belly of a transport plane streaking overhead, engines thrown full speed, loaded with pressboard caskets and men missing arms, legs, eyes, heading home at last. Could they ever dream of it—when the world swallowed you wide and you tumbled, so softly, so quickly, onto your back…coming to rest to stare up at those muddied skies…wheeling so fast…so free, over the South China Sea?

And for the first time in a long time, as another policeman, another moped, another truck, another helo, another transport plane passed by…I felt something wet, sticky, that wasn’t blood, sweat, or condensation, drip, bloom and permeate my hospital gown.

Count…count me lucky, Ma.



—Your son,

Barry Kwan

Vung Tau

5/24/1969

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