Ternary: A Retrospective
It is the summer of 1968. Port Tuley and I sit in the cab of my 1941 Ford pickup, waiting for the stoplight to change. We’ve just polished off a large sausage and onion at Jenny’s Pizzeria and are eager to join the other hot cars in the Friday night cruise up 16th Street. I rev the engine a couple of times. Torque from the 322 cubic-inch Buick engine reverberates through the truck, rocking it from side to side. The dual exhaust pipes crackle, but the light refuses to change.
“See any cops?” I ask, eyes scanning up and down the side streets.
“Nope. Gun it!” Port answers, reading my mind. I dump the clutch, and the baby-blue pickup roars through the intersection, smoke pouring from the rear wheel wells. I hit second gear and notice two red lights vibrating in the rear view mirror; one is dangling over the intersection and the other is gaining on us. The cop car is a quarter mile back and closing fast, which leaves us with only one course of action—outrun him. We race down 32nd Avenue and Port shouts, “Go for the church!”
Four blocks from the intersection stands the venerable white steeple of Truett Memorial Baptist Church. Like a sentinel pointing sharply toward the heavens, it’s a beacon to lost sinners, calling them home with quiet assurance. I’ve been there before.
In sixth-grade, Port talked me into joining the Royal Ambassadors. Even though it was all fun and games, I suspect they were trying to keep us from becoming juvenile delinquents. We met at the church on Wednesday nights and after eating bagfuls of salty chips and gulping gallons of juice like drunken sailors—we played bombardment. Crowding into a windowless room, we picked two teams of ten combatants. When our leaders George and Roy hollered, “Incoming!” the room erupted with screaming and yelling, and the air exploded with with a barrage of volleyballs, and a half dozen medicine balls thrown in for good measure. We happily beat each other to smithereens until no man was left standing and the game was called. George then gathered us into a large circle. Sweaty, dazed and bleeding, nursing fat lips and monster headaches, we stood side-by-side while Roy told us a Bible story. Then we prayed. They told us we could always turn to God in times of trouble. This Friday night is such a time.
With all four tires screeching in protest, I hold the wood and chrome steering wheel hard to the left and we slide around the corner into the parking lot. After regaining control of the truck, I straighten it out and mash the accelerator to the floorboard. Churning for grip against the hard pavement, the tires suddenly catch and we shoot straight across the lot toward a brick wall, barely a hundred feet away. I jam on the brakes and with a final howl from the tires, the pickup screeches to a halt, inches from impact. Port and I bail out, slamming the doors behind us. Without a word or a glance, we run past a group of startled parishioners and duck inside.
We bolt up two flights of stairs to the second-story landing and position ourselves on each side of the tall arched window. Still trying to catch our breath, we risk a glance through the matching perimeter panes and watch the policeman pull his cruiser up to the sidewalk. He gets out and walks slowly over to my pickup. Laying his hand on the hot hood, the cop looks around while waves of heat radiate from every pore of the truck—wheel wells, hood vents and tires. A variegated stream of popping sounds crackle from beneath the hood as the cooling system shuts down, forcing the internal temperature of the engine to skyrocket to a block cracking level. A long, mournful whine groans near the base of the radiator and a flood of pressurized steam bursts from its iron core. Hot, greasy vapor spews from the mouth of the overflow pipe and forms a green trickle of antifreeze tracking steadily across the asphalt, straight toward the cop’s foot.
With mounting dread, Port and I watch the policeman interrogate the eyewitnesses in front of the church.
He knows we’re here. He’s going to find us.
I look around for an escape route. Just when I think he’s going to conduct a room-by-room search, he climbs into his cruiser, backs it away from the sidewalk and pulls out of the parking lot. Exhaling, Port and I sink slowly into a squat with our backs to the wall and breathe a sigh of relief. God, I’ll slow down and obey all traffic laws from now on, I promise.
“We’d better just sit here for a while in case he’s watching the truck,” Port whispers.
Twenty minutes later we’re back in business—rumbling along Interstate 70. The night is still young and we have plenty of time to cruise. We get off at Federal Boulevard, stop to top off the radiator, then drive north toward the Scotchman. A block from the drive-in, we slow down and move into the right lane, taking our place behind a candy-apple red, ’56 Chevy Nomad. The air is thick with the smell of spent fuel and burnt rubber, and the warm summer night vibrates with the rumble of powerful engines and loud pipes—a colorful collage of shiny chrome, polished paint and loud radios.
I steer my ’41 into the parking lot, jockey around and back into an empty space, right next to Alan Weaver’s ’62 Ford. With the clutch in, I stomp on the accelerator and turn the key off. The pipes crackle and a defiant roar echoes loudly off the metal canopy above.
“Thanks, Stamper,” Alan laughs with his hands over his ears, grimacing in mock pain. A cute waitress wearing a short plaid skirt, red scarf and plaid beret coasts up to my door on roller skates, holding a note pad. Weaver leans forward against his steering wheel and ogles her as I turn to Port, “What do you want?”
“A Sloppy Malt an’a Horrible Burger.”
“Gimme a Sloppy Malt and a Horrible Burger for my friend…and I’ll take a large Hot Toddy,” I say, practicing my deepest voice. The waitress scribbles down our order, shoots me a smile and skates away.
“You dog,” Port laughs, hitting me on the arm, “..she likes you!” He wastes no time planning his strategy. “Get her name when she comes back. If she gives it to you, get her phone number…and introduce me.”
Port is the spitting image of his dad, Port Tuley Sr. He has a short chunky build, round face and two large front teeth, giving him a friendly, rabbit-like smile. He even has his father’s quirky rapid-fire Elmer Fudd laugh. Unlike the rest of us who style our hair and wear standard white t-shirts and blue jeans, Port keeps his brown hair cut short in a flat-top and prefers western shirts with string bow ties and corduroy pants. When he does wear blue jeans, they sport five-inch cuffs.
“Hey Weaver!” Port bends forward and hollers past me, “Did you ever get a new 2-barrel carburetor for that thing?” I press back in my seat, out of the line of fire.
“Funneee…Tuley! This 406 will blow your doors off anytime…that is, when you get some doors.”
“Ouch.” I say, looking over at Port. Everyone knows that Tuley doesn’t own his own set of wheels. Every so often, he’s allowed to drive his dad’s car—a two-tone ’58 Chevy with factory hub caps. Undaunted, Port cruises around in his ‘rod’, touring the strip and looking for action. Normally, most Falcon, VW and Comet owners aren’t out looking for a drag race, but when Tuley revs the engine and hollers, “Hey! Don’t mess with Jack the Bear!” they immediately rise to the challenge.
The Tuley’s family car has a stock 283 cubic-inch engine with a 2-barrel carburetor, so Port tries to intimidate his opponents by trickery. Causing considerable stress to the car’s engine, he sits at a red light with one foot on the brake and the other on the gas, forcing the rear end of the car high into the air. This tactic is meant to give the appearance of an engine so hot that he can barely keep it under control. The instant the light changes, Port smashes the gas pedal to the floor and with a mighty “Baawwuuuuuh…” the old Chevy slowly begins to build speed. Reaching the end of low gear, he lets off the gas, subtly raises the automatic column shift into drive, swings his hand toward the floorboard, throws back an imaginary shifter, then stomps back down on the accelerator, creating the illusion that he has four-on-the-floor. Occasionally, he misses his timing and the Chevy jerks and stalls, allowing his opponent to putter past him toward victory—giving Port no other option but to turn onto the nearest side street and quietly withdraw from the race.
While we wait for our food, the colorful parade of immaculate cars slowly threads its way through the parking lot. We can feel the vibration from Bill Kring’s canary-yellow ’57 Chevy as it rumbles by with the headers uncapped. The engine’s high-pitched whistle reminds everyone that he just spent the entire weekend converting to fuel-injection.
“Look at that!” Port says admiringly, “He can barely control the horsepower!”
“Maybe he should try setting his idle down,” I reply skeptically as the reflection of Kring’s yellow tail fins move across the glossy hood of my pickup.
“Nice job on the turtle wax… no water spots,” Port notes.
“Yeah. I got a new chamois.”
“We oughta join up,” Port says.
“We’re going to get drafted anyway.”
“Yeah, I know…but my dad thinks I should join the Navy. He was in the Merchant Marines in World War II, so he knows what it’s like.”
“So, I don’t know. I think I’d rather go into the Army.”
“Hey, there’s Krouse!” Port waves at the green ’65 GTO in front of us. “And he’s got Suzy with him!” Through the windshield, I can see the cute blond cuddled up next to Russ.
“Krouse’s always have girls with them,” Port complains, envious of their success with the ladies.
“So, why the Army?” Port resumes.
“I’d rather get shot than drown.” I answer, thinking about the green tattoo on my dad’s right shoulder. From my earliest childhood it has fascinated me—a smeary image of a sinking ship with the words ‘Sailor’s Grave’ scrolled beneath the waves. Like the war, it’s faded over time, but the story behind the tattoo left an unforgettable mark on my father. He rarely speaks about his time in the war, other a three minute account of the harrowing day he stood watching in fear and horror as the ships on each side of his vessel were slammed by torpedoes and sank into the Pacific Ocean.
“Yeah,” Port says, “…and if you sign up for the Navy you have to pull a four year hitch but the Army’s only three.” The waitress rolls up to my door with the tray of food and waits.
“Ya wanna crank up your window a little?” she asks. I obey, and she promptly hangs the tray.
“We’re not staying.”
“So take your food, then,” she replies impatiently. I pass the hamburger and malt to Port. Meanwhile, Weaver steps up his overtures—only now he’s adding dopey noises and suave comments to his monologue. Without missing a beat, the waitress lifts the empty tray from my window, turns on her skate, leans far into Weaver’s passenger-side window and plants a kiss on him.
“I can’t believe it!” Port wails, “How does that happen?”
“Got me,” I shrug. “You ready?” I take a sip from my cinnamon Coke and fire up the truck.
“Let’s head downtown and pick up some chicks!” Port mumbles through a mouthful of hamburger. We both know it’s an empty suggestion—the laws of nature are against us, but we never get tired of trying.
Sixteenth Street is the main drag—a one-way, four-lane street that runs down the center of downtown Denver. The Friday night ritual is to jockey for position for three or four blocks while we attempt to pick up girls, and if that fails, maneuver up to the front of the pack and select a worthy opponent to race. Most drag races only last a block, although the really good ones go on for two—that is, if both cars make it through the first yellow light.
I pull up to a red light, next to a car full of high school girls who’ve been trying to give us the slip. They’ve been waving, laughing and hanging out of the big cream-colored Lincoln, racing from light to light—teasing, then taking off. But now that we’ve caught up with them and sit idling next to their car, all four girls sit frozen in their seats with their eyes straight ahead like they’re in some kind of a trance. We’ve seen it before. Not one of them will look at us. The driver is staring intently at the stoplight, and I think I can read her lips as she pleads through clenched teeth, “C’mon, change! Cha-a-a-a-nge!”
Port has been doing his level best to snap them out of their spell by waving his arms and hanging out the window. He even tries shouting his best pick-up lines, “Hey! Where ya goin’ tonight? Wanna ride in a real car?” No response. Finally, he gives up and slumps back into his seat. He looks over at me and I can tell that he is taking it personally.
“We can’t let it end like this,” I tell him. I lean over his lap, reach into the glovebox, pull out a red M80 and hand it to him. Port nods, and holds the miniature piece of dynamite carefully between his fingers. He lights the fuse and tosses it out the window.
The firecracker bounces once and rolls under the low-slung Continental. A second later, a white blast of light flashes from under both sides of the car and shock waves rattle windows for a block.
“We may be better suited for the Army,” I decide, as we watch the tail lights of the big Lincoln speed away.
Silently, we crawl across the wet jungle floor and carefully place the claymore mines around our night lager position. Night finally falls and blackness covers us like a cloak. We return to our claymores, gather them up and move to our left seventy-five yards, to keep the enemy from knowing our exact location. No one unpacks. The poncho liners remain in our rucks. There will be no sleeping tonight. We crouch down behind slender trees and wait for the enemy brigade to ferret us out of the darkness and cut us to pieces.
We’ve been running all day, ever since the NVA soldier spotted us outside the tunnel entrance. We should’ve followed him inside and fired him up, so he couldn’t alert his comrades about the Ranger team that just showed up on their doorstep. But instead, Johnson lets him go and has us run like hell down the mountainside, before they come pouring out of their tunnels like a swarm of red ants.
So this is where I die—in the Fishhook. Jesus, how did I get here? A year ago I was in high school. We’ll all be dead by morning. Five Rangers and three-thousand NVA in the same AO. They know we’re here and they’re going to find us.
There are no landing zones—no place a chopper can set down to extract us when we get hit. Just off to our right is a bomb crater stripped clean of vegetation that would make a perfect LZ, were it not for the ten or twelve bare trees sticking straight up from the center like giant punji sticks.
We wait. My eyes strain at the blackness. Scan don’t stare, or inanimate objects like trees and bushes will begin to move in the darkness, and assume the shape of the enemy—my training reminds me.
Ninety minutes pass before the first sound drifts in from the blackness…the sound of faint laughter. Someone out there, in the darkness, is laughing! A few moments of silence pass, then again, more laughing. Laughing and talking. Minutes tick by and I smell soup…followed by the clattering of dishes. Drop by drop, I feel a trickle of terror seep into my veins.
They’re having dinner before they come for us!
The thought instantly steals my courage. I inventory my ammo again, memorizing the exact location of every clip and every frag on my webbing.
The claymore mines are placed in a circle around our position, facing outward. I hold my detonator loosely in my right hand, running my thumb up and down the handle, feeling the smooth lever. Suddenly, the sound of a branch slowly cracking under weight breaks the stillness. I quietly move the metal safety bar out from under the detonator lever with my thumb.
Snap! Another sound comes from the darkness. My heart hammers with anticipation. Did the branch break under the weight of an enemy boot—or a wild boar rooting for food? Should I fire…or wait?
Suddenly, the talking and laughter stops. Not a sound. I worry that my breathing is too loud. I regulate it to prevent the enemy from hearing it. Blood pounds at my temples. My imagination takes hold, and I envision enemy soldiers rolling up their ponchos and picking up their rifles. My mind is fermenting in adrenaline.
They’re on the way…I squirm at the thought. Jesus, I don’t want to die tonight…not like this…
Back home, I’d always pictured death as a silent caretaker who waits patiently for the last breath, content to receive the dying in a random, quiet way. But here in the Tiger Mountains of Vietnam, death is not passive or patient. He’s a hate-filled aggressor—relentlessly stalking and hunting his prey. War is his banquet table, his sustenance—a feast of flesh to satisfy his insatiable appetite for human souls. And tonight, we are his quarry.
I press the small New Testament against my chest like a talisman. Searching for assurance from God, I pray that He won’t leave me alone in the wild, won’t give my soul over to destruction or my body to the merciless enemy.
Crack! Another branch breaks.
I narrow my eyes, attempting to focus my vision and survey the darkness for movement, but the night is so black I am unable to distinguish between sight and sensation, between real and imagination. Suddenly, just ahead of my position, I see—or feel—a shadow glide by, pitch moving through pitch, like black mercury slipping through an ocean of ink. I draw a fix on the intruder but hold my fire. Moving laterally, the form passes before me, then slips away.
After a few minutes, my senses sharpen and begin to intertwine with the pulsating night air. The same night air our enemy is attuned to. We adjust our sensory radar as though we are fine-tuning a radio—rising to a higher frequency where we can feel each other’s presence. From the scurrying feet of a timid field mouse to the careful padding of an enemy boot; the night feels all. Like a bat scanning the airwaves, like the hairy feet of a spider feeling for vibrations, we monitor the invisible sensory net. Discerning the slightest change in night pressure, we perceive each hidden movement and gauge the size and distance of every noise and timbre.
More brush breaks a hundred yards out, slightly left of our position. Johnson eases over to Bobby and whispers, “Tell ’em to send the choppers NOW. By the time they get here, we’ll be in contact.”
Speaking in a hushed voice, Colston breaks radio silence. “Tango, Oscar, Charlie this is Delta. We’ve got movement. Juliet requests birds, over.”
“Negative on the choppers Delta, call us when you make contact and we’ll scramble ‘em for you. Over.”
“TOC, we’re thirty minutes out. We’ve got movement all around us. We won’t last that long in a firefight! Please send the birds now, do you copy? Over,” Bobby pleads in an urgent whisper. The communication ceases.
A few minutes later, headquarters responds, “Delta team, this is TOC. Negative on the helicopters. No contact. No birds. We’ve advised Casper to warm up the choppers, but they will not be lifting off unless you are in contact. Do you copy?”
“TOC, Roger that. Delta out.” Bobby advises Johnson of the situation.
“Damn!” he whispers.
Suddenly, an unmistakable sound pierces the night, sending an icy chill through my heart. A bark! Then another.
Dogs! They’ve got tracking dogs! It’s all over. Covering our trail was a waste of time…the dogs will lead them right to us!
We sit tight and wait for the first wave of NVA. Moving isn’t an option…we can’t chance it…we might run right into them. Suddenly, Bobby taps me on the shoulder. Two flashlights are moving in our direction, suspended in mid-air, bobbing slowly from side to side, searching. More dogs join the hunt, and the barking intensifies. Another flashlight appears. Now a fourth, directly in front of us. “Call it in!” I whisper.
“Tango, Oscar, Charlie. This is Delta, we got flashlights closing in on our position with tracking dogs, contact imminent, send choppers, over,” Bobby whispers.
“Delta, this is TOC. Negative on the birds. How many Victor Charlie’s do you estimate? Over.”
“They’re all over the frigg’n place! Send the damn choppers now! Over,” Bobby pleads. We stand silently behind narrow trees. Nobody moves.
“Delta, just keep cool and let us know when you make contact,” TOC instructs.
The first hand grenade explodes thirty yards away—rocking us where we stand. We remain still. Bobby whispers loudly, “TOC. This is Delta, they’re probing with frags, trying to flush us out! We’ve got flashlights everywhere!” While he is still speaking, another explosion crashes and reverberates through the jungle, giving TOC the confirmation they need. Bobby keys the handset, “Either send the gunships now or send a medivac!”
“Delta, this is TOC, we’ve scrambled the choppers. They’re in the air—listen for them on the usual frequency. Casper is the lead ship. Keep us advised. Tango, Oscar, Charlie out.”
“Roger that. Delta out.” Colston taps me on the shoulder again, and waves his index finger in a circular motion. Help is on the way.
Our enemy draws closer, throwing frags haphazardly, hoping to hit us. The dogs lead them steadily in our direction. The circle tightens. Each man on our team readies his claymore detonator.
God, we’re not going to make it. I fight off an overpowering sense of loneliness.
They pass within inches of our claymores. I tap Bobby on the arm and point to the nearest flashlight, raising my M79 grenade launcher to my shoulder. I lean against a tree to steady my aim—a single, 40mm high-explosive round stands ready inside the barrel, waiting for the firing pin. Sweat beads on my forehead, fills my eyebrows with salty moisture and slowly tracks down my face and neck.
There is no more waiting, and I fire. “Fawwhuuump! Boooom!” The flashlight flips into the air and falls to the ground—a direct hit! We’ve kicked the hornets nest, and confused NVA strike out in every direction with stinging tracers and flying shrapnel. We blow our claymores. With a roar, the powerful mines send a wall of steel pellets through the air, raking the enemy, blowing their legs out from under them. Glenn and Casebolt lob their grenades and the fight turns into a frag fest—the sound of explosions punctuated by intervals of screaming and yelling.
“TOC, this is Delta!” Colston hollers into the mouthpiece. “We’ve got incoming fire! We’re surrounded! Where are the gunships?! We need artillery!!”
“Roger Delta! The ETA on the gunships is fifteen minutes. Can you hold on that long?” “Tango, I don’t know! What about the Navy ships? We need the big guns!”
“Negative, Delta you’re too far out, they can’t reach you, over.” The rest of the team waits to fire their automatic weapons–the muzzle flashes will reveal our exact location. I pump out three more rounds with the M79, reloading between each round. “Fawwhuuump…Boooom!” Fawwhuuump…Boooom!” Fawwhuuump…Boooom!”
The NVA spray the area with AK fire. Green tracer rounds spit into the darkness. Bullets whiz by and slam into the surrounding trees. They’re closer than they realize. We fight for another five minutes using only frags, claymores and the M79. Finally, we’re forced to resort to our automatic rifles. Damn, why didn’t I bring the M60? Red and green tracer rounds ricochet in every direction, arguing for dominance. With a dull explosion, a white phosphorous hand grenade suddenly illuminates the blackness. Burning sprays of napalm gel start a fire. In the light of the momentary blaze, I see twenty to thirty enemy soldiers moving towards us. Then the flames disappear and darkness engulfs us again.
Our position is now pinpointed. We switch our weapons to semi-automatic to conserve rounds—our ammunition is almost spent.
Suddenly, a voice crackles through the radio. The beating, staccato chop of the helicopter reverberates in the pilot’s voice as he calls out, “D-e-l-t-a, D-e-l-t-a, t-h-i-s i-s C-a-s-p-e-r. W-h-a-t’-s y-o-u-r p-o-s-i-t-i-o-n, O-v-e-r?”
“Casper! This is Delta! You’re getting close, sounds like you’re about a thousand yards out! Over.”
“ D-e-l-t-a, t-h-i-s i-s C-a-s-p-e-r. R-o-g-e-r t-h-a-t! H-a-n-g i-n t-h-e-r-e. W-e-’l-l b-e t-h-e-r-e i-n – a – s-h-o-r-t – s-h-o-r-t!”
The pilot continues his reassuring banter as he speeds toward our position, followed closely by a host of gunships bristling with armament. Glenn empties another magazine into the darkness, ejects it from his M16, and jams in his last twenty-round clip.
Suddenly, a gunship pilot breaks onto the airwaves, “D-e-l-t-a, t-h-i-s i-s t-h-e c-a-v-a-l-r-y! W-e s-e-e s-t-r-a-y t-r-a-c-e-r-s. G-i-v-e u-s – a – m-a-r-k a-n-d k-e-e-p y-o-u-r h-e-a-d-s d-o-w-n! W-e-’r-e g-o-i-n-g t-o w-a-s-t-e C-h-a-r-l-i-e f-o-r y-o-u!”
Bobby screams, “Stamper, the gunships need a mark! What’ve we got?!”
“Tell ’em we’ll give ’em a strobe!” I yell, dropping to one knee. I grab for my ruck sack. “Keep the gooks off us!”
At the sound of the choppers, Casebolt pulls us into a tight group, “Johnson—over here! Glenn—come on!”
Out of nowhere, a saving white light races overhead as a Huey slick attempts to draw enemy fire away from us. A flash of hope and excitement floods my mind, “C’mon God, get us out…” I tear at my rucksack, fumble around and pull out an emergency strobe light. I quickly hit the release lever on the M79. It opens like a shotgun. I flip on the switch, slide the strobe light up the barrel and snap it shut, concealing the bright flashing light from the enemy. I aim the M79 at a gunship as it makes another pass over our position. Colston shrieks over the din, “Keep down! They got the light and they’re com’n in!”
Two Cobra gunships tear out of the night sky like sharks crazed by blood. With teeth glaring, they cut a wide circle around our position and shower the jungle with bullets that fall like hailstones, breaking branches and slamming into the enemy soldiers. Four mini-guns growl in revenge—spewing out a combined firepower of twenty-four thousand rounds per minute. Three more Cobras race into the arena and join the fray. Showing no mercy, they fire rockets—two and three at a time into our predator’s position.
Together, we form a tight huddle and I hold the M79 high in the air. With the strobe as a focal point, the gunships bank hard, pouring streams of fiery-red tracers into the jungle around us—a mere twenty yards from where we stand. Like a frozen statue, we remain motionless while the gunships circle our position. Working outward, they drive the NVA back—everything in their path is destroyed. The air is thick with the acrid fumes of fuel and gunpowder.
Colston hollers, “They’re bringing a slick in! He’s dropping a rope ladder! We have to make it the first time–the gunships are almost empty!” A Huey hovers over the crater and the naked stand of trees. Quickly, we move out from our cover and into the open. A ladder falls from above and we awkwardly climb, rung-by-rung while the chopper weaves and bobs with our shifting weight. Halfway up the lifeline, a flare suddenly pops and turns everything into instant daylight. AK47’s crack in unison and a barrage of bullets heads our way.
The crew chief screams into his radio, “Douse those lights, you idiots! No flares! No flares!” A volley of AK rounds rip into the metal underbelly of the chopper as it tilts forward and picks up speed—dragging us through the breaking branches. We aren’t high enough! Racing over the jungle, we strain against the twisting ladder. Pulling ourselves upward, we finally reach the slick and dive in.
“Help me get the ladder in before it brings the whole ship down!” the door gunner yells. Glenn and I flop onto our bellies and lean out into the rotor blast. Grabbing at the rungs, we wrestle it aboard.
Suddenly, the pilot turns his head, “Gentlemen, we have a problem. This bird’s not going to make it to LZ English. We’re too heavy. You’re gonna have to get off so I can limp it back to base.”
Ten minutes later, the Huey touches down on a barren mountaintop. Charged with adrenaline, the five of us bail off the ship, celebrating our tenuous victory over death. But in the back of our minds, we all know that soon, he’ll have another chance to even the score.
“At ease, Specialist.” I stand at parade rest, my hands behind my back, feet slightly apart. I wait for the captain to continue. “How is Drill Instructor School coming, Stamper?”
“Fine, Sir,” I answer. “Got through my second week in good shape.”
“Good. Tell me. Where did you get that Ranger patch?” He points to my shoulder with his index finger.
“In Vietnam, Sir.”
“Well, you can’t wear that patch around here.”
“I don’t understand, Sir,” I protest. “This is my authorized unit patch—November Company, Airborne Ranger, 75th Infantry, Sir.”
“It may be authorized in Vietnam, but it’s not authorized in MY Company. THIS is the ONLY authorized Ranger patch around here,” he replies smugly, tapping the small, black and gold snipe on his right shoulder, boasting in his eight-week, state-side training course. Unlike November Company’s insignia, the captain’s tab has no unit affiliation—he’s a shake n’ bake officer whose never seen a day of combat. “Do you hear me, Specialist Stamper? Remove that patch,” he orders.
“Now.” He slides a pair of scissors across the desk. They may as well have been welded shut. One by one, I see the broken and bloodied bodies of my Ranger comrades. They died wearing the patch.
“I’m sorry, Sir, I can’t do that.”
“Specialist Stamper, do you realize that I am a captain—and I am giving you a direct order to remove your Ranger patch?” he threatens.
“And do you understand that if you disobey my order—I will have you court-martialed?”
“All right then, I’m going to give you one more chance. As your CAPTAIN, I am giving you a direct order to cut that damned, unauthorized Ranger patch off your uniform. NOW!” he yells, and points to my shoulder. I look down at the beautiful red-and-black scrolled insignia. I see blood. I see their sacrifice. It’s impossible. The patch is sewn to my soul.
“I’m sorry Sir, I can’t,” I say softly, staring at the wall behind his desk. The captain explodes. With a jolt, he springs from his chair and rushes towards me. I stiffen as his bright red face draws close to mine. We stand pupil to pupil.
“Sergeant Barker! Get in here!” The door to his office opens, and a young sergeant enters.
“I want you to escort Specialist Stamper here, back to his former platoon, and see to it that he remains restricted to the base until we can arrange for his court martial—and put him on detail. There are plenty of cigarette butts lying around that need to be picked up.”
“Yes, Sir.” The sergeant steps back and holds the door for me.
“Dismissed!” the captain spits with disdain. I salute, turn on my heel and follow the sergeant out the door.