Our contest, Once Upon a Time, was created as an incentive for all writers to commit to writing the novel that they may only have talked about. Concurrently to the administering to this contest, as most of you know A Word with You Press has been preparing Fred Rivera’s manuscript for publication, and a significant portion of the funding came from our own readers who donated to our Kickstarter campaign. Being his publisher and editor, we could not in good faith enter Raw Man into the competition.
But we would like to share his first chapter, and perhaps the second. We will also be publishing the work of Mike Casper, also ineligible because we are also his editors.
We are very pleased to share this with you, and do hope you will share it with your friends. The manuscript is now in the hands of Teri Rider, our designer, and publication in hard copy will follow soon.
(Please note: No attempts have been made to edit the actual letters that Fred sent home; they were written often under front-line conditions, at night, by torch-light, and without the benefit of spell check!)
by Fred Rivera
“My soul,” he repeated. “It’s gone.
I’ve been without a soul since the war.
I killed a boy. I did wrong.
I can’t feel a thing.”
“War And The Soul”
Edward Tick, Ph.D
It makes no difference what men think of war. …
As well ask men what they think of stone.
War was always here.
Before man was, war waited for him.
The sink in the men’s restroom at the Long Beach VA hospital took an overdose of Percocet this morning. I was shaking so violently that half the bottle fell in. I salvaged what I could. I only hope those pills help take away any pain the sink might be experiencing today. As for me, they stopped working some time ago.
I am in chronic pain, and spikes like I am having today bring out the worst in me. They insidiously remind me of the time I spent in the jungle of Vietnam.
The VA gives me 100 percent disability for the pain and suffering resulting from me getting blown off my track in 1969, and for 30 years of inescapable, intrusive thoughts of war. PTSD can hit you out of nowhere and it came roaring out today.
My father is dying of cancer and I’m trying to be with him as much as possible. He is surprisingly reflective, considering all the drugs they have him on. My war ended nearly 30 years ago and Dad’s over 50, but I’m discovering psychological wounds linger longer than some physical ones do. Dad still has nightmares from his time in WWII.
After I OD’d the sink, I came struggling out of the bathroom to see Dad’s newspaper open to the crossword page. Five down was a three-letter word for armed conflict. Transfixed with terror, twenty-seven years after I got on the flight home, I saw that Nam War was Raw Man spelled backwards.
I’m pretty raw today.
Face Toward Enemy
The rain came five days ago and has not stopped for one minute. No mail has come in or out through this fucking weather. The wind is so strong that the resupply choppers can’t make their drops. We started heating C-rations with what is left of our C4 plastic explosives. No one has shaved or brushed his teeth in a week. Benson and Billy have malaria and we can’t dust them off in a medical helicopter. A scorpion bit me last night while I was trying to scrape the mud off my boots. My hand swelled up to the size of a baseball and burned like hell. Doc Sykes, the troop medic, gave me a shot of Soldier’s Joy; that’s what we call morphine. We all carry ampoules of it.
Doc does the best he can. We all do. Doc has his hands full with broken men. There are worse wounds to tend to than a scorpion bite.
Morale is so low that fights are breaking out within the platoon. Rain sizzles on hot tempers. There is so much rain, it can’t just be the weather; maybe God crying His eyes out for what His children are doing to each other down here, or maybe for what He has done to us.
I feel like I’m an octopus living underwater. Two of my tentacles stay busy cleaning my weapon, one swats away mosquitoes, and three stay busy setting up trip-flares and Claymore mines. One tentacle holds a cigarette in my mouth while one rubs my feet. My feet are so swollen from jungle rot that I can barely walk. I have no dry socks. The mud is two feet deep. Last night we got hit with rockets and the damn things didn’t explode until they hit solid ground. We were sprayed with mud. This was far superior to catching shrapnel, but annoying as hell.
We’ve been up along the Cambodian border for more than two weeks and our platoon is shrinking. Vehicles are broken. Machine-gun parts and ammunition are in short supply. Men are dying. Worst of all, we are running out of cigarettes.
I hate this place. I hate the NVA, I hate the Army. I hate everyone and everything.
Well, almost everyone.
There is one guy that I’ve grown particularly fond of. He is my best friend in this muddy, wicked world. His name is Herman.
It was in the early days of our time in the field. Herman came walking toward me holding a canteen of Kool-Aid, a lit cigarette dangling out the corner of his mouth, and a rucksack full of wires and detonators. He had a big smile on his face and his eyes were wide and happy, and he handled the explosives like a sack of groceries. He ignored the “no smoking” part of the field manual when working with this shit.
“It’s Howdy Doody time. It’s Howdy Doody time. Come on, let’s set some mines. It’s Howdy Doody time!”
He still sings that stupid song to me when it’s our time to go out at night. What a team we are. Our job is to set up the Claymores and trip-flares. I put up with his shit and he puts up with mine. He tries hard to hide his fear with this cheerful little tune, but I know he is scared. Christ, I am too. This is when I love him the most. Our fear is our bond, thicker than the mud that cakes around our ankles.
The unhurried way he moves and sways with such nonchalant swagger while swinging the bag of death over his shoulder has a certain graceful terror to it. His grin lingers behind him like the Cheshire Cat as he moves about. He is a slim black kid from the streets of Detroit. Just another Jack who was drafted, like me. Both of us hate the Army and make no attempt to do anything more than survive another day. We smoke pot and drink and party in the middle of this fucking jungle while rocket and artillery shells ring off in the distance and the arc lights from B52’s cast long shadows in the triple canopy forest.
“Charlie gonna get you, boy,” he beams each night. “Mr. Charlie just waitin’ on your sad ass.”
I love the way he handles himself after years of growing up fatherless in the ghetto. The way he teases me makes me feel warm inside.
Every evening after the platoon clears a landing zone, Herman and I go out into the bush together beyond the perimeter to set traps for the enemy. Claymore mines are concave sheaths of plastic explosives about the size of a quart of Jack Daniels filled with hundreds of small shards of shrapnel. Claymore mines are funny. On one side reads the inscription “Face Toward Enemy.” That always struck me as bizarre. As if some junked-out GI would actually face it toward himself? I suppose it has happened. Claymores can wipe out four or five Congs at a time. We set trip-flares across trails, or what we think the route of an enemy soldier might be. It is haphazard at best. What do we know?
Herman just wants to get the shit set up and get back inside the safety of the perimeter as soon as possible. We are alone in the jungle at night and his fear is contagious once you cut in under the masquerade he always wears.
“What was that? Did you hear that? Man, let’s get out of here,” he would whisper.
We weren’t always up here along the Cambodian border with six dead Americans stacked like cordwood 100 meters in front of our track. It was a long, cruel turn of events that brought us to this place.
One summer night we would take part in one of the more bizarre adventures of our young lives in this already strange place called Vietnam.
Thursday May 1, 1969
Dear Mom and Dad,
Well, here I am in Vietnam and it’s raining and hot. I was not able to change my MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) yet. Everyone here knows that I’m a professional musician, but they say my MOS is too critical. I’m an Armored Intelligence Specialist which is just a fancy way of saying a Scout. I’m still trying. I just flew in to my Base camp. I’m about 45 miles north of Saigon with the 11th Armored Calvary. We call the Base camp Blackhorse. The Blackhorse is the symbol patch for the 11th Armored Calvary. I don’t know what troop I’ll be with yet because I have to go through a week of jungle training here with live fire. Don’t worry about me-the heat doesn’t bother me too much. I’m in no danger yet, I just want you to know I’m all right. I’ll write and give you my address and tell you about what I’m doing as soon as I can. I have much to tell you about the people and the country. The people live ten times worse than in TJ.
Suddenly, in the middle of writing this letter, two white guys I didn’t know came up behind me and peeked over my shoulder.
“Well, at least he knows how to write in English,” the taller of the two said.
“What part of Mexico you from, beaner?” the second one chimed in.
I stared the smaller of the two in the eyes and said, “Fuck off you little piece of white trash!”
The taller one pushed me to the ground and they both started laughing. Even at that distance I could smell the booze on their breath. I scampered to my feet and now that I realized they were drunk off their asses at ten in the morning, I felt the fear leave my body only to be replaced with anger. I grabbed the shorter one in a headlock and rammed his head into a tent post. A small cut opened on his forehead.
“What ya do dat fer?” he asked, as he wiped the blood out of his eye. “We were just fucking with you.”
“Would you have pulled that kind of shit on a white guy? Can’t you see I’m in the middle of writing a letter?”
Just then, two black guys, Benson and Olgovey, came walking back from the chow hall. Benson looked at my dirty uniform and the blood on the ofay’s head. Benson is close to six feet two and though I hadn’t gotten to know him yet, he stopped and
asked, “Everything all right here?”
The two white drunks didn’t even acknowledge Benson and started walking away.
“Couple crackers,” I said to Benson. He gave me a smile, slapped my hand, and he and Olgovey continued on their way. I gathered my writing papers and turned back to my letter.
This place stinks like burning sewage. It’s weird to be in a foreign country and I can’t get used to the fact that I’m in a war so far away from home.
So far, the only thing that I’ve seen or heard of the war was a B52 raid about 25 miles from here last night. The ground shook and the sky lit up. This country has a strange beauty. It’s lush and green and the ground has a strong reddish texture that turns into crimson rivulets when it rains. It rains constantly. There are more stars at night than I have ever seen in my life. It will be an interesting experience. I have to go and process in right now so I’ll see you later.
In the first days and weeks I couldn’t sleep because of the heat and the noise. The reality of my life had changed in just a matter of days. On Friday night I was out with my friends cruising down Hollywood Boulevard, looking for girls.
On Tuesday, I was here. On Wednesday I saw my first dead body.
All night long, jets and helicopters fly low on their way to missions. Rain, rain and more rain. Rain makes mud and mud makes misery and misery makes for desperation. The heat is unbearable and the humidity as thick as butter. Changing my clothes is not a top priority. The heat dries me off to some degree, but the humidity leaves me in a state of constant dampness. The smell of mildew permeates everything.
On my second night in country, one of my new acquaintances blew another guy’s head off with a shotgun. I saw it. Everyone was jumpy. We were FNG’s (Fuckin’ New Guys). Anything that moved, we shot. I never knew the dead American soldier’s name. There was loud talk to hide the quiet dread. We were homesick babies in a strange land, but at least Herman and I were becoming tight.
We liked the same type of music and listened to The Four Tops and The Temptations for hours on end. We talked about the big things in life. We chuckled at the small shit and for that week in the rear we became inseparable.
We had arrived in country within days of each other. Herman set foot there first and in that situation even four days more experience made him an old-timer in my eyes. He knew the ropes so to speak. He knew where to cop the dope and where we could go to smoke it. We talked for hours about life back home.
“Levi Stubbs is a mother-fucker,” I said.
“You know about Levi?” Herman was surprised.
“Of course I do. He’s the lead singer for the Four Tops,” I replied.
“Fred, man, how you know this shit? This ghetto shit.”
“I’m a musician, Herman. Been playing blues and R&B all my life.” All my life amounted to a scant twenty years. “I’ve backed up the Coasters and the Drifters and an R&B singer named Peppy Hill. Been hanging with the bloods for years. I know about Otis Williams out of the Temptations. They are both Detroit groups. Tell me you don’t know them.”
“You a brother from another mother,” he smiled. “Damn, Fred, you blow my mind. Let me take you with me to meet the brothers. They’re going to love you.”
It didn’t take too long to figure out that the blacks hung with the blacks and the whites hung with their own. Being a Mexican hippie from California, I decided I would go over and meet the brothers. The confrontation with those two white guys the other morning had me all mixed up.
That incident brought back memories of when I was in high school dating a white girl. Her father came to our front door one morning and told my dad that he didn’t want me seeing his daughter anymore because he knew “how Mexicans treat their women.”
My father was flabbergasted. He should have punched him out but my father was above that. As a boy growing up in a small town in Arizona, my father knew racism. The white sheriff who ran that town never gave the Mexican kids a chance to be kids. He would drag them in on a whim and accuse them of mischief for the pettiest of things.
In Globe, Arizona, the temperature often climbed to 110 and the only respite from the heat was the public swimming pool. City ordinances forbade blacks and Mexicans from using the pool until the day before cleaning …
Herman led me past the latrines and mess hall to the far side of the camp, where he offered me up to adoption by my new family. The group was waiting for me.
I already knew Benson, a tall muscular bad-ass from Oakland. He was the most politicized of the bunch. He said that he had joined the Black Panther Party before all the shit went down with Eldridge Cleaver. Benson hated the white man and was always talking about how he was just here to organize the black soldiers into groups of radical pacifists.
Olgovey was a northern black from the DC area. Although he partied, he never seemed to get as fucked up as the rest of us. He was a soft-spoken man and he seemed to look a little older than the rest of the guys. He was light-skinned and took teasing from the other fellows who called him “high yellow.”
Doc Lewis had just arrived from Fort Sam Houston where he trained to be a combat medic. He was slender and had a likeable personality. He was our platoon medic.
Herman was right. They did love me.
Outside of our little group, nobody really knew anyone else. Blackhorse became a stopping off place for green recruits to acclimate to both the weather and environment. Here the real training took place. I took my basic training at Fort Ord, California and my advanced infantry training at Fort Knox, Kentucky. Blackhorse was the first place that I actually was put in a real combat situation with live ammunition.
And some ammunition? Not so live. This is where I first learned of the punji sticks. These sharp, pointed sticks were tipped with human shit. It caused infections in the wounds. These and the most horrid kinds of booby traps were placed in holes covered with leaves and brush. The Vietcong took pride in placing traps in the most mind blowing manner of concealment.
Every morning our engineers left the gates of the compound to sweep the area for mines. Every evening the Vietcong laid more. Every other day one of our guys would be killed by the one we didn’t find.
The Vietcong wanted us out of there, and they were patient and single-minded.
It was easy to get into a groove in our first week in country. Blackhorse was an Army camp, basically the same as others we had trained at. Our barracks were decent enough, just a place to lay your head down at night. There were communal showers and outdoor toilets. The camp smelled like shit because every morning we had to drag the 50-gallon half drums out from under the latrine and pour diesel fuel on them and let it burn. It really was the shit detail.
The base camp also had a PX, a snack bar, and a movie house. Like every other military installation in the world, it had a bar. Herman and I decided to grab a cold one and walked into this little club that boasted a pool table. What we discovered there surprised the hell out of us. They had a TV!
It was funky and old but we watched the Smothers Brothers with the Beatles and got so high that later that night during an artillery exchange we just sat there, watching TV.
“Is that incoming or outgoing?” Benson asked.
“Not to worry, my man; if it’s your time it’s your time.”
Doc was getting philosophical. One week in country and we were becoming believers in predetermination. I swear it was to be a credo we would live by. If it’s your time, it’s your time. There it is.
Two weeks ago this thought had never entered my mind, but now, out of experience, it had become a kind of religion.
Around 3 a.m. an airplane flew over us and started spouting propaganda in Vietnamese. With its loudspeaker blaring, it circled for about twenty minutes and we couldn’t figure out what its intention was. It turned out that there were two regiments of Vietcong around our perimeter and the US Psych-Ops were telling them to give up. I thought that was pretty hilarious because they had us surrounded and outnumbered and we were instructing them to give up. That combination of arrogance and naïveté set the tone for what was to come.
After a week of in country training, we sat ready to go out into the jungle and start the countdown of days until we got to go home. M-16’s and ammunition, flak jackets and helmet liners, ponchos and canteens were issued. Some uncaring supply clerk handed me three pairs of socks and four pair of olive-drab underwear. I prepared to go to war.
Thursday May 15th, 1969
Dear Mom and Dad and Sister,
Sorry I haven’t written but things have been a little hectic. I flew out in a helicopter last week to the troop’s position in the jungle. The first thing that I see when I get off the chopper is a guy with no shirt wearing a necklace of human ears. He has a jar of them. I don’t know if he was born
this way or if the war made him dinky dao. His angry attitude turns off most of the veterans, but all us FNG’s stay away from him because of the necklace of rotting flesh he wears around his neck. It is gritty and the stench of death follows him. His name is Ted Clementi and he is from Ventura. He has been out here for about six months and everybody calls him Sgt. Rock after some comic book hero. He knows what he’s doing. Our biggest worries are RPGs (Rocket Propelled Grenades) and land mines. Sgt. Clementi likes to blow things up. On the second day that I am out here, he spots a mine on a trail. He jumps off our vehicle and straps some C-4 plastic explosive to a hand grenade and runs like hell. Everyone’s laughing. Lieutenant Cutter is not pleased, but Clementi gets the job done. We have Kit Carson scouts with us. They are former Viet Cong who surrendered and came over to our side and their sole job is to be on the lookout for mines on the trails. Clementi always makes sure he has one of them by his side so that he can show his heroics. A grenade without C-4 would do the trick but Ted loves a big explosion so he straps C-4 to the grenade. I am assigned to a vehicle which will more or less be my home for the next year. He is my track commander (TC) and he has decided to take me under his wing. I’m the driver on his track. A track is an Armored Personal Carrier. A crew consists of a driver, two M-60 machine-gunners, and a TC that mans the 50 Caliber Machine-gun. I’m in Charlie Company, Third Platoon, vehicle four, so my call sign is Charlie 3-4 Delta. Delta means driver. There are four of us on it and we live on the track. All of our activities take place on this piece of metal that I call home. My friend Herman is also assigned to my track. He is the left side machine-gunner. The left side guy fires his M-60 directly over my head. I’m glad that I wound up with him. I don’t know where Benson and Doc are, but Olgovey is in the same platoon with us. Anyway, this troop I’m in has been in the jungle since March so the brass has decided to give us a rest. They are a little squirrelly. I have only been out here for a month and luckily I’ve seen no action other than that mine incident. Today we drove into Lai Khe. Lai Khe is the 1st Infantry Division’s Base camp. We will be here for 7 days. It was spooky coming here. We drove all day, passing through the jungle, rubber plantations, and grasslands. When we thundered through a village, I really felt weird. We come rambling down the main road with our tanks and tracks and I don’t know what to expect. Millions of little kids came running out of nowhere and I’m afraid that we are going to run them over. Everybody starts throwing C-rations and chewing gum and candy to them; and as we move along, the kids always start fighting for the food and yelling. I could see the ones that were scarred from the war. There are little five year old kids with burns, crippled children. Then we pass an orphanage and they just stare at us through the fence. I feel like crying. No one will ever know what it is like to see this war. Every building we pass is riddled with bullet holes. There are B-52 bomb craters everywhere. You should see those craters. You could put our house and garage in them. We stopped in the village long enough to buy Cokes and beer from some little girls. They charged 50 cents a can. Then we take off and come to Lai Khe and never look back.
This week we will be pulling maintenance on our vehicles. Out of necessity, I’m becoming a pretty good mechanic. I don’t want to get stuck out in the jungle sometime when my track breaks down. You know, this is the only war ever to be fought where the GI can watch TV and listen to the radio. My platoon Sgt. has a battery operated TV and when we’re out in the field, we watched television at night. On our Way to Lai Khe, Ted keeps his radio going on top of the track. Yes, I’m in the Iron Triangle. I don’t know where we’ll be going next week but I will stay in touch. I miss you all.”
“What’s with the fuckin’ ears, man?” I asked Herman. We had been filling sandbags on the edge of the perimeter as was our custom late in the afternoon. After four days in Lai Khe, preparation to go back to the bush was our top priority. Herman grabbed the bags and stacked them on the side of our track.
“He says it keeps the gooks from going to heaven or some shit. They believe that if they have any part of their body missing they can’t have eternal peace.”
“That’s what I’m talking about. Can’t be with their ancestors, you know, it’s that Buddhist thing.”
“Buddhist thing? It ain’t a human thing. Ted Clementi is one sick son-of-a-bitch,” I said.
“Real hard ass. Jump up your bones if you don’t watch yourself,” Olgovey chimed in. “Heard he got sixty ears in them jars over there. Cross him good and he about to have sixty-two ears and one less nigger going to heaven.”
“You calling me a nigger, Vey?” Olgovey didn’t realize it but he had just paid me a high compliment. By him calling me a nigger I finally felt fully accepted into the group. I had a home.
“It’s just bad karma, that’s all I’m saying. He doesn’t have to be cutting ears off just to fuck with them. Christ, they’re dead already. Let them be.” I stopped short. “Why you all looking at me like that?”
“You got a lot to learn, Freddy Boy.” Herman stood up now. “That man Clementi, he crazy, yeah, but that mother-fucker will save your life if you keep close to him and learn a thing or two. They don’t teach you the things he knows in training. You think that the next gook that comes up that trail and sees his buddy’s ears cut off and the Blackhorse Patch sticking out his ass, you think he isn’t going to think twice about fucking with us? Pure intimidation, my man.”
Olgovey rose and pointed a finger out into the darkness.
“Charlie out there right now looking at you. You don’t see him but he sees you. You need a man like Clementi to even out the score. He’s a killer and he enjoys it. Cut the mother-fucker some slack, Jack. He will take care of you. Let’s get some sleep,” he said, walking away.
Herman and I stayed up another hour or so after Olgovey left. We sat for a while, not able to talk. It was apparent that still being inexperienced in the ways of war, our nerves and courage would be tested upon going back into the jungle.
“What are you thinking about Herman?” I finally asked. It was quiet, and it was dark, and the false sense of bravado that preserved Herman during the daylight hours gave way to the deeper Herman I had come to love.
“About if I can kill as easily as Clementi. If I can actually take a life and enjoy it.”
“I don’t think that anyone enjoys it,” I said. “He’s just
been here a while and seen some shit. When we go out tomorrow you better be shooting over my head, mother-fucker.” We all knew of many accidents occurring in the past. Drivers always had to have trust in their gunner. It was too easy for him to squeeze off a burst right into the driver’s head. “I’m glad you’re my gunner. I trust you. When the time comes you will know what to do.”
I said this without knowing that I would be the first to be tested.
“Don’t worry ‘bout a thing, my man. Herman got your six.”
The military had a great way of laying out the battle field like a clock. Directly in front of me was 12:00; 90 degrees to my right was 3:00 and if I turned completely at a 180-degree angle to my rear it was 6:00. Funny, the word six also had another connotation. It was the lieutenant’s “LT” call sign. In military jargon, an ass and a lieutenant meant the same thing. To my eyes, Cutter never did a damn thing to change that connection in my head. Herman and I decided to smoke some dope while we waited to hit the rack. I must have been in a mood of loving everyone, because I wrote a strange letter to my friend Bob. He was a musician I had played with before I got drafted.
May 15, 1969
“Christ you know it ain’t easy …,” Living like an animal is quite different then living with them. You’ll just never know how fucked up this living in the jungle is. If Charlie don’t get you, the bugs will. I’m with the 11th Armored Calvary Regiment. Our motto is “Find the Bastards and then pile on.” Remember those things parked on Greenwood Ave.? I’m probably riding around in one of those armored personal carriers that we saw every day. Well it’s my home. I could never explain to you what it’s like to be in a war. Lee Michaels always sings “How would you feel if you saw a baby burn?” Well, we drove through a village yesterday. Millions of little kids came running out holding their hands up. I waved. They weren’t waving man. They were begging. They were starved. So everybody started throwing C-/rations and candy down to them and I was afraid we were going to run over some of them the way they were fighting for the food. Man what a fucked up thing. I’m getting bitter, real bitter. I hate the rich bastards that are sitting back getting fat off this war. I was crying when I saw these people and how they live. Then we passed the orphanage. They just stared at us and the burnt ones and the crippled, they weren’t begging. I could see that they already got something from the Americans. A little kid gave me the finger and I threw up.
This troop I am with is battle tested and there are some real hard chargers with us. The majority are guys like me and Herman who are still jumpy and waiting for some action. Somebody walked up behind some cat and he turned around and blew the guys head off. Just like that. Guys die, life is cheap here. My crew-I love them-nice guys. Hillbillies and blacks at that; there is tension but still, they might mean the difference between me living or dying. There is such comradeship. Hey what a fucking trip. I mean it!
I really find it hard to tell you what it’s like. I’m in another world. Jungles, monsoon, orient, weed, rockets and death. I want to live. The other night we got righteously ripped and we were sitting around when all of a sudden “BOOM!” My friend Herman said “Man, I hope we’re not getting hit because I’m too fucked up to walk,” He was right. Total oblivion on three hits. No way to fight a war. Maybe the only way. We will see. Well, take care. Write if you can.