for purpose, for truth, for the measure of a man...
Night is upon us. Dusk's last spray of light has bowed down to the full moon rising. Soon we will move with nervous calculation, but for now we huddle with our weapon, the cool hardness steady in our grips as our eyes peer into the jungle exploring every shadow and silhouette illuminated by grenades exploding into the turbulent skies above Da Nang. The light of the moon weaves between clusters of dense trees, taunting us with eerie shapes that appear angry and unforgiving. I am tired of crawling on my belly, tired of smelling the rancid stench of sweat and dirty bodies seasoned by the lives of so many men lost.
There is mud and small pools of stagnant water from the many days of rain. I am cold and wet. We just lie here still as sticks, waiting and waiting, seeing nothing more than the darkened shapes and shadows of this hell. My legs are aching to stand, but we wait until Leadman gives us the signal. Everything about Nam I've come to hate. We do what we are told for the good of the mission. We've been on point now for days. Our morale is low. We're exhausted and on edge knowing there's little hope of any R and R in China Beach, at least not until this stint is complete.
Every move we make is deliberate. We dare not make one mistake or our lives could be wiped out in moments all lost to a bright unforgiving blast of light. There are so many traps just aching to be triggered by some unsuspecting solider; traps that are as integral to this jungle as mosquitoes are to stagnant water. At last, Leadman gives the signal to move. We rise, thankful to be stretching as we make our way through the thick underbrush. We don't talk while on point. Hand signals and eye contact become our only means of communication as we descend deeper into the throes of this merciless jungle. After what seems like hours, we rest and I begin a letter home.
I'm in their backyard wound up tight enough to press down on the trigger of this M-16. I grimace knowing some of my fellow soldiers think nothing of stealing AK-47s from the mangled bodies of Charley littering the jungle floor. It's a day to day occurrence to walk into a graveyard of VC who met their demise from our forces. I just lie here waiting and seeing nothing in this blackness but hearing everything. We are on edge, and it's heightened by the unfamiliar and hardened by the awareness of the danger which surrounds us.
Beams of silver moonlight sneak around the small openings between thick trees. If I didn't know better, I'd say those rays of light were the arms of God reaching out. What an odd thought, for this war is man's doing. The God you taught me to believe in doesn't fit in the horrors of this war.
I can't seem to hang on to faith here, yet knowing you will read this brings me comfort. It's odd that I am thousands of miles from home defending freedom for a people I know little of when that same freedom eludes me. For now, it is my sole purpose. Mama, my eyelids are getting heavy so I must sleep. Soon, it will be my turn to keep watch. I'll write more later.
I'm lying beside a rivulet of black water near where the arch of gnarled trees weave in and out against variances of green, lush and prolific. Leadman lays down his M-16 to wipe his brow. His bald head reflecting the light of the moon as if it's a newly minted copper penny. Everyone sighs; we're shivering from the previous downpour which soaked our fatigues yet we're sweating from the mugginess. Bugs swarm around the mud layering our gear reminding us how vulnerable we are even to the insects of this foreign jungle. Leadman looks around at his men.
"We sure are a sorry sight, walkin' point, kissin' mud and lookin' for yellow bastards in a forest as thick as the Congo is long." He rubs his head then shakes his hand of the offending sweat. He stands with shoulders square and legs apart gazing at his soldiers before speaking again.
"Alright squad, let's rest here. We need this time to recoup before we reach the higher elevations of Hai Vun Pass so use it to your advantage, but I better not catch you dropping your head if you're on watch. Sticks, you're up first, then Jackson, you know the drill." Leadman is trying to mask the weariness by his rough demands but I could see through the stolid demeanor. I understand the preeminent need to remain cool and in command.
Jimmy D laughs trying to mask his nervousness yet his eyes reveal his fear. "Brothers aren't gonna be the same after this war. This war is whitey's solution to killing hundreds of niggas all in the name of freedom. Oh yeah brothers, Uncle Sam wants you, and we fell for it. Thinkin' if we came to Nam and fought for the red, white and blue then maybe we'd be seen as men. We'll be dead men if we don't get our black asses outta here." Jimmy D's face is riddled with anger. His dark eyes laced with the weight of past regressions.
A'Jay's lips curl up in an indignant smile at Jimmy D's philosophy. "Negro please! Man you're one crazy son-of-a-bitch!" A'Jay laughs at his own words. Soon, Franks, Jackson and Cysco are roaring and I can't help but laugh along in spite of the troubled look over Jimmy D's face.
When A'Jay recovers, he prods Jimmy D a little more. "Shit JD, brothers are strong," A'Jay says; his voice edgy with defiance. "We've survived everything thrown our way, study your history. We'll get our recognition mark my words, my brotha." A'Jay punctuates "my brotha" with a nod of his head and a click of his tongue.
Franks shoves Jimmy D on the shoulder in a gesture of camaraderie. Everyone watches in amusement thankful for the moment of respite. Franks catches A'Jay square in the face, studying him for a moment through wise serious eyes, the kind of eyes, that just seem to know. "A'Jay man, you outta quit trying to force feed us that black power crap. Not one of them militant brothers are here watching our backs. I've been around the block and seen everything from the corner." Franks takes a moment to collect his thoughts."You need to take all that pent up anger and direct it in a positive way. Cats like you come in the glory of their fight and perish in a smoky minute. Don't fight the man just the attitudes, but do it by being smart. Get educated. Anger just creates more anger. I swear; I've seen it with my own eyes. Don't be a statistic, especially not in your own backyard."
It's raining again and we take cover as best we can. I begin sharing stories my grandma used to tell of the slaves running north. How they would move toward the sound of trains, hiding from a Klan of white-hooded men with bloodhounds so close at times, you could smell their hungry breath. This war has us crawling on our bellies with our faces just moments away from mud. I suppose we should be grateful our mission isn't toward the Central Highlands where the fighting is more brutal as forces try to expunge the VC sneaking in through Cambodia. It seems we are suspended between the bitter ghosts of yesterday and the harsh realities of today. Then Cysco begins to sing under his breath. I settle down to add to the letter home.
"See the host all dressed in red coming for to carry me home; it looks like a band that Moses led coming to carry me home." The strain of the melody fades into the darkened night.
Mama, my spirit is low.
As I write this, I can't help but wander back to simpler times. When, on one of those long summer days we'd jump in the swimming hole, or go fishing. Oh, mama how I long for tall glass of sweet tea with a twist. I miss listening to stories of our people in Africa. It seems I can hear the distant beat of drums--the sounds of war are everywhere. The warriors of an ancient battle flash before me; a gunshot becomes the swoosh of an arrow. I see our native people dancing a ceremonial dance. Yet, a nearing flare of red-orange explodes, brightening the darkened sky as a zillion falling stars of shattered shellfire bring me back to our plight. I wonder, what is our purpose here? A true purpose is the vision Martin gave. I remember when I first heard him speak; he filled me with such pride and hope. His vision gave my life purpose.
Purpose. It's why I joined the movement. My youthfulness had me believing freedom would come by embracing non-violence. Even when I was thrust into the core of hatred and the target of racial slurs, spit and caustic glares, Martin's hope of a brighter tomorrow gave me strength to continue on. Only freedom didn't ring and it didn't flourish and blossom, it just "sagged and festered" like Hughes' poem, a "dream deferred." Mama, will I ever leave behind the sounds of war...the smell of death, will it forever haunt me? This iron piece at my side will either save me or bury me. Perhaps it's not for me to decide. I don't mean to burden you, just know I love and miss you. Mama, I've got more to write, so much more to say but I must pause for now.
Leadman motions for us to rise and move, deepening our pursuit away from the road meandering between Lang Co and Da Nang. We are in the sweeping mountains and misty forests of Hai Van. The scenery could arouse sentiments with its beauty, but there is no time or energy to spare on such pleasures. The humidity reminds me of the south I tried to escape. When I left the south, I was hoping to leave behind the Jim Crow laws and that oppressive way of thinking. What pushed me over the edge, were the grim faces of all the police lined up along the street. Their iron stances unwavering as they waited with rigid bodies, clubs at their side, daring the marchers to cross over the Edmund Pettus Bridge on their way to Montgomery. When blood spilled that Sunday morning in March, they did not relent. As their hatred intensified, so did their savagery. I left, vowing never to return. Now here in Nam, I wonder what makes me different than the segregationists back home?
When I headed east, I hoped to lay all my anger down. I was entering a city of brothers and sisters who knew my struggle. I looked forward to blasting away the vivid memories of southern trees swaying in the bitter winds of injustice. Harlem was beautiful to me! Before me laid an infinite city of blackness like I'd never imagined. Yes, poverty laid her cold cruel hand over Harlem, but all I could see was the colors of black alive. I didn't care about the worn down buildings sagging from the excess of life and lost hope. Coltrane's trumpet blasted out a window and Aretha's soul found rest in me. I was home.
Now, I'm so far away and so cold. And where's my hope? I don't have time to think about it because the smell of death lingers like cold, sticky rice and clings just like the mud in this hole I call hell. Even with this M-16 at my side, I don't feel as safe as I did the minute I walked into Harlem, and yet that safe feeling didn't last. It wasn't long before the invisible bars became too restraining. I was in a city within a city, yet I couldn't move like a free man, the pattern changed yet the picture was the same. Then I heard Malcolm speak.
Malcolm could make an atheist say amen, that's how passionate he was, how angry too. His message sparked new angst in me. He was absolute greatness primed to fight for the "liberty of black people." We were to "glory in our blackness." I had never heard anything like it. A black man talking about the white man being the devil. He was saying what I dared only to think, but the glory died with Malcolm and anger fell on Harlem as volatile as cold water on hot grease. We raced into the streets, defiant, looting and setting fires. Our outrage was fueled by years of oppression and injustice and by our own youthful, misdirected anger. We raised our fists in recognition of our blackness. The blackness here gets more encompassing and vast as we move toward the Annam Highlands. We have crossed over Hai Van Pass and I feel a strange sense of relief. We are purposeful shadows blending in with the dank and dense surroundings. Again, we take a short break and I unfold the letter I've been writing and prepare to add more.
Mama, I can't help but wonder:
Will I be forever haunted by the image of men lying mangled, forgotten, a carpet of corpses littering the forest ground? Often times when there is a breeze, my comrades and I can smell the rot of burnt and torn flesh. I can't even describe the horror of this odor but it stings your nostrils and burns at your eyes. I've come to realize, death smells the same whatever your skin color, whatever flag you are born to uphold. And mama, I have found glory in this mission. As an American, I now realize how much I have to be thankful for. I thank God daily I have you to write to. I need this, to write the demons out. I hope my words don't burden you too much. Writing clears my soul and brings such relief. It saddens me I must cut this short, however, I look forward to my next break from patrol so I can finish this letter and send it home.
When I left Harlem, I moved west to the heat and smog of Watts. I became tired of running only to find what I left behind facing me again. Blood lay thickly on the clubs of brutality. Martin's message gave me inspiration but inspiration couldn't destroy hate. Malcolm found glory but not in this world. When I left Watts, I headed north to Oakland and plunged into the ideology of Bobby and Huey. I even considered joining the scene in Haight-Ashbury thinking perhaps I would find freedom within the warmth of their communal living under the idealistic utopia of the"Summer of Love." But Oakland it was, for "free love" and drugs would only complicate and confuse.
The smoke from one too many battles burned at my eyes, and the shrieks of sirens mixing with the soulful sounds of Marvin singing "Make Me Wanna Holler" made me yearn for home. Yet, I never made it. Drafted. So here I am across the ocean. Now, I understand and appreciate the flag I thought didn't wave for me. The American flag holds victory for me. America is my home. Being on foreign ground, is as bad as being cradled in the arms of the confederacy. At least back home, I understood my enemy; often times, he was my neighbor. Here, there is so much confusion and I am so weary. My anger did not serve me well in the past. It was aimless and misguided. I pray I have a chance to redirect my passions once I get back home. If I get back home. Death keeps sneaking up on me. My gut says to everything listening, nothing will stand in my way of freedom. And yet, I hear the distant beat of Africa's drums.
The sounds of war are so close. There's a distinct air of disapproval and I can smell its stench just as clear as I can smell the musk of our bodies. We are all down low on the ground surveying a village. It's hot today and so humid, a stifling mist hovers in the air. The rains stopped some time ago and the forest ground is only damp. We're all wondering if the village is just occupied by harmless farmers and their families or if they're VC sympathizers. Strange, it seems my heart is beating like drums in my ears; pha-ba, pha-ba, pha-ba gaining intensity as we draw nearer to the clearing. I shake it off to exhaustion for we're wound up tight, coiled like vipers in a dank crevice waiting to strike out at anything that moves. I have a bad feeling about the village.
We spread out as we enter the clearing where a few sturdy huts rise up. We poke and prod with the nose of our iron piece and order the distressed villagers into a circle. The women in their no'n ba 'i tho hats, shelter their children within their protective embrace. Jimmy D becomes agitated by their sullen faces and their inability to understand the orders. His voice becomes louder. His screams cause the women to shrink and the children to clutch the fabric of their mother's au dais. His demands become louder, heightened by his own weariness and fear. He begins to pace, sizing them up. They're oblivious to his words. As if to make a point, a barrage of deafening shots course out of his AK-47 viciously seeking targets but only pulverizing mud, and grass. It was a harrowing image. For a moment we all froze unable to react, watching in disbelief. And as rapid as it ensued, it stopped. We all breathed a sigh of relief.
"Come on you bastards, talk before I execute your sorry asses. Where you hiding the guns? I know you have a shit-load of artillery somewhere in this motha-fuckin village because if you didn't you wouldn't be looking so smug and indifferent." Ajay and Cysco tried to calm Jimmy D down. His dark eyes flashing. Leadman along with Jackson rush over wondering about all the commotion. Jimmy D points his weapon at Leadman. His eyes crazy with affliction. I've seen that look and it's enough to make a man's soul crawl. I try to get control of the situation by reasoning with him.
"Jimmy D, hey man, ease up." I try to stay calm as I speak keeping my voice level and amiable.
"Come on, JD, let's not do it like this. What you are thinking? They are just harmless farmers. Listen, you have Janice and little man, Boxer waiting for you." At first, it seems he's not listening to me, but something came over him. It crawled inside and brought to light tolerance and reasoning. I search his face and see all the rage and pain that's been festering and gnawing at him for a lifetime trying its damnedest to restrain itself. My voice softens even more.
"Jimmy D, listen to me, we want to take you home.I know your pain. Let's not end it this way. We all want to go home." I walk up to him with purposeful caution as he was studying his AK, examining its length and rubbing his hands over its hardness. He crumbles to the ground and covers his face in shame. Out of my peripheral vision, I catch a glimpse of a shadow dropping out of sight. Jimmy D leans against the sturdy length of a tree. The devil releases its hold on him. He sighs with weariness and relief just as a flash of startling bright light explodes within our circle. Oh My God, is that the blade of copters droning over head or the distant sound of drums? The sweet taste of freedom is all too real. Its visible pulsating light, a beacon, as glory rolls across the ocean to call me home.
Dear Mrs. Johnson:
It brings me great sadness to be writing this letter to you. I'm doing so because I know by now you have been officially notified of Eli's death. Your son, my friend would have wanted you to have the letter he was writing to you while on patrol. Franks and I (Sticks) were the only survivors. We were on the other side of the village leading an inspection when it was demolished by an immense blast. Everyone who came in contact with Eli was strengthened and inspired by his calm reserve and sturdiness as a soldier. The ideals that shaped him ultimately became the ruler, if you will, by which he measured himself as a man. And I'm telling you from my perspective, he was a leader among his fellow soldiers; he was the pillar of his beliefs, he had grit and tenacity and love resided deep in his heart for life, for family, for God and for friends. I am a better man for knowing him. Enclosed you'll find the letter he was writing. He talked about you all the time. His love for you was profound and unwavering. I'm sorry for your loss, for our loss. I hope his words give you some comfort. You are in my prayers.
Kind Regards: Curtis Sticks
Mama I know you can't hear me, but I suspect you know I'm near. The beat of a drum is in my heart. The sound of thunder vibrates under my feet as I cross over a vast land. So beautiful. There is nothing but peace. Warm light embraces me. My journey is over and freedom calls me home. I taste its sweet nectar. A soothing voice invites me to lay it all down. And so I do, in God's grace, I do. When you look at an American flag mama, picture me smiling.