It rusted metal and softened wood, and it made life miserable. And it just kept falling.
The Rain Just Kept Falling
The rain just kept falling. I had never seen anything like it. Stinging rain; warm straight lines of water streaking the landscape. It started slowly but with force, each drop almost a small puddle by itself. Slapping against my steel helmet, it quickly become a loud drumbeat of wild rhythm. It filled ditches and hung in the air like a shroud. It rusted metal and softened wood, and it made life miserable. The sound was deafening.
And it just kept falling.
"Hey McCarthy," I shouted above the roar. "Does it rain like this all the time?" McCarthy had been in-country for ten months, and if anyone had a question they brought it to him. He always seemed to have an answer.
He wore a rare smile as he watched the rain fall. "They usually don't bother us during the rains; not ground assaults anyway. Two more months of this rain would suit me just fine." His smile faded as he scanned the jungle covering the hillside, his eyes narrowed as if trying to focus through the wet prism.
"That would be a lot of rain." I shuddered as rain dripped down my back.
He slowly turned to me, his smile gone. "Yeah, that would be a lot of rain, but not as many bullets coming at you."
He was my age, twenty, but he looked older. His eyes were dark and empty, worry lines had already worked their way into the corners. His fingers trembled, even during the quiet times.
He pulled his poncho over his head and lit a cigarette, and smoke rose from the sides like steam from under a car hood. I wanted to ask him where he was from, but his poncho fell over him, ending the conversation.
I had been in Vietnam for a week, and in the red clay dust of Pleiku for two days, when I met him. I was assigned to a bunker with McCarthy, a short American Indian who reminded me of the profile etched into an old nickel. He was given the order to 'keep him alive' by the platoon Sergeant, an old man of thirty-five with a mature calm that seemed out of place here. As I watched the sergeant walk away from our bunker and disappear into the black night, I wondered what it would be like to be thirty-five.
My first night at the bunker was a noisy one.. The exploding rockets shook the ground and lit up the sky behind us. McCarthy ran for cover with a fistful of my shirt in his hand, pulling me along.
"Come on new guy," he yelled. "Those are in-coming." Another blast rumbled nearby and I suddenly knew what he was talking about. As we peered over the low sand bag wall of the bunker, small eruptions of dirt began to plume around us. McCarthy turned to me and shouted instructions, his voice urgent but controlled.
"Watch the left flank, and don't let anything through the wire." He spoke quickly, stress pulling at his face. Without another word he twisted right and I heard the staccato sounds of his shooting before I realized what he was doing. I turned and began firing frantically, the bullets invisible as they scattered through the perimeter wire.
What seemed like an eternity later, the blur of noise, smoke and frenzied radio chatter subsided, but it took much longer for my accelerated heart rate to return to normal. A fog of gunpowder hung in the air and stung my nose. No sound, except the ringing in my ears, reached me.
We sat on the ground afterward, the darkness surrounding us once again quiet.
"You did good, new guy," he said. With a shaky hand, he passed me a lit cigarette. With a shaky hand I smoked my first one.
"Yeah, I can't believe how long it lasted," I replied. A general tremor passed through me as I mentally counted how many days I had left before I would rotate home.
"Long?" he chuckled. "That was only a couple of minutes, three tops." His eyes narrowed. "You okay?"
"Yeah, I'm fine," came out, followed by last night's C-rations.
McCarthy's prediction held. Once the rains began, the ground action stopped. The peppering of rockets continued nightly causing only a few minor injuries.
The rain became something we celebrated.
Two months later McCarthy ran into the bunker and shook a handful of papers at me. "I got my orders..." His smile said it all. "Man, I'm going home! A Freedom Bird back to the world!"
His excitement caught on, and soon everyone was dancing around the bunker celebrating McCarthy's good fortune. The celebration continued into the night, and so did the rockets. But no one shot at us. McCarthy had been right about the rain.
I helped him pack the morning he left. On a day that should have been joyous, he kept his eyes turned down, he didn't smile and he said little. I could tell that the thought of leaving friends behind to an unknown fate dampened his spirit. But it was time for him to leave.
I carried his bag when the platoon walked him out to the waiting helicopter. The rain soaked us, but we hardly noticed.
We were a quiet bunch of guys who were happy to see him go, but afraid inside now that he would be gone. He was a trusted friend, and
along with his experience, he took a large measure of safety with him when he left. I threw his bag into the belly of the aircraft and stood at the end of the line of men he had helped to keep safe, watching him say goodbye.
When he got to me, we stood in the drenching rain just looking at each other. He took my hand and put a ring into it; a gold band with a blue stone. "A token of our friendship," he said. "It's my good luck charm. It kept me safe. Wear it, it'll keep you safe too."
Slapping my helmet, McCarthy shouted above the roar of the rain. "Look new guy, you'll do fine." He looked up and said, "I hope this rain keeps up for you."
We stood in the torrential rain and hugged for a long time, and then a minute later the helicopter lifted off, the beginning of McCarthy's journey home. I watched it until if disappeared into the mist on its way south.
And then he was gone.
I returned to the bunker and fell asleep. When I woke three hours later I stepped out of the bunker into a brilliant sunny day with a cloudless blue sky. Lighting up a cigarette, I looked up into the canopy of wet trees, and as my gaze wandered the lush mountain side, I wondered what it would be like to be thirty-five.
Author's note: I never saw McCarthy again, but I still have the ring he gave me. Maybe it did keep me safe.
First Place Winner: Writer's Cramp entry for 5/28/12. Word Count 987