Small clouds of dust rise as the patrol moves carefully down the road. Three men with metal detectors are in the lead, checking for mines planted overnight. This ritual begins each day on the firebase. Once the road is clear, the convoy from Bien Hoa can travel in safety, or what passes for safety in the No Man’s Land of Vietnam, bringing the day’s load of supplies, returning vets and maybe even some new guys. The patrol carefully works its way toward Route One where the convoy will be waiting.
The morning is already warm, the men sweating. Dave Reed walks behind Stickman who sweeps his metal detector in a slow arc. Reed carefully studies the wood line on each side of the road. After seven weeks in country, Reed is determined to let nothing come at him unseen.
Voices from behind distract him. “Shit man, how much longer are those clowns gonna take? This patrol is getting real old.” A quick and stoic reply: “It don’t make no difference. We’re there when we get there. Enjoy the fucking stroll.”
No difference, Reed thinks. That’s about it. Nothing any of us can do about this shit. Just roll with the punches and hope. His thoughts wander back to anti war demonstrations when he was in college. In that other world. We thought we could stop the war, that our outrage would make a difference. Did me a lot of fucking good. Reed’s attention lurches back to the present. He watches Stickman’s metal detector moving rhythmically. He eyes the wood line. What am I doing here, he asks himself as the heat, the dust, the barren swath and dark green wood line converge.
Stickman stops suddenly. He moves his metal detector back and forth over one spot. “Engineer up front!” he calls.
The engineer, a beefy specialist Reed does not know, walks leisurely to the front of the column, accompanied by the lieutenant.
“I think I got something.” Stickman says gravely.
“Let’s see,” the engineer grunts, taking the earphones from Stickman. “Now move the plate over the spot.” The patrol stands silent, waiting with equal parts boredom and apprehension, as the engineer listens.
“Yep, you got something alright.” The engineer turns to the lieutenant. “LT, better move everbody back while I check this out.” As the patrol squad begins to move, the engineer is already probing the area gingerly with a bayonet. Within five minutes, he has located and defused a 12 pound anti-tank mine after first dismantling a small booby trap set to detonate the mine on any one trying to remove it. The patrol continues forward. A minute later, the morning stillness is shattered by the explosion of the now harmless mine. Shit, Reed thinks, that was big enough to take us all out.
Two mines and one booby trap later, the patrol reaches Route One. The convoy is waiting outside a small village. Vietnamese vendors work their way up and down the line of trucks, selling wares, cold soda and food. A few women offer themselves.
“Where the hell have you guys been,” the convoy officer asks. He is slouched in the cab of the lead truck, the driver still asleep beside him.
“Protecting your goddamn rear-loving ass,” the lieutenant shoots back, only partly in jest. “We pulled up three mines with your name on it.”
“I guess that’s worth waiting for,” the officer replies, sitting up as the driver comes to life. “Better bored and hot than dead. Enjoy the mama sans,” he says with a grin as he signals to head out. The convoy lumbers forward, disappearing into its own dust cloud.
The patrol sets up on either side of the road to await the signal to sweep back to the firebase prior to the convoy’s departure. Reed is surprised at the assault of the “junk ladies” as Stickman calls them. He saw women selling items outside the gates at Bien Hoa when he came in country but now he is surprised by the patrol’s nonchalance at their presence in what is hostile territory. Reed watches with interest and apprehension as they circulate among the men, even the lieutenant.
A woman approaches. Young, but Reed can’t tell what age. Her figure indistinct under loose fitting black pants and white blouse.
“Hey, GI! You buy numba one fuck book,” she asks tonelessly. “Boo coo good pictures.” Reed examines her face, much closer now. Pock marks mar a pretty, round face.
“How much?” Reed asks, taking the book from her hand.
“Two bucks,” he says, flipping through the pages. Yes, indeed, he thinks, boo coo good pictures. His mind drifts to other times in places now far away.
“Numba ten!” she spits scornfully. “Five dollar.”
“Three bucks. Take it or leave it,” Reed offers. The woman hesitates, then agrees. Reed counts out three one dollar military payment certificates--funny money for the war, he calls it. Intended to thwart speculators, the certificates are readily accepted by Vietnamese entrepreneurs everywhere Reed has been so far. She carefully places the money in a small box.
Stickman’s voice calls out. “Hey, Dau! You come over and see papa.” She giggles slightly and walks over to Stickman, box under her arm. Reed watches them talk for a few minutes before they disappear from his view. His attention alternates between wood line, his recent purchase and activity in the Village.
By the time Stickman returns, Reed notices that most of the other women have acquired clients. He’d heard talk about getting laid in the village but it had not occurred to him that guys would do it on patrol. When else, he thinks. It’s not like we get passes to come into the village at night. Reed’s crotch tingles at the thought. The picture book had reminded him how long since he’d held Sarah. Back in The World. Before Nam.
Reed is startled when Stickman approaches. “You wanna go next? Seconds on Dau ain’t bad,” Stickman says with a grin. “And she’s got some really good weed.”
“Well,...um...I don’t know, man. We’re on duty,” Reed stammers. His mind balks even as the rest of his body says YES.
“Of course we are but you got a duty to yourself, too, man. I’ll cover for you.”
Reed’s erection swells. “What about the clap?”
“No, sweat, GI,” Stickman says gleefully, tossing a condom packed in foil to Reed. Sheik. Deluxe Ribbed for Greater Sensation, the label proclaims. “Go ahead, she’s in the tall grass on the other side of those bushes.
Dau sits on a poncho liner, legs tucked under her. Except for the blouse loosely draped over her shoulders, she is naked. Reed stands nervously, admiring her small, fine body, now mostly revealed.
“You come here, “ Dau says with authority as she pats the poncho liner beside her. Reed takes a few steps and sits next to her. She produces a joint, lights it and takes a long hit before handing it to Reed. He takes a few puffs. Its soothing effect is not long in coming. They pass the joint back and forth a few times until it is exhausted. Dau kneels in front of Reed, her face not much higher than his own. He inspects her body. Small, well formed breasts. Almost no pubic hair.
“I give numba one fuck. Twenty five dollars.” Reed face reddens. He feels he’s supposed to bargain on the price but his crotch screams Take it. Take it.
“Uh...OK,” he answers. It’s only funny money anyway, he thinks.
“You pay now,” Dau says, all business. Reed feels cheapened by the sight of the bills as he counts them. Dau takes the money, placing it in her cash box. She turns to Reed and expertly pushes him on to his back.
The sun shines on two bodies rolling on the poncho liner. Electricity courses throughout his body. His heart pounds as he revels in Dau’s touch and the feel of her skin against his. He kisses Dau with intense longing and familiarity, drawn into her embrace, finding shelter and release after an eternity of boredom, fear and exhaustion. Their closeness reminds him, too, of how much he is missing. The joy of their union is mixed with the sadness of this place. Where he once had a life, a girlfriend and a future, Reed’s life now centers on this stranger, this moment. Nothing else.
Reed sits atop his hooch in the soft evening light, writing. “Dear Sarah,” he begins. “We’re back on the firebase after three weeks in the bush. So far, it’s been good, a real break after humping the boonies day after day. We had to patrol the road today looking for mines but it wasn’t too bad...I think about you lots and wish I were back with you all the time...”