Author: The Writing Vigilante PM
A young man witnesses the evils of humanity first-hand in his personal brand of hell. In Vietnam, he learns about the nightmare of reality, the escape of imagination, and the bond of brotherhood.Rated: Fiction T - English - Drama/Tragedy - Words: 2,578 - Favs: 1 - Follows: 1 - Published: 03-28-12 - Status: Complete - id: 3008896
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In the helicopter, this place looked a whole lot better. A beautiful expanse of jungle was scattered across the land and thrown into royal colors by the setting sun. The vegetation was tall, thick and wild, completely lost to the ages. It was the magnificence of a world unmarred by the dirty hand of civilization. Though we were all awed by the scenery, we all felt like cattle-selected from a group of innocents to be shipped off to the slaughterhouse.
And we had a right to feel so. We were drafted into the war, forced to put our lives on the line, taken away from our family and friends for a cause we didn't even believe in. I still don't get why America was ever even in Vietnam. I was no hippie, but I definitely didn't understand it. We were reduced to animals-battle-scarred beasts hardened by screaming bullets and the deaths of our brethren. Humbled by our manes sheared close to the skull. Chastened by our boots polished with spittle. Absorbed by our mission, to aimlessly roam the jungle hunting our prey. We fought like animals, we died like animals. Animals, and that's all we were.
I entered the war as a frightened adolescent. At first I thought to make friends with my brothers in arms but I quickly learned better; it wasn't even a week before a man only three years older than me was going home in a box. But despite all my efforts, there was one guy I couldn't help but befriend. We called him Hawk-Eye, and we were closer than kin by the time it was all said and done. Oftentimes he woke me with the butt of his rifle, or a kick in the ribs. He was always talking about how he was going to marry his pregnant girlfriend and throw a big wedding he wouldn't be able to afford when he got home. I guess planning a future was Hawk-Eye's way of staying sane. Mine was keeping a sketchbook, which earned me the nickname "Sketch."
Clashes with Vietnamese scouts weren't uncommon by any means, and Hawk-Eye and I usually managed to emerge with only the occasional graze, but our epoch of good fortune eventually came to an end. I guess the day started just like any other, it's a bit fuzzy. A kick in the ribs, a moment of name-calling and cursing, then a powwow around some steaming MREs. And for just a moment, my biggest problem in the world was the condensation fogging my glasses. I vaguely remember doodling that morning but I can't remember what I drew.
There was a thick wall of trees to our left and nothing but elephant grass to the right, front, and back of us. I remember trekking through the waist-high sward and staring at the stagnant horizon with a muggy, sweaty haze enveloping me, sweat running down my entire body and soaking my uniform.
Now, this part I remember. Machine guns and rifles reported in a symphony of discord. I whipped around and looked at the trees like a deer stares at an oncoming car's headlights. I felt a heavy weight hit me in the face and I blacked out.
I faded in and out of consciousness. I remember hearing the whirr of helicopter wings. Hawk-Eye saying it was going to be okay. Someone yelling for anesthesia. The best I can describe it is an out-of-body experience. I remember feeling brain dead and helpless, hearing myself scream and feeling myself convulse but being completely unable to control it.
I guess whatever kind of drug they had me on was some pretty hard-hitting stuff. I dreamt I was in a morgue lined top-to-bottom, end-to-end with black body bags. I found one with my name on it and to the immediate left was one with Hawk-Eye's. I unzipped mine, expecting my own corpse, and discovered the remains of a timber wolf. My dog tags were around its neck, my glasses were perched on its snout, and my grey-blue eyes were in its skull-well, at least my left eye was. The right eye had been gouged out. I looked in Hawk-Eye's and found a hyena in the same fashion, smirking gauchely even in death. I frantically worked my way down the line, unzipping bags as I went, searching for a scrap of humanity. All I found were animal carcasses. All they had were dog tags.
When I came to, everything was white and reeked of sterility. I was propped up on a gurney; my back was sore, my neck was stiff, and my face smarted. I couldn't see much because my glasses had been removed, but I could see even less because I was missing an eye.
"Hey, Sleeping Beauty," chimed a familiar voice. "Looks like you finally decided to rejoin the living." Hawk-Eye was sitting next to me. He handed me my glasses, I reached for them and knocked them right out of his hand. Depth perception shot to smithereens, no pun intended. When I finally got my glasses on my face (all that was left of the right lens was a shard or two of glass on the edges), Hawk-Eye lifted the awkward silence by saying, "Don't you dare scare me like that again." I didn't say anything. I was trying to keep my composure. I had just lost an eye, for the love of Pete.
Hawk-Eye looked at his shoes, chuckling to himself. "Look at you. You have a real war wound. And here I am with a paper cut of a graze." He raised his left arm to show me his latest scrape. "Actually, I'm a little jealous." Only Hawk-Eye would be jealous of a missing eye.
We spent Christmas in the hospital. Hawk-Eye gave me an eye patch, told me I had to talk like a pirate from then on, and apologized for not being able to find a monocle to give me. I was just happy I didn't have to wear gauze over my eye anymore. That reminded me: "You know, we're going to have to go back out there soon."
Hawk-Eye guffawed, "I ain't going back to that godforsaken jungle!"
"Well, what's your ingenious plan, Captain?"
"We could always hitch a ride home and change our names to Hawk-Eye and Sketch."
"I have a strong feeling that wouldn't work."
"Realistic killjoy." I shoved a small book in his hands. It was a pocket-sized Bible.
"Great, just what we both needed!" He laughed, but we both knew it was true.
Once the pain subsided, the eye patch became a symbol of experience for me. It said, "That eye once saw many injustices. That eye once lived many terrors. That eye once knew many grievances." Hawk-Eye helped me regain depth perception, at least enough to get me by for the duration of our sentence. We basically played catch. We started with him throwing the ball at me, and I learned that I perceived objects closer than they really were. Once I mastered the catching, I worked on the throwing. It took me much longer to figure out where I was going wrong there, but I eventually realized that my vision was shifted to the right, so I started aiming a little too far to the left. By the time we departed the hospital, I could have pitched for the St. Louis Cardinals.
We returned to hell in a unit composed of brand new draftees. I overheard the pilot of the helicopter say into his headset that we were being dropped off extremely close to Hanoi, the capital of north Vietnam, and home to the most notorious Vietnamese POW camp, the Hanoi Hilton. I had already heard rumor that John McCain was prisoner there, which proved to be true. The soldiers in our squadron revered Hawk-Eye and me like gods of some long forgotten religion left to face the tortures of the world. They asked scores of questions, and when they spoke to me, they spoke to my eye patch. Hawk-Eye and I jokingly referred to them as "The Kids" even though they were all about our age. We stayed up late, wondering about the future, reminiscing on the past, and seeking salvation from his Bible. I took solace in John 16:33: "Be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world."
I started having regular wild dreams-rather, nightmares-about animals. About six weeks after the first vision, I dreamt about the timber wolf again. The hyena sang in its shrill, bitter laugh beside the wolf. They were retreating, or attempting to retreat, from a pair of boa constrictors. The boas cornered the ferocious duo, bound them, and killed the hyena. Its manic mirth ceased, but its toothy grin persevered. The wolf was livid at the death of his comrade. It snarled and frothed at the snakes, but to no avail. One of the boas wrapped itself around the wolf, the end of its scaly body muzzling the wolf's lamenting howls, and dragged it off into the night.
That was the first time I really pondered whether or not I was going insane. I only shared my dreams with Hawk-Eye. Our late nights became therapy sessions and he advised me to keep a record of my dreams. My sketch book became my dream journal, and my dream journal transformed into an account of horrors far beyond the ordinary man's imagination.
One fateful night, while Hawk-Eye and I were contemplating my latest nightmare, we heard a rustle in the brush. Out sprang two Charlies, yelling what I assumed to be a mixture of insults and commands in their native tongue. One held Hawk-Eye and me at gunpoint as the other slaughtered The Kids in their sleep. All we could do was surrender.
The two of us were ushered to a ramshackle hut of an outpost not too far from our campsite. Our captives stripped us of our gear, tied us to a post, and searched our belongings. Hawk-Eye got a mean case of the giggles. I swore at him and told him to shut up.
"This isn't real, Sketch. This can't be real! I mean, tying us to a post? I didn't think the Vietcong favored clichés!" His giggles turned into hysteric chortles. One of the Charlies yelled something in Vietnamese. Hawk-Eye laughed even louder. "It's all just one of your bad dreams!"
The Charlie got up, grabbed his gun by the barrel, and violently pistol-whipped Hawk-Eye. I heard his skull give way. The man snorted, spat out a single word in Vietnamese, and returned to his pillaging. Hawk-Eye continued to chuckle, now feebly and ominously. I thought I heard him mumble, "Do me a favor and wake up, will you, Sketch?" Eventually his laughter ceased entirely. I felt his postmortem excrements seep through my pants leg and I knew he was dead.
I don't know what came over me, but I do know that whatever was left of my sanity died with Hawk-Eye. I was beside myself in anger. I started yelling at the two monstrous models of mankind and foaming from the mouth. The one that had killed Hawk-Eye got up to do the same to me, but thought better of it. He replaced his gun with a gag.
And so the boa muzzled the timber wolf.
I'm not completely sure what happened between Hawk-Eye's murder and my captivity. I remember catching a glimpse of Hawk-Eye's body as I was pushed out of the shack. He was still smiling. I vaguely remember the feeling the unforgiving barrel shoved against my spine as I was herded through the jungle, but I wasn't interested in my freedom. All I could think about was Hawk-Eye. He was planning on being the husband he always wanted to be for his bride and the father he never had for that kid. All those hopes and dreams, squandered by a blow to the head.
Eventually, I found myself in front of a brick building painted eye-blistering yellow. There was a sign on the outside that said, "Maison Centrale," French for "Penitentiary," and, ooh la la, what a cheery visage it had. Waiting behind that brightly painted brick wall were unimaginable tortures. Words can't describe the sufferings that took place in the Hilton. On a good day, there was watery soup and a beating. On a bad day, there was no food and an interrogation. Attempts to ring any information out of me (and the other POWs, I assume) were desperate, but I knew just about as much as the Charlies did. On more than one occasion they gave me confession papers to sign. I always signed them "Sketch" and was flogged for it. There was much blight and no medical attention and that was the worst part. All hours of the day I heard sneezing, coughing, vomiting, whining, and above all else, dying. I accepted the Hilton as hell and I spent my lonely days of isolation contemplating where I went wrong in my mortal life.
Reality became a nightmare and my nightmares became my reprieve so I adopted them as my reality. As strange as it seems, they were easier to bear. In my reality I was the timber wolf forever mourning the passing of my brother in arms. In my dreams I was an American soldier tormented by a strange and savage world. My dreams followed a cruel routine and eventually they bled into each other. I lost count of the days, weeks, months, and years I spent dreaming about hell so I just branded it as an eternity.
The savage man paused his monologue to switch positions. The chair querulously creaked under his weight, which couldn't have been more than one-hundred pounds. The man was grotesquely emaciated and his acute facial features were almost hidden under a shaggy gray mane, giving him resemblance to a timber wolf. His right eye socket was hidden by a closed lid but still visibly hollow. "Then, in a quite recent dream, a decorated American soldier burst through the door of my cell. He smiled and said that I was being liberated. So he sent me to debriefing and here I am." The troubled ruffian snorted a laugh and looked off to the side. "Pretty anticlimactic, huh?"
The man sitting across from him sighed shakily-the emotionally weak man was holding back tears-and stopped the recording. "Thank you, Mister, uh…Sketch. Your account has been…" he flipped through the sketchbook, which had been recovered during the liberation, "…different." He raised from his chair and left the wolf to his own devices.
In the helicopter, Sketch caught one last glimpse of that cruel, savage land. The sun was setting, just like the time he first saw it. He leaned his head back on the seat, closed his eye, and allowed his woe to flow down his face. "Animals," he said to himself, and he looked out the window. "That's all we are."