Excerpt: Carl Melcher Goes to Vietnam by Paul Clayton

Pleiku Province, Vietnam, 1968...

Dak-To was situated on a broad plain of reddish dirt. The mountains that we had lived and humped on, were now just a low dark smudge on the horizon. On the morning of our first day in Dak-To, they sent all the guys with bad teeth over to the dentist, one at a time. When my turn came, Gene told me to report first to Battalion Headquarters to get the proper paperwork.

When I got to the HQ, they were in the process of moving to another building. Three 5-ton trucks were lined up on the dirt street, and inside, boxes were stacked everywhere and people rushed around carrying things. I found the guy I was supposed to report to, a skinny Specialist Fourth Class, with a bad case of acne, wearing starched and pressed jungle fatigues. He frowned at me. "Another cavity for the dentist! Don't you guys ever floss?"

"Yeah," I lied. "My company doc said to report to you."

"Name?""

PFC Carl Melcher."

"Have a seat." He swiveled in his chair and pulled open a file drawer. He turned to me. "Serial number?"

"US52912846."

He took a manila folder from the file and set it on his desk. Sniffling from a cold or something, he jammed a preprinted form in an old Royal typewriter and started typing with his index fingers. A few minutes later, two guys in green tee shirts came by and started wrestling his file cabinet onto a hand truck.

"Whoa!" he said. "Where you goin' with that?"

The bigger of the two guys smirked. "Go cry on Sergeant Vicker's shoulder, Chucky boy. He said everything's gotta be out of here by ten hundred hours."

The clerk watched them in angry astonishment as they took his file cabinet away. He sighed and went on typing. When he was through, he yanked the form from the typewriter and handed it to me. "Give this to the dentist."

I started to get up.

"Wait," he said. He gave me the manila folder. "I'm not gonna be here an hour from now. You better bring your 201 file with you. When they finish with your teeth, take it to building seven on Colonel Childer's Avenue. You got that?"

"Yeah. Where is that?"

He drew me a little map on a sheet of paper and I went outside.

The dentist, a Captain, was a fat, baldheaded guy with glasses so thick his eyes looked the size of silver dollars. He was your typical Army officer, a sadist. He gave me a needle, but when he started drilling, I felt like he'd plugged a one hundred and twenty volt outlet into my tooth. I pushed him away.

"What's the matter, son?" he said. He was smiling.

"I can feel every revolution of the damn drill!"

"Okay, okay, we can fix that up. Relax now."

He gave me another shot, but a minute later I was out of the chair. He apologized and I decided to give him one more chance. I got back in the torture chair.

I had cavities in three of my front teeth. He had to give me four shots, numbing my entire face from my hairline to my chin, from ear to ear. After he finished, I felt like I didn't have a face anymore. I went into the latrine to make sure it was still there. Then, I went outside.

It was a beautiful day. The sky was blue and cloudless, the air full of smells - diesel fumes from the occasional truck rumbling by, the smell of asphalt from a road they were laying nearby. These were the smells of civilization, of men working outside unafraid. Like the smell of bread baking, or a freshly opened can of ground coffee, I hadn't smelled these smells in a long time and I breathed them deep into my lungs.

I walked down the wooden sidewalk. Free of my heavy rucksack, I felt strong and light as air, as if I could walk forever. I was four blocks from the new Battalion Headquarters when I turned a corner and came upon the scene of an accident. A five-ton water-tank truck had evidently broken its water valve clean off when it backed up into another truck. Water gushed from the valve like the flow from a fire hydrant, turning the dirt street into a sea of chocolate pudding. Just then a jeep turned the corner and started down. I knew he wouldn't make it through that mess and I stopped to watch from the sidewalk. The jeep driver tried to maneuver past the two trucks and got stuck up to his axles. He rocked the jeep back and forth, the whine of the engine barely covering the angry curses of the only passenger, a big-bellied Captain dressed in starched and pressed jungle fatigues. The Captain divided his efforts between leaning over the side to frown at the spinning wheels and yelling angrily at the driver. The tanker-truck driver was gone. Perhaps he'd gone off to report the accident.

The Captain looked around and spotted me. He waved. "You! Come over here."

I tiptoed over, managing to not dirty my pants. I stood in muck up to my boot tops, looking at him.

"Well," he said angrily, "don't just stand there, push!"

I pushed as hard as I could, synchronizing my pushes with the rocking of the jeep. The wheels threw mud, coating my pants from the waist down.'

The Captain turned and frowned at me. "What the heck's that in your hand?"

I'd been holding onto the manila folder containing my 201 file with one hand, and pushing with the other. Over the screaming of the engine, I tried to tell him it was my 201 file, but my lips were still numb from the shots and my words came out something like, "Bish my tudor on fire."

"Speak English, soldier."

I tried to explain a second time, louder.

He shook his head and looked at me like I was crazy. "Put that down and push, soldier. That's an order!"

"Yes, Sir." I put the file behind the driver's seat and leaned against the jeep, pushing as hard as I could. After a few minutes of rocking back and forth, the jeep quieted. The jeep's springs creaked as the driver stepped down into the muddy soup and came around back to stand beside me. The jeep's springs creaked again as the Captain climbed behind the wheel. "Now, push, damn it!" he encouraged us. "Push! Push!"

With the reduced weight and the added muscle, the jeep began moving slowly forward, spraying us with buckets of mud and filling the air with clouds of blue exhaust.

"Keep pushing," the Captain shouted over the noise. "Keep pushing!" Suddenly the jeep's front wheels grabbed dry land and the jeep lurched forward, pulling me flat onto my face in the mud. I looked up to see the driver climbing aboard. Without a look behind, they drive off, bouncing and fishtailing down the street.

"Wait! My papers!" I yelled at them, but they were already turning the corner.

"Fat son-of-a . . . !"

Unheard by anyone but me, my words hung in the hot, dry air. Fear chilled the pit of my stomach. My 201 file was gone! I walked over to the tank truck and washed my face and hands from the trickle that now issued from the broken-off valve. I tried to think of what to do as I rubbed mud from my shirt.

I started walking toward Battalion. Then I stopped. What could I tell them? If I told them what had really happened they probably wouldn't believe me. I turned and headed back toward the line bunkers. I would get cleaned up and try to think up a good story.

I had just walked up to our bunker when Ted pulled up in a little jeep towing a trailer. Some big guy about six feet, with red hair sat beside him in the passenger seat.

Ted called to me. "Don't bother going in, Carl. You guys won't be staying there anyway. Is Ron there?"

I yelled in. Ron, Glock and Chico came out and greeted Ted and the big stranger.

"Fellas," Ted said, "I want you to meet your new squad member, Bubba Hampton."

"Howdy," Bubba said, with a twangy, western accent. "I'm glad to meet y'all."

"Welcome to the squad," Ron said. Glock, Chico and I nodded a greeting.

"Ron," Ted said slowly, "you and your guys aren't going to be staying here."

"We ain't?"

We all looked at Ted, waiting for him to say he was only joking.

"That's right. You guys are going to have to pull bridge guard for the next couple of weeks."

"Aren't you a little early?" Glock said.

"Huh?" Ted said. "What do you mean?"

"Well," Glock said, "we still have a few more things to unpack and stow in the bunker. Aren't you supposed to hide somewhere and wait till we're all moved in before you tell us this?"

Ted laughed sheepishly. He knew we were all angry. "Well, you guys should know by now that the Army works in mysterious ways. Ours is not to reason why, ours is but to do or die."

"Skip it," Ron said angrily. "We gotta leave now?"

"Yeah. Sorry."

Ron headed for the bunker. He stopped and turned to us. "You heard what the man said. Get your gear together."

As we loaded everything into the trailer, a cloud of disgust settled over us. Nobody spoke. We'd all been looking forward to Dak-To. They were planning a big turkey dinner for us next week on Christmas day. We climbed into the jeep. Strangely, though, our anger began to ebb almost as soon as the wheels of the jeep started turning. A cool breeze washed over us as we bounced along past fields and huts. After months of carrying rucksacks up jungle hills in the heat with the damned bullhead ants biting your face and the vines pulling you back and wearing you down, the effortless movement of the jeep ride worked a wonderful magic on us.

We drove through a lot of open, brush-filled country that stretched out to the Highlands. It was deserted and I guess if there'd been any enemy around it would've been a good place to ambush us. But Ted said the area had been secured for years. Indeed, after the boonies, it seemed as safe as New Jersey. I tried to speak with Bubba, but the whine of the jeep's engine and the rush of the wind made it impossible. From the bits of conversation he shouted at me I gathered he was from North Dakota, cowboy country. He really looked it, too. All he needed was the boots, hat and a horse.

The asphalt came to an end and we bounced along on a dirt track, raising clouds of dust. We drove through a small village Ron named "Tin Can City" because of the corrugated roofs on the houses. It was a strange place. Everything in the village was the same dull, tan color - the houses, fences, the leaves on the trees, even the children who lined the streets begging for C-rations and cigarettes - all coated with the flour-like dust from the road. Ted said that when the convoy from Pleiku, about fifty trucks, jeeps and tanks in all, raced through here, it raised so much dust it took a whole day to settle.

At the edge of the village, a group of little boys, their skinny legs jutting out of their shorts like chopsticks, waved and yelled at us. Realizing that we weren't going to give them anything, they threw some rocks at us.

The river was only another mile or so down the road. I had pictured something like the Delaware River between Philly and Camden, about a mile wide with big oil tankers anchored there and ferries moving back and forth. This was different. About fifty feet across at its widest point, it was more like a creek, but it ran swift and looked to be about twenty feet deep. The bridge was temporary, made of steel plates hinged together, and floating on these big, black, rubber pontoons. Downstream the concrete supports of the permanent bridge they had been building rose out of the water, bristling with rusting reinforcement rods. For some reason or other they'd stopped working on it.

Our compound was small, just a ratty-looking bunker surrounded by a chest-high jumble of concertina wire. A huge, solitary Chinese Banyan tree rose from the sandy bank across the river, its branches hanging almost to the water. And across the street was an old, French fort with timber walls and watch towers. It looked like a Hollywood set for a Western movie. It was occupied by ARVN soldiers.

We went in our bunker. It was poorly constructed, the walls being only one sandbag thick.

"This would never stop an RPG," Glock said. An RPG was a rocket-propelled grenade.

"How do you know?" Ron asked.

Glock ignored the question.

Bubba put his hands on his hips decisively. "I'll start us a new bunker, Ron."

Ron smiled. "Okay, but first we got to get started on a hootch to sleep in."

We used our ponchos to begin building a big lean-to sleeping hootch against the old bunker. Bubba started digging the new bunker. As we worked, a crowd of onlookers gathered. The old women, who were called mamasans, were black-toothed from chewing betel nuts. Despite the shade from their conical hats, their faces were weathered and tanned. They sold cokes, beers and black-market cigarettes out of nylon, fish net bags. Small, trim ARVN soldiers stood singly or in pairs. Some smoked as they watched us, others stood with their hands behind their backs, smiling occasionally, a gold tooth or two flashing in the sun. Around and under the adults, a bunch of happy, raggedy-dressed children ran and played, yelling and raising a dusty din. I took a break and bought a drippy-cold can of coke from one of the old mamasans.

Someone tapped me on the leg. A little boy of five or six, wearing a tattered, blue, rayon playsuit held up a black leather case. "You buy?" he asked me. Inside was a nice pair of Japanese binoculars.

"Maybe," I said, "let me see." I walked back to the compound. He anxiously followed me to the wire. "Wait a minute," I said. I left him there and climbed up onto the bunker roof. I put the binoculars to my eyes. Across the street, an ARVN guard in the corner tower picked his nose. I swept the binoculars over to the bridge. The Engineer who maintained it pulled a cigarette from a pack, Kools. The binoculars were quite powerful. The engineer lit his cigarette and crawled down into one of the pontoons with a wrench to fix something. Out in the street Ron and Glock were talking to two teenage Vietnamese boys and a teenage girl.

I turned the glasses back in the direction of Tin Can City and saw a beautiful, young, redheaded girl walking down the road. I had never seen a girl this beautiful. She was wearing black pajama pants and a white blouse. As she got closer that Steem Masheen song, "Pretty Girl," was playing from a radio or in my head, I couldn't tell which, and I projected the two of us into a sort-of movie together, me standing out there on the road as she approached, winking at her, and then her giving me a look as Turk sang, "shimmy show and sh immy shake, naughty girl you make me ache," and then she throws a look at me and I wave her over and we start to dance right there in the dust to those driving guitars and that rapping beat. I'm swinging her around and around, looking in her eyes and singing, " . . . do you boogie just like me?" and we just laugh like crazy.

She went into the Engineer's hootch and my little movie jammed in the projector and the house lights came on. Dag!

I climbed down from the bunker. The little boy walked up to me.

"You like?" he said.

"Yeah," I said, looking back at the bridge, "I like a lot."

"Twenty dollar," he said.

I gave him the money and he gave me the binoculars.

Carl Melcher was a finalist at the 2001 Frankfurt eBook Awards in Germany, along with the work of Joyce Carol Oates (Faithless) and David McCullough (John Adams). Now available as a quality paperback at Amazon.com, it will be released in hardcover in July of 2004 by Thomas Dunne, St. Martin's.