“….War is hell, but that’s not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead…..
“…Though it’s odd, you’re never more alive then when you’re almost dead. You recognize what’s valuable. Freshly, as if for the first time, you love what’s best in your life and in the world, all that might be lost.”
-- Tim O’Brien
The Things They Carried
Along with stories we shared about our respective families, Russ shared stories about his time in Viet Nam during the war.
There were humorous stories.
Like the time he and a fellow GI were playing the territorial version of “mumblety peg”.
(At least I think that’s what we used to call the old knife-throwing game we played when we were kids in the 50’s and 60’s. For those of you unfamiliar with the rules, players begin by marking out their “territories” – usually two identical plots of dirt about 4’ square, adjacent along one side. Players then take turns throwing knives into the other player’s territory. If the knife does not “stick” in the dirt, then the thrower cannot re-throw till his next turn. I remember lots of arguments about if the knife “stuck” or not. We used a “two-finger rule”, meaning that if you could slide at least two fingers, side-by-side, between the top of the hilt and the ground, the knife had stuck. If knife does stick, then the targeted player’s territory is divided into two parts, using the side of the knife blade to determine how the dividing line is drawn. The targeted player decides which part of the territory he wants to stand on, and the other part of the territory is permanently “lost”. As the game goes on, each player’s territory gets smaller and smaller. The game is over when one player can no longer stand in his territory. It is permissible to stand on one foot, but if your other foot touches outside the territory, you lose. It is also possible to lose because you “chicken out”. But if the thrower throws the knife and it punctures any part of the other player - blood being required as proof, then the thrower automatically loses. Tough luck!
I remember playing this a lot in grade school. I think my dad taught me. “Here’s another way - along with bb guns, bow & arrows, firecrackers and machetes - to injure yourself or somebody else.” “Gee, thanks, Dad!”
We played with Cub Scout knives. I remember them fondly – still probably the best throwing knives for a kid!)
Anyway, back to Russ’ story.
He and his friend were playing mumblety peg.
In Viet Nam.
Using Army-issued bayonets!
And Russ lost the game.
He had made a throw, and the bayonet went into his opponent’s boot and though his foot. Russ said it did stick in the ground. His friend got a free trip stateside out of the game, though. So there were no hard feelings.
Then there were semi-humorous stories.
Like the time he and his unit were helicopter-dropped into the jungle.
For speed and safety reasons, these drops were often made about 4’ to 6’ above ground. That way, the helicopters did not have to take time to actually touch down. And the troops could jump down safely and sprint off to cover.
This particular jump was made over a shallow river bed. In the Vietnamese jungles, the rivers often provided the only “open” areas. And the river-bed itself made a safe, soft landing more likely.
On this patrol, Russ had drawn the “radioman” assignment. It wasn’t a desirable assignment. The radioman still had to carry most of his regular gear in addition to the heavy radio equipment and antenna strapped to his back. This was a load of more than 50 pounds of gear. In addition, the radioman is probably the second most likely target, next to the officers.
Well, Russ made his leap out of the helicopter and into the river bed. And found himself completely underwater. Seems that the river bed at his drop site was deeper than it looked, and the bottom was pure muck. Russ said he spent many anxious moments waving the radio antenna wildly around, until someone else in the patrol noticed that Russ was missing and saw a thin metallic antenna/reed whipping in circles in the center of the river.
They pulled him out safely.
But Russ said he was never sure if he should cuss the radio out for weighing him down in the muck, or be grateful that he was wearing it so that someone could find his location quickly.
There were two other stories from Viet Nam that indicate what War can do to a soldier.
One was his first patrol.
Russ had drawn “point” – the lead position to a squad on patrol. The point man is supposed to identify any dangers ahead and relay that information back to the rest of the patrol. He is also supposed to choose the best routes. Logically, this position should go to the more experienced soldiers who were most likely to identify dangers and best routes. But the point position was also the most dangerous one in the patrol. That soldier was most likely to encounter the enemy first. So, using military logic and seniority, often the new recruits were chosen to take point. The reasoning is that this way the new recruits would learn more quickly. Additionally, since these new recruits had no combat experience, they were most expendable.
Russ was nervous about taking point. Hell, he was nervous to be on his first patrol.
Then the guy behind him offered to take point.
Russ wasn’t sure why. Russ told me the guy might have thought Russ’ inexperience might be more dangerous to both of them. Or, Russ said, maybe he was just being a nice guy. Russ didn’t argue. And they switched positions.
And they hadn’t gone on very long when Russ said there was a bright reddish flash, and some noise. And that’s all Russ remembered until he came to. In pain.
The point man, just a few feet ahead of Russ, had set off a mine.
There wasn’t much left of the point man. And Russ received wounds too.
And his first Purple Heart.
And a grateful heart.
The second combat story from Viet Nam was about an ambush Russ was caught in. Russ mentioned the date often. I believe the date was August 22, 1968.
I don’t think Russ ever told me the complete story. At least not in one sitting. But bits and pieces of it would some up in conversation.
I’ll try to relate it as best I can. I have to warn you though. I could be just “filling in” a very rough outline. I know that he had written down his memory once for post-combat stress session at the Veteran’s Hospital. But he never let me read it. He carried the scars of that battle deep inside. And it was hard for him to share at all. But I think he re-lived it almost every night.
Russ was on patrol with a group of about a dozen men, deep in a combat zone. Every patrol was dangerous. None were really routine.
This time, his patrol was ambushed. Surrounded. No place to run. No place to hide.
The firefight didn’t last long. But by the time it was over, all but two of Russ’ patrol were dead.
I don’t know how he survived. Did he find some cover? Did reinforcements finally arrive? Did he play dead?
I don’t know.
But he carried the scars of that ambush for the rest of his life.
(I encourage everyone to watch Mel Gibson’s film, We Were Soldiers. I was never in combat. Never even in the service. But I think, as a portrayal of military stupidity, and yet also a portrayal of bravery and courage and honor and FEAR in battle, it has few equals. If you want to get a glimpse of what Russ went through in this ambush, watch this film. And note especially the part about the one patrol that gets separated from the main group.)
(I think more than anything, my growing awareness over the years of what Russ went thru in the service increasingly hardened my heart to those who abused and harassed him during the twenty years we spent working together. And it increased my respect for Russ as someone who struggled to maintain the self-discipline necessary to treat the “position of authority” with respect while believing that, quite often, those actually in authority did not deserve that respect).