THE AMERICAN HERO
I was staring into the flame of the gas fireplace, when my eight year old niece crashed herself on my lap, and asked, “What was it like to be a soldier?”
A roaring river of laughter filled my memories. After a month of fear punctuated by brief, sudden firefights, rocket attacks for no good reason, stupid accidents, the unremitting war within the war between and among the enlisted men, the enlisted men and the officer cadre, the other enemy, as well as The Lifers, and the Commie sworn bejeezuz enemy, we were all nuts.
Sandrigo was in my squad. He was a twenty-one year old from San Francisco due to rotate back to The World about six months into my tour. His favorite possession and obsession was a photo. It was of photo of him the day before he went into the army. He had a big toothy grin, a tie-dyed shirt, and long, greasy, black straight hair that was about foot below his shoulders. He showed the crinkled piture to us at least once a day. As his time to leave approached he began to whip out his photo four and five times a day. He loved to show it to me because I still had six months to try to survive after he left. “Hey Adin, mah man! Look at this shit, will you?” He’d be holding the photo up about foot in front of my eyes. “Six, seven months from now, that’s the way I’ll be lookin’ again. “He was wearing that shit eating grin that wouldn’t stop. I loved Sandrigo. He would be twirling the tips of his out of regulation moustache with unrestrained glee. “Nobody grows hair that fast Sandrigo. Not even you!” I said. With that weak riposte, he’d poke me in the chest doing a dancing backpedal, maniacally laughing. “Then I’ll get me a fookin’ wig until it grows in, shiny and dark and all greezy and long and straight.” We would both crack up, and he turned around singing a song about, women, showers, flush toilets, and clean sheets, as I lost his voice in the din off a flight of Hueys comin’ in, kicking up a storm of dry red dust that filled our mouths, sliced our faces, and left us blind.
The same pattern was repeated until the night before Sandrigo was going to leave. He wanted to have “an important” meeting with the squad, all seven of us. At 2:00AM that night we clustered in a bunker to hear what Sandrigo’s big deal was all about. We gathered around him as he spoke in a hushed voice. “I really love youse guys. You know, you are all brothers to me. I will never meet any of you again, but I’ll always remember all the days we spent together, no matter if they were good or bad.” I looked up at Smitty, East Saint Louis Smitty, whose future plans included joining the Black Panthers to off some pigs when he got home, and I didn’t know whether he was about to laugh or cry. “HAH!” He yelled in his outside voice, startling us all for a moment. Sandrigo was laughing as he continued. “When I get back to San Francisco, I’m going to find six tabs of the best LSD I can find and send it to Adin. I’ll test taste it for you first, of course. You think this place is some shit? Wait ‘till you get this shit!” Now, he was beside himself, melting in his laughter. He was going home. He had survived. We all cracked up at his idea. I don’t think any of us had taken acid before, but the idea sounded great to us. We all smoked some weed, told stories, and eventually, just before daybreak, we shuffled back to our assigned bunkers at the fire base near DakTo.
The next day Sandrigo was gone. As the days and weeks passed we forgot about Sandrigo and his acid. Things happened. It rained for days, it got cold, tiny scrapes and cuts quickly became infected with some awful fungus that oozed, stunk and was green and fuzzy. We ate our cold C-rations out of tin cans. I traded three small cans of baked beans and franks for a tin of angel food cake and a tin of fruit cocktail. It was my favorite combination. One cold, dark, windy late afternoon, we gathered for mail call. My name was called out, and there was my daily boohoo letter from my mother, and another letter with my name on it. The return address was printed in tiny letters; I couldn’t make out who it was from. When I got into a bunker I could read the return address: Dr. Franklin Zappa, One World Circle, San Francisco, California. It was from Sandrigo. I carefully opened the letter. Inside were two index cards and between them was a white piece of blotter paper, with two rows of four light blue dry drops of some liquid. On one index card were four words. “Blue Owsley. Be careful.” I ran over to the six other squad members who were lingering around waiting for another letter or package.
I found Sanders first. A proud Alabaman, he was due to go home in a couple of months. I told him about Sandrigo’s letter. Sanders said, “Cool. Let’s drop it now. Times a wastin.’” I reminded him that we had a three-day patrol starting tomorrow, and Sandrigo said the LSD would last for at least twelve hours. We had to wait. Sander’s looked at me. “Aw, fuckit. We’re trippin’ anyway. Adin you boys from the North waaaay too uptight. Besides, who’s gonna know?“ For some reason it made sense to me. Who would know? Smitty and Rendon had the same reaction as Sanders. I decided to hide the acid until we could work this mission out. I found Duncan and Bamberg and told them.
I looked for Waters and finally saw him near the perimeter transfixed by the sight of the new guys pouring a mixture of diesel and gas into the bottom half of a 55 gallon drum. The drums had been dragged out from under the latrine. “Waters, what are you doing, man?” Waters looked at me as if I were an idiot. “I’m checking the prevailing wind direction. I don’t want to be on the down wind side when they torch the shit.” Waters was a tall, thin dude, with a shock of thick blonde hair that stood straight up even if he wore his steel pot all day. He was from a small town in Vermont and was the only college graduate in the platoon. He was teaching high school chemistry when he got his draft notice. He should have had some sort of deferment for teaching in a public school, but somehow it didn’t play out that way, and now he was in Viet Nam checking out the daily shit burning ritual. He was a good guy with a sly, understated sense of humor. I told him about the acid, and he looked off in the distance. “Hey Waters, you remember Sandrigo telling us he would send us LSD, right?” Waters smirked. “Yeah, but I didn’t know it was an acid.” I had no idea what he was talking about. “Huh?” I responded. Waters sounded serious. “Do you know what the pH value of that shit is?” and chuckled to himself at my ignorance or his cleverness. “Waters, what the fuck are you talkin’ about?” Waters put his long arm over my shoulder and said, “Adin, you’ve gotta cool out and not get so emotional about everything. Bad for your health. So when are we going to take it?” He smiled as he turned back to watch the shit burners just as they were torching it.
I wandered off wondering why everything had to be so complicated. We went on the boring, uneventful patrol, spending hours whispering about what a ‘trip’ might be like. We were lucky we weren’t ambushed. The NVA could have heard us in Hanoi. Back at the Fire Support Base we were each assigned to a bunker or fire tower at the perimeter each night when we weren’t out doing something else. Two troopers at each location, two hours on, three hours off. There was no way for us to drop the LSD together. It had been quiet for a few days, and nothing was going on in the area except for continuous artillery fire, out going. Just before we were taking off for perimeter guard we gathered up, and I ripped the blotter paper into eight pieces. We all popped them in our mouths and took off. “Smitty took two. I’m a big dude,” he chuckled.
About an hour later I was tripping. No doubt about it. In the darkness I was watching my red, glowing blood flowing through the veins in my hands. Suddenly my wired telephone handset rang. It was Duncan. He sounded a little weird: his voice had multiple echoes. “Adin, I’m trippin.’” “Yeah me too,” I answered. After that Duncan’s words poured over each other in some reverb chamber, and I couldn’t understand him. Duncan’s call was followed by Bamberg, Smitty, Waters, and Rendon. I recall some panic setting in when Smitty asked what we would do if we were attacked by the white pigs? Someone thought it was funny and began laughing hysterically when I put the phone handset in its cradle. I was laughing so hard I was crying and was gasping for air, when the loudest crack I had ever heard in my life bounced me against the sandbag walls of the bunker. The bunker partially collapsed around me, and I was stuck under the stinking, old, moldy sandbags. I was tripping on acid. Cracks and explosions followed one after another. I looked at my watch again and again, but I couldn’t tell the time. After either minutes or hours, I realized it didn’t matter. I clawed my way from under the bags, and crawled into a corner of the bunker when suddenly it was sunrise.
Even the sunglasses I wore day and night couldn’t stop the sun from going through my eyes and out the back of my head.
I looked out through a gun port and saw Sgt Waring, our platoon sergeant, jogging towards me. I could hear the sirens, the Hueys medevacing the wounded out, and all the screams and hollering that follow a heavy rocket attack. The acid was wearing off, and Waring was coming to arrest me and send me to jail. It was all over for me and my fellow dwarves. “Adin, what the fuck are you doin’ in here? Get out and help for chrissakes! Do something. Now, I said! Find your squad and do a headcount.”
I gathered up my shit and walked out into a blinding-white, brilliant sunshine. A few weeks later at mail call, I got another letter from Sandrigo. At first, I was going to tear it up into a million pieces. I noticed the return address had his name on it.
I opened it, and in between two index cards was a photo. The note on the card read, “Forgot to write. A lot of busy shit goin‘ on back in the world. It’s taking longer than I thought. But I’m still cooler than you.“
A photo fell out from between the index cards.
It was Sandrigo in a blue-white tie dyed tee-shirt, a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, giving the peace sign pointed at the camera. He was wearing a shoulder length bizarre blonde wig which was flipped up at the ends. He looked like a blonde Hollywood babe from the ’50’s.
I never did see him again.
© Marc B Adin, 2012