The last time I saw Charlie for real was in ’68. Yeah, my old nemesis – Charlie. I was twenty years old and still had my eyesight and all my limbs.
We introduced ourselves during the Tet Offensive. Got up far too close and personal.
I try to forget his face, that look where I knew I was looking at myself, the screaming, the terror, the shit in our pants. And then his face wasn’t there any more. And my legs weren’t either.
I try to forget the smell. That smell of fear, my acrid, stinky sweat, the purple smell of slick, gushing blood. No wonder they call that damn medal a Purple Heart. Dunno about the heart – when we got back home the public sure showed their hearts weren’t in it.
The sounds are the worst though. When a chopper goes overhead these days I still can’t breathe for a while. Those Chinooks and Hueys back in ’Nam, we were in and out of them all day… their chopper rotors beating all the damn time; that relentless thumping, whumping rhythm. The crump of artillery, M16’s spitting and barking madly, the zing and whine of bugs and bullets, the boggy squelch of mud up to our armpits.
And my platoon mates’ primal vocals.
The memorable intensity of the silence. Yeah, it does have a sound. A gaping sound – a vacuum vortex, the wide-eyed hollowness of sucking Hell. Listening… listening real hard till your ears buzz… trying to listen for other sounds above your own heartbeat pounding your flinching brain.
Any little rustle, any little leafy shiver in that godawful clinging, steaming jungle.
And then a CLICK in the moist air… A broken twig? The safety catch off? A tripwire?
Charlie is unforgettable, no matter how desperately I try to erase him. How do I get myself calm? How do I get through my nightmares? What haven’t I tried! Booze – drinking myself shit-faced; drugs – whatever I can get my hands on – the slow, mellow melt into numbness, or that fizz-tingle of jangly neon colours. Sex could be up there as a release. Huh! Up there! Sick joke. Those bits don’t function now.
My nitro sprint days got dealt to in ’68. Like I said – lacking limbs. So I can’t get back to motorbikes and high-velocity, projectile speed – that ears-pinned-back blur of adrenaline, with its highly-tuned, roaring reverberations cleaving through space. Soooo sexy.
I tripped a land mine. It was mine all right. Had my name written all over it, written in my blood. My dog tags rattle. Blood type A+ Excellent. Go to the top of the class. Who’s a clever boy then? You’ll be fine… keep talking. Here, bite on this… I’ll just give you a little something. Stay with us…
The medics needed bags of the stuff for me. And body bags for the others. Tony, Rick, Davey, Mario…
Viet Cong. Victor-fucking-Charlie. Dunno where that Victor came from. Victory didn't happen. We left. We lost. We lost so many. All that pain and drama us boys went through. For what? Who cares?
He’s still here – messing with my head. The last time I saw Charlie was last night. No doubt he'll visit me again tonight. This Agent Orange sunset will always trigger it.
First things first: I do not have personal experience of this war. If my story causes painful memories or is offensive to you in any way, I sincerely apologise. I offer grateful thanks to those who serve our country in theatres of war.
1.) In late January, 1968, during the lunar new year (or "Tet") holiday, North Vietnamese and communist Viet Cong forces launched a coordinated attack against a number of targets in South Vietnam. The U.S. and South Vietnamese militaries sustained heavy losses before finally repelling the communist assault. The Tet Offensive played an important role in weakening U.S. public support for the war in Vietnam.
2.) The Purple Heart is a United States military decoration awarded to those wounded or killed while serving with the U.S. military.
3.) "Dog tags" is a nickname for the tags with identification information, e.g. name, blood type and religious preference, stamped on metal discs worn on a chain around a soldier's neck.
4.) Agent Orange was a powerful herbicide used by U.S. military forces during the Vietnam War to eliminate forest cover and crops for North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops. The U.S. program, codenamed Operation Ranch Hand, sprayed more than 20 million gallons of various herbicides over Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand from 1961 for more than 10 years. Agent Orange, which contained the deadly chemical dioxin, was the most commonly used herbicide. It was later proven to cause serious health issues (including cancer, birth defects, rashes and severe psychological and neurological problems), among the Vietnamese people as well as among returning U.S. servicemen and their families.