War and History Fiction posted March 7, 2012

This work has reached the exceptional level
Two lives connected in time (see notes first)

Dry Season

by bhogg

Natchitoches, Louisiana August 1979

Eddie Latour hated going to movies. His wife looked over at him, surprised he agreed to go. The two practiced date night twice per month, and it was her turn to pick. She thought he might enjoy the latest Francis Ford Coppola movie, 'Apocalypse Now'. He was a Vietnam Vet, having been there only seven years prior in 1972.

As she looked over, she caught Eddie with a big smile. Squeezing his hand, she thought, He's smiling, he must like the movie. Actually, Eddie hated the movie. The whole premise and content of the movie was totally alien to his experiences. What he was smiling about was one single line uttered by Robert Duvall, "I love the smell of Napalm in the morning." That line triggered an olfactory memory of its own.

Northwest of Dalat, South Vietnam, February 1972

Eddie leaned against his rake and mused. Some day, if I live to have children, one will ask me, "What did you do in the war, Daddy?"

"Well, dear, your daddy was a Master Feces Burner."

As a new arrival to his unit in Vietnam, he was participating in the worst task possible, latrine duty. The latrines were just small shacks. The support board had a hole that you sat on, and the 'business' fell down to a fifty gallon drum situated below. Every third day, a team composed of new arrivals intermixed with total screw-ups, was tasked with burning the contents of the drum.

The task itself seemed straightforward. One needed to carefully lift the door on the back side of the privy and slowly remove the barrel. Of course, the door was prone to slam down on unexpected fingers or toes, and the barrels, if not handled carefully would slosh around, or worse, tip over. Once the barrels were eased out, it was necessary to dump the contents into a common barrel and push the empties back, being careful to dump the total contents. You then topped the barrel off with a flammable such as gasoline, kerosene, or the fuel of choice, jp-4 (jet fuel). You could then light loosely wadded newspaper, throw it into the burn barrel and run like hell. The reason for running was clear. The initial burn was generally associated with a hot 'whoosh' which tended to contain more substance than just hot air.

The task, which should have been simple, was complicated by people doing the work. Many suffered from hangovers and a lot of the rest were chronic hop-heads.

Getting back to his rake, Eddie covered the dumped contents with lime and raked it around. Musing again, Eddie thought, It will be something when my primary memory of Vietnam will be the smell of burning feces in the morning.

Idiot work like this gave your memory a chance to flow. He thought of his father, a Lutheran minister, who practically begged Eddie to stay in college at LSU. He remembered the words, "Son, just stay in school. This thing will be over soon. You'll be able to do a lot more for the world by getting your education." The counsel was sincere and from the heart. Eddie didn't listen.

Smiling, Eddie thought, What would Dad think of me now? I'm serving my country by spreading toasted turds around the soil of a foreign country. I don't even have a name anymore. The name part was concurrent with his arrival about three weeks prior. Everyone called him Fung. He thought this to be some clever Vietnamese nick-name. It didn't take him long to figure out that it was an acronym for 'Fucking-New-Guy'. His sobriquet didn't even change with the arrival of an even newer grunt. He just became Fung-one.

The afternoon exercise was a welcome relief. He and a squad of soldiers were trucked out about ten clicks from camp. A new phase in the war was for the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, (ARVN), to carry the major combat load. American soldiers were supposed to provide training and back-up support. Unusual for a squad activity, the exercise was headed up by his company commander, Captain Max Lerner and a senior NCO, Sergeant Dan Benton. He supposed this high level of support due to a strong desire for the ARVN efforts to be successful. From what he heard and observed, it wasn't working worth a damn.

Perhaps to enhance the chance of success, the area for the ARVN unit to clean up had been bombed that very morning by a flight of B-52's. Even though miles away, he not only heard the explosions, he felt the heavy thuds of bomb concussions. He was reminded of times as a kid, setting off a string of black-cat firecrackers. Rather than a string of pops, he heard and felt a string of massive booms.

Heading to the drop off point, Eddie couldn't help but think about what a beautiful country Vietnam was. There was a green lushness that you could almost feel. Of course, it was dry season. Many of the other soldiers told him that his opinion would change when the rains came. One described the rain as being so hard that when you were in it, you would swear that it rained up from the ground as well as down from the sky.

The truck slowed and pulled next to a burnt out church. The walls were covered with vines and tattooed with soil and soot stains. Its condition didn't look new. For a moment it reminded Eddie of a similar church in his home parish in Louisiana. There were three other trucks already there. Two ARVN soldiers were guarding the trucks by taking a nap in the shade underneath them. Captain Lerner and Sergeant Benton were the first troops off the truck. Sergeant Benton yelled, "Alright guys, hit the ground and lock and load. We've got to hoof it to the bomb site."

As pretty as the country was to look at driving down the road, or from the sky, it was a bitch to walk through. American soldiers knew that walking through the tall grass could result in serious injury and death. The Viet Cong used explosives like the infamous "bouncing betty", which would shoot an explosive up in the air about waist high and explode. It rarely resulted in death, but instead, would injure two or three grunts, necessitating assistance or evacuation. Of course, there was a totally acceptable road to where they were going, but Captain Lerner had the troops walk through the brush, saying, "Only idiots would walk down that road." Reminded that the ARVN troops walked right down it, his response, "I rest my case."

Thankfully, the bombing point wasn't far. As they broke through the heavy foliage, the guy next to Eddie exclaimed, "The Buffs wiped the jungle out. There can't be anyone left." Sure enough, an area that was once lush jungle was now a mass of burning vegetation and smoking mud. The smell of cordite was oppressive and there was a secondary, sweet, coppery smell. The latter, the smell of death.

They were greeted by an ARVN colonel. To Eddie, his appearance seemed surreal. Wearing highly pressed jungle fatigues, a yellow scarf around his neck and spit shined boots, he seemed more caricature than officer. The Colonel had to look carefully to identify Captain Lerner, whose uniform was grungy and identical to that of his troops. The only insignia of rank were small, black, woven bars on his collar. When in the bush, the last thing the Captain wanted was to look like an officer. You may as well walk around with a big bulls-eye tacked to your chest.

The Colonel brusquely explained, "We're ready to attack. There appears to only be a small contingent of North Vietnamese Regulars left. They are massed at the end of the slight swale about two hundred meters in front of us. We think that there is only one heavy machine gun left and the rest just small arms."

"Begging your pardon, Sir, but has anyone asked if they would like to surrender? It looks like they took a hell of a beating."

"No, Captain, they haven't been asked, but it is doubtful they would surrender. We intend to storm their position. It should only take a few minutes." With that, the Colonel spun around and returned to his troops.

Captain Lerner turned to his Sergeant and said, "Do you believe that dumb shit? He's going to risk the life of his men with a frontal assault. Even our newest recruits know better. Is one of the Fungs with us?"

"Yes, Sir, Fung-one is here. I'll bring him up."

Eddie approached and the captain said, "Take a knee and look out over this situation. The ARVN unit is about to advance up that swale to knock out the soldiers that are left. Do you see anything wrong with that approach?"

Eddie was momentarily taken back. "Sir, are you asking me my opinion?"

"Yes, Son, I am."

"Sir, advancing up that swale is surely the shortest distance, but is the one approach that will least likely succeed. They'll be moving directly into natural enfilade. If Charley has even one machine gun in position, he'll kick some ass. If I were inclined to attack those positions at all, I would move two separate groups to their flanks place some mortar rounds to the center and attack the flanks."

They did hear the thump of mortars. The rounds were even well placed. The ARVN units then advanced directly up the swale. As Eddie had predicted, machine guns did cover the approach. Two men went down immediately. After a few seconds, the rest turned and ran. It looked like some even dropped their rifles in their haste to retreat.

Captain Lerner turned to Eddie and said, "You had that one nailed. You mentioned something about if you were inclined to attack. Did you have any other ideas?"

"Yes, Sir, I do. This was supposed to be a stronghold with a couple of hundred people. Some may have gotten out before the bombing, but if not, most are already dead. There can't be more than ten guys left. If it were me, I wouldn't try to take that position at all. It would be easy enough to call in a napalm strike. If that didn't do it, I think I would just move along. The area's not strategic, so just doesn't seem worth dying for."

"Okay, pretty good assessment. Anything else?"

Eddie hesitated because he knew his next statement might be controversial. "Sir, if those North Vietnamese Regulars could withstand a B-52 bomb run, scramble out of their hole into the rubble and put up a good defense, maybe we backed the wrong side."

The Captain paused a moment before replying, "You know Latour, you should have stayed in school at LSU. I think you're smart enough to be an officer."

Sergeant Benton popped right back, "Officer, hell. Eddie here is smart enough to be a sergeant."

Eddie smiled as he returned to his listening post.  Damn, I do have a name.

Vinh, Vietnam January 2010

Tran came from a long line of farmers. In fact, to his knowledge, no one in his family did anything but farm. It seemed ironic that for the first time ever, he was actually making money. No one else in his family made money before; perhaps a different time and circumstance. Historically, his family grew rice, a staple for where he lived in what was once North Vietnam. Today, he was delivering fresh vegetables to a five-star hotel that was built to accommodate the ever increasing number of tourists who came to visit. His vegetable array included bok choy, daikon, Chinese cabbage, Japanese eggplant, opo squash and Scotch bonnet peppers.

As he left, he glanced back toward the hotel entrance. Entering the hotel was a man wearing a pale blue tee-shirt, shorts and Birkenstock sandals. Since he was topped off with a baseball cap, Tran supposed him an American. The man turned in Tran's direction and waved. Tran briefly sat down on a bench underneath a banana tree. His mind raced back over three decades to a spot far to the South.

Northwest of Dalat, South Vietnam, February 1972

The underground tunnel was much smaller than its cousin, Cu Chi tunnel outside of Saigon. This tunnel mainly served as a Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army (NVA), communication center and supply route. Air, food and water were always scarce. The tunnels were infested with scorpions, huge spiders, poisonous centipedes, and several types of vermin.

At that moment, none of these things worried Tran. He and his friend, Lac, were engaged in the worst activity possible, throwing lime and dirt on top of one of the indoor latrine ditches.

The two, like most of the other two hundred troops living there, tried their very best to hold the call of nature until night time. That way, they could move out of the tunnels and relieve themselves in the jungle. Even with dangers of its own, the jungle seemed infinitely better than the indoor latrine.

Tran complained to Lac, "When I joined the Army two years ago, I thought it was to push the Americans out. Now, here I am cleaning latrines. I shouldn't complain. Perhaps I'm just not a good soldier."

Lac, who had known Tran since they were five, responded, "Well, you weren't a very good farmer either."

"Hunh, you should talk. I suppose you were a pretty good pig farmer, but at the end of the day, you were still a pig farmer."

One of the other soldiers interrupted the bantering. "You are both needed at the communication bunker. We're intercepting a coded message."

The Americans had sent an Intel message to the Army of Vietnam, (ARVN), detailing a B-52 raid against a fortified and dug in stronghold. The communicated plan was for an ARVN force to overrun the position. The theory being that the B-52's would probably kill or demoralize any NVA in the area. In 1972, America implemented a new strategy to discontinue leading the war in the South, and instead, train and support the ARVN troops. This seemed to be a perfect opportunity for success.

As often happened, Tran's unit received the American communication only seconds after the ARVN unit. Tran delivered the communique to his commander, Colonel Kim. Colonel Kim had time to order the retreat of most of the two hundred men. About forty of that number were wounded or had severe malaria, a common condition in the tunnels. He and seventeen men stayed behind to buy time for the withdrawal. Since they were communication specialists, Tran and Lac were ordered to stay.

The two huddled together in the communication bunker with the Colonel. Tran thought to himself, At least if I die, I'll die with a friend. I've been with Colonel for two years and he doesn't know my name. Like many North Vietnamese, Tran was a Christian. He couldn't help but think, Today is a good day for prayer. He knew well the awesome power of the American planes. The B-52's were the only aircraft that they never physically saw. They flew so high that you couldn't see or hear them. The only proof of their presence, the visible trails etched across the sky.

The first bomb fell at 9:40 a.m. The ground shook for what seemed like hours. The noise was painful and the concussions reverberated through the ground. Dust, flying dirt and other debris filled the bunker. Tran bent to pray, "Dear God, let me live through this. I so want to go home and see my family again." The raid lasted less than three minutes.

After it was silent, Colonel Kim reached over and touched both Tran and Lac's arms. "Are you alright?"

Tran looked at the Colonel. He looked like a devil, his face full of dust, with blood flowing from his nose, ears and eyes. The compression force from the bombs caused all three men to bleed in this fashion. Tran touched the Colonel back. "Yes sir, I am in some pain, but it looks like you have a wound in your chest." The wound was created by a blasted out, large sliver of a wooden support beam.

The Colonel gasped and struggled to issue orders. "We must dig out and reestablish our positions. The ARVN troops and their American support unit will be here soon. I would like you two to help set up and string the communication bunker with explosives."

Tran and Lac painfully dug upward, lugging their machine gun to the surface. Removing the last of the threshold, they were astounded. Lush jungle, trees and elephant grass were all gone. In its place was an ugly, smoking, mud covered landscape for hundreds of yards.

They quickly set up a machine gun placement, carefully positioning extra ammunition. They then helped establish some other gun positions for the ten men that were left. Miraculously, Tran and Lac were the only two men relatively untouched. Most of the remainder, including the Colonel, were badly wounded. They then assisted in the placement of booby traps throughout the compound. Along with pressure triggered detonation, they also installed a simple detonation toggle switch.

All waited for the attack they assumed imminent. They were astounded when nothing happened for over two hours. At mid-day, a forward scout reported that three truck loads of ARVN troops unloaded at a bombed out church near by. So far, no observation of American Troops.

They waited in their fortified positions as they saw the ARVN troop's stage for an attack. Colonel Kim crawled up to a position directly behind Tran and Lac. He whispered to Tran, "If we are lucky, they will advance up that small draw in the middle. If so, they will be subject to a nasty cross fire. If they feint to the middle and attack the flanks, we do not have enough men to repel their attack."

Looking directly at Tran, the Colonel said, "You are a fine soldier. Your family should be very proud." He handed him the detonation switch. "If they breach our line and break through, blow the explosives. I'll greet them all for you in hell."

Tran was surprised and honored. He felt certain that the Colonel didn't even know his name.

They watched through binoculars as the ARVN troops were joined by a small group of Americans. It did not look as though the Americans were going to assist in the mission. All they seemed to do was position scouts to secure their own position.

They heard the distinctive thump of mortar rounds. Within seconds, the ground around them was once again rocked with explosions. When the mortars stopped falling, the air was thick with the smell of cordite and spent explosives. It almost created a mist like condition around their position. As they peered over their small, makeshift revetment, they saw the ARVN troops advancing directly up the small draw in the middle. Really just a battlefield anomaly, but two of their machine gun positions opened up in unison. The front edge of the advancing troops was cut down. The ARVN troops tried to rally and return fire. When one of their troops up front, probably a Sergeant went down, the rest of the force turned and ran, many dropping their guns in place.

Tran felt a hand pat on his shoulder. Turning, he saw the Colonel smiling as he said, "It will take them awhile to re-group. If they can't convince the Americans to join in, they will probably wait for reinforcements."

He handed Tran a small communication cylinder. "I want you and Lac to take these last few documents to General Gao. You two are the only ones capable of moving out of here. While there is some confusion going on, you should be able to crawl up to the ridgeline and disappear into the jungle."

Tran didn't know what to say for a moment. Finally, he said, "Sir, we can rig a small travois and bring you out."

"No, Son, my time has come. It is important to get those documents out, but I also want you to convey a message to the General."

"What is that, Sir?"

"I want you to tell him that if the Americans truly withdraw from direct combat, the war is over. The South doesn't have the stomach for fighting. Now, get going before they are able to re-group."

Tran and Lac slung their rifles, and began the long, arduous, low crawl back up the ridge. When they reached the top, Lac rolled over. Tran began to do the same. Before he did, he took one brief look back. To his right, about fifty meters away, he saw an American soldier lying prone behind a downed tree. He had Tran lined up direct in his sights of what looked like an M-16. Tran knew well the accuracy and deadly nature of this weapon. He tossed the cylinder over to Lac and told him to move on.

Turning his head back toward the American, he saw a sight that he certainly couldn't explain, but would always remember. The American had put his rifle aside and gave Tran a brief wave. In an instant, Tran rolled over the ridge top and was gone.

He would never know, but this particular American had an almost Vietnamese sounding nick-name. He was called Fung-one. His Christian name was Eddie Latour.

Story of the Month contest entry


Originally posted as two stories, which killed the inter-connection. This rewrite combines both and tells the story I attempted to convey.

Thank you Cleo85 for the beautiful picture of a rainbow over a jungle!
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Artwork by cleo85 at FanArtReview.com

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