|Revenge: Capt. Ahab ("Moby Dick") and Cdr. Ahearn|
Captain Ahearn seeks revenge on his old nemesis, Colonel Dung, an NVA infantry commander who wounded him several years before.
Ahearn will find Dung and kill him -- even if it means losing his entire company.
Steve Piper is the company goat, the man no one likes.
It takes place in the club the night before a big mission to find Colonel Dung.
Piper's speech defending himself is a tribute to my fellow VN vets, guys who share the honor of having served. As Steve Piper says, "...when the cause seems hopeless, the only thing to honor is the call, and each other."
Enjoy the piece, and share it if you like. And happy Veteran's Day to my colleagues.
I’d finished presiding over Benning’s initiation. He’d failed in his first attempt with Lady Hooker and rushed outside to compose himself.
In his absence, I grabbed a Strohs from Ted and settled at the bar, listening to the company song.
“…goin’ home in a body bag, doo dah, doo dah, you’re goin’ home in a body bag, all the doo dah day..’
Frank wandered over. “Hey, Foot, big day tomorrow. Gonna finally get that bastard Dũng."
“Or he’s gonna get us, Reverend. Seen the latest?”
“G-2 hasn’t got it right yet, Frank.”
He sucked his PBR. “Let’s hope they’re wrong this time, too. Army intelligence is one of them oxymormons, you know?”
Cold Strohs filled my nose, but I fought it back. “Aren’t you getting short, Frank?”
He took another pull. It wasn’t like Frank Tiberi to ponder. This time he pondered. “Don’t matter, Rev,” he said. Then he sucked his beer dry, slapped my back, and got up to leave.
“…in the morning, Reverend.” He eased toward the door.
CCR filled the speakers.
‘…I see the bad moon arising…I see trouble on the way…’
I went back into my Strohs, what was left of it. It was ten P.M. and I was about to retire to my hooch.
A shout from the pool table turned my head that way. “…give it up, asswipe!”
“Stebbins, you don’t know…”
“…know an asshole when I see one, Piper. Nobody cares about your dead brother anymore, okay? Knock off the sob story and go the fuck home to California.”
“…think you’re so damn smart, Stebbins, got it all together…”
“…none of us got it together, Piper, especially you.” Stebbins stabbed Piper’s chest, backing him across the room.
I’d seen Tony in his more aggressive condition, and knew that beer fueled it.
The briefing an hour before hadn’t helped. Ahearn had ordered us into the room, seething at men who’d come late, even though we’d flown from dawn to dusk.
Waiting for us to file in, he'd paced, grumbled, and smacked the map with his cane. “…here, men, right next to LZ White!
Tomorrow we will find him! Tomorrow is the day, men. Launch at first light. We will find that bastard, or…"
“…or die trying…”
“…total insanity, Ahearn…”
The commander had stormed out, hobbling across the compound in the ominous dusk.
Creedence wailed through the club.
…I see earthquakes and lightnin'…I see those bad times today…
From out of the shadows, Fisk loomed over Piper. “…take my dog and get him killed, Piper. You must have the reverse Midas affect, everything you touch turns to shit.”
“…sorry about Major Barkley, Mike, I never…”
“And what’ve you been doing in ops, Piper? Cassady says you harass him every damn night.”
Stebbins shoved Piper toward the door. “…skating out of flying, on sick call all the fucking time…”
“…never lets me fly, Tony, you know that.”
“’cause you never want to, Piper.”
“Goddamit, listen to me for once!"
Piper staggered toward the center of the club. Reeling, drunk, he pulled out his .38 and waved it around. His arm came up. He aimed the gun overhead, and his eyes clamped shut.
The clap slapped my ears, a single shot popping into the ceiling. Dust filtered down, coating Piper’s shoulders and hair.
“Just goddam listen!”
Beer cans slapped the bar. Heads came up.
Fisk staggered backward. “…take it easy, Steve…”
“Back off, man, nobody meant…”
My ears ringing, I eased off the stool and started toward Steve Piper.
‘…I hear hurricanes a blowing…I know the end is coming soon…’
Ted snapped the toggle and the music stopped. The only sound was Piper’s ragged breathing.
I eased closer to him, and stared into his hollow eyes.
Chest heaving, the pistol sweeping back and forth, Piper fixed each of us in a ghostly stare. Saliva dripped from his open jaw, and sweat beaded on his forehead. But his gun hand never wavered. The dark pistol stuck into the dim light, rounding on each of us, an evil presence that could not be ignored. “Just…god…damn…listen!”
“Since my first day in this unit I’ve been the guy everybody picks on. Find one guy to harass so you don’t have to deal with your own fear.”
“…not it, Piper…”
“Shut up!” He raised the gun to chest level and swept the room again. “Just shut the fuck up and listen. You always gotta have a nigger, a guy who gets the shit end of the stick, ain’t that right, Double D?”
Daggert’s voice sounded. “Seems like it, doesn’t it?”
“A guy you gang up on so you feel like you’re part of the crowd.”
“…sorry, Steve, we…”
“Shut the fuck up, Tony!” Piper centered the room. Tears streamed down his face and the little gun bobbed and weaved.
“Here’s what I know about being an outcast. I understand what it’s like. Hey, Palmer!”
My neck prickled. “What?”
“You ought’a know better’n anybody. Think I didn’t see you and that Chrisman guy?” He creased his eyes and sneered. “…love you, Cal…love you too, Jimmy.”
At that moment I knew enough to do what Piper ordered. I just shut up.
“Stebbins, you think I don’t hear you almost every night in your bunk? That girl kicked your ass, so you beat yourself to death dreaming about her? She’s gone, Tony. You took your hits, get over it.”
“…don’t have a clue, Piper…”
The pistol swing toward Stebbins. “Wanna take a few more?”
Tony’s palms rose, and he fell silent.
“Frank, you know the number of times I wanted to laugh in your face? Got your insignia ‘embroiled?’ A bull in a Chinese shop? Do they really talk like that back in Jersey, Frank? Dad must be really proud.”
Tiberi shook his head. “Guess I need to pay more attention, Steve, I…”
“Guess so. Mike, do you really think that goofy novel’s going anywhere? GIs screwing native girls? There’s a unique idea. That’ll sell a million copies, Mike.”
Piper examined every one of us. “You guys’re right; I shouldn’t bring Keith into every damn conversation, but he’s why I came here. I could’a skated, as you say, Stebbins. But I didn’t. I volunteered to come here, to make up for my brother’s death.
I’m no different from any of you. As a kid, I listened to all those war stories. Saw the movies growing up, John Wayne, Audie Murphy, The Longest Day, Sands of Iwo Jima.
Hell, my dad didn’t just go to that war; he knows the guys I saw on the big screen. They were my fucking neighbors.
I read all the comic books, the heroes of that war—our heroes! Then what? Then they sent us to this shitass little place and it ain’t like any of that. Vietnam ain’t a thing like we were told it would be.
They told us we’d be fighting for freedom, and liberty and to defeat the commies. Bullshit. None of that’s true.
Here’s the biggest thing: I want to know what the fuck it means when we’re told one thing all our life and then learn something completely different. Does that give us the right to beat up on somebody else?”
Piper studied all of us, his chest rising and falling. He lowered the pistol. “Have I ever shamed any of you? Harassed you because you’re here without even knowing why? Have I?”
Heads sagged. Outside in the compound, two men shouted about guard duty, their battle rattle clanking as they crossed the gravel.
At a remote sector of the base a mad minute started, outgoing rounds popping and cracking.
“Have I ever made your lives miserable? Made you the butt of the joke? Why the fuck’re we here, anyway? To pick on somebody weaker? I thought we came here to stick up for people like that?
Those ARVN guys board our aircraft with their damn chickens and ducks and rice, and I see the people we came here to fight for, to give them a shot at what we have. And you pick on me, because I volunteered to help with that?”
“…hopeless cause, Steve.”
“Doesn’t matter, Mike.”
“It does matter, Piper. There ain’t a fucking thing we can...”
“Heroes, all of you.”
“…fucking crazy, Piper…”
“Get over it, man…”
Piper’s head wagged. “All heroes, including my…”
Stebbins’ voice. “Jesus, the brother thing again…”
“All heroes, Tony. Know why?” He slammed fingers at his chest. “Because we came, that’s why.”
Tears flowing, Piper scanned the room. He swiped an arm across his runny nose and went on. “Enemy’s no threat to us. Shit, our biggest threat is our own damn commander.”
“How’s that make us heroes, Piper?” Stebbins said what all of us were thinking.
“Because, you came, Tony.”
“…dad’s were heroes…”
“It was easy for those guys, with Hitler, the Japs, the Germans. The threat was real, and everybody knew it. There’s no threat here, and nobody knows why the fuck we stay.
At home they say we ought’a pull out. Mom sends me clippings. It’s bad back there, guys. People are sick and tired of Vietnam, the body count, the terrible command decisions, lost battles at places they can’t even pronounce.”
Piper pointed the pistol at each of us, one by one. “Outcasts,” he said, an evil smile playing on his lips, head bobbing. “Your day’s coming, my friends. You’ll get back to the world and no one’ll give a shit about what you did here. No one will give a fuck that you risked your life for your buddies and did your duty.
You’ll want so bad for someone—anyone—to ask about it, to be interested in what you did over here, and how it went. No one will. They’ll ignore you, change the subject, and walk away. They’ll talk about their own lives instead, their kids, their jobs, their new Chevy. They won’t want to hear about Vietnam.
As soon as you start talking about it they’ll give you a look that says I don’t care and please don’t bring it up again in polite company. Hell, even our girlfriends, our wives, our kids and grandkids will ignore what we’ve done here.
Then you’ll see what it’s like to be the outcast. People will shun you. They’ll shun all of us.” Piper licked his lips. “We’ll have war stories. We’ll just have to tell them to each other and move on. You’re all heroes, every goddam one of you.”
Piper’s head bobbed and his chest shuddered. “My brother died over here. But your dreams died over here.
There’s a special kind of honor in serving at a dishonorable time, in a dubious cause. A special place of honor in serving when the cause seems hopeless, and the only thing to honor is the call, and each other. All heroes, and all my brothers, every damn one of you.”
Piper riffled his shirt and produced a tattered scrap of paper. He balled it up and tossed it to the floor. Then he shoved the pistol in his belt, grabbed his cap and walked out of the club.
Mike Fisk retrieved the paper and unfolded it. He scanned the lines, cleared his throat. “…be dipped in shit.”
“What’s it say, Mike?” Tony moved into the light.
We all shuffled toward Fisk.
“Dear David…a pleasure to see you and Colleen at our home in Palm Springs before your departure for Vietnam.”
“David?” Frank leaned over the letter. “David who?”
Fisk went on.
“…Peter and I have lost our older son, Keith. We know your options as Steven’s commander are limited, but please see that he’s kept out of harm's way as much as possible, if that can be done.”
Fisk looked around at all of us. “Piper’s mom. Guess his folks and Ahearn…”
Silence. One by one we grabbed our hats and filed out into the night.
The next morning, as we lifted off to engage Colonel Dũng at last, Steve Piper was ensconced in the right seat of Ahearn’s Huey.
As he took off, I raised my hand and saluted. He saluted back. Then he flew off toward the far horizon.
Vietnam: Arriving at the Truth
Do Guns Equal Safety?
Laotian Rescue Mission
Ho Chi Minh
Terror and Hilarity
A Return to Vietnam
The War That Will Not Let Us Rest
War: A Waste of Youth
The Right Seat is the Wrong Seat
Jim, Frank, and The Snake
Smokey, The Alcoholic Pup
“I am only one, but I am one. I can't do everything, but I can do something. The something I ought to do, I can do, and by the grace of God, I will.” ~Everett Hale
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