Methven - Day Thirteen - Part Three
We were out of sight of Mahatna's hut before either of us spoke.
"Well, what the hell does he know, anyway?"
"Knows you're fulla' shit, doggie."
"Besides that, I mean."
"Got me figured out, too."
"Really? How so?"
He stopped in his tracks and turned to look directly into my eyes.
"He said I 'allow myself t'experience nothin'.' I'm a 'hollow man'. Empty inside. An' he's right. He's sure enough right about that.."
"Oh, bullshit. We've been friends for what..forty years, now?"
"Well, then, I think I know you just a tiny bit better than that sawed-off excuse for a Scoutmater does--and I'm here to tell you that the Pith I know is a warm, funny, genuine guy. And a pretty good friend--when he's not busy feeling sorry for himself, that is."
He turned his back to me.
"Drew, I been holding this inside me f'r more'n twenty years, an' I just gotta' let it out or I'm gonna bust."
"In 1967 I was a E-3..that's a PFC t'you..with I Corps, Third Marines. I was three months in-country when we got th' word we were bein' transferred from Quang Tri City t'Khe San."
He pulled the joint out from behind his ear and fired it up, sucked in a big lungful and held it in for a long time. After a while, he blew out a thin, gray cloud of smoke.
"I 'member thinkin' how lucky I was t'get such easy duty f'r Christmas. Real lucky."
He took another long hit off the doobie and then spoke in the strangled voice of a man trying to talk and hold a toke at the same time.
"Week before Christmas, Colonel Lownds--th' 26th Regiment CO--orders us t'sweep th' hills West a' th' base f'r any signs a' Charlie."
He exhaled a wisp of smoke.
"Saw plenty. No gomers, but lotsa tracks, signs a' bivouacs an' some real nervous Yards. Them doggies hated th' Cong. Y'want a hit offa this?"
Actually, I did, but I lied.
"No, thanks. Go on with your story."
He filled his lungs again, sucking the jay down to a roach. Pith has major lungpower.
"Spent Christmas in th' bush an' got back t'base th' next day. Things were peaceable enough, right through New Year's. Had a nice little party in our sea hut--drinkin' ba-ma-ba an' smokin' Thai stick. Chuck coulda' done us dirty, but he left us alone--at least 'til th' day after. Then we had our first fire fight with th' bo dois."
He sipped at the roach until it reached his fingertips, then dropped it on the stony path and ground it underfoot. He held that hit until there was nothing left of it before continuing.
"Took out five NVAs, right on our perimeter. Word was, th' MI guys had two divisions a' gomers headed our way, with number three settin' up to cut off Route 9. We knew we were in f'r some shit--jus' didn't know when."
He ran his hands through his hair and left them cradling the back of his head as he gazed at the impossible spire of stone that looms over the Northwest end of this valley.
"Turned out t'be two weeks a' cat-an'-mouse with Charlie 'fore th' hammer dropped. Then a recon team got Alpha-Bravoed at Hill 881N. No KIAs, but we knew somethin' was up, so Cap'n Dabney had us snoop 'n' poop th' shit out a' 881N. Couple days later, we run into a troop a' NVAs. They got us enfiladed pretty good, so we cut a chogie back t'881S. Th' next day, we get a couple platoons a' reinforcements an' we zippoed the gomers on 881N."
He lowered his arms and stuffed his hands in his pants pockets.
"Nasty shit, Drew. Three platoons a' our guys up against a fuckin' battalion a' NVA regulars--none a' that black pajama shit. We're bringin' serious smoke on th' bo dois an' jus' hopin' we'll get offa that hill alive."
His voice dropped to a whisper.
"Most of us did."
"Zulus? Seven a' our guys. 'Bout a hundred a' theirs."
"Sounds to me like you kicked their ass."
He shook his head.
"We took a butter bar POW, said th' NVA 304th an' 325th divisions were set t'light us up like th' 4th a' July. Colonel Lownds put us on red alert an', th' very next day, th' gomers attack across th' Rao Quan. When our guys threw 'em back, they shelled shit outta base. Ammo bunker went up in a blast we heard all th' way up on 881S. Fucked up th' runway an' control tower, too."
I didn't know what to say. Of course, that's never stopped me before.
Again, he shook his head.
"Th' ammo dump was jus' plain, dumb luck. We caught some shit at 881S, an' th' sneaky Petes at Lang Vei got hit pretty hard. Come t'that, Khe San village was damn near overrun twice, b'fore Colonel Lownds pulled our guys back t'base. But, Chuck was jus' feelin' us out--tryin' t'make us over-commit t'Khe San, so he could clean our clock in Hue."
"Did it work?"
"Yep. MACV started bringin' in a ton a' ammo an' reinforcements at dawn th' next day. That, an' extractin' Yards from Khe San ville."
"Was this the Tet Offensive?"
He shook his head a third time.
"Nope. Tet was a week or so later."
"Really? I thought..well, never mind what I thought. So, how long did that last?"
He turned to look me straight in the eyes.
"Ho-lee shit, Pith! I..I never realized.."
He nodded, slowly.
"You're not alone."
He turned his back on me again.
"Th' thing is..Khe San valley was a beautiful place. Mountains an' green hills all around. Rain forest like nothin' you've ever seen. Full a' wild animals--elephants an' tigers 'an shit. Creeks an' streams everywhere. Beautiful."
Pith turned to look out over the lovely, tame valley that Khasim Clanhome sits in.
"By th' time th' siege was over, it wasn't beautiful any more. It was ugly. Bomb craters an' dead bodies everywhere. Th' forest was gone--airstrikes burned it t'th' ground. Nothin' left but red mud an' dust an' unrecognizable crap, all smashed t'shit."
He closed his eyes and tears started to course down his cheeks.
"I went two months without a bath. Without havin' a hot meal. Drownin' in my own garbage, 'cause Charlie had snipers coverin' th' dump. Nothin' alive but us an' th' rats an' the goddamn bugs. Shit, doggie. How c'n I explain what it's like t'spend ten weeks in a bunker listenin' t'th' rats in th' walls go nuts every time th' NVA lobbed another HE round at us? I'd hear those fuckers screechin' in there a thousand times a day, sometimes."
He clenched his fists and opened his wet eyes to stare unseeing at the valley below.
"February 23rd, we took more'n thirteen hundred incoming rounds. Thirteen hundred times, I heard those fuckin' rats squealing. An' inside, I was squealin' right along with 'em. Only I couldn't let it show, like they could. I had t'maintain. Had t'keep it together."
He turned to me and the expression on his face was a terrible amalgam of outrage and anguish.
"Twenty-four years I've been carryin' this around inside me! Twenty-fuckin'-four years! And I couldn't let it out! That's some crazy-ass shit, huh? Dinky fuckin' dau!"
He turned away again.
"Mahatna called me a 'hollow man', but th' truth is, I've been so full a' Khe San th' last twenty-four years, there's been no room inside me f'r anythin' else."
I knew I shouldn't, but I had say it anyway.
He waved my apology away, as if he were shooing off a mosquito.
"I mean, 'I'm sorry to have to ask, but, if those memories are so damned painful, then what the fuck are you doing here?"
Pith's shoulders suddenly slumped, as if in relief.
"Guess I had somethin' t'prove. Not sure what--just somethin'. An' I had t'do somethin' with my life. I was just markin' time in the City. Doin' nothin' an' gettin' paid nothin' for it. Guess I jus' wanted t'accomplish somethin'."
He turned back to face me again.
"An' I knew you'd fuck up, if I didn't come along t'keep an eye on ya."
"Oh, wonderful. So, now it's my fault if Læ gets you killed?"
"Didn't plan on gettin' killed."
. . .
We descended the path back to the Clanhome's main complex, cracking wise the whole way. It was a familiar and comfortable way to relate to one another and, well before we met up with any of our Earthly companions, we were back to relating to one another via gentle put-downs and one-upsmanship.
Still, I could tell that the change in the deeper currents of our friendship was likely to be a permanent one. I'd always thought of Pith as a simple creature. Give him the occasional physical challenge, a steady stream of intoxicants and unrestricted access to the opposite sex and he'd be a happy man.
Now I knew better.
. . .
We found the rest of the party practicing their fencing skills on a little greensward just West of the Clanhome's main entrance.
Læ "invited" us to join them, and she and I were soon paired off as instructor and student.
"So, Mr. Wilde--very nice prise de fer--with what have you and Mr. Pith been occupying yourselves today?"
I gave her the compressed version of our visit to Mahatna's cabin.
"I commend you on your initiative. I need not tell you that Mahatna is a superb teacher--evidently, you have discovered that for yourselves."
"Well, I don't know that I'd go that far--but I'm sure hoping he'll come through for us."
"Again--this time in quarte, if you please. I must admit I have my doubts about--touché!--about the prospects for your success, but I see little harm in your trying and much potential benefit for our mission, should you succeed."
"So, what makes you think--ow! That stung!--that we won't be able to cut the mustard?"
She stepped back, saluted and grounded her point.
"It is a question of whether you are physiologically capable of benefiting from the Elixir of Awakening. To my knowledge, no Earth human has ever been exposed to its effects. It will be interesting, indeed, to see whether it will produce in you the same--for want of a better word--'alteration' as it creates in our Vomisa hosts."
"So, you think we should go back for another shot at it?"
(Copyright© 1997, 1998 by Thom Stark--all rights reserved)