At precisely 0300 of the profoundest dark, a voice from the dome of night bellowed across Firebase Mona:
“HELLO, AMERICAN GI’S” it yawped, “WHY ARE YOU SLEEPING? WE ARE NOT SLEEPING. NOR SHALL OUR SWORD SLEEP IN OUR HAND UNTIL YOU ARE OUT OF OUR BEAUTIFUL COUNTRY. HAVE A PLEASANT EVENING.”
“What have they got?” screamed Lake, whose leap dumped Willy from his cot, “Motown’s whole fucking amp system?”
Capt. Bell flooded the area to the depth of a mile with infrared, flared, starscoped, and searchlighted light, fired 2% of their small arms and mortar ammunition into the area, and called in air support. At 0430 the cook discovered a small Japanese tape recorder connected to a Soviet alarm clock and plugged into the base PA system.
The following morning at exactly 0300, the system screamed out GOOKS ON THE WIRE! GOOKS ON THE WIRE! NORTHWEST SECTOR! GOOKS ON THE WIRE! Lights, action, frenzy and this time a Made In America tape recorder connected to a Made In America alarm clock. The voice on the tape appeared so genuinely American rural Alabama negroid age 18-25, that instead of close air support, Tinker Bell called in a man from Army Intelligence to dust the apparatus for fingerprints and inquire as to who used to own a clock and tape recorder and could not now account for them.
The third night passed uneventfully except their circadian clocks woke everyone at 0259.
On the fourth night, the amplified announcement, GOOKS ON THE WIRE! roused a frenzy of obscenities directed at the Elect and the covering of heads with blankets. The PA system came back on with the unmistakeable voice of the CO: THIS IS CAPTAIN BELL. THIS IS NOT A JOKE. THIS IS REAL. GET YOUR ASSES UP. NOW! To the west of the base beyond the wire, bugles, three or four, blared like taxis in gridlock, not from the copses and bushes left to attract enemy forward units, but from the bared earth at the base of the knoll. The radar unit had come unplugged somehow, an exact location could not be determined for several minutes during which six RPG grenades landed in camp from the opposite direction, the east, wounding one person, a mess hall worker. It was his third wound — three wounds and you’re out; he was led to the inflatable hospital, blood gushing from his thigh, crying halleluiah, free at last! Though lights and high explosives saturated the areas from which both the RPGs and trumpeting had come, searchers at daybreak found no sign of enemy casualties.
This was the genuine article of war. Willy missed Uncle Ho’s Chicken Shak; he missed the occasional round cake and fruit cocktail back at Mordant; he even missed Chuck Morris, the only person except his Uncle Dunc who ever explained anything to him. Excepting Lake, who explained the bit about the purpose of firebases, which turned out to be correct and not in any way metaphysic or philosophic. But the idea of being the Crossover Man swelled inside him. He wanted to learn more. He tried to compare it to something else, a medal, college degree, county fair blue ribbon, a newspaper article about you saving a child in a well, the $25 U.S. Savings Bond the Veterans of Foreign Wars gave Bill Gibson for being Valedictorian of their senior class. Willy had never attempted such categorical thinking, and was rewarded by figuring out that each of the above was in some way earned. So what was an unearned distinction? He tried it out on Lake, who seemed a sort of intellectual, that night in the bunker.
“What makes you stand out when you did nothing to earn it?” said Lake. “Shit, that’s easy. Being Black. Being Honorary Black. Having a famous Negro name and not being a famous Negro. Born rich. Born a Kennedy. Getting killed by a famous murderer. Getting killed by the same person who killed President Kennedy. Being the wife of the guy who killed Kennedy. The motel lady who shot Sam Cooke; naw, I guess she earned it. You know the assassination of Sam Cooke was as important to some black folk as the assassination of JFK? Honorary Negroes have to learn these things. Hitting the jackpot at a slot machine in Vegas. Being a guy whose car gets totalled by Frank Sinatra’s limousine. Getting listed in Ripley’s Believe It or Not due to some hormonal disorder.”
“What’s it like eeing lack?” asked Dwight. Willy, who could understand Dwight’s unlipped speech, thought he meant being Black, but it could have been peeing flack or —
“What’s it like being dead,” he said before he knew what he was doing.
“What?” said Lake, who would not see Dwight until later.
“You’ll know soon enouh,” said Dwight, petulant.
“Who’s dead?” said Lake.
“I have this friend.”
“Who’s dead? Yeah.”
Lake inhaled a marijuana breeze, nodded.
“You ever talk to him?”
“Sure. I tell him to stop being dead and get a life.”
“Does he follow you around.”
“Not in all the pieces he’s in,” said Lake. “He volunteered to tunnel rat, that’s how stupid he was. They used to order guys into tunnels, then the officers began suffering accidents and shit. So they invited guys to go in and this fool volunteered.”
“Souvenirs, I dunno. They hooked him out in pieces. His right foot followed me around for a while cause it was the first part that came out but I kicked it till it quit.”
“What was down there?”
“Hospital. State of the art. White tiles, operating table, X-ray machine. They say it was spotless. Like a kitchen on TV. They could have operated on him right there.”
Next morning at 0300, audible only to those in the forward bunkers to the southwest, came the sound, clip clip clip, of wire cutters inside the razor wire. Captain Bell, who showed signs of sleep deprivation, blew the claymores in that sector. The sound stopped. No sign of enemy casualties. Or enemy. At all. No blood, cloth, footprints, trails. Pieces of what might have been a tape recorder, or not.
Bell ordered the ‘other Rome Plow operator,’ as he was known, to clear the grass from the doughnut of space outside the razor wire, while the wire was being reinforced. His plow hit a claymore which had been moved from inside the wire. The mine punctured the brake line, but did not injure the operator, who was wounded in the shoulder by a sniper as he walked back to base. The AN/PPS-4 radar picked up no living thing in the direction the shot came from, which was mortared anyway.
The next morning, Captain Bell ordered the random mortaring of all sectors from 0200 to dawn, which prevented any attack and any sleep. At dawn, Willy spotted Dwight wandering the base with a long stick which every so often he thrust into the ground, reminding Willy of some savage ceremony he read about in National Geographic, or dowsing, which his uncle did with some success back in Whiskeytown. After breakfast, at which the medic handed out dexamils, Captain Bell called Willy into the command center and ordered him to continue clearing the area beyond the wire.
“Sir, you saw what happened to the other guy.”
“No I didn’t.”
“I mean you know what happened. Sir.”
“No I don’t.”
Zip zip whang whang whang AK-47 slugs dancing in my cab.
Willy thought a gentle reminder was in order: “You don’t want me to get killed.”
“No I don’t —”
“— but that’s your job, private, and that’s an order.”
“What I mean, sir, is.”
“Shut up, private.”
“I’m the [confidential voice] Crossover Man.”
“Would that be some sort of comic book character?”
“Never heard of him.”
Willy clicked his teeth, a tic he’d developed, saluted, asked the radar operator to keep an eye on the sector, walked from bunker to bunker, asking guys to cover him, prayed, cranked up the Plow.
A period of disorientation followed. He did not strip according to plan, drove through the zone aimlessly, dreaming, at times almost brushing the wire. At noon he dug a shallow trench, drove the Plow over it and lay in the cool earth beneath to eat his rations and pop another Dex, which ordered his mind, allowing him to proceed thereafter by the Perimeter Method: Small to medium diameter vegetation on level to gently rolling terrain (Fig. 3-5). When he finished at 0400 and approached the outer bunkers he was met with cheers and raised clenched fists.
“Congratulations,” said the first guy to get to him, “You in trouble with the Man,” and slapped him on the back. Willy parked the Plow behind a berm and walked to the observation tower.
“Is this some kind of comic book hero shit, private?” asked Capt. Bell.
“No sir, what?”
The captain pushed him to the observation rail.
“Your so-called work.”
Willy’s so-called work was quite expert. Three quarters of the doughnut-shaped area was cleared of small to medium vegetation, the cut material laid in even windrows to impede enemy attack. The remaining quarter, the first of the day, was cut in a curious manner, a bulldozed circle in the vegetation, with three straight bulldozed lines meeting within the circle slightly off-center. The peace symbol.
“I was confused, sir. The no sleep and everything. I must have been dreaming.”
“And that was the shape of your so-called dream?”
“I wasn’t aware. I dozed off. I.”
“Doze it out, private, tomorrow morning. Dismissed.”
The true lesson was understood fully by the grunts, in inverse proportion to their rank by the others, and not at all by the captain. The lesson was:
No one had shot at Willy.
No one shot at anyone or disturbed them in any way that night. After Willy plowed under the peace symbol the next day to the boos, catcalls, hisses, and threats of those in the forward bunkers, the truce or magic charm or coincidence or misunderstanding ended.
“I couldn’t disobey,” Willy tried to explain to Lake.
“Maybe not. We’re fucked anyhow.”
That morning at 0400, once the lights had been turned off after nothing happened at 0300, bugles demon-wailed from all compass points, the fighting bunkers reported GOOKS ON THE WIRE, definitely, absolutely, we saw them, they’re there, captain, who ordered Condition RED and an entire circularity of claymores discharged, which laid down imploding, deeply-interlocking horizontal ballistic nightmare rolling barrages of twisted shrapnel sprayed sixty yards into Firebase Mona, killing three GIs, wounding nineteen and destroying two machinegun emplacements.
Someone had reversed the claymores —all of them— so the side that read
faced in toward base.
The Captain spent that day at the base camp of the 3rd Brigade explaining things he could not understand to his superior officers.
Dwight followed Willy around camp reciting from the Holy Bible, specifically And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it, in a voice that was both mournful and rejoicing. The rest of the men relaid and restrung a field of claymores, checking three times, including an almost-refused order by a Major, who flew in to take charge, to flood the area with light and individually check each mine, after dark, which the Major observed from the tower using hi-power binoculars to make sure the inspection squad itself did not for some perverted reason turn them back around. This operation was repeated at midnight causing a near insurrection.
“You ough ta get out ah here,” Dwight told Willy, who asked the new Major if there might be some better use of his and the Plow’s talents at another base seeing as how there was nothing left to plow at Firebase Mona. He displayed such enthusiasm for work he was ordered to dig a special command and control bunker for the Major.
That night the same thing happened and the same thing happened. No one was killed because as soon as the siren sounded and Condition RED declared, everyone clawed their way as close to the water table as they could, some flattening themselves behind earth berms and piled brush. A hunk of shrapnel struck the observation tower. No one was there.
The major spent the day at the 3rd Brigade accounting for the unaccountable to superior officers who ordered a colonel to take charge.
Lake threatened to strip Willy of his honorary Negrohood. “It’s nothing personal,” he explained. “I consider every honky a potential black man, but as long as we’re here we must be warriors.”
“I’m sorry,” said Willy, ignorant of what he was sorry for.
“So I make my stand here and for their thousand blows deal one deathblow.” Lake's rant did not seem directed at Willy, who felt sheltered by it, allowed into a secret ceremony of the society of rage.
That night the colonel ordered a tactical and materiel innovation of such simplicity and grace — like the button or the edible ice cream cone — it made everyone wonder why they hadn’t thought of it first. Each claymore mine would have a strip of bright red reflective tape stuck to its backside, the friendside, which when illuminated by searchlight at the moment before firing would ensure that they exploded Front Toward Enemy. The men made the rounds with rolls of tape that afternoon.
At 0300 command and control picked up a wave of electronic signals which could not be rationally interpreted. Either Russian tanks were dancing drunkenly beyond the perimeter, elephants were rioting nearby, or the entire intrusion detector system was having a psychotic fit. Crisscrossing spotlights, xenon lights, and flares revealed nothing except the claymores winking redly back at camp. Since the tape was put on hastily, most were ripped and angled, giving the impression of cocked and sceptical Asian eyes. In the brilliance Willy saw he’d left his Plow out in the open rather than behind a berm. He ran to it, tripping on dirt clods, patting for his key, Dwight shuffling behind. Nothing moved except them and the searchlights. As they reached the Plow, bugles trumpeted. In midleap to the cab, Willy saw nothing outside the perimeter, nor did he see an enemy through the mesh as he started the engine. He had turned the Plow halfway round when the Colonel ordered the claymores blown, and they were.
The enemy, whoever and wherever they were, had turned the mines around and repasted the red reflecting tape on the front of every mine.
Willy was 50 yards from the claymores, the outer limit of their range. Most of the shrapnel, rising at an angle from the ground, beat against the Plow’s cage, bent the mesh, cracked a hydraulic line guard, dented the Blade. The piece that entered the cab, a jagged hunk an inch long, struck Willy below the ear at the joint of the hyoid bone’s greater horn and the styloid process, tore the adjoining ligaments and the jaw loose, ripped into the base of the brain, twisting as it went, churning Willy’s medula oblongata to jelly. He was dead before it broke out the temporal bone and left his skull.
The Plow, in gear, made its way over and through an earthen rise, was stopped by sandbags on the outer rim of a bunker where it churned red dirt deeper and deeper with its tracks, until the madness in the bunkers, the screams, calls for medics, the riddling of the Colonel’s observation tower with .50 cal machinegun fire by Lake and two others in scalding fury, the evacuation of dead and wounded GIs from the perimeter, was completed, and someone noticed the Plow, still grinding itself into a pit, its mangled operator against the controls, and climbed up and turned the ignition off.
No one of course saw Dwight beside him.
“I’m sorry, Willy, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Dwight had repeated since he caught up with the Plow at the sandbags, climbed in beside his only friend. “It’s all my fault, I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry”
Tears of magma, black as tar, tar in fact, dripped from his charred face to the other dead one.