IN FRONT OF US, about a quarter mile, was Thoybu, a complex
of straw houses among the palms. Like so many of the villages we
had run through, it looked tranquil at a distance, with felicific fronds
waving above the thatch roofs. The silence, though, ought to have
been a warning, but my head throbbed, a lump the size of a potato
pressed against my anus, and I wanted to sleep more than anything. I
didn't like being in the open, and the two platoons were strung out
across the paddies. The sunlight hurt my eyes and made me dizzy, so
I looked down and followed Haywood. He was over six foot and two
hundred pounds. His deep tracks filled with brown water.
Vester walked beside me, elbow to elbow. His face was pearled
with sweat. "Goddamn hot," he said. I didn't say anything. Maybe I
gave him a half smile. "Okay, cool. Be that way if you want. Your
'Bama ass gone get plenty hot before this day is over."
"It's all a matter of mind over matter," I said.
"You full of shit."
"I don't mind and you don't matter."
"You tell 'im, Tibbs." Bright Eyes walked on my left. My name was
Walter Burke, but I let them call me "Mr. Tibbs" after a character Sidney
Poitier played in the movies.
"You don't matter, neither," Vester said. "That's why your black ass
is here. And that rabbit over there?" He referred to Bright Eyes. "I
wouldn't even bother scraping his pale-face ass off the sole of my shoe."
"I'm just on a Sunday stroll," Bright Eyes said. "Just like going to
church on revival Sunday. Picnic on the grounds. Ham and chicken.
Macaroni and cheese--"
"What the hell is he talking about?"
"Cakes and pies. Grandma makes this caramel cake and Aunt
Claudia, she makes a squash pie. Ever heard of that?"
"Shut the fuck up, you Bugs Bunny-looking motherfucker. What
the fuck you talking about, anyway? You see any goddamn squash pie
RTO's radio crackled and the squad leader talked into it. They
were just on the other side of Bright Eyes. I looked at Bright Eyes. He
smiled and pushed at his helmet.
"It's A-okay, a cruise," he reported.
"There no such thing as a cruise," I said.
"You've just got to put an edge on everything."
"He's just a edgy brother," Vester said.
"Hard-edged," Bright Eyes said. "Wouldn't you say, Tibbs? I mean,
there's a difference. Edgy is jumpy like. But hard-edged is cool like."
"Cold-edged. Like a mama-san's tit," Vester said.
I didn't say anything. Mr. Tibbs would have found the conversation
"What mama-san's tit have you been sucking?"
"The same damn one as you."
"Then you must have been sucking it the wrong way. Remind me
to show you some technique. Tibbs got technique. Tibbs, you need to
give your brother man a lesson in tit sucking."
"Keep cool, Harvey." I quoted a line from the movie, mimicking
Mr. Tibbs's exacting elocution.
Haywood let us catch up to him. He squeezed in between Vester and
me. "I got a uptight feeling about this one," he whispered. "There's got
to be a Betty out here somewhere. I just feel it." The lump in my stomach
turned over. Haywood was usually right about these things.
I slowed down and it seemed that everyone did, as if the line had
run up against an unseen tension. I squinted and surveyed the flood
plain, puzzled with paddies. The river was behind and to the left of
us. Haywood pointed to a figure running away. "Who want this one?"
"Looks like a papa-san," Bright Eyes said. "I ain't for capping papasans."
"He's legal," Haywood said.
"Legal, my ass." Bright Eyes looked at me for support. "Fugazi!
That's fucked up."
I lifted my rifle and sighted along the barrel. The man was dressed
in the loose-fitting outfit we called black pajamas. We had been told it
was okay to shoot anyone in black pajamas who ran because he was
VC, running to give warning. The figure made slow progress across
the paddies, fighting the suction of the mud with each leap. It
appeared to be an old man, though from the distance it could easily
have been an old woman with her hair up. I followed the figure with
the point of the barrel.
"You got 'im, Waltie?" Haywood asked. There were perhaps thirty
GIs closer to the figure than us.
"I got 'im." My heart fluttered and I squeezed off a round. Sporadic
popping came from up and down the line, but I was first. The
figure tripped and went down.
"What that make? Four or five for you?" asked Haywood.
"You are counting. But I wouldn't count that one," Bright Eyes
said. "I wouldn't count that one if I were you, Tibbs."
"You are not me," I said.
"Lord a mighty, don't get so testy about it. I'm not saying you did
something wrong. I'm just saying I wouldn't count that one."
"Count what you want to count," Haywood said. "It doesn't
change anything. The way it is, is the way it is."
"But the brother got style," Vester said. "He so cool, he scare me.
A hundred degrees out here and he ain't even sweating. Just pick 'em
Haywood looked at me and snorted. He and I knew better. He was
my age, but seemed older. He already had his short-timer's stick. He
knew how important it was to do what you had to do to get by.
"But I wouldn't have capped a papa-san," Bright Eyes said. "Not
an old man."
"It wasn't an old man."
"What was it then? Looked like papa-san to me."
"It wasn't your papa," I said and moved ahead.
"Least you could have let somebody down the line do it. Maybe
they could have seen it better."
"Whose conscience are you? You out of everybody," Haywood said
to Bright Eyes. "You ain't got no room to talk with that ring of baby
fingers hanging around your neck."
"Ain't no baby fingers on my chain." Bright Eyes pulled a chain
out of his shirt. It had an ear on it from a kill he had made earlier in
the week. The ear was beginning to mold.
"Goddamn," said Vester. "Throw that goddamn shit away. Walking
around like a goddamn cannibal with that goddamn thing on
your neck. It stinks."
"It's my power."
"Fuck your power. It stinks. This ain't Africa or something; we
ain't no goddamn cannibals. It stinks."
"Y'all ease up," Haywood said, authoritatively. "Keep alert. I think
we're in for some action."
"Uh-uh," Bright Eyes disagreed. "CO said, 'Contact unlikely.' "
Just then a snake shimmied across my path. I froze and held my
breath. It was one of the slender, green, quick kind we often encountered
in the bamboo thickets. A kind of cobra. It skimmed across a
puddle and disappeared into the spring green shoots.
That's an omen, I thought, but I did not say it. I looked into the
blue sky, and for a moment felt its weight. "We'll get through. We'll
get through, all right," I heard Haywood saying. He had seen the
snake, too. "Oh, Lord," I heard Bright Eyes say. "Goddamn, here we
go," Vester said. Then I heard popping coming from out of the trees
in the village. The men in formation closest to the village fell into the
mud, and like a row of dominoes the line went down.
I threw myself into the mud and tried to spot the snipers through
the sight of my rifle. The fire got heavy. GIs groaned and cried out.
The radio crackled and word came down the line to dig in, but it was
all I could do to lie still and hope to stay clear of the rounds patting
the mud all around me.
The fire slackened after ten minutes, and we were ordered to
move forward. By now I was not thinking about my head or my
stomach. My senses were outside of me like the feelers of an insect,
aware of every movement, every sound, and every smell. We all were
insects, ground beetles testing the mud with each step lest we set off a
mine. We gained a couple of hundred feet before we fell back in heavy
fire. Haywood spotted an area in the trees just in front of the village.
"Bust caps right along in there," he directed, and the four of us
burned up a lot of ammunition concentrating on the one clump of
trees. After ten or fifteen minutes, the fronds were dangling from the
trees and our fire received no answer from that clump. I couldn't see
our line anymore because the men were low, digging shallow holes
in the mud into which to slap their bodies. Smoke wafted across the
fields. After a while, a Chinook came across, headed toward a Medevac
flare, but the chopper drew so much fire, it couldn't land.
"We need some air. Why don't they send us some air?" Vester
"It won't be long," Haywood assured him. "Lieutenant's called for
it by now. Just lay flat and we'll get through this."
"We need some air," Vester yelled across to the squad leader.
"It's on the way," the squad leader said. He was from Boston, and
he sounded like it.
"When? Next Christmas?" Bright Eyes yelled.
"Be easy. Be easy," Haywood said. His voice was resonant, and
Bright Eyes squeaked. Their voices reminded me of the drones and
chirps of crickets. Vester whined. They were a jazz trio of insects. And
I . . . I was the singer. I was Nat "King" Cole. Cool and mellow. Only I
hadn't begun to sing yet.
The VC opened up with thirty-caliber guns, twenty or thirty of
them, and jackhammered all around us. I looked at Haywood, and he
raised his head and looked back. His eyes were round and bright. He
opened his mouth to say something when a round peeled his head
open just above the brow.
"Goddamn," Vester said, "goddamn, goddamn."
I closed my eyes and put my face down in the mud. For what
seemed like a long time, I didn't think about anything, but felt myself
loosen and drain over the paddies. Then a familiar uneasiness came
to me as I began to pull together again. For a second I allowed myself
to hope that Haywood was alive. I had seen the bullet catch him, but
maybe it was only a flesh wound, the kind that cowboys get on TV.
I raised my head and looked again. Haywood was dead, as dead as
any dead man I had seen. I tried to swallow what that meant; it meant
nothing to me. I gripped tighter on my rifle and tried to crawl ahead,
away from Haywood, but the firefight kept me in place. I put the
mud-slicked rifle stock against my shoulder and sighted at Thoybu.
They kill us; we kill them. The sight passed over the place where the
papa-san had fallen, and I thought that if I hadn't shot at the papasan,
then Haywood would be alive. It should have been me, since I
shot at the papa-san, since I felt dead already, it should have been me.
I had imagined that it would be me before Haywood. After all, he was
the one who dreamed about what he would do back in the world. He
was going to go to college, to make something of himself.
I had promised Haywood that if I survived him, that I would write
a letter to his mother and father. Dear Mr. and Mrs. Jackson, I was with
your beloved Haywood at the end, and I can assure you that it came quickly and
without any pain. In his last breath he whispered about you, about home, about
home sweet home....He had said he would write one for me, too. I told
him not to trouble himself.
When the fire slackened, I slithered over to Haywood. Bright Eyes
was already beside him.
"He's gone," Bright Eyes said.
Haywood didn't look too bad. Part of his head had broken open,
but had fallen back into place, held by a flap of skin. They could have
a funeral with him.
"Medic!" Vester screamed.
"Are you hit? Are you hit?" I screamed back.
He was crawling to Haywood. "Goddamn. Goddamn."
"Quit your damning," Bright Eyes said. "It's over. He's gone."
I looked where the RTO and the squad leader had been. They
weren't there. Our line was still. "Just be quiet," I said. "Just be real
quiet for a while." For a moment it seemed like a beautiful summer
day. Blue sky. White billows of cloud. The rustle of a light breeze. It
could have been Alabama. Alabama was "the Beautiful State." That is
what the word meant. Haywood knew this. He knew a lot of what I
knew. He was from Eufaula. I was from Birmingham. Dear Mr. and
Mrs. Jackson ... Dear Haywood's Mother and Father ... Dear Haywood....
I closed his eyes, and now I had his blood on my hands. "Let's be quiet
for a while."
The thirty-calibers picked up again; the mud became soupy with
blood and piss; the sun became hotter, and the air filled with biting
flies. There was the smell of open bowels, smoke, and oil. The guns
whined and popped incessantly. I lay beside Haywood and nestled my
face in the mud beside his torso. The mud was warm and smelled
faintly of manure.
Excerpted from Bombingham by Anthony Grooms Copyright © 2002 by Anthony Grooms. Excerpted by permission of One World/Ballantine, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.