Low Speed Jet
After action report, Vietnam.
First published by New Zenith Magazine, Volume 1, Summer 2016.
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A whisper so the men wouldn't hear, the column halted at the ready, facing out, squatting, staring into sawgrass, rifles leveled, grenade launchers angled. Our helmets touched.
"Nick, what the fuck are you doing?"
"Ah'm leading my platoon, Dag, what are y'all doing?"
What was I all doing? Not what I wanted with five weeks left in-country, but the new battalion commander "a new one every four months "had a brainstorm: staff officers with field experience mentoring new lieutenants.
"Nick, don't go out ahead. That's what your point man's for."
"Dag, sometimes you gotta get out front. At Fort Benning."
"Forget Fort Benning. If you trip a booby or take a sniper, then what? No more platoon leader."
Nick lifted the corners of his mouth, likable no matter how dumb he behaved. He moved away, turning once to say, ah'm good, and resumed his place at the front of the column. Behind the point. Two nights later he found my sandbagged, half-buried officers quarters. Ducked in with a bottle of Jim. We sat on a cot, dragged out canteen cups, and sipped. He apologized for being a dick. I said it was okay. The whiskey took hold. On the transistor, Armed Forces Radio sent us Sweet Little Sixteen. Nick bobbed his shoulders. Surprised me.
"You like Chuck Berry?"
Nick had blond hair cut to a flattop and a round face on a six-foot frame which he moved closer.
"Ah like 'em all."
He poured more whiskey. I waved a forefinger.
"Look, Nick, you don't wanna get killed in this shit hole. Stay off the point. Blend in with the men. Don't look like the leader."
I tried to think of another exhortation. Nick pulled my hand down.
"Dag, we're all going sometime. What's better? Dying in bed at eighty? Or a military funeral with the trimmings? All your friends there."
"But Nick, here's the problem, you're not around to see that grand funeral. You're the guy in the box."
"I'll see it aforehand."
Nick wobbled to his feet and slapped his breast.
"Heah I am taking a bullet."
He staggered a step back.
"But in my last gasp I see it all. The honor guard, the three-gun salute, the bugler. Just like fucking Arlington."
He dropped to the cot.
"Then ah expire, a happy warrior."
"Nick, you gotta take this shit serious."
"Hot damn, Dag, we've killed half this bottle."
He leaned into me, wrapped an arm, and cupped my far shoulder.
"Don't fret, ol' buddy. Whatever happens, it'll be alright. It'll be A-okay."
I rotated back to Fort Benning with captain's bars and a desk job at the Infantry School. I asked my section commander about my career path. He told me the war was winding down. I rented an apartment off-base and wrote letters of inquiry to law schools. I bought a red '67 Mustang with a 289 V8 and forty thousand on the odometer. Went for rides in the Georgia countryside. Sometimes I crossed the Chattahoochee and cruised Alabama. The Mustang began stalling. One of my sergeants went under the hood with a screwdriver, tried a few carburetor adjustments.
"Sorry, sir, I think it's your low speed jet."
"It pulls in the fuel when your foot's off the gas."
"It can't be fixed?"
"You should really spring for a new carb, sir."
"Jesus, forty thousand miles."
Next day a telegram entered my in-box. Unusual. I turned it about several times. It was from my old battalion commander letting me know that Nick had tripped a booby. Wanted to let me know before I saw his name on the back pages of the Army Times. He asked if I'd represent the battalion since Nick's home was near Fort Benning, less than eighty miles.
I wore my dress greens, Vietnam Service Medal, Combat Infantryman Badge. The graveside had a good turnout, dark suits, black dresses, black skirts, pants suits, jeans with windbreakers, green work pants, bib overalls. The honor guard pulled up in a blue sedan, three airmen, semi-polished shoes. Airmen? They pulled rifles and a cassette player from the trunk. When their turn came, the lead airman called ready, aim, and they fired their blanks. Ready, aim, a second time. Ready, aim, the last time with one rifle empty. The lead airman pressed a button on the cassette player. They presented arms. Seconds of dead air and a recording of taps scratched my ears.
The farm house and barn looked just like Nick said. I wandered room to room, talked to siblings, cousins, school chums, clutched fried chicken and potato salad. Nick's cousin Bella Anne shadowed me.
"You coming into town with us all, Captain Dagastino?"
"Where we can get some proper refreshment."
I told her thanks but I had to get back to my men at Fort Benning. I found Nick's mom for the goodbye. She hugged me. She told me how much it meant, me coming to the service. She produced a letter in Nick's scrawl. I saw my name and good buddy in the same sentence. I glanced around for Nick's dad.
"Pap's in the barn. Chores won't wait."
Pap sat on a one-legged stool squeezing the tits of a black and white Guernsey, streams of milk tinging and frothing the stainless steel pail underneath. Behind him lounged a brown Jersey. I knew about the cows because Nick had told me, joking about the Jersey being my home state. Pap's suit jacket hung on a wooden peg and he wore coveralls over pants and shirt, necktie still in place. He looked up but didn't lose a stroke. I pushed my toe into straw and sawdust.
"I'm real sorry about Nick."
"Y'all take care."
I twisted the key and the 289 went into a rough lope. Gas down, clutch up. Second gear, third. Thirty on the dirt road, swirls of dust in the rear view mirror. Thoughts went to that ass, my former battalion commander, he didn't have to tell me. I didn't look at the back pages of the Army Times anymore, never would have known, would have gone the rest of my life seeing Nick not blown to shit. And that crappy funeral detail. Not even army. Scruffy shoes, canned taps. Couldn't present arms without a slouch. Couldn't wait to fold the flag and clear out.
The dirt road came upon a stop sign. As fuel intake switched to the low speed jet, the motor sputtered and stalled. I raised my right hand, formed a fist, and pounded the top of the steering wheel. The wheel flexed and my fist bounced up. This piece of shit, this fucking piece of shit. Forty thousand miles and falling apart. I pounded again. Fucking shit, you hear me, mother fucking shit. Worthless, goddam nothing. I looked in the rear view mirror. I looked up and down the abutting tar road. Nobody around. My eyes felt wet, my nose too. Jesus Christ, a captain of infantry going bullshit over a junk carburetor. I turned the key, pressed the gas, let out the clutch. Forty, fifty miles per hour, high gear. I turned the radio tuner. No, don't want no gospel. No, no country. Chuck Berry came on, Johnny Be Good. Go, Johnny, go.
Wait a minute. Nick never knew about that crappy funeral detail. He only knew what he saw in the second after tripping the booby. He would have felt the tug of the wire, figured what was coming. And in that instant he would have seen what every warrior's heart wants, a spit-shined honor guard, army, ramrod straight, a real bugler. Just like fucking Arlington. So it's alright. It's A-okay.