Short fiction

Issue #10

Cam Lang

Lieutenant Jacob De Graaf, Privates Cavalieri and Attingham, Huey the pilot and Jerry Barrett the journalist stood on the northern riverbank, waiting in the shade of the motionless US Navy gunboat. They had been flying to the northernmost fringe of Cam Lang Province when their helicopter had been gunned down by the Vietcong and crashed in the jungle. The rest of the airborne C Company had seemingly flown on to the landing point in the north. After Jacob regained consciousness, he and his four companions had marched south until they met the river and the idle gunboat. The ramp descended. The sailor looked down on them from the deck.

‘I’m Lieutenant De Graaf,’ Jacob shouted to the sailor. ‘Commander of Platoon Four, C Company, 75th Regiment, Army Rangers. Our helicopter’s been gunned down. We need to return south to the Cam Lang base camp.’

Private Cavalieri spat into the water.

‘I don’t remember flying over this river,’ Huey the pilot said, for perhaps the third time.

‘Does the river go near to our base?’ Jacob asked the sailor. ‘Can you take us?’

The sailor said he would take them where they had to go. Jacob strode up the ramp, and over to the metal benches. Jerry, Huey and Attingham sat alongside him. Cavalieri sat opposite Jacob with his rifle across his knees. The engine came to life. The reek of burnt flesh passed away in the breeze that the gunboat stirred. The heat of the jungle on the northern shore had been like a pressure cooker. The river was wide, and mist shrouded the southern bank. Jacob blinked and the fresh blue of the churned water switched a shade duller. The sun had been swathed by cloud as rich and dark as purple velvet.

‘What’s that sailor doing on this boat on his own?’ Huey said, under the hum of the engine. ‘There should be a three man crew.’

Jacob did not answer. He did not care. Cavalieri stared at Jerry as he scribbled in his notepad.

‘Tell you what’d make a good story, Jerryboy,’ Cavalieri said. ‘Chopper gets shot down and the soldiers who don’t get wasted, go back north through the jungle to find the rest of their Company.’

Jerry kept his eyes on the pad. ‘I think I’ve got enough to write about already, Private Cavalieri.’

‘Thought you were writing a book, Jerryboy? You come out to the murder fields for an article? You must be oobatz. What paper you write for?’

‘A magazine. Rolling Stone.’

‘Never heard of it,’ Cavalieri said. ‘If we go and rendezvous with the rest of the Company, we’ll all get Purple Hearts, Medals of Honour. LT, you want that Medal of Honour, right? Like your old man got?’

‘Keep quiet, Private Cavalieri,’ Jacob said, ‘there could be Vietcong on either shore.’

The sailor, from across the boat, said there was nothing to fear on the southern shore.

‘How did he hear that?’ Huey whispered.

‘Us folk on the ground get real good at hearin’ things, Huey,’ Attingham said.

‘Nobody heard nothin’ yet,’ Cavalieri said, ‘You know LT wants to run for Congress when he gets back, Jerryboy? Gonna go back a war hero. Like Teddy Roosevelt.’

Jacob stood up.

‘Jerry, come with me to the other side of the craft. I need to brief you on what to do should we be ambushed again. Private Cavalieri, don’t speak again unless I ask you a direct question.’

‘Yessir,’ Cavalieri replied.

Jerry followed Jacob to the front of the gunboat, out of earshot of everybody else. As Jacob walked he smelt burnt flesh again. The stench stuck to his fatigues. He remembered the five men, burnt beyond recognition, inside the warped metal ribs of the helicopter wreckage. Trapped by their safety belts and cremated alive. Ashen flesh stuck like tar to bones as soft as charcoal.

‘What do I need to know, Lieutenant?’

‘Nothing,’ Jacob replied, ‘we’ll be safe on the boat. What do I need to know?’

‘The war’s not popular, Lieutenant. Rolling Stone is popular with the right demographic for the future. The high command is going to be vilified. The regular soldiers lionised. A middle-rank like yourself could be perceived as either, with the right spin.’

‘What do you want to know?’

‘Your thoughts.’

‘Off the record?’

‘Your 201 file says you have eight days left of your tour. Criticising the war will be good for you. Politically.’

‘My thoughts are what you want to hear. It’s a catastrophe of epic proportions. We read too much Homer at West Point. Not enough Wilfrid Owen. You want a sound bite? Everyone blames Johnson but he was just the running back. Kennedy threw the pass and then got his neck snapped. Johnson caught the ball. It’s Nixon who’s going to sort it out. They’ll put him on Mount Rushmore.’

‘Private Cavalieri seems to want to go back north into the jungle.’

‘Private Cavalieri’s seen too many spaghetti westerns.’

‘Isn’t his brother in C Company as well?’

‘Yes, but he’s not worried about his brother. Or himself. Young men think they’re immortal.’

‘How old are you, Lieutenant?’

‘Twenty eight.’


‘I have a wife and son. So does Cavalieri. I look at things without emotion. That’s my duty as his commanding officer.’

Jerry continued to scribble.

‘Going back into that jungle isn’t honourable, it’s suicide,’ Jacob said.

‘Cavalieri seems to act with impunity,’ Jerry said, ‘he showed me the stiletto knife he brought with him from Red Hook. He said he notches it every time he kills a Vietcong. The thing looks like a metal comb.’

‘I allow Cavalieri some leeway.’

‘He said you’re a lenient Lieutenant. He implied to me, before we boarded the helicopter, that he has leverage.’

‘What did he say?’

‘Nothing specific. On the record.’

‘We’re off the record now. He sold me some weed and thinks he has leverage. You don’t want to write about Cavalieri. Write about the men that died in that helicopter. Schwarz, Fenwick, Shapiro, Rowles, and the co-pilot. Rowles was the best friend I ever had. We used to get high with another Ranger, called Levi, to take off the edge.’

‘You’re awfully forthcoming.’

‘We’re off the record. I want to see what you write before you send it too.’

‘Is Levi with the rest of the Platoon in the other helicopters?’

‘Levi’s dead. As bad as being in the field is, being in Da Nang, waiting for your next assignment, not knowing when it will be. It gets to a man. The anticipation, the lethargy. He got so restless he went out for a parachute jump with some trainees. Just to pass the time. The chute didn’t open. He shouldn’t have gone, but I approved it.’

‘Do you think the marijuana impaired your judgement? Off the record.’

‘You’ve seen death, Jerry. You saw what happened to the five of them in that helicopter. I woke up first after that crash. You, Attingham, Cavalieri and Huey were still knocked out. I saw them lying in the helicopter, black smoke rising like a staircase to the sky. I cried. When Cavalieri woke up, I blamed it on the smoke. The first man I ever saw die, Cortez,  was seventeen. He walked into the kill range of a Vietcong’s 51 calibre. It cut him in half at the waist like a ripsaw. The grass looked like the floor of a slaughterhouse. When do you think I first smoked weed? You’ve seen death. But I’ve led a hundred men or more to meet death, and they saluted me as they went.’

‘I’m sorry, Lieutenant.’

‘Put all that in your article. When you write about me, say I did what my country asked of me. But they were the wrong questions for any country to ask of a man.’


‘I thought Rolling Stone wrote ‘bout music,’ Attingham said to Jerry. The two of them and Huey stood beside Jacob at the rail. The sailor had killed the engine as he manoeuvred up to the southern shore. A warm drizzle hung in the heavy air. The mist was inscrutable. Cavalieri had not moved from the bench.

‘And politics,’ Jerry said.

‘You got stugatz comin’ over to ‘Nam, Jerryboy,’ Cavalieri shouted, ‘maybe you should be leadin’ the Platoon.’

‘On your feet, Private Cavalieri,’ Jacob said, staring into the wall of mist on the southern river bank.

‘Back on the other side, before the war, I used to play guitar real good,’ Attingham said. ‘Till I got stabbed in the hand during a bar fight in Memphis. I could still shoot though, so I joined the army.’

Private Attingham’s 201 file said he had been drafted, so he stabbed himself in the hand. But the doctor said he could still shoot, and the psychiatrist said he was unlikely to shoot himself, so he had been shipped to Vietnam anyway. If he tried to take matters into his own hands again, he would be shipped to jail. The mist parted before the gunboat, and it caressed the riverbank. Jacob gripped the rail.

The sailor said they had arrived. Cavalieri stood, and laughed.

‘Where the hell are we?’ Attingham said.

‘I’ve never seen terrain like it,’ Huey said.

On the southern shore was a meadow, where legions of tall flowers stood. Below their frail stems Jacob could glimpse a quagmire that clutched at the roots. The mist lay in tatters across the meadow. For a while no one said anything, and the silence swelled.

‘You said you’d take us to Cam Lang base camp,’ Jacob said.

‘Where the hell are we?’ Attingham repeated.

The sailor said they were at the end of their journey. He had taken them where they had to go, as he told them he would.

‘I order you to take us to the base camp,’ Jacob said.

The sailor said he obeyed orders from far higher up than Jacob.

‘Lower the ramp,’ Jerry whispered, staring at the flowers in the meadow.

‘Stay where you are, Jerry,’ Jacob said.

Jerry hesitated as the ramp was lowered.

‘This is bullshit,’ Cavalieri said. ‘This river don’t even go to base camp. Take me back to the north shore.’

The sailor said they could not go back.

‘We’re not going back,’ Jacob said. ‘We’re going to base.’

Jerry sighed, and walked down the ramp.

‘Jerry!’ Jacob shouted, ‘What are you doing? Get back here.’

‘What’s he doing?’ Attingham asked. Jerry had uprooted one of the flowers and was scrutinising it.

‘Flaking out,’ Huey said.

The sailor said they needed to disembark.

‘I’m going nowhere till you take me back to the north shore,’ Cavalieri said, gripping his rifle.

‘Shut up, Cavalieri,’ said Jacob. ‘Stay where you are. Listen to me, sailor. I’m bringing my friend back and then we’re leaving for Cam Lang.’

Jacob marched down the ramp and grabbed Jerry by the arm.

‘What are you doing, Jerry? Get back on the boat.’

‘The flowers,’ Jerry said, holding one to Jacob’s eyes. ‘They’re asphodels. The sailor, the boatman. Don’t you remember your Homer?’

A rifle clicked. Jacob turned and Cavalieri was pointing his gun at the sailor.

‘Take us back to the north shore.’

‘Private Cavalieri.’ Jacob shouted, ‘Lower your weapon.’

The sailor laughed.

‘No dice,’ Cavalieri shouted back. He sighted along his M16. ‘You do what you want, I’m going back.’

Attingham placed his own rifle on the deck, and edged in between the sailor and Cavalieri.

‘Take it easy, Cavalieri,’ Attingham said, ‘We can all go home. Your brother’s goin’ to be fine. We all flakin’. Let’s not get crazy now.’

Jacob raised his rifle and sighted along it at Cavalieri.

‘I don’t want to, Private Cavalieri,’ Jacob said, ‘but if I have to ….’

Jacob was crying. Cavalieri lowered his rifle a fraction. Huey tackled him and they both flew over the rail and into the shallows. Attingham ran down the ramp and dragged Cavalieri away from his rifle, and onto the shore. Attingham and Huey each held one of Cavalieri’s arms. The flowers behind Jacob rustled. He turned around, rifle still raised. A group of men appeared through the flowers, their rifles pointing down.

‘Take it easy, Jacob.’

Jacob dropped his rifle. Levi stood in front of him. Cortez beside him. Jacob recognised more faces in the group. Foster, Taylor, Ingle. Others looked familiar, though he could not name them. More appeared through the asphodels. Hundreds. Jacob turned back to the river, but the gunboat was moving into the mist. The air was still. Jacob smelt burnt flesh.

Michael Clegg

© 2014