Love Letters from Vietnam
Deb Carbonaro Gaisford
Hawkins released the pen from his cramping hand and let it fall to the muddy ground. He mopped the sweat off his brow. It was getting hot and humid, the kind of weather that made you want to lie down and sleep. How did he end up here, sweating his balls off in this shit hole, ghostwriting--literally!--a letter to someone else's mother? He reached into the pocket of his drab olive green standard issue U.S. Army pants and pulled out a battered set of dog tags, the black silencers miraculously still intact:
He addressed the hazy sky. Jesus Christ, Samson. Why did I agree to this?
"No. It's ridiculous. I can't. I won't! And anyway, this is a pointless conversation. What are the odds?!"
"Hawkins. It's not pointless and you know it. Don't be an asshole."
"Samson, I am not--and let me repeat--not writing letters to your mom if you die." Hawkins shuddered. "Why are we even having this conversation? Can't we just talk about what we're going to do on R&R or something?"
"Please. You're the only one I'd trust with it."
Hawkins looked down and ran his hand against the grain of his buzz cut army head. He had sacrificed his hair to the god of war; was he now going to sacrifice his voice? He looked up finally to find Samson staring at him intently with clear blue eyes.
Bastard, Hawkins grumbled guiltily to himself. He pulled an envelope out of its protective plastic bag, without which the paper would disintegrate in the suffocating humidity. If only there were this kind of protection for us, he mused. He folded the letter, stuffed it into an envelope and carefully addressed it to Mrs. Mary Samson in Manakin Sabot, Virginia. He sealed it right away so he wouldn't accidentally mix it up with the letters he wrote to his own mother.
What would his mother have wanted him to do in this situation? A practical, unsentimental, New England woman, she would have found it insulting to be lied to, even at the end of her life. But Hawkins wondered if, when push came to shove, she also would be better off not knowing. If he could save her the anguish, wouldn't he?
He put the sealed envelope back in the plastic bag, where it would wait until it could hitch a ride to the rear with the next wounded soldier.
"Lung cancer. Yeah, she smoked liked a faulty carburetor for damn near forty years." Samson laughed uncomfortably as he took a drag of his own Camel. "She probably only has a month left. They didn't tell her that, of course, what with my being shipped off to hell for a tour."
"Shit." Hawkins shook his head in disbelief. "How could she not know?"
"She knows she has cancer, just not that she is going to die so soon she'll never see me again. Why add insult to injury?"
Hawkins wondered how Samson could be so matter-of-fact about the whole thing. "What about your dad? And your sister?"
Samson shrugged. "After she dies you'll get a letter addressed to me saying she's dead. Then you can do whatever you want. Well?"
Hawkins gave a silent, affirmative nod and stood up to leave. "I have to go finish digging my hole." He knew it was a lame excuse, but the talk of death--at once palpable and surreal--made him feel like spiders were crawling up his legs.
"Oh, and Hawk? Don't forget to sign it 'Michael.' She doesn't call me Mike."
Sergeant Anastasio, the squad leader, stuck his head into Hawkins's makeshift hut of ponchos and bamboo. "What are you doing in there, Private?"
Hawkins hesitated. Anastasio was not, in his experience, the kind of person in whom you wanted to confide sentimentality. But the burden of his promise was too great to shoulder alone. "I'm writing to Samson's mom," he answered casually, as if it were a routine task. "Figure it's the least I can do," he added awkwardly, looking away to conceal his anxiety.
"What the fuck are you doing writing to his mom?"
Hawkins exhaled. "I promised him I would write to her--as him--if he died."
"You fucking did what?"
"Look, the cancer's going to get her any day now. One letter should do it. He just wanted to spare her his death."
Anastasio eyed Hawkins suspiciously. "But we already reported his death to base. The KIA letter has been sent by now. It will get there way before your letter does."
"I doubt that." Hawkins reached into his pocket and pulled out the dog tags he had deliberately ripped off Samson's broken neck to prevent his being identified. "I convinced the radioman to do me a solid and not call in his numbers right on the spot…." Hawkins trailed off, his mouth filling with saliva as he fought to suppress a nervous swallow.
Anastasio grunted his disapproval. "Private, you are playing with fire. If the LT finds out, we're all going to be in some deep shit."
Hawkins stared impassively into Anastasio's eyes. Anastasio's bulk made him appear menacing, but at this point in the war, he had begun to look drawn, even vulnerable. "Sergeant, she's almost dead. I just have to write this one letter, and then we can give the report." He fingered the dog tags. "Technically, he is still missing."
Anastasio bristled. "Like hell, he is! Hawk, you know goddamn well that boy is dead and gone."
"Sergeant, if I may, how many 'probable' Viet Cong deaths have become 'confirmed' in our reports to HQ?" He paused for effect. "This one little delay isn't hurting anyone."
Anastasio squinted at Hawkins but said nothing. He lingered in the entranceway a few moments, his jaw working beneath his ruddy cheeks. Then he turned on his heel and walked away, muttering about protocol and duty.
"Hawk! Stay with me, buddy." It was daytime, but Anastasio could barely see through the sheets of rain. Adrenaline coursed through his veins as he dragged Hawkins by the underarms to the safety of tall grass that nearly swallowed them whole. Anastasio's breath was ragged; a trail of blood stained the ground. Up ahead, his men had just about fought off the ambush of their routine patrol. Above the din, he heard his radioman call for help.
Hawkins was looking at him intently, the color slowly draining from his face in time with the blood pumping out of his half-severed femoral artery. Anastasio tried to apply pressure to the wound, but the rain weakened his grip, and Hawkins's fast-beating heart made it hard to stem the flow of blood. "Aw, fuck. C'mon Hawk. Don't close your eyes, goddamnit, you're going to be alright."
Hawkins looked deliberately at the pocket of his jacket and slowly moved his hand to rest on top of it. He let out one last sigh, and closed his eyes.
"Fuck me, fuck fuck fuck!" Anastasio screamed with anguish. "Open your fucking eyes, Hawkins!" He shook the body to no avail. The other infantrymen in the squad inched away.
Anastasio knew Hawkins's death wasn't his fault, not really. But no one else in the world--not President Johnson, not those long-haired asshole protesters, not even General Westmoreland--seemed to be taking responsibility for this misguided clusterfuck of a war, let alone the death of not one but now two Privates in his squad in as many months. So the heavy cloak of responsibility might as well fall on his shoulders. He accepted his burden but seethed with rage at its existence.
"Don't just stand there gawking," he shouted to his squad. "Someone fucking help me with this body before those damn gooks come back." There was a rustle of activity as the men looked for a poncho in which to wrap the body. As the rain began to abate, Anastasio noticed his dead Private's hand resting on his pocket. It was the last thing that Hawkins had done, he realized.
"Wait," he said to the men grabbing at Hawkins's lifeless body. He reached into the pocket and pulled out a small plastic bag. Inside was a letter addressed to Michael Samson in the neat, grade-school cursive of a good southern housewife. Anastasio's stomach sank. He stuffed the letter into his pocket as his men took over. I am not reading this fucking letter. I'm not. He whispered it under his breath so many times on the hump back to camp that he convinced himself it was true.
Anastasio stared up at the leaking roof of his hut. He could see the rainwater running down the outside of one of the ponchos and dripping onto the ground next to him. The air was saturated with water; it was as if you could drown just lying there. Goddamnit, Hawk, why did you have to… die? He wept silently for the futility of it all, tears streaming sideways down his face and pooling in his ears.
He sat up abruptly. It's not my job to keep up this charade. But even as the thought crossed his mind, he was already reaching into his pocket. He blinked slowly, as if to decelerate time or at least delay the inevitable.
Anastasio crumpled up the letter and threw it to the ground. "No!" he shouted to no one at all. "No, I am not doing this!"
"You alright in there, Sarge?" A voice from outside the hut pierced his concentration.
"Yeah, yeah, get back to your business, Private," he said gruffly. He sniggered cynically under his breath. They were all just kids out here in the jungle, fighting for their lives. Whether he was alright or not was irrelevant. What counted was asking and answering; it meant they were still alive.
Anastasio rubbed his dirty, jungle-rotted hands over his face. He exhaled and reached for a pen.
Deb Gaisford is a freelance writer in New York City. For more information, please visit http://dcgaisford.blogspot.com/p/about-me.html