Navigation to the Antipodes
Home for the holidays now over, I load my sea bag and some hanging clothes into the car for my drive south from this New England morning. My sister and brothers are chattering their way back to school, she in the unwashed car of a friend, two in the yellow bus, one boy on the frozen footpath. "Oh, bye!" . . . ."Bye." . . . . "Bye." . . . "Yeah, bye."
"How does . . . 95 to Petersburg . . . . 85 to Atlanta . . . and 185 to Columbus sound?", I ask.
"Pick your own route; think about interstate 81, less traffic," answers Dad.
Mom, "Please don't drive straight through; stay off the highway at night."
Through the door
small boots tapping sliding
Mother looks at her hands and does not step from the kitchen window. She, her two brothers and brother-in-law had been in the Navy. My father glances again at my tires and listens to the Chevelle start. He and his brother were marines in two wars. Having gone to the Far East three times, he looks quietly down the street as I steer out of the driveway that I shoveled, away from the white clapboard house that I painted one summer. Accelerating along sunny asphalt stretching between drifts that bury leaves and grass, I push the radio buttons until I hear music louder than the V8.
tree out by the curb
January and February, Georgia and panhandle Florida are southern climes in name only as we practice navigation, some of us for the third or fourth time. Some interest, if not enthusiasm, is generated by completing all course work in frigid darkness, hunger and exhaustion. Locate yourself alone at night; touch the sand, clay or rock; feel the pull of gravity of hill or draw; smell a trail or a slough; calculate a direction from a faint green glow of a needle; divine your arrival from a number of paces counted. The only maps are of a scale that may let you know that you've gone too far or not far enough and will not let you know what exactly you must pass through to get anywhere. Tonight the instructor says, "In two-man teams, you will find as many checkpoints as you can by two AM. Do not leave the woods without your buddy."
behind the pines
My way west is San Francisco, Honolulu, Okinawa, Da Nang. The charter is completely booked; all reservations were at some point secured by recitation of the oath of unlimited liability which read in part: "I,__________, do solemnly swear to support and defend . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ..against all . . . . . . . . . . . . that I will bear true faith and allegiance . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. and to obey . . . or to well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office . . . "
Not everyone says, "so help me God," an optional phrase often saved for later, private use. The rumbling of the take-off roll ends with a brief squeal of hydraulics. The climb out is northward then slightly northwest, from the darkening cabin a view of the Golden Gate.
From 12,000 feet on the downwind leg, a sunlit coast, a beach by a marble mountain above a bay and brown rivers ribboning out of green fields to the sea where the old charts show Tourane of Cochinchine. Those of us climbing aboard trucks to the Marine Division briefly assemble to be delivered in twos and threes to regiments and battalions. Too new and in a category to be spoken at, we listen before questioning.
"Gentlemen, if you would, look at this map showing the year's mine and booby-trap encounters, . . . . . . . this map of your areas in dry season, . . . this map of the same areas during seasonal flooding, . . . ..this map of the zone from which 122mm rockets can reach the airbase."
"Captain, may we go to the reconnaissance battalion? The three of us just finished ranger school last month."
"Nope, one of you to each of the three regiments."
In the rifle platoon I'm now one of a kind receiving all pointed questions technical or personal, every query a test, no time to reconsider a response. The infantry never solitary, I watch a new landscape and am constantly watched.
heron on a log
It is a day to rotate from one district to another, Hoa Vang to Dien Ban or the reverse. We squint through a cloud of dust at the large green helicopter, a dropping shaking stock trailer, back door already gaping. We stampede up the ramp, neck muscles straining, eyes widening, each head counted. Screaming turbine-driven blades pull skyward tipping us like a load of mixing concrete, tripling our weight to compel genuflection with our ascending prayers.
Altitude chills sweaty shirts just as the change of turbine whine and rotor slap accompany the transition to a spiraling descent. I look out the door to see what zone we are dropping into; pilots, for their own reasons, do not always leave us where our hike would be the shortest.
slow blue river bends
Gusts rise at noon and lunch includes sand in the peach syrup. We file across a tan stream on a creaking bamboo bridge and can't avoid May's rice seedlings. Evening is warm and wet; our shorter breaths draw murmuring clouds of mosquitos into the shrine at Co Man.
Radioman, "Hey, el tee, well done, sir! . . . . . . .Que es todo esto?"
"Well Reyes," I answer, "It is not Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe."
Red tile roof
shaded door open
Buddha's golden eye
Sun rising from the sea lights a quilt of farms, dry brown, flooded sky blue, mature emerald green, harvested yellow. Thriving hamlets and freeholds become the rocket belt only after dark. Every evening month after month, the regiment dissolves to more than a hundred squirming patrols; some nights the map is a board for Go, other nights for Jetan.
"Skipper, how do these checkpoints look?"
"Pick your own route. Try not to meet anyone you know."
orange and black
In the east no dawn; November's typhoon is passing through the South China Sea. Rain slaps the longer leaves and shakes the older bamboo canes. Afternoon delights are momentarily dry socks in muddy boots and coffee in a green tin can.
Monsoon nights flood much of the land renewing competition for remaining high ground. Who chooses the routes and checkpoints has become the navigator of dead ends and points of no return for himself eventually, for others already. I am trying to focus my eyes on my hands scribbling through the running ink; I listen as the rattling from the poncho-wrapped dead weight laid upon the landing zone joins the ill wind.