Making Friends Where Tapioca Once Grew
When the bunker collapsed, sand bags and girders thundered down
like the wrath of god to bury me alive. (Gravity trumps lousy
engineering every time.)
Troops in my platoon failed to notice I was missing. They dug
with admirable zeal toward the muffled screams of their friends.
(I dug myself out.)
Who could blame the priest who read last rites over
my allegedly dead body? My dog tags said "Episcopalian."
The med-evac pilot failed to see my head bandage unwind,
the loose end sucked up in the down-draft of lift-off,
re-winding on the rotor.
Attached by an elastic umbilical chord to the whirling scythe
of a machine of war on a mission of mercy,
I was a soldier reborn.
The hospital nurses shaved a tonsure from my scalp,
and the surgeons sewed my pate shut, by oversight leaving
dried blood between skin and skull.
I dropped in on the battalion medics later, who, though drunk,
stopped their poker game to render a second opinion. I didn't
flinch as they ripped out stitches,
diagnosing "subdural hemotoma" in slurred, Puerto Rican English.
They dissolved clotted blood with rum and re-stitched me up
tight as a drum, preventing retardation.
Next day, the sergeant-major said I wouldn't get a Purple Heart.
"The cave-in was an accident unrelated to enemy action," he said.
I objected, "but the radar warrant officer
got one for a sprained ankle when he tripped over a tent rope."
He was running for cover "during a mortar attack—i.e. related
to enemy action," he replied.
Sarge approved me for light duty—shepherding Vietnamese
women and kids hired to glean our litter into burlap sacks.
When the "mama-sans" tried
to sell me daughters of fourteen, I refused with feigned regret,
not wanting to disrespect their culture. The absentee dads
we'd evicted from their tapioca fields
to build our base camp refused to police the invader's trash
preferring a new trade—fighting back with hand grenades, booby traps,
and small arms made in China.
I didn't see the bamboo viper that stalked me from above.
Mistaking my tonsure for a large egg in a nest, he oozed down slow
to hang like green rope,
inches from his yolkless, bone-headed prey. Then a quick-sprinting boy
knocked me flat. I was about to shoot him when he grabbed a pole,
whacked the dangling snake to ground,
stomping its head to mush under his right-footed flip-flop.
Later, I spotted the boy pacing off distances, taking the measure of base
camp targets, so Uncle Ho
could zero in his mortars. Vietnamese interrogators, attached
to our unit to do what the Geneva Convention forbade,
would have tortured him.
I didn't turn the boy in.