The Charge of the 196th Light Infantry Brigade, Choicest Product of the Brewer’s Art
THE CHARGE OF THE 196TH LIGHT INFANTRY BRIGADE
Ours was not to reason why as we piled out the black-ass
end of deuce-and-a-halfs on a Boston Harbor wharf, alphabetically
ranked and filed, inventoried for war.
Prodded like penned cattle, ordered
by officers strutting and crowing; barked at by sergeants
nipping our heels, into formation we fell.
Our marching orders for Viet Nam; we were
signed, sealed and delivered for transport by the USS Patch,
moth-balled since World War II,
a recycled ark, its bill of lading listing
broken-in beasts of burden, each saddled by two eighty-pound duffels,
backpack, flack jacket, steel pot and M-Sixteen.
Our personal challenge being balance began
as we moved out single-file, an olive drab caterpillar shuffling
under hefted weight toward a gang plank.
This slanted path to sea sloped so steep
we hunched our stagger forward, stoop-shouldered as apes, to counter
the backward drag of a year's worth of laundry and gear.
Water to the right, water to the left, the walked plank
gave beneath combat boots like a diving board, tilting too from dock-side
swell, teetering us on the brink of tumble, rowed dominoes.
Safely on deck, we soon again feared falling
as NCO badgering backed us down a muzzle-black hatch,
while bags dragging aimed to sink us like rocks toward hull bottom.
Feet felt for rungs unseen. Hands retreated from boots above,
gravity and ourselves our only enemies as down three man holes, on four ladders,
we went two decks below water to whale's belly, empty since '45.
Tinned tight in this holding cell limbo for human cargo,
we were prisoners of war dormant 40 days and nights; trained killers
bored to death who hunted new ways to kill time.
At night, shelved like stored death,
we sacked out six deep on canvas racks below sheets of shallow
sleep sucking life from a fog of shared breath and sweat.
Our tapered prow, imperious, impervious, plowed
proud furrows, swirling in our wake a magnificent "V" re-paved
minutes past our grandiose passage.
But our D-Day—a jail break from tedium—
came with jubilation. Reborn uniform in joyful freedom
we rose to dawn's early light.
Fully-loaded, we surfaced from submersion
awkward as deep sea divers, fumbling up a tunnel of light as rung
by rung we hoisted ourselves up to the hatch of sun.
Then, under orders, we heaved ourselves
like lemmings over the rail, bag and baggage, feeling for footholds
in webs of rope to edge down the steel hull, dropping, at last
into landing craft; diesel chargers many horses strong
riding waves to cart and dump us close; front walls dropping
on tropical beach delivering us to occupation.
We heard amplified squeals sounding like pig slaughter,
(a local brass band butchering Sousa with atonal gusto), as hula
girls draped hibiscus leis over heads of officers, grinning.
Inside us lurked men we didn't know, but the hawk-eyed
Trojan beast of war was appeased by the pomp and praise of a coastal
mayor, welcoming us in French-accented broken English.
Then we shouldered our Government Issue,
olive drab burdens, advancing into aluminum-clad caves
through the open tail doors of air transports—
flying box cars, Korean War ghosts, refurbished to ferry
us to Tay Ninh Province on the Cambodian border, the killing fields
of War Zone C, to do and die or live a lie forever after.
CHOICEST PRODUCT OF THE BREWER'S ART
(Alexander Calder's 'Flying Rooster')
His macho beer can ego crows and claws
with pugnacity at climate-controlled air
in the Museum of Modern Art.
Wings, talons and beak sharp,
his aluminum body hovers jagged with kinetic
tension, aching for combat.
A village too was once constructed
of Budweiser cans, seams cut, opened out
and hammered flat.
Red, white and blue spangled eagles, flags
and dingbats converted to Fourth of July siding,
worn on huts in a Viet Namese tapioca field.
Villagers redeemed our no-deposit cans
culled from the neighboring dump
of the 196th Light Infantry Brigade.
The more we drank, the more they built—
diversifying into footlockers, cot-side tables
and keepsake boxes.
A cottage industry soon boomed, top-of-the-line
being mirrors, spit-shine buffed to give us our faces
as seen by the inside of beer cans.
With our military scrip as good
as dollars on the black market, we gladly paid
for our trash.
They weren't sorry to see us go, cock-sure
troops, strutting, rutting their women, swilling brew
then crowing 'til midnight.