Precious Air



Da Krong Valley, R.S.V.N.
May 16, 1969 – 11:45 p.m. local time


The first sound was as subtle as two blades of grass rubbing together. The second produced a sudden rustling that startled Tuck. His head snapped up and his excited fingers fumbled for the pistol grip of the black rifle leaning against his thigh. Finding the grip, he pulled the M-16 up to his shoulder and tapped his finger against the side of the trigger. He slowly inhaled the night air. It was thick with the scent of freshly turned earth and damp fern. The grass moved again. He pointed his rifle toward the sound, and waited in the darkness.

Beads of sweat forming near his scalp grew into droplets and streamed down his forehead. Tuck wrinkled his brow and then blinked as they paused at the scar above his right eye and then glided to the tip of his nose. He reached up and swiped his face with the tail of his T-shirt, stiff with dried salt.

Fighting through the ringing that masked his hearing, Tuck strained to detect the sounds of twigs snapping or metal clanking and to sort them from those of an animal foraging in the night. It was a difficult skill to learn. The ringing in his ears made it even more difficult. A rat, he soon decided. Not a tiger, too small. No, must be a rat. He lowered his weapon and slowly exhaled.

Sitting cross-legged on the edge of his fighting hole, Tuck leaned forward and looked toward the top of the jungle canopy. He searched for any hint of a breeze — the sway of a branch or the quivering of a leaf. There was none, but the Vietnamese night reminded him of home. He longed for Louisiana nights and Anna’s warm embrace. The memory of her kisses, especially the first, and her consuming gaze still made him smile. After nearly 40 days in the bush, only the thought of returning to her prevented him from succumbing to despair.

He had earlier watched the half moon set below the crest of a nearby hill. Now only the stars and the jungle floor’s phosphorescent decay illuminated the darkness atop the peak where he and his buddies stood vigil. In the pitch of the night, Tuck, like the others, felt alone.

He glimpsed a bat flitting in the starlight and mumbled a prayer for time to quicken. The demand of being a “mountain Marine” had sapped both his energy and courage. Fatigue had given way to weariness. Doubt filled Tuck’s mind as Donnie-Boy’s orders nagged. Why had he obeyed the command? Had he proven his loyalty, but bartered his soul? He dared not tell anyone of his doubts.

His friend, Danny, would relieve him in 15 minutes and the notion of a few hours of sleep beckoned seductively. Perhaps sleep would this time bring solace, if only for awhile. But the dreams loomed. Dreams? No, nightmares — the kinds in which the dreamer utters unheard screams and then awakens, only to remember the dread. Tuck feared they’d never go away.

Tuck twisted about and glanced up the gentle slope toward his sleeping friends, whose three lives he guarded, and heard their gentle snoring. Dozens of other grunts slept around the perimeter. Soon, each would, in turn, stand a two-hour watch.

Tuck felt a prick and slapped at a mosquito on his neck. He peered down at the radium dial of his watch, its accuracy waning as tropical corrosion slowly devoured its inner workings. He wiped away the grime with his thumb and noted for the hundredth time how the face of the Timex glowed the same green as that of the ground’s eerie sparkle. A bracelet of dirt coiled beneath the damp leather wristband, which stank of sweat. It was 11:50 p.m., 10 minutes to go. He again wiped his brow, squeezed shut his eyelids and shook his head. “Hang in there,” he encouraged himself — too loudly.

“Huh?” Danny grunted from 10 yards up the slope. “My turn yet, Tuck?”

“Nah, you still got 10 minutes. Sorry I woke you, man.”

“That’s OK, little bro, don’t mean nothin’,” Danny said. He yawned and rubbed his eyes with mitt-like hands. Tuck was their leader now; he’d proven his mettle and would be the one to get them through this latest ordeal. “Damn, shouldn’t be this hot anywhere.” Danny yawned again and then scurried down the slope to Tuck’s left side. “Any movement?”

Tuck pointed to the edge of the saw-toothed elephant grass. “Few minutes ago I heard some rustling. Probably a rat.” He slowly rose to his knees, closed his eyes and stretched. “Oohahhumm, it’s gonna be nice to get some slee …”

CRACK! The report from an AK-47 rifle split the night air.

Tuck’s yawn hissed into a gasp as a bullet ripped through his upper chest. Like a sledgehammer’s blow, the impact slammed him to the ground. The evening stillness erupted into confusion. His arms flailed at terrors unseen. Spasms shot through his body. Writhing, he sought air — hot, humid, any air. It did not matter now. He wanted it; needed it. Gasping brought but little air to his lungs. Confusion mounted. Familiar sounds — somewhere, just not sure where. Close, no — distant. Voices, too. Anna’s? No.

“There he is. Get him, the sneaky bastard! Turn that 60 loose,” Tuck heard Danny cry out … or, was it Donnie-Boy?

A string of automatic weapons fire stuttered in short bursts. Tuck couldn’t tell from where it came — it didn’t matter. His lungs sought the thick air. Precious air. Anna’s face drifted before his eyes and then vanished into the starlight. He struggled up onto his right elbow and saw a shadow — that of a fleeing man, not a rat — fall hard. The hill fell silent.

Tuck’s head drooped. A smoking hole marked his T-shirt. He fell back again, gasping. His body chilled beneath the strange dampness spreading across his chest. It smelled and felt like warm honey.

The shooting had stopped in less than a minute, but Tuck had lost concept of time — a lifetime might have slipped by. What? Hours since he’d wakened Danny? Had they spoken at all? The more he gasped, the more confounded his mind became. “Dear God, more air, please,” he pleaded silently. But was it silent? Or, was he shouting?

Danny dropped his rifle into the grass, turned and then cradled Tuck in his strong black arms. There was a debt to be repaid. “Corpsman, corpsman,” Danny hollered, “Man down over here. Damn it.” He whispered to Tuck. “Hang in there, little buddy, I ain’t gonna let you die, man. I ain’t gonna let you die. Come on, man, don’t close your eyes. Look at me you dumb Cajun.”

Silhouetted against the onyx sky and bright stars, Danny’s face appeared heavenly to Tuck. An ebony angel, he mused, slowly losing grip on the present, mumbling, “O, St. Joseph ...”