THE MISSION (1968) BY DALTON NARINE
All night long, her flaxen hair shimmying like disco lights in the full moon, the river showered its blessings on our predicament. In the pitch of the blackout, the candle on the bamboo table flickered wanly; the wick, ungraceful in the gluey wax, wasting away. How grateful I was that a compassionate moon loitered above the upstairs porch while we, the matter and I, a Trini in Nam, deliberated over an argument for spiritual mediation.
Now, I’m seeing things that remind me of other things. This scene playing out before me
— the moon river, the river moon — proves that I may have been more than a little prescient in M.P. Alladin’s art class at the British Council, where I’d carved it in wood a mere eight years ago at the age of 12.
Eventually, the flax on the downstream current glittered off and took the argument out of sight, a good ways behind the American cargo boats so big and fat down at the docks that they leave footprints on the water.
The Saigon sun was already rinsing its face in the river when my girl and I tangled out of the sofa, bedraggled like leftover trees in a storm. Like rubber trees in the Michelin Plantation following a napalm run by F-100 fighter jets slamming the VC up and down the infamous Iron Triangle.
I nourish no suspicion toward occult lore (though it grew up around me on Laventille hill , Belmont and Behind the Bridge. So the bellwether might well have been a nod to the order of the day. It would take more than an omen, I swear, for me to back out of the task at hand.
Anyone can be saved.
It would be the sermon of the day.
At midday Mass in the city, something spooky turned up. I had a pull in my heart. It felt like a coachman’s twitch on the bridle, and it punched in on time during the sacrament. Ushered along by a sip of wine, the spare little wheel from God arrived at the soul cold and damp.
All of a sudden, it seems, melancholia was sketching the mind a dull jab jab blue. Would that I could dress it in buttery pastels, like Degas’ paintings! Then I could pick up the pre-monsoon wind sweeping the aisles; watch it flattening out through the canted stained-glass windows and emptying into the steam bath gridlock outside.
Such a head trip would not be enough to lance this unholy mess or pry open the clutch on my heart. Instead, I’m left to surrender only to principles, or whatever influences the whip hand under these circumstances.
At the end of Mass, we, this grave matter and I, catch up with the Vietnamese priest in the sacristy, where truth, unhinged from conscience, summons up a surprise confession that gives the cleric enough reason to be disturbed. His olive face admitting some sag, the bantamweight priest, forty-ish, at once gathers himself. Sitting at a wooden desk, small in the fullness of the twin-spired cathedral, he fidgets with thick black-rimmed glasses until the comfort zone on the nose is secured.
A short drama unfolds when he plants his elbows as a fulcrum to plop his head in stubby but delicate hands that he swings like a pendulum on double-time.“Americans. Americans.” he murmurs in a French-Vietnamese accent. “You Americans. So arrogant.”
Such sanctimony! In itself it carries an ironic surfeit of arrogance. Would he have been brave enough to speak so to the French as they tried to reunify North and South Vietnam? What a way to thank the Yanks for our service !
The priest affects an air of disgust, as if borrowing attitude from the pulpit. He brushes back dark, stringy, Brylcreemed hair that humidity has rearranged. Smooths limp noodles neatly into place, packs the strips of dough into his bowlike skull, the halo slipping off, tumbling down the chasm between his arched torso and the straight-backed wooden chair.
The signal is to retreat from this icky battlefield, just as a homily from the lectern at the cathedral in downtown Port of Spain begins to well up in flashback — Stephen being stoned to death in the Book of Acts. A dread story that hasn’t drifted too far from my moral consciousness. Well, ain’t that a bitch.
We are in dangerous space now, between the cape and the bull. Have we already inherited the insanity of the fight? I can’t speak for him, but this new American — they call me “Preech,” short for altar boy — is supposed to be enjoying a three-day respite from combat. Picking up new glasses, the old ones waylaid in the scramble of a rocket attack at a fire base in Phuoc Vinh.
Now, here we are, exchanging ‘robber’ talk — not unlike rival mafioso — in a crevice of God’s soul.
“You won’t be able to get away with it.”
Oh! How he merits a sniper’s stare, this enemy priest. His face, all but an impotent disciple of authority is flushed. “Fr. Brylcreem” is now dead to my needs.
I wheel back to the sanctuary. Darting eyes hurdle serried racks of votive candles and their wobbly lights bare-ass naked and divine amid the pious hush; beyond the early rows of pews, smart and soldierly in their close-order drill.
There they are. My friends, Pinky and Maria. Their faces flash surprise at my unmistakably altered state. They worry over this ersatz assassin’s blanched complexion, his peculiar grip on the dagger. They’d been keenly aware that I’d sat up all night.
Both 22, they travel as an offbeat act that crosses dogma with erotica.
Maria, the cool-headed one, juggles religious and secular responsibilities. A Mexican-American nun who counsels Saigon whores. Pinky, the passionate other, a civilian nurse, wears a prickly aura beneath gossamer charm.
A wedding band, still new and shiny, wears on her right hand, though a divorce from a bomber pilot serving in the war is in the mill.
We check out of the cathedral, out of this cul-de-sac of curiosity, the swelter of Fiat cars and motorcycle traffic slapping at us like a boxer’s paw, the soot swinging back with the carriage of the priest.
The tinny voice.
Bells in the church tower strike telling blows in counterpoint.
Ha! You Americans!
In Vietnam, I am American.
In America, I’m immigrant.
In the bush, a plain ol’ grunt, door gunner and a combat controller.
The new ugly American.
Such a dichotomy! I must analyze later this strange creature, its head braided in a stars and stripes bandanna, dropped just so in the lap of my psyche.
Another contretemps looms.
The order of the night’s events.
Wait a minute!
Hold up! Not yet.
For right now, that bright afternoon on a Christmas Day of my early teens is re-indexing itself, spitting hot shocks of neon and setting the brain on edge. A young church colleague, who, like myself, lived in a slum community, but who, unlike me, mindlessly gravitated beyond the altar, found himself in the mad embrace of a knife fight on a street Behind the Bridge.
Truth to tell, not a real bridge. More a synthetic construct without girders, a demarcation line between a city teeming with mercantile mercenaries and its victims, including teething gangs that would lop off an arm over a tart or a steelband issue.
In such an environment, yes, it was there that I lost one of my best friends.
There are no sermons for the hardships that delineate a culture at war under colonial exploitation. Not Homer’s. Not Milton’s. Not Shakespeare’s. Life in the bush shapes those born into its lore. Not that each of its denizens is prepared for death, but it continually flashes before their eyes. The brackish dry river and the polluted Gulf of Paria are one and the same tributary of horror. See?
Now I’m left to ponder such pop-psych trauma as a heady mix of virtue and sin. I’ve been
in-country only a few months, and already a lot of us are lost in the devil’s little acre, shuttled back so soon to the States in coffins wrapped in the Stars & Stripes.
So what’s next?
Well, then, before the nightly curfew reigns, shall I kill the sonofabitch prior to taking Pinky to dinner? Or, for the second day, R&R at her digs, Viet Cong troops having bombed the military hotel mere hours before I arrived in the city.
Moreover, now that the enemy Vietnamese, a Viet Cong in civvies, whose sleight-of-hand rip-off at dusk during a blackmarket money transaction in Cholon a month ago still affects the darker side of your psyche, it behooves you to slingshot back to badass Cholon to waste him for socking it to a Trini.
Ain’t never gonna happen again.
Cos, the memory of my friend lying there Behind the Bridge, gurgling blood, the coward running away, and you can’t defend your boy, all of that still gnaws at your brain. He won’t rest in peace until you give him your heart.
Well, you taxi to the villa that the military rented to house your main man, a Trini, and two buddies (medics who work on disease prevention in a Saigon lab); you cross yourself at the swimming pool where a fourth, a basic training colleague, had drowned; and say hello to the three maids, then talk your boy into borrowing his .45 cal. pistol.
No dice, he says.
In the field, a .45 is joke, you let him know.
After all, you empty a M-60 machine gun from a gunship over the battlefield, walk the bush with a M-16 rifle and a M-79 grenade launcher.
It’s almost curfew, he warns. Anybody on the streets till dawn is dead meat. Why the rush?
You can’t tell him, because he’d warned you, having suggested his tailor “who had more dough to blow than the VC in civvies.”
But you can’t wait. At dawn, you gonna be humping in the boonies with the M79.
So what you gon’ do now?
Mindful of the curfew, you just got to waste him.
Coming in from the bush, you just can’t walk into Dodge just so with the single-shot M79. But it’s what I needed. Firing a 40mm high explosive fragmentation grenades from the shoulder could blow apart the shanties in Cholon. It would be madness times mayhem. You get shot by the 79 the round would burn you to death. It would be a head trip to watch the VC roll around, his body broken apart, his buddies running away or looking around in fear of the second shot.
So that’s what you gon’ do, bruh?
Why not? Get back into the rickety cab, pull the 79 from under the back seat and pat it gently, dawg.
One more dead VC.
Yeaah, a hit for my boy, Ansel, from behind the Bridge.
He gave me heart. I give him mine.
Rest in peace, buddy.
PS: Troops were paid in dollars, which they could convert in unlimited amounts to the local currency with merchants and Vietnamese at the black market conversion rate, which was much more favorable to the GIs who profited big time from the more favorable exchange rate. Troops shoved shiploads of electronic merchandise back home during the war. It wasn’t greed. That’s how the war rolled.
Back to surreality : This soldier went to great lengths checking the VC’s money in the dark, far from the madding troops asleep at the firebase. Sneak a poncho from the hooch; grab the rucksack and a flashlight; drape the poncho over the head; count the dough (what dough?) behind a sleeping chopper.
It was there that I lost my sanity.
Don’ mean nuthin’.
There it is. It would become a catchphrase in the bush and everywhere back in the Sates.
And that gave new meaning to a war in freestyle.
Still, don’ mean nuthin’.