By Ralph Greco
“My uncle says your magic will mix good with his magic,” Bon said.
Robbie left the hut. Stewy passed the joint to me. There laughed.
“Hell, I’m so stoned I’ll go along with anything,” I coughed and the old man coughed right along with me.
Again another rapid-fire conversation in Vietnamese and the boy turned to us all again.
“My uncle say you all magic men, good and ready.”
“Good and ready,” Stewy repeated, standing to attention and saluting the old man. I passed the joint to There and stood also.
“Don’t be too hasty,” There said, inhaling that sweet stick. “Never be too hasty.”
We stood on what should have been our moss-hilled encampment but was now a whiter-then-white sandy beach.
“Where is that fucking kid?” I shouted, my voice carrying out to the twinkling turquoise water. Half erect, my shirt sticking to my back I managed three waddling steps forward in the hot sand.
“Now ain’t this some shit,” There sighed.
He hadn’t acquired his nickname because he was given to excitement, as when our Sarge shouted down that rat hole: “Is there anybody there?” to which my friend had replied: “No, there ain’t no there here”! Like Stewy and I, the big black man was simply looking out at this impossible horizon now, knowing full well that even as stoned as we were shared hallucinations weren’t that common on the stuff we smoked.
Somehow the old man, who was as conspicuously absent as his fifteen year-old nephew, had just popped us here.
“Do we panic now or later?” I asked. There was a breeze tickling from someplace, it felt good, so I sat back down.
“Nah, we got time in,” Stewy said and lifted his white boots to the glint of the sun. Sixteen months in country you grow old and used with your bros just as the crust of your boots get blanched the longer in the jungles you are.
There is a sense of need when you have been in the shit, if not for the Nam for the men beside you. I had long ago thrown away my camera (traded it actually for two Doors’ tapes) so all I had to remember anybody by was what I saw and smelled of them on a daily basis. Crazy little Joe-Joe from Clifton New Jersey of all places, a curly-haired sprite of a guy with a runny right eye and the smallest feet on any man I’d ever seen. Benny Rails from San Diego and Zapo from Cincinnati were back there too, all great friends, tight stand-up guys I hoped I wouldn’t soon forget. There and Stewy were my best friends so it was cool they were with me, and I knew they’d want to get back to see all those other crazy crusty faces just as much as I.
“Okay,” I offered and my bros agreed. “But we do gotta get back.”
It just needed to be said before we went on here.
“So, how do we play this?” I finally asked after what could have been an hour or day really.
“Take a dip,” There offered, always the practical one. He stood then, lifted off his shirt and was fumbling with his boots as I looked up into the sun at his chocolate eclipse.
“Gonna swim back?”
“Maybe,” he chuckled at me as Stewy stood too.
“Water does look good,” I agreed.
“Yes, it does,” There said, now down to his skivvies.
“And I could use a bath,” Stewy offered, falling as he tried his left boot.
“Chill man,” Stewy said, down to his underwear then too. “Chill, we’ll be right back.”
He patted my curly-haired head like he always did and jumped right after There.
Over the past year and half we all had learned a whole new way of waiting. Sitting in a dewy jungle, smelling and hearing, wiggling, sweating, tasting, your senses are alive in a way you have never known them to be. I knew I could sit on this sun-bleached beach as long as forever…even longer since I knew we weren’t in any danger right then. But the fact that we were here was gnawing at me, not because of where we were and how we got here, but because I felt my sense of urgency about it slipping away.
“I got to find that old man,” I shouted, standing up again, this time with a fierce head-rush.
“What?” Stewy yelled back.
“I’m gonna go and find that…”I began, thought better and just waved to them beginning as they began to frolic in the high blue/green surf.
I turned to the light waist-high brush behind me and walked purposefully into it.
Ok, so I had no idea where I was going or why or what I would do if I found that old man, or anything at all for that matter. Far from being frightened, as I had been every day in the shit, I sauntered into that cool brush with a lightness in my heart I hadn’t felt since Judy snuck in that picture with her mail last week of July.
I could somehow still hear my two bros back splashing behind me as I walked deeper into the foliage. There was a consistent sound of low vibration, not of a machine running, but as if the earth was feeling good here and was humming about it. The insect sounds and the birdcalls were all wrong, or more precisely right for there, but not what I had grown accustomed to back in country. I knew if something was out of place, if I was being watched or a gun was being leveled at my ass I would never be able to hear the change in these odd surroundings enough to react.
But then again I knew I was safe and no gun or no eyes were stalking me.
“Come a long way,” the voice said as I came right upon the old man, Bon’s uncle, sitting cross-legged and smiling in the crotch of a low white-barked tree. Whether he or the tree, or both had just appeared or I had literally stumbled upon them at the last possible minute I couldn’t be sure, but I didn’t much care. I was just happy to see the guy…and that he was speaking my language now.
“You brought us here, right?”
“In a manner of speaking,” he said and continued to smile. To hear my native tongue being spoken by this guy who I had never known to speak, let alone know anything but Vietnamese was probably the strangest aspect of all this to me so far.
“You hear what you want to hear,” he said as if reading my mind.
“Nothing has changed, really.”
“Well, we are fucking well not in the Nam anymore,” I said, hoping I didn’t sound as desperate for answers as I felt.
“And you want to be?”
“I’m not sure,” I said and sat fully then to the mossy earth floor. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, this is like a vacation I could never have dreamed, still…”
“You worry for your men,” he said. “You feel responsible for the safety of those back in your war.”
Well, it wasn’t my war, but I wasn’t about to quibble when this guy held all the cards. Bon’s uncle was speaking the truth though, responsible is exactly what I felt, but the sunlight did feel good and that water had looked inviting.
“How did you…”? I tried and here I paused, as he looked over at me hard with his piercing small brown eyes. “…I mean…”
“I said that your magic was strong, but I was merely the facilitator; it was you and your friends that had the desire.”
“And this place is where, exactly?”
“No place, ‘exactly’, but you are safe and as far from where we were as you could possibly travel.”
“Looks like another planet.”
“More like another plane, think of it that way. The miles you transverse were not across space, more across realities.”
See, this I could handle. In fact I could sit here all day talking to this wrinkled little guy about this stuff. Feed my head enough and I can sit in a stupor for days.
“Do you really want to go back?” he said and the question came at me as quick and warm as if I had been shot.
“I…” I began and still hearing the sounds of There and Stewy in the impossible blue water beyond, I stood and began to cry.
Stewy got it a day after we got back. We had somehow not lost a minute of real time in the Nam, but we had stayed on that beach that full day, into the night, catching fish with Bon’s uncle and it wasn’t until midnight of that night that we had all sobered up enough from the sea and the sand and the safety and asked to go back. So when we returned it was a new day back for us, but the same one we had just left as far as Nam time was concerned.
Either way you look at it Stewy got it the day after we got back.
There and I run on our own now. I mean, we are part of the platoon as we always were, but now that we have come back when we know we could have stayed on that fucking beach a lifetime, with a still-living Stewy, we are walking with a different spring in our step. It is more tempting now thinking about that impossible possibility then it was then when we were there.
Bon and his uncle have been nowhere in sight. Now coming to the end of the week we expected to see him in our usual hut, refusing the spliffs as he always did and imparting his wisdom through his ever faithful, translating nephew, but the pair have skedaddled. Maybe he’s just sauntered down the road to offer an impossible reality to another bunch of buddies who needed it. Maybe he is imparting his life lesson of responsibility to another cracked and bruised twenty-two year old with an itchy ass.
And maybe I will get back to that beach, if only in my mind, someday soon.
For now I keep Jenny’s topless picture in my pocket and my white boots to a high white shine.
For D.V. who was there.Tags: platoon, ralph greco