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         First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey. They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Cross was hoping, so he kept them folded in plastic at the bottom of his rucksack (backpack carried by hikers). In the late afternoon, after a day's march, he would dig his foxhole, wash his hands under a canteen (container that holds liquid), unwrap the letters, hold them with the tips of his fingers, and spend the last hour of light pretending. More than anything, he wanted Martha to love him as he loved her, but the letters were mostly chatty, elusive (puzzling) on the matter of love. They were signed Love, Martha, but Lieutenant Cross understood that Love was only a way of signing and did not mean what he sometimes pretended it meant. Slowly, a bit distracted, he would get up and move among his men, checking the perimeter, then at full dark he would return to his hole and watch the night and wonder if Martha had ever been intimately in love.

Chapter One

To the left: A soldier lays in his foxhole.

   The things they carried were largely determined by necessity. Dave Jensen,who practiced field hygiene, carried a toothbrush, dental floss, and several hotel-sized bars of soap he'd stolen on R&R (Rest and Recovery - a break) in Sydney, Australia. Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquilizers (drugs that make the user tired / relaxed) until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe in mid-April. By necessity, and because it was standard operating procedure (SOP), they all carried steel helmets that weighed 5 pounds including the liner and camouflage cover. On their feet they carried jungle boots—2.1 pounds—and Dave Jensen carried three pairs of socks and a can of Dr. Scholl's foot powder as a precaution against trench foot (injury to feet from being in water too long). Until he was shot, Ted Lavender carried 6 or 7 ounces of premium cigarettes, which for him was a necessity. Kiowa, a devout Baptist, carried an illustrated New Testament that had been presented to him by his father, who taught Sunday school in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. As a hedge (avoidance) against bad times, however, Kiowa also carried his grandmother's distrust of the white man, his grandfather's old hunting hatchet. Because you could die so quickly, each man carried at least one large compress bandage, usually in the helmet band for easy access. Because the nights were cold, and because the monsoons were wet, each carried a green plastic poncho that could be used as a raincoat or groundsheet or makeshift tent.

Chapter Two

To the left: Soldiers making their way through a feild after a monsoon (extreme storm).

   To carry something was to hump it, as when Lieutenant Jimmy Cross humped his love for Martha up the hills and through the swamps. In his wallet, Lieutenant Cross carried two photographs of Martha. At night, sometimes, Lieutenant Cross wondered who had taken the pictures, because he knew she had boyfriends, because he loved her so much, and because he could see the shadow of the picturetaker spreading out against the brick wall. A dark theater, he remembered, the movie they watched was Bonnie and Clyde - Martha wore a tweed skirt, and during the final scene, when he touched her knee, she turned and looked at him in a sad, sober (serious) way that made him pull his hand back, but he would always remember the feel of the tweed skirt and the knee beneath it and the sound of the gunfire that killed Bonnie and Clyde - how embarrassing it was, how slow and oppressive.

Chapter Three

To the left : a tweed skirt.

  What they carried was partly a function of rank, partly of field specialty. As a first lieutenant and platoon (group) leader, Jimmy Cross carried a compass, maps, code books, binoculars, and a .45-caliber pistol that weighed 2.9 pounds fully loaded. He carried a strobe light and the responsibility for the lives of his men. As an RTO, Mitchell Sanders carried the PRC-25 radio - a killer - 26 pounds with its battery. 

   As a medic, Rat Kiley carried a canvas satchel (small bag) filled with morphine and plasma and malaria tablets and surgical tape and comic books and all the things a medic must carry, including M&M's for especially bad wounds, for a total weight of nearly 20 pounds.
  As a big man, therefore a machine gunner, Henry Dobbins carried the M-60, which weighed 23 pounds unloaded, but which was almost always loaded. The weapon weighed 7.5  pounds unloaded, 8.2 pounds with its full 20-round magazine.
Depending on numerous factors, such as topography (the lay of the land) and psychology (emotional / mental effects), the riflemen carried anywhere from 12 to 20 magazines, usually in cloth bandoliers (a device that oils the bands of a machine), adding on another 8.4 pounds at minimum, 14 pounds at maximum.

 

Chapter Four

To the left: a soldier with a M60.

To the left: a PRC - 25 Radio.

    But Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried 34 rounds when he was shot and killed outside Than Khe, and he went down under an exceptional burden, more than 20 pounds of ammunition, plus the flak jacket (older version of a bulletproof vest) and helmet and rations and water and toilet paper and tranquilizers and all the rest, plus the unweighed fear.

   He was dead weight.

   Kiowa, who saw it happen, said it was like watching a rock fall, or a big sandbag or something—just boom, then down—not like the movies where the dead guy rolls around and does fancy spins and goes ass over teakettle—not like that, Kiowa said, the poor guy just flat fell. They stripped off Lavender's canteens and
ammo (bullets), all the heavy things, and Rat Kiley said the obvious, the guy's dead, and Mitchell Sanders used his radio to report one U.S. KIA (Killed In Action) and to request a chopper.They carried him out to a dry paddy (rice field), established security, and sat smoking the dead man's cigarettes until the chopper came. 

   Lieutenant Cross felt the pain. He blamed himself. He pictured Martha's smooth young face, thinking he loved her more than anything, more than his men, and now Ted Lavender was dead because he loved her so much and could not stop thinking about her.

Chapter Five

To the left: Soldiers taking cover at Than Khe.

   Lee Strunk carried a slingshot; a weapon of last resort, he called it. Mitchell Sanders carried brass knuckles. Kiowa carried his grandfather's feathered hatchet (small axe). Every third or fourth man carried a Claymore antipersonnel mine—3.5 pounds with its firing device. They all carried fragmentation grenades (grenades that explode and shoot metal in all different directions) —14 ounces each. They all carried at least one M-18 colored smoke grenade—24 ounces. Some carried CS or tear gas grenades. Some carried white phosphorus grenades. They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe (overwhelming feeling) for the terrible power of the things they carried.

Chapter Six

To the left: an antipersonal mine.

To the left: a white phosphorus grenade.

  In the first week of April, before Lavender died, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross received a good-luck charm from Martha. In the accompanying letter, Martha wrote that she had found the pebble on the Jersey shoreline, precisely where the land touched water at high tide, where things came together but also separated. He wondered how the tides and waves had come into play on that afternoon along the Jersey shoreline when Martha saw the pebble and bent down to rescue it from geology. Martha was a poet, with the poet's sensibilities, and her feet would be brown and bare, the toenails unpainted, the eyes chilly and somber like the ocean in March, and though it was painful, he wondered who had been with her that afternoon. On the march, through the hot days of early April, he carried the pebble in his mouth, turning it with his tongue, tasting sea salt and moisture. On occasion he would yell at his men to spread out the column, to keep their eyes open, but then he would slip away into daydreams, just pretending, walking barefoot along the Jersey shore, with Martha,

carrying nothing.

Chapter Seven

To the left: Soldiers marching in Vietnam. When Cross tell the troops to spread out the column, he is talking about the lines they are marching in.

   What they carried varied by mission.
   When a mission took them to the mountains, they carried mosquito netting, machetes, canvas tarps, and extra bug juice. If a mission seemed especially hazardous, or if it involved a place they knew to be bad, they carried everything they could. They took turns humping a 28-pound mine detector. With its headphones and big sensing plate, the equipment was a stress on the lower back and shoulders, awkward to handle, often useless because of the shrapnel in the earth, but they carried it anyway, partly for safety, partly for the illusion of safety. Kiowa always took along his New Testament and a pair of moccasins for silence. Until he was shot, Ted Lavender carried the starlight scope, which weighed 6.3 pounds with its aluminum carrying case. Henry Dobbins carried his girlfriend's pantyhose wrapped around his neck as a comforter.

   They all carried ghosts.

Chapter Eight

To the left: authentic moccasins. The animal skin used for soles helped wearers to go unheard.

   In some missions, they would have to blow the tunnels. They carried one-pound blocks of pentrite high explosives, four blocks to a man, 68 pounds in all. Most often, before blowing the tunnels, they were ordered by higher command to search them, which was considered bad news, but by and large they just shrugged and carried out orders. They would sit down or kneel, not facing the hole, listening to the ground beneath them, imagining cobwebs and ghosts, whatever was down there—the tunnel walls squeezing in—how the flashlight seemed impossibly heavy in the hand and how it was tunnel vision in the very strictest sense, compression in all ways, even time, and how you had to wiggle in—butt and elbows—a swallowed-up feeling—and how you found yourself worrying about odd things: Will your flashlight go dead? Do rats carry rabies? If you screamed, how far would the sound carry? Would your buddies hear it? Would they have the courage to drag you out? In some respects, though not many, the waiting was worse than the tunnel itself. Imagination was a killer.

Chapter Nine

To the left: a soldier prepares to enter a tunnel.

  On April 16, when Lee Strunk drew the number 17, he laughed and muttered something and went down quickly. As they waited, the men smoked and drank Kool-Aid, not talking much, feeling sympathy for Lee Strunk but also feeling the luck of the draw. Ted Lavender popped a
tranquilizer and went off to pee.
   After five minutes, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross moved to the tunnel, leaned down, and examined the darkness. Kneeling, watching the hole, he tried to concentrate on Lee Strunk and the war, all he dangers, but his love for Martha was too much for him, he felt paralyzed, he
wanted to sleep inside her lungs and breathe her blood and be smothered.  He told her of his passion for her one night. And later, when he kissed her, she received the kiss without returning it, her eyes wide open, not afraid, just flat and uninvolved.

 

Chapter Ten

To the left: Tranquilizer pills that help with overwhelming anxiety.

   Lieutenant Cross gazed at the tunnel. Vaguely, he was aware of how quiet the day was, the sullen
paddies, yet he could not bring himself to worry about matters of security. He was too wrapped up in Martha. He couldn't help it.
  A few moments later Lee Strunk crawled out of the tunnel. Lieutenant Cross nodded and closed his eyes
while the others clapped Strunk on the back and made jokes about rising from the dead.
Worms, Rat Kiley said. They all felt great relief.
Lee Strunk made a funny ghost sound, a kind of moaning, yet very happy, and right then, when Strunk made that high happy moaning sound, when he went Ahhooooo, right then Ted Lavender was shot in the head on his way back from peeing. Oh crap, Rat Kiley said, the guy's dead. The guy's dead, he kept saying, which seemed profound—the guy's dead.

Chapter Eleven

   The things they carried were determined to some extent by superstition. Lieutenant Cross carried his good-luck pebble. Dave Jensen carried a rabbit's foot. Norman Bowker, otherwise a very gentle person, carried a thumb that had been presented to him as a gift by Mitchell Sanders. The thumb was dark brown, rubbery to the touch, and weighed 4 ounces at most. It had been cut from a VC corpse, a boy of fifteen or sixteen. They'd found him at the bottom of an irrigation ditch, badly burned, flies in his mouth and eyes. The boy wore black shorts and sandals. At the time of his death he had been carrying a pouch of rice, a rifle, and three magazines of ammunition.
   Mitchell Sanders put his hand on the dead boy's wrist. He was quiet for a time, as if counting a pulse, then he patted the stomach, almost affectionately, and used Kiowa's hunting hatchet to remove the thumb. Sanders wrapped the thumb in toilet paper and handed it across to Norman Bowker. There was no blood. Smiling, he kicked the boy's head, watched the flies scatter.

Chapter Twelve

to the left: a soldier carries magazines of ammunition.

    Twice a week, when the resupply choppers came in, they carried hot chow in green mermite cans and large canvas bags filled with iced beer and soda pop. Often, they carried each other, the wounded or weak. They carried infections. They carried diseases, among them malaria and dysentery. They carried lice and ringworm and leeches and paddy algae and various rots and molds. They carried the land itself—Vietnam, the place, the soil—a powdery orange-red dust that covered their boots and fatigues and faces. They carried the sky. The whole atmosphere, they carried it, the humidity, the monsoons, the stink of fungus and decay, all of it, they carried gravity. They carried their own lives. Purely for comfort, they would throw away rations, blow their Claymores and grenades, no matter, because by nightfall the resupply choppers would arrive with more of the same, then a day or two later still more, fresh watermelons and crates of ammunition and sunglasses and woolen sweaters—the resources were stunning—sparklers for the Fourth of July, colored eggs for Easter—it was the great American war chest. They carried it on their backs and shoulders and for all the ambiguities of Vietnam, all the mysteries and unknowns, there was at least the single abiding certainty that they would never be at a loss for things to carry.

Chapter Thirteen

To the left: a warning to troops about Malaria, which is a disease caused by mosquitos.

  After the chopper took Lavender away, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross led his men into the village of Than Khe. They shot chickens and dogs, they trashed the village well, they called in artillery and watched the wreckage, then they marched for several hours through the hot afternoon, and then at dusk, while Kiowa explained how Lavender died, Lieutenant Cross found himself trembling. He tried not to cry. It went on for a long while. In part, he was grieving for Ted Lavender, but mostly it was for Martha, and for himself, because she belonged to another world, which was not quite real, and because she was a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey, a poet and uninvolved, and because he realized she did not love him and never would. Like cement, Kiowa whispered in the dark. So why not shut up? Bowker said. Kiowa shook his head sadly and glanced over at the hole where Lieutenant Jimmy Cross sat watching the night. A warm dense fog had settled over the paddies and there was the stillness that precedes rain. After a time Kiowa sighed. One thing for sure, he said. The man cares. Sure, Norman Bowker said. Say what you want, the man does care. We all got problems. Not Lavender. No, I guess not, Bowker said.

Chapter Fourteen

To the left: Soldiers burn a village in Vietnam.

   Kiowa tried not to think about Ted Lavender, but
then he was thinking how fast it was, no drama, down and dead, and how it was hard to feel anything except surprise. It seemed unchristian. He wished he could find some great sadness, or even anger, but the emotion wasn't there and he couldn't make it happen. Mostly he felt pleased to be alive. He liked the smell of the New Testament under his cheek, the leather and ink and paper and glue, whatever the chemicals were. He enjoyed not being dead. Lying there, Kiowa admired Lieutenant Jimmy Cross's capacity for grief. He wanted to share the man's pain, he wanted to care as Jimmy Cross cared. And yet when he closed his eyes, all he
could think was Boom-down. After a moment Norman Bowker sat up in the dark. What the hell, he said. You want to talk, talk. Tell it to me. Forget it. No, man, go on.

One thing I hate, it's a silent Indian.

Chapter Fifteen

To the left: a copy of the New Testament. This part of the Bible recounts the life of Jesus.

   For the most part they carried themselves with poise, a kind of dignity. Now and then, however, there were times of panic, when they squealed or wanted to squeal but couldn't, when they twitched and made moaning sounds and covered their heads and said Dear Jesus and flopped around on the earth and fired their weapons blindly and cringed and sobbed and begged for the noise to stop and went wild and made stupid promises to themselves and to God and to their mothers and fathers, hoping not to die. After the fire had ceased, someone would shake his head and say, No lie, I almost crapped my pants, and someone else would laugh, which meant it was bad, yes, but the guy had obviously not pooped his pants, it wasn't that bad, and in any case nobody would ever do such a thing and then go ahead and talk about it. For a few moments, perhaps, they would fall silent, lighting a cigarette and tracking its passage from man to man, inhaling, holding in the humiliation.

Chapter Sixteen

To the left: soldiers under fire in Vietnam.

   They were afraid of dying but they were even
more afraid to show it. They found jokes to tell.
They used a hard vocabulary to contain the terrible softness. Greased they'd say. Offed, lit up, zapped while zipping. It wasn't cruelty, just stage presence. They were actors. When someone died, it wasn't quite dying, because in a curious way it seemed scripted, and because they had their lines mostly memorized, irony mixed with tragedy, and because they called it by other names, as if to encyst and destroy the reality of death itself. They kicked corpses. They cut off thumbs. They talked grunt
lingo. They told stories about Ted Lavender's supply of tranquilizers, how the poor guy didn't feel a thing, how incredibly tranquil he was. They were waiting for Lavender's chopper, smoking the dead man's cigarettes. They'd repeat themselves as if the repetition itself were an act of poise, a balance between crazy and almost crazy.

Chapter Seventeen

To the left: a corpse being taken from a field by helicopter in Vietnam.

   They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. They carried the common secret of
cowardice barely restrained, the instinct to run or freeze or hide, and in many respects this was the heaviest burden of all, for it could never be put down, it required perfect balance and perfect posture. It was not courage, exactly; the object was not valor. Rather, they carried the fear of being cowards.

   They spoke bitterly about guys who had found release by shooting off their own toes or fingers. Wussies, they'd say. Girly-girls. It was easy to imagine: go limp and tumble to the ground and let the muscles unwind and not speak and not budge until your buddies picked you up and lifted you into the chopper that would roar and dip its nose and carry you off to the world. A mere matter of falling, yet no one ever fell. Rather, they were too frightened to be cowards. By and large they carried these things inside, maintaining the masks of composure. It was fierce, mocking talk, with only a trace of envy or awe, but even so the image played itself out behind their eyes.

They imagined the muzzle against flesh. They imagined the quick, sweet pain, then the evacuation to Japan, then a hospital with warm beds and cute geisha nurses.

Chapter Eighteen

To the left: a geisha nurse during the Vietnam War.

   On the morning after Ted Lavender died, First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross crouched at the bottom of his foxhole and burned Martha's letters. Then he burned the two photographs. And even now, without photographs, Lieutenant Cross could see Martha playing volleyball in her white gym shorts and yellow T-shirt. He could see her moving in the rain. When the fire died out, Lieutenant Cross pulled his poncho over his shoulders and ate breakfast from a can. There was no great mystery, he decided. In those burned letters Martha had never mentioned the war, except to say, Jimmy, take care of yourself. He decided he hated her. The morning came up wet and blurry. Everything seemed part of everything else, the fog and Martha and the deepening rain. He was a soldier, after all. Half smiling, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross took out his maps. There was that new hardness in his stomach. He loved her but he hated her. No more fantasies, he told himself. Henceforth, when he thought about Martha, it would be only to think that she belonged elsewhere. This was not Mount Sebastian, it was another world, where there were no pretty poems or midterm exams, a place where men died because of carelessness and gross stupidity. Boom-down, and you were dead, never partly dead. Briefly, in the rain, Lieutenant Cross saw Martha's gray eyes gazing back at him.

Chapter Nineteen

To the left: a college much like Mount Sebastian.

   Instead he went back to his maps. He was now determined to perform his duties firmly and without negligence. It wouldn't help Lavender, he knew that, but from this point on he would comport himself as an officer. He would dispose of his good-luck pebble. Swallow it, maybe, or use Lee Strunk's slingshot, or just drop it along the trail. On the march he would impose strict field discipline. He would be careful to send out flank security, to prevent straggling or bunching up, to keep his troops moving at the proper pace and at the proper interval. He would insist on clean weapons. He would confiscate the remainder of Lavender's cigarettes. Later in the day, perhaps, he would call the men together and speak to them plainly. He would accept the blame for what had happened to Ted Lavender. He would be a man about it. He would look them in the eyes, keeping his chin level, and he would issue the new procedures in a calm, impersonal tone of voice, a lieutenant's voice, leaving no room for argument or discussion. Commencing immediately, he'd tell them, they would no longer abandon equipment along the route of march. They would police up their acts. They would get themselves together, and keep it together, and maintain it neatly and in good working order. He would not tolerate laxity.

Chapter Twenty

To the left: leiutenant talks to his troop in Vietnam.

   Among the men there would be grumbling, of course, and maybe worse, because their days would seem longer and their loads heavier, but Lieutenant Jimmy Cross reminded himself that his obligation was not to be loved but to lead. He would dispense with love; it was not now a factor. And if anyone quarreled or complained, he would simply tighten his lips and arrange his shoulders in the correct command posture. He might give a curt little nod. Or he might not. He might just shrug and say, Carry on, then they would saddle up and form into a column and move out toward the villages west of Than Khe.

Chapter Twenty - One

Above: soldiers walk into a village of Than Khe.