Gunning for Ho: Vietnam Stories

Overview

The Vietnam War never goes away. It is so present in our lives and culture that most adult Americans are amazed to discover that the year 2000 marks the 25th anniversary of our withdrawal from Saigon. In this rich and varied collection of short stories, former Green Beret Lee Barnes deals with the war itself and with its aftermath, but his stories focus more on the human aspects of men in armed conflict and families at home than on the violent drama or political aspects of that ...
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Overview

The Vietnam War never goes away. It is so present in our lives and culture that most adult Americans are amazed to discover that the year 2000 marks the 25th anniversary of our withdrawal from Saigon. In this rich and varied collection of short stories, former Green Beret Lee Barnes deals with the war itself and with its aftermath, but his stories focus more on the human aspects of men in armed conflict and families at home than on the violent drama or political aspects of that war.

Barnes gives us a wonderful group of memorable characters: Berkeley-educated, North Vietnamese Colonel Tram Van Nim, who proposes a baseball game with the enemy in "A Lovely Day in the A Shau Valley," the gentle, instinctive giant Harvey Walters in the haunting "Stonehands and the Tigress," Calvin Widerly, a father seeking his missing son, locates Mai, now an adult, who as a small child once offered a young soldier kindness in the excruciating "The Cat in the Cage." Worldly, recently jilted Las Vegan Rowe, is fascinated by the uncanny skill of Paez, who is the "Tunnel Rat" in Barnes's remarkable novella. And, Bruce, who, in those years, had blackmailed his friend "Lum" into a wildly improbable mission in the darkly comic "Gunning For Ho." These characters and many more show us not only the many faces of war, but also the subtleties and small tragedies of men dealing with men and with women.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The past--harrowing, traumatic, mesmerizing--encroaches on the present again and again in this lean, mean, fighting first collection of seven stories, all of which are set during or in the long shadow of the Vietnam War. Barnes, who served in the elite U.S. Army Special Forces, writes of a character, "The more he resists memories, the more they intrude." In contrast to Tim O'Brien or Larry Heinemann, whose work paved the way for this book, Barnes waited a long time before writing about 'Nam: he has been a deputy sheriff, a PI, a casino dealer and only recently a writer grappling with the discombobulation of combat. The result is that the fighting is mostly secondary in his stories, while the relationships between the men who served take central focus. In the collection's finest piece, the harrowing novella "Tunnel Rat," talk in the jungle invariably centers on home. Fine lyric descriptions of the landscape's beauty ("diaphanous thermals shimmered where the sun bore down on the emerald paddies in the lowlands") make the carnage somehow unreal; yet "they measured days by casualties." A father in "A Return" grasps vainly for memories of his son, an MIA for 15 years, whose body is belatedly coming home. Resignedly, he understands that "the world ends one life at a time. Who decides when a boy's world ends?" And a vet in "Plateau Lands," on the eve of being reunited with his handicapped 'Nam buddy, winner of a Silver Star, and now running for Congress, learns the truth: "Mel didn't save me. It was luck." Not for the first time (as we know from Civil War accounts), a white flag is raised in the midst of combat and a pick-up game of baseball ensues between the Delta Company Yankees and the North Vietnamese Giants ("A Lovely Day in the A Shau Valley"). Though Barnes's work does not finally outshine previous Vietnam-based fiction, his writing is clean-cut and vibrant, and his stories ring true. (Mar.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780874173468
  • Publisher: University of Nevada Press
  • Publication date: 3/1/2000
  • Series: Western Literature Series
  • Pages: 176
  • Sales rank: 1,427,310
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Read an Excerpt




Chapter One


A Lovely Day in the A Shau Valley


Marines at Marble Mountain claimed A Shau was filled with juju; MACV Intelligence said it was filled with a regiment of North Vietnamese. In either case, it was one bad place to go. The men of Delta Company, Fourth Battalion, knew a fierce battle had been waged there four years before and another two years after that. From time to time thereafter NVA had used it as a staging ground, for A Shau remained a primary infiltration route on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

    One at a time the helicopters angled northward, tilted their noses and began the descent. They followed an azimuth north by northwest so as to come out of the rising sun. Ahead on the port side Anderson could see the ghostlike shadows of the craft slipping across the lush green canopy. So, this was A Shau Valley. His wife would love to fly over this. She talked often about exotic lands, the Amazon and the Congo.

    He glanced at Candy and Small. Small chewed gum and winked to mollify fear. Candy licked his teeth to do the same. Everyone had a ritual to calm his private dread. As he always did before hitting an LZ, Anderson chambered a round in his M-16 and pictured his wife oscillating beneath a parachute, waving and smiling at him, when they had been in Acapulco on their honeymoon. He framed the image of her in his mind and fixed it there. If it was time for him to die, he wanted to take that one moment with him. It was only fancy now, a fiction to relieve fear, but not then, not when she'd gone up, not once but three times.

    Small chewed gum andwinked again. Candy ran his tongue over his teeth and squirmed. Anderson clutched his M-16 and watched the ground rush by. As the Huey approached the LZ, it trembled, rotors flattening the tall grass, struts leveling just above ground. Small was out first. The rest of Fire Team Alpha quickly followed. Candy dropped to the ground and flipped the safety catch of his M-60.

    The next chopper landed as the first lifted off, and another after that, and another. As each landed, the men flying out of the belly took possession of another small plot of ground. The LZ was cold, a good sign, and when the last of the choppers had landed its cargo of men, the pilots screwed their Hueys down the valley floor, gaining speed for the steep climb over the Annamese peaks.

    The men of Delta Company formed two columns and headed west. They marched an hour before the captain brought them to a halt on a rocky crest that overlooked the deep recesses of the valley, a stretch of jungle marred with craters. The camp and airstrip were obtrusive landmarks. Here a pilot had won a Medal of Honor, as had the Green Beret captain who'd led a company of Chinese mercenaries into the camp to save the few Americans who'd survived the siege. Captain Salazar ordered up Fire Team Alpha to scout the camp.

    Spec Four Phillips, the rifle leader, squatted beside Lieutenant Lamb and Captain Salazar, who pointed out land features leading to the camp. "Can you scout it in, say, an hour?" Phillips looked at the dense growth on the valley floor and replied, "Yes, sir, if no one trips a mine."

    Fire Team Alpha moved out, Small taking point, Anderson behind him, followed by Candy with his M-60 and Rutkowski with the M-79 grenade launcher, then Phillips, T.P. with the radio, and Sensibar bringing up the rear. Small, Phillips, and T.P. were bloods, and Rutkowski and Sensibar were white, while Anderson was half Mexican and Candy was half Shoshone, but showed none of his father's white blood.

    Field-hardened, conditioned like tennis players, they carried somewhere around sixty pounds of gear on their shoulders as they moved steadily but with great deliberation through the undergrowth. The dense forest swallowed the sounds of their footsteps but not the clatter of metal. Caution marked every movement. Each man watched where the man in front stepped, for there were land mines. Each was guarded by the one behind and protected by the one in front, as it was essential to survival that every man depend on every other man. They were grunts, armed beasts of burden, individuals and not individuals. Names and numbers, each with his own history, they faced the same uncertain future. They believed in luck and signs. They believed in each other when there was nothing else to believe in. And that's what made them men.

    Sensibar was the professor, always reading. He was a natural killer. T.P., a great basketball guard in high school, had flunked out his freshman year at St. Joseph's because he never got around to attending class. T.P. and Sensibar were buddies. That's why Sensibar followed behind, keeping careful watch.

    Phillips, who hailed from Arkansas, had apprenticed as a carpenter and wished only to go home to a girl named Louisa who'd promised to give him ten children. Candy was the quiet one, staying to himself. He seemed to most like Rutkowski, who was from Massachusetts and told stories about his father and uncles, who were cops. Candy wanted to be a cop. Rutkowski wanted to be a craps dealer on the Strip in Las Vegas and make fifty thousand a year. Candy was the newest man. T.P. had called him Chief the first day Candy arrived. Candy had asked if it was okay to call T.P. Nigger, which caused a moment of strained silence. T.P. shook his head. Other than his wanting to be a cop and not wanting to be called Chief, not much was known about Candy. He'd replaced Gable, who'd gone home without a scratch.

    Small had large greenish-yellow eyes that showed in striking contrast to his caramel complexion. He planned to be a lawyer someday. He was uncanny at point. He had a beautiful wife who as a fashion model earned ten times his soldier's salary. Small and Anderson, the only draftees in the squad, were best friends. Anderson, called Chico by his squad mates, was the handsome one. He had dark wavy hair and white teeth that glistened when he smiled. His wife was a bank teller in Tucson who wrote him approximately the same letter twice a week.

    They moved without resting and without speaking, taking cues from Small, who seemed to have 360-degree vision. The valley was still—no bird sounds, not even an occasional monkey screech—quiet and unnerving. At one point T.P. whispered to Sensibar that it was worse than spooky. Sensibar nodded and said he had the feeling they were being followed, but he could neither see nor hear anything.

    Small was the first to spot the edge of the camp and called Phillips forward. On that perimeter four years before, a Green Beret sergeant had single-handedly held off two NVA companies, and North Vietnamese bodies had piled up so high that a pilot flying close air support had named it the Wall of Dead.

    Now, four years later, the forest was reclaiming the land that the Americans had cut out of its tentacles. Where the earth was charred from nitrates, brush and vine and even a few stunted trees grew, some out of bunkers, some out of bomb craters. The barbed wire had long ago rusted.

    Phillips called the rest of the squad forward and asked for two men to scout the camp. Sensibar, standing next to T.P., volunteered the two of them, but Phillips wanted T.P. on the radio. He called up Captain Salazar and told him they were going in and sent Anderson with Sensibar.

    Tall grass and brush covered their approach to the edge of the camp, but there the ground had been so defoliated that only a few sickly looking stems grew and everything else was withered and brown. In the open now, they belly-crawled under the rusted wire. The damp red clay smelled of mildew and nitrates. The old bunkers, wood beams splintered and rotting, reeked of stale water.

    Anderson viewed the devastation and shook his head, wondering if soldiers had been buried under the rubble. For an instant he swore he felt something brush his ear and cheek. Sensibar held his M-16 at his waist and turned from north to east to south to west. Everywhere they looked, they saw evidence of a great struggle that oddly seemed unfinished.

    The two of them advanced, one moving as the other covered. They found craters and rot and vegetation asserting itself through the crust of red clay, and more rot and more destruction, a graphic record of events—a bunker where a young Green Beret took a direct hit from a rocket-propelled grenade; the Wall of Dead where, nourished by human blood, clumps of grass grew thick; another bunker where a commo man destroyed the coded pads and blew himself up before the enemy got to him. At that very spot, after the camp had been overrun, the North Vietnamese had gathered to celebrate. In the midst of their celebration a downpour of incendiaries and five-hundred-pounders had fallen out of the clouds.

    A thousand North Vietnamese had died taking a strip of earth they couldn't hold. Sensibar and Anderson were like bats without sonar. Sensibar sank to his knees at the apex of the camp, took off his steel pot, and rubbed his forehead. Anderson squatted beside him. Sensibar shook his head. Anderson understood. They could comprehend bullets and shrapnel from mortars or grenades, but this ruin was not war as they knew it. Sensibar claimed he didn't believe in ghosts but said they should leave before he started to. What would they tell the others? Nothing there, was all they could report, so Anderson told Phillips the camp was creepy but clear of VC. Phillips radioed the captain.

    The fire team formed a tight circle, facing outward. Phillips and Sensibar smoked. Sensibar's hands trembled. Anderson rested his head against the trunk of a tree and tried to picture his wife. He couldn't. The sun was overhead and crisp in a pastel-blue sky. The day, though hot, was not sweltering. Flies buzzed about, annoying the fire team as they waited in the shade for Delta Company.

    An hour later the company arrived. They took ground by advancing one squad at a time until they occupied the camp and the edge of the airstrip. Like the members of Fire Team Alpha, the rest of the soldiers in the company appeared to be affected by the devastation. Told by the first sergeant to dig in, they kept an eye out for mines and booby traps. One man uncovered an arm bone, quickly buried it, and moved two steps away. Once fields of fire were laid out, the officers went about checking on their platoons.

    Anderson, better now, was joking with Small about ghosts. Sensibar, however, couldn't stop the tremors in his hands. T.P. told him that if he stopped smoking his hands wouldn't shake, besides cigarettes could kill. Sensibar frowned, doused the cigarette, and looked beyond the shadows of the trees at the deserted camp. Anderson wondered why the company had come there. He asked Phillips's opinion.

    "Chico, do I look like a general? We're here. `At's all."

    Okay, that's the life of a grunt, Anderson thought, and opened a can of peaches, drinking the syrup before spooning a peach. Rutkowski ate ham and lima beans. He chewed slowly as he watched a vagrant cloud drifting south. Speaking as much to himself as to his companions, he said, "A guy rolled fourteen straight passes at the Sahara in Vegas. Guy wins a measly eleven hundred bucks and someone else wins a quarter of a million. Guess luck's got everything to do with it if you got money in the first place."

    Small asked Rutkowski what dessert came in his rations. Rutkowski opened the can and said, "Oreos, man. You can't have 'em."

    Small shrugged and looked west toward the edge of the rain forest where eight men in khaki NVA uniforms stepped out of the shadows at the wood line, one waving a white flag. Small jumped to his feet and pointed as he shouted, "Charley's here!" The Americans aimed their weapons at the North Vietnamese. As the others stood their ground, one stepped forward and slowly advanced, his hands in the air.

    Captain Salazar asked First Sergeant Tremble, a veteran of three tours, how his Vietnamese was.

    The first sergeant shrugged. "Probably better than their English, sir, but not by much."

    "You think they want to surrender?"

    "Sir, I never seen nothin' like this."

    They watched the lone man advance. Behind him the soldier with the white flag smiled and waved it back and forth with increasing vigor. Head erect and shoulders back, the Vietnamese lowered his hands and walked through a gap between two squads at the perimeter. A small man, even by Vietnamese standards, he offered himself as if much larger. His face was so flat it was almost two-dimensional. Judging from his carriage he was an officer, and probably a field grade. Each American he walked by turned to watch his passing. As he reached Captain Salazar, he looked back at the man waving the flag and motioned for him to stop. He saluted and held it until the captain returned the salute.

    Salazar said, "Go to it, Top."

    Tremble cleared his throat and said, "Ngày tuyêt vòi."

    The officer grinned and gazed about at the soldiers manning positions nearby, then said to the first sergeant in a precise occidental accent, "It won't be necessary for you to stretch your linguistic skills, Sergeant. I am quite good at your tongue, and, yes, it is a lovely day, which I will expand upon shortly."

    Captain Salazar, a tall, rangy man, pressed his tongue to his lips and looked down at the diminutive officer. "I'm Captain Salazar. Where'd you learn English?"

    The officer lifted his open palms and shrugged. "I'm Colonel Tram Van Nim. I was educated at a boys' school in Singapore by an English staff and later took an engineering degree at the University of California, the one in Berkeley, of course. I understand my alma mater supports our claim to this country and indicts your presence here. I'm not surprised."

    Captain Salazar, standing upright to emphasize his momentary position of superiority, pointed at the white flag. "Does that mean you want to surrender?"

    The colonel merely smiled and raised his left hand. Immediately hundreds of soldiers in khaki uniforms flowed out of the shadows of the rain forest.

    The captain nodded his appreciation. "You've got almost as many Communists as Berkeley," he said.

    The colonel was unflappable. "Yes. The socialist revolution, Captain. You see we've not come to surrender."

    "Are you asking us to surrender, then?"

    Now the colonel smiled. "Your bourgeois country is not without its wonders. The hamburger. Wonderful, don't you agree? But I don't suppose you have any hamburgers? No. Actually, I've come to ask a favor."

    "A favor?"

    "Yes. May I ... invite some of my men to join us?"

    "Unarmed?"

    "Of course."

    Captain Salazar shrugged as if to say things were going well so far, why not? The colonel raised his hand and motioned toward the body of men behind him. A half dozen men in shorts and sneakers came to the front of the line. They carried with them three large canvas bags as they trotted through the camp. They stopped directly behind the colonel and dropped the bags.

    "Please open them," the colonel said.

    Sergeant Tremble stooped over, loosened the cord on one bag. "Baseball gloves," he said.

    "A gift from the heavens," the colonel said. "Psy-Ops. Dropped by parachute by your Air America in Laos to convert the villagers to capitalism, a clever idea if only they knew what baseball is. We've carried this with us for over a year now, and I've instructed my men as best I can in the elementary facets. They practice as often as possible. This is a war, you know. But to the point. You see, along with hamburgers, baseball is the finest product of your decadent country. As the sergeant said, `It is a lovely day,' and we wish to have a game."

    Captain Salazar removed his steel helmet and rubbed the sweat off his balding head. "Let me get this straight. You want to play baseball ... with us?"

    "I think that is correct. Do you play the game?"

    The captain looked at Tremble. "Do we play?"

    "Sir, you can bet your sweet ass we do."

    The colonel waved again to his charges, and a group dropped their rifles and headed to the airstrip. He smiled again at the captain. "We have a diamond camouflaged at the airstrip. It's crude but it serves its purpose."

    Delta Company watched a hundred men sweep across the airstrip to clean away the blanket of shrubbery used to conceal the field. Some Americans had walked over that very area without noticing anything peculiar. The camouflage removed, they clearly saw the pitcher's mound and base paths, even foul lines in the outfield. The colonel had understated his assessment of the field. Saturated with scrub and rocks and cavities, the field was marred all the way to the woods about three hundred feet from home plate.

    Leaving a shell of men to hold the camp, Delta Company marched to the airstrip. As every man but three had volunteered to compete, the captain, a fair man, decided it best to determine his team by holding batting practice.

    "A lot of divots," he said to the colonel.

    "Yes, we did the best we could. Many of my players injured themselves, but it's not so bad now that the mines seem to be gone."

    "Mines?"

    "Does that present a difficulty?"

    The captain looked at the three hundred feet between home plate and the woods and smiled. It was a home-run park if he'd ever seen one. "No, sir. As you said, this is a war, and mines are a part of war."

    "Yes, quite. My feelings exactly. I suppose we should use some officers as officials and swear them to honorable decisions."

    When they shook hands, the colonel asked Captain Salazar the name of his team. Salazar grinned and squinted at the trees. "The Yankees. And yours?"

    "The Giants, of course," the colonel said.

    Captain Salazar thought to laugh, but the colonel wished him good fortune, then quickly went to join his men.

    The Vietnamese positioned themselves on either side of the field and squatted to watch. They seemed amused as the Americans who took the infield picked up rocks from the base paths and tossed them off the field. But their amusement ended when they saw how well the Americans could sling a baseball around the infield. The air filled with the pop of the hardball on a leather glove.

    T.P. had pitched for his school's baseball team. He took the mound as Anderson caught and promptly struck out the first four Americans. Then Candy hit a booming fly ball and was the first player selected. Sensibar, shaky hands and all, proved to be a fine power hitter. Small dinked a judy hit in the shallow outfield and had to earn his way into the lineup by showing off his fielding skills at shortstop. Rutkowski struck out and immediately started booking bets, making the Americans a five-run favorite.

    When Anderson's turn came, he slammed a ball in the gap between shortstop and second and turned it into a double, but the highlight of practice came when Phillips cracked a line drive to left that climbed and climbed until it disappeared over the distant treetops, a boomer that brought the Vietnamese to their feet applauding and caused the Americans to cheer. Rutkowski changed the odds to get more action, making the Americans a nine-run favorite.

    The North Vietnamese Giants, as home team, took the field in the top of the inning. After seeing the Americans hit, their pitcher was at first shaky but he settled down—not, however, until the Americans had scored two runs. A thin little man, he threw mostly junk, sinkers, sliders, knuckleballs, junk. The colonel had truly studied the game and taught his wards well.

    With Anderson at the plate chatting and encouraging him with every pitch, T.P. put the North Vietnamese down in order. The colonel studied each and every motion T.P. used, each swing every batter took. Delta Company hit three homers in one inning, and Small stole second in the third inning and home in the fourth. The Americans asserted their superiority in every phase of the game. So it went until the fifth. The colonel put in a fresh pitcher and changed all but three members of his lineup.

    T.P., who had only a fastball and an outside curve, suddenly faced batters who choked up on their bats and crowded the plate, taking the outside edge of the plate away from him. He walked two and grounded one out. The next batter up hit a fly ball to shallow left. The American covering left field charged in after the ball but fell into a hollow where he slammed to ground. The ball landed two feet away from him and rolled to a stop.

    As the fielder was carried off with a broken ankle, T.P. gave the next batter a hard stare, but he wasn't the same pitcher he'd been for the first five innings. The Giants promptly recorded seven hits and five runs, a bad inning, but T.P. got out of it when one of the Vietnamese hit into a double play, and the third baseman tagged out another who was standing off base scratching his head because he didn't catch the colonel's signal to steal home.

    The sixth inning was no better for T.P. He let the first two batters on base with granny hits over the second baseman. Anderson and Tremble met on the mound.

    "He's lost it," Anderson said.

    "I can see it," Tremble said.

    "Hey, guys, those jokers got lucky. Hell, they're midget-size. Got lucky."

    Tremble leaned his face into T.P.'s. "Lucky? You call nine or ten hits in a row lucky? Y'er outta here," he said and sent T.P. to the outfield and brought in a kid named Schofield who threw three warm-ups and began firing bricks into Anderson's glove. What he lacked in placement, Schofield made up for in power. Still, the Vietnamese pushed two runners home. After that, the game settled into a defensive battle for two innings. In the seventh one of the Vietnamese dove after a ball in the outfield and planted his head in a hole. Another missed catching a rifle-shot drive at second with his glove but stopped it with his face. He lost three teeth. Candy made a save in the bottom of the seventh on a fly ball that was heading out, and at the end of eight the score was even at eleven.

    In the top of the eighth Phillips took second on a sliding steal. The Vietnamese cheered him, and several of them ran up and down the sidelines throwing themselves to the ground and sliding, oblivious to the rocks they kept landing on. Thereafter, every Vietnamese who ran the bases dropped to the ground and slid in. One hit a home run and slid into every base he crossed, including home. The Americans shouted that wasn't the way the game was played, but the North Vietnamese spectators went wild over his performance.

    In the top of the ninth Phillips hit a towering home run that landed out of sight in the trees. Sensibar stumbled on a rock and bruised his knee going to second on an easy double. Instead of tagging him out, the Vietnamese held up play until he was able to stand. Then as he limped about, changing direction, they put him out on a run-down play. The colonel cheered from the bench. The Americans were astonished—that also wasn't how the game was played.

    After Delta Company scored three in the top of the ninth, the colonel, brushing off his hands, crossed the field and looked up at Captain Salazar. "It's a wonderful game, isn't it? I've been thinking. The one mistake Americans make is playing to win and not for the joy. Today we will play until we can play no more."

    "But, Colonel, that's not how the game is played."

    The colonel was unyielding. "I will not waste your time by speaking of baseball as a metaphor for life. You are surrounded by two thousand men and twenty mortars. The game is played the way I described. Now you must argue with the umpire over the decision."

    "But the umpire is Lieutenant Lamb, and the decision was yours."

    "I know, but I told my men of managers arguing with officials, so you and I will argue with the umpire."

    They debated it at home plate, Captain Salazar kicking dirt as he hollered about the unfairness of the decision, and the colonel picking up a bat and throwing it down the right-field sideline. The spectators roared approval.

    Play resumed. Anderson held the ball, ready to throw it to the mound, then something in it struck him. It had a face, not human features, but a face nonetheless, smudged eyes and cheeks, and an impish mouth turned up in a grin. He grinned back at the face, cranked his arm, and let the ball fly to the mound.

    The players played through exhaustion and leg cramps and thirst and hunger, swung bats and threw balls and stole bases and applauded each other's plays and patted each other on the back and slapped hands and congratulated their opponents. By five o'clock the teams had lost track of the score, which was 27 to 19 or 29 to 17, for no one was sure, and sometime later they lost track of innings as well. More than twenty, they figured. When the injured were carried off the field, replacements ran out onto it, shouting and chattering. They played with the intensity of small boys, begging for one more hour of play, shouting at fielding errors, and applauding each hit or cheering a strikeout.

    Time took on the character of a rubber band as each moment, each action, stretched into the next. Those who'd played from the start found renewed energy each time they took the field. As Small was about to step into the batter's box for the twelfth or thirteenth time—no one could be sure—Anderson told him they were just imagining this, that it was a collective fantasy concocted in their minds, a trip into ordered insanity. Small pounded a homer, driving in two runs. As he touched home plate, he shouted that there was nothing more real than the feel of the fat of a bat on the hide of a hardball.

    Rutkowski, the only American left with enough arm to use as a pitcher, tossed the last daylight pitch, a ball. The sun sank over the crest of the Annamese peaks and formed a golden halo behind the purple tips of the mountains, but play didn't halt. The teams played on. It didn't matter that they couldn't see. No one wanted to quit, but that one inning took forty minutes without ending, and eventually they had to stop because they'd lost all the balls.

    As the players stood and waited for one more ball to come out of the canvas sack, the colonel held the last bag upside down to signal that there were no more. He crossed the infield, shook the captain's hand, and told him it had been a lovely day. He complimented the skill and courage of the Yankees, and Captain Salazar expressed his amazement at the talent of the North Vietnamese Giants. The competitors embraced in the middle of the diamond. Captain Salazar suggested that in the morning the two forces go into the forest, find the balls, and resume play. The colonel stared at him blankly and said, "Captain, we must not forget our purpose for being here."

    So the bodies of men withdrew from one another as shadows recede in the dark. Time that had taken on the character of a rubber band now took on the character of a spring, tense, capable of violent recoil, and the two bodies of men took on the tribal aspect of primitive rivals. Their world diminished, possibilities evaporated. When the Vietnamese returned to the rain forest, A Shau was again silent and filled with juju. The Americans dug in.

    Later that night, after Tremble told him guards had spotted the North Vietnamese forming up at the airstrip, Captain Salazar called in a B-52 strike on all sides of the camp, but not before the mortars and machine-gun fire began. The North Vietnamese fired from the wood line surrounding the camp. Over the booming sounds of the incoming mortars, the first sergeant shouted orders—"Watch west for the first wave, kiddies! Charley's playing rough! Keep your heads down. Get some automatic fire on that airstrip." Anderson crouched down in his hole and tried to picture his wife, but it was hard when the ground around him was shaking from the impact of 120 mm mortars.

    Finally the first of the bombs landed. The air raid lasted just twenty minutes. The force of the five-hundred-pounders made the ground shudder and spewed out orgasms of shimmering light that transmuted the forest into gypsy shadows. Soon afterward Puff the Magic Dragon passed over and stapled the jungle floor with a million grains of lead. The forest fell silent, except for the buzz of mosquitoes and the chirp of crickets. After that the Vietnamese came. The sappers came first, then the first wave of soldiers, and when those bodies piled up at the perimeter, a second wave followed. They gained nothing. A second bomb strike rained down on the woods. This lasted longer than the first, and the second silence took control of the night.

    Anderson looked at the sky from his hole. As a field of black clouds slid past the round moon, all he could see behind the shadows was a shimmering hardball suspended beyond the reach of his hand. He'd not fired a round.

    At dawn, as they looked out from their foxholes, the men of Delta Company saw hundreds of trees snapped and tossed about like matchsticks and craters the size of watering holes and mounds of red clay charred and smoldering and they saw one another and they saw the sky blueing up overhead, but they saw no dead at the edge of the camp. The bodies that had ringed the camp had vanished. The men waited for another assault, but there was no sign of NVA anywhere. Slowly the Americans crawled out of their holes. Some ran hands up and down their limbs. Others sought silent company. A few opened up Cs and began eating. In the still air only the sounds of men breathing and can openers prying at tin lids could be heard.

    They'd been lucky. The unit had taken two KIAS and three wounded, a miracle considering the intensity of the incoming. The captain called in dust offs for the casualties and told First Sergeant Tremble to have the company prepare to leave. At midafternoon a squadron of Hueys slipped over the eastern range and descended. As they boarded the craft, First Sergeant Tremble shook the hands of the men of Fire Team Alpha for playing so well.

    When they were airborne and drifting away, Anderson happened to look back and down at the airstrip, now largely obliterated. Only the left sideline of the outfield was intact. He blinked several times to make certain he was seeing what he thought he saw—two men, mere dots, two-legged ant-men running up and back, throwing themselves down and sliding with near-perfect form.

    Anderson nudged Small to get his attention, but Small, already smiling his usual smile, popped a stick of gum in his mouth, looked away and began chewing. Candy ran his tongue over his molars. Anderson leaned back, closed his eyes, and pictured his wife hanging beneath the white canopy of a parachute. She was smiling and waving, and he was holding a baseball up for her to see. It was glowing silver-white in his hand and had a face, a flat face with an impish grin.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
A Lovely Day in the A Shau Valley 1
Stonehands and the Tigress 17
The Cat in the Cage 33
A Return 46
Plateau Lands 57
Tunnel Rat 76
Gunning for Ho 135
Afterword 153
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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 3, 2000

    Gunning for Ho: Vietnam Stories

    Don't let the simple cover of this book fool you. Don't shy away from this book because it is a book of war stories (as I was tempted to do, as my taste usually runs along a different venue). Anyone who appreciates beautifully written and compelling stories will enjoy this book. Within its pages are some of the most beautiful stories and interesting characters that I have had the pleasure of reading and meeting. What is striking is the author's blazing talent for storytelling and an extremely well-honed and cutting talent for writing literature. The stories in this book do not merely entertain; they perfume the senses of the mind. The characters are so well drawn they come to life within the pages. What has stayed with me long after finishing the final page, are the haunting and beautiful images the author Barnes has (seemingly effortlessly), managed to create. In 'The Cat in the Cage' the tragic picture of the soldier Widerly trapped within a too-small cage clutching a kitten - his father Calvin years later, carrying away with him the delicate glass rose given him by Mai, the Vietnamese woman who was the only human to show his son compassion in his last days. In 'Stonehands and the Tigress' my personal favorite of these stories with its strong, if surreal streak of mysticism - the image left with me is that of the slow waltz between the giant Stonehands and the powerful tigress with the soul of an Indian princess. The aggrieved father and his wife bouncing along in a pickup enroute to a dreaded meet at the end of which lies at least, resolution in 'The Return'. Barnes writes with a delicate yet probing insight on the subtleties and nuances of relationships, whether they are between a man and woman, soldiers and veterans, or parent/child. One is able to grasp the intense and sometimes agonizing loyalty and yes, love between men, with whom such feelings need not be spoken aloud. He captures the fleeting, yet painful yearning that we have all felt for a lost love during a poignant moment in 'Tunnel Rat' as well as a wealth of other complex and intricate emotions. In 'Tunnel Rat' main character Paez comes vividly to life, and the narrator Rowe (who in my mind's eye played like a young Nick Nolte) broke my heart with his final line at the end of this novella. I will be keeping my eye out for the next piece of work from H. Lee Barnes. There are many more gems to be discovered within the seven tales told within this book. It is well worth the read. Happy hunting.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 3, 2000

    Gunning for Ho: Vietnam Stories

    In Gunning for Ho, Vietnam Stories, author Lee Barnes accomplishes something unique. He manages to capture the human drama that flows in that eerie twilight zone between unbridled violence and static tension. Like a surgeon dissecting a vital artery away from the surface of the brain, Barnes works in that most subtle of literary interface -- a place where a slip in one direction dissolves into bloody chaos or, conversely, into the babbling incoherence of introspection run amok. Barnes' scalpel is creepy-sharp. His discipline shimmers. He is a pro's pro, both in the Tules and on the written page. I'm stunned, not by the bangs but by the whispers. This man Barnes, a Green Beret in I-Corps, based 40 clicks from the Laotian border, has experienced that unique hell that doesn't come at you out of the instant like a car wreck or a drive-by. His hell, like that of those combat vets on both sides and of earlier times, is the kind of terror you saddle up for each morning at zero-dark hundred. Contemplative courage. Real courage. Few, if any writers on the Vietnam experience have taken this path. This is a book for 'professional' readers, an act of sharing, an analysis of bonding. Not only does he walk this dark trail, Mr. Lee Barnes walks point. -Submitted by Bill Branon, author of Let Us Prey (a '92 NY Times notable Book of the Year), Devils Hole, Timesong, and Spider Snatch.

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