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Profane Men brings the dark, creative, visionary energy of Slob, Chaingang, and other works by Rex Miller to a story set in Vietnam during the late 1960s. There have been many tales written about that troubled and troubling era, and Miller’s popular fiction work is clearly informed by personal experience relating to the war. In fact, this novel is filled with apparently autobiographical touches (the central narrator character has a developing career in broadcast radio, among other things). A rootless young man ...
Profane Men brings the dark, creative, visionary energy of Slob, Chaingang, and other works by Rex Miller to a story set in Vietnam during the late 1960s. There have been many tales written about that troubled and troubling era, and Miller’s popular fiction work is clearly informed by personal experience relating to the war. In fact, this novel is filled with apparently autobiographical touches (the central narrator character has a developing career in broadcast radio, among other things). A rootless young man drifting through life faces the likelihood of being drafted and decides to choose his own destiny, seeking a way to avoid becoming cannon fodder. Unfortunately for him, he finds himself thrust into some of the worst corners of Vietnam, working with a team of assassins tracking a pirate radio broadcaster who seems to be supplying intelligence to the Viet Cong. And then things get complicated . . .
"There is no gravity ... Vietnam sucks."
It's funny what you remember. Strange, the memory triggers that will zing you back, jar you to the bone with remembered realities from that bad never-never land, shake you with the shock waves of an arc-light strike at a certain smell or sudden noise or a blurry photograph of a kid holding his Zippo to a hootch — Marines from Bravo Company, 2/4, clear a small hamlet near the Chu Lai TAOR. The next picture from an op up north, kids from a different unit posed with a gag skull — Grateful Dead Enjoys Last Cigarette. Name. Serial Number. Rank. In my case none of them true. Nothing is what it seems.
The colors are green and red. Green everywhere. Green of envy, of disease, of blooming plants and foliage gone insane, of berets, of ammo boxes that recede in waves of color to the misty horizon, green viewed through a haze of red dust, green to the ten millionth power, red bled dry, green amok. The colors of the mission are mal de mer pea-soup green and Type O Positive red. Kennedy green and Diem red. Red that sickens, and green so dappled and variegated that it loses its meaning. Rich green. Dead red.
But the hellish green world of blood-red insanity begins in black, in deep and frightened sleep.
Blade, the mission, is like Vietnam itself in that it is both simple and impossible to describe. At grunt level the mission begins at 0430 in the eye of an industrial-strength nightmare, inside a darkened, stifling hootch up in Quang Tri Province. It is the morning of Operation Toledo Blade. Blade will take us into a VC-dominated zone in Military Region One, what was then "Eye Corps," focusing on a six-klick-wide strip of hardscrabble and bad news that fringes the Annamite Mountain Range as it drops to the South China Sea. The strip is called The Badlands in the best John Wayne tradition.
In a land that is remorseless, unforgiving, a lifelong challenge of survival to its hardiest inhabitants, The Badlands holds a kind of perverse place of honor, a deserved notoriety for being particularly unlivable. This is outlaw country. It is here in the fierce, unyielding place they call The Badlands, or out beyond, where the outlaw is believed to hide. The outlaw is a radio station, and the op begins here for the men who will be inserted, on the way to The Badlands and deep inside a bad dream. Blade will take us deeper still, deep into one of Charlie's strongholds.
Gasping for oxygen, I wake up knowing that I sit up wide awake in a paroxysmal convulsion of REMs, a frightened scream escaping in nervous laughter as I fight my way out of a speed freak's nightmare. I wake in a rush of insight and déjà vu and mock clarity that all disappears in a gasp of air and a stinging stream of piss as I stumble out of the hootch. From inside, where he is already awake in the darkness, D'Allesandro watches me as I inhale a shuddering plume of nightmare smoke, exhaling jungle and dead canvas snakes and black bamboo and skulls.
"Say?" he says quietly.
The man is right. You do pay for your thrills. I pay for mine with a dream that takes me right to the brink. As bad as Big Merle's dream about the little boy down in the hidden cellar and the bad things that had been done to him, or as bad as Oreo's dream about what they had done to the woman in the Central Highlands before he soaked her in gasoline and lit her with his Zippo. But my dream is mine and so it is much, much worse than these other bowel-loosening, soul-searing nightmares dreamed by my fellow sweating Americans.
"Palpable essence," I reply through parched Dexi-dry lips. I want to say more. To tell him about my dream. About the horror of it that brought me almost to the edge again. But I cannot. I want to tell him that my chest is closer to my heart than the recommended factory tolerances, but somehow I cannot articulate the words.
Instead I speak the words "palpable essence," leftovers from the dream, words shouted into the brain wrinkles at nightmare's edge. I've heard the phrase or perhaps seen it in print somewhere, and now it falls trippingly off my tongue as I shudder the first baptismal inundation of carcinogens into my lungs. The heat at 0430 is already as intense and overpowering as ... something. A palpable essence, I think to myself.
0449. We drag ass across the PSP to the pair of UH-1 Huey slicks. We'll have full escort on Toledo Blade, each skinship flanked by a lethal gunny out of the armed chopper company at Quang Tri. The airstrip is already baking in the early morning heat.
Dragon 39 is our Huey pilot. "Let's crank it!" he says, and the starter whines, the rotors beginning to move as the turbine roars to life and he prepares to lift. I flash on my childhood dream, to be able to fly. Was this really what I had in mind?
I used to lie on what my mom called the front-room sofa, on a crocheted afghan spread over threadbare upholstery, letting my mind fly. I was convinced I could levitate, and in my real fantasies I'd float up from the sofa, the ultimate escape, soaring like a bird, to land upside down and walk across the ceiling and sit down on the light fixture, which looked like a big mushroom.
An uncle who had seen some action in World War II brought me back some of the instruments out of a Jap Zero. I had them lined up on my shelf with my old Whiz comic books and Sky King premiums, and in the darkness, at night, I'd watch them while I listened to the radio, mesmerized by the luminous glow of the dials. As I stared at my Jap turn-and-bank indicator, glowing next to my Captain Midnight Secret Squadron ring, I'd fantasize about the world of jets and helicopters and how someday I would fly those winged marvels and wingless whirlybirds.
The heat and the noise are now at blast-furnace level. I know I will have to do some speed very soon. I am carrying six quarts of water, and I can already taste the first swallow and the heady rush of the speed. My body is on hold. I think of the military maxim, "Grab them by their huevos, and the hearts and minds will follow." My heart and mind will follow as soon as I can pull my shit together.
A crackle of static. Rawwwwzzzarrr.
"Dragon 39, Firestorm Control. Go."
"Lane two, 39. You're clear."
"Rog. Thank you, Firestorm. Out."
The ship, which has mors ab alta stenciled across the nose, lifts in a steep and heart-stoppingly improbable motion, and we are airborne in a deafening whomp-whomp-whomp of blades and turbine scream.
From the air the country is stunningly beautiful on this morning, as it so often is from this altitude. Crystal clear, the sky is already lightening into a mix of powder blue and slate that will soon be shimmering with heat mirages. The ground is a patchwork of green. Emerald, lime, jade, willow, O.D., sage, chartreuse, you name it. Every variation and permutation of green pigment is visible between the lush triple canopy and the horizon. Scrub, soil, tree line, mud, paddy, piedmont, dike, jungle, rubber tree, elephant grass: each is a different shade of color that dazzles the eye through the vast treetop carpet.
Rrrraawwwrrr, the radio crackles.
"Raider 36, off on our seven o'clock — see?" We've suddenly flown into fire. The pilot is shouting over the radio to his Cobra escort.
"Get that sonofabitch!"
A voice emerges, garbled.
"Your seven o'clock. Raider!"
Crackle ... "Thirty-nine?"
"Your seven. Raider, see him?"
The garble of static and buzz as another transmission steps on the channel.
"Discrete, go to Discrete! Over."
A loud frequency tone.
"Rog. On Discrete. See him ..." then garble.
"Get that mother. Do something. Goddammit, 36, put it in there!"
In the Huey we can hear the lethal Stream of the Cobra's minigun as it pours down a torrent of 7.62s in a group of fast, high-rate bursts.
My head feels like a sandlot softball in the bottom of the ninth.
"Looking good there, Raider!"
A sizzle of static.
"That's a big rog."
"Gonna conserve some ammo!"
Banking to overfly the landing zone, the Huey takes a sickening lurch and there is a noise that your brain files away to never forget.
It is a noise that sounds like King Kong is out there pounding on the side of the helicopter with a gigantic sledgehammer.
Wwwhhhhhaaannnnnkkk! We are about to jump out of our skins.
A pair of flaming orange-colored, basketball-size comets streak by the bird.
Garble ... "Thirty-nine, more rockets inbound, got more rockets inbound!"
"Raider, give that sonofabuck some minigun!"
"I see him!"
"Where are ya, Dragon 39?"
"Comin' around in a one-eighty —" Rzzzz!
Several different individuals are all over the RF, and the control chopper calls up the artillery to prep the landing zone.
"Arizona Gangbusters, Arizona Gangbusters, we got a hot el zee. Need Quang Tri Arty push, over?"
"Roger that, Quang Tri Arty, ready for fire coordinates —"
I keep wishing I were somewhere else. So far this looks like a big error in judgment.
A loud warning tone beeps as the frequency changes to 245,000 megahertz. I feel a tic developing in the side of my face. One of my eyes wants to close as if I am suddenly getting Bell's palsy. I wonder which other of my parts are drooping from the fear, heat, and noise.
"I'm up on guard freq now and ..." Rawzzzz ... "need to get that 37 workin' out over there. Walk that fire right in there on those folks, over!"
Crackle — sssssrrraaawwwwwzzzzzzzzz.
"Put it in there now!"
The artillery barrage begins to blanket the area below as our team birds circle overhead just out of the target area, one hopes. I involuntarily think of about fourteen ways I could get taken off in the next five minutes.
"Walk those 105s right in there on that fucker!"
Garble ... "you got five zero?"
"Negative five zero cal, negative. That's why we're ..." Rrrarrr "now. Put a couple more in on him."
Zzrrrrrrraawwwr. The air is filled with traffic now as the transmissions are stepping on one another with the increase in the intensity of the barrage down into the area where the enemy has been spotted firing rockets.
"Goddamn! Look out!"
The Huey slick drops in a stomach-churning, steep, banking descent down toward the triple canopy. It was flying beautifully a second or two ago, and now it has all the aerodynamic properties of a falling safe. There is no other feeling quite like it; you know you are going to die. The pilot, Dragon 39, turns and tells us calmly:
"El zee's hotter'n shit. Gonna hover and you best be hittin' it quick or you gonna' be riding back with us." His mouth moves again, but I don't hear the last part over the noise. We lock and load. Rock 'n' roll. Dragon 39 keys his radio. "Dragonfhght leader, this is Dragon 39, over."
"Roger, 39, Dragonflight leader, over."
"Pop some smoke, over."
Crackle "— a rog. Popping smoke." Seconds later a thin trail of purple wisps catch in the wind and dust.
"Thirty-nine. I see goofy grape."
"Roger that goofy grape, over."
The rotors are taking on a vibrating, teeth-rattling freight train of a roar as the bird settles to hover for a few seconds. We go out the door in a blur of movement and noise.
What looked like verdant carpet from a thousand feet is a tangle of twisted tree limbs and dusty terrain up close. Our door gunner shouts over his M-60 as I go over the side, but it is lost in the chopper storm of blowing dust and rocks as we drop from the bird into the hot el zee, running almost as we hit.
Total concentration doesn't even cover it. The adrenaline and the speed are working out.
My brain is in overdrive. If I break an ankle jumping, I may never make it back alive. My brain reminds me how serious this is as my feet splash through the wet grass of hot LZ Spike Four, which is the official designation for this landing zone.
My heart types a three-word message on blank paper as I run toward the cover across the field. My brain reads the message:
"Danger! Run! Faster!" I thank my brain and tell my feet. I run, holding my weapon in one hand, the other arm warding off enemy rounds, rocks, twigs, dirt, and the rest of the wind-whipped debris from the hovering bird as it lifts.
And then we are alone. And the spike team is together, moving, losing itself in the alien terrain as the last echoes of the black birds and the gunfire fade, and the only sounds are the sounds we make, and bird sounds, and assorted boonie rat noises. And we are very much alone. Just us. And Charlie. Even our friendly, faceless, nameless spook has boogied. He threw the smoke grenade and marked the el zee for our insertion, and we will know him only as a static-filled voice in a pilot's headset, and he has wisely vanished, like the purple wisps of smoke in the unmarked skinships' wind-whipped descent.
And I'm reminded of the truism told me my first day in country: "Vietnam is so fucked up the wind doesn't blow, it sucks!"CHAPTER 2
Q: Do you ever think that other people are talking about you behind your back? Answer yes or no.
Q: Do you have fairly regular bowel movements? Answer yes or no.
Q: Have you ever been a member of any subversive organization whose goals, plans, or desires included the overthrow of the government of the United States of America? Answer yes or no.
Q: Do you masturbate on average more than once a week? Answer yes or no.
Q: Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party? Answer yes or no.
Q: Do you believe in the possible existence of a spirit world? Answer yes or no.
Q: Do you believe in reincarnation? Answer yes or no.
Q: Have you taken any drugs or medication of any kind prior to this polygraph examination? Answer yes or no.
A: No er uh — yes. (Well, shit, that's five out of eight.)
—Questions from actual recruitment test
The parent organization (no longer can I say "Company" lightly) who fathered the spike team concept, a unit of elite har-har-har killers, went the way of the featherless pterodactyl, a creaking, obsolescent, broken-winged anachronism long before any of us had heard the word "detente." I was part of that team. The team. Shot out of the air (literally) by the bureaucratic commitment. Phased out, as in phaser, long before the search-and-destroy years, we were a fast-burning phoenix who never rose. Our ashes were hauled by the stinging red winds of war.
All that the casual observer would remember would prove to be untraceable. There were those who would retain ghostly images, and the odd, unattributable fantasy. (I Corps grunts recalled our unmarked black skinships, thinking them to be Viet Cong.)
But no one who was a part of it and survived would forget. A nudge to the corner of the mind and it's all back inside my head. Vivid. Painful. Even now, fighting the onslaught of senility and midlife memory lapses, the mission burns on, having carved itself in stone up there in the gray matter.
Nobody would ever forget the team. Once you've met HOG, Harold O. Grein, he's yours for keeps. Savage nightmare avengers like Merle stay with you. Icy mercs like Jon D., stoners like Shooter, terrier-tough El Tee with his teeth sunk into a dying career, Oreo, Doc, The Hooded Cobra — jeezus — they all stayed with me.
Another survivor of the operation tagged Blade, the inimitable Shooter Price, and I had a brief reunion of sorts up in Canada some eleven years back, and for me it was as if no time had passed in the intervening decade. The indelible pictures were burnt into the brain plates.
There is no forgetting the mission. Blade took a whole team of us straight into the teeth of something so completely unexpected and merciless that it could still educe night sweats, blurred vision, faulty judgment, and spastic reflexes. One of those kinds of ops. No slack.
Excerpted from Profane Men by Rex Miller. Copyright © 1989 Rex Miller. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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