First published in 1980, Crossing Over is hybrid prose-poetry and flash fiction about one young man’s journey through the Vietnam War. Adapted for the stage and praised by antiwar activist Daniel Berrigan, these vignettes from the war-torn jungles changed the way America saw the Vietnam Era. The material in Crossing Over formed the basis of Currey’s 1988 novel Fatal Light, cited by Tim O’Brien as “one of the very best works of fiction to emerge from the Vietnam War.”
|Publisher:||Santa Fe Writer's Project|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.20(d)|
About the Author
Richard Currey served in Vietnam from 1968 to 1972 in the U.S. Navy. He was trained in jungle warfare and special operations, and was a medical corpsman attached to the Marine Corps's Fleet Marine Force. He has written Crossing Over: A Vietnam Journal, which went on to vast acclaim and a Pulitzer Prize nomination, and Lost Highway. He lives in Washington, DC.
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Maldonado in the ditch bottom whispering in Spanish, his blood mixing the rain, hands fluting the air like he's reaching for something flying that evades him. His leg gone at the thigh. I use his belt to tie off the stump.
The firefight pocks and talks above us. Maldonado looks at me, actually smiling and says Guess I stepped in some shit, right?
1957. My grandfather was still healthy and we would visit. At the biggest department store in town a lunch counter flew a mural above it depicting the town from the air on one panel, the state-champion high-school marching band on the other. Waxed parquet floors, toys downstairs and to the right, the best selection of comic books in town. The girls that sold popcorn were modest teenagers with glasses, transistors under the counter: low-fidelity Five Satins, Ronettes, Roy Orbison.
The platoon's moved onto a cleared dike, just humping now. Motherfucker the radioman says through his teeth, cutting pace to fall in next to me, Who's this goddam Lieutenant think he is? We're up here like ducks.
I keep walking, don't answer. We're up here sitting for a goddam max the radioman says. Dinks take us out one at a goddam time. Be a motherfuckin turkey shoot.
Up and dancing.
Up and rolling water hips, arms tucked close to carry the drumming wrists, jungle boot ridged soles chipping the ridged lid of the ammo chest, Egyptian belly-dance chicken-neck strut, tough bitch Junior Walker two-step distorted from his cassette on the ground.
Shifting into basecamp. Soft canvas on metal or flesh. The patrol shapes in against trees, canteen ring, the usual. Everyone tired in his own way, mudslapped. The only one not into the music is the Lieutenant from Alabama. His responsibility to maintain an atmosphere where there's never dancing among grim men doing their duty at the front.
Cut that shit off the Lieutenant shouts across the area. But the song's already over.
The need to bear witness is basically what I'm into he says, taking six squares to Park Place. Guns in the distance, AK-47s beating a treeline, rattling like bolts in a Mason jar — somebody straddling the horizon, shadow of the figure against the clouds, shaking the ritual, moving shoulders slightly with the rhythm, talking to the sky: this is where we live. This is what we eat. This is what we hate.
I don't wanna buy it he says. But don't touch them die I threw doubles if you'll recall. He goes again, blowing into his closed hands, whispering, and tosses a one and a one. There it is Doc, he says. Snake eyes. The answer to the grunt's prayer. When I'm out in the boonies I always say my little prayer. Lord, gimme a pair of them dink snake eyes.
An encounter in deep jungle, an inconsequential encounter where the enemy is never seen and not one of our men is so much as scratched. Machine-gun fire erupts and we drop flat as the foliage above our heads is razored away and drifts over us, over our helmets, shoulders, backs. The Lieutenant crawls about, trying to position and direct; we answer the fire blindly, rocking bullets here and there into the brush. A brittle scream. It seemed to come from in front of us, but it is impossible to be sure. It might have been one of us, but we all look to be intact. A grenade thumps off to my right — empty territory. I cannot be sure if it was thrown at us, or from behind me; underbrush and tree limbs rip up into the lower canopy and shower away. Sergeant Halverson coordinates a fire team: their volley slices across ninety degrees of jungle at waist level, cutting down the smaller trees that waver and lean, hesitate, fall out of sight to the forest floor or slip like drunks into the arms of the trees around them. And now there is no gunfire in response. Now the only sounds are the sounds of the forest. There is a nerve-end interference inside my ears, electrical, buzzing, and I know it's nothing except my own body attempting to stay in one place, in one piece. This encounter will be reported as enemy contact, although none of us could confirm beyond a doubt that we were not shooting at a friendly unit, Australians, South Vietnamese, other Americans. We could not even confirm that anything happened beyond some shared hallucination, beyond an exercise of our new and resolute belief in the unidentified and invisible, in the lyrical panic of ghosts. We continue to move into the shrouded light, one leg and another, slowly, parting leaves with rifle barrels as if a skeletal face will be there, suddenly inches away, waiting, smiling. This is the true beginning of our pain.
I think there will be constant sun. A long and awesome heat. Fields of tropical light. Instead there is rain, days of it. Skies misted closed and we dig. Trenches, foxholes, sandbag emplacements, latrines. I'm told more than once You don't have to do this, you know. You got some status around here. Doc don't need to do no manual labor, you hear? I grin, nod, say it's good for me, digging a hole every once in a while. What I don't explain is the necessity of the work, the need to keep moving, to engage the body, to divert the mind. Without such there are the problems of uncontrollably shaking hands, the jellied bowel, the race of the brain's own singular voice remembering everything with unforgiving categorical precision, an everywhere gleam behind my eyes and inside my mouth and tracing the floor of my skull like a film of old water in the dark. It is the secret order of battle, the tableaux of corpses standing on the landscape like markers, directions, statements; without the heavy work of humping or digging or the preoccupation of a firefight the past of every day is never past, always in view and insisting on a particular version of the truth. Now I dig, working into the sweat when a marine calls out that he's found something and I move closer, seeing the bone. We scrape around it and it is clearly a human bone, a leg bone, a femur. Sergeant Halverson tries to lift it free of the mud, to no avail. We dig around it and see it is held fast by its connection to the bone above it, a hipbone flagged with decayed strips of cloth. The spine is a splintered rift laid neatly in place, descending from the center of the ribcage. The ribs are fitted here and there with matted shreds of the same cloth that settled into the cavity of the pelvis, and a marine works around the sternum, the clavicle, the fragile white bird-bones of the neck, the hollowed fallen chin and gutted jaw. The face uncovers, Halverson pushing back mud until we see that the top of the skull is missing but the eyesockets below the brow are somehow intact. I get up and out to stand above and look down at the bones locked into the floor of the hole as if the ground had been carved for perfect fit. You know, Halverson says, like I told you, Doc. You don't need to do any of this kind of stuff If you don't want. The fire team in the pit below us begins to tear out the bones, stacking them beside this trench it is our job to dig.
I recline nude on this bed that is too small. I turn my head and watch the second hand move. I am in the process of forgetting my name. A glittering church hovers above me and I remember an actor who called it a church of the heart and said the choir was on fire. In the pews various colorful beasts watch the blaze calmly. In the rear a very handsome gorilla and an Oriental prostitute have lit candles and dance sadly to the Victrola. I move in the aisles chanting Remember John Dillinger. Prairie fires. The Invention of Firearms. The Rise of Mussolini. Remember Burlesque in the twenties: who was that woman I saw you with last night? That was no woman, that was my knife. Remember the Lusitania. Yellow Fever. Those old postcards of leprosy in the Congo. Remember my uncle who showed around yellowed snapshots of the best friend he killed in a hunting accident in 1932. Maestro! Music please! My mother is about to dance the spotlight dance with a young man in uniform. Hats off please. I am in the process of forgetting my name.
After I graduated from high school and before I was drafted, I went to work in a warehouse. Roxanne worked in the accounting office and she was beautiful, a few years older, Mediterranean exotic, smooth and self-collected, centered. I watched her through the glass-wall partition of the accounting office, at her adding machine or typewriter, and imagined I wasn't being obvious, that I was subtle. On a day in late autumn Roxanne came back from lunch and walked straight at me until she was directly in front of me and said quietly I know you're in love with me. I was shocked and lost in the clarity of her stare and I stood there, submissive, absolutely in love with her. That afternoon my partner on the packing line said absently Hey man, you hear? Roxanne's boyfriend got it over in Nam. I looked at him, and he shrugged, wrenching tape around a crate. I guess she just got the news, he said. I pushed my crate off the belt and turned the conveyor off and looked toward Roxanne's window. She was typing, cool and mindful, earning the money but living somewhere else. I watched her steadily and she never looked up.
We lived in West Virginia when my father left for Korea. He explained his leaving to me gently, spoke about the war and my mother carefully, slowly. The week before he left there was a feathery tension and confusion, my mother constantly in tears. He gave me a tricycle for the sake of his disappearance and I rode it in his memory and with the energy of his anger. Then it rained, the run of days sounding in our lives like rain. At night, after midnight, steeple bells walked into the black air each hour and I dreamed I heard, or actually heard, trains hooting and passing miles off.
I try to dream about the past, calling it forward from what passes for sleep only to find it disappeared, as gone as blood hosed from a wall: the true heart of the forgotten. Where I am now, where I speak from, looks to any eye like paradise. The native home of the sun. The place where all of time's legends might have first entered the world and come to rest. In this paradise birds coalesce in flight, gush toward me and over my head and out to sea; on a street in a local city a policeman on his appointed rounds pistol-whips a woman in front of her terrified family. I walk on. The years pass in moments. Tides, waterfalls, the open arms of lightning. Here in paradise I am unable to fly, staring without comprehension at signs, faces, compasses. We can all deny failure as we embrace brutality, loving one as we hate the other, never believing in the single-mindedness of both, in the ruined honesty they carry, and I want nothing more than to say Yes to the moon, to the empty seas on its face like a tired man's crooked smile, Yes to the musical sweep of birds sliding across this perfect sky.
Here are the facts of the matter.
In 1964 President Lyndon Johnson used the perhaps spurious Gulf of Tonkin incident to promulgate a full-scale declaration of war against North Vietnam. The rest we know.
Here are the facts of the matter.
On a combat operation with a Marine Corps unit, my platoon comes under fire. I use a U.S. Government standard-issue non-retractable ballpoint pen to open an airway for a marine shot in the face and unable to breathe in anything approaching a normal manner. This procedure is done by placing the pen a few centimeters below the cartilage in the lower neck and shoving it directly into the trachea. Having done this and established an at least temporarily patent airway I remove the pen and wipe it on my trouser leg and return it to my pocket in the event it should be necessary for any similar situation in the future.
Later that day I use the same pen for a short report and, that night, to complete the graves registration for two marines who died of their wounds in triage.
Rivers of men — columns, depots, terminals. Armies and navies in warehouses, a way that history paints itself: in terms of men shunted, shipped, airlifted, turned, streamed, paraded. Examined, assessed, directed, trained, reeducated. You do solemnly swear to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States of America double-time here, there, everywhere. Swamps and roads, Americas last golden light in places rivers of men have never been and wish never to see again
the metallic sunrise of the virtuous prodded into view, the go-ahead, the green light, by your leave, sir. The snap of the Stars and Stripes alongside the regimental colors in an early brisk wind enough to bring tears to your eyes. Solace of a chest-high river like two hands against your breast and pushing: in another time, alone, you'd fish a river like this, you'd know the big fish are here, under the trees, in the dark, waiting to avoid you, a fine enemy. Rivers of men in storehouses, repositories, in formation, in lines, in rows, this face of history that is every face allowed its passing moment here's your complimentary copy of "A Marine's Guide to the Republic of Vietnam" read it in good health. A corps consists of two divisions, usually; a battalion consists of two companies, maybe more; a company consists of two platoons, usually; a platoon could have forty or so men on a good day
think about cardiac tamponade, gentlemen, and what is that, exactly? It is when, secondary to invasive trauma or a good crashing blow to the chest wall there is bleeding around the lining of the heart obviously compromising the function of that most important organ. When you listen with a stethoscope you will find what the cardiologists call a "quiet heart." Watch for that sign, gentlemen, it's not all that uncommon in combat thats all for today thank you for your attention
rivers of men, waiting and dreaming, and I am one of the river, only one, afloat midstream, the sky wheeling overhead, destination unknown in a river we would fish in another time, a river that might support any number of families and probably has but now is only in the way and must be crossed and carries disease and hides the enemy on the other side and is no decent home for a quiet heart
Montage: a few yellowed photographs of young crewcuts smiling together shirtless with rifles. On liberty in full-dress uniforms grinning in front of Bangkok whorehouse. Holding Batman comic books and Playboy magazines on display in lurid Polaroid color, leaning against a sun-glazed armored personnel carrier.
A song sung in the image, black-and-white photo creased in the singing: thin white man looking out of his face tired and on the verge, even smaller Vietnamese woman next to him, smiling primly in the attempt to delude.
In the long wake of sex I stare up into the violet. She has hung my old parachute over the ceiling. I jumped with it but it ripped, turning me back to the practice field breaking my ankle. I follow the sewn tear, remembering the sense of the fall. She feels me awake, moves her hand on my chest, talks again about my staying, in the Peace Corps or with the State Department or CIA, on the black market, anything. I am obsessed with tenderness and salvation and imagine the birds of her sleep aloft in the night's hidden skies. I am what I have lost, clocks running down in high corners of the room. She is the benevolence and redemption that confuses me when I love her. Taxicab headlamps draw color across the parachute air, the artillery pops distant, nearly fantasies. Tomorrow night I'll be airborne over her country, rose-stained bodies dumped in the chopper's gut, cartoon tracers of phantom ground fire blowing up toward us. Everyone will call me Doc as though it's a holy title, they'll clutch my arms as if I'm a christ. And when the night is over I'll sleepwalk, all over the country, out onto the Pacific, moving east and not opening my eyes for days.
I have been walking a long time. Everything about the forest is glazed and bizarre: trees hanging upside down with dark birds floating in the stark roots like fish. When I look at my feet they are huge and foreign, shapeless black oblongs that are connected to me but I cannot feel, that do not belong to me. The walking pads on, my head drifting weightless above the feet and legs and chest like a helium balloon towed in a parade. I keep feeling a fall is inevitable, a hole or precipice, and I try to stop but there is a distorted, sleepy inertia. The walking goes simply on and the boredom and odd silence collect like heavy fluids in my throat and behind my eyes: it is the kind of dream that runs down under its own gravity and I wake up quietly, cut loose and empty.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Crossing Over"
Copyright © 2018 Richard Currey.
Excerpted by permission of SFWP.
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