The glowing campfire was irresistible to his wandering spirit. He had taken many roads, many paths since he had left the war in Vietnam. Each path, each road had taught him something, but still he was nagged by the enormity of what he had experienced. The words that fl owed on occasion, the silence that filled the moments in between never seemed to reveal the essence of the truth he sought. But this night in restless sleep, the sleeper went beyond dream into a subtle dimension of reality.
He came upon a Native American man sitting by the fire, smoking his pipe. The man called out to him to come and sit by the fire. He said his name was Warrior, and that the sleeper was not there by accident. This was the beginning of the author's journey out of the shadow of Vietnam.
As a Marine Corps veteran of an unpopular and divisive war, Carl Hitchens contends that Sitting with Warrior chronicles not only his journey, but America's as well. By sitting and listening to Warrior's wisdom, he has recovered lost parts of himself. This gives America hope for stepping out of the long shadow of Vietnam that today stretches over Iraq and Afghanistan. Hope that by sitting with Warrior and his unifying truth, America can heal her old wounds. Hope that she can draw from her pluralism and diversity unity rather than division-"out of many, one."
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Sitting with Warrior
By Carl Hitchens
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2010 Carl Hitchens
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFar From Eden
The campfire was glowing in the distance, its golden-reddish color leaping out into the night from far back in the forest. I moved toward the blaze slowly, cautiously, stealthily weaving my way through the dark. Though I was wary of who and what I might find, curiosity drove me on like an animal toward my fate.
Cloaking myself in silence, I reached a tangle of bushes a short distance from the firelight. There I knelt and looked intently. Sitting cross-legged on the other side of the burning logs was a Native American warrior, his copper complexion showing in the wavering light.
He wore face paint. His body was covered in buckskin from mantle, breechcloth, and leggings to the moccasins on his feet. Around his forehead was a headband with a single eagle feather in it. Except for the scalp lock on top, his head was shaven. Beside him were a bow, a quiver full of arrows, and a heavy wooden war club. He was smoking tobacco in a wooden pipe, staring into the flames. There was something about him that felt old and familiar.
From my hiding place I studied him, intrigued at how he blended seamlessly into his environment. He certainly wasn't a faint outline, but his presence melded perfectly into the forest around him. Like a tree swaying in the wind, or the pouring down of rain, he was a weave in nature's intricate fabric. I watched the way he puffed his pipe, drew the smoke in as if pulling the world around him inside, holding it and then blowing it back on the curls of smolder rising from his lips. It was as if he was breathing in and out his own existence. Every so often, he would glance around, not looking with his eyes exactly, but from behind them in some inscrutable way. I had the inexplicable feeling that I knew him.
"Well, are you going to stay there all night ... in the cold? Or are you going to join me at the fire here, and let me see who's looking at me?"
I knew I had been "made." Still I glanced around hoping someone else would step forward.
I slowly stood up and walked around the twisting vegetation toward him, eyeing carefully his weapons and his hands, and their distance from me.
As I approached the warrior, he transferred the smoke pipe from the hand that held it to the one resting on his knee. He gazed at me, and then pointed with his eyes to where his free hand patted the ground with an invitation to seat. I calculated his reach and parked myself just beyond it, pulling my legs up under me in his fashion. He smiled to himself, evidently amused at my wariness.
I noticed close-up that the paint markings on his face were zigzagged drawings of lightning, and that his headband was beaded, perhaps with colored seeds.
"The light of my fire has always burned," he stated. "Yet it is just now that you have found your way to me. Who am I? That is your question, is it not? I can hear it loud and clear. As clear and deafening as those rockets blasting into the compound that day in April 1968."
Images of the attack surfaced immediately in my mind.
* * *
"INCOMING ... INCOMING bellowed through the hootch like the recoil of a thunderous boom, which had bolted from the sky in an ominous whistle. The shouting was the Salts' seasoned reflexes kicking-in with the fluid motility of controlled terror.
Bodies hurled themselves off cots; feet hit the deck running, pounding across the wooden floor out into the night toward the bunker.
This was my first rocket attack, my first confrontation with the fear-demons dogging me, since first pulling orders for WesPac, i.e., Western Pacific, operations. In the prevailing winds of the day, this meant one thing, Vietnam.
Raw instinct covered my lack of experience and put me in mental synch with the others. I jackknifed off my rack and raced behind them, forcing out an "INCOMING" as I went by the ranking NCO. This shout was more a grounding for my fear than it was a warning to anyone.
"Good man," said the Corporal—duty-bound as the last man out—waving an urgent hand onto my shoulder and guiding me out the door.
The bunker was low to the ground, with a cramped entrance to crawl through. It was dark, sandy, and close inside. The air was a thick, dusty mixture of earth scent and perspiration, trapped in a palpable atmosphere of constrained fear. A direct hit, by common reckoning, would turn this shelter into a tomb.
"Everybody in?" the Corporal asked.
Yeahs and uh-huhs answered back in the affirmative.
"All right, sound off when I call your name." Down his mental list he went, each name eliciting a HERE or HERE, CORPORAL.
"All right, we'll see how long this one lasts. No one out till the all-clear sounds ... I know you guys really want to be out there, right?" Some chuckled nervously, others replied with silence. Life-and-death humor hit too close to home to tease out much laughter, especially when the punch line could be you in a body bag.
Some of the men lit up cigarettes, the flickering flames of matches and lighters creating wavering shadows in the dark chamber. One man extended a smoke to me. I took it, puffed it into a glow from his cigarette, and pulled the fumes into my lungs.
The 1-22s were slamming the ground all around the sandbagged fortification, the close ones kicking up the Red Beach sand on the outside walls like death spray trying to probe its way into our minds. A loud, metallic scrunch moaned a direct hit a short distance away.
Huddled in the dark with the other Marines, I felt the distance between birth and death collapse into one eternal moment, where the flame of life fought against the winds of fate. It was nothing in thought or feeling that possessed me, but, rather, an infusion of some innate awareness that pushed through the mind and the senses. Like the replay of an ancient memory, a narrow, vertical line of light appeared on the dark screen of my mind, burst into light particles, and then was gone. I knew this image was of the moment of death—that flashing of life into oblivion—and that my own dying one day was as certain as my need for air. Youthful illusions faded that night into a sobering maturity.
The all-clear siren sounded, and we spilled out of the bunker. It was good to breathe the air outside, even though it stunk with the sulfurous scent of explosives. The first faint light of dawn was just breaking as we stood gawking at the mess hall a hundred yards away. A big portion of the roof was collapsed, and a gaping tear was ripped into one long wall.
We studied the wreckage, as if it were a piece of art, engrossed in its twisted, misshapen appearance in the same uncanny way that one falls spellbound to Nature's cataclysms. As with the atomic mushroom cloud, some eerie, grotesque beauty had unwrapped itself from the raw destruction and pinned our eyes to its magnetic power.
Something shifted in me during those mesmerizing moments. I began to walk a different path through life. The unconscious sense of immortality that attaches itself to youth left me. In its place, under the cold stare of truth, the grasping of life's impermanence took root.
It was clear that mortality walked every step with me. In the face of such destructive forces, unleashed with such harmful intent, so utterly close in that place and time, I grokked the delicate stitching that held my life in one piece. Steeped in that realization, I set myself to the task of survival, not so much by a conscious directing of the will as by an unconscious drive for self-preservation—tuning my awareness around an axis of acute instinct and reflexes. Where circumstances fell within my control, where my own actions mattered, I would act, think, and feel my way through the continuance of my earthly existence.
* * *
"Judging from the puzzled look on your face, you're wondering how I knew what happened that day, how I reached into your memories and pulled out that event for you to see."
"You are curious about me—who I am and why I seem so familiar to you."
Again, I nodded.
"I am Warrior. And your coming here is no accident. You sought me out, you looked high and low, so to speak.
I didn't know how to reply.
"When you left Vietnam for the world, for home, you left that exotic place you had come to know, come to expect certain things of, and reentered one whose reality had shifted from your mind's memory to something else entirely. It was not the home of your past. As the home of your future, it was an ungainly thing to contemplate.
"On the surface of your five senses, there were many things still familiar in the ebb and flow of sights and sounds, but in your subjective, inner reality, this was a world apart from what you had known. More directly opposed, though, to your peace and tranquility, were those sensory factors tying you inexorably to the distant land you had departed. In some bizarre way, Vietnam had come along, as a permanent part of your inner landscape.
"So much so that a car's backfire was now a booby trap going off. Clackers, Poppers, Klick-Klacks, or identical toys by any other name, were AKs popping death. An overhead helicopter was either a gunship giving air support or a medevac coming for the dead and wounded. There was an edge to everything.
"Nam, as you referred to it, was a tropical country of mystery and mysterious people, of rice paddies, monsoon rains, and death by combat. It was a contradiction of lushness and devastation, of beauty and grotesqueness. You looked for yourself within its mental and physical borders, in its chaotic paradox of constant change and monotony. There, in its wild stampeding of events, you lost yourself and then found yourself, only to lose yourself again on returning home. And you have been in the process of discovering who and what you are for the last thirty-nine years."
* * *
Coming to Vietnam was at once exhilarating and terrifying. Getting off the Continental Airlines plane at the airbase in Da Nang was the culmination of my private ambition to face the crucible of mortal danger. Like my heroes in American iconic culture, I hoped, in the taking on of such peril, that I would find myself.
I had seen inklings of that genuine self in the male heroes of literature, stage, and film—the rugged individualists who trod their own path, followed their own truth, and dwelled outside the crowd and crowd hysteria. Men who took the road less traveled, but arrived inexorably—time and again—at the headwaters of the masses, where fate forced them to sacrifice personal safety in defense of others.
It mattered not whether these men rode the Old West alone or stormed upon the shore of Iwo Jima with a crowd of Marine infantry. They were self-contained pillars of strength and indomitable will. They led by example and their composure under fire. In the midst of chaos and change, they instilled a sense of hope. They kept their own counsel, fought their own demons, and prevailed over madness and evil. They were men carved out of their own innate natures, unspoiled by outside intrusion. Through the gravest of circumstances, the cream of their most authentic self rose to the top. My unearthing would then seem to lie in a similar path.
I had searched for my elusive self in other areas of American culture. But I was not there in the halls of higher education. I could not hear my song in the music culture that joined me to my peers. I was not to be found in the tumult of political activism: the moral war over the war fought out on the plains of ideation. Ideas reveal what you think—or what others think, carried inside of you—not necessarily who you are, what you're made of.
Shane, hero of the cowboy western of the same name, felt like more than an idea. Sergeant John Stryker, cinematic protagonist in The Sands of Iwo Jima, felt like more than an idea. Sergeant Saunders of television's Combat felt like more than an idea. A quintessential male role model seemed to emerge from these characters who were not defined by their environment, but revealed by it. By the time I signed my Marine Corps enlistment papers in 1967, my path to the jungles of Nam had been cast indelibly upon my future.
I don't remember a lot of visual detail about the flight from California to Vietnam. There was a short stopover in Hawaii for refueling—my first and only trip to our fiftieth state. This was my maiden voyage outside the United States. Up to that point, not even the soils of Canada and Mexico had dusted my shoes.
I do remember the crew, from the pilot on down, being extremely friendly and cordial. I remember the stress and my outer excitement mixed together with introspection. Going to war strips you down to the basics: would I survive, but not just survive, would I do so without missing body parts or mobility? Would I acquit myself well? Would I—more of an impression than thought—regret signing my life over to the Corps?
And then there was that image of my mother crying, as we unhugged at the doorway of her apartment in Washington, D.C., our hometown where we both had grown up. It was a soft, controlled crying but, nevertheless, heart-wrenching. Mom was not given to overt shows of emotion, so this was significant.
The end of the flight was memorable, too, by my recollection. After the plane's captain announced we were making our approach for landing, he wasted no time getting us on the ground. A turn and bank, followed by a rapid descent, and we were touching down. Evasive maneuvers to thwart any ground-to-air attack from the enemy? It sure felt like it. And it sure added to my realization that I was not coming to a tropical vacation spot. No, this was going to be hazardous duty. I was sure hoping that Shane, Stryker, and Saunders had made the trip with me, because I was going to need them badly.
Getting out of the plane and getting our boots on the ground wasn't much solace either. As we passed formations of Marines waiting to board their freedom bird out of Vietnam, marching past their gauntlet of hoots, catcalls and derisive shouts of "HEY BOOTS, WELCOME TO NAM," we started to get the picture. Something about their hyper-euphoria, their downright delirium at leaving that place, gave us a clue to just how long thirteen months of blood-and-guts reality might feel.
"Hurry up and wait," the old military golden rule, came next. Our herd of new warm bodies was directed into a huge hanger and divided into queues to receive our orders. These would be the most important orders I had received up to then in my brief Marine career. They would designate the unit I would be sent to. Its name would call me not only to duty, but also to my future self waiting in the wings of destiny. All duty was not the same in Nam, but with an assigned military occupational specialty of 0311-rifleman, it wasn't much of a leap to see a rifle company somewhere in my future.
There in that building, where the fickle finger of fate was as mercurial as flying shrapnel, I bid goodbye to many Marine friends. Some I had known from the first days of boot camp at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island, South Carolina; some from ITR (Infantry Training Regiment) at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina; and others, more recently, from Camp Pendleton's jungle training at San Diego, California. Most I would not see again, so dispersed were we into different areas of the country, into different spokes of the Corps' strategic organization. Many would not return home. Our twenty-minute layover in Hawaii might have been a touch of paradise, but we were far from Eden now.
2nd Squad walking point shoves its nose into the enemy's den and gets it bitten off, as Ballew, Seventeen-Days-to-Go Ballew, won't go anymore Thirty-cal machine gun saw to that, tattooed an epitaph across his chest.
And saw to the end of Romero's short run— hardly more than a sprint— as he crossed the finish line, way ahead of the field ... Out on the flank to give cover: DAMN! machine gun cracks the air with its whip of death, pinning us like sheep for slaughter. But from the smelter of desperation, we find the steel to crawl our way to a mound that grants us a last stand for Corps and country. So with a genie-wish, we hurl some frags ... turn up alive on the whisper of some cosmic secret.
Excerpted from Sitting with Warrior by Carl Hitchens Copyright © 2010 by Carl Hitchens. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsFar From Eden....................1
The Making of Legends....................11
The Measure of a Life....................25
The Noble Warrior....................33
War and Peace....................39
The Just War....................47
The Tarnishing of Glory....................82
The Reinvention of Darkness....................91
The Redemption of Time....................112
I Can See Clearly Now....................119