Georg E. Mateos
Kenny had stenciled with black letters all his (by now ex-) Marines property with KFC: it could have been his name, initials, a code, or anything else. If he had used two letters they could have called him KC, but no, he stubbornly went for all three – like in Kentucky Fry Chicken; he got to be dubbed “Kentucky” even if he had no idea where the State was.
He was born and grew up along the New Mexico-Texas border, with one parent of Latino ancestry who influenced him in the fine art of courtesy, gentleness, respect for his elders, and application to become an A’s student.
The other parent, of Irish-American ancestry totally misplaced around the Wild West, gave him the sense of self-discipline and self-confidence, and a tenacity to expend every free minute training, until becoming a well-oiled human machine on the football field.
He was thirteen, doing all the things that teenagers do and not thinking about the war going on in the Far East except when the occasional letter from his father came, when the military-green Ford stopped in front of the house and two uniformed officers came with the news.
In the Korean War languishing last days, where the fighting was more with words than with bullets, with everybody was almost finished packing to go home, his father was one of the last fallen soldiers.
ALL GAVE SOME… SOME GAVE ALL was written in the letter regretting to inform his mother and him that…
The posthumous Purple Heart couldn’t lessen the pain or bring a sense of pride when the spouse and the son where standing over the empty hole of his grave. Being a Marine’s wife, without a skill to survive on her own, Kenny’s mother tried to supplement the meager pension with straw jobs and with Kenny’s papers route; but they were surviving… just.
Five years of struggling passed after the death of her husband, and she remarried with a good man, a widower with two teenagers, and consented to move east, to Baltimore. Kenny, now eighteen, didn’t want to follow or join the new family, dropped out of college and enlisted in the Corps.
He married his High School sweetheart after receiving his first chevrons, and was the father of a little girl who was born a few days over the required nine months after the wedding, enough to stop tongues waggling about marrying too hastily.
Despite being sent away from his family for a tour in Nam, life was a wonderful: how bad can it be to police a few rice paddies?
In Camp Pendleton nobody said anything about war – it was just a bunch of commies playing guerrilla games that the American and the Vietnamese governments wished to kick out permanently. Suddenly everybody was shooting at everybody and policing was no more. The small guerrilla force became a great pain, like mosquitoes swarming and which you need to slap dead one by one.
War is like a field full of empty foxholes that needs to be filled. More guerrillas = more foxholes = more soldiers. Down town Saigon was speaking more Yankee than the Los Angeles projects ever did. The casualties started to pile up – the mosquitoes were biting very effectively.
Soldiers expected to come back from Nam when their turn-of-duty was done, or they got that million bucks wound (God forbid!), or the war is over. Coming back to attend the funeral of your entire family wasn’t a consideration.
Kenny returned to the funeral of his wife and seven-month-old daughter, who were killed by a drunk driver whose family had a lot of political clout in Santa Fe and Austin. Those powerful people made so the charges were reduced to a misdemeanor: The man had had a drink or two but was well under the limit when the incident happened and proved, by a sobriety test done the next day, that placed the blame on the woman for: “irresponsible jay walking into the path of the car causing her death and that of her child” as stated by few “witnesses” that had came forward to set things “right”.
It took a few strong men to disentangle Kenny from the acquitted-of-all-charges man (who was smiling and savoring in triumph his “not-guilty” verdict on the Court House’s stairs surrounded, of course, by a clique of friends), but not before the man’s smiling face was a bloody mess; his mouth with smashed front teeth, a ear missing, and some ribs broken.
A sympathetic USMC Colonel dropped like a ton of bricks with half dozen burly MPs on the unsuspecting cops, and before Austin or Santa Fe could react, Kenny was back in Nam.
But life wasn’t the same.
They hadn’t come back with a gentle GI-Joe; they had brought back 220 pounds of anger that, despite his bulk, moved through the jungle like a snake in search of a rat without its front teeth. Kenny’s good-humored disposition was gone, as was the humanity from his eyes, and the naïve sense of fair play from better days: all were gone.
Suddenly he had become a man killing Doberman Pincher attack dog that you pointed and that went like a nightmare. Why he landed among the folks of the “Nuts’ Special Group” is of no concern: he never said and nobody was asked.
In the beginning, he participated in the ops but was generally a loner, talking to nobody and nobody bothering to melt the ice, keeping a physical distance, quite literally, from him and his leather pouch. He was a snake magician when it came to catch Three Steps snakes, perhaps after practicing catching rattlesnakes on whatever piece of earth he was from.
The deadly vipers had another name, but… were better known as “Three Steps and You’re Dead”: one step after getting bite, with the second step is all systems stop; by the third step you are dead: so – one, two, three.
The little buggers were no more than a green shoestring, about a foot long but packed with more venom than two mothers-in-law put together. Kenny would collect them in a leather pouch hanging from his waist until the team went past the telltales of an underground tunnel which couldn’t be dealt with and interfered, in the way or another, with operation in the jungle.
Moving around without shaking the vegetation like a bullfighter does to avoid the bull’s horns, Kenny would find among the bamboos, the ones used as ventilation chutes and, with a flourish worthy of a world class Matador, would chuck the contents of the pouch down the hatch, a figure of speech, down the ventilation pipe of the tunnel occupied by his beloved Viet Cong – Charlie.
Returning to the group afterwards, he would invariably have an evil smile of satisfaction on his lips, with an insane soft clucking of happiness that a witness could imagine would be on the lips of a murderer coming out from a dark alley after a night of torturing a victim.
He was capable of prowling with the stealth of a ghost, where others would seem like runaway elephants in a glass bazaar. He would creep between the sentries to the large hut were the main force of twenty or thirty Cong were sleeping and go about totally unnoticed, shaking his pouch inside every window until it was empty and, ghostlike, sliding back between the guards.
Once arms and legs were slapping and kicking inside the big hut, the little snakes sure felt they could get hurt if they didn’t keep on biting to keep away those crazy screaming people around. When the compound was well awake and running around like a dog chasing its tail, time came to take care of the sentries who were more occupied with what the hell was happening than guarding the surroundings.
The snake trick was well known, attracting a fame of sorts for Kenny… even if undesirable.
It is one thing to hear shots when one is attacked, it’s quite another when the attackers shoot using guns with silencers, whose coughs are covered by all the shouting, your own included. Dum-dum bullets are prohibited, but you don’t want a through-and-through bullet in your enemy, letting him to shoot back at your sorry ass with his own dum-dums. The nasty cross-split nose beast would stop anyone in his tracks making him forget trying to shoot back, but dedicating all is efforts to give his lungs all the air needed to scream ouch!
To the team he was known as Kentucky, or Key, or Kenny. Others would refer to him, out of his ear range, as “the-weird-angry-cobra”, giving an evil eye to the leather pouch hanging from his waist anytime he happened to go by.
Perhaps his unwanted fame saved the team’s butt from big trouble when they wanted to go all the way in ultimate revenge aimed at a ninny flyboy who couldn’t let bygones be bygones. The flyboy had “missed just a little to the left” of the given coordinates and toasted the site that the team just vacated with napalm.
The team was called for a little spot-me-a-convoy and pinpoint for an air strike one week after in the mess-hall rolling grenade incident. Patiently they camped under the trees twenty yards down from the top of a hill in direct view of a wooden bridge half a mile away. They were well inside the safe zone for when the bomber came on its bombing pass with its hellish noise.
Light traffic was heard by night, too few movements to amount to anything. They were expecting heavy activity that had been rolling during many nights but which remained unseen by spotter planes. On the third nigh, moonless with high overcast, they could hear the increasing buzzing of many motors approaching coming from far away, but still too far away to be seen by the night sight goggles.
Roscoe cranked life on the radio to tell base to get ready to go!
Half an hour after, like a giant metal worm, the column was in sight; troop trucks with artillery pieces merrily wagging after, vintage armor, with ammunition and fuel loads.
Walther told everybody to scram on the double, over the top of the hill and half a mile down the other side, because he didn’t think the pilots could shoot straight knowing they were down there. With the iron procession slowly fording the bridge, he told Roscoe to give the word to Angel One. “Now we go home to mamma,” he said, helping the radioman to roll over the top and scramble down.
Like they were already waiting back the nearest ridge the planes appeared like a pissed off swarm of hornets. Almost all the planes, ten of them flying in twos by twos, flew over from the head to the tail of the Vietcong’s column, first dropping two high explosive bombs from the underbelly harness, followed by two napalm cocoons hanging from the wings. All planes that is, but one which was flying a little to this side of the hill. He kind of prematurely dropped off his napalm, setting everything on fire exactly over the no-no-you-don’t-drop-anything-here area because it is the safe zone occupied by your spotters.
It’s one thing to be pissed off by the antics of Boom-Boom in the mess hall; another to enjoy the fireworks from “up there” trying to teach a lesson to the “son of bitches down there” with a little of napalm. What they were thinking? That they would fly forever and never needed to land and face the music?
That “wet-team” translated as the one that got caught by the rain without umbrellas? Like someone said, elephants have a long memory, don’t ever forget, and they are very heavy on the shit side.
One week after the “incident”, the group returned to their Vietnam base, surprisingly unscathed. The eyes of the pilots who, seeing them coming suddenly became very interested in what each other were saying, with a body language of a disturbed hive when “here’s trouble”.
“If you fellows can give me a minute…” Kenny said to the team, searching Walther’s eyes for approval, which he got by way of a nearly imperceptible nod.
Known by now as the “weird-ones”, a couple of tables had magically become one hundred percent vacant as the mess-hall conversation volume went a few octaves lower into a kind of buzzing.
Nobody had forgotten the previous encounter of the flyboys and the from-another-planet-weirdoes. They didn’t feel safe but they wanted to see what would happen: they say that curiosity killed the cat… but who cares when boredom can kill you faster?
Kenny marched right away to the flyboys table, caressingly holding the bulging leather pouch containing the vipers, and told the one who had started it all that the next time he “kind of missed the safe zone” he would find one of his little green fellows slithering up his leg to take a bite on his nuts when he was sleeping.
All could see the leather pouch moving like its occupants were pissed-off trashing around.
The pilot went totally berserk, calling for MPs, witness, Court Martial and Leavenworth as he was pointing at Kentucky’s receding back, but judiciously not following after.
A lot of mouth frothing and “just wait…”
That night a snake found its way under a bunk blanket on a restricted aircrew barrack and was discovered because the viper had gone amok with the suffocating weight.
No one of the flyboys ever “missed,” hitting with napalm or anything else, inside Kenny’s safe zone.
©Copyright 2007 by Georg E. Mateos