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Burning prayers in a heated-up Vietnam

From Quang Tri Combat Base we came down to Phu Bai, me and Tex, with a deuce-and-a-half truck full of shot-up electronics. It was July. You haven't seen hot until you've seen July in Vietnam. You wore the heat and humidity the way you'd wear a giant C-clamp screwed to your chest, one you knew would squeeze you, at that time, for 228 more days. The heat smothered you; the days left ahead of you dragged you down.

Some of those days were just bound to be longer than some of the others. Today was going to come out pretty okay, because we'd safely made it here. We'd pulled out of Quang Tri Combat Base in the near-dawn haze, real early. It was so early and so quiet as we slipped through Quang Tri City that you could almost forget what the night before had been like, with its sirens and 122s exploding and us running around like rats in a sandbag-walled trap. Charley was going to try and blow you into little pieces that could be sent home in a bag.

On real bad nights Charley came through the concertina wire, laid bamboo poles on it to hold it down while he slipped through.

Charley. That came from Viet Communist, then Viet Cong, then V.C., then Victor Charley. Really, from Charley's twisted point of view, he didn't want to kill you, just wound you real good, which would cause a lot of disruption that kept two or three more GIs busy hauling your ass out, too busy to shoot back.

You wore two dog tags for a reason. If you bought it, they'd stick one in your mouth and tie one to your boot, either or. The Army studied death the way a third-grader studied cursive, real focused in their study, and odds were, you'd have either a head or a foot left to tag.

Combat searchlights, Prick 25 back-pack radios, hand-held mine detectors, and other miscellaneous stuff rattled around back there in the open bed of that truck. It's how many years and nightmares later that it still rattles around in my head, and if I didn't know the exact details of what happened to each of those individual pieces of equipment, the various bullet holes and shrapnel gouges in them told enough of the story so you didn't want to know the rest of it.

At that point in time, I knew enough already. One thing about Vietnam in 1969, there was plenty of story to go around, especially up north where we were. Maybe Saigon with its Dairy Queens and McBurger joints was considered bullet proof, but Quang Tri and Dong Ha, with the Marines still bloody a few klicks out at the Rock Pile and Camp Carroll, and 19-year-old GIs just south of us hanging on to Firebase Betty against the NVA (North Vietnamese Army), in weather that kept air support from flying in to even haul out the wounded and worse. We were pretty busy, ducking and praying and trying to fix this stuff for the warriors.

But we couldn't fix it all, which was why we were trucking it down to Phu Bai. "Okay," our Chief Warrant Officer said yesterday, "who's going to drive the equipment evac down tomorrow?" Exactly how he got in charge of our electronics squad is something I still haven't figured out. He didn't know a voltmeter from his backside. If you need one more reason to explain why Vietnam was so screwed up, you could start with promoting people like him.

Nobody was clamoring for the truck job. Highway One, which wound its way down country, wasn't exactly a pleasure drive at that point in time. Yeah, the holes blown in it from the Tet offensive last year had been repaired, but current thinking was don't send a convoy, that's just more targets. Let's just send'em down one truck at a time. Less paperwork that way, you lose one at a time.

He looked at me, said "Take Tex with you." And that was that. Tex and me and two rifles and two magazines of ammo were in it now, that was for sure. Tex thought it was going to be fun. At least he wouldn't be trying to pet Vietnamese kids on the head as we eased through villages. They'd stolen his watch last time he tried it.

We pulled in through the gates of Phu Bai Combat Base, and saw half a dozen double-blade Chinook helicopters staged up to haul a bunch of 1st Cav GIs and tiger-stripe garbed ARVNs (Pronounced "arvin,"Army, Republic of Viet Nam, our side) out into the boonies on some FUBARed attempt to win the war again. They all milled around, waiting to get started, stooped over with fear and battle packs and all the ammo they could carry.

That was when I saw the Vietnamese soldiers burning small pieces of paper, holding them up into the air like little candles.

I asked later what they were doing. It turns out that the Vietnamese thought that their ancestors would answer their prayers if they wrote them on paper and burned them; that their ancestors could read the smoke and keep them alive.

From what I heard, what with them avoiding battle every chance they got, they didn't hold a hundred percent faith in those prayers.

I didn't blame them.

With the hindsight of years gone by, it is now clear to me that prayers written on burning paper had just as much chance of success as we did.