The word today is Distance.
The Distance Between Hearts
Sometimes it just doesn't pay to get out of bed. Especially for Nguyen Ho Tran.
I'm not sure what his story was, but I'm guessing that he didn't set his alarm clock, and his buddies bugged out and let him sleep when we came to call on their bunker complex with a hundred of our closest friends, footmoblies from the Dead.
So poor Nguyen popped up from a spiderhole, rubbing his eyes, and found himself staring down the barrel of our main gun. Biff didn't have to traverse far to get the guy's face in his sights.
"Hands up, Charlie?" he said quietly over the IC.
If Nguyen had been a little bit smarter or a lot less terrified, he would have done just. Of course, the fact that The Dude was inching the tank closer and closer to his black-pajama-clad body probably didn't help his peace of mind.
He screamed, turned, and ran. With a hundred of the Corps' best riflemen in the immediate vicinity, he didn't get far. One of the Dead casually raised his M16 and sent a bullet through the runner's right leg. Then he looked up to me. "We're not takin' chieu hois, but if y'all want a prisoner, he's your'n. Otherwise..." The rifleman shrugged, the Southeast Asian deguello.
"Yeah, we'll take him." I didn't know what we'd do with a wounded VC, but for some reason I didn't want what started as low comedy to end in blood. Too much of war was already like that.
The rifleman waved and moved on. As he passed the wounded VC he said, "This'n 's y'all's lucky day, ah reckon."
"Sonny, get the aid kit. Biff, get up here, and cover us with the fifty." I took off my CVC helmet as Sonny came up through the loader's hatch, aid kit in hand.
Charlie was a mess. The bullet had gone through the meat of his thigh, and must have nicked the femoral artery, because blood was coming out in spurts. He was losing a lot, but it could have been worse. We needed to get the leg tied off before anything else, though.
Sonny opened the box and took out a tourniquet, and some gauze. The VC watched him, and then I heard The Dude shout, "TC! Watch his hands!"
Charlie had slipped a hand into a pocket, but he must have understood the import of the shout, because he threw up his hands, jabbering.
The tourniquet slipped off, and blood sprayed across Sonny's face. He swore, and said, "This gah wanna live, ur not?"
A couple of pieces of paper fluttered down, landing in the blood on the ground. Charlie grabbed at them, squealing, and I grabbed his hands. "No."
He sighed, and went limp. I looked at the papers; one was obviously a letter, and the other, a photograph.
Sonny had tied off the leg, and in a surprising move retrieved the letter and the picture. He laid them on the VC's chest. "Here."
To me he said, "TC, he ain't gonna make it. Ah cain't get the artery closed."
In the background I became aware of the deadly shuk...shuk...shuk of the blood pumping overboard.
"Sonny, get back to the tank, and swap with The Dude. Maybe we can get some intel before this guy goes."
The prisoner was holding the photograph in both hands, staring into it, through it. Then he turned it a little, so I could see.
There was a smiling black-haired girl with Eurasian features, a picture taken in a place without war. "Mon amour," the VC whispered.
You never think of Charlie with a girlfriend.
You never think of him with a wife, either.
The Dude was there, kneeling in the bloody ground. He spoke to the prisoner in Vietnamese, and got a scratchy hurried whisper back.
"TC, he says his name's Nguyen Ho Tran..."
Another whisper, and a name.
"And his wife's Marie. She's half-French."
A choked sob, more words.
"He loves her very much. He wants to go home. He thanks you for giving him the picture. TC, I don't think we're going to get any intel out of this guy." He looked at me. "Sorry."
"It's all right." Seeing Nguyen dying, I wanted to go home, too.
Nguyen reached out, and tried to take my hand in his. I realized that he was trying to give me the letter.
"He asks that when all this is over, that you write his wife and tell her that he loves her and always will, and he will be waiting in Heaven."
I bit my tongue to keep my voice from shaking, and then spoke. "Is her address in this letter?" We never kept correspondence with names or addresses; it provided useful intel and leverage if we were captured or killed, and the enemy got it. I figured Charlie was at least as smart as us.
Nguyen apparently understood; he made feeble writing motions. "Dude, you got a pen? He wants to tell you, I think."
I jumped up, and ran back to the tank, yelling for Sonny to toss me something to write with.
He leaned out and dropped a pencil, its eraser chewed off, into my hand. "You gettin' intel?"
"No. His address."
"His what?" But Sonny was talking to my back. It was surreal, but we had to do this right.
In a fading voice, Nguyen dictated an address...I only understood a little..."Rue de-something" and Hanoi.
Well, Some intel at that. Nguyen was apparently not VC, but NVA. I wondered if it mattered.
Nguyen was gasping now. His blood volume was getting too low, and he was running out of oxygen. He held the picture almost desperately, as if he could lock eyes with Marie across the miles, and that would save him.
I felt movement, and Sonny was at my side. "TC, may I?" He held his beloved harmonica.
I nodded, and Sonny began to play Amazing Grace.
Nguyen's eyes brightened at the first notes; there was recognition. I wondered about the things I would never know. What did it mean to him? Did Marie sing it softly in their Godless land? Was it their private rebellion?
The Dude began to sing, but for a moment I couldn't place the words. Then it hit me; he was singing Amazing Grace in Vietnamese. (Right-click here and open a new tab if you'd like to listen in.)
I thought back to the churches I'd attended, and the sermons I'd slept through.
The Dude cam to the end of the song. Then he reached up, and closed Nguyen's sightless eyes.
Sonny was tracing patterns in the dirt with a fingertip reddened by blood. "I don't wanna just leave 'im, TC. I wanna bury 'im."
The Dude touched my arm. "TC," he said quietly, and motioned with his chin.
We had an audience. A dozen of the Dead were standing around us. Each had their helmets in their hands. A rail-thin sergeant with crisscrossed scars covering his bare arms raised his hand, like a schoolboy asking permission to speak.
"Back in the world I was a lay preacher. We'll bury him, if that's okay?" A couple of his men were kicking the dirt, trying not to look sorrowful, and failing.
"Sure. Thanks." I looked to The Dude and Sonny. "Mount up, guys, we're done here."
And I had a letter to write.