The word this week is FEATHER.
We were provisioning, getting ready to go back to Oceanview, and get Smiley snapped in as our new loader, when the Six walked up.
"Talk to you a minute?" he asked. But from our swallowed-a-cleaning-rod-from-the-wrong-end platoon leader, it wasn't really a request.
"Sure, LT, what's up?" I gave the main gun round I was about to hand up to Smiley to The Dude, and followed the Six a few paces. Out of earshot of the crew.
"How do you feel about your new loader?" he asked, without preamble.
"Sm...uh, Dalton? I like him. The guys like him. I think he'll fit in real well." I wondered where this was leading, because the Six was not overly concerned with interpersonal relations. I soon found out.
"Well, great, but word is, he's a coward." The Six looked me in the eye when he said that, and I blinked.
"Ohhh...kay," I said. "He can't really do a retrograde advance out of a tank. We'd kind of notice."
The Six didn't smile. "Word is, he freezes.
The why did you agree to chop him to our crew...are we that shorthanded? I thought.
"We're too short of personnel. Sorry." The Six didn't sound sorry.
"Well, we'll deal with it," I said. There didn't seem to be anything to add.
The Six nodded, and then stopped as he was turning away. "Look, I really hated having to tell you this. Really."
"It's OK. Better I should know." I guess.
The Six went on, "Guy I went to OCS with, he saw it. Khe Sanh. Dalton just froze. Dropped his rifle and went to ground, hands over his head. My friend kicked him bloody, and when Dalton tried to pick up his rifle, he got hit. Weren't for that, he would've been up on charges."
"Ugh," I said, kind of wishing I didn't know this.
"Yeah. Well, the Corps thought they'd just quietly get rid of him, but he found his way back here. God knows why...or how."
"Well, thanks. Better that I know," I said again.
The Six turned away again...and then again turned back. "Look, I'll take my crew this rotation. You just give Dalton a place to hold until your gunner gets released by the docs. You guys can stand down."
You could have knocked me over with a bamboo cane. the Six never made an offer like that. "Uh, sir..."
"Really. I mean it. Something happens, I don't want this on my conscience."
Now I knew why he was a Real Live Officer. "Let me talk to the guys, ok, sir? I don't want them to think it's something about them...well." Smiley would surely know, but that couldn't be helped.
The Six nodded. "Sure. Just let me know, soon as you can?"
"Ten minutes, sir. Thanks."
I walked slowly back to Ship Of Fools, conscious of three pairs of eyes on me. "LT's offered to take our rotation," I said.
Biff was standing in the loader's hatch. The guys had been handing him up the main gun rounds. He spoke first. "No, TC."
The Dude shook his head as well. "Nice of him, but no."
Smiley looked at me, and he wasn't smiling. "If it's all the same to you..."
I tried to make a joke out of it. "Don't you guys want a couple more days R&R here, on the shores of the beautiful South China Sea? Bet they build a Hilton here some day, and you'll be able to say, I was here when..."
"TC," said The Dude, "no disrespect, but stow it."
I felt my mouth flop open, and then thought to close it. We were informal, but not that informal.
Smiley said, "I told them, TC. That's what it's about, isn't it? Me?"
"We're giving him a chance," said Biff. "Everyone needs a second chance."
The Dude walked over to me. "What else are we supposed to do?" He looked over to the Six's tank. There was activity around it. "You want to tell him, or should I?"
"I'll go," I said.
The Dude nodded. "Tell him thanks, really. But we have to do this."
When I reached the Six's tank, he dropped down from the turret, where he'd been handing C's down inside, to meet me. "Well?"
"We're going. The guys want to go."
"Yeah. They know. Dalton told them."
"OK. I'll keep my guys spun up if you need a mid-rotation relief."
"Thanks, sir." I turned.
The Six called me back. "Son," he said, "I hope you're half as proud of your crew as I am, right now."
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