White Man

AWEEK OR so after Sergeant Benet and I made our Thanksgiving raid on Dong Tam, the division was ordered into the field. The plan called for our howitzers and men to be carried by helicopter to a position in the countryside. I was sent ahead with the security force responsible for preparing the ground and making sure it was safe to land. My job was to call in American gunships and medevacs if any were needed. I could even get F-4 Phantom jets if we ran into serious trouble, or trouble that I might consider serious, which would be any kind of trouble at all.

The designated position turned out to be a mud-field. We were ordered to secure another site some four or five kilometers away. Our march took us through a couple of deserted villages along a canal. This was a free-fire zone. The people who’d lived around here had been moved to a detention camp, and their home ground declared open to random shelling and bombing. Harassment and interdiction, it was called, H and I. The earth was churned up by artillery and pocked with huge, water-filled craters from B-52 strikes. Pieces of shrapnel, iridescent with heat scars, glittered underfoot. The dikes had been breached. The paddies were full of brackish water covered by green, undulant slime, broken here and there by clumps of saw grass. The silence was unnatural, expectant. It magnified the sound of our voices, the clank of mess kits and weapons, the rushing static of the radio. Our progress was not stealthy.

The villes were empty, the hooches in shreds, but you could see that people had been in the area. We kept coming across their garbage and cooking fires. Cooking fires—just like a Western. In the second village we found a white puppy. Someone had left him a heap of vegetable slops with some meat and bones mixed in. It looked rotten, but he seemed to be doing okay, the little chub. One of the soldiers tied a rope around his neck and brought him along.

Because the paddies were flooded and most of the dikes broken or collapsed, we had only a few possible routes of march, unless we moved off the trail; but mucking through the paddies was a drag, and our boys wouldn’t dream of it. Though I knew better I didn’t blame them. Instead we kept to what little remained of dry land, which meant a good chance of booby traps and maybe a sniper. There were several troops ahead of me in the column and I figured they’d either discover or get blown up by anything left on the trail, but the idea of a sniper had me on edge. I was the tallest man out here by at least a head, and I had to stay right next to the radio operator, who had this big squawking box on his back and a long antenna whipping back and forth over his helmet. And of course I was white. A perfect target. And that was how I saw myself, as a target, a long white face quartered by crosshairs.

I was dead sure somebody had me in his sights. I kept scanning the tree lines for his position, feeling him track me. I adopted an erratic walk, slowing down and speeding up, ducking my head, weaving from side to side. We were in pretty loose order anyway so nobody seemed to notice except the radio operator, who watched me curiously at first and then went back to his own thoughts. I prepared a face for the sniper to judge, not a brave or confident face but not a fearful one either. What I tried to do was look well-meaning and slightly apologetic, like a very nice person who has been swept up by forces beyond his control and set down in a place where he knows he doesn’t belong and that he intends to vacate the first chance he gets.

But at the same time I knew the sniper wouldn’t notice any of that, would notice nothing but my size and my whiteness. I didn’t fit here. I was out of proportion not only to the men around me but to everything else—the huts, the villages, even the fields. All was shaped and scaled to the people whose place this was. Time had made it so. I was oafish here, just as the Vietnamese seemed oddly dainty on the wide Frenchified boulevards of Saigon.

And man, was I white! I could feel my whiteness shooting out like sparks. This wasn’t just paranoia, it was what the Vietnamese saw when they looked at me, as I had cause to know. One instance: I was coming out of a bar in My Tho some months back, about to head home for the night, when I found myself surrounded by a crowd of Vietnamese soldiers from an other battalion. They pressed up close, yelling and pushing me back and forth. Some of them had bamboo sticks. They were mad about something but I couldn’t figure out what, they were shouting too fast and all at once. Tai sao? I kept asking—Why? Why? I saw that the question infuriated them, as if I were denying some outrage that everyone there had personally seen me commit. I understood that this was a ridiculous misunderstanding, that they had me confused with another man, another American.

“I’m the wrong man,” I said. “The wrong man!”

They became apoplectic. I couldn’t get anywhere with them, and I soon wearied of trying. As I pushed my way toward the jeep one of them slashed me across the face with his stick and then the rest of them started swinging too, shoving for position, everyone trying to get his licks in. I fought back but couldn’t hold them off. Because of my height I took most of the punishment on my shoulders and neck, but they managed to hit me a few more times in the face, not heavy blows but sharp and burning, as from a whip. Blood started running into my eyes. They were swinging and screaming, totally berserk, and then they stopped. There was no sound but the feral rasp and pant of our breathing. Everyone was looking at the bar, where an American lieutenant named Polk stood in the doorway. He was the one they were after, that was clear from his expression and from theirs.

With an unhurried movement Polk unsnapped his holster and took out his .45 and cocked it. He slowly aimed the pistol just above their heads, and in the same dream time they stepped back into the street and walked silently away.

Polk lowered the pistol. He asked if I was all right.

“I guess,” I said. “What was that all about, anyway?”

He didn’t tell me.

I was halfway home before it occurred to me that I could have saved myself a lot of trouble by pulling my own pistol. I’d forgotten I had it on.

Sergeant Benet cleaned my wounds—a few shallow cuts on my forehead. He had a touch as gentle as a woman’s, and feeling him take me so tenderly in hand, dabbing and clucking, wincing at my pain as if it were his own, I started to feel sorry for myself. “I don’t get it,” I said. “Polk doesn’t look anything like me. He’s almost as big as you are. He doesn’t have a moustache. He’s got these piggy little eyes and this big moon face. We don’t look anything alike!”

“Why, you poor nigger,” Sergeant Benet said. “You poor, poor nigger.”

Which is all by way of saying that even as I composed my face for the sniper, making it shine forth my youth and good nature and hope for years to come, I had no illusion that he would see anything but its color.

WE FOUND the second position to be satisfactory and set up camp for the night. Though the troops weren’t supposed to build fires, they did, as always. They dropped their weapons any old place and took off their boots and readied their pans for the fish they’d collected earlier that day by tossing hand grenades into the local ponds. While they cooked they called back and forth to each other and sang along with sad nasal ballads on their radios. The perimeter guards wouldn’t stay in position; they kept drifting in to visit friends and check on the progress of the food.

Nights in the field were always bad for me. I had a case of the runs. My skin felt crawly. My right eye twitched, and I kept flinching uncontrollably. I plotted our coordinates and called them in to the firebase and the air support people, along with the coordinates of the surrounding tree lines and all possible avenues of attack. If we got hit I intended to call down destruction on everything around me—the whole world, if necessary. The puppy ran past, squealing like a pig, as two soldiers chased after him. He tumbled over himself and one of the troops jumped for him and caught him by a hind leg. He lifted him that way and gave him a nasty shake, the way you’d snap a towel, then walked off swinging the puppy’s nose just above the ground. After I finished my calls I followed them over to one of the fires. They had tied the puppy to a tree. He was all curled in on himself, watching them with one wild eye. His sides were heaving.

I greeted the two soldiers and hunkered down at their fire. They were sitting face-to-face with their legs dovetailed, massaging each other’s feet. The arrangement looked timeless and profoundly corporeal, like two horses standing back to front, whisking flies from one another’s eyes. Seeing them this way, whipped and sore, mired in their bodies, emptied me of anger. I shared my cigarettes. We agreed that Marlboros were number one.

I motioned toward the dog. “What are you going to call him?”

They looked at me without understanding.

“The dog,” I said. “What name are you going to give him?”

The younger of the two gave a snort. The other, a sergeant with gray hair, stared at the puppy and said, “Canh Cho. His name is Canh Cho.”

Dog Stew.

The one who had snorted lay back and shrieked like a girl being tickled, banging his knees together. Some other soldiers wandered over to see what was happening.

I addressed myself to the sergeant. He had a thin, scholarly face and a grave manner. When he spoke to me he lowered his head and looked up from under his eyebrows. I said, “Are you really going to eat him?”

“Oh yes.” He smacked his lips and made greedy spooning gestures. Then he turned to the newcomers and repeated our conversation. They laughed. Gold teeth flashed in the firelight.

“When are you going to eat him?”

“Oh, tonight.”

“Tonight? He’s pretty small, isn’t he? Don’t you want to wait until he’s bigger?”

“No,” the sergeant said. “Now is the best time. The meat is best now.” He made the spooning motions again. He said, “Let’s eat!” and stood and untied the puppy, then picked him up by the tail and carried him to the fire. Looking at his friends and dancing a clownish jig, he dangled the yelping little wretch over the flames.

“Don’t do that,” I said, and everything changed, or became clear. I saw it in the sergeant’s face, felt it in the hardening silence of the others. Up to now we’d been a couple of soldiers messing around in a soldierly way. But I had drawn a line, or at least called attention to the line already between us. I had spoken in absolute confidence of my mastery here. Now he had no choice but to show me—I could feel it coming—his own view of the situation.

The sergeant pulled the pup away from the fire and studied me. Then he hung it over the fire again. It gagged in the smoke and raked the air with its paws.

“Stop it!” I said, and got up.

He moved the puppy back long enough to let it catch its breath, then swung it like a censer back and forth through the flames. All this time his eyes were on me. I knew I should keep my mouth shut, but when the pup started choking I couldn’t help myself. I ordered him to stop. Again he pulled the pup back, again he held it to the fire, again I told him to stop. And again. He wasn’t playing with the dog, he was playing with me, with my whiteness, my Americanness, my delicate sentiments—everything that gave me my sense of superior elevation. And I knew it. But knowing did not free me from these conditions, it only made me feel how hopelessly subject I was to them.

Please, what was I doing here? If I’d been forced to say what I was doing out here in this alien swamp, forced to watch an’ignorant man oppress a dog, could I, with a straight face, have said, “I am an adviser”?

I couldn’t win. My only choice was to quit. I turned and walked away, until I heard a howl of such despair that I had to stop. It seemed I didn’t have a choice after all. Nor did the sergeant, grimly waiting for me with the singed and gasping pup. He was locked in the game too, as much as I was. He had to take it to the end.

I could think of only one way out. I said, as if this had been the question all along, “All right. How much?”

The sergeant was no dope; he saw his opening. He looked at the puppy. “A thousand piastres,” he said.

“A thousand piastres? Too much. Five hundred.”

“A thousand.”

I made an aggrieved face but got out my wallet and paid him. It didn’t kill me—five dollars and change. He took the money and gave me the smoking dog. The other soldiers had been stern and watchful, holding him to his task, but now they were joking around again. They were satisfied. Profit was victory.

“Good-bye, Canh Cho,” one of them called.

I took the puppy back to my tent. His fur was scorched and greasy with soot, his eyes bloodshot, his nose blistered. He smelled like rancid bacon. I cleaned him up as well as I could and tried to calm him. He trembled convulsively. Every time I touched him he yipped in fright and shrank away. I spoke to him in low, gentle tones and when he continued to cringe I began to dislike him. I disliked him for being so unlucky. I disliked him for involving me in his bad luck, and making a fool of me. I disliked him for not seeing any difference between me and the man who’d hurt him.

But I held him and petted him and finally he fell asleep in my lap, his nose tucked between my knees. While he slept I went on stroking him, and my hands grew slow and gentle with the memory of all the other dogs they’d known, Sheppy and Tyke, Ringer, Banana, Champion, and without warning tenderness overcame me. It spread through me like a blush, like the sudden heat of unexpected praise—an exotic sensation, almost embarrassing in its intensity. I hardly recognized it. I hadn’t felt anything like it in months.

The radio operator brought me a plate of rice and fish. He looked at the pup and made the same eating gesture the sergeant had made. He rubbed his stomach and laughed, and walked away laughing.

FROM THAT DAY ON it became the custom of our troops to greet me with spooning motions and signs of ravenous appetite, especially when I took Canh Cho out for a walk. He seemed to understand their meaning. He was a sad little pooch. I tried to teach him a few tricks, bring out some personality, make a proper mascot of him so he’d have a place in the battalion after I was gone. Nothing doing. He wouldn’t even chase a ball unless I smeared hamburger on it. All he wanted to do was lie under the big wicker chair with his head sticking out and snap at flies. This engaged his interest, and he was certainly good at it, but it seemed a raw, unfriendly sort of pleasure.

Shortly after Christmas Vera wrote to tell me she’d been seeing someone else, “seriously.” She thought it best to suspend our engagement until things were clearer. I read the letter many times over, not sure how to respond. Though I managed to strike a note of offended trust and virtue in my letter back to Vera, I didn’t really feel it, and knew I had no right to it. The truth was, I’d been unfaithful to her ever since I got to My Tho. I made resolutions, and renewed them now and then, but they never survived any temptation worth the name. Nor had I given Vera much to hang on to. My letters home were by turns casual and melodramatic, and had little to say of love. If, as she’d asked me to do, I had written truthfully about my inner life, I would have written about boredom, dread, occasional outright fear, and the sexual hunger that fear left boiling in its wake.

Still, Vera’s letter gave me a knock. It caused me to compare myself to the other fellow, Leland. We had never met, but I’d heard Vera speak of him as an old friend. Though only a year my senior, Leland was a college graduate with a good job. She had once said that he was brilliant. The word went down hard even then, as if I’d sensed how it would come back to judge me later.

Using Leland’s blazing sun to take my bearings, I looked around and found myself exactly nowhere. No marketable education, no money, no prospects. My writing, my “work” as I’d begun to call it, was supposed to take care of all that. Mindful of the feckless dropout Scott Fitzgerald leaving the army with a finished draft of This Side of Paradise in his duffel bag, about to feed lifelong dust to his classmates, I had promised myself that I would use my nights to finish the novel I’d begun in Washington; but it soon came to seem romantic and untrue, and I conceived an implacable hatred for it.

Probably it was romantic. Most first novels are. As to whether it was untrue, that’s another question. I believed in it when I first started writing it, believed in its story and the view of things that held it together. The truth of a novel proceeds from just that kind of conviction, carried to extremes. I had it, then I didn’t. The ground shifted under my feet; the old view vanished and of the one still taking shape I could make neither poetry nor sense. I put the novel out of sight. Eventually, ceremonially, I burned it.

I was unable to write anything else. Instead I tried to read the books Geoffrey took such pains to choose and send me, but over the past several months my passion for them had gone flat as well. It became a duty to read each sentence, and the books themselves felt awkward and foreign in my hands. Before long I’d catch myself staring off. This was my signal to join Sergeant Benet for Bonanza or The Gong Show, or brave the road for a run into town. The best thing I had to say for myself was that I was still alive. Not impressively, though. Not brilliantly.

Strange, how the memory of that one word—she didn’t use it in the letter—could give me so stark a picture of my condition. Even more than the letter itself, even more than losing Vera, whose loss, to tell the truth, did not seem impossible to bear, that word cast me down. I called Canh Cho over, thinking it would be agreeable to have him lay his head on my knee and look up at me while I stroked him and pondered my state. But he didn’t move.

“Come here, damn you.”

He pulled his head back under the chair.

I stood and lifted the chair to show him he couldn’t hide from me, anywhere. He looked up and understood, then lowered his head in the woe of his knowledge. I put the chair back down. I was sorry, but what a sad dog. I had to conclude that he probably would have been happier with the Vietcong, unless, of course, they ate him.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!