All old soldiers have their war stories. These stories basically fall into three categories. The first category contains the funny stories, the scary stories, the "here's how I won my medal" stories. The second consists of the weird stories: ghosts and crisis apparitions, strange coincidences. The "you ain't gonna believe this, but . . . ." sort of story.
And then there are the stories that only get told when the hour is late and too much booze has been consumed all around; words get slurred and eyes mist up and it's implicitly understood that you'll deny it in the sober glare of morning. These are the stories that take you back to the moments you don't want to remember. Moments when, on the field of battle, the universe blinked open its eye for just a moment and you saw more of the nature of reality than you ever wanted to, or ever should have.
Those are the third type of stories . . . like this one.
They called it a fort, but it didn't look like any fort to me. Too many John Ford westerns as a kid had firmly etched into my mind what a fort should be: towering palisades of spit-clean wood, lurking behind which is an entire micro-community of barracks and offices and hitching posts, with a couple of hundred clean-cut boys in navy blue presided over by Henry Fonda (or someone), and maybe the CO's pretty-as-the-day-is-long niece or daughter there, just for a visit. And once you get behind those mammoth walls, the Indians, or rustlers, or whoever, can scream and rage and fire shots into the air, but you've got the walls and those few hundred blue boys on your side.
That's what a fort should be.
That's the American West, though, filtered through the lens of Hollywood. We were smack-dab in the middle of Vietnam and Fort 17 was just a vague clearing with a few shacks rather than buildings, and a few sandbags and piled rocks and a couple of stretches of rusty barbed wire that were supposed to be the palisades. But the wire only covered about half the perimeter and you could jump over the sandbags without breaking stride.
There was one other thing that differentiated Fort 17 from a John Ford ideal: no cavalry. The French who had been here had pulled out years ago.
We came stumbling out of the jungle, steaming with sweat, stinking of blood, and the sight of our final destination sprawling like a leftover dinner before us took what little juice there was out of our joints. A couple of the boys sagged to the ground, their jaws hitting the dirt in tandem with their knees.
"Keep it moving!" yelled the sarge. "Charlie may be on our tail."
I didn't think so. We might not have given as good as we got, but Charlie had fallen behind, presumably to nurse his own wounds. Still, it wasn't for a medic like myself to question. Besides, I think the sarge just wanted to keep us moving with an affected sense of urgency. Hitching up the only-semi-conscious GI I had been helping through the dank jungle, I muttered, "Almost there now, soldier. Few more steps and we're home."
Home! And no pretty-as-the-day-is-long daughter or niece to wave at us from beneath a pink shawl.
We spilled over the pitiful barricades like a tide of bedraggled lemmings and fell into a semi-familiar pattern. I commandeered the middle of the compound as the "hospital" and we laid out the wounded in a row. I didn't like leaving them outside, even temporarily, but I figured Mother Nature would be safer until the deserted buildings had been cleaned out and checked out. Most of the unit went to work bolstering the perimeter, digging trenches, and laying out sentries with itchy fingers on machine gun triggers. They also checked for any booby traps Charlie might have set as a welcoming present.
By late afternoon, we were fairly secure -- at least, as secure as could be hoped for.
Sergeant Abe Foster came over then. He was a big grizzled man with hard, callused hands as big as catcher's mitts, but surprisingly soft eyes. On the back of his left hand he had a tattoo of the word Angels with two wings sprouting from the g. He was a career soldier and had fired his first shot in anger in Italy in World War II. The scar at the corner of his mouth he got in Korea. He was a good soldier but those soft eyes gave him away: he hadn't meant to live his life in uniform. At least those were the mutterings I had heard. He had a wife who had left him and a son who didn't speak to him and he had failed to be good at selling aluminum siding Stateside. One day he must've realized that everything he had fought for and been promised, family, friends, security -- even happiness -- had somehow slipped through his big fingers, like sand. He had quietly re-enlisted and, I suppose, hoped to quietly fade away at the end of it all.
"How're they doing?" Foster asked as he pulled up an old crate and settled down on it with a grunt. I tried to envision him going door to door in suburbia, preaching the gospel of aluminum siding. I couldn't. I couldn't picture him like that. Of course, it had been a long time since I could even conjure up a clear image of suburbia. It was another, alien world.
I wiped the sweat from my eyes and tried to sound confident. "We lost Merricks and Duffy."
His big hands became balls of bony muscle, distorting the Angels tattoo. Otherwise, he said nothing.
"But most of the others should make it." Should being the prognosis in a clean, fully equipped hospital back in civilization. "Tomorrow we'll know who'll be up and around and who'll need to be evacuated." I hesitated a moment before adding, "There's one boy who's in bad shape. I don't think he'll make it."
I frowned. "I don't know, I'm embarrassed to say." I had only joined up with them three days ago, just as they were heading out to locate, and re-fortify, Fort 17. I'd tried to get to know all the men -- it's always a comfort if the guy stitching you up can call you by name -- but I had obviously missed one or two.
"Let's take a look," Foster grunted as he rose again.
I guided him to one end of the line of wounded, waiting obediently as he stopped here and there to offer a word of comfort to a downed man. Then we halted before a kid, barely of enlistment age, if even that. His hair was blonde and downy soft, and his freckles mixed with spatters of dried blood on his cheek. His eyes were closed and he was resting comfortably -- at least, as comfortably as could be expected with a bullet wound leaving his guts in tatters.
"It went clean through, and I've stitched him up as best I can."
Eyeing the ugly wound in his torso, Foster said, "No chance of a chopper today -- I've already been on the radio with HQ. Do what you can for him, Chet. I'll see--" his gaze swung up to the boy's face and the words froze on his tongue. The blood went out of his features so fast, I almost thought he had taken a sniper's bullet in mid-sentence.
"Sarge?" I asked.
He glanced at me, pupils wide, eyes even wider, then turned and walked away, slamming the door behind him as he entered the shack he had claimed for his own. I stared at the ramshackle hut for a moment, then back at the wounded soldier.
I decided Foster must have been close to the boy. I looked down at him again, though, and without the immediacy of trying to stop his bleeding, for the first time I was aware of some peculiarities. For one thing, though he looked familiar, so much so that I had convinced myself he had been part of our unit, I now realized I had never seen him before. It was merely that he had that fresh-faced, boy-next-door look you see in any war. The kind hometowns churn out and wars chew up by the thousands.
His uniform was ripped and muddy, and I noticed that his insignias had been torn off. I also had the weirdest feeling that his uniform wasn't right. It was standard combat fatigues, but that was the point: like the boy's face, his uniform was a little too indistinctly generic.
I called "Ulysses" over. Ulysses was one of the Vietnamese militia who had accompanied us, and had kind of found himself my unofficial nurse. I pointed at the wounded boy and asked, in my best Vietnamese (which was pretty bad), if he knew who the soldier was. He didn't, and so I sent him back to his task of cleaning bandages.
I mentally vetoed the idea of calling over anyone else. There were still too many tasks to be done before the compound was fully secured. There was no point in dragging someone away from something vital just to satisfy my curiosity.
A couple of the buildings were being cleaned out to serve as makeshift infirmaries, so I focused on just keeping an eye on those in my charge until it came time to move the worst cases indoors.
During the wait I had time to reflect. You get a lot of that in war, too many hours with nothing to do but think. My advice: don't. For the umpteenth time I found myself reconsidering why I was here. I was a Canadian -- it wasn't my war. But I had enlisted in the U.S. Army at Plattsburgh with visions of being another Norman Bethune, the legendary Canadian battlefield surgeon. I wanted to go where life and death was a constant battle, where one man could make a difference. Instead, I spent a lot of time watching boys die and making very little difference at all. And those that I did patch together just went out and killed somebody else's son, instead. I wondered if Charlie's medics sat and brooded about the same things.
I couldn't even take comfort from knowing I was making my hero proud. Bethune had been a Communist. He probably would've felt I was on the wrong side.
As the sun began to dip lower toward the tops of the trees, however, some of the wounded were looking better than I'd hoped for. At least this time, I thought, maybe I had made a difference after all. It was then that I found my thoughts drifting toward my unknown patient again. My intention of asking one of the other GIs about him, of drawing attention to him, began to seem less and less like a good idea.
What if the reason I didn't recognize him was because he wasn't one of ours? What if he was a deserter from some other company who had just stumbled into the crossfire? I stood over the man -- hell, the boy. I stood over him and wondered about morale in the face of a deserter. If the rest of the unit became aware of him, a bullet wound wouldn't be the only threat to his well-being.
For that matter, paranoia could lead one down all sorts of tricky roads. What if the others got the idea that he wasn't a deserter, but a defector? A mole working for Charlie? As these things tumbled willy-nilly through my mind, I glanced down at his left leg and, with a start, realized the fabric of his pants just below the knee was soaked with blood.
"Shit," I muttered. "Ulysses, get over here!"
It happens. In the press of the moment, cutting and sewing a dozen different bodies at once, you miss something. I had noticed some blood on his leg but, too intent on his torso wound, had dismissed it as a stain from someone else -- I was covered in the stuff and I didn't have a nick on me.
So, just when we were winding down, Ulysses and I found ourselves digging out one last bullet and stitching together one last piece of violated human flesh. At least we hoped it would be the last, at least for a while. At least for tonight.
It was not until I was washing my hands that my eyes fell on the extracted bullet again. I looked at it more carefully. After shaking my hands dry, I picked it up and squinted at it in the waning light. It was curiously round, like a battered ball bearing. I'd become distressingly familiar with man's ingenuity in the construction of bullets of late. There were a lot of different agencies skulking about in the jungle; regular army, marines, special forces, CIA spooks, South Vietnamese, North Vietnamese, Chinese "advisors," etc. Vietnam was a regular cornucopia of different units and branches and wings of sundry militaries, only some of who were here "officially."
I'd seen a lot of different types of artillery. But I couldn't recall anything like what I had just dug out of the boy's leg.
For some reason, an involuntary shudder went up my spine.
The bullet's brother had presumably shredded the boy's intestines before erupting out his back and disappearing, forever, into the jungle. But this bullet had become lodged in his leg, and in so doing, it had raised whole new questions. No longer was it just a question of who my patient was; but now the question was: who had shot him?
One of the men injured, not too badly, was Cpl. McCall. McCall was a Georgia country boy who, he was quick to tell anyone who would listen, was going to be a movie star after his tour of duty. Just about everyone in the unit had something he had autographed, whether they wanted him to or not. He had joined up because many of the great movie stars had seen combat -- it was as necessary as elocution lessons, he reasoned. I didn't point out that they had seen combat because they had lived through a world war -- just about everyone saw combat back then. Still, he declared, if you were making a war picture, who would you cast, some nothing "New Yawk" actor, or a genuine war hero? He had more teeth than chin and one ear was bigger than the other but I promised him I'd attend his first premier.
The plus side to all this was that, as part of his military-as-background-for-acting philosophy, he had done some studying; he knew more about guns and ammo than a dozen supply sergeants. I decided to solicit his expertise.
He was dozing in the shadow of a building, a copy of Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos rolled up in one pocket. It was the latest issue he'd received, mailed to him by his little brother Stateside (which meant it was probably about six months out of date). At first it seemed odd to me, reading a war comic in a war zone, but I guess the good Sgt.'s adventures were so far removed from anything we knew that it was as much escapism as anything else.
I nudged McCall awake and did a cursory check of his bandages.
"How is it, Doc?"
"Just scratches. Just enough for you to add a note of authenticity to Hogan's Heroes. You could be up and about now." Then I winked at him. "But the sarge doesn't have to know that till morning."
McCall grinned. "You're a saint, Doc. I do declare."
"Maybe you can do me a favour," I said, holding up the unidentified bullet. "Ever seen a bullet like this before?"
McCall looked at it, momentarily surprised by my question and the sudden change in conversation. Then he took it from me and, propped up on his elbows, studied it for a moment. "Hell, Doc, this ain't exactly standard issue," he said at last.
"You know it?"
I frowned. "Special Ops?"
He looked at me, a toothy grin on his lips. "You're pulling my leg, right, Doc? No one's used anything like this in years. This is a musket ball."
I knocked at the door to Foster's so-called office, the loose, slightly rotted wood of the door rattling and threatening to come off its hinges with every rap of my knuckles. There was no response, though I knew he was in there. In fact, as far as I knew, he hadn't come out since he had high-tailed it inside after taking a look at my mystery patient. I knocked again.
"I'm coming in, Sarge," I said defiantly, and opened the door.
Foster sat upon a cot beside a wooden crate turned on its side to serve as a table. He was hunched over like a statue there in the dark. I crossed the little room and turned on the lamp squatting on the table. He blinked quickly, but otherwise didn't move. A battered mickey bottle was held between his legs.
I tossed the bullet on the crate. "What's going on, Sarge?" I said quietly.
He looked at me with his eyes, not moving his head. "Want a drink, Chet?"
"No, it's hardly that," he agreed, then took a swig. "You got a girl, Chet? Waiting back home in -- where was it? Canada?"
I pursed my lips, knowing he was changing the topic. "Sort of, maybe. Irene."
Foster nodded, more to himself than to me. "Good, that's good. You marry that girl when your tour is over. You marry her and you make her happy. Will you do that for me, Chet?"
"Do you know who that is out there?" I asked, ignoring him.
"Don't play games, Abe. You recognized the boy, and it sent you in here . . . and into that." I nodded at his bottle. "Tell me why."
He sniffed, then finally moved his head, to glance at the bullet. He picked it up and rolled it between his fingers. "Got an antique here, don'tcha?"
"So I'm told. Who is he?"
"We call him Private Parker."
He put the bullet down with deliberate care. "Don't know what his real name is, though, or even his real rank. We call him Parker 'cause he seems to park himself smack-dab in the middle of trouble. When the smoke clears and you go out to count the dead and dying, there he is."
"You aren't making any sense."
"Thank God for that," he said. Seeing I wasn't to be put off so easily, he said, "The first time I saw him was on a battlefield in Italy in 1943."
I stared for a moment, not sure I had heard right. Then: "That's crazy. He's just a kid. Eighteen, tops."
"You sure you don't want that drink?" Foster grinned, but it was without humour.
"Is that what this is about? You saw someone who looked like him twenty-some years ago? It was probably just a relative or something." It seemed mundane, anticlimactic, but, of course, I was trying not to think about who would be unloading museum pieces into him. Or why.
"I'm not the only one, Chet. I thought I was. For a time he was just another casualty to me. One of the dead you can't bring home 'cause you're in the middle of some crazy firefight, you know? And the leaving him behind kind of burns him into your mind like a condemning brand. It happens. Since the first cavemen went to war, there're always the ones that you leave behind, the bodies you can't bury." He rubbed his big hands together for a moment, staring down at the Angels tattoo with its little wings, as if it would bring him strength, or comfort. It did neither.
He looked at me again. "But then I heard the stories -- you get to talking, Chet, once you've seen enough, or too much. You get to reminiscing with other old soldiers who haven't enough sense to leave it all behind. And I began to hear stories, and rumours, and whispers. People tell you things with a belly full of bourbon that they wouldn't tell you otherwise." He glanced ironically at his mickey, though he wasn't drunk. Yet. "And I heard about Private Parker, casualty on so many battlefields. A medic once swore to me he saw him in Korea . . . with an arrow in him. Another guy I knew recognized the description as a boy left behind in the South Pacific in '44. And in a V.A. hospital I once met an old Canadian -- like you -- who told me that back in '15, while lying in a muddy field paralysed by chlorine gas, he saw him not ten feet away. But when the gas cleared, the kid was gone."
He rose a bit unsteadily, and I decided maybe he had imbibed too much at that. He went to the door and peered out through a crack at the deepening twilight. "You hear any birds, Chet?"
I cocked my head, then shook it.
"Charlie's out there, Chet. The birds know and they get the hell away from the coming crossfire."
"About this guy, this Parker." I hesitated. "It's crazy."
"War's crazy. So crazy that crazy stuff just seems run-of-the-mill. Inevitable. There's going to be a big push," he said, dragging the conversation back to the enemy that might or might not have been lurking in the jungle. "Maybe tonight. Maybe tomorrow. Parker knows."
"I don't understand?"
He looked at me, eyes squinted, reflecting little pinpricks of lamplight in his dark pupils. "There's something in common among Parker's appearances. He doesn't just show up, shot to hell, after a battle. He shows up just before one, too. There's going to be a lot of fighting soon, a lot of work . . . for both of us. Parker always knows. Have a drink, Chet."
I didn't move.
Foster shrugged. "I think he wants to go home, that's what I think. I think some where, some time, some nameless and forgotten battle, Pvt. Parker gets left behind in his own time, his own war, and he wants to go home so damn bad that he just kind of . . . disengages from reality. He starts bouncing around from war to war, era to era, getting shot up in one battle, dying in another, all the time trying to find someplace, sometime, when he won't get left behind. Trying to find someone who won't leave him behind." He must have seen something change in my expression, because he nodded sagely. "Put that way, it doesn't seem half so crazy anymore, does it? Put that way, it almost seems . . . inevitable. We all want to go home, Chet. Even if it's only in a box, we all want to go home. I think that's a soldier's greatest fear -- not death, not even dismemberment, but being left behind. The funny thing is, I did leave him behind once, in Italy. You suppose he knows? Do you suppose he remembers me?"
I could think of nothing to say, about any of it.
Foster nodded sadly, knowing I had no answers for him. "I'd better get on the radio and start screeching for choppers. I don't know what I'll say, how I'll explain that I know -- I know -- that Fort 17 is going to turn into Hell itself sometime in the next few hours, but I'll think of something." He opened the creaky old door. "Get some rest, Chet. And be prepared to move your patients."
If Armageddon had a time and a place, it was the crack of dawn over a Godforsaken little fort in the middle of a Southeast Asian jungle. I don't know why Charlie was so determined to get our little piece of "home," unless it was just a bookkeeping thing. Some nameless, faceless, American general says to occupy plot A, for reasons only he knows, if even that, and some equally nameless, faceless, Viet-Cong general says to take it back, for equally obscure reasons. And men on both sides die, and don't die well.
The friendly fire didn't help.
There was fighting to the north that we could hear about twenty minutes before our little free-for-all commenced, and I never did learn whether the Made-in-the-U.S.A. shells that came raining down on us from out of a clear sky were meant for the battle a couple of miles to the north, or whether they were supposed to help us. Either way, they missed their intended target.
I won't detail things. I don't think I could, not with any accuracy anyway, and it seems somehow obscene to even try. Suffice it to say, it bore precious little resemblance to the exploits of Sgt. Fury and his wisecracking cohorts.
Caught between our own guns and Charlie, who was acting like he didn't give a damn any more and was throwing himself into our hail of bullets just for the hell of it, Foster did the only thing that seemed logical. He ordered us the hell out of there.
There was a clearing about a kilometer away, where choppers were supposed to come and pull us out. Ulysses and I each took an end of Pvt. Parker's stretcher and the men took off into the jungle. Bullets were everywhere, and the noise was so deafening you couldn't pinpoint individual shots. Bark exploded, branches were sheared off, raining leaves that just added to the confusion, and men died. Cpl. McCall died, screaming, most of his belly spilling over his belt. He died and all the movie stars he idolized would never even know he had existed in the first place. Men were hit as we ran, some only wounded, and helping them slowed down the rest.
I don't know how those of us that survived ever did so. But at last the trees fell away and hot sunlight slapped down on us, momentarily blinding us after the twilight of the jungle. Someone hollered with joy. I looked ahead and saw why.
The choppers were there, hovering over a sea of rippling waves of grass.
I screamed as hot fire burst in my thigh -- I'd been hit. Then Ulysses gave a little snort and blood spat through his teeth and he sprawled, dead, and Pvt. Parker and I joined him in a heap upon the ground. Most of the unit was already spilling up into the waiting choppers, Charlie about 30 seconds away, and there I was, blood pumping out of my leg and pinned to the ground under a dead man and a dying man. Make no mistake about it: Pvt. Parker wasn't going to make it -- but like Foster said, I didn't like leaving him behind. I didn't buy into Foster's rambling mumbo jumbo, I just didn't want to leave him.
Now there was no choice. Head spinning, I wormed out from underneath both men. Casting aside my equipment to lighten my load, I clutched my hands around my wet thigh and lurched across the clearing into the roar and the wind of the choppers. Strong hands dragged me onboard, then someone turned me over roughly. Foster stared into my eyes.
"Where's Parker?" he demanded.
I shook my head. "I couldn't," I said, gasping. "Neither of us would've made it. He's almost dead anyway."
Foster looked around wildly, at the boys huddled bloody and wide-eyed, at the grassy clearing, at the dark jungle which continued to spit bullets. "Hold 'er as long as you can," he roared to the pilot, then leapt out.
I had knotted my belt above my wound, so I grabbed the nearest machine gun and started pumping bullets into the trees. I didn't for a minute expect to hit anything, but I thought it might buy Foster some cover.
"What th' hell's he doing?" demanded a voice at my shoulder.
I didn't answer. I knew, though. Foster wasn't seeing Vietnam, he was seeing Italy. He had left Parker behind once before, and he wasn't about to do it again.
In the annals of superhuman effort, Sgt. Foster deserves his own chapter. We all watched, awestruck, as Foster zigzagged across the clearing, as the big man threw away his own weapons to lighten his load, and then scooped up the nameless casualty dubbed "Parker." As he came racing back, I couldn't believe the ease with which he carried another body, or the deftness with which he avoided the bullets which filled the air around him like Northern Ontario blackflies. Then I saw him stagger, saw little blooms of blood spread grisly petals across his fatigues, saw his features twist with agony.
"I can't wait any longer," yelled the pilot, and the chopper lurched as it prepared to rise higher.
"Goddamn it!" I screamed and leaned out, stretching my hands for Foster. Somebody sat on my legs to weigh me down, sending new waves of agony through my torn flesh. I ignored the pain. "Foster!" I screamed. "Grab hold!"
He was almost to us. I could almost touch him as the chopper rose clumsily above his head. He could have made it. Instead, he thrust the still body of Pvt. Parker up into my waiting hands. I grabbed the boy's shirt and hauled instinctively, dragging him up beside me. When I peered out again, we were twenty or thirty feet above the clearing and Foster was sprawled down there on the ground. From out of the jungle spilled the Viet-Cong. I saw bayonets flash.
At least, I hope I did. I hope he died there and then and quick.
Throat raw, eyes burning with something like grief, I turned belatedly toward Parker. It took me all of a minute to realize he was dead. I knew enough about death to know that corpses didn't have expressions. The strange thing was, though, his lips were twisted in what could almost be interpreted as a smile.
I left the army after my tour of duty and returned home, somewhere along the way forgetting my ambition of pursuing a life in combat medicine. Instead, I settled for a modest little practice just outside of Toronto. I married Irene. I put the war behind me, like I think Foster was trying to tell me to do that night in his "office."
Years go by, though, and sometimes the sound of the guns and the screaming wakes you up in the middle of the night, and old faces start to haunt you even when you're awake. Recently, I've found myself drifting into veterans' clubs on occasion, reminiscing with other soldiers over a few drinks.
And I've heard the stories, the rumours, the whispers, told by soldiers who were in the Gulf, or Peacekeepers in Somalia or the former Yugoslavia. Stories of a dead or dying soldier with grizzled features, big, catcher's-mitt hands with the word Angels tattooed on one hand, and a scar at the corner of his mouth.
A soldier they call Parker.
D. K. Latta's stories of speculative fiction have been accepted by Adventures of Sword & Sorcery, On Spec, Aboriginal SF, TransVersions, and many others. He is a co-founder of Pulp & Dagger, a Webzine devoted to modern stories and serials with an old fashioned, pulp-era flavour. He lives in Canada. For more about him, see his Web site.