By L.G. Pethe
The incessant wump-wump-wump explodes in his ears, as if driven by some berserk metronome, shutting out all other sound. As he floats toward consciousness, the drumming mercifully subsides, allowing other snippets of his environs to punch through the haze. He awakens enough to discern the drumming in his ears is his own heart.
Eyes closed, he listens. A chorus of chirping, clicking, humming envelops him. A rogue breeze teases his cheek. It evaporates as sporadic explosions echo around him. An occasional, unintelligible shout fades quickly into the cacophony. He resists knowing, not letting consciousness or reason take full purchase.
He inhales a familiar aroma. At first, it is the tang of green, growing things, and his mind hurdles back to a freshly cut alfalfa field where he relaxes in the shade of an oak, sipping cool water from a jar. It feels good, having spent the morning sweating and hefting bales onto the old Ford flatbed. The wisp of a girl next to him playfully clamps forefinger and thumb to her nose as she points to the salty wetness of his t-shirt. They laugh together. The image quickly fades. He realizes the smell is wafting from the soft, damp forest floor under his cheek.
He opens his eyes. Muted greens, browns, shadowy grays, and encroaching blacks come into view – tangled shafts reaching upward to splashes of divine light, and to nothingness below. Shit, am I dead, he wonders. As his eyes slowly focus, relief washes over him as he realizes he is still among the living.
Cautiously, his tongue tests parched lips. Near the side where skin stretches thin he recognizes the bland taste of his own blood. From where it flows, he hasn’t a clue. With a shaking finger he dabs at mouth’s corner. He focuses on the fingertip, seeing a dollop of red. The flow turns out to be only a trickle. This is good, he thinks.
The same curious hand then slides up and under his shoulder. He tentatively pushes against the weight of his stiff body, inching it upward. His core and extremities telegraph bursts of dull pain.
He pushes again, harder, hoisting fully to his left side, his lungs stammering at a stab of pain. He pauses, forces a deep breath, then pushes with what strength is left, thudding over onto his back with a gasp. Wondrously, there is no searing agony. This is good, he whispers to himself. At least I am in one piece.
His eyes scan the dome of growth where he lies. Sounds return, but the voices have gone. The acrid smell of burning fuel wafts over him. He frowns, squeezing closed his eyes, loosing dim memories.
He is in the Huey, gazing out and down, seeing thick clumps of green and silver elephant grass parting violently in the tornadic rotor wash just feet below the vibrating craft. Hunched figures in olive drab advance in sloppy tendrils in the field – the drop zone. Ducking the men move toward a wall of trees where, they surmise, the enemy awaits. Moments ago, they were wide-eyed, teenage cherries huddled on the cargo deck of the chopper. Now they are sweating men, advancing hesitantly into the jaws of reality.
A voice – it’s Buzz, the co-pilot – yells they’re clear, adding, “Let’s get the fuck outta here.” The hovering craft lurches forward, responding to the pilot’s urgent interplay of levers. Tail high, rotor blades clawing the humid air, the Huey ascends at a shallow angle. The pilot spots the shaky contrail of a rocket arcing in low and to starboard. He jerks the stick full left and the craft tilts to port like a carnival ride. The enemy ordinance swooshes by inches from the fuselage. Missed, you bastards.
Before he can take a breath, another rocket angles up and under the fuselage. There is a burst far rearward, near the tail rotor. The lumbering chopper shudders, insane beeping issuing from the instrument panel. The craft gyrates into a slow, downward spiral, angling toward a green wall of Banyan 50 yards distant. To his left and behind, Atkins and Sarge curse as the machine thrashes into a treetop, tipping nearly full to the side. Then, in slow motion, the crippled craft slides sideways toward the ground in the final pirouette of its death dance. The 22-year-old pilot’s hands are frozen to the controls. Rotor blades dig into the soft earth and understory, snapping off and launching into every direction. Stifled energy of the blades meeting earth rattles the fuselage into a twisted, metal wad.
Then it is over. There is yelling, kicking, and much smoke. Somehow, the pilot finds himself crawling on the ground, then looking back to see flames, at first slowly licking the wounded metal, then quickly engulfing the ruined U.S. Army asset. An exploding, orange nova consumes what is left of the aircraft and whoever happened to be inside.
The fiery flashback fades as the young man opens his eyes. His consciousness returns to the damp, verdant growth enveloping him. His breathing grows easier. Thoughts begin to sort themselves. The questions begin. Where are my guys? Where are the grunts we dropped off? What about the VC who got my ship? He exhales deeply.
A stray thought jostles him. His hand clumsily unsnaps the breast pocket of his flight fatigues. He pulls out a half-used pack of smokes. He urges a cigarette out with his finger, and then slides out the book of matches he had wedged between the cellophane and the Marlboro pack. He puts the white shaft to his lips, opens the matches, sighing as he sees the “Draw Me” ad inside, scrapes a match to life, and holds it to the tip of the cigarette. He takes a long drag, exhaling through parched lips. Then, almost involuntarily, he feels for the wad of papers in his other breast pocket. He snaps open the flap, digging inside. The letter and snapshot are still there, secured. He smiles, taking another long drag on his cigarette.
Then it is over.
L. G. Pethe lives with his wife Joan in the Cape Fear region of coastal North Carolina. He currently works as a freelance writer, journalist, and communication consultant. He also is an adjunct college and university instructor in mass communications and film. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Central Michigan University, and a master’s degree in Communication from the University of Notre Dame, with a concentration in prose writing and film. His documentary television writing has been recognized by national organizations, including the New York International Film Festival.