Chapter One

“What happens in a moment can change a lifetime,” Clayton mumbles to himself as he rests his elbows on his knees and looks down at the handcuffs lacing his arms together. He remembers his introduction to Miro, the Japanese war hero he met after his tour in Okinawa, and he remembers Miro’s wise sayings. He remembers wishing he had had similar offerings from his own father rather than avoidance and criticism. He feels the sun awakening discomfort on his skin. His bflond hair is almost white from months in the tropics. He touches his chest where his name tag, PRATT, would be, and realizes he is out of uniform. His olive drab T-shirt is stained from his travels and his arms and face are burned. He looks to the floor to avoid the tropical early morning glare as it shimmers through the ceiling high airport windows. He raises his eyes and squints across the landscape toward the horizon. The sun is low as it creeps above the Mount Pinatubo highlands and casts distinct shadows over the stranded passengers. The shadows take on the hue of the sunshade tint that is impregnated into the heavy glass. The sky is clear and blue, with no hint of the recent havoc that hit the air base.
He remembers Tiwala. “You killed him,” she screamed at Clayton. “You killed my Jack…Now kill me!”  
Clayton takes stock of his surroundings and realizes he is in the passenger terminal at Clark Air Base. He recognizes where he is, but is confused about what might be real and what might be a dream. He’s afraid to look into a mirror and would like a drink before he has to face himself.

He looks out the window again and blinks hard, once, twice, three times. His brain is clouded and his ears ring. He smiles to himself as he remembers Miro’s suggestion, “May you always stand in the shadow of the truth and not be blinded by the brightness of the lie.”

His glasses are loose as they try to slide down his bloodied nose. Have I been blinded by the lie? He wonders as he raises his handcuffed wrists to push his glasses in place. His side aches from the almost deadly swipe Jack took with the Igorot dagger.

Down to the bone, he thinks. He cut me down to the bone and into my side. A Jesus wound; I have a Jesus wound. In the Nam, this might have gotten me a ticket home.

Clayton tries to remember what happened. He touches the tender area gently. He rubs his finger across the wetness that seeps through his shirt.

He remembers a samurai sword, its bone grip balanced in his hand. It swung easily as he plunged it into Jack’s Adam’s apple, into his voice, to stop this menace in his tracks.

He remembers Tiwala. “You killed him,” she screamed at Clayton. “You killed my Jack…Now kill me!”

No. I wouldn’t, he thought. Not Tiwala. I know that. I love her…But I killed a boy. He was just in the wrong place. It happened, but it seems so long ago. He tripped the flare on my watch.

Now Clayton’s unreliable brain struggles with the truth. It wasn’t my fault, he tells himself. It seems so long ago.

He remembers the whooshing of the flares and the sudden brightness. He remembers how he instinctively spun his M-16 in the direction of the invader. He remembers that he was afraid. He remembers that he was edgy as he waited for the worst, and angry that he was not prepared for war.

His weapon, on automatic, stuttered with bursts of 22 caliber tumbling death. Perimeter guards on either side of him followed up with volleys. Their tracers cris-crossed the area he had fired on. More flares went up. Then, except for the hissing sounds of the burning flares and the ringing in his ears, there was silence.

The air smelled of phosphorous, sulfur and gunpowder. For the next two hours he stared into the mist, taking shallow breaths and suspecting every shadow of insurgency. As morning pulled back the darkness he walked over to look into the dead enemy’s face and gloat with a resolute sneer.

My first kill, he thought, as he leaned over the damp, musty smell of recent death and discovered what was left of a child of ten or maybe twelve. That interrupted life was severed at the waist and looked like a melted red Halloween candle. His eyes, jammed wide open, stared at the sky. His mouth, frozen in a scream, was filled with dirt and grass. That boy became a statistic. That boy became a body count. That boy continues to live behind Clayton’s eyelids and goes with him everywhere. He drinks to that boy.

And now Tiwala is gone, Clayton realizes. Was she my Magdalene? he wonders.

He can’t focus. His memory is a blur. He’s had too much rum, and he’s about to drown in his own reflection as he attempts to see himself beneath the surface.

What is my purpose? He queries. What are my motives? What directs me through this minefield of life? Am I nothing more than an observer in this universe?


Chapter Six

Clayton glances around the air terminal and then looks at his distorted reflection in the glass of a cigarette machine. He’s dressed in blue jeans, sandals, and a dirty olive drab T-shirt.
  It is Easter Monday, 1968 and the terminal is filled.

His luggage is a wet, crumpled overnight bag. The starched and spit shined GIs give him a wide berth as they move about him and by him. They look at him sideways as though he doesn’t exist. They keep moving until a tall, young soldier stops and looks directly at him. He glances at Clayton’s white armband and turns toward his traveling companion. “Prisoner,” he says before he turns and looks at Clayton again.

“Fuckin’ deserter, I bet,” quips the other soldier.

“Prob’ly,” the observer remarks. “Let’s go.” And the two soldiers leave.

Clayton lowers his eyes and looks around the terminal. He doesn’t know it or understand it, but he is like the brackish headwaters of the Mekong; he is not yet the ocean but no longer a mountain stream. He is part of a military that is confused; a military that has lost its way.

When Walter Cronkite responded to the TET offensive by reporting that we could not win this war, America lost what little optimism it had. The army began reaching into the back woods of rural America, the jails, the prisons, the unemployed and uneducated masses to fill the shoes of the dead and wounded while middle America went on to college, graduate school and the National Guard. The new military was intimidated by weapon wielding, drug abusing soldiers who had no discipline and would just as soon shoot an officer or NCO as look at him. It was the residual of a battle force that lost its direction when the standards for serving were thrown out the window and criminals and illiterates were handed weapons and told to go defend a cause that was never theirs.

It is Easter Monday, 1968 and the terminal is filled with uniformed GIs carrying their duffel bags wherever they go. Many are sitting on their bags. Some are sleeping on their bags. Most are on their way to Vietnam to replace the dead and wounded in a new stage of this war, a war that was supposed to be over months ago, a war that’s put Clayton on a collision course with life. A war that’s a lie and it’s spoon-fed to them in speeches and in the Pacific Stars and Stripes. Page one: A frightened Viet Cong ran out of his sandals to escape the 196th. Page two: Big volleyball tournament arranged between Vietnamese troops and American troops.

Stars and Stripes reads like a comic book. Clayton handles thirty bodies a day that are floor-loaded on C-130s and C-123s while the reports list fifteen or twenty dead and wounded for the month.

Grunts and ground-pounders ease out of the jungles and mountains missing half their comrades and are beaten down themselves, while Stars and Stripes reports a news flash: The Army Marching Band welcomed General Westmoreland to the Phu Bai Air Base. They later went on to play at an orphanage in Bien Hoa. Meanwhile, the orphans no longer know where, or even if they belong, and, as the band plays, more are being created here and at home.


Chapter Eight

Midnight till pre-dawn in Vietnam during the span of a waxing three-quarter moon was like an old movie. There was enough of a silver glow to whitewash everything in a corrosive coat of make-believe light and uncertain shadows. Sand, with its own grainy quality, dispersed the light unevenly. The effect was much like a bad photograph that had been over enlarged.

Clouds and fog wandered across the sky. Clayton watched the black and silver etchings connected by washed out variations of gray. Shadows never seemed to stay where they belonged. Concertina wire encircled the camp, providing a sharp-edged buffer between safety and whatever might be out there. For thirty yards beyond the wire all the brush was cut back and defoliated by Agent Orange. In the distance he scanned a line of trees lacing black horizon to moonlit sky as he hummed the Elvis Presley version of Blue Moon.

He marched an imaginary line tracing a path of safety around sleeping soldiers. The night appeared calm as he paced the perimeter with Cliff, their half-breed German shepherd. Clayton’s thoughts were focused on the beauty of the evening rather than its potential danger. His serenity was interrupted by a rushing sound followed by a loud crack, then brightness and sparks. A rocket, forty feet away, hit the corner of the maintenance building.

The crackling flash was startling. As he spun toward the report he heard a whine above his head like screaming Harpies. A new invasive blast shattered the air twenty or thirty feet in front of him, smacking him like a sucker punch; only then did he feel the fear of an attack. The concussion knocked him backwards and left a ringing in his ears, like a room full of pinballs all going at the same time. He was confused and his vision was saturated from the flash. He blinked hard, trying to revive his focus. He scrambled blindly and tried to clear his thoughts as he began to get his bearings.

“Jesus! Nick! Nick!…Look at his head!"  

I’m supposed to alert everyone, he realized, and he ran to the compound. “Incoming, incoming. Everyone take cover. Everyone take cover,” he shouted as he banged on the doors. He pushed through the rows of bunks and found no one. Where is everyone? he wondered as he ran to the bunker.

“You’re here,” he gasped as he entered the bunker to find his team was set up inside the sandbag-fortified haven. They were already wearing their flack jackets, loading their M-16 rifles and mounting the Browning 30-caliber machine gun.

Clayton’s ears were still ringing, shells were landing seconds apart and he was locked in box of noise, danger, excitement and fear. He huddled in the corner of the shelter and Nick was kneeling beside him.

“I can’t stand this,” Nick said as he stood up. “We should be out there on the wire with the MACV guys and the ARVNs…Look at the phosphorous flares. Everything is lit up like a football field.” Nick walked over and looked out the machine gun window. Just as he started to speak there was a slapping sound and his body flew back onto Clayton’s lap and began to shake.

“Jesus! Nick! Nick!…Look at his head!"

“Is he breathing?”

“I don’t know…Yeah, barely, but look at his head. Look at the blood. We need a medic…Who’s got the phone?”

“We don’t have it.”

“We need a medic.”

Within minutes of the onslaught Clayton was cradling his critically wounded bunkmate, whose heart was beating but whose brain he was carefully trying to keep in his skull.

“Friend went to get a medic.”


“The main compound.”

Somewhere inside of him, Clayton’s fear turned to an unexplainable anger at Nick for being in front of the window. He sat in his blood. He felt helpless. He felt vulnerable. After less than ten minutes Friend ducked back in the bunker, “They have a bunch of wounded and they don’t know when they can get here. They called in B-52 strikes but the whole country is under attack. Danang, Quinhon, Saigon, Nhatrang, Hue city, everyone is getting hit. They can’t use napalm because the ARVNs and Special Forces are out there. And this is supposed to be a cease-fire…How’s Nick? Is he talking?”


“That’s not good.”

“Is he still breathing?”


The shelling continued all night and Nick was not evacuated until dawn. Clayton hugged Nick’s body close, trying to contain his own fear while Nick’s life lay dormant in his arms. His own breathing felt futile and he began writing an imaginary script that ended in the death of them all.

Clayton wondered what his obituary would say. He wondered how he would be depicted by his family and, more importantly, by his fellow soldiers. He wondered if they knew he was on the verge of pissing his pants, much like he did when confronted by the green eyed teenager who invaded his childhood. He knew that fear pushed him into the corner of the bunker and his decision to protect Nick was real, but also a ploy to keep him engaged in case someone had to step up to the plate and face the enemy.

Dawn accompanied an end to the shelling. That night the compound was shattered. Ten Air Force troops become seasoned veterans in a six hour decade. Nick became a vegetable. Viet Cong were found entangled in the concertina wire. The Special Forces lost seven men. Twelve were wounded. Nick and the other wounded were loaded onto helicopters and everyone else went to the flight line to return to their regular routines. From that point on nothing was regular or routine.


Chapter Fifteen

Clayton avoids the eyes of the passing soldiers as he sits in the terminal and he vaguely remembers lying in a hospital bed. He is unsure of where or when, only that he heard someone speak in slow motion.

“How do you know this girl, this Tiwala?” they asked.

Green satin walls moved around him and the voices were far away. He remembers that he shut his eyes without answering.

How do I know her? He wonders. How do I know her?

She entered my heart through an opening I didn’t know I had, he thinks. I was…I am still crippled by thoughts of her, whose beauty slips underwater as does the lotus blossom, but whose bloom fills the room when she is there. He smiles to himself with his description.

How do I know her? He wonders. How do I know her?

Again, How do I know her? He thinks but his mind is at a dead end. The answer is, he does not, but he returns to thoughts of her and then to thoughts about the children; the urchins he met whom had been grabbed up by the vultures of the night; by Fear. He thinks of the young bodies to be sold and molested by deviants who crouch in narrow darkened alleyways. He mourns the damaged memories of youth, theirs and his own, memories invaded by the owls of civility that ride the warm currents of life to steal the soul of childhood. These depraved killers of serenity that rifle precious puberty and devour the spirit. He sees the image of that pleading child in Alangalang, sunken black thumbprints for eyes, her gaze fixed on an uncertain point behind him; an unreachable point. Her skin shines with a sweaty film, but inside that sweaty skin lives a cold, cold child, a “House of the Rising Sun” child. That child is him.

It has been eight days since he crawled out of a foxhole and shook the night’s readiness from his shoulders. Eight days since morning mist and gunfire settled around him. Eight days since night’s horror disappeared into the gray morning and stomped bootprints into his mind. Eight days since he left Vietnam.

Clayton was approved to take seven days of R&R in the Philippine Islands and ignore the past four months of his life and here he is, already a day late and heading to his future. As he leans his head back against the green plastic chair and stares at the airport ceiling, he awaits his verdict and realizes the many ways he has been offered renewal and he is aware of how he’s turned his life over to chance.



Chapter Thirty-Five

Late March was filled with wet as Clayton worked the flightline by day and guarded the perimeter by night. There was no drying out. His body wrinkled and his skin peeled. Rain streamed from the forest overhang and the tang of fungi invaded his nostrils with a jolt. Three-hour stints of perimeter guard had Clayton lying in frog giggin’ stillness to become one with the elephant grass, the mud and the darkness. Rain splashed from his jungle hat to his jungle rot booted feet. It collected on his brim, rolled down his cheeks and off his chin to drip quietly on the undergrowth. He imagined it heading to the Perfume River to find its way to the South China Sea to float the gun ships that were manned for war.

He lay with his M-16, his lover, and anticipated the unseen Cong. His role was that of the target, visible to the enemy. He was the last hurdle before invasion could happen. The rifle was not to protect, but to warn. He was the noisemaker, the spoiler.

As he crouched in the shadows of the white phosphorous flares he wondered how scared Charlie might be as they both awaited the bruised sky morning.

Tiwala took his hand and said, “Let’s dance.” Louis Armstrong was singing What a Wonderful World.

Clayton wrapped his arms around Tiwala. She was humming along with the song and he pulled her close. He hugged her for Smitty, who died alone on his birthday, for T.J. who died in the dark waiting for a medic, for Red who shot himself, for Nick who now lives without music and for the twelve year old who sleeps in his head.

Tiwala sang, “I see friends shaking hands saying how do you do. They are really saying I love you.” She continued humming while she nestled her face into his shoulder and finished the song, “And I think to myself, What a wonderful world.”

The song ended and they stood there looking at each other for close to a minute, in the embrace of the dance, until Tiwala said, “Let’s sit down.”


Chapter Fifty-Five

Clayton left Father Mike and huddled with a dozen robed penetentes as he waited for act one to start. He wanted to laugh out loud as he scanned the crowd. He was elbow to elbow with his compatriots, who also wore charcoal faces. Closer to the church steps were the makeshift Roman soldiers. They were surrounded by toga clad masses and a mix of observers in straw hats or holding umbrellas. Others just fanned themselves with handkerchiefs, fans or pieces of cardboard.

He turned to see a soldier with a whip standing over Jesus.  

Clayton looked up toward the bell tower and was blinded by the midday sun as it excised the tower, overpowering his vision even with his hand shading his eyes. The sky was white with heat and not a cloud was visible. As he turned his head away from the sun, he realized he was on the crest of a hill. His eyes drifted to his right until the sun was directly behind him and he looked over some low treetops and across a turquoise bay that sat calmly in the distance. The bay blended into the sky on the horizon. There was a hook of land to the left that edged into the water and pointed a sandy finger at a small island several hundred yards to the right. The island was lush with tall foliage, so green that it almost appeared to be dark blue in the undergrowth. He wondered if he was looking toward the coral reef that sank the pirate ship and gifted the church with the golden bell. I could live here, he thought.

Just as Clayton was mentally escaping to this island, he heard the snap of a whip followed by a human moan. He turned to see a soldier with a whip standing over Jesus.

“Thwap!” Another swing of the whip. “Thwap!” And another. Jesus was standing at the foot of the steps. A grimace crawled across his face. Each thwap distorted his features. This is not a game, Clayton thought. This is the real thing. Jesus was slumped forward and two toga-clad civilians grabbed him. They dragged him up the steps to be presented to Pontius Pilate.



Chapter Fifty-Six

Clayton woke up to the sweet smell of jasmine incense and the sound of Eartha Kitt singing, “They said some day you’ll find all who love are blind When your heart’s on fire you must realize smoke gets in your eyes…”

He was lying face down on a narrow cot. There was a breeze from a ceiling fan above him. He raised himself up on one elbow and felt a tight discomfort on his back and shoulders.

“You wake now,” came from behind him. He turned enough to see Tiwala walking toward him. he felt an excitement matched only by a very few moments of his childhood. He started to turn toward her but his body did not want to cooperate. “Be still,” she said in her slow, quiet way. “Be still for now. I put salve on you back to help get rest. You have many cut from Via Crucis.”

Via Crucis, he realized, and then remembered looking up at Jesus on his cross and then at Tiwala behind him.

“What happened? How did I get here?”


Chapter Fifty-Seven

Clayton was lying under a pile of dead bodies and he couldn’t move. He was having trouble breathing and there was water all around him. He couldn’t find his glasses and couldn’t see where he was. The bodies were slippery; no, they were in body bags. He squirmed to free himself of the heap and tried to run through the rice paddies, but it was in slow motion and he still couldn’t breath. Suddenly he was on the top of a hill trying to make out the details of his surroundings. He was naked and he had a piece of paper with instructions written on it. He stared at the paper, but couldn’t focus on the words. He was now behind a wall looking out at a swamp and Viet Cong advanced toward him. He could barely make them out without his glasses and then he realized that he didn’t have his rifle. Soldiers around him were shooting, but the enemy was not falling. Now he had a rifle, but it wouldn’t fire. The rest of the troops around him were gone and the Viet Cong came over the wall and began to pile on him. He still couldn’t see much other than forms as they piled on top of him. He couldn’t get a good breath. He was suffocating under their weight.

Clayton was lying under a pile of dead bodies and he couldn’t move.  

Clayton opened his eyes as he forced a deeper breath. Someone was on top of him. He stared into the eyes of what looked like a girl. Tiwala, he thought. How? Was this all a dream? What’s going on?

He focused more clearly on this person, this girl, who he now realized was naked and straddled his chest. She wasn’t Tiwala, and she had a straight razor in her hand. He remembered drinking half of his rum last night before he found a Jeepney to take him to town. He never remembered getting there.


“A soldier ain’t some ground pounder out there sprayin’ bullets in a volley of ‘mad minutes,’ with no clue if he’s hittin’ something or not. It ain’t perimeter guard. It ain’t droppin’ bombs or napalm on a village. A soldier lays and waits, sometimes for hours hunting them whose huntin’ him. Hours on the ground, or in a tree or on a ridge with his M700 bolt action ready for the shot. It’s one man with one twenty-cent bullet set for the kill. A soldier got to gauge the distance, the moisture, and the weather. A soldier takes out one gook from 800 yards with one shot and lays fear in the hearts of a thousand others. They’re afraid to step into a clearing. They desert. That’s a soldier. That’s a sniper. That’s me. I got a hunnert and seventeen confirmed and a shitload unconfirmed and killin’ one more wouldn’t make me no nevermind.


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