Thursday, November 10, 2011

Prologue to the Novel, Drunken Duck

Fifty Kilometers Southwest of Hue, 
The Republic of Vietnam, March 7, 1966

Five-year-old Lê Anh Trinh, a Chinese-Vietnamese girl, lifted her pet duck and concentrated as she held the duck’s neck firmly, turning its head toward the soldier with the camera. The duck having little choice but to pose quacked away loudly in protest until stifled.

Fortunately, both duck and girl would grow up protected by those who loved them, would have many suitors flock about, and have little ducklings or children of their own. One dressed in white feathers, the other wore a white dress with broad swaths of zebra-like vertical and diagonal black and white stripes, with a bow tied in front. Both had recently bathed and, being playful young scamps, would remain squeaky clean if only for the next few moments.

Trinh’s cleanliness, her dress, and neatly trimmed vigorously brushed hair, told of a special occasion. Her mama and her family, except her twin brothers and eldest sister, were going on a journey to Saigon, a faraway city. Although uneasy about leaving the village of her birth, leaving her twin brothers and sister behind, her excitement overcame her unease.

She showed off her pretty dress, along with her pet duck, to the two foreign soldiers. One of the two soldiers standing before her had given her and four of her seven siblings some Tootsie Roll Pops, hard-candy sweets with a chewy chocolaty surprise inside. The candy came on a stick wrapped in cherry-red colored crinkly paper.

Her fourteen-year-old twin brothers, in the civilian militia under the command of a provincial chief, were across the compound guarding the west wall and did not get any candy treats.

Her eighteen-year-old sister, Lê Thi Thu-Lam, refused any candy and refused to go with the family as she declared her intention to stay and fight alongside her brothers when the soldiers from the North attacked.

Trinh, a brave girl and not afraid, very much, knew everyone in her village, except she and Thu-Lam, seemed to fear the ghost soldier, the rumored eater of hearts, with the strange grayish-blue eyes, the giver of candy. Trinh knew the rumor could not possibly be true, she hoped.

The ghost soldier, called by Trinh’s Chinese grandpapa the guai soldier, had told her sister she must leave. When her sister boldly defied the guai soldier by sticking her tongue out at him, shaking her head ‘no’ and walking away haughtily in a huff, shouting, “I no go,” the guai soldier did not strike her dead and eat her heart for her insolent disobedience, but sighed, laughed quietly, shook his head ‘no’ in return and asked, “Wanna bet?”

She thought her sister liked him in spite of his demand that she leave. Trinh liked him even before he gave her the candy. When she looked at him closely, peered into his eyes, his eyes were not scary, but gentle and kind. She felt safe in his presence.

Arturo, a Marine Corps Staff Sergeant, a giant of a man, knelt down, and snapped a picture of the girl and her pet duck with his Polaroid instant camera.

Amused at her determination to get the duck to pose, he smiled. “Her duck reminds me of you, always being hugged by a beautiful girl, quacking away loudly in protest while refusing to cooperate.”

Patrick, a Navy SEAL, tossed Arturo a Tootsie Pop, and responded, “Have you ever tasted drunken duck?”

“Don’t start with the Irish blarney. We don’t have time for any of your exaggerated stories or your attempts to make sense out of your senseless nonsense. I know I’m going to regret this, what’s drunken duck?”

“When it comes to food, my little one, I knew you couldn’t resist asking. Do you have a tapeworm for a pet? Never mind. It’s a yummy Chinese dish. You take a scallion, slice it into one-inch sections with your bayonet, crush some garlic with the butt of your rifle, place the scallion with the garlic in a large heavy pot or we could use your one-of-its-kind gigantic, Believe It or Not Ripley’s, enormous sized helmet.”

Arturo, retrieving an old childhood habit, growled.

Patrick lowered his voice so as not to frighten the duck or the girl in case they understood Americanized-English. “You slit the duck’s throat, chop its head and feet off, de-feather and de-gut the bird, wipe the duck inside and out with a clean damp skivvy shirt. I’ll loan you one since I’m sure none of your skivvies are clean.”

Receiving no response, disappointingly not even a growl, he continued. “Light some C-4, fill your helmet with water from a canteen, and bring it to a boil. Toss it, the duck not the skivvy shirt, into the helmet, add some salt and pepper, bring the water to a boil again, and then simmer, covered for forty-five minutes. Drain the duck, let it cool, dry it thoroughly, then refrigerate covered overnight. The next day quarter the duck, place the pieces in a glass container, and pour in a couple of cups of fine sherry, or home-brewed rice wine or, in your indiscriminate lack of taste, some fiery tequila. Cover, then refrigerate for a week.”

Arturo interrupted. “If you substitute mescal for tequila, it prevents worms. In Tijuana, I ate a drunken worm pickled in a bottle of potent mescal and I haven’t had any worms since.”

“You don’t need mescal to eliminate worms and parasites just eat some rice-wine soaked com ruou sprinkled with aromatic delicious Vietnamese cinnamon on it for flavor, but quit interrupting with a brainless story about an intoxicated worm. No one, especially yours truly, wants to hear about your bizarre eating and drinking habits.”

Having scored a point, Arturo smiled, and then inquired, “Where do you get Vietnamese cinnamon? I’ve never heard of it.”

“Vietnamese cinnamon is the best tasting cinnamon in the world. Up in North Vietnam, by the Chinese border, close to the mountain areas you can strip the bark off cinnamon trees and eat the fresh, soft sweet bark like candy, or you can use it in soups, stews, breads, or desserts. It’s similar to spicy Red Hots candy only more natural and flavorful.”

“When were you up there?”

“None of your business but quit interrupting, back to the subject at hand. If you’re alive after the week is up, drain the duck, and then chop the duck up, including the bones, into bite-size pieces. Serve it chilled, with some piss-warm beer if you’re a gourmand like you or with a slightly chilled white wine, preferably a Chardonnay with smooth buttery oak overtones and a hint of vanilla if you’re a gourmet like me.”

Arturo lowered his voice. “We can have duck burritos, duck tacos, duck with frijoles, duck Irish stew, or duck whatever. Rice wine is plentiful. We may be able to find some beer, but where are we going to procure a refrigerator here in this godforsaken land, hombre?”

Whispering back, he answered, “I’m ashamed of you, Artie, wanting to eat this poor girl’s little duckling. If you were a pet lover or had any feelings for children, you would have asked me, Patrick, old salt, where are we going to find a duck?”

“Our reunion is less than eight hours old Patrick, old salt, and I haven’t seen you in over three years, since we were seventeen, and you’re already starting to piss me off. Did you call in the cavalry?”

“Yeah, I called in the choppers alright. Captain Thompson evidently is the only one who hasn’t heard the order there will be no further evacuations. The Captain assured me he’ll be here in a few minutes before his radio gets fixed. I told him to fly in from the south. Most of the villagers, along with some of the more intelligent chicken-hearted militia, have already escaped traveling south by southwest. He’ll fly out this girl and her family, including the duck.”

“If Thompson’s radio isn’t working, how are you or the Captain going to explain to the brass how you were able to call him in, in the first place, amigo?”

“Smoke signals, carrier pigeons, sign language, drums, ESP, take your pick. Does it matter? All I know is this girl along with her family and a few others are leaving this valley of death.”

“So you think saving a few people is going to somehow redeem your whole sorry life?”

“Redemption is for the innocent like this young girl or a not so innocent true-believer like you. To use a cliché, my pea-brained little friend, redemption, as is beauty, is in the eyes of the beholder.”

“Not so, amigo. Redemption, for eternity, is in the eyes of God. Remember, there are no atheists in foxholes, hombre.”

“How profound, that sounds like a line right out of a WW2 movie, but can I ask you something? Do communist guerillas dig holes?”

Without letting his childhood friend answer, he continued. “The answer is their Goddamn tunnels are everywhere. However, I’ll have to remember to feature your profundity in my memoirs. Even better, you can chisel it on my gravestone with your bayonet in an attempt to fool the angels.”

Arturo mumbled under his breath, “I just might do that.”

“I heard that. Anyway, it’s too late for me Artie-me-lad and if I can help save a few lives, what the hell, why not?”

“Yeah, it never hurts if one of those lives saved happens to be a young lady you may want to visit in Saigon in the future, like this girl’s big sister.”

“What future? Anyway, the important thing is I’m saving the duck from a hot bath and a hangover, and I’m saving you from a heart attack. There’s a lot of fat in a duck. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you’re a wee-bit pudgy. You definitely need to go on a diet. If you had your way, you and this possible drunken duck would be partaking in some bizarre suicide pact.”

“Drunken duck my ass.”

“Quit swearing in front of the kid, Artemus. Someday, if you behave yourself, or you should live so long, before you buy the farm, say adios into the sunset, or bite the bullet, I’ll tell you a mostly true story of a young lady who owned a drunken cat.”

“I can’t wait. I suppose you think when you say Goddamn or hell you’re not swearing?”

“Swearing is in the ears of the beholder my overly religious friend.”

Arturo replied, “Do you always have to speak about life in clichés? You’re always pretending the stories you weave are true, and can’t seem to live unless you have the last word.”

“A tautological truism, life as cliché is cliché. On principle, my stories have an element of truth, true or not and in our line of work Sergeant, the last word always ends with a Hallelujah-Amen, or a scream.”

The ghostly picture image appeared and took form on the Polaroid film as Arturo responded, “Tautological truisms are self evident and should go without saying. Hallelujah Amen is two words and a scream isn’t exactly a word dumb-dumb, another three points for me. Here, take this picture. This little girl reminds me of Sachi.”

“Tres times a touché mate. You’re a regular portrait taking, analytical, word parsing Mexican-American Einstein. Here, let me take a look.”

“Take it. You can have it as a keepsake.”

The picture of the little girl did remind him of Sachi his first girlfriend from kindergarten class. Wanting no reminders or keepsakes, his life lived present tense, not past, or future, he gave the picture to Trinh.

“Listen Patrick, I hear Thompson’s chopper coming.”

He suggested Arturo go over to the west wall, retrieve the little girl’s teenage brothers, and order them to leave on the arriving chopper whether the provincial chief, the newly appointed Territorial’s commander, agreed or not.

“What a good idea. I always knew you were a teary-eyed bleeding-heart softy.” Deceptively agile for a large man, Arturo turned and swiftly jogged off on his mission as Patrick gently scooped up the little girl and her duck within his powerfully strong gentle arms.

“Okay, time to go, sweetie. Let’s find your Mama and family.” The little girl snuggled within his arms. She laid her head on his shoulder and giggled when he tickled her tummy, accompanied by a loving “quack.”

After locating the girl’s mama and siblings, including Thu-Lam, he gave the young girl with her duck over to her mother.

Thu-Lam, barefoot, wearing white cotton loose-fitting pants with a matching blouse, a peasant’s uniform called an Ao ba-ba and conical hat called a non-la, tried to run, but he swiftly caught her, tossed her over his shoulder with ease, and carried her, as she struggled mightily, kicking-angrily, to the landing zone. This maneuver reminded him of a scene from the western movie The Magnificent Seven without the use of a horse.

Sighing wearily, he chastised his captive. “Don’t get your panties all in a bunch, my little flower, your whole family is leaving with you.”

Swatting her butt in an attempt to settle her down, he discovered, under her thin cotton bottoms, she wasn’t wearing panties. Sighing, a deeper sigh, he swatted her butt once more and told her and his overly active imaginative libido to “behave.”

The UH-1 Iroquois chopper came in fast, flying in from the south, swooped down from above with a deafening roar, spewed up a muddy wet-fog of debris, and landed. They put their charges on board, along with half dozen other villagers as Arturo shouted over the chopper’s reverberating blades, “Mission accomplished!”

Patrick looked at the Lê family, the siblings, the smiling-nervously young girl with her quacking duck, her older sister crying as she embraced her brothers, and their tearful mama. His own fate meaningless, he nevertheless, as a carryover from his childhood, remained a sucker for a woman in tears, let alone two women, a loving mama and her beautiful daughter. He stared directly into the deep-brown moist eyes of Thu-Lam, their hearts touched. Their eyes seem to pierce the other’s soul. He felt relief for the Lê family and saddened that the possibility of a love for Thu-Lam, a love that might have been, was now lost.

The helicopter rose into the air, hovered for a brief moment like a giant green praying mantis searching for prey, spewed out its venom briefly from two 60D machine guns, then flew away safely on the updrafts of its whirling wings, under the protection of the wind gods of war. A family rescued by Captain Hugh Thompson and crew, by Marine Corps Staff Sergeant Arturo Siqueiros, and by Navy Petty Officer First Class P.F. Harrington.

Patrick nodded to his boyhood friend and uttered a prayer, “Deo volente, media vita in morte sumus. Amen.”

“What does that mean, hombre?”

“God willing, in the midst of our lives we die. So be it.”

Arturo opined, “There are worse things than dying, hombre.”

Death, no stranger, a visitor since childhood, the ghost soldier responded, “Yes, I know, amigo, like living.”

The chopper flew west into the diminishing sun’s setting rays before sharply veering south. Dark-gray storm clouds formed, merged, and overwhelmed the sun’s translucent fading blood-red light. The murky-green world of the rainforest closed in as the ominous sky opened fulfilling its promise, raindrops splattering over the muddied rice paddies obscuring shadowy movements in the forest beyond. The earth began to cleanse and renew.

Eerily silent except for the sound of splashing raindrops and the beat of retreating helicopter blades, echoes of screams would go unheard until twilights next evening. As darkness fell, death approached. The helicopter escaped into the night.


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