Over There but Still Here

Photograph CC Danny Delgado by-ND-SA 3.0

Almost fifty years after serving as a Marine Corps helicopter pilot in the early years of America's involvement in Vietnam, Ken Babbs published a story set in that time and place titled Who Shot the Water Buffalo: A Novel. In this excerpt, the protagonist does what soldiers have done for as long as soldiers have been fighting wars—reflect on being away from home and do what they can to come to terms with their dangerous, boring, chaotic, and sometimes horrific predicament. Having come to campus in grand style earlier this year aboard the latest incarnation of the Merry Prankster's famed psychedelic bus Further, Babbs read from his book to an audience of students and community members.

The southwest monsoon simmers to a close. Three or four days of steady rain recede to afternoon showers of hard and fast duration. The nights are clear and a breeze rustles the tent flaps, but not enough to ward off the mosquitos. The morning sun bakes the runway and the water from yesterday’s rain steams and dries. By noon a layer of wispy clouds boils in off the ocean and the muggy heat is at its worst.

Another month and the showers will end. The rice paddies will dry, the ground will be cracked and peeling, with dust rising and swirling on the fingertips of the wind. The hot season will be at its zenith and, along with the temperature, the war in the Delta will heat up.

Action and situation are muddled and confused, like a bowl of noodles. Politics and war. Impossible to move in one direction without a corresponding move in the other. What we get out of this depends on what we go in looking for. For some it is a medal, a badge of glory signifying so many combat missions. For others an opportunity to shoot up the countryside, let off pent-up frustrations.

In Washington it is a study of new tactics and weapons. In Saigon, an accumulation of American money and supplies. At an outpost in the boonies, it’s beer, C-rations and rice, dropped from the skies by a green whirley-bladed bird, huge and splendid with its tricks and capers, delightful to watch and touch, particularly the amazing giants who make it perform.

Much of it gives us a feeling of satisfaction. Hauling food and supplies to isolated outposts. Evacuating wounded to the comfort and safety of a hospital. And we feel better knowing we’re not the complete barbarians Hanoi Hannah makes us out to be. Still, we’re reluctant to trust the villagers, the families who are trying to keep their homes together, plant and harvest their crops, live a peaceful life.

You, who write to us, can you understand, does this make sense? Your letters are like messages from another planet. Does someone sitting in an office crank them out to perpetuate an American myth? A central morale building where families and towns and friends are invented and their activities chronicled? A vacation is planned—was it ever completed? Baby has a fever. Does the fever continue? Time stops and remains stationary until the next letter arrives, and, like a freight train on a siding, the pace picks up and the train jogs ahead to the next switch where it sits until prodded forward again.

Hello there. I send my answer into the void. Hello there. I, too, am an American. I am over here but still one of you. When you read this do you know that I am in the jungle, mingling with small brown people, passing out C-ration candy to their kids? Do I have depth, voice, body, a kiss? Or am I a picture hung on the wall, a projection on a piece of paper?

I write Rosey that I will comb the hills and the markets, peer into musty corners with my trusty jeweler’s eyepiece screwed into my left farsighted eye, and search for the perfect piece of jade, the solitary gem, the translucent marvel, the only stone remaining in Vietnam that will fit into the final fine bracelet to emerge from the Orient. I hope it makes her happy.

The evening shower curtains down another Vietnamese sunset with its full Roy G Biv spectrum beaming through moisturized prisms. The wind whips the rain water under the tent flaps and skims a muddy sheen over the floor.

I feel better having talked to you. We will chat again. You are so many and we are so few. Who are the fortunate ones? I desire answers. Adiós, hasta luego.