Lieutenant St. Jean
Lieutenant St. Jean had moved forward to be with his point man when the word came back that eight Viet Cong had been spotted. He saw the whole thing, beginning to end. He ordered the ambush and signaled when to open fire. He was not immune to the effects of the carnage, although he behaved otherwise. He’d seen dead enemy before, but these were unrecognizably dead. Men under his command had done this and were now laughing about it. In very short order, St. Jean managed to get control of his platoon. He had issued his orders. His acting platoon sergeant, Cpl. Avery, was carrying them out. Search teams moved across the riverbed and were searching the dead bodies. The lieutenant used this time to regroup, collect his thoughts, and think about moving forward once his men were done.
The scene was surreal; smoke hung in the stagnant jungle air like London fog. Marines were grabbing at gear and blanket rolls. NCOs slowed their men down and directed them to do a proper search. “Unroll the blankets, don’t stab them.” While searching the bodies, once in a while an arm or a leg—or a head—would come off or nearly detach except for a few strands of skin or cartilage holding on to it. The formerly pristine sand now had substantial puddles of bright red here and there, rapidly soaking into the ground. One man’s brains were beside his body as if a surgeon had carefully removed it and placed it there. Arterial blood with the color and consistency of a chilled can of cranberry sauce seemed to ripple its way slowly and thickly out of one man's cracked and shattered sternum then stop like cold molasses, stiff before it could reach the ground. It coagulated rapidly hardening from red to black. Flies buzzed. Ants crawled.
For one Marine it was too much. He turned and retched. These dead bodies were reminiscent of crushed cockroaches and carried the same significance in the view of most.
His buddy laughed and asked if his chow tasted better going down or coming up. He slapped his pal on the back, handed him a canteen of water and said, “That thick blood looks exactly like the seal blood Eskimos eat as a delicacy. They just suck and gobble and it slides right down. Some say it tastes like liver—makes sense. Damn good from the grinning expressions on the faces of the cutie Eskimo girls enjoying it. I saw it on TV one time. This one Eskimo-chick had blood all over her mouth and face like a little kid eating ice-cream for the first time.”
The other Marine retched one more time, looking very pale.
His buddy suddenly felt guilty for the joke.
With a grimace, the pale one managed to stand up at last. He grunted through his clenched teeth, “Well, Nanook of the North, with C rations it’s hard to tell. Up or down it’s about the same.”
They laughed and carried on with their searches.
A body was lying next to a pool polluted with body innards from the middle of a torso. The torso floated and bobbed; brains at one end, intestines at the other. At one point, the lieutenant watched as a school of guppies darted around near the pool’s edge where he and his radioman, Peterman, were standing. The small fish were gulping at tiny micro-pieces of flesh as they swam through the blood clouds.
Lieutenant St. Jean droned in a monotone voice, running his words together. “I used to buy guppies like those at the local pet shop when I was a kid.”
He continued to watch as one lone guppy repeatedly bumped into an eyeball; paddle ball came to mind. The little guy just couldn’t stop picking and pecking at it as it bobbed away each time his tiny mouth hit it. It remained tethered to the skull by the optic nerve. It was too big for him to eat, but he kept on trying anyway. St. Jean knew it was a he because female guppies are bigger. For an instant he marveled at these little fish in their own world, oblivious to the larger world outside their shrinking water hole. They were unaware of the conflict raging around them. Even if they were aware, they would be incapable of understanding it. Was Vietnam like that eyeball; too big to eat?
L/Cpl. Peterman stared down, transfixed, and spoke in a dream-like voice. “Yeah, now every time I see guppies in a fish tank I’ll think of this place.”
Peterman looked closer. Suddenly, he jerked his head back, “Jesus Christ.” He spoke as if he was going to be sick. “Is that an eyeball?”
St. Jean smiled sympathetically. “Yeah … yep. Hey … radio.” He got up close to Peterman’s face and looked into his eyes. He spoke slowly and clearly. “OK radioman, listen up; I need you to contact the CO for instructions on how he wants us to proceed after we’re done here. Got it?”
“Yes sir,” Peterman replied in a hollow voice. Slowly his body turned but his head and eyes continued to stare at that fucking eyeball. Eventually his head snapped back, lining up with the rest of his body. He contacted the CO’s radioman and waited for an answer, refusing to look back at the pool.