Forces outpost, and when Rat Kiley arrived nearly a decade later, a squad
of six Green Berets still used the compound as a base of operations. The
Greenies were not social animals. Animals, Rat said, but far from social.
They had their own hootch at the edge of the perimeter, fortified with
sandbags and a metal fence, and except for the bare essentials they
avoided contact with the medical detachment. Secretive and suspicious,
loners by nature, the six Greenies would sometimes vanish for days at a
time, or even weeks, then late in the night they would just as magically
reappear, moving like shadows through the moonlight, filing in silently
from the dense rain forest off to the west. Among the medics there were
jokes about this, but no one asked questions.
While the outpost was isolated and vulnerable, Rat said, he always felt
a curious sense of safety there. Nothing much ever happened. The place
was never mortared, never taken under fire, and the war seemed to be
somewhere far away. On occasion, when casualties came in, there were
quick spurts of activity, but otherwise the days flowed by without
incident, a smooth and peaceful time. Most mornings were spent on the
volleyball court. In the heat of midday the men would head for the shade,
lazing away the long afternoons, and after sundown there were movies
and card games and sometimes all-night drinking sessions.
It was during one of those late nights that Eddie Diamond first
brought up the tantalizing possibility. It was an offhand comment. A
joke, really. What they should do, Eddie said, was pool some bucks and
bring in a few mama-sans from Saigon, spice things up, and after a
moment one of the men laughed and said, "Our own little EM club," and
somebody else said, "Hey, yeah, we pay our fuckin' dues, don't we?" It
was nothing serious. Just passing time, playing with the possibilities, and
so for a while they tossed the idea around, how you could actually get
away with it, no officers or anything, nobody to clamp down, then they
dropped the subject and moved on to cars and baseball.
Later in the night, though, a young medic named Mark Fossie kept
coming back to the subject.
"Look, if you think about it," he said, "it's not that crazy. You could
actually do it."
"Do what?" Rat said.
"You know. Bring in a girl. I mean, what's the problem?"
Rat shrugged. "Nothing. A war."
"Well, see, that's the thing," Mark Fossie said. "No war here. You could
really do it. A pair of solid brass balls, that's all you'd need."
There was some laughter, and Eddie Diamond told him he'd best strap
down his dick, but Fossie just frowned and looked at the ceiling for a
while and then went off to write a letter.
Six weeks later his girlfriend showed up.
The way Rat told it, she came in by helicopter along with the daily
resupply shipment out of Chu Lai. A tall, big-boned blonde. At best, Rat
said, she was seventeen years old, fresh out of Cleveland Heights Senior
High. She had long white legs and blue eyes and a complexion like
strawberry ice cream. Very friendly, too.
At the helipad that morning, Mark Fossie grinned and put his arm
around her and said, "Guys, this is Mary Anne."
The girl seemed tired and somewhat lost, but she smiled.
There was a heavy silence. Eddie Diamond, the ranking NCO, made a
small motion with his hand, and some of the others murmured a word or
two, then they watched Mark Fossie pick up her suitcase and lead her by
the arm down to the hootches. For a long while the men were quiet.
"That fucker," somebody finally said.
At evening chow Mark Fossie explained how he'd set it up. It was
expensive, he admitted, and the logistics were complicated, but it wasn't
like going to the moon. Cleveland to Los Angeles, LA to Bangkok,
Bangkok to Saigon. She'd hopped a C-130 up to Chu Lai and stayed
overnight at the USO and the next morning hooked a ride west with the
"A cinch," Fossie said, and gazed down at his pretty girlfriend. "Thing
is, you just got to want it enough."
Mary Anne Bell and Mark Fossie had been sweethearts since grammar
school. From the sixth grade on they had known for a fact that someday
they would be married, and live in a fine gingerbread house near Lake
Erie, and have three healthy yellow-haired children, and grow old
together, and no doubt die in each other's arms and be buried in the
same walnut casket. That was the plan. They were very much in love, full
of dreams, and in the ordinary flow of their lives the whole scenario
might well have come true.
On the first night they set up house in one of the bunkers along the
perimeter, near the Special Forces hootch, and over the next two weeks
they stuck together like a pair of high school steadies. It was almost
disgusting, Rat said, the way they mooned over each other. Always
holding hands, always laughing over some private joke. All they needed,
he said, were a couple of matching sweaters. But among the medics there
was some envy. It was Vietnam, after all, and Mary Anne Bell was an
attractive girl. Too wide in the shoulders, maybe, but she had terrific
legs, a bubbly personality, a happy smile. The men genuinely liked her.
Out on the volleyball court she wore cut-off blue jeans and a black
swimsuit top, which the guys appreciated, and in the evenings she liked
to dance to music from Rat's portable tape deck. There was a novelty to
it; she was good for morale. At times she gave off a kind of come-get-me
energy, coy and flirtatious, but apparently it never bothered Mark Fossie.
In fact he seemed to enjoy it, just grinning at her, because he was so
much in love, and because it was the sort of show that a girl will
sometimes put on for her boyfriend's entertainment and education.
Though she was young, Rat said, Mary Anne Bell was no timid child.
She was curious about things. During her first days in-country she liked
to roam around the compound asking questions: What exactly was a trip
flare? How did a Claymore work? What was behind those scary green
mountains to the west? Then she'd squint and listen quietly while
somebody filled her in. She had a good quick mind. She paid attention.
Often, especially during the hot afternoons, she would spend time with
the ARVNs out along the perimeter, picking up little phrases of
Vietnamese, learning how to cook rice over a can of Sterno, how to eat
with her hands. The guys sometimes liked to kid her about it—our own
little native, they'd say—but Mary Anne would just smile and stick out
her tongue. "I'm here," she'd say, "I might as well learn something."
The war intrigued her. The land, too, and the mystery. At the
beginning of her second week she began pestering Mark Fossie to take
her down to the village at the foot of the hill. In a quiet voice, very
patiently, he tried to tell her that it was a bad idea, way too dangerous,
but Mary Anne kept after him. She wanted to get a feel for how people
lived, what the smells and customs were. It did not impress her that the
VC owned the place.
"Listen, it can't be that bad," she said. "They're human beings, aren't
they? Like everybody else?"
Fossie nodded. He loved her.
And so in the morning Rat Kiley and two other medics tagged along as
security while Mark and Mary Anne strolled through the ville like a pair
of tourists. If the girl was nervous, she didn't show it. She seemed
comfortable and entirely at home; the hostile atmosphere did not seem
to register. All morning Mary Anne chattered away about how quaint the
place was, how she loved the thatched roofs and naked children, the
wonderful simplicity of village life. A strange thing to watch, Rat said.
This seventeen-year-old doll in her goddamn culottes, perky and fresh-
faced, like a cheerleader visiting the opposing team's locker room. Her
pretty blue eyes seemed to glow. She couldn't get enough of it. On their
way back up to the compound she stopped for a swim in the Song Tra
Bong, stripping down to her underwear, showing off her legs while
Fossie tried to explain to her about things like ambushes and snipers and
the stopping power of an AK-47.
The guys, though, were impressed.
"A real tiger," said Eddie Diamond. "D-cup guts, trainer-bra brains."
"She'll learn," somebody said.
Eddie Diamond gave a solemn nod. "There's the scary part. I promise
you, this girl will most definitely learn."
In parts, at least, it was a funny story, and yet to hear Rat Kiley tell it
you'd almost think it was intended as straight tragedy. He never smiled.
Not even at the crazy stuff. There was always a dark, far-off look in his
eyes, a kind of sadness, as if he were troubled by something sliding
beneath the story's surface. Whenever we laughed, I remember, he'd sigh
and wait it out, but the one thing he could not tolerate was disbelief. He'd
get edgy if someone questioned one of the details. "She wasn't dumb,"
he'd snap. "I never said that. Young, that's all I said. Like you and me. A
girl, that's the only difference, and I'll tell you something: it didn't
amount to jack. I mean, when we first got here—all of us—we were real
young and innocent, full of romantic bullshit, but we learned pretty
damn quick. And so did Mary Anne."
Rat would peer down at his hands, silent and thoughtful. After a
moment his voice would flatten out.
"You don't believe it?" he'd say. "Fine with me. But you don't know
human nature. You don't know Nam."
Then he'd tell us to listen up.
A good sharp mind, Rat said. True, she could be silly sometimes, but
she picked up on things fast. At the end of the second week, when four
casualties came in, Mary Anne wasn't afraid to get her hands bloody. At
times, in fact, she seemed fascinated by it. Not the gore so much, but the
adrenaline buzz that went with the job, that quick hot rush in your veins
when the choppers settled down and you had to do things fast and right.
No time for sorting through options, no thinking at all; you just stuck
your hands in and started plugging up holes. She was quiet and steady.
She didn't back off from the ugly cases. Over the next day or two, as more
casualties trickled in, she learned how to clip an artery and pump up a
plastic splint and shoot in morphine. In times of action her face took on a
sudden new composure, almost serene, the fuzzy blue eyes narrowing
into a tight, intelligent focus. Mark Fossie would grin at this. He was
proud, yes, but also amazed. A different person, it seemed, and he wasn't
sure what to make of it.
Other things, too. The way she quickly fell into the habits of the bush.
No cosmetics, no fingernail filing. She stopped wearing jewelry, cut her
hair short and wrapped it in a dark green bandanna. Hygiene became a
matter of small consequence. In her second week Eddie Diamond taught
her how to disassemble an M-16, how the various parts worked, and
from there it was a natural progression to learning how to use the
weapon. For hours at a time she plunked away at C-ration cans, a bit
unsure of herself, but as it turned out she had a real knack for it. There
was a new confidence in her voice, a new authority in the way she carried
herself. In many ways she remained naive and immature, still a kid, but
Cleveland Heights now seemed very far away.
Once or twice, gently, Mark Fossie suggested that it might be time to
think about heading home, but Mary Anne laughed and told him to
forget it. "Everything I want," she said, "is right here."
She stroked his arm, and then kissed him.
On one level things remained the same between them. They slept
together. They held hands and made plans for after the war. But now
there was a new imprecision in the way Mary Anne expressed her
thoughts on certain subjects. Not necessarily three kids, she'd say. Not
necessarily a house on Lake Erie. "Naturally we'll still get married," she'd
tell him, "but it doesn't have to be right away. Maybe travel first. Maybe
live together. Just test it out, you know?"
Mark Fossie would nod at this, even smile and agree, but it made him
uncomfortable. He couldn't pin it down. Her body seemed foreign
somehow—too stiff in places, too firm where the softness used to be. The
bubbliness was gone. The nervous giggling, too. When she laughed now,
which was rare, it was only when something struck her as truly funny.
Her voice seemed to reorganize itself at a lower pitch. In the evenings,
while the men played cards, she would sometimes fall into long elastic
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