Raw Man - A Serialized Novel by Fred Rivera

Fred Rivera has a powerful story of the Vietnam War, racism, and PTSD that needs to be shared with the world. As I am an ardent fan, I got his permission to submit the book in chapter form. Direct purchase available.

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2. The Mass

Tags: Vietnam, PTSD, Racism, Latino, Black, California, Draft, C4, Catholicism, Black Panthers, socks, camouflage, Left gunner

 

This chapter (2 of 22) brings into play God and the Black Panthers, and how Fred tried to find his way in them.

Tiffany V.

II

The Mass

Morning found me sitting by the side of the track. The troop had left Lai Khe six days earlier and I had no idea where we were. Somewhere in the jungle. That’s all I knew. I had just finished my morning practice of writing letters home. We had picked up some beer in Lai Khe and now I was having cold spaghetti and meat balls and washing it down with warm beer. It wasn’t the worst breakfast that I had ever had. Herman startled me as he approached.

“Man, why you write so many letters? You got a girlfriend going crazy without you? Think anybody care about what you doing over here?”

“It’s my family, they worry about me.”

“They shouldn’t, tell them you’re in good hands with old Herman Johnson.” He had a beer in his hand, as he spoke.

“My dad built a shrine to St. Jude in our backyard and they go to Mass every Wednesday night in Pasadena to say a Novena. I don’t think that they believe I’ll make it home alive.” I said this trying not to believe it, too.

“So they’re good Catholics?” Herman was leaning forward now. An evil grin crossed his face. I could see that this somehow made him resentful. I prepared to get teased. The idea that my family could love me so much, that they would be so concerned for my safety as to sacrifice a trip to Pasadena every week to pray for me fascinated him.

“I wouldn’t say they were good Catholics; let’s just say they are scared Catholics.” I returned the grin.

“What about you, Herman? Who’s praying for you?”

“I got a little sister and my mom at home. Pop died when I was six. Moms don’t take much to religion. I don’t ever remember us going to church much when I was growing up.” He started getting mad and upset just talking about this.

“Do you believe in God?” I asked.

“Do you believe in God after seeing what went down here yesterday, Freddie Boy?” he said angrily.

“I don’t know what to believe yet,” I said. “Yesterday was a mind-blower.”

“You better believe it,” he said. “This shit for real and this God of yours ain’t shit.”

This was Monday morning. Just twenty-four hours earlier, the Army had sent a Catholic priest out in a chopper to say Mass. He was one of those real Army lifer types. Probably kicked out of some parish and sent to Vietnam to save his own soul. The first thing we noticed when he stepped out of the Huey were his boots.

“Sho’ is shiny,” Herman said.

I laughed. Then I noticed something that I had never seen before. He was wearing camouflaged robes.

I stopped laughing.

This man of God, servant of the Almighty and Faithful Shepherd of the Flock was wearing fucking camouflaged robes.

“Check it out, brother. He afraid.”

Herman also stopped laughing. “Let’s go peep his keyhole.”

“What?”

“Check his shit out, man. Drop a dime on the motherfucker. Let’s go to church.”

When I was growing up in South Montebello, there was an old Mexican Catholic priest, Father Paplito. He used to pick us up every Sunday morning in his rickety old school bus and take us to Saint Benedict’s for church and catechism.

 “Oh, my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended thee and I detest all my sins because of Thy just punishment. But most of all, because they offend Thee, my Lord, who art all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to sin no more and to avoid the near occasion of sin.” 

I learned this prayer when I was a kid. It became the crux of my whole belief system. Like many thirteen-year-old boys, the fear of offending God drove hard on me. I memorized the prayer because, as a matter of fact, He scared the shit out of me. I never understood a word in church. The priest celebrated the Mass in Latin and even when Father Paplito gave his sermon it was unintelligible. His thick accent and slow mumbling put me to sleep. Now, here I sat with Herman and he wanted to go fuck with God.

Some twenty or so enlisted men and officers attended the church service that morning. It had rained all night, and as the sun broke through the clouds, a dramatic Sunday morning calmness settled over the men of C Troop. We sat in the mud and tried to make ourselves as comfortable as possible. Many spread their poncho liners on the ground. Some just sat in the mud, unmindful of the horrid conditions. They just wanted to find some peace, find some quiet, some respite from the war. Herman and I stood at a distance.

I noticed Clementi and Jim Gaines sitting close to the makeshift altar. Jim had been in the bush for nine months and thirteen days. We called him short, which meant he had less than ninety days left on his tour. He had been granted the semi-safe position of being the lieutenant’s chief bodyguard. For as long as I knew him, Jim Gaines had always been the track commander on Lt. Cutter’s vehicle. Lt. Cutter, 3rd Platoon leader, was not considered by many to be a competent leader. He was lucky to have Jim around.

I met Jim the first day that I arrived in the field. It surprised me to see him with Clementi. They discharged their duties with such opposite personalities. Where Clementi had such a loud and obnoxious demeanor, Jim had a peaceful air about him. He disliked Clementi for his cruelty. When we had been in Lai Khe, Jim went into the village and bought me a cheap Vietnamese guitar. Not much of a guitar, but his thoughtfulness touched me. I would carry that guitar with me all my days in the bush.

“Jim, man. You didn’t have to do that for me,” I managed to stutter.

“I’ve got my own selfish reasons for it, buddy. I’ve heard tell that you’re a rock and roll star back in the world.”

“I was in a band signed with Mercury Records when I was drafted. As a matter of fact, the album was released on the day I was inducted.” I said this without bitterness or self-pity. I had already learned Doc’s lesson on predetermination. Jim held up the guitar and it was the sweetest thing I had ever seen: painted green, yellow, with an attempted painting of a palm tree. Jim placed it in my hands.

“Play it,” he said. “Play me some Hank Williams or some Johnny Cash.”

Jim grew up in Farmington, New Mexico and he turned out to be a genuinely kind man. We spent many nights in his track, me playing guitar and he singing country western songs. He never smoked dope. He had won the Silver Star and Purple Heart months before I came into the jungle. Soft spoken and compassionate, Jim did his job quietly and competently, the kind of soldier who did just what was expected of him. Everyone loved Jim. 

Father Major John Crow of the Holy Church of the United States of America stood on a tree trunk in a clearing and spoke to us of God’s will.

“Men, God intends for us all to be good, effective Christian soldiers,” he began. “Your family is proud of you, the nation is proud of you, and God is proud of you. The sacrifices that you are making, the inconveniences that you are tolerating and the suffering that you endure go not unnoticed by Him. He is here with you all in your time of need.”

Oh, how we were blessed. God was truly on our side.

Suddenly an explosion ripped through the clearing and I saw Jim blown forward on to the altar.

“Incoming!” somebody yelled.

“Son of a bitch!” Herman grabbed me and threw me to the ground. In the swift confusion and ensuing turmoil I saw Jim Gaines slumped over, trying to grab Father Crow. Rockets, mortars, and RPGs opened a visible crack in our little perch of paradise. It showed the world of horror and terror that was waiting for us just on the other side.

“Medic! Medic!” Clementi frantically tried to hold a bandage to Jim Gaines’s stomach. There were screaming men and pandemonium all around us. Herman jumped to his feet.

“Come on!” he said.

I jumped up and we started running for our track. Clementi stayed busy with the wounded Gaines while Herman and I flew behind the two .60-caliber machine-guns on old Charlie Three- Four. We opened fire simultaneously. We were firing blind into the jungle thicket. I had yet to see an enemy soldier. It was pure chaos. Suddenly I heard the whirl of the chopper blade as it readied its engines for takeoff. 

“Check it out!” Herman screamed above the noise, “Check it out!”

Goddamn Father Crow was running for the chopper, his shiny new boots filling with the red dust of Vietnam and his starched new camouflaged robes splattered with the blood of Jim Gaines. They whisked him away as if he were fuckin’ Tricky Dick Nixon.

Jim Gaines died twenty minutes later.

Herman and I stopped firing and stared down at our fallen friend. Clementi looked up at us and yelped, “He’s dead! Saddle up and start the engines.”

I did. I dove into the driver’s hatch and started the engine.

I was shaking uncontrollably behind the steering sticks. Streams of tears ran down Herman’s face. I could barely see because of my own tears. The troop moved out onto the trail and set up in a herringbone formation. It started raining heavily and Clementi and Teddy Jones threw Jim’s body on our track behind me. I could smell the blood and red mud that covered him. I looked back over my left shoulder. My God, he looks like a wax figure.

Pale and lifeless, Jim Gaines became the second American and first real friend that I saw killed. I realized then that there would be so many more. Just seven weeks in this lousy country. Where was God? I was no longer afraid of Him. I had found a more clever and elusive enemy. God paled in comparison.

 

Friday May 23, 1969

Dear Mom and Dad,

 

Sorry I haven’t written for a few days. It’s been impossible until now. We left Lai Khe over a month ago and went into the jungle. The first day out we ran into enemy bunkers. We searched them and found ammunition and mines. We killed one VC. I didn’t see him, but it came over the radio that they pulled one out. I wasn’t scared until I heard that. Then I figured that there must be more. We set up a night defensive position (NDP) in a clearing but it was mined. Two tanks hit them but no one was hurt. Today we went deeper into the jungle and found ten thousand rounds of ammunition. The cache was hidden in underground storage bunkers. We found it because a tank ran over it and fell through. That was a big find so it will probably be on the evening news. We were supposed to go back to Lai Khe tomorrow, but after all of this, we won’t. We are setting up a new position now. They brought in some ARVN’s (South Vietnamese Soldiers). They are weird. I’m in no danger so don’t worry. There isn’t any sign of recent enemy activity here. The bunkers are a few weeks old. They think that the VC have moved and left caches of food and ammo for later use. All we are going to do is find them and destroy them. The whole squadron is with us. That’s a lot of firepower. Right now, the B52s are bombing the places we were at earlier. Well, I must say that this is exciting. I hope that you’re not too worried about me. When I’m in the bush, I can’t write every day. We stay pretty busy. During the day we go out on patrols and search for the enemy.

I went to mass last Sunday. They flew a priest out to our position with some hot food and cigarettes. I’m trying to stay dry. The rain and the mud don’t bother me too much. I just want you to know that I’m ok and doing fine. I miss you all.

Love,

Fred

PS: I noticed that you are sending air mail. You don’t have to. It has to come by air anyway. So buy 6 cent stamps and it will be the same, only you will save 4 cents on each letter. Also, have you received the $250 that I sent? You didn’t mention it in your letter. I would like a package. Please send lots of pre-sweetened Kool-Aid and socks. Someone stole my socks!

 

 “Someone stole your socks?” Herman loved to read over my shoulder. He hardly ever got any mail from home. We had stuffed ourselves inside the track trying to stay dry. It seemed to be almost 9:30 p.m. and the first guard shift would be about to start. Clementi always took first watch. One of us had to stay awake all night behind the .50-caliber machine-gun. Two hour shifts each. Mine would be the two a.m. to four a.m. shift. This was the worst shift. That shift usually only let me grab three hours of sleep.

Every evening after the supply drop and the hot chow was served in the middle of the camp; the mechanics would set up huge bladders full of diesel fuel. One by one, each track driver would bring his vehicle over to this bizarre gas station to top off his tanks with diesel.

“I got to tell them something bad,” I said. “I mean, they’re not stupid. They know it’s not a bunch of fun and games. Let’s go top off.”

We walked toward Olgovey’s track on the south side of the perimeter. We passed the lit joint between us. It didn’t take much to get us high. The one good thing about the Nam was the great weed. Olgovey stepped out in front of his track to meet us.

“Heard about Gaines,” he said solemnly.

“Yeah? Well, don’t mean nothing,” Herman said.

“Where you been?” I asked.

“I’ve been back at Blackhorse. Just came out with the re-supply chopper.”

“Well, you missed a good time,” I said.

We all just stood there not knowing what to say next.

“Hey, Doc came out with me. He’s on Three-Eight with Sgt. Mays.” Olgovey looked at us up and down trying his best to cheer us up. “He waitin’ on you all. I was coming to get you.”

“Doc Lewis?” Herman’s eyes lit up.      

We half ran to Track Three-Eight. Mays looked at us with surprise as we climbed into the back of his track. Mays never seemed to like us much. I know now that it wasn’t anything personal. He just didn’t like new guys. The nature of the system dictated that troopers would put in their year and leave. C Troop was getting an influx of FNGs as the old-timers were rotating out. He didn’t want to know us. I would feel the same way after I had been there for a while. Knowing and having friends like Jim Gaines and then watching them die seemed too brutal. It seemed better to keep everyone at a distance. Too late. I already had too many close friends.

“My man!” Doc looked at us as if he had just found two long-lost brothers. “My man, Fred. My man, Herman. What is hap-pen-ing?”

“Same o’ same o’.” Herman started laughing now. “Lose one nigger, get another. Uncle Sam just keep ’em coming.”

I resented that remark but kept it to myself. Herman hadn’t been as close to Jim as I had been. Olgovey had brought back a few bottles of cheap Vietnamese whiskey and we started passing them around. Mays warmed up to us with the booze and by midnight we slumped over each other, completely wasted. We found ourselves feeling confident and warm when all of a sudden Herman realized that time was approaching for his watch.

“Shit! We got to go.”

We said our goodbyes to Doc and Olgovey and staggered back to our track. Clementi looked pissed until we slipped him a bottle of whiskey. We climbed aboard and Herman slid behind the fifty. I passed out on the .60-caliber ammunition cases and made it my bed for the night. We used our flak jackets for pillows. Since our sleeping quarters changed constantly, they were usually dictated by the weather. When it rained, which seemed to be all the time, we slept inside the vehicle.

Because Standard Operational Procedure dictated that one crew member be required to stay awake all night behind the fifty, there remained plenty of room for three people inside. On the inside of each track we stacked two rows of ammunition cans. We put our poncho liners and any extra clothes that we had on top of them to make our mattresses. As a crew, we had about five or six blankets. We shared them as we shared the clothes. I don’t ever remember seeing anybody in his own uniform. The name tags never matched the person wearing them. I wore the same shirt for twenty-two days once. It said “Kellman.” The guys started calling me Kell, and eventually Cal for California. This happened as everything else happened, without me even noticing it.

In the morning, hungover and groggy, Herman and I stood in the chow line near the mess tent. Three hots and a cot. That’s what the Army had promised us and that is what it delivered. Doc was adjusting to his first day in the field and Olgovey was taking him around to meet the guys. I never knew what name Mr. and Mrs. Lewis had christened their son. We called him Doc because he was our medic. They called me Cal as it evolved from shortening Kellman to an indication that I came from California. Montana was, well, he grew up in Colorado but for the most part, everything was reduced to its simplest form.

When we saw him that morning, Clementi had a big distorted smile on his face. Clementi never smiled. It looked unnatural on him.

“Going to be a few changes around here, boys.”

“What’s going on?” I asked. Herman looked worried.

“You’re looking at the new Charlie Three-Six.”

Charlie Three-Six had been Jim Gaines’ assignment. Impossible. There’s no way Clementi could be track commander.

“That’s not all,” he continued. “Sgt. Haynes will be taking over Three-Four and he has his own driver. You and Herman will stay on and be their gunners.”

“What?” I looked at Herman. I had never seen him so dejected, and I had been happy being the driver. As a driver, I figured that I probably would never have to kill anyone, unless I ran over him. But now, now I was going to be a gunner. Shit!

“Sgt. Clementi,” Herman asked quietly, “Who the new driver?”

“Spec four Billy Henderson.”

Doc and Benson had joined us. Herman started getting agitated.

“Billy? Dat silly wabbit!” Herman got mad. “Silly fuckin’ wabbit.”

“It’s OK. Settle down, man,” Benson said in that deep bass voice of his.

“What are you talking about, Herman?” I asked. “What are you saying? ‘Silly fuckin’ wabbit.’ What does it mean?”

“You never heard of the rabbit, Cal? The silly fuckin’ White Rabbit? That’s him. Dumbest white boy I ever come across.”

I had never imagined seeing Herman this disturbed. Clementi’s smile widened as Doc and Benson tried unsuccessfully to calm Herman down.

Henderson certainly came across as a dopey guy. I mean I just barely knew him, but he didn’t seem that bright. I came across him from time to time but had little personal contact with him.

“What’s wrong with Billy?” I asked. “Herman?”

This was not a hippie love-in or Woodstock. It was war. The American government by virtue of having a draft system ensured that men of different values and backgrounds would be placed in a life-or-death situation together.

“He called me a nigger.”

“Well, you are,” Benson said with a smile.

Benson tussled Herman out of earshot and lowered his voice. Knowing Benson’s history with the violent Black Panther Party, I figured Benson had just told Herman that he would take care of the problem. I saw Herman relax, smile, and he stepped back into our circle with his usual saunter.

Staff Sgt. Bobby Gene Haynes became my track commander that day. He brought along his driver, Billy Henderson. Billy carried three generations of racism all the way over from Yazoo City, Mississippi. A good ol’ Southern boy born in the Delta, he was a lot like the Southerners that I met in Vietnam. He disliked colored people and California hippies. Now he had to live with us and he made it known that he would never be happy about it.

“I stay left gunner,” Herman told Haynes.

I was thinking that maybe Herman planned on shooting Billy in the head first chance he got if Benson didn’t take care of the problem. The thing about Nam is that things changed on a dime. Adapt or die. It appeared that Herman had adapted, but I couldn’t read his mind.

I found myself trapped between two worlds. I was not white; I was not black. The troop was becoming more and more racially polarized. The nation itself was split in half and we were but a microcosm of American society. Muhammad Ali had been convicted of refusing induction in the U.S. Army just that day. Some brothers started passing a flyer around the troop from the Black Panther Party, saying, “No Vietnamese ever called me Nigger.” The brothers started feeling that this was a white man’s war. The tension mounted.

It was time to decide where I stood. I reflected on my childhood growing up in the barrio. All of my childhood friends had been kids of color. My best friends were the Reyes brothers, Bobby and Steve. My neighborhood was integrated and I played with Lyle Groves, the black kid next door. I had dinner many times with his family. When I hit high school I found myself with white boys. They never made me feel comfortable around them. With their pale skin and blond hair covering their ears, they sneered at me and Bobby Reyes. Right now it was not hard to make my choice.

I stood with Herman.

“He stays left gunner,” I said to my new commander. “He has more experience. I’ll take the right side.”

“Fine. We roll at 0600. I expect your weapons to be cleaned tonight and the ammo dry and secure.” Bobby put out his right hand. “Welcome aboard,” he told us.

“Welcome aboard? This is our fucking track!” Herman flared again, ignoring the outstretched hand. Haynes was speechless and walked off shaking his head.

“Let’s go top off,” I said.

This had been another hell of a day. Neither of us got much sleep the night before. As we walked off, I had almost forgotten how the day had started, with Herman waking me up for my guard duty.

“Watch time,” he whispered in my ear. “Get your ass up, you lazy Mexican. Cal? You hear me?”

I reached up and punched him in the face.

“God damn, Fred!” Herman fell back laughing.

 

***   ***   ***

This is Fred’s raw world, characters and setting unadorned but for the layer of racism, horror and war. It stinks of it, and yet you will not put it down. You will not want to. It is for this reason that Raw Man is a Pulitzer Prize nominee, and has already received the Isabel Allende Mariposa Award for Best New Fiction at the International Latino Book Award.

If you would rather not wait for the next installment, you may purchase a signed copy of Raw Man and for 19.95, go to http://rawmanthebook.com/buy-the-book/. For the e-book version (only 5.95), go to http://awordwithyoupress.com/store/raw-man/.

 

This chapter submission is brought to you by:

A Word With You Press

Publishers & Purveyors of Fine Stories in the Digital Age


Stay tuned! The next chapter will post 9/2/15!

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