Before I shipped out to Vietnam, I never received any classes, lectures, inservices or workshops on Southeast Asian culture and at that age—without a college education—I wasn’t curious or interested.
We were US Marines trained to kill. We weren’t there to understand the culture. The only workshop I remember was one about how to avoid getting an STD and how dangerous one strain of syphilis/gonorrhea was in Vietnam.
We were told that if we were careless with a Vietnamese woman, it could be a very painful death sentence from a viral form of an STD that no drugs could cure.
In fact, I didn’t know anyone in my unit who expressed the slightest bit of interest in Vietnam’s culture or history. When we went on five days of R&R during our tour of combat—for example to Hong Kong, Thailand, Okinawa, Japan, or the Philippians—most of us were interested in only one thing: getting drunk and getting laid.
And the hundreds of thousands of US troops who felt the same way were not alone in history.
“According to Beth Bailey and David Farber, during the Second World War a large number of prostitutes in Hawaii, each servicing upward of 100 men a day, made a fiscal “killing.” “Shackjobs,” or long-term, paid relationships with women of Hawaiian or Filipino descent were also common among military personnel stationed in Hawaii (as they were later in Vietnam). …”
And “during the war in Indochina, U.S. Senator J. William Fulbright and Sunday Times of London correspondent Murray Sayle maintained, independently of one another, that U.S. forces in South Vietnam had turned Saigon into a “brothel”—a reference to the estimated 500,000 Vietnamese prostitutes who served an approximately equal number of GI’s. … Source: John Brown University
In fact, “There were 20,000 prostitutes in Thailand in 1957; by 1964, after the United States established seven bases in the country, that number had skyrocketed to 400,000.” Source: Prostitution in Thailand and Southeast Asia
In addition, “At the height of the US presence in the Philippines, for example, more than 60,000 women and children were employed in bars, night clubs and massage parlors around the Subic Bay and Clark Naval bases alone. Estimates of the total numbers of Filipina women and girls engaged in prostitution and other sex-based industries range between 300,000 and 600,000.” Source: PeaceNews.info – Command and control: the economies of militarized prostitution
And if you think times have changed, read this: “As recently as 2002, a brothel in Australia closed their doors when a group of 5,500 U.S. Sailors coming back from a war zone stopped off in Australia. From the article: Mary-Anne Kenworthy said she was forced to close the doors of her famous Langtrees brothel for only the third time ever yesterday because her prostitutes were so worn out they could no longer provide a quality service.” Source: Cause of Liberty – Prostitution
Do you condemn those who sinned—if it was a sin—or is it wrong to send a young virgin off to possibly die for his country while denying him the pleasure of a woman even if a prostitute was his only choice? What do you think?
This is a short story based on a real event that took place in Vietnam in 1966.
This story was named a finalist in the 2007 Chicago Literary Awards.
There wasn’t much that surprised Basarte, but the girl did. Her appearance was like magic. There was no other explanation he accepted. He was still alive after three tours in Vietnam because he heard or saw everything coming his way. Until that moment, nothing had surprised him. He swore that no one had been approaching their position. He was sure of it. His first response after he saw her was to look and see if anyone was pulling strings.
Basarte was exhausted from booze and whores and needed a week just to get his breath back after five days of R & R in Hong Kong. His platoon sergeant had accommodated him by assigning him guard duty at the ‘Well of Purity’ with a squad of strangers. Although he was twenty-four, he felt sixty. Donald Basarte didn’t know it yet, but he was about to learn how insidious the devil could be. When he could not corrupt you, he bruised your soul through the depravity of others.
“I fix everyone for one dollar each,” the child said with a voice that sounded as if it had been scuffed with sandpaper.
An armorer from Basarte’s battalion, a corporal like him, yelled at her with some Vietnamese tossed in, “Di di,go away! Jesus Fucking Christ, how can anyone call this place the ‘Well of Purity’ when filthy beggars show up looking for handouts?”
“Go easy on her, Colby,” Basarte said. “She’s a kid.”
She was barefoot, and her grimy toes curled and dug into the dirt. She had round eyes that were deep like the paddy water Basarte had spent a night in on an ambush, but her bone structure was delicate like a Vietnamese. She was an Amerasian, and countries like Vietnam had an invisible code that half-breeds were not welcome.
She looked down at the ground as if she didn’t know how to respond. She was about nine but could’ve been older. Her black blouse and baggy trousers were worn thin, and through the filthy cloth you could see patches of dirt stained skin. “Look, kid,” Basarte said, “come over here and get a bite to eat. You’re skinny as a stick.” He patted a spot on the log telephone pole beside him.
“She’s probably infested with lice and fleas,” Colby said. “Keep her away from me.”
Basarte shook his head in disgust.
“What’s with you?” Colby said.
“What I’m thinking is none of your fucking business.” Basarte replied. He kept his eyes on the girl. “Come on, honey. The food’s not that great, but it will take away the hunger.”
She didn’t move.
His hands kept working the sharp, inch long beak of the metal GI can opener as he cut through the tin lid of the ham and lima bean C-ration. The date on the box said 1945, and Basarte was sitting in December of 1967. The Marine Corps never wasted anything.
He looked up, and the little girl still hadn’t moved. The lid came off, and he held the can over the flame of the Sterno.
“You dinky dow, you crazy!” Colby said, sounding like a dog barking. “Get out! You number ten! You no good!”
“I give you number one blowjob,” she said, and her empty eyes stared at him.
Basarte stopped stirring his beans.
“What did she say?” Colby asked.
“She wants to suck your lizard,” Basarte said, surprised again. Colby burst out laughing and the crudeness of it soured Basarte’s stomach.
When Colby sputtered into silence, a dozen pairs of eyes were examining the shapeless child. The sun slipped away, and the sky went from pale blue to deep blue. When the sky turned black, it robbed them of the ability to see much beyond where they were sitting. The collective hum of the mosquito horde could be heard. They were on their way from the rice paddies to assault them. Further away there was the rumble of artillery firing a mission toward the jungles of the Central Highlands. Closer, on the other side of the hills south of them, a flare shot up and lit the landscape with an eerie light that hissed and sputtered as it drifted back to earth.
Basarte had shared a rice paddy with a cobra once. He felt as if he were in a similar situation now. He looked into the dusky shadows around the position imagining Vietcong slithering in on their bellies, just as he’d expected that snake to come and find him in that black rice paddy water. To offer a smaller target, he slid off the log to sit on the dirt. Picking up his M3A1 Grease Gun, he rested it across his lap.
They sat in a flat depression with hills threatening them on three sides. Prickly brush surrounded their perimeter, and every bush could hide sudden death.
“What did you say you charge?” Colby asked the little girl.
“You can’t be serious,” Basarte said. “We have to secure our position before it gets dark. Besides, she’s a kid.”
Colby dismissed Basarte with the flap of a hand.
“I give you number one blowjob for one American dollar.” She pulled back her shoulders, thrust her chest out and took a step closer. She had no shape and no breasts.
Colby examined her as if he were at a rummage sale. “You ain’t worth no dollar. You are worth two bits.” Colby put aside his can of food and stood. He was a tall, lean man with freckles scattered across a face that looked as if it had been squeezed into its thin, narrow shape by two slabs of rusty steel. Between the freckles his skin was sallow colored, and there were baggy shadows under his eyes. He ran a big, bony hand through his close-cropped red hair.
He grinned showing off a silver frame around one of his cigarette-stained teeth. “You can get more than one dollar, but you’re going to have to suck a lot of lizards. You will earn two bits each.”
“Don’t be a fool,” Basarte said.
“Who the hell are you to tell me what to do?” Colby said, and glared at him. Colby studied the name printed above Basarte’s left breast pocket. “I heard of you,” Colby said, and his eyes went to the automatic weapon on Basarte’s lap. “You were decorated—a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart with an Oak Leaf Cluster.”
Basarte wasn’t his actual name. When he’d joined, he used his mother’s maiden name instead of Casanova, his father’s name.
“You don’t know shit,” Basarte replied. His right hand sought the comfort of his submachine gun and stroked the barrel as if it were a woman’s leg. He’d been wounded twice. During his first tour, shrapnel from a mortar round had ripped into his right shoulder. The scar looked like a snowflake. The man next to him suffered a serious head wound, and Basarte carried what was left of him to the medic through heavy sniper fire. Compared to that Marine, Basarte’s wound was nothing. It took a dozen stitches to sew Basarte up after the jagged bit of metal was removed. The other Marine was a vegetable. His next wound arrived during his second tour. Sniper rounds were zipping by his ears when the right rear wheel of his radio jeep ran over a landmine. The jeep was blown off the road and rolled over. He was tossed from the vehicle and gained a concussion and a huge bruise on the left side of his forehead. That wound sent him to the division hospital for more than a week.
Colby’s eyes retreated from Basarte, and he looked at the girl.
She held out a hand for the money. Six of the men, including Colby, dropped coins into it. She slipped them into a palm-sized, cloth purse that looked like the color of old dried blood. She then moved toward the corporal and knelt in front of him.
“Not here,” Colby said. He turned to those who hadn’t paid. “Come on, Marines, chip in.” His eyes were on Basarte as if he were issuing a challenge.
“Leave me out of it,” Basarte said.
“Maybe you ain’t the man they think you are,” Colby said.
“Coming from you, I’ll take that as a compliment,“ Basarte said, and winked at him. Colby led the girl out beyond the telephone poles into the brush until only the top of his head was visible. He ducked out of sight. The others looked back and forth at one another. No one spoke.
One by one, those who had paid stood and walked into the gathering darkness. That left six sitting on the prone telephone poles.
A lance corporal from the Ontos battalion cleared his throat, and after he spit, said, “Shit, I’m growing calluses on my right hand. I’m going to watch and join in if it looks like fun.” Three more stood and followed him into the night.
Basarte remained with a typist from the tank battalion’s headquarters platoon. Acne scars cratered this man’s face, and his hair was the color of dead straw. His blue eyes darted in a panic toward the bushes. His hand went to a compact black book jammed into his left breast pocket as if he were seeking answers from it.
They should’ve had razor wire and a few Claymores. But out here in this parasite-infested crotch nestled between hills, there wasn’t much of anything that offered protection except one sloppily built bunker with a rusty tin roof. They were here to protect the fresh water well that three battalions depended on.
“What are we going to do?” The typist’s eyes were busy trying to see through the darkness. The book was in his hands now, and Basarte could see the gold lettering of the title. It was a Bible.
Basarte’s mother had more than twenty Bibles. She’d been a Holy Roller before he was born and a Catholic while he was in a parochial elementary school. Before he graduated from high school, she’d converted to become a Jehovah Witness. To her religions were like lottery tickets—you had to have more than one for a chance to win. When Basarte joined the Marines right after two years of college, she cried because she feared that if he were killed, she’d never see him in the next life.
“Is that book the reason you didn’t go with them?” Basarte said. He pointed at the Bible.
“It wasn’t right,” the typist said. “What about you?”
Basarte’s hunger had vanished into that Bible, so he pushed aside the last of his ham and limas, slipped the can opener into his top pocket and picked up his gear to move inside the bunker. “Never mind about me,” he said. “Come on. It’s not a good idea to be out here.”
The typist made a face. “I saw a rat in there,” he said.
“Don’t tell me you want to be stupid like them,” Basarte replied. “Look, I haven’t survived three tours in this place for nothing. Do you drink the free beer rations they hand out?”
The typist nodded yes.
“Well, I don’t, and I like beer. I stopped drinking inside the combat zone after my first wound. It doesn’t pay to be drugged out when someone comes to punch your ticket. You got that. Now get up.” Basarte walked into the bunker.
The typist followed.
“Sit with your back to mine,” Basarte said. He slipped his finger into the recess of the bolt of the M3A1 Grease Gun and pulled it back to cock it. Sensing that somehow God was going to come out of the typist’s mouth, Basarte said, “What’s your name?”
“Thompson.” The typist leaned his back against Basarte. There was a sharp metallic sound as Thompson chambered a round in his semiautomatic rifle.
“Aren’t you the radio operator?” Thompson asked, and pointed at the PRC Ten leaning against the sandbags. “You’re a corporal too. Why didn’t you stop Colby?”
“He’s been a corporal longer than me.”
“But you’ve been in the Marines longer,” he said.
“How did you know that?”
“I saw your name on your jacket. They say you signed up for a third tour before your second ended, and that you go on missions with ARVN rangers from their Thirty-Seventh Battalion and sometimes you go out alone. I was told to never wake you, because you sleep with a round in the chamber of a forty-five. Heck, most guys can’t wait to get out of this hole, but it doesn’t bother you.” He twisted around and looked over Basarte’s shoulder. “And what is that gun you got there?”
“Gun!” Basarte said, challenging him. “You must have been drafted.”
“Weapon,” Thompson corrected himself, shocked at his slip. In boot camp, it was drilled into Marine recruits that a gun was your cock. You used it for fun and killed with a weapon. Thompson’s M-14 was a weapon. Basarte’s M3A1 and Colt Forty-Five automatic pistol were weapons. His favorite was the KA-Bar with its seven-inch blade. It was silent and deadly.
“You talking about this?” Basarte asked, holding up the Grease Gun.Thompson nodded. “I’ve never seen one before.”
“This is a submachine gun. It fires .45 caliber rounds. Its rate of fire is about 450 rounds a minute. Each magazine holds thirty rounds. Once I pull the trigger, I can cut a man in two.”
“No shit,” the typist said with awe in his voice. “You a lifer or something?”
“Don’t insult me with a question like that,” Basarte said. “It took me five years to become a staff sergeant. I got busted last year when I went AWOL to Saigon and shacked up with this woman I knew. I don’t see myself as a lifer. Men like that love the Corps. I hate it. I have one year to go.”
“So, why stay?” he asked.
“I stay because combat is preferable to barracks life in the states. I don’t like the discipline. Once I’m out, I’m going to college on the GI Bill.” His younger brother Dion, who wrote regularly, married his high school sweetheart right after graduation and was making a good life for himself working for a Ford dealership as a mechanic and going to night school at the local community college. Dion wanted to be a schoolteacher. In his letters, he was urging Basarte to do the same.
“How did you get your Bronze Star?” Thompson asked.
“Don’t you have anything better to do than ask these dumb questions?”
“If I had a medal like that, I’d tell everyone. I’d be a hero. They might have a parade in my hometown when I get back.”
“You sound like you want to be John Wayne,” Basarte said. “That’s a sure way to own a slab of granite with your name on it. Killing isn’t something to brag about.”
“What about that woman in Saigon? Is she something to brag about?”
“No, I got stupid.”
“I got stupid because of love once too,” Thompson replied, “so I had intercourse with my female German shepherd.”
“What!” Basarte said, as if the typist were insane. “You fucked a dog?”
The typist’s voice went up an octave and became whiny. “Don’t tell anyone what I just said. I was still in high school. There was this cheerleader I liked, but she didn’t know my name. Heck, I was fourteen. A guy who is fourteen will have sex with almost anything.”
“Wait a minute,” Basarte said. “I didn’t do anything like that.”
“I don’t feel so good,” the typist said. “I think I might get sick. I’ve been here for three weeks and have never been outside the battalion perimeter before. Are we going to die? I just turned nineteen. I only did it with the shepherd once. I never did it again. I’m not bad.”
“Probably not,” Basarte said. “Even God said that the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth. You can’t be blamed. After all, you were fourteen.”
“God said that?”
“What are the women in Saigon like? I’ll bet they are sexy. Was your woman a prostitute?”
“You talk too much. Take a breath before you pass out.”
“No reason to be sorry. Just shut up and breathe.”
“Can you call for help on that radio?” the typist asked.
Basarte didn’t have the heart to tell him that the battery in the radio was as old as the food and was probably dead. “The woman I shacked up with in Saigon was no whore,” he said. “She was a nurse I met the second time I was wounded. She transferred to Saigon. I missed her, so I went.”
“You going to see her again?”
“No, it’s over. She rotated back to the states and is with her husband now.”
“Bummer,” he said. “You like married women?”
“I’ll never do it again.” Basarte noticed the weapons that had been left behind when the rest of the squad had gone off with the girl into the abyss. Their brains had dissolved into their pricks. Their weapons were leaning against the telephone poles next to the uneaten rations. Flies were spiraling in and out of the open cans.
Basarte recalled another, similar time when some of the others in the communication platoon had slipped out of the base camp and had gone into a nearby village to eat some of the local food. Eating something mysterious and strange was more important than life to them. Basarte went along but refused to eat. His job was to keep the flies off the food and to kill every Vietnamese in sight if any of his people died of food poisoning, ate razor blades or swallowed ground glass as they had been warned.
Basarte twitched when Colby’s broken laughter came out of the night.
“Your fucking cock is too big for that little bitch’s mouth,” a voice said.
“I’m getting my fucking money’s worth,” Colby said. “Come on, suck it back in!” The girl choked. “This fucking blowjob ain’t worth two bits! It ain’t worth a nickel. You ain’t going to cheat me!”
“Bend over and give me that little ass!”
The scream turned into a shriek and then faded to a whimper.
“What are you going to do?” Thompson said.
Basarte’s finger slipped to the trigger of his M3A1, and then he stopped. “If I shoot these bastards, can I count on you to back me up?”
“What do you mean by back you up?” The typist’s voice sounded nervous.
“It means that you have to shoot them too.”
“They’re Marines. I can’t do that.”
“I didn’t think so,” Basarte replied. “If I shoot them with this weapon, I’ll probably hit the girl, which will defeat the purpose of trying to save her. There isn’t much we can do.”
“I feel bad doing nothing,” the typist said.
“Then go over there and stop them. The odds are good. There are ten of them and one of you. You can easily kick all their asses, can’t you?”
“You don’t have to bite my head off,” the typist said. “I’m not over there with them.”
“That’s one good thing. Look, I don’t like what’s going on any better than you do. That little girl is traveling one hard road through life. If you can think of something we can do to help that won’t get us killed or sent to prison, you let me know.”
Basarte’s mother had traveled a hard road. In the few letters she’d written, she shared things with him that she’d never talked about. She’d written about the white KKK cloak and hood she’d found in the bottom of her father’s trunk. At fourteen, she ran away from the Black Hills of South Dakota and crossed half the country to support herself as a waitress in a town south of Seattle. Basarte wrote back and said it wasn’t her fault, but she didn’t see it that way. She carried guilt around like a two-gallon bucket full of wet concrete.
“We could introduce her to God,” Thompson said, and then kissed his Bible. “I love God with all my heart and soul.”
“Which god?” Basarte asked. “The Jewish one, or the Catholic one, or the Islamic one, or how about the Mormons or the Jehovah Witnesses. I don’t have any use for religions.” He didn’t give the typist a chance to talk. “God is not going to help.” He took his finger away from the trigger and arranged his grenades in a row in the dirt next to his right leg. Talking about religion or God made him thirsty so he unscrewed the cap on his canteen and drank half the tepid water.
“If you visit Saigon again, can I go with you?”
It must’ve been almost an hour before the first Marine returned like a pale wraith floating in out of the dark. Basarte almost shot him. The wraith sat on one of the telephone poles, relit his can of Sterno and started to reheat his C-rations. A few minutes later the others straggled in.
Colby came last. Flies coated the ground like black sticky pitch. As he walked through them, they swarmed around his legs and then settled back down after he passed. Once inside the perimeter, he stopped to fasten the buttons on the trousers of his jungle fatigues. He smiled and then picked at his teeth with a fingernail. When he glanced into the bunker, a frown wrinkled his face. “What the hell are you pussies doing in there?”
“Speak for yourself, asshole,” Basarte said.
“What is your problem?” Colby said. Then he looked startled as if he’d frightened himself. His eyes darted to where Basarte’s weapon was waiting on his lap. The muscles in his face quivered. Then he turned his back on Basarte, waved the flies away, took up his C-rations and started to eat without reheating the food. The others stared at their food.
“She was the tightest pussy I ever fucked,” Colby said, and the laugh that followed annoyed Basarte. “That proves there ain’t no pussy I can’t stick it to,” he continued. “Look, I got her wallet.” He held up his stained trophy, the little cloth purse.
“If she returns, you give it back to her. You hear?” Basarte said.
Colby torqued himself around to glare at Basarte. “And what are you going to do if I don’t,” he replied. Basarte thought of the brig time he’d spent after he’d been busted in rank for going AWOL the previous year.
“You are one stupid asshole,” Basarte said, and pointed a finger at him. “Don’t say another word.” Colby stiffened but didn’t speak. His eyes wavered, and he turned back to his food.
While the others slept inside the second skin of their green ponchos, Basarte stood guard. Occasionally there was the sound of someone slapping at a mosquito or the pungent scent of government issue bug spray. The glowing dial of his gold Hamilton self-winding watch said it was a little past midnight.
Franklin, one of the wiremen, had gone into the village a few months back and had bought some time with a whore. When he went into the hut, he’d been an E5 sergeant. The MP’s arrived, and the other Marines retreated out the back and escaped. But not Frank. He kept cranking out his swamp juice refusing to get off the whore. She was screeching like one of those scrawny village chickens before it ended sizzling in a wok.
That girl was going to become a whore if she lived long enough. Sometimes Basarte wished he could put his brain in a freezer and leave it there.
It took five MP’s to pull Frank off the whore. The colonel busted him all the way back to a private. Frank should’ve known better. The local whores were off limits because of the black syphilis. It could not be cured and swelled a man’s gonads so big that they’d look like an old milk cow’s sagging tits.
As much as Basarte didn’t want to think about that little girl, she was twisted inside his head like a piece of razor wire. His thoughts kept coming back to her dark, bottomless eyes and black purse.
A sudden, harsh wailing sound shattered the silence. Alarmed, Basarte sat up straighter. It was like some animal had walked into a trap and was chewing its leg off to escape. He glanced over his shoulder at the green mounds that showed where everyone slept. No one moved—not even Thompson. It looked as if they were dead and mold had grown over them.
To hear better Basarte left the bunker and crawled to a position behind one of the prone telephone poles. He took out his KA-Bar and stuck it in the dirt beside him. Phantom clouds were racing across the sky in a hurry to get somewhere and were breaking up the light from the full moon. With this broken light as a backdrop, the hills were blurred. Eventually, he saw the figure on a hill about half-a-mile from their position. He was sure it was the girl by her silhouette. He saw her long hair cascading down over her scrawny neck and shoulders. Her nose was pointed at the moon as if she were seeking sympathy from the only thing that might care.
Colby cursed and came out in his bare feet with his forty-five pistol clutched in his right hand. “Shut up! Shut up!” he shouted. He lunged into the darkness and fired a few rounds in her direction. He turned toward Basarte. “I ain’t got the range. Use your weapon and blow the little slut away.”
“Go fuck yourself,” Basarte relied. The noise she was making escalated.
The features of Colby’s face froze and his eyes stared at the barrel of Basarte’s weapon. It was pointed at him. “Get that out of my face,” he said.
“Imagine what thirty .45 caliber slugs can do to a body.” Basarte smiled, and Colby’s sallow complexion turned pasty-faced.
“This is your lucky day,” Basarte said. “I’m going to let you go back to sleep.”
Colby scuttled to his sleeping bag like a dung beetle on its way to bury itself in shit. Thompson was on his knees inside the bunker. He had taken off his jungle fatigues and was dressed in a white T-shirt and boxer shorts. The moon lit him as if he were a torch. He made an easy target. Basarte wondered why Thompson hadn’t dyed his underwear green. The typist’s hands were in a praying position and between them he clutched the Bible. His eyes were squeezed shut. His lips were moving in a prayer.
Colby sat up and stared at Thompson. “Damned Jesus freak. I’ll never understand you assholes. My mother was a born again Christian, and she beat the Gospel into me every chance she got.” Looking disgusted, he wrapped his poncho around him until he was just another mound.
Then the clouds, like a flock of silent black crows, blanketed the bright face of the moon and Thompson‘s glowing image vanished. Basarte heard him say, “Jesus died for our sins. Repent and you will be forgiven.”
Basarte’s mother was a gentle woman. She never beat him. Maybe it would have been better if she had. When he was relieved from duty, he rolled himself inside his poncho in an attempt to escape the mosquitoes.
Like a stealthy invader, the sun’s light crept over the horizon about five. The Marines left the bunker one at a time to piss or take a dump. With Sterno cans lit, they heated twenty-year-old rations.
Before Basarte or anyone else had a chance to start eating, there was a buzzing noise like an angry hornet’s nest coming from the direction of Highway One and the invisible village out there.
He recognized the girl as she came into sight. She was running and was pumping her legs hard and her mouth had formed a shocked oval. A mob of Vietnamese women with sticks and hoes were chasing her and the women were yelling.
The girl reached the perimeter and ran past Basarte straight to Colby. She stood behind him and hung onto his pant legs with her little hands. The top of her head was level with the Marine’s web belt.
The women, who looked like bitter, scrawny vultures, hesitated. They looked at the Marines as if they might eat them. Then they slowly crept closer. When Basarte could see their blackened, beetle nut-stained teeth, Colby pulled out his forty-five and cocked it. The women stopped and shouted what must have been insults in Vietnamese at the girl, who, penniless, had crept into the village to steal a bowl of rice.
Then they shifted into pidgin English and threw words at the Marines like grenades. “You number ten.” The boldest woman stepped past the telephone poles and pointed at her knee. “Fucky, fucky for one dollar, or maybe you like horny water buffalo.”
“Get the hell gone, you ugly God damned bitches!” Colby said, and jabbed his forty-five at them like a spear.
The women backed up but continued to fling insults. After the Marines drove them off, Basarte looked at the little girl. Without making a sound, she was crying—her frail chest heaving. Her small fists struggled to erase the tears streaking her dirt-stained cheeks.
He glared at Colby.
“What are you looking at?” Colby said.
Basarte shook his head. “You don’t learn do you? You’re about as stupid as a wet fart. What are you going to do to make things right?”
“You have no call to insult me,” Colby said. “She ain’t nothing.” They got into a staring match, but Colby couldn’t break Basarte. Colby’s eyes moved first. “I remember more about you now,” Colby continued. “You are one crazy bastard. I heard you ate a live snake for a twenty-dollar bet. When the guy wouldn’t pay, you bit his ear off. You don’t scare me.”
“This is your second lucky break,” Basarte replied. “I was drunk then, and I’m sober now. If I were drunk, you would be dead. You had better do something to make this right.”
The fight in Colby’s eyes fled and he bent over and looked at the dust where he shuffled his booted feet as if he were rubbing something out he didn’t like. After a moment, the expression on his face brightened. He straightened, reached in a pocket, removed the girl’s purse and offered it to her. She grabbed it. He found a few dollars in his pockets and gave them to her too. “Come on, jarheads. Everyone makes a donation.” He looked pleased with himself.
“This doesn’t make you a hero,” Basarte said.
Colby swallowed hard forcing the words he wanted to spit at Basarte down his throat. Basarte gave the girl all the money he had. It wasn’t enough.
Colby made her sit next to him while he heated rations. When the food was bubbling in the cans, he handed one to her. Occasionally his eyes glanced at Basarte, but Basarte ignored him. Colby was nothing but a blood sucking mosquito—one that should be smashed.
The girl ate with her mouth open and smacked her lips. Some brownish-yellow sauce escaped from the corner of her mouth, but she caught it with her pink tongue. Her rice paddy eyes had a spark of life in them now. After the Marines finished eating and started to police the area, she followed Colby around like she was a stray kitten hoping to be adopted.
The first of the deuce-and-a-half ton trucks, towing empty water tanks from the Ontos, artillery and tank battalions, rolled in and choked the Marines with dust from their wheels.
When the Marines started their walk toward the battalions in the hills, Basarte was last. He looked back. The little girl stood and watched as the Marines filed out onto the dirt road. She was sucking on a dirty thumb. A pile of donated C-rations sat at her feet. Her other hand clutched the cloth purse.
Basarte agreed with the World War II general and Thirty-Fourth President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who said, “I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.”
Soon after that night, Colby was caught selling weapons to the Vietcong. He was court-martialed and sentenced to twenty years of hard labor in a military prison. Thompson earned a Purple Heart when both of his legs were blown off below the knees. He didn’t get his parade, but he did become a pastor in a church near his hometown.
A week after guard duty at the ‘Well of Purity’ Basarte asked an officer he knew from the Thirty-Seventh ARVN Ranger Battalion for help. They found the girl. Her name was Tran Bian, and she didn’t know how old she was. In English, Bian translates to hiddenorsecret. She didn’t know her father, and her mother had abandoned her. Basarte had friends, who owned a bar in Shanghai, and he paid them to take care of her.
During the Tet Offensive in 1968, Basarte received another wound and earned a Silver Star when he stopped a dozen Vietcong from infiltrating his battalion headquarters base camp. He killed half of them with one burst from his submachine gun and held the rest off until reinforcements arrived. During hand-to-hand combat, he had a knife stuck in his leg. He used the same knife to kill the man that stabbed him. When he was in the hospital in Saigon recovering, his colonel helped him get a visa for Bian. Basarte’s younger brother and his wife met her when she landed at Los Angeles International Airport.
Basarte returned to the states a few years later and changed her name to Nguyet, which means ‘moon’.
His latest novel is the award winning suspense-thriller Running with the Enemy. Blamed for a crime he did not commit while serving in Vietnam, his country considers him a traitor. Ethan Card is a loyal U.S. Marine desperate to prove his innocence or he will never go home again.
And the woman he loves and wants to save was fighting for the other side.
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