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Hell Has No Winter

“In to base camp Dong Ha, we’re gonna need boo-coo birds on eagle flight in the boonies, Montagnards lighting up with the miniguns, Phoenix got nothing in here, we’re gonna need counterinsurgency in salvo, out.”

Hell has no winter. Hell does not freeze over, it does not sleep, it does not reflect on what it has done.
Or what it is going to do.
Hell has no winter because it has nowhere to go.
I imagined this how I’d explain it to my girl back home, s’pose we were talking over the phone.
“But ain’t Jesus there too?” she’d venture.
“No, Jesus has no business in hell. It just burns, burns, burns.”

We are doing recon in the hills, a search and destroy on the way to capture the mountains around Quang Tri. I am behind the point of the column, thirteen of us Red Legs: behind me is the medevac Doc with a surgical kit and the PRC. In front, Lieutenant and a POW.
I reckon they were both the same age, young, except one had a gun and the other a piece of rotting bamboo.
We found him cowering by punji stakes- a primitive little bamboo trap- surrounded with bouncing Bettys.
He gave up like he knew it was Judgment Day and there was nothing he could do to save his hide.
Now his hands were tied behind his back, his back to me, and we were smoking out sniper positions in the mountains of Khe Sahn. The scent of fresh napalm in the morning rises out of the valley on my left, which snaps down into the earth in a mist of muck, rain, muck. On my right, trees- spindly, charred sticks in the wet ground- race up the hills, dark and silent. It is silent, the moment before the monster chooses what human flesh it will have for breakfast. The weight of choice- who will step on the mine, which short-timer will get the shrapnel, just before he goes home- it vibrates down the line, to the beat of a Cobra whirling overhead.

Five paces ahead a pattern of concertina wire laced through the trees. LT shoves a mag into his M-16, and hisses at the POW something in their language. The boy shakes his head, blubbering something, his eyes shining like two burning stars of fear.
“LT, looks like we got ourselves a bloody trail-”
LT spins towards the voice in the back, and draws one muddy finger across his neck. Silence grows with the mist as the chopper roars back to base camp. The jungle perspires through my rucksack and my poncho liner. The bloody trail splattered in the middle of the dirt path and continues into the dark jungle. The POW keeps blubbering and shake his head, the bamboo dropping from his bound hands into the bloody spot.
I hear Doc unsheath his K-bar in one hand, and grip a clacker in the other.
Crickets, parrots, creatures of the twilight hustle their song through the mist, chirping foreign insults at 11-Bravo.
Shoving the POW, LT walks towards the bush, and like clockwork a betty lights up near his leg. LT’s leg flies away in a fine mist of blood, his screams fly up in the air, and we are belly-down on the ground.
“In to base camp, in to base camp, LT down, BK amputee, band-aid, we need a Cobra! We have contact, we have a V ambush!”
The bloody trail unveils a wall of AK-47s. The dirt path lights up like the Fourth of July- men shouting, sparks going off in all directions, boom, boom, boom.

Flipping onto my back, I jam another mag into the M-16, firing salvo after salvo into the jungle. I do not see the NVA, they are shadows, so I kill shadows.
Smoke chokes the air above me as I crawl south to the canopy, picking through missing limbs and damp rucksacks. Sucking in the exhaust of a machine gun, I get to my feet, and swing the butt of the M-16 into hard ribs. A sapper ringed with grenades spits into my face. Over his shoulder the POW scampers into the shadows, his right shoulder a mangled stump.
I’d tell my girl that war is a dance. The sapper and I lock weapons. Mud lines streaking across his sallow face, his torn camo fluttering in the mountain air, the sapper rushes a K-bar to my guts. Pushing back I thrust the barrel into his neck, but the mag got jammed in the chamber and all I got was a worthless pssh.
We thrust each other back and forward, side to side, over missing limbs and bloody rucksacks, the screaming dead, and the Lieutenant with one leg. We thrust each other until we dance on the edge of the mountain. The earth tumbles away under my boots into the jungle oblivion, the fog rushing away from my back. A final jab to the stomach and the sapper’s face disappears into the sky. Tree branches tear through my shirt, the cool air blowing across my filthy skin. The mountain grows and grows, carrying the sounds of battle with it into the clouds. The dance is finished.

I wake up and the sun is sinking into space, weary of war. A Cobra is humming eons overhead, but otherwise the jungle is a natural state. A ravine drags itself like a scar up the mountainside, fog issuing from its depths. The M-16 lies in pieces on my left, a full mag still jammed in the forearm. Nerves rise to the surface, tingling as skinny drops of blood hang from my lips.
I’d tell my girl that war is lying on the jungle floor, with no clue on what next.

A K-bar digs into my side, and I pick myself up. The jungle leads nowhere.

Imagine this, I’d tell my girl, a wet man dog standing in the middle of wet nature- everything is soaked to the bone- his gun broken by his side, rucksack probably sacked by a monkey, and no sense of direction.

I walk towards the sun, wiping through long palm leaves, swallowed by the hills. I need to find my platoon- if anyone is still up. I need to knock out the sniper position.

Because if the snipers didn’t kill me, Uncle Sam would, for desertion. For treason.

They’d label me a commie.

I am like a nature enthusiast on a hike in Montana, except the jungle is also my enemy, and at any point I might have to kill it.

My rapport with the jungle is about dividing secrets, and my drinking partner is not eager to spill his. The mist sucks in everything- rucksacks, M-16s, helmets, battle plans, legs, and the delicate fox trot between night and day. The mist regurgitates men, muck, and the stench of death. This is the jungle’s first secret, revealed where the mountains join together and dive towards the earth’s molten core. It spews like venom, blurring shadow and myth. The jungle’s second secret stands between the mountains. It beckons me through a clearing of rubble, the trees hacked away with rough tools. The secret is also man’s: flat sandstones layered from the ground up. Smooth columns born from the ancient walls. New plants, baby greens, pushed out from dusty crevices. Man built this sandstone shelter, and today he destroys it.
White pillars marbled with deep moss and fungus crumble outside to welcome me. The doorway is low, framed by thick, heavy slabs of stone. I am not sure what I expected from this place, but I need water and it is my last option before delirium takes me over.

Ducking underneath the door frame, I am squeezed into a tiny valve. The floor is paved with clean-cut stones. Three-headed dogs and curved deities peer out from the walls at my guilty American face. This is claustrophobia at its finest. I scrape through the entrance hall into an open courtyard. The moonlight pours over the broken walls, illuminating burnt patches of grass, shrapnel, a shattered ceramic pot, glass beads, and a man.
He is kneeling ten paces turned away from me, his head is shorn, and his body wrapped in fabric like a red desert. A carving in the wall looms above him- half-man, half-elephant, ten arms gliding for the man in red.

He is the jungle’s third secret.

Flattening the K-bar in my palm invisible, I pick over the shrapnel and glass beads. His head remains bowed to the ground, not a tremor in his bones. The red desert buoys on a passing wind, and Lieutenant’s leg explodes in a fine mist, again.

The moon whispers in his ear, and the eyes-


Like black pearls, I’d tell her, they make Nam elusive.


I came to my knees, next to the old man. A string of glass beads spills from his withered hands. The black eyes probe mine, and fall on the cross dangling from my neck. His hands were smeared with something dark as they reached for the cross, tasting the pallor of moonlight on metal. As the red fabric ripples, I see a growing stain near his stomach. The cross drops from his fingers, the muscles of his forehead cinching together as he keels back towards the deity.

This is the end, and I have everything to do with it. This is real truth.



Tripping backwards over the embittered courtyard, I run through adjacent rooms, rank with the stench of death, looking for water. Holes gape like flesh wounds through the ceiling, the moonlight revealing smashed relics and sun-dried bones. In a long hallway with a low ceiling, a spring bubbles from the floor. I drew the water up to my face, spluttering as a cold sweat rusts my nerves. Hell has no winter: hell has water and hell has dying monks with black pearls for eyes.


Fumbling through the darkness, the taste of algae and salt in the back of my throat, I race to the old man. His forehead now rests at the feet of the wall carving, throaty whispers ushering on the night wind. Hearing my footsteps, the man in red reaches under his robes and pushed a pistol towards me, an automatic. How he got it, I had no idea, but this was my final cause.

His ragged breath drowns the sandstone and shakes through the shrapnel and glass.



How’d I tell my girl?

Was this Nam’s call to innocence?
Or was I permanently damaged goods?
Would they ship me back to the states wrapped in a wooden box, stamped with the red label GUILT?


His eyes do not leave my face. The wall carvings shift to look at me, the moon drops a dead spotlight, the jagged walls fall silent. The pistol is cool in my sweaty palm, its patterned grip digging into my fingers. The blood now frames the sandstones.
I can just leave him here.

Just between me and the ten-armed deity. Nobody would know.

I would know. And that is real truth.


I am the jungle’s fourth secret.



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