The Sad Life of Bummer
Based on a true story.
Plaiku Air Base, Vietnam, 1969.
Bummer is laying in his bunk attempting to read an outdated copy of the funnies
he’d bought in town earlier this morning. He’s now realized he bought a french newspaper, having mistaken common roman letters for english.
But the trip to town wasn't a total loss, Bummer thought to himself as he folded the paper into his pocket. The merchant was a guy with a scar on his nose. They were close in age 19 or 20. Bummer saw his routine a mile away; the gook played someone ignorant of his own intelligence. Not budging on prices while flashing a toothy dumb smile in your face.
The young man was selling old porno mags and useless outdated foreign news papers, but everyone came to him for a special product; OJ’s - opium joints; a pack of American cigarettes with the tobacco replaced by marijuana. The O stands for the strip of opium running down its length. G.I.’s cleaned him out every day at the same busy market corner next to Thu Hà Cafe. Bummer bought a pack of regulars and a pack of OJ’s for himself. The gook said it was Thai Sticks. Bummer told him he didn’t care if it was gutter grass. The salesman heard him clear through the Brooklyn accent, He smiled and said, “Good!” while giving a thumbs up.
Scarecrow was laying on his cot. Hands behind head, big black feet hanging off the end swinging to a blues tune on the radio. Jimmy was in the corner bunk writing a letter home on the back of a dictionary propped against his leg.
“Hey Bummer, what you think about smokin’ onea them OJ’s.” Scarecrow talked real slow with his eyes closed. Swinging his feet.
“I was thinking that. Maybe behind the latrines so the smell is covered.” Bummer said.
“Not on base.” Jimmy leaned forward, knee to his chest.
“I got two day’s left at base camp and I’m not risking it." Jimmy is tan with sun
bleached blond hair and a slight buck to his front teeth.
“Hero’s right.” Scarecrow said.
“Everyone smokes out out there.” Jimmy nodded in a particular direction, speaking
with a southern Virginia draw.
“I know a Lieutenant that might be sniffing the stuff. A man like that had better
watch his back though - and the both of you two as well. Slacking off is well and good, but if you lose your wits for a second - you’re dead.“
Bummer looked down and touched his shirt buttons distracting himself; he saw
something in Jimmy’s grayish blue eye. It was savage and instinctual. Like doberman backed-into a corner. One wrong move and Jimmy was liable to “turn it on”. Jimmy “turned it off” then said,
“It takes one geek to ruin a good time and they got plenty of geeks on base. You guys are cool. I’ll introduce you to some people in a little while, where it’s safe for new guys to smoke.“ Jimmy cleared his throat, Bummer refocused his attention on the talk at hand. Jimmy continued -
“Them OJ’s can be a quick path to snorting.” Jimmy turned his thumb to his chest. “Im on stand down for a few days so I may get a sniff or two. But you'd be smart stick to grass until you've been in the shit. You need to cultivate some instincts.” He pointed at Bummer. Bummer nearly shit his paints.
“You can sell them OJ's or smoke em in the field. You’ll get so stoned tonight off the regular stuff you might as well be a hop head.”
That evening Jimmy took the other two across base. On the way Jimmy told them why he was hanging around base: He was walking point on the Ho Chi Minh trail in the central highlands and ambushed a small NVA squadron. He killed five on his own with a M60 and grenades and was awarded a 3 day stand down.
Bummer asked who were the worst to fight, assuming VC, but Jimmy corrected him and said Red Chinese were the worst by far. Jimmy’s story was sinking deeper into Bummer’s mind and he wanted to go home. The inside of his lip was bleeding form anxious biting. Wishing he was back to sleeping on the street if it meant not going “out there”. He avoided violence all his life, when he wasn't on the rough end of it. Jimmy and Scarecrow started comparing southern customs: Do you put jelly on your sausage biscuits? Stuff Bummer knew nothing of, nor cared about. His mind was filling with trepidations.
The three men entered a section of a bigger bunk, like a big storage closet. An improvised curtain made of two clipped together ponchos gave them some privacy. About twelve guys cycled in and out of the smoking circle. A variety of time-in, rank and race. Jimmy studied Bummer as he took two drags off the OJ; his eyes sunk, his body slouched with a release of a life’s worth of bad luck and the shame that came with it. Two hands later and Jimmy hit the OJ, Scarecrow passed and smoked a regular joint. Jimmy didn’t expect much of Bummer after that, he always treated him square and never followed him in to a firefight. Under Bummer’s aloofness were bitter nerves and fear. He could hold a grudge for years and the only payback he could get was dropping a coffee mug in a haze of resentment. The slyly aggressive have a propensity for accidents. Within two hours of meeting, Jimmy could see all this. High or sober once you spent time in the jungle you had a sense for death.
Scarecrow was plucked off a farm in Georgia. Well mannered and quicker to get wise than most. The pandering attitude he'd taken from his mother fell away fast. Six months in his first tour Scarecrow jumped from a Huey he caught a punji stick through the left thigh and another - near fatal - through the abdomen. His Alice pack took most of the penetration, but left him with a colostomy bag for life.
Central Highlands, Vietnam, 1970.
A charred arm lays out from under the wreckage of a smoldering hooch. Only one wall was intact from Gator’s M79 grenade launcher. Bummer helped Gator lifted a part of the collapsed structure so Jimmy could retrieve the body for identification. Jimmy grabbed the arm and without much force the whole arm pulled out from the shoulder socket and sent him to his ass. Bummer dropped his section, keeled over and vomited. Gator dropped his side unfazed and said,
“I’ll be damned. I bet you don’t have a hair on your ass, Bummer.”
Jimmy kicked the arm into the pool of vomit.
Gator and Jimmy flipped the section of roof made of bamboo and palm frond on its
Bummer was wiping his mouth, trying not to see the corpse. Gator brandished a Pall
Mall for himself and Jimmy. They lit up. Jimmy took a deep drag and pointed with his hand holding the cigarette and said,
“Bummer write this down; two VC - male, one female civilian, one male civilian, father and daughter assumed.”
After patrol that morning they were back at camp. Mail was was being passed out. The Lieutenant was holding a letter and looking at Bummer.
“Bummer, you’re derose state. You’re going home.”
He couldn’t help but smile. Someone shouted - Hey, Bummer got some good luck
for once! Someone socked his arm, another gave him a noogie. Jimmy pulled him aside after congratulations and jokes were made.
“When you get back to Plaiku tomorrow look for Sgt. Tom Potter. He’ll get you clean before you get home.”
“I’m getting clean, that’s why I puked this morning. The body was nothing, really.” Jimmy wasn’t convinced, but went with it.
“Talk to Tommy, he’ll help you stick to it. You don’t want to bring a habit home.“
Later that day the battalion was on the move north. Bummer and a small group were to break off and head southwest back to Plaiku. Bummer had been off smack for two days and the shakes were coming on. The humid jungle air hung around him like a punishment from God, to whom he was praying to with each step forward.
Five miles in they took a break. Groups of five or six sat on their packs passing a joint or smoking cigarettes. Bummer took a hit from a joint which didn’t help his condition.
They continued marching for 20 minutes when someone yelled from the front of the line -
“We gotta cross!”
The company came upon a massive gorge and waterfall with a large tree laid across it. In groups of two the men crossed using their guns as a cross balance. Sweat was running into Bummer’s eyes which he tried to wipe away without success. He watched as one by one they crossed without error. Hernandez paused in the middle and grooved like Elvis. Men laughed and Cheered.
Bummer’s face was stiff and beaded with sweat. His eyes became a hollow stare. Like a shell shocked carp.
Two men before his turn.
His heart raced like it did when He was 16 and boosted that Buick with Johnny Ruff. Another guy stepped up to cross.
Bummer’s hands got clammy like when he stuttered in front of the Cop who asked
them: Where did you steal this car? What made you think it was a good idea stick your pencil neck in a peep show in Times Square? He cried when the cop slapped him, but not as deep as his first night in jail. He cried and sucked for air. His Orphan life was a kinetic force of disorder until that moment. When he felt the pain and confusion of all 16 years - in a cell, with his cellmate asleep on the bottom bunk. He stared at the ceiling and He wished he had someone to be ashamed for. This life and pain was served for no-one. With love for no-one. He resented himself.
The cop slapped him and said - Your family must be ashamed of you. Bummer said nothing. Thats when he picked up the dead look - dead in thought - mouth open. Pupils alert, but preoccupied with replayed misfortunes and future failures.
A voice called from behind him along with a rifle butt nudging his pack. All at once
he felt the hot and wet air - The soldier had to shout over the rhythmic, deafening lull of the waterfall.
All at once he felt sick and confused. He peaked over the cliff and watched the water fall and crash. The mist emanating from the torrents cooled him down, but couldn’t stop him from sweating. Seventy five... a hundred feet down? His Adam’s apple shot down and knocked billiards with his testicles, then bounced back up to his throat. Lord, do I curse you or beg for forgiveness?
Bummer wiped his brow with his right forearm in a frantic sweep. He stepped forward up on top of the fallen teak tree. He wiped his brow again - spaz like. Hesitating: trying to calm his quick and shallow breathing. He felt his heart beating and took the first step out on an off beat. Knowing: trick myself or I’ll never do it. He started crossing with surprising ease. Keeping his focus to the next step, his eyes set to the landing ahead. A smile crept onto his face. It had been years since he felt so natural. The mist from the waterfall was picking up as he approached the center of the makeshift bridge. His balance shook right then left, his posture got stiff. His right foot slipped. His left knee took his full weight and in a mad scramble he lost two fingernails scratching in a desperate frenzy as he fell - twisting rag-doll like. He screamed until he hit the water.
Men on each side of the crossing shouted and scrambled. They could see him struggling to turn over as they sprinted and climbed down each side of the gorge. The weight of his Alice pack was keeping him belly down. “Bummer!” The men shouted and called out directions to one another. Gator stopped mid stride on a bluff about 15 yards ahead when he realized Bummer wasn’t fighting anymore.
More men slowed and became quiet amidst the deafening jungle racket and rushing water.
Gator looked over his left shoulder and saw Jimmy close on the next ridge up, crouched into his heels. Jimmy watched the scene - placid - slowly pulling a fist full of grass. Bummer drifted a corner. No resistance. Jimmy’s eyes stayed fixed, drifting with Bummer. He let go of the grass. The wind and mist took it. No resistance.