Pleiku, Vietnam - February 7, 1965
“Open your eyes!”
The tinny, familiar voice puffed out of the tiny television speakers as smoke wafted from Private Frank Harper’s cracked lips in the emptied chow hall. Dishes were stacked in the back against metal-plated walls, and the television was perched on the edge of a rear table, divested of its condiments and napkin holders. The tip of Harper’s cigarette dripped hot ash. Dog tags dangled over his sweat-stained undershirt. He took a long drag, focused on the glowing black-and-white image. On the screen, Jackie Gleason made a spectacle of uncovering his face. The audience cheered and applauded, the comedian pacing around the stage while Glen Headwood, the host of the show, mimicked his movements.
Harper snickered. “Funny shit.” The two other men lounging around the table looked up to the screen. Something flashed across Harper’s eyes as he leaned into his chair. “I seen this before.”
“It’s a rerun.” Beside him, Private Joseph Kenneth Belanger leaned in, watching the act. His wrinkled shirt hung loose and unbuttoned, exposing his slender shoulders and a thinning undershirt that hinted at the trim body underneath.
“I know it’s a rerun, dumbass. Feels like I seen it somewhere else.”
“Did he do this bit on American Scene Magazine?”
The third member of their late-night trio kicked his boots up, half-watching The Glen Headwood Show and half-reading his weekly letter from his kid sister. Private Charles Camden, still in full uniform, neatly pressed, drew a hand over his nostrils, waving away the smoke as he put down the note and perused the playing cards in his other hand. “No, it’s new.”
Belanger turned away from the flickering footage, glancing at the discard pile as he drew a new card. “How do you know?”
Camden watched those familiar black-and-white faces. Headwood glowed with his badger-smile, his teeth exposed with savage glee, his cool eyes shrunken to make room for the oversized grin. Just like the last time Camden saw him, doing his ventriloquist act. “Trust me. It’s new.”
Harper’s attention shifted from the show to his companion. “You really know Gleason?” He dropped the three of hearts as he sucked his cigarette.
“’Course he knows him,” Belanger said. “His whole family’s…didn’t your granddad pick up Charlie Chaplin’s sloppy seconds?”
Camden shifted the contents of his hand.
“Holy shit, I love Gleason.” Harper watched the little man making faces at Glen Headwood. “I remember when we got our first set, I couldn’t get enough of The Honeymooners. I thought Ralph Kramden was the funniest thing I ever seen.”
“Gin.” Camden spread his spades and clubs for the others, shifting his boots without looking up.
“I’d love to get my hands on some gin,” Harper said.
A loud slamming, clanking noise came from the latrine, echoing through the place like a gunshot. Camden froze in his seat, body going rigid and tense, the others matching him. Headwood’s voice was the only sound. All eyes were on the distant door, off to the side in the darkened hallway. “What the hell?” Harper finally whispered when nothing followed the crash. Camden hopped up, waving for them to be silent, and moved across the room. He stepped in and found the usual row of toilets. He checked the stalls – all empty. His lungs clutched as he peeked into the last one; someone had forgotten to flush. The smell of it always made him want to dry heave.
“Nothing.” He resumed his spot in front of the television as they lingered, leaning in, waiting for his assurance. “Seat fell on one of the commodes is all.”
“Shit. For a second I thought we were busted,” Harper said.
“Yeah…” Belanger collected the cards and shuffled. “We probably ought to call it quits on our little insomniac society.”
“I just can’t sleep, plain and simple.” Harper stabbed his butt in an ashtray like he wanted to make sure it was good and dead. “It’s this Pleiku air. ’Nam just smells funny, you know? Can’t go to sleep unless it smells like America.”
“What exactly does America smell like?” Camden asked.
“Oh, you know, popcorn and pussy.” Harper shook his head and scooped up the cards Belanger had dealt him. He bit at the corner of his lip as he rearranged his hand. Camden kept his own lips from smiling; Harper always chewed on that corner when he had bad cards. One thing Charles Camden had learned from his kid brother – how to read faces. “I fucking hate it here,” Harper said, glancing back at the set. Gleason had left the stage.
“It could be worse,” Belanger said.
Camden took a look at his hand and wanted to fold. He watched the show, remembering the last time he saw Headwood in person. Out at Benny’s beach house. Fourth of July. Cold cherry Popsicles and warm ocean air as the sky lit up in reds, whites, and blues. Benny up on the balcony with Mary. Home.
“I should have listened to my old man,” Harper said. “He tried everything shy of a court martial to keep me from joining up. He got me in at Harvard Law, full ride. Came in all beaming about it, like he’d done me some favor. I told him no. He got drunk and tried to beat the shit out of me. Tried.”
“Yikes,” was all Belanger said as he drew a card. Camden had seen that same kind of gleam in his own father’s eye more often than he could recall. That flash that made all the kids want to hide under the bed or in the back of the closet. It was never directed at him, though. Never at him or Lara. Always at Benny.
“Old man breaks down and starts bawlin’ like a baby, begging me not to go. All worried the same shit’s gonna fall on me as fell on him. He had, uh…shellshock. All my life he preached at me about it, all I ever wanted to be was a soldier. When I was a kid, I wanted to be like him. But the worse it got, it wasn’t about that anymore.”
“Sorry.” Camden looked back at the door to the latrine, shaking off the lingering pulse of queasiness from that unflushed toilet.
“Eh, don’t sweat it. Just fuckin’ fathers and sons.”
“Fathers and sons,” Belanger repeated.
“He was right, though. Camp Holloway…Pleiku…” Camden could imagine a tear hiding behind Harper’s hard eyes. “I had no idea how right he was.”
“I enlisted as soon as I graduated,” Belanger said. “I couldn’t wait to get out of there, see the world, serve my country. I had twelve brothers and sisters back home, so I was used to no privacy, used to everything always going on even when I needed to be alone sometimes. I guess I picked a good place to come. Sure is easy to be alone out here. Feels that way, anyway.”
The set droned on, the only sound in the room other than the constant flicking of Harper’s slim blue lighter. “You set the place on fire, they’re going to know we’re up,” Camden said.
“You’re right, Ken,” Harper said. “So fucking quiet out here sometimes, I could go crazy.”
“I think that’d be an extreme reaction,” Belanger replied.
“Psycho.” They both turned to Camden, and he could see them questioning his comment. “That’s a line from the movie. More or less.”
“Mr. Hollywood over here,” Harper laughed, flicking his lighter one last time to start a new cigarette before stuffing it in his pocket. Laughter from the set brought them back to the show for a moment. “You really know Gleason, huh?”
“Who do you think the Kramdens were named after?”
“It just figures, with your family, you’d end up in Tinseltown. Not Pleiku.” Harper dug a tooth into his chapped lip again, drawing a drop of blood.
“My dad was a soldier too,” Camden said.
“Is that why you’re here?” Belanger asked.
“Who knows? It’s funny. I know he was at Normandy, but not much else. He never talked about it, and we never asked.” The three of them watched as Jackie Gleason joined Glen Headwood again, this time with Benny Camden. Cheers of female adoration went up from the crowd. Benny gave them all that easy smile, that flicker of amusement in his eye that always made Charles jealous, even if he never said so. That messy muss of hair that he spent twenty minutes styling, the way he wore the suit and tie like a robe and pajamas, the perfect gentleman and the perfect flirt in a single pair of loafers.
“Your brother’s the shit,” Harper said.
“When I told him I wanted to enlist, Dad took me out for a steak dinner,” Camden continued, ignoring the comment about Benny but silently agreeing. “Talked show business, didn’t mention a thing about what I was about to do. Didn’t tell me stories, didn’t try to talk me out of it. I still don’t know what unit he was in, where he was stationed. Then when the check came, he paid it and said, ‘You be careful out there.’ And that was that.”
“Why didn’t you end up in show business?” Belanger asked.
Camden smiled at his brother’s image. When Benny was five, he’d interrupted a dinner party with an impression of Charlie Chaplin’s tramp that he’d spent weeks practicing. The flawless awkward sway of the hips, the lopsided walking, the perfect tip of the bowler, and of course the legendary smile. Chaplin had never gotten so many laughs. “We all wanted to. But Dad thought we’d end up making fools of ourselves, never get a moment’s peace. My sister and I, we listened. Benny just never quite got the hint.”
“Your pop didn’t want you making people laugh, but he’s cool with you putting your ass in the line of fire?” Harper asked.
“I guess so.”
Boom. The three of them froze, heads turned, ears primed as, in the distance, a dreadful thud rippled through the camp. The ground shook beneath their feet, cards scattering to the floor. Then silence. “What was that?” Belanger asked. Other than the cards and their reddened faces, nothing seemed out of order. “Earthquake?”
“Do they get earthquakes here?” Camden asked. His stomach hardened like quick-drying concrete. He’d lived through enough Southern California tremors to know one when he felt it. On the television, his brother had taken center stage for his weekly close of the show.
“Beats the shit out of me,” Harper said as all three put their hands on the table, cards abandoned, feeling nothing but the reassuring coolness of the particle board. “Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if–”
Boom. Boom. “That’s no earthquake.” Belanger shot to his feet as the ground vibrated from whatever remote source had shaken them. Faint, in the distance, they heard the crank of the air raid sirens stir, crescendoing by the second, waking up Camp Holloway like a rooster from Hell.
Camden stood also. He played the three sounds over in his head, back to back, all together. The room flashed white and cold in his senses as the others turned to face him. His mouth was dry. “Mortars!”
Frank’s eyes flew wide. “Holy shi–”
A crack ripped across the ceiling faster than Camden could follow, spreading out like breaking ice on a frozen river. The plaster splintered into chunks and powder, raining down on them and smashing the room apart like cannon fire. Shielding his head and forgetting, for the moment, his friends, Camden could see directly into the latrine, the wall fragmenting and blowing apart under the weight of the collapsing ceiling. Busted pipes sprayed everything with water as the power cut out. Normally the room would be completely dark without electricity, but lights were streaming in from above, from where the roof had been seconds earlier. Voices hovered around outside – indecipherable shouts of concern and alert. The whole 52nd Aviation Battalion was up now.
“You guys OK?” Belanger coughed as a cloud of particles blew across them.
Camden’s ears rang loud, and he put a hand to his head as he pulled himself back up. His nose filled with dust and decay and blood as he shielded his eyes. The television set laid crushed and gutted, screen splintered into shards, tubes sparking in the back. “Yeah, fine, I think.”
“Frank?” Belanger knelt over their friend, and Camden winced as Harper coughed, blood spraying out with his saliva and painting a red line down his sweaty cheek. Camden could hear the liquid in his friend’s breaths and tried not to picture his lungs filling up.
“Oh…fuck…” Harper wheezed, loud and squealing. He gasped like an asthmatic under attack.
“Charles! Help me!” Belanger put Harper’s arm around his shoulder.
Camden fixed his eyes on the piece of drywall separating Harper’s large intestine from his small. “You can’t…move him like that.” Belanger grimaced, looking from one to the other, clutching at Harper’s chest. “You can’t!”
“He’s…right…” Harper said. Boom. “Oh…fuck!”
The hinges on the main door gave way, and it collapsed inward, narrowly missing Belanger as Captain Markos took a step inside, glancing at the remains of the ceiling, hesitating to move in further in his bare feet. None of them had ever seen the captain out of full uniform before. His soft eyes and round face were hard and square when Harper let out a wet and frightened cry. “What’re you doing in here?” Markos asked.
“Captain, we need a medic!” Belanger said.
Captain Markos waved them forward. “The whole battalion’s going to need a medic if we don’t hurry!”
Camden grabbed Belanger’s arm and pulled him up, both of them still watching Harper. He just lay there, fading into the rubble with a final wheezing gasp as they fled the building. The air was still and dense, but a sudden breeze blew across the camp, filling their nostrils with traces of citrus and sulfur. Even in full uniform, Camden’s skin pricked against the early morning cold.
“What’s going on, Captain?” Camden asked.
“Sappers! We have to man the perimeter!”
The sound of the mortars meeting their targets hummed in harmony with the high streaks that sang out as the projectiles plummeted down on the camp. The descending whistles filled Camden’s ears and froze him to the ground. Above him, rockets lit up the sky like uncoordinated fireworks. Red glares. Bombs bursting in air. One of them arced, growing louder and hotter by the second. The others were watching it as well. He took off for the barracks, going for his weapon, no time to guess where it would land.
Sign up for exclusive content and updates and get your free copy of The Glen Headwood Show.