If I Die Before I Wake: During Tet 1968 and After
By r g cantalupo
An excerpt from a new memoir by rg cantalupo
A moonless night, dark, so dark.
Red and green tracers streak by a few inches above my head.
Bullets smash into sandbags around our makeshift mortar pit, splash bits of sand and debris onto my face.
Mud drenches my back. Chills run up my spine.
I tear charges off a 60-millimeter mortar round, hand the cool, metal round to Baby San lying beside me.
His soft, sweaty fingers touch mine as he grabs the fin.
Mortar explosions walk toward us.
The first explodes about 30 meters away.
Then, one by one, each bursts a little closer.
The ground trembles and quakes.
Fiery clods of rice paddy mud hail down upon me.
"Two! Two!" Mike screams and sights the mortar tube toward enemy mortar flashes flaring from the black horizon.
My fingers quicken, tear off eight charges leaving two.
Two! Fuck! Fuuuck!
Two hundred meters.
We're gonna be overrun.
I turn, reach over, slide another round out of the ammo crate.
An RPG explodes near my head, knocks me sideways into the sandbags we've stacked four high to make our pit.
Red-hot shrapnel stabs into my ear and along the side of my head.
I turn to hand Baby San the round, and blood streams down over my eyes.
"You...okay?" Baby San whispers.
"One!" Mike screams! "One!"
I turn, grab another round, tear off nine charges, and pass a bloody mortar into his hands.
Another RPG whistles past.
A mortar explodes.
Each one walking a little farther from our pit.
Twenty meters away, on the perimeter, I hear screams.
"MEDIC!!! MEDIC!!! MEDIC!!!"
I swivel, grab two more rounds, tear the charges off with my blood-smeared hands, pass them to Baby San.
I can't see.
I can't open my eyes for the blood streaming down.
I grab rounds as blood slides down my forehead, over my eyes, and onto my neck and chest.
Terror rises in my chest like a caged beast.
I tear off charges, hand the rounds to Baby San, who hands the rounds to Lee, who guides the rounds into the tube, as Mike stares out into the dark.
He sights in on an enemy mortar flash, gauges the distance, the range, the direction, adjusts the tube, shouts "ONE!!! ONE!!!"
I tear off charges and hand Baby San the rounds.
Blood trickles down my ribcage, over my belly, and into my groin; blood runs down the back of my neck, feels like a centipede crawling along my spine.
I wipe the blood out of my eyes, but it keeps streaming down.
I need to get Baby San more rounds.
The burning spreads from my ear to around the side and back of my head.
I bite back the pain, break off charges two rounds at a time.
Feet zigzag past.
Charlie?! Fuck! Fuck!!!
I throw two more rounds onto my belly, rip off nine charges, and pass the rounds.
"Five more!!!" Mike commands. "Now! Now!!!"
Lee frantically throws rounds into the mortar tube: Poomph! Poomph! Poomph! Poomph! Poomph!
A few feet outside our pit, a mortar explodes.
Shrapnel, flesh, and debris hail down upon us.
A scream. A groan.
A long, baying moan.
I turn to hand Baby San another round.
A searing pain shoots up my left arm.
Darkness bleeds to dim light.
I am nineteen.
I am in a hospital in Yokohama, Japan.
I am not who I remember.
In the bed beside me, a man moans.
He moans like an animal, like a dog run over by a car lying along the side of a road.
Two enormous purple black eyes punctuate his face.
But there are no bandages on his body, no bloody gauze wrapped around his head like mine.
Probably a percussion wound, a high-intensity explosion too close to his head. Brain trauma. Air particles propelled so fast and hard they shot through his skull and jellied his brain.
Aces and eights, man. That's all this war deals—Aces and eights every hand.
I wonder if he'll ever wake, or if his brain is too filled with holes.
Luck. Dumb fucking bad luck.
And something else, something that I saw yesterday when they were turning him from one position to the other.
A small wound, maybe a half an inch long, at the base of his neck.
One tiny piece of shrapnel—that's all it took to sever his spine, to paralyze his body from the neck down.
Aces and eights, man. Nothing but aces and eights all the way down the line.
He moans and moans.
He wants to scratch out his eyes, to dig into his eye sockets and tear out the pain throbbing in his head.
But he can't.
His arms are bound, strapped to the bed.
Every two hours someone comes to rotate him 180 degrees.
Each time someone comes, his moans rise to a crescendo.
Each time they leave, his moans die out to a dull bay like a wounded water buffalo.
I call him Panda.
In the Head Ward's black night, when I hear the shuffling feet of the somnambulant moving through the ward, his moans give content and context to my terror dreams.
I see Panda's purple-black eyes wide-open, blank, empty as bullet holes in the night ward's dusk—eyes that haunt me like the eyes of the undead—a ghost's eyes gazing into a tomorrow that will never come.
Panda's enormous purple-splotched eyes ethereal in the waking ward.
rg cantalupo (Ross Canton) was an RTO (Radio Operator) for an infantry company in the 25th Infantry Division, 1968-69. He was awarded three Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star with a Combat V for Valor for courage under fire. His memoir, The Light Where Shadows End, was published in May 2016.