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My Young Friend An
By Tony Cokely
I don't remember when we met and I don't remember a goodbye. Ours is a time I remember the least; but, I remember you and the other kids. You all reminded me of the kids from home. My girlfriend's sister had two kids, and I used to help care for them. All the neighborhood kids hung out with us.
There were fewer rules at our house. We acted younger than the neighborhood parents. Many parents were close to my age; but, they seemed to be more like my parents. Whatever the reason, our house was always full of kids. I had no younger brothers or sisters so I enjoyed the company of the kids. I enjoyed playing with them, going on walks, and just talking with them. Their perspective was innocent.
Maybe that is why I was so receptive to you and the other kids in Vietnam. My unit would set up our day position. Once we settled in, you kids would appear. It was probably like back home. Your parents told you to stay away from us and so there you were. And you were there every day and all day.
Some of the Marines would chase you off. But, you were like stray puppies looking for something to eat or just somewhere to hang out. You were surely the oldest of the pack. Likely this was because you only had one arm. I don't remember ever asking you about your arm or your age.
I thought of you as 12 or 13. I think most boys your age had been conscripted into the army on one side or the other. The minute a boy looked old enough either the ARVN would grab him up or the VC would grab him first.
Your mothers used to hide you. One time my unit was a blocking force for a sweep through a village. It was dawn as the ARVN soldiers entered the village and suddenly boys were fleeing toward our position.
I was ordered to shoot; but, I refused. It was obviously just boys, draft dodgers, just like the boys at home except younger. The distance was far and they wanted me to use the machine gun. I don't remember anyone shooting. I wrote a letter home afterward describing that day. In my letter, I said that three were killed and two captured. I don't remember that; but, I don't remember a lot.
Maybe your arm was a birth defect rather than the result of some military action by one of the sides. Whatever the case, I liked you and you liked me. When we Marines got settled you kids would show up and hang out in front of our lines. You and your gang would look for me because you knew I would invite you in.
There must have been other Marines with other kids hanging around; but, I don't remember that. I don't know if I gave you food or gum or candy or if we just goofed with each other. I do remember there was a time when you were around every day. Maybe I was whittling toys for you kids out of wood. I did have all those knives. God, I hope I wasn't whittling toy guns for you boys.
Your gang would approach and I would pretend that I didn't see you. You would all be hollering and waving and I would keep pretending that I didn't see you. When that got old, and it never really got old for me, I would finally act like I saw you. Then I would pretend like I thought you were the enemy. Finally, I would point at you with a swagger stick I had whittled for myself.
The selection with the swagger stick indicated you could approach. I always chose you first and you would come into our position while the others continued to holler and gesture they wanted to come too.
When you got into the perimeter I would hand you my swagger stick. It was whittled to look like a long bullet; but, it more closely resembled a long skinny penis. I called it the "pecker." You would take the pecker and indicate that several of your pals could come over to where we were.
It amazes me today to think about allowing you boys around the ordnance we carried. I had the machine gun, claymore mines, hand grenades, pop flares, trip flares, ammo, and all the knives. I can't imagine how I ensured you boys didn't hurt anyone.
Everyone was not like me. When I first arrived in Vietnam, we were walking along a rice paddy where an old farmer was working his field with a hoe. The old man was leaning on his hoe and standing still and quiet while we filed past. A sergeant in front of me smashed him in the face.
The Papa San fell to the ground in the flooded paddy and didn't move or say a word. I remember thinking, "What the Fuck?" But I didn't do anything except walk past and mind my own business. I regret it; but, I was a new guy. That doesn't make me feel any better about it.
I saw that sergeant planting booby traps in the garbage we left behind when we left our daytime position.
What was he thinking and why didn't I stop him? He had to know that someone was going to go through the trash after we left. It would just as likely be a hungry kid or an old woman as it would be an enemy soldier. Does he remember what he did today? Does he have regrets? I regret I didn't stop him.
That wasn't the only time he left a booby trap behind. We killed a VC one night. We left the body on the trail and he put a grenade under the body. It was placed so the pin would trip when the body was moved. Did the sergeant know that his actions could be considered war crimes?
I wonder now if his victim's families later set booby traps for us. Did they take revenge on one of us for that idiot's murderous jokes? I wish I had been full grown. I wish I had cold-cocked the idiot that first time.
In World War II, some men didn't try to kill the enemy. When the military discovered this they set about dehumanizing the enemy. In Vietnam, they taught us names like, "Gook" "Slope" "Slant-eye" "Dink" and "Zipper-head."
They wanted us to be better killers so they dehumanized the Vietnamese. I think they succeeded. However, all those soldiers and Marines that bought into that nonsense came home with the memories. Perhaps repressed; but, still there in dreams and nightmares!
I like the memory of our friendship, An. I must have been giving you food and gum or candy. I hope I wasn't giving you cigarettes. You used to assign one of your gang to give me a back rub. I would lie on my poncho liner and the kid would work the skin on my back between strong fingers. He would work a ripple of the skin from my waist to my neck then back down. I remember the feeling as heavenly.
I still have a gift you once gave me. I don't know why you gave it to me. I hope I gave you something more than my friendship in return. I hope you survived the war and that your life has been as good as our best day together. I won't forget you ever!
Tony Cokely was drafted into the Marine Corps and served from 1969 to 1971. He retired after 29 years as a government employee, proud union member and officer. He lives in the California foothills.