Jelly and Uncle passed the first tree. It had a small wooden flag nailed to it. Jelly tapped the flag with her fingertips; she liked to do this, signal a passing. “So we follow the green flags all the way to the river?”
“Yup, green is the path that will lead us to the river. Green means go. Red means stop.” Uncle began his story.
“I didn’t mean to save their lives. It was an accident. Something to be done.”
Uncle had protested the war. In the big city square he had approached a man in a National Guard uniform. With his draft card in one hand, he set the card on fire with the lighter in his other. He was placed on a list and followed. The FBI camped outside his parents’ house and knocked on their door, asking where he was and when he would be back. His mother cried. His father frowned. His little brother thought he was a hero. Eventually Uncle turned himself in. The threats to his family were too much. Maybe he was just tired of dodging. Off to boot camp he went for training. Training and testing, and testing he did well—right into a secret corps of code typists. He was made. Set. This was going to be the luxury life for Uncle. No combat, no guns, no limbs blown off in a faraway swamp. But someone caught on. Caught on to the FBI surveillance. The burning of the card. Uncle was no friendly follower.
The big airplanes that transported troops were filled to capacity in those days—airplanes so wide-bellied you could drive five tanks and a company of men comfortably inside. Uncle ended up in one of these planes and got off in Germany: Secretary to a Field Captain. This was still a cushy job. Uncle was lucky. He typed the Field Captain’s notes, ran his laundry, his general errands, and once a week he drove 20 miles into town to pick up Chinese food.
The Field Captain was rigid, very specific—Uncle was never, not once, ever, to eat the Chinese food. Well, with all the marijuana floating around the camp and with Uncle’s general idea about where this war could go, along with this Captain, he did eat the Chinese food, and he did get caught.
They put Uncle back on the big plane—a plane full of men and tanks and bullets; letters from home, care packages, and MREs. Off this time to the South Pacific. Off this time to Vietnam.
The first time Uncle saved a life was when a bomb blew him up.
He was in formation, in line, his platoon was moving north. When the bomb hit, sound disappeared. Uncle was blown forward; his back hurt. He got up and turned around. The man behind him was missing an ear and those behind him a head, a torso, or now they were just a foot. The tank was on fire. Uncle could see the driver. The driver was alive. Uncle was at the tank, opening the door; it was searing flesh off his palm. He was grabbing the driver, pulling the man from the fire and pulling him out before the tank blew.
In the hospital back at base, Uncle was treated for burns. The hair on half his head was gone, his eyebrows vaporized in the heat. He rested for a while, healing. He was a hero and sent back to the front lines.
The land was a wet one, and the camps were hard. The boys of his unit told stories, stories about their homes, about the way the lakes rose in February rain and the Junebug clusters, about homes packed in by snowdrifts and snowshoeing to town to catch a train south.
Uncle would remember these stories when he went back to find them many years later. Instead he found he was the only one left. All had taken their own lives or disappeared into drugs and street life. Uncle still remembers the joints they passed around, and the other time he saved their lives.
Uncle had been sent out for a scout around. A simple circle of the area, then sit on the hill. He circled. He sat. And just inside the tree line was the enemy. Charlie.
“You guys called the Viet Cong ‘Charlie.’ Why?” Jelly never did know why, even though they mentioned it in so many movies.
“A phonetic alphabet. Alfa. Bravo. Charlie. VC: Victor Charlie. Our call signs over coms,” Uncle responded as he walked up a leaf-lined bank.
Jelly nodded her head. “Of course. Victor Charlie. I wonder if anyone has named their child that, on purpose?”