Neil Mathison

An Bien

Pangolin Papers Vol.5, No. 3 (Spring 1999), 4-15

I remember the feverish sky, the leaden green of the Gulf of Siam, the distant band of gold beach at the Mekong jungle edge. In the evening, the horizon erupted into a panoply of reds, oranges, and grays so that even the most hardened mess cook dumping trash would stand for a moment and watch silently as the towering monsoon clouds proceeded like an elephant-borne army. But I recall most the yellow days when even the shadows faded under the sun, and no breeze stirred the heavy air, and the metal deck of the ship became too hot to touch. I sat in the motor whaleboat, swinging from its rusty davits twenty feet above the sea, shirt off, sweating, struggling with the whaleboat’s ancient diesel engine. I would listen to the staccato tapping of the hammers as the “deck apes” chipped paint under the watchful eye of BM1 Redfern. Then I felt the foreignness of the place and the thousands of miles between us and my dad’s farm in Minnesota. We were at the end of the line, “The Gun Line,” where the supply ships came only once every month, with no fresh vegetables, and no mail, and no The Stars and Stripes with its Major League box scores and pictures of peace marchers back home. We felt disconnected. Our families and girlfriends, our real lives in the States, even the war ashore in Vietnam, seemed as if they existed in another galaxy.

The USS Epstein had fought three wars. She limped through this one. Nothing worked right. We engineers, “snipes” they called us, kept her patched together as best we could. We steamed back and forth off the Mekong delta where the Vietnamese coast turns north toward Cambodia. The war was slowly grinding down. The only “in country” Americans left -- at least those we dealt with -- were advisors and gunfire spotters attached to the Vietnamese Army. Several times each day the spotters radioed coordinates for a target. We would train our five-inch guns on some anonymous point on a grid. When the guns exploded, the entire ship would reel as if it had been hit by a giant’s hammer. We never saw where the shells landed -- they fell into another world. At night we fired illumination rounds and you could watch the star shells drift lazily across the sky on their invisible parachutes. The spotters would radio us, “One VC sampan destroyed” or “Enemy attack repelled.”

On that particular day, the day we went up river, Lieutenant Junior Grade “Buck” Davis -- my boss and the USS Epstein’s Damage Control Assistant -- rousted me out of my bunk at 0500 hours. He shook my shoulder until I woke from a damp sleep. “Hey Professor!” he shouted, peering up into my bunk. “Get your ass up to the whaleboat. The Chief Engineer says we got to launch her.”

Buck always called me “Professor” because of my college degree. He had come up through the ranks, a “Mustang” JG. He’d been an engineman himself. Like me. I’d learned about machines on my dad’s farm and I was pretty good with them, but, when I really got stumped, Buck would crawl into the whaleboat with me and emerge hours later, oil stains covering his khaki uniform and the old diesel purring. He’d smile and whack me on the shoulder and say, “Well, Professor, maybe this mother-fucking whaleboat might run a little while longer after all.” We weren’t exactly friends but we respected each other and he always struck just the right tone between himself as an officer and me as an enlisted man.

I groped around for my glasses. Buck fidgeted at the bottom of the berthing compartment ladder. I rolled out of my bunk, pulled on my dungarees, laced up my boat shoes, and swung my feet to the deck.

“Let’s go!” Buck said.

I trotted behind him to the whaleboat station. “What’s up sir?” I asked. Our footsteps rang on the ladder steps as we climbed to the 01 level. The ship was silent and the passageways were bathed in the eerie red glow of the ship’s night lights.

“A Coastie boat hasn’t returned from a Market Time patrol. Somewhere up river. Near An Bien.” Davis said this without looking at me, and he continued up the ladder, two steps at a time. “The cutter CO asked us to find them.” I didn’t know much about Operation Market Time except the Coast Guard had responsibility. Some deskbound jackass had had the bright idea you could intercept Viet Cong supplies by inspecting the thousands of sampans that crisscrossed the inlets and tributaries of the delta. It was a dumb, futile task, but hazardous duty just the same. Out of a hundred fishing junks, one might harbor armed VC. You never knew. I didn’t relish riding the whaleboat up a Vietnamese river, a prospect much closer to the real war than I ever planned to get. Grimmer still, Ensign Canady would lead us.

Canady was the bane of my missions to fix the After Officer’s air conditioner. He’d attended the same college I had and because of this regarded me as a kindred spirit. He hung around when I worked, tripping over my braising torch, kicking my flashlight across the green, waxed deck, and pestering me with personal questions like, “Jonsie, (I disliked being called Jonsie), what do you think of the war?” or “Have you ever been in love?” I think he wanted a friend. Maybe he had no friends among the officers, but whatever he wanted, he made me uncomfortable. He looked like a fifteen-year-old in his oversize khaki uniform, with his thin, milk-white arms protruding from his large shirt. I was no Robert Redford myself. I was skinny, although I was taller than Canady, and I wore thick glasses, which he didn’t. I had light blonde hair and a beard. Canady’s hair was licorice-black and he had a dark, incongruous, five o’clock shadow over his pimpled face. But I looked old enough to be in the Navy. Canady didn’t. Scuttlebutt had it that his uncle, a Congressman, had got him into Officer Candidate School. But I didn’t dread Canady because he looked like a kid and or even because of his overtures of friendship. I dreaded Canady because he created disasters. They hung over him like balloons hang over a comic strip character. If Canady had the deck watch, the collision alarm would accidentally sound, or a boiler would lift its steam reliefs. During sea detail, with Canady on the focs’l, fenders dropped overboard, lines slid out of their chocks. None of the other officers ever mentioned the “Canady Curse” -- that was part of their code. We enlisted mentioned it plenty on the mess decks.

When Buck Davis and I reached the 01 level, the sun had begun to light the eastern sky. You could smell the jasmine scent of wood smoke from the cooking fires ashore. BM1 Redfern barked orders to his deck apes as they lowered the whaleboat into the glassy black water beside the ship.

“Good luck Jones,” Davis said.

I crawled down the Jacob’s ladder to the boat. The ship barely made way and the whaleboat rose and fell on a gentle swell. The sea reflected the pink and black of the sky. We sat in the boat waiting for Ensign Canady.

The Landing Party consisted of myself and Canady, BM1 Redfern who was the whaleboat coxswain, McMurty, a wild-eyed gunner’s mate from West Virginia who was missing two front teeth, and “Doc” Freeman, the delicate, slightly feminine ship’s medical corpsman. Except for Doc, we were all armed. I carried an M-16. Redfern had the Browning automatic rifle, or BAR as we called it. McMurty was responsible for our heavy armament, the thirty-caliber machine gun and an assortment of grenades, flares, and our ammunition. I fiddled with the engine; McMurty checked his weapons; Redfern and Doc held the whaleboat away from the side of the ship. We sat in the boat, the morning was still, and it seemed that each of us held our breath.

Finally, Ensign Canady tripped down the main deck. He lugged a bulky, moss-green secure-voice radio behind him and he wore a large gray helmet and flak jacket. With his forty-five drooping from his narrow waist, he looked like a kid dressed up to play cowboys and Indians. The Weapons Boss, Lieutenant Bunker, stood at his elbow muttering last minute instructions. Canady leaned over the life lines and looked down at us. “Are you ready men?” His voice cracked as he spoke.

“Jesus Christ!” I heard McMurty whisper, and he rolled his eyes.

“Ready for your instructions, SIR!” Redfern boomed back. As the senior petty officer, Redfern was second-in-command.

Redfern despised Ensign Canady and was Canady’s opposite in every way, the yin to Canady’s yang. Redfern stood six-feet-five, weighed two hundred and fifty-pounds. His gorilla arms hung nearly to his knees and his prominent ears extended from his head like bat wings, their size exaggerated by his close cropped hair. Despite his bulk, he moved with the grace of a professional wrestler. While Canady wore rumpled, sweat-stained khakis, Redfern’s dungaree trousers and shirt were crisply starched as though he’d just stepped out of a recruiting poster. He spoke softly but ruled Deck Division with an ungentle hand -- you did not attain the rank of first-class bosun’s mate without a certain proclivity to violence -- and the malcontents and misfits who comprised Deck Division regarded him with abject terror. Redfern radiated menace. When he fixed you in his small, snake-eye gaze, you got this feeling he’d already calculated what effort it might take to fling you against the bulkhead, should he deem such an action necessary. He enjoyed nothing more than making an ass out of Ensign Canady. He constantly asked Canady’s advice on how to lubricate the whaleboat davits or if the ship’s gray paint had been mixed properly. Canady had no idea. “Whatever you think, Boats,” Canady would answer, and Redfern would snort like a bull, and proceed with what he intended in the first place.

Canady climbed down the ladder, the radio dangling from one arm. Redfern shoved the engine into gear. The whaleboat surged away from the ship with Ensign Canady clinging indecorously to the boat gunwale. The radio tumbled into the bilge.

“Where to sir?” Redfern said, although he’d already pointed the boat eastward toward the thin line of the coast.

“East,” Canady said. “Upriver. Toward An Bien. That’s the last contact.”

The Epstein receded behind us. Ahead the sun shone on the water and reflected back blindingly. The V of the boat’s wake trailed behind us, white against the clear, green sea. You could see the black, corkscrew shapes of sea snakes near the water’s surface. A few fragile sampans trolled nets about a mile off our beam. We saw no sign of the cutter’s boat. Redfern stood at the helm and stared straight ahead, his feet braced against the deck. He reminded me of General Washington crossing the Delaware. Canady crouched in the stern, his chart billowing like a flag. I hovered over the diesel, listening for any potential malfunction. Doc sat curled in the bow, snapping and unsnapping the lid of his first-aid kit. McMurty hummed tunelessly to himself. We were all nervous, except maybe for Redfern who had previously served on the Riverine boats up north. The trees behind the beach began to become distinct from one another and I kept wondering which of them hid pajama-clad VC. None of us had ever seen a VC, except, maybe, Redfern. We all believed VC wore black pajamas.

McMurty leaned toward Redfern. “Boats,” he said, “we got to test the thirty-cal.”

Redfern nodded. Doc covered his ears. Canady, who peered through binoculars at the approaching shore, didn’t notice. The thirty-cal rent the fabric of the morning, a hard, harsh, tearing sound like firecrackers at a fairground Fourth of July.

“Holy Christ!” Canady screamed. He dove for the deck. McMurty grinned maniacally as he swiveled the thirty-cal on its tripod. Redfern stood unperturbed, a slight smile on his lips. Canady pulled himself up over the gunwale, his hands on either side of his head like a prairie dog poking up from a burrow. His eyes were wide and his skin was white. “What the hell!” he yelled.

“The men need to test their weapons, SIR.” Redfern spoke of “the men” as though he commanded a battalion.

“You shouldn’t have done that, Boats!”

McMurty fired another burst from the weapon. Spray erupted where the rounds struck the water.

“Stop it! I’m in charge! Stop it!” Canady trembled like a palsied man.

“Aye, aye, sir,” said McMurty, still grinning.

“I’m in charge!” Canady repeated.

“Yes SIR!” said Redfern, but he glanced at the rest of us as if to make certain none of us believed it. McMurty sniggered. Even Doc and I -- God forgive us! -- smiled back at him, because on this day, this day I’m telling you about, in that alien place, we aligned ourselves with Redfern. Despite his malevolence, we trusted him to get us back to the Epstein. We didn’t trust Canady. I think Canady realized at that moment, maybe for the first time, that he didn’t command us. He’d never commanded anybody. He looked at me reproachfully as if to say, Even you Jones? Even you who are my friend? Although he hadn’t been my friend but maybe he hadn’t known that either. Canady’s face flushed. He gripped the edge of the boat combing stiffly, arms rigid, and stared beyond us.

We entered the river. Low mangrove trees came to its indistinct edge, their trunks black and webbed. Clusters of palm trees rose behind the mangroves, like thatched islands. The river was wide, muddy, and empty of sampans or any other life. The whaleboat engine coughed, sputtered, and died. Silence descended on the river and on us like a dropped curtain. We could hear the water lapping against the boat’s hull. The tide must have been rising because we swung broadside to it and the current carried us gently upriver. Everybody stared at me. Nobody spoke. I began tinkering with the engine.

“Better radio the ship,” Redfern said. The radio lay at Canady’s feet. Canady didn’t move, his eyes fixed on the river bank. “Sir, we need to call the ship.” Canady nodded but made no effort to get the radio. “McMurty ...” Redfern didn’t hide his disgust. “... radio the ship.”

McMurty pulled the radio from where it lay in the bilge. He twisted the dial and keyed the handset. The radio remained silent, not even static. “It’s busted,” he said.
“Jones, you better fix the fucking engine!”

I had already disassembled the fuel line. Black sludge oozed from the metal tube. “Fuel line’s plugged,” I said. “It’ll take me fifteen minutes to blow it out.” I’d have to unscrew the fragile copper line, find out where it was plugged, and then vent the air from the fuel system. I’d be lucky to get it fixed in fifteen minutes.

Redfern un-slung the BAR from his back. McMurty had begun to hum tunelessly again. I noticed his hands opening and shutting on the machine-gun handle. A wooden box of grenades lay open next to him, like an orange crate box, except the green grenades nested where the oranges should be. Doc Freeman fingered the strap of his medical pack and Canady continued to stare, trancelike, at the jungle. The sun bore down on us. Perspiration dripped down my back. The black line of the far bank shimmered in the heat. I heard the chug of a two-cycle fishing boat engine, out of sight beyond the curve of the river.

“Maybe that’s the Coastie boat,” said Doc.

“I don’t think so,” I said. “Engine doesn’t sound right.” At that instant a sampan cleared the bend of the river. It lay low in the water and it had a rounded roof like a covered wagon but instead of canvas, the roof was woven palm fronds. Beneath the roof it was black, like a cave, and you couldn’t see inside.

“Ready your weapons, men!” Canady spoke with a queer croaking voice. He had drawn his forty-five and he held it like a movie gun fighter with his legs spread and the gun waist-high in his hand. Redfern ignored him, but I picked up my rifle. McMurty placed both hands on the thirty-cal grips.

“Put the weapons away.” Redfern didn’t even look at Canady. “I don’t want nobody hurt.”

I lowered the M-16. McMurty continued resting his hands on the thirty-cal.

Canady waved his pistol in the air. “I said weapons at the ready! That’s an order!”

Doc Freeman slumped lower in the bow. I raised my rifle part way.

McMurty looked back at Redfern questioningly. “Boats,” he said. “Them could be Victor Charlies.”

“They ain’t no VC!” Redfern said. “Jones, get back on that engine.”

How’d Redfern know? How was he certain the sampan wasn’t VC? But I placed my rifle on the deck and began blowing into the fuel line. The copper was warm against my lips and tasted metallic and bitter. The sampan drew closer. I could make out two figures under the canopy, a woman and a child. The woman seemed to be coiling fishing nets and the child stood watching us. I still couldn’t see into the stern of the sampan.

“The woman’s got black pajamas!” McMurty pronounced it “PIE-jamies.”

Canady’s eyes shifted back and forth between Redfern and McMurty. “You heard him!” he said. “She’s wearing pajamas!”

Redfern faced Canady. He moved slowly and spoke softly, as though talking to a child. “Come on, Mr. Canady. Put away the weapon. It’s just a fishing boat. With a woman and kid, for Christ’s sake!”

I wanted to believe Redfern, except I’d heard stories: about Viet Cong kids wired with explosives, who begged candy from American soldiers, then detonated themselves with the bomb. I wasn’t so sure. I stood up.

“Petty Officer Jones!” Canady said. “Arrest this man! He’s disobeying a direct order.”

I suddenly realized that in all my time in the Navy, I’d never been asked to make a decision. Officer and Chiefs wore khaki uniforms. First-class petty officers like Redfern had privileges. But I had freedom. The freedom to float along without deciding anything. Now, in this dangerous, foreign river, I faced a choice.

“No sir,” I said.

Canady flinched like I’d struck him.

Redfern reached toward the forty-five. Canady held it in both hands, pointed at Redfern’s chest. “Give me the weapon, sir!” Redfern almost touched the gun. Canady stepped back. He tripped. The weapon discharged. Canady’s head cracked against the whale boat stern. Redfern jerked back. His body fell backwards across the engine; his knees bent; his back slammed to the deck. McMurty began firing the thirty-cal. The weapon clattered and hammered and the tracer rounds arced toward the sampan in golden, Roman-candle globes. The tracers swung back and forth in an erratic, whip-like pattern. The sampan veered broadside.

“Stop it!” I shouted. “Cease firing!” I grabbed McMurty’s shoulders and shook him. He let go of the gun. The weapon fell silent. I heard the woman scream and saw the child lying on the sampan’s deck. McMurty’s arms fell to his side, his fingers still curled as if he held the thirty-cal grip. Redfern’s head rested at my feet. His eyes were wide-open and bore a look of unbelieving surprise. Blood blackened his denim shirt. His arms stretched on either side of my legs. Freeman crouched over Redfern, trying to stop the blood pumping from the wound. He pressed an orange life jacket against Redfern’s chest. Canady was out cold in the stern. “Oh shit!” Freeman said. “Oh shit!”

White smoke rose from the sampan canopy. The sampan’s engine had stopped and we drifted together, the sampan and us, as though fixed by a tether. The woman wailed. I could see her cradling the child, rocking back and forth. A man stood on the sampan’s bow. He screamed at us in Vietnamese. He shook his arms in rage.

“He ain’t going to make it!” Freeman said. “I ain’t going to save him!”

But I wasn’t thinking about Redfern being dead or alive. All I could think about was the child and the woman on the sampan and whether the child was OK or not and what an meaningless fuck-up everything was and how I had to fix the engine and get us -- Redfern, Canady, Freeman, McMurty and me -- back to the ship. I thought I heard the child crying, but I wasn’t certain. For a terrible instant, I sensed the tie between us. The man on the sampan, the woman and her child, even Redfern and Canady and I, pulled together like galaxies across the vastness of the universe. We were connected to each other and to this place forever. My anonymity had vanished.

“How we going to get back?” Freeman said.

“You worry about Redfern,” I replied. I’ll get us back.” But I knew part of me would never get back. Part of me would always remain here, on this Vietnamese river, under a fever-yellow sky, near a village called An Bien.

Selected Works

Fiction
When is it too late? A divorced spouse demands an annulment.
A navy sailor faces choices and challenges on a Vietnamese river during the war.
Essay/Memoir
Mathison explores how his seagoing ancestors may have drawn him to the sea.
Essay
This essay explores what it means to live in the shadow of an active volcano.

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