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The Pipeline

by Ken Smits

I radio control, whispering into the hand mike,

“Control, this is Able 28, over.”

“Able 28, this is control, over.”

“Control, hear gunfire near our position, will investigate, over.”

“Able 28, Roger that, Control, out.”

Smitty and I move cautiously along the pipeline toward the laughing. The knee-deep water and muddy bottom make our movement laborious. We can see what appears to be two men not more than twenty-five feet ahead. One figure crawls over the large pipe delivering fuel to Phuket Air Base. The other is holding a rifle, an antiquated bolt action weapon that looks like a pre-World War II model.

We sling our heavily oiled weapons across our backs, advancing with knives in hand. Smitty points to the man kneeling at the pipe, then to himself. I nod; his plan is clear. He wants the VC nearer to the pipe while I’m to take the one standing nearby with the rifle. The rain beating down into the murky water conceals the sound of our advance as we slip up on the two unsuspecting VCs.

Smitty and I vault at the same instant. I cup my left hand over the VC’s mouth to smother his cries. At the same time, I jam my knee into the small of his back as a fulcrum from which I can jerk his head backward, exposing his neck. The VC struggles frantically as my Bowie knife slashes a deep gash across his throat. The blade lances through both of his arteries and windpipe. Blood spurts on my hand, covering the dying VC’s mouth. It feels like a faucet has been opened, allowing thick, warm liquid to pour freely. It gushes briefly, then slows to a trickle as his struggle becomes less violent. The VC’s body stops moving. I look at my right hand holding the Bowie. No blood. Funny how the killing hand is clean, no sign of the act. But the other hand and fatigue sleeve is soaked with the blood of my latest kill.

I let the VC’s carcass slide down my body into the water surrounding my knees.

I look up, searching for Smitty. I see him lying on his back with the VC half sitting on his chest. They’re in a violent struggle for control of Smitty’s bayonet. Smitty is wrestling frantically to keep his head above water. I must move about four feet to reach them and help my friend. I stumble, falling as my foot enters a hole underneath the water. Getting back to my feet, I wondered if Smitty had fallen into the same crater just as he was about to grab this man. The VC is within reach, and I grab his hair with my left hand. I see that I still hold the Bowie knife in my right hand. He wails as I pull him off of Smitty.

I swing the Bowie knife with all the power I can muster, striking the man on the right side of his neck with full force. I follow through as if I’m striking a baseball with a bat, trying for the game-winning home run.

The VC’s head detaches from his body. The carcass falls like a sack of rice on top of Smitty, still struggling to get to his feet. The weight of the headless corpse knocks Smitty temporarily back under the water. Blood spurts forcefully from the giant hole where the neck was once attached. Not aware he was finished, the VC kicked and jerked violently in a pitiful death dance.

Blood from the severed head streams across my arms, chest, and legs. I stand in total bewilderment, holding a man’s head in my hand while the rain pelts down on me in the middle of some God-forsaken swamp.

Smitty claws to his knees, pushing himself up into a standing position, “Holy Shit!” He stares at the swinging head in my hand.

I’m absolutely speechless. I stare at the head, not knowing what to do.

Men suddenly appear out of the downpour. Two or three VCs. I’m not sure how many. Because this head is in my hands, I don’t really understand anything at the moment.

The enemy stops, looking confused, immobilized at the sight of the big American. They stare at me as I stand in the downpour with the head in my hand. Judging by the confused, fearful look on their faces, they’re wondering if this head once belonged to their comrade. No doubt, the gruesome sight of me—the ugly American—standing in the rain holding the head of someone they once knew has interrupted their world. Just as it has stopped ours, if only for a few seconds. To all, it must seem like an eternity, for soldiers on opposite sides of a war are still human. We become shocked by the death of our own. Especially if the death is as savage and horrifying as the scene everyone is witnessing at this moment.

Me, Smitty, and the bad men who’ve been blowing up our pipeline stand frozen in time. Fear fills our hearts; we share something in common at this instant.

My entire body trembles. My mouth has gone dry.

Swinging my left arm in a wide arc, I toss the grotesque body part of the man standing less than fifteen feet in front of me. In that exact second, my right arm sends the Bowie knife flying towards them.

Typically, a Bowie knife will stick into whatever it hits, but nothing is as it should be on this night.

I hear the crack of rifle fire. The round is out of control, spinning off somewhere into the night.

Smitty is running after them, screeching some savage rebel war cry.

Whack, whack, whack! I hear shots from an M16. Probably Smitty’s. I don’t think the VC wanted to play. Instead, they ran from the outrageous Hoa Ky’s.

Smitty’s screeching blends with the clamor of the rain still pitter-pattering all around. The scene is bizarre. My best friend is going berserk, sloshing around in the blood-mixed water. I stand with the two mutilated bodies floating around my feet. The rain pouring down tries helplessly to rinse away the blood and the insanity. I wonder if I should help Smitty. Perhaps drag him back, slap some sense into him. Or, maybe, I ought to sit down in the bloody swamp and simultaneously laugh and cry. But sitting down in this dreadful shit is not an option because that head is in there somewhere. I remember that my M16 is still slung on my back, yet I don’t feel the urgency to remove it. Instead, I walk over to the pipeline, climb on top of it, and sit, waiting for Smitty to return. I just want to go home. I’ve had enough of this for one night. Now it’s time to go.

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