Left. Right. Left. Right. Stumble. Left. “Montgom’ry!” The thick voice of the Captain broke the pattern, “You’re up, son”
Blue eyes snapped up and the kid jogged up to the front of the unit, wincing lowly when one of his guns banged a bruise on his hip. He saluted but the older man just laughed, clapping his shoulder before handing over the units radio and walking off without saluting back. He was muttering something Mike wouldn’t understand until years later.
The young E-5 fumbled with the radio and made sure his biggest gun- what was that thing called? XM... something?- was cocked. He sniffled.
Left. Right. Left. Stumble. Left. Right. Click. STOP. Crouch. Hide. Hold your breath. Aim. Wait. Breathe. Don’t breathe. Get back up. Left. Right.
Day 234 goes on with low snatches of conversation behind Mike.
“Swear she’s knocked up...”
“...First thing imma do...”
“...Biscuits and gravy, I think...”
“Boy’d you see the one I shot yesterday?”
“How’s my hair?”
“You think she might like me a little bit?”
As any 18 year old would, Mike assumed, of course, they were talking about him. He tapped his thumb against the cool metal. Was it maybe his hair? He was sure he’d combed it...
If there was anything pretty about Nam it was the sunsets. The endless greens of the scenery... sometimes speckled with brown faces if you were unlucky... made the oranges and pinks and yellows pop. Captains almighty voice yelled out quit’n time.... like the voice of God
To a little boy, a chance to reach into the chocolate chip cookie jar is the chance of a lifetime. The excitement rolls off in waves and into the small lighters. Captain walked around to each sleeping bag containing a man trying not to look eager for the chocolate chip cookie in an envelope.
While waiting, Mike dove into his secret knapsack, the only one without a number on it, and drew out the letter that he had written yesterday, as neatly as possible, smudged with red dust. Or dirt. He wasn’t sure.
Next thing he knew... Captain stood in front of his sleeping bag. He shuffled through the envelopes in his big hand for a long time but Mike was patient. This was clockwork, though it had been 17 days since the last round.
And finally Captain sighed and shook his head lowly. Mikes heart jumped... but calmed when Captain shot him a wink with a low giggle that the young E-5 thought sounded weird. If you wanna hear something strange, it’s the echo of a baritone giggle under the stars of Vietnam.
Either way, when Mike realized Captain was kidding, he grinned at the older soldier. Betty hadn’t forgotten, then.
Captain handed over what the kid was expecting: 17 envelopes- a little wrinkled from their long trip but otherwise perfect. To the hand still reaching out expectantly, Mike offered the dusty envelope, reddened by the earth and scribbled with all the love of a teenage boy wearing a dog tag.
Once Captain had turned his broad back Mike paused for a moment and reached back into his knapsack- drawing out his salvation, bound in a dusty rubber band. 234 letters, eloquently composed and faithfully signed by his Betty. If he tried, really tried, he could smell her light perfume on the newest ones...
PFC barfed beside him. It splattered loudly. Lieutenant moaned something that sounded a lot like “mama”. Colonel laughed and Major cussed him out for waking him up. Someone, probably Medic, threw a Bouncer away from their little camp and the bang shut them all up.
God, he hated this place.
Gently kissing the top of the new stack of letters he brought them into the thermal sleeping bag with him, zipping up. Normally he’d read them before going to bed but he’d been in the front for most of today and God, he was so tired.
Dinner hadn’t been good, not that it really ever was. Tonight their little cold steel ration cans held... something and something and dried out bananas that still stuck to the back of his throat. Bananas... those made him think of Betty (most everything did.) His beautiful Betty back at home. She made the most incredible banana pudding. When he got back, that was the first thing he’d have. He’d kiss her till they were both dizzy and then he’d eat the banana pudding she’d promised him 234 times.
Maybe one day he’d build her a place to eat that banana pudding, someplace better than a kitchen table. Maybe... maybe a place like one of those Paris Cafe’s she loved so much. The small garden running alongside the fence. The charming fairy lights all draped across and the tables filled with happiness... Cats running about... Fairy lights... the sweet taste of banana pudding, and Betty, standing there, more beautiful than ever, because she looked like she belonged in that perfect place, framed by the fairy lights. Banana pudding. 27 Cong could’ve been behind him and the kid wouldn’t have known it. Banana pudding, and Betty, were the only things on his mind. Besides, his AR-something was in the bag with him.
“Night, Betty...” he murmured, “Love you.” And then he turned over and slept. Growing boys need their sleep.
The knapsack rested quietly near the AR-something next to the boy, Betty’s faithful letters pressed close to his racing heart, like a Teddy Bear. They would be there all night, and they would be there when Mike woke up in the morning.