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An excerpt from

MIA: Missing In America

“Take cover! The trees!”

            No, not that way! Pritchard watched Gagliardi and Parker and Leeds charge upstream, take a burst of lead and drop into the water. By some miracle, Mullard and Grabinski had outrun the machine-gunner. On his way to the trenches at the tree line, Lieutenant Pritchard became aware of Sergeant Comer, who he’d lost sight of, right beside him. How could a man with legs like tree stumps move so fast? The others, by freaking out and dashing into the open, had given Pritchard and Comer a brief window of opportunity. But the machinegun now had them in its sights. With bullets peppering the ground, seeing they weren’t going to make it to the trees, they dove into the elephant grass.

            The firing stopped. They lay still, catching their breaths. Pritchard spotted a ditch five yards downstream. Comer saw it too. “C’mon,” he said to the sergeant, and they started crawling. As they slithered into the crevice, a fresh salvo sent dirt clods flying along the crease they’d cut in the earth.

            Then it was quiet. Lying flat on the damp ground, he heard only the sound of his own breathing, insects singing in his ear, and the river’s whispering currents. He was thinking: Comer has a good throwing arm, but the sniper is too far away. We’re going to die here. That fear was reinforced when he saw a body floating at the river’s edge. Parker? Leeds? Goddamned grunts didn’t cotton to taking orders from their lieutenant. They’d heard about Son Nhu. Stories going around that he either ordered the massacre or fled the scene, versions far apart and neither one the truth. If he could have convinced them of what really happened, those men might still be alive. But if they had survived, how could they ever rely on his judgment again? A firefight had separated them from the Company and he had taken them up river where he thought it would be safer—but no place within a hundred miles was safe.

            He closed his eyes, tried to say a prayer. It was useless. He didn’t believe in anything anymore; God, family, country. He felt something cold on his cheek. He opened his eyes. Comer was patting moist dirt on his face. Pritchard dipped a finger in the earth, ready to return the favor, but Daniel Comer, black as coal, grinned and wagged his head. He didn’t need extra darkening. They both shook with contained laughter. Scared as he was, Pritchard found Comer’s presence reassuring. They got along well. Comer liked his lieutenant for the way he came down on a grunt from South Carolina who thought it was okay to call the slain civil rights leader Martin Luther Koon. Pritchard told the smartass to button it. It wasn’t funny to the man who had seen Negroes beaten and hosed in Selma and Montgomery.

“What’s it gonna be, sir?” Comer was asking. “Stay put or move?”

He still had Comer’s trust. For that he could be thankful. The silence continued. As the sun dropped lower in the sky, the sniper would be moving in closer. “We need to get to safer ground,” Pritchard whispered. He tilted back his helmet, expanding his field of vision. “Maybe back the way we came. I’m gonna take a look.”

Ignoring Comer, who was shaking his head no, he pushed up onto his knees. Big mistake. The force of the blow knocked off his steel pot, his eyes seemed to fly from their sockets as daylight whirled and contracted to a pinpoint like water pooling into a final drop before going down a drain. This was what he had been waiting for; the endgame, the end.

Hallelujah, here I go, air express in a black bag.   

            But he didn’t drop off into that coveted deep sleep. His arms flailing about like a battery-operated doll, he felt as if there was helium inside him and he would float up into the sky. There was dizziness, and a ringing in his ears, then no sound at all and he thought he must be wearing the earplugs he used for detonating tunnels.

            Hands grabbed his shoulders to push him down. 

            Was that God coming to his rescue? Is this salvation time? 

            No! Just a black man trying to save this cracker’s skinny ass. 

           Light flickered behind his closed eyelids. The red glow of a burning village became the flashing strobes at the Crazy Horse Bar, then daylight flooding the barn, the old man coming in, catching him and Ginny getting naked. Visions of the past racing by like the world as seen from the rear of a moving train. He had to be dying, yet he felt no fear. Why should he? There was no fiery pit, no fairy tale comeuppance. And then the light became a riot of colors, tropical flora and pristine vegetation and the bluest of skies. Was he in heaven? No. Vietnam before it turned black from choking on rivers of blood and napalm. He had read somewhere that in the throes of death some envision a white light, or watch their life flash before them, but he was doing all of that and more. The earth seemed to have spun backwards a million years to a land without people.

            No people, no war, no killing; a place where no one stands trial for murder.

Opening his eyes, the smell of death was strong in his nostrils. His head felt wedged in a vice, the pain rumbling down his spine into every nerve end. He was dying, he had to be dying. Let it come! Comer, hunkered low, loading a magazine into his M-16, looked over at him, lips moving, real panic in his eyes—something Pritchard hadn’t seen before on that resolute face. Then the agony seemed to dissipate. His ears popped, sound was restored, the tattattattat of the machine gun not what he wanted to hear.

He had been praying for Bravo Company to come over that hill and crush the machine- gunner like a bug. But now, if he wasn’t hallucinating, it was happening! A soldier, one of ours, sliding down on a green ski slope of leaves to the machinegun nest. One man only, but hurling his grenade with the precision of a quarterback sending the ball fifty yards down field. A direct hit! Black smoke cascading from the hillside, the grandest thing Pritchard had ever seen. As he would later learn, this soldier of mercy had been a high school football star.

He had wanted it to end for him. Stop the war, I want to get off. But help came and the instinct for self-preservation put him back in the fight. He traded the old saying, there are no atheists in foxholes, for one that made better sense, forget the fantasy of a hereafter, stay alive. Even as he rejoiced in his own life spared, in the back of his mind he was asking: What difference does one less Charlie make? There are too many of them. We can’t kill them all. These people beat the French with shovels. It’ll end for us the same way. But not before more heinous crimes are committed. And who knew that better than the coward of Son Nhu?


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