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The Book of Aric

by Doc Sawzall

Chapter 6

A Walk in the Jungle Leads to a German Swamp

"Private Tompkins get your lazy ass back over here" Gunnery Sergeant St Clair screamed knowing full well that Tompkins was the best he had and was without a doubt the man he needed for this mission. He blew the doors off of everyone in this godforsaken command located on some insignificant shit hole of a hill deep in the jungle. He was the best he had seen when it came to moving through the jungle…Imagine that he thought to himself, I may have the only hillbilly the state of Massachusetts produced. If anyone was going to get to General Fallon's downed chopper it was Tompkins.

"Tompkins the Major wants you to lead Lt Brown's squad to the spot where the General's copter was spotted going down. We need you in there before the NVA show up, he's quite a prize and we intend the commie bastards don't get him. Take a couple of sharpshooters from B Squad as well. See if they can't keep your sorry ass out of trouble. Once you have the General and if it is safe to do so, radio your coordinates in and we should have a couple of copters by then to haul your sorry asses back here. If the LZ is tight or the NVA are close then you are to get the General to safety and if you have to, walk their sorry asses back here. Do I make myself clear?

Gunney as everyone called him, wanted his instructions to sink in to everyone going. The implication to all was that Ethan would lead the way. Both the Major and Gunney knew Ethan was the most seasoned hand they had considering half of the troops were green and worst of all the Lt was new to his commission. Coupled with a bunch of raw recruits they hoped Ethan would be able to bring the General back.

"Yes Sir Gunnery Sergeant" Ethan spoke as he saluted. Gunney may be a hard ass but at least he knew the score Ethan thought to himself. Ethan also knew that Gunney kept an eye out for him and was the only other man beside his father he listened to without question.

"Private Tompkins, you are to take what passes for this sad lot of what passes for the best the US Army can give us, and depart at 0900, exactly one hour from now, and get the General back here to base. Take that hour to inspect your equipment, reload and make ready. I will see your pathetic asses back here in one hour…Dismissed!"

Ethan watched as the squad he was about to lead go back to their quarters and get ready. Instinctively he knew while some of the troops were very green there was some potential among them. While he was getting ready he found it hard to believe this tour was nearly up. He had been 'in country' for nearly 18 months. If he were to believe the scuttlebutt he was nearly certain that he would finish out the last two years of Uncle Sam's time in Japan or Korea. He was putting in for something in Europe as he would be that much closer to home and Squirt. He was grateful for the letters from home especially Squirt's. They had to be careful in what they said but nevertheless they were able to keep the flame of their love alive.

While Ethan was getting ready, Gunny wasn't happy they were going out so soon after their last mission. The last month had been pure hell. He had come to lean on Ethan and perhaps more than he should have. In every situation he had come through with flying colors. It wasn't but a couple of weeks ago the Viet Cong tried to overrun the base. They had sustained heavy losses and nearly lost the godforsaken hilltop they sat on. If it hadn't been for Ethan slipping out to a position behind the VC several times, they just may have succeeded. From the locations he chose, he was able to pick off several of the NVA officers. By moving from spot to spot the VC couldn't pinpoint his location and were finally forced to retreat.

It didn't take long for Ethan to get ready. Everything was checked twice and packed carefully. At 0900 Ethan was waiting with Gunney when Lt Brown and his squad showed up. Ethan was given the coordinates and was relieved to see at the worst, it would be a two day mission. Facing the squad Gunney informed them that they were to follow Ethan's lead and do as directed. If they listened and did as instructed they would make it back safe and sound, none the worse for the wear and tear.

While Ethan was inspecting the squad's readiness Gunney took the Lt to the side for a private conversation. Gunney and his contemporaries occupy a special role in the Army. They hold the highest rank a non commissioned office can reach and only after many years of experience. Senior officers lean heavily on them to maintain order, discipline and conduct the training in the lower ranks. Junior officers live in fear of the Gunney's of the world. A cranky or upset Gunney could ruin a promising career. The Lt was told in no uncertain terms to follow Ethan's lead and make use of his experience. While Ethan would not direct the squad, he would make suggestions to the Lt that were to be followed.

The coordinates were right on the money. They had pushed through the night and found their way to the downed copter. Once there they established contact with the copters sentry. While everyone was alive and had survived the crash the news wasn't all good. General Fallon and the pilot were in fact, trapped in the copter. Securing a temporary base at the trailhead on the edge of the clearing, Ethan and his medic moved on to the copter. They had just about reached the copter when several mortar rounds started falling nearby and all hell broke loose.

Seeing to everyone's safety, Ethan assessed the situation. The shells were coming from a hillside overlooking the clearing. The copter was between the NVA's position and Ethan's squad. They had a chance if he could send out two teams through the jungle around either side of the copter. Their covering fire should buy Ethan and the medic the time they needed to extract the General and the pilot. Judging by the volume of incoming fire they were certainly outnumbered. The General would be a real prize, one worth any cost. They would have to move quickly if they were to succeed. Ethan told everyone to meet back at the trailhead in ten minutes. They radioed back to their base and called in the coordinates for supporting cover fire and extraction and were told covering fire and extraction would not be possible; they would be walking back unless a suitable location could be found.

Heading back to the copter Ethan and the medic were able to free the pilot with few problems. The General was another matter. His side of the copter was on the ground and the smell of aviation fuel was strong, they knew they didn't have much time. Once most of the wreckage was cleared from the General, Ethan told the medic to get the pilot back to the trailhead. Cutting the last of the straps holding the General, Ethan was able to free him carefully bringing the unconscious General outside of the copter. Checking for and not finding any obvious damage and hoping there were no serious internal injuries he hoisted the General over his shoulder and started back to the trailhead. He made it about a hundred feet or so when a mortar shell hit the copter sending it up in a ball of flames. Shrapnel went everywhere and Ethan could feel it hit him as he stumbled forward to his knees. Quickly checking himself Ethan felt his wounds were superficial. He was bleeding but he would manage till he got to the trailhead. Setting the General down he had the medic check out the General before he would allow himself to be examined. The rest of the squad followed in shortly after the medic bandaged Ethan's wounds.

Ethan called the Lt over and explained that they should take the unconscious General and start heading back. Ethan would follow and provide cover fire as they pushed back to the base. They had to keep moving and if they hustled they should make it back by dawn tomorrow. Ethan loaded up with extra ammo and grenades from the squad and would wait as long as he could before following them. It was here that his years in the woods hunting would be to his advantage. The NVA wouldn't be looking for him and he could provide covering fire, picking off as many as he could as he followed. As they were closing in on the base he would be able to use the terrain a little better to his liking. The last part of the trail would be uphill through a steep ravine. If he could make it safely to the ravine he would be able to ensure for the squad and the General to make it back safely.

They pushed on through the remainder of the day and deep into the night. They kept moving as quickly as they could. Ethan was able to provide enough cover fire to slow the NVA down. At dawn the General was delivered safely to the base, awake and moving on his own but still groggy. Gunny took a fresh squad and set out to find Ethan and bring him back.

Ethan made it to the top of the ravine about an hour after the rest of the squad, weakened by the loss of blood. He had been bleeding more than he had thought. Taking up a defensive position he waited. When the NVA were close enough he would use the last of his ammo and grenades to delay them further. His strength was fading and he would have to conserve it as he couldn't go any further. Spotting the NVA coming up the slope Ethan rained the last of his grenades down upon them. He had but a few rounds left for his rifle and would use those when he had a clear shot; he needed to make them count. He heard gunfire off towards his left and then more gunfire off towards his right and as he started to fade out he saw the very concerned face of one Gunnery Sergeant St Clair.

Gunney's squad was able to stop the NVA and force them back down the ravine. Ethan was brought to the base medical tent where he was prepped for transport to the nearest field hospital. Other than a few lumps and some nasty superficial cuts the General was fine. The medivac copter was called in and both Ethan and the General left for the medical attention they needed.

Ethan hated the hospital and as he recovered from his wounds he did what he could to stay in shape. He was chomping at the bit to get back and as soon as the stitches were removed he asked for medical clearance to go. Having passed this one last exam he arranged transport back to his base. Gunney, while very glad to see Ethan, tried his best not to let it on. Ethan smartly saluted as Gunney loosed a string of invective down upon him. The cleanest portion had something to do with being; weak, worthless, useless and as clearly evidenced, unable to get laid by the prettiest nurses in the United States Army as they gave him sponge baths.

The routine became familiar again to Ethan as he settled in. The occasional foray out followed by many days of shear boredom. He had been back to base about two weeks when the Major announced that they were to be paid a surprise visit from General Fallon that afternoon. While the camp was being made ready for the Generals visit another message came into the base radio operator. He quickly sent for Gunney and handed him the message. He finished reading the message when the General's copter arrived. He would have to deal with this later. Heading out he quickly assembled the troops for muster. General Fallon was a man of few words and after review the troops were dismissed. The general called Gunney over and asked to be brought to Ethan. Walking over to Ethan, all eyes were on the General and Gunney. Both returned Ethan's salute and the General stepped forward to shake his hand. He thanked Ethan for saving his life and further informed Ethan that from this moment he was promoted and assigned to his staff. Ethan was to become his staff aide and leaving with him that afternoon. Gunney, clearing his throat handed the General the message from the radio operator. Reading the message a scowl immediately formed on the General's face. He asked Gunney and Ethan to accompany him to HQ as the squads were dismissed.

Looking directly at Ethan the General cleared his throat, "Son you saved my life and for that I and my family will be eternally indebted to you. I came here today with every intention of taking you off of this god forsaken hill and making you my aide. However, it seems it is not to be. As he handed Ethan the note he continued talking "It seems as if you are leaving with me today but when we land, you will be taking the very first set of connecting flights back to the states. It would appear your next mission will be to serve your family as they need you at home. Your father has suffered a severe heart attack. In recognition service and call of duty above and beyond, I will process your leave into a compassionate discharge with no loss of benefits. It's the least I can do son, be ready in an hour, we leave then. With that being said, the General shook Ethan's hand and left to see the Major.

For once, Gunny let his guard down. With tears forming in his eyes he grasped Ethan and hugged him. "Son, in all of my years of service you rank among the best if not the best I have ever had the honor of leading. You stand head and shoulders above everyone who served under me. Your service in this man's army was unlimited. It has been my honor to have served with you. Now, before I embarrass myself further go get your gear and get the hell out of here!"

The next twenty four hours were a whirlwind for Ethan. In most cases does the military move at anything but a snail's pace. In Ethan's case, no sooner than the copter took off for the General's HQ then the next connection was made for Saigon. As soon as he arrived he had a four hour layover for his flight to Germany. Ethan made the decision not to call anyone as he wanted his arrival to be a surprise and with any luck he'd be home in forty eight hours. Boarding the plane that would take him to Germany and one step closer to home he took Squirt's picture out of his wallet and kissed it. He couldn't get home soon enough. He couldn't wait to get home, sleep in his own bed, eat his mothers cooking and wrap Squirt in his arms. He'd miss the upcoming semester at the agricultural college but there was always the next one. Squirt would be finishing his junior year of high school. Ethan's schooling would be paid for through the GI Bill and instead of a four year difference there would only be one. Strapping himself into his seat wondered if he would have time for dinner and a beer in Germany. Just before the plane was due to land Ethan got up and relieved himself. Shortly after buckling back in, the plane began to experience turbulence and seemed to be bouncing all over the place. Ethan grabbed his dog tags and said a silent prayer. All around him the noise and the bouncing continued to get worse, quickly becoming unbearable. Just when it seemed it couldn't last any longer, the plane hit the ground with a loud explosion. He felt himself being thrown from the plane as he lost consciousness.

Military Intelligence is at best an oxymoron. When it was apparent there were no survivors of the crash the notification process started. Once started it can be frightening to see how fast the service can deliver bad news. The planes manifest listed all of the passengers and crew and their hometowns along with next of kin. Within twenty four hours of the crash, military chaplains fanned out across the country to deliver news no family ever wanted to hear.

We were just finishing up breakfast when Mr. Tompkins heard the car pulling down the driveway. As he got up from the table, Mrs. Tompkins was looking out the kitchen window as she was washing the morning's dishes. A platter dropped as a low guttural moan escaped from her lips. What started out as a low moan became more frantic…No…No…Dear God…Noooo, not my baby…not my baby…please…not my baby!!

Mr. Tompkins moved quickly to her side and brought her to the table. As he was helping her to sit there was a knocking at the door. I got up to answer the door wondering what all of the fuss was about so early on a Sunday morning. Opening the door I was stunned to see him standing there and the next few minutes were a blur of horrible gut wrenching news. Time compressed as our spirits were sucked from us and clear out of the kitchen and our souls rent asunder. There isn't any way to deliver such news of terrible importance than to say the words no parent, sibling or lover should ever hear. "It is with the deepest regret that we inform you that your son, Ethan Tompkins gave his life in the service of his country."

Nothing more needed to be said, my world as I knew it was over, destroyed in less than twenty seconds. I ran to the bathroom and lost breakfast. I couldn't believe what I had just heard, it wasn't possible. It had to be some horrible mistake, I would go back out into the kitchen and everything would be normal. Splashing cold water over my face to erase the evidence of my shock I thoroughly dried off having convinced myself everything was ok. When I walked back out into the kitchen Eddy was at the table having just come down from upstairs after hearing the commotion. His face was soaked with his tears, he was trembling and inconsolable. Having just recovered from a major heart attack, Mr. Tompkins was an unhealthy shade of pale. I was in autopilot as everything I held dear was lost to me forever, I became an empty vessel. I was disbelieving and numb to the news, news that could not possibly be true. As I watched Mrs. Tompkins bury her head in her husband's chest a myriad of emotions continued their onslaught within me, I was losing the battle for my humanity. I vacillated between a stunned disbelief, righteous anger and an incomprehensible acceptance of a finality I could not possibly imagine. My faith was shattered, my face was flushed and red hot and I could not cry. It would be giving in, letting go and accepting what the Chaplain had told us. My fists alternated from clenched by my sides to running my hands alongside my head as I struggled for the words to make this go away. My lips would try to form the words but nothing came out.

Mr. Tompkins gathered us together for a group hug, as I looked at him I could clearly see he wasn't doing so well and the Chaplain had noticed also. He suggested we move into the living room. As they headed towards the living room I went to the phone and called the Good Doctor, he would be right up. I also called my parents and they were on their way as well. After I put the phone down is when the shock in all of its infinite pain shut me down. I clearly don't remember much after that. I was separated from my physical being, disembodied, lost in a cold fogbank of despair.

Somehow the necessary calls were made, farm chore and schoolwork done, mountains of food would magically appear and just as promptly disappear as others took over the mundane chores of daily farm life. A suit was brought to me and a schedule of events was laid out. There would be a church service and a wake at the local funeral home. What were found of Ethan's remains were flown back. It would be a closed casket with a picture of him on top. I was asked to help select the picture. It was a poor consolation as I would not get to see him one last time. I selected a picture of him coming around the corner of the workshop one sunny afternoon. He's wearing his bib overalls and boots, nothing else. The sun was highlighting him and the background in deep shadows was slightly out of focus. He is smiling from ear to ear and light casts a golden aura around him in an ethereal glow. It showed him in his prime, a fine young strapping man approaching his zenith.

He would be kept at the local funeral home and I insisted that I be allowed to sit with him. His family agreed and each brother in rotation would sit with Ethan so someone was with him until the sweet, rich earth of the farm would hold him safe. We all took our turns, sometimes alone and sometimes together as we held vigil. The only time I left his side was to answer calls of nature.

His coffin was draped in the American flag. The Honor Guard fired their salute. As taps was played the flag was presented to his parents. We all had a moment to speak with him and when it was my turn I asked that Ethan wait for me, to be there when I was finally called home. He was lowered into the grave and we all helped cover him with a blanket of the healing soil of the farm.

I stood there for some time as all of the mourners paid their respects and left. I'm not sure just how long I was there when Mr. Tompkins came over to me and handed me a letter. To my surprise it was from Ethan, addressed to me. As he handed me the letter I could see it was just the two of us standing there. Placing a hand aside my neck he extracted a promise that I would come find him, he would be on the porch and sit with him for a spell, when I was finished. He kissed me on the forehead and walked back down to the farmhouse.

Dieter Hoffmann was up early that day. He needed to get down to the fields that bordered the runway. With all of the excitement of yesterday he couldn't get close with all of the fire trucks, ambulances and emergency personnel. He needed to see what if any damage had been done so he could complete the necessary paperwork for reimbursement for any damage that might have happened.

As near as he could tell, the plane first crashed short of the runway, near or in the swamp that separated his property from the airfield before bouncing back up and finally coming to rest further down the runway. Heading down in his tractor Dieter noticed it appeared to look promising. The plane missed the lower field and seemed to have first touched down about a hundred meters into the swamp. After scouting the lower edge of the field that bordered the swamp, Dieter followed with his eyes the raw scar the impact of the plane had formed. Getting off the tractor and silently thanking himself for the foresight to have put on his barn boots, as it would be muddy work on this excursion. Stepping into the swamp and carefully threading his way in Dieter noticed some pieces of the downed plane scattered about the area. What caught his eye though was a seat nestled against some saplings. Walking closer he could see that the seat was in fact occupied with what appeared to be a dead body. Coming closer he could see the twisted tangled mess left no doubt that the occupant of the seat was dead. Knowing that there wasn't anything that could be done, Dieter went back to his farmhouse and called the airbase. Shortly after, a team was sent out to recover the body.

Dieter led the recovery team back down through the lower fields to the spot where he had noticed the body, still strapped in his seat, in the swamp. Stepping back so the recovery team could get to the body he couldn't help but offer a silent prayer for the poor man's unfortunate family. He knew that many tears would be shed by the unfortunate soul's family upon hearing the news. While lost in his own thoughts on the tragic incident, Dieter heard a shout out that the dead man was in fact alive. All at once the recovery crew started moving with a greater sense of urgency.

With the greatest of care, the recovery crew cut the saplings from around the airplane seat so they could get a better idea of what they had to work with. It was apparent that the left leg and right arm were badly damaged by the angles they were bent in. They also noticed that there were many superficial cuts as evidenced by the many rips and tears in his clothing.

As Dieter watched the recovery team work he thought it was a miracle that this unfortunate soul had survived thus far. If he had to bet on how much longer he would last, it wouldn't be long he thought. Knowing there was nothing left for him to do; he turned and headed back home. Again he said a silent prayer for the man and his family but didn't hold out much hope. It was a sight he was sure would stay with him for some time and a few stiff shots of schnapps would help him pass the remainder of the day and ease the pain he felt for the unfortunate man's family.

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