Chapter 1 – Transfigurations

Ulises Duque, a petty believer, asked God for succor in his lonesome calamity. Swiftly, he heard a flutter of angel wings over the skies above the jungle canopy of Bao Cat village. His sweaty eyes scanned the blue above and soon caught sight of the envoys from heaven.

A flock of vultures. Maybe a dozen.

The fowl lazily swept in from the west, perching atop the volcanic boulders that encircled the old village forest. They sat there, transfixed.

“I did not pray for birds of prey,” Duque sobbed. Tears of contempt and anguish screamed out to a high heaven. A smaller flock of the bare-neck fowl also swept in from the northern rim of the sierra. Younger ones. He surmised a grub quarrel was in the making.

One by one, the new birds perched on the deformed branches of dead trees still precariously hanging from the surrounding mountain cliffs. Trees splintered many years ago by the clumsy carpet bombings and toxic chemicals of the old French dirty war.

Duque lost hope. To while away the minutes towards his end, he began counting the birds as they fastidiously roosted nearer to him. Then the vision came.

Yet…

A few instants before, in disconsolation, Duque perceived how the new American war had finally arrived at Bao Cat. A millennium of backwardness and distance from the political power centers had kept the hamlet lulled and forsaken inside the shrubby uterus of Vietnam’s central cordillera. Then, on that October day of 1967, all hell broke loose.

Rat-tat-tat-tat-rrraaaatttttt-tat, tat.

The bullets first hit the uphill path to the village, springing up tiny gusts of splintered rock, lead shrapnel and dust right in front of Duque.

“The Vietcong is farting lead,” yelped Papio Pina, his husky voice strained with battlefield uncertainty. The machinegunner crouched a bit lower into the fern grass, squatting a mere spitting distance from the bamboo gate to the hamlet. Duque also crouched closer to the entrance, M-16 rifle in full automatic. Both were spearheading the assault on Bao Cat.

“Zone’s hot now,” whispered Duque

“Yeah, man. Them sneezin’ gunpowder and coughing hard bullets. Thirty calibers, too,” Papio muttered in a hushed tone. He moved his face about, nose to the air. “It stinks of caca. Maybe water buffalo dung?”

“No, man. It’s me. I’ve just shit in my pants,” Duque said shamelessly.

Papio grunted. “Hell, it’s those cold C-rations we had for breakfast. Uuggg!  Mush of lima beans and cold franks. My stomach aches, too.”

“No. It’s fear, man. Steel cold, fucking fear,” Duque insisted.  He noticed that suddenly Papio fell into a trance. His voice became muffled and the eyes of the bulky negro took on a look of dread.

“Hey man, something bad is about to happen,”  Papio coughed out in a strained voice.

Both squatted lower in the tall elephant grass lining both sides of the path, past the ferns.  A small ridge separated the hamlet from the uphill trail. Duque appraised the rustic wood bridge over a stream that connected the stone footpath leading to the bamboo gate. Was it bobby trapped?  A hot breeze wafted in from the South China Sea. It felt to Duque as if a Chinese dragon was breathing down his neck.

Suddenly, he caught Papio staring at him more intensely, a tear running down his buddy’s fatty cheek. The hefty warrior with the teenage face, a graft in Vietnam from Manhattan’s Spanish Harlem, began babbling out a loud an unintelligible prayer.

“Shut up, man. We’re in hush mode. And besides, you’re scaring me shitless!,” Duque hissed. He looked up again. Faraway in the eastern horizon, a flight of helicopters scoured the Da Nang coastline at low altitude. A Cayuse broke off the left air flank, rose high and headed westward towards the Black Mountains, straight to Bao Cat.

Duque shifted his eyes back and forth. He gauged again the village gate and then observed his buddy gunner hunch lower and crawl closer towards Ulises. He had more tears in his eyes.

Adios amigo. You’re going to die now,” cried Papio softly.

Duque rubbed the sweat from his brow, his hand soiled with the red dust of the jungle trail.

Cállate negro. You’re seeing things again”. But, his combat comrade only stared at him even more entranced and cried silently some more.

“Shit!,” cursed Duque , “that’s what happens when you go to war with necromancers. Just shut up, man.”

A bullet cleaved the air. Duque’s body hitched up violently as if a tense, metal spring uncoiled deep inside his spine. A high-speed AK-47 round had just pierced his throat. He rolled on his back in a spasm and saw the apparition.  Up in the clouds, the monk Jampa Kuchen appeared to him in a soft burst of pure light. unrobed, surrounded by a billow of satin glow. Or was it simply a mirage of a Buddha statue?

Duque could see the specter inside a clean puff of crystal energy just above the forest canopy, in front of him and facing west. A diffuse figure devoid of any earthly trappings. No torn, dusty robe, no worn out leather sandals, nor the small tithe bag usually hanging from the monk’s shoulder. A simple, pure form of  light.

“Welcome to the universal web of souls,”  an oozy, melodic voice inside Duque’s head proclaimed.  “As you can see, upon death we go on to become a spirit spark. We are not  cinders,  nor dust of the Earth. We become light of the stars. Remember what I told you… Stars are the neurons of God.”

The vision lasted a mere instant. Soon the holy man vanished into the refulgence of the early afternoon sun as it slowly sunk over the mountain range. After the initial defensive shots from inside the hamlet, all became still.

Immediately, Duque began bleeding to death, his vital pulses shutting down. In seconds  his  anima  began slowly dislodging from each molecule, each cell of his body and surprisingly, it all turned out to be painless. At last, Ulises knew how physical life easily drains away from the human shell and into the ethereal dimensions, as the stranglehold of mortality lets go.

“So this is death,” he mused, searching the sky again for the monk’s presence. Only the vultures were there and closer.

In minutes, Duque surmised, he would be a different being, a flicker of starlight, as described by the gentle monk; soon to be fused with the rhythm of faraway cosmic pulses where there was no battle, no canister explosions, no wop-wop of flying war machines. A spirit silently sliding into a timeless bliss where colors and at last…  musicality become perfectly euphonic and alive; attuned to the arriving soul.  Exactly as Jampa Kuchen had proclaimed. A vibrational symphony to the real life forces and pure emotions of the afterlife.  Yes, true music…  the allure of Duque’s life. He so wished now to reach such a happy state immediately.

“How does one die quickly, monk?” Ulises queried in a low, trembling voice. His last tremolos of human voice.

But a deeper silence of the surrounding war set in. Duque heard only he distant screams of wild monkeys, a far warble of forest birds and the nearby sad, muffled whimpers of gunner, Papio Pina. Good old Pap Eye, the clairvoyant of death.

   

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Chapter 2 – Zinged

   

 

After the first sniper shot that took Duque down, the peculiar battle for the lonely, remote hamlet on the ridges of the Annamite Mountains took on an offensive intensity. He had swallowed the high-velocity AK-47 slug  –made in China–  taking it in the middle neck. Thus, Ulises garnered one glory as a Nam combatant, the first casualty of the assault on Bao Cat.

Papio Pina, nicknamed Pap Eye –because soldiers usually baptize each other with suitable battlefield monikers– snapped out of his stupor. He moved forward towards the gate, knelt on one leg and let out a long blast of suppressive fire with the M-60.  He then hit the ground low again.

The troopers behind him a few meters down the sloping path, began to cautiously surround the hamlet through taller foliage. They also let go a rapid rifle fire sequence and a few pistol volleys. Ulises could hear the double zoot-zoot of Jairo Jaramillo’s grenade launcher followed by ensuing explosions behind the village pig pen. The attack maneuver, now led by feisty lieutenant Jeremy Popper began at last to garner some operational unity.

“Free fire. Open fire. Move to the flanks,” Duque could gear Popper screaming orders.

Under the protective fire, Papio anxiously crawled back next to Duque and wrapped a sweat towel around his neck to hold the bleeding. He then moved back near to the gate entrance and let out a few more bursts of machine gun fire.

Bullets zinged all around the hamlet, ricocheting off the volcanic boulders or were swallowed swiftly by the thin, straw walls of the huts. Clay pottery atop rustic benches at the central plaza split up into fragments as straw baskets tumbled all over the hard ground in shatters.  A hog, half his snout blown away by shrapnel, ran around crazily, squealing in pain. Chicken, geese, ducks and an old rooster sought refuge in the shrubs.

Ulises did another eye search for the sniper.  No sight of villagers anywhere. He got the sense that the dwellers, or their custodial guerrillas were now in deep trenches, in  tunnels or sniping from atop the thicker trees above the ridge.

Immediately after the apparition vanished, Ulises felt a pang in his Adam’s Apple and his throat became incandescent. A drivel of blood burped out one side of his mouth.

In his death throe, the bridled poet in him sprang loose. Just his luck –Duque fancied– a young life oozing its vitality into the crystal brook that sprang out from the thick jungle, streaming in rivulets past gigantic boulders and cascaded to the river valley below. How he wished the waiting waterways beneath would carry his lifeblood eastward towards the China Sea, on to the oceanic currents.

Once in the Mekong Delta, Duque willed his sap would then retrace back north to taint crimson the River Sai-gon. The majestic Sai Gon Song. The waterway of his love days with Kikei Santos. Vietnam’s riverine artery,  boggy and clouded already with the blood of Vietnamese ancestral poets and ancient patriots by the unfinished struggle to liberate their land from foreign colonialists and native exploiters. It would be befitting, Duque fantasized, that his energies then be one with the spirit of the Sai Gon waters, in a grand fluid finale of warriors and poets. A paradoxical homage for him as the willing musician of war, yet reluctant warrior.

As spirit and body wrestled to let each other go, Ulises composed in his brain what he imagined to be a sanguine song, in cadence with his wildly beating heart. A melodic throb seeking escape out the veins with the rhythm of a dying soldier’s thumping regret of going away without saying goodbye. He wanted to cry it all out load but only a muffled moan came out his broken voice box.

Amid the dead tree limbs dangling from escarpments at the Annamite Sierra and its fringes with the Laotian border, Duque readily knew that what he sensed was the agony of a death chant. The ancient requiem soldiers hear when fatally shot in battle. A croon to the futility of dying without a gallant fight. A dirge of farewell about the estrangement of war and of pointless death. Ungraciously accompanied by a chorus of vultures about to feast on the fresh remains of a fallen, guileless soldier-poet. Expiry birds sitting by the choir stalls and misericords of the jungle cathedral.

Bao Cat… Truly not a quaint place to die, Duque thought. A place with no strategic value, a spot not even found in ancient Chinese maps. Rigor mortis soon to set in by the foot of a dilapidated bamboo gate and a crumbling monkey bridge. To what purpose?  he cried.

To get to Bao Cat and capture the guerrilla commander Quyet Thang, Duque remembered how all summer long  –prodded by captain Rodolfo “Ruddy” Cardenas–  with extreme efforts he perused old Viet Minh chronicles from the  Nationalist rebellions predating the Indochina War. And from there, the captain moved on to forgotten French war annals and then to field testimonials from shady Viet Cong informants or insurgent deserters. All to no avail.

In despair, they turned to less worldly sources as they shifted the quest to the portals of the Vietnamese spirit world. The phantom chase led to Bao Cat. Cardenas expected to find Quyet Thang there alive or, at the extreme, buried in a rustic tomb seven feet under the village cemetery.

Duque remembered how In those days, the captain, as if an appendage to his anatomy carried everywhere a leather pouch filled with covert military intel charts that he figured had bearings for the location of the elusive guerrilla a chieftain and his remote hideout in the Annamite highlands.

Evoking such affairs, memories soon became a slop of withered events and feelings  swirling about in parallel threads.  Moribund chemicals began to react in his brain. As his body bled in cinematic slow motion, Ulises felt he had a front row seat to the drama of death and lost impressions.  The prior burial hymn in his soul now gave way to a syncopated, jazzy burst of webbed recollections and most surprisingly, it all felt natural and precise.   

All his life this was the way Duque knew to metabolize sentiment. In him, feelings always took the form of a melody, a mood and a tone. Simply, he inferred at Bao Cat, maybe the fibers of his soul were made out of musical strands and not sparks of radiation as Jampa Kuchen had pointed out. Each moment of his life was but a song sung to the ambiguity  of life. 

In present agony, Ulises evoked the very few lazy summer afternoons at Firebase Marshmallow when he shut down the grotesque roar of war and composed tunes to homesickness, love nostalgia, youthful escapades and even the perplexity of military disruption. He remembered the jocular calypso he strung together with his guitar for the Papa, Whiskey, Tango company troupe. One line for each of the troop’s three ragtag platoons.

Papa loves mambo  /  Our captain loves Whiskey   /  It takes two to Tango   /   Search and destroy too risky   /  Grab a grenade and a mango /  Make the VC scramble…   

The tune lacked no festivity. It reeked with tropical verve and an unstoppable conga beat. Under captain Cardena’s behest and Duque’s musical mentorship, the Tango platoon came together as a Latin pop band for the morale uplifting of Latino grunts in Nam’s precarious First Corps  tactical zone. For a short spell that summer of 1967, the ensemble did a string of tours along central Vietnam’s firebase and played twice to US military headquarters troops in Saigon. The allied Vietnamese military commanders at Tan Sun Nhut were mystified. This music was so far from the inelastic, traditional court music of emperor days or the sullen, high-pitched notes of the national folklore.  Yet, all took a liking to to the rhythm and to the vigorous swing.

Ulises baptized the ensemble Viet-Nam Son. Partly to respect the Vietnamese tradition of dividing names into syllables and also in homage to the pleasurable, the unholy sensuality of the Cuban montuno son

The Papa, Whiskey, Tango sextet included two guitars, trumpet, an old German accordion brought in Da Nang’s black market,  PX bongos made in Japan, a home-fashioned conga with water buffalo hide, a pair of cracked maracas and three voices. Some arrangements included a handheld marimba that staff sergeant Chuco Tabal fashioned out of  Vietnamese noble woods he found in the rural villages. The marimba gave the troupe a sugary, cinnamon sound straight out of Mexico’s Chiapaneca jungles. When coupled with bongos, sticks or clave, the band exuded out a fiery, flirtatious footwork that no sane, living thing could forsake at he dance floor.  As Viet-Nam Son’s sound spilled all over the forward artillery bases, even the grunt’s long-tailed macaque mascots twirled and twisted on their perches.

“Tropical animals know too well the taste of jungle sound,” sang Cuban grunt and the troupe’s  main vocalist, Mimas Bolanos. Born as Bolaños, Mimas got rid of the Castillian  “ñ”   motu propio  because when he migrated to Miami as a child, his gringo teachers got tongue-twisted when calling out his name.  He also dug up from a duffle bag an old girlfriend’s Spanish castanets and they were also thrown into the band’s instrumentations.

Laying still and almost exsanguinate, Duque evoke the bizarre joy the band’s music set off amidst the rancor of battle. The musical fare included Latino dance music of the late 50’s to early 60s. Viet-Nam Son cracked up mambo, boleros, three-step cha-cha-cha and the latest charanga styles from the streets of Upper Manhattan or the Bronx. Also, some mariachi euphoria for the chicano comrades in arms.

The almost Cuban national hymn, Guantanamera was a favorite of the crowds in their olive drab jungle fatigues as they sat under the dog days sun of the rustic, unshaded military bases below the Demilitarized Zone.  As impromptu dance partners, the nurse entourages and the Donut Dollies at the larger hospital bases gave the shows a perfumed, feminine touch. Atop the improvised bandstands, as he played the guitar, Ulises remembered looking into the crowd faces trying not to seep in how many of the spectators would not be there for the next performance. Tango platoon musicians, included.

Grunts at the firebases north, west and south of Da Nang and troops arriving at replacement depots in Saigon, fell for Cardena’s musical charade  The warriors reveled, stomped their feet, clapped and danced on the sands of China Beach to the polyphony of the impromptu troupe. For the emotionally mangled grunts, Sai-gon Son was but tuneful respite from the gruel and dread of the long-range patrols and the lethal ambushes.

The cherry soldiers not yet in battle, upon arriving to a Viet-Nam Son show, probably imagined their war tour was to be, in spite of it all, one big, sonorous wallop. An upbeat expedition under the pyrotechnics of luminescent flares, clouds of purple landing zone smoke, zinging tracer bullets with a soundtrack of battle drums and the sweet roll of thumping rhumba.

In late June, during a solstice day tour at the US Tan Son Nhut airport compound, Ulises recalled how a naval commander from  Pentagon East  who had recently deployed to Nam after a tense Missile Crisis tour at Cuba’s Guantanamo Base, ordered a name change. The officer insisted that a “G” be added at the end of the band’s name.  He figured that “Song” was to be more acceptable and inclusive of the American GIs that were not of Hispanic extraction. Thus, much to Duque’s chagrin, the troupe became Viet-Nam Song. Of course, Duque found out, no one cared about the sound of the name, except the sound of the band.

The sextet’s mission became a short-lived joy. It provided the foot soldiers with some soulful satisfaction and a sense of purpose amidst the folly of the surreal days of war. But, soon enough though, Ulises Duque toppled with a too unmusical truth. The band was but a ruse for a more deadly, shadowy military mission that was to bring peril, harm and moans of sorrow for all involved.