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 at 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 and crushed by his battlefield luck, Duque realized the 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 shitted in my pants,” Duque said shamelessly.

Papio grunted. “Hell, it’s those cold C-rations we had for breakfast. Uuggg!  A 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 moved lower now into 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 to the bamboo gate. Was the gate 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 bubble 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 whistling 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 Quchen appeared to him in a soft burst of pure light. no flesh, 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. It appeared as a diffused 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. Merely 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 spiritual 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 gently shutting down. In seconds his anima slowly dislodged from each molecule, each cell and surprisingly, it all turned out to be painless. At last, Ulises knew how physical life easily drained away from the human shell into 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; a being 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 became perfectly euphoric and alive; attuned to the arriving soul.  Exactly as Jampa Quchen had proclaimed. A vibrational symphony to the purest 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. The faint, last tremolos of his human voice.

But, the tumult of the surrounding war set in again. Duque heard the screams of wild monkeys, a far warble of forest birds and the nearby sad, muffled whimpers of gunner, Papio Pina. Good old Pap Eye, a 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 mind what he imagined to be a sanguine song, in cadence now with his wildly beating heart. A melodic throb seeking escape out the veins with the rhythm of a dying soldier’s 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 of the Annamite Sierra and its fringes with the Laotian border, Duque knew that what ever melody came to him now was really 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. He stared in angst at the expiry birds as they sat there amid 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.

“God! Rigor mortis will soon to set in by the foot of a dilapidated bamboo gate and a crumbling monkey bridge. To what purpose?”  he cried to himself.

To get to Bao Cat and capture the guerrilla commander Quyet Thang, Duque remembered how all summer long        -prodded on by captain Rodolfo “Ruddy” Cardenas–  he perused old Viet Minh chronicles from the  Nationalist rebellions predating the Indochina War. Once examined, the captain moved on to collect 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 where Cardenas expected to find Quyet Thang alive or at the extreme, buried in a rustic tomb under the village cemetery. Hellbent on reprisal, Cardenas wanted the Viet Cong commander alive to chastise and humiliate him. Secondly, to gain fame as a top field intel officer.

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

In this evocations, moribund chemicals began to react in Duque’s brain. Memories became a slop of withered events and feelings swirled about in parallel threads.  As his body bled in cinematic slow motion, Ulises felt he had a front row seat to the drama of death among so many last and lost impressions.  The burial hymn in his soul soon gave way to a syncopated, jazzy burst of webbed recollections and most surprisingly, it all felt natural and precise.   

The music within vibrated stronger as his body became weaker.  All his life this was the only way Duque knew to metabolize sentiment.  With musicality. In him, feelings always took the form of a melodic mood and a tone. Emotions came to him in low pitch notes captured from the effluvia of frequencies and vibes ejected by humans around him.

Now at Bao Cat he felt how the fibers of his soul were made of musical strands and not sparks of radiation as Jampa Quchen had pointed out. Each moment of his life was but a constant song sung to the ambiguity  of life. 

In his 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, the love nostalgia, to 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 pineapple  grenade and 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 forward position firebases and played twice to US military headquarters troops in Saigon. The allied Vietnamese military commanders at Tan Sun Nhut were mystified. This music was too far from the inelastic, traditional court music of the emperor days or the sullen, high-pitched notes of the national folklore.  Yet, Duque found they VVet commanders took a liking to the rhythm and the vigorous swing the band’s tropicalia style.

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 bought 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.

Duque preferred playing au naturale, no speakers or electrical hook ups for both a clear sound and practical setup at the forward bases.  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 dusty dance floors of the military compounds.  As Viet Nam Son’s sound spilled all over the boondocks enclaves, even the grunt’s long-tailed macaque mascots twirled and twisted on their perches.

“Tropical animals know too well the taste of jungle sound,” proclaimed Cuban grunt and the troupe’s  main vocalist, Mimas Bolanos.  Born as Miamas Bolaños, he got rid of the Castillian  “ñ”   motu propio because when he migrated from Cuba via Spain to Miami as a child, his gringo teachers got tongue-twisted when calling out his name.  In Nam, he dug up from his duffel bag an old girlfriend’s Spanish castanets and they were also thrown into the band’s instrumentation.  Old World, Latino America and tropical music merged and went to the Vietnamese jungle.

Laying still and almost exsanguinate, Duque evoked the bizarre joy the band’s music stirred up amidst the rancor of battle. The band’s fare included top Latino dance songs of the late 50’s to early 60’s and lots of Antillean calypso and some of recent bossa nova sensuality. Viet Nam Son also cracked up mambo, boleros, three-step cha-cha-cha and the latest charanga styles from the streets of Upper Manhattan or the Bronx. Plus, Duque threw in some mariachi euphoria for the chicano comrades in arms. When Viet Nam played Cherry, pink and apple blossom in mambo time up at Marshmallow Hill, even chaplain Lombardi torqued his groin.

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 along and below the Demilitarized Zone of central Vietnam.  As impromptu dance partners, the nurse entourages and the Donut Dollies at the larger hospital bases gave the shows a perfumed, coiffured feminine touch. Atop the improvised bandstands, as he strung the acoustic 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.

In a vapor memory, Duque  evked how happily 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, Vietnam 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 might 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 a thumping rumba. For Duque, at least it seemed so in those initial days of  the Papa, Whiskey, Tango platoons.

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, title name mattered little when soon Duque found the band would be disbanded.

The sextet’s mission,though short-lived did become a joy for the Tango platoon. It provided the foot soldiers with some soulful satisfactions and a sense of reverie amidst the folly of the surreal days of war.

But, there were arms ta bear and strange tidings to bare as Duque stumbled upon a less musical truth. The Son 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.