After a sniper shot put Duque down, the peculiar battle of the remote hamlet on the ridges of the Annamite Mountains took on an offensive intensity. Inside Duque’s throat, the made-in-China slug seemed alive and burning. In the wake of being a desintralled spirit for an instant, he was again an injured body and it ached. He gasped for air but with a certain sentiment of honor. The annals of the war in Vietnam would jot down a footnote that he had become the first casualty of the assault on Bao Cat.
As he began to shake away such vain thoughts, three more shots hit the ground around him, no doubt aimed at the nearby machine gunner. Charlemagne 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 and reloaded another belt of ammo.
The platoon a few meters behind Duque and down the sloping path, began to cautiously flank the hamlet through taller foliage. They also let go a rapid rifle fire sequence and a few pistol volleys. Soon Ulises heard the double zoot-zoot of Jairo Jaramillo’s grenade launcher followed by ensuing explosions behind the village pig pen. The attack maneuver, led by the feisty lieutenant Jeremy Popper began at last to garner some operational unity.
“Free fire. Open fire. Move to the quaters,” Duque could gear Popper desperately screaming orders.
Under the protective volley, Papio anxiously crawled back next to Duque and wrapped a sweat towel around his neck to hold the bleeding. He then moved nearer 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 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 in shatters to the hard ground. 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 another terrible pang in his Adam’s Apple and his throat became engorged with saliva. A drivel of blood burped out one side of his mouth.
In this new death throe, the bridled poet in him sprang loose. Just his luck –Duque fancied– a young life oozing vitality into the crystal brook that sprang out from the thick jungle, streaming down hamlet rivulets, past gigantic boulders and cascading to the river valley below. He imagined the waiting waterways beneath him would carry his lifeblood eastward towards the China Sea, on to the oceanic currents. Back home to the west.
Probably not, he assumed. No current backtracks itself. Yet Duque fantasized that once in the Mekong Delta, his life sap would retrace north and taint crimson the River Sai Gon. The majestic Song Sai Gon. Vietnam’s waterway of life and just last summer the backdrop for his love days with Kikei Santos. The setting for his Sai Gon Song to her heart.
The Sai Gon waters. Since time immemorial, Vietnam’s riverine artery –boggy and clouded with the blood of its ancestral poets and patriots. Set now to become the spiritual grave for a foreign bard, sacrificed by comat to love rebuffed. A liquid potter’s field to lay to rest the vital fluids of Ulises Duque, the willing musician of war, yet reluctant warrior. While braveVietnamese souls before him died in patriotic glory for the Fatherland, Ulises was giving up the ghost as a downcast, scorned lover. Or was it spite and impatience?
Drowned in such thoughts, Duque began to tremble. So little time left to figure it all out. He sighed deep and silent, seeking to calm his drumming heart. As spirit and body wrestled to let each other go, Ulises yearned to compose what he expected to be a last sanguine song. A tune in cadence with a swiftly languishing anatomy that would sing no more. A big sob assembled in his throat, but it refused to escape from the bullet-broken crannies of his voice box. Desperate, Ulises searched once more for the monk’s spirit.
Amid the dead tree limbs dangling from escarpments of the Annamite Sierra and ridges fringing the Laotian border, Duque sensed that whatever melody came to him now was no love song. Instead, the ancient requiem soldiers hear when fatally shot in battle. A hymn to the futility of dying without a gallant fight. A farewell dirge to the estrangement of war, accompanied by a choral group of Cambodian vultures. He stared in angst at the expiry birds, sitting there stoic and stern amid the jade choir stalls and pee green misericords of the jungle cathedral.
“God! How long would it be to the end? Rigor mortis will soon set in by this bamboo gate and crumbling monkey bridge and to what purpose?” he cried to himself. Bao Cat… Truly not a quaint place to die, Duque supposed. A place with no strategic value, not even found in ancient Chinese maps. A futile war trophy.
To get to Bao Cat in search of the the guerrilla commander Quyet Thang, all summer Duque plied through piles of tattered Viet Minh war chronicles from the early nationalist rebellions. He peered into old French annals predating the Second Indochina War and some captured rebel diaries, including insurrection battle logs. With translations by lieutenant Boi Pham and prodded on by captain Rodolfo “Ruddy” Cardenas, Duque went on to peruse hundreds of frayed maps, propaganda pamphlets, civil registries or arrest and interrogation records stored in shuttered, dark and damp colonial Securité stations in downtown Saigon. The captain was frenetical in attempting to profile Thang’s real identity and locate his secretive whereabouts. Duque discovered that Quyet Thang was a nom de guerre and it seemed the crafty guerrilla honcho had designed the optimum hideout. As a teenage radical in 1954, after escaping from the infamous French penal island of Paulo Condore disguised as a woman, Thang had been on the run in charge of underground guerrilla cells and assassination squads.
Still clueless by the end of summer, Cardenas –a savvy US Army field intelligence officer–then led Boi and Duque to remote battle sites wherever field testimonials pertinent to Quyet Thang bearings could be jerked out of shady Viet Cong informants, or new and too eager deserters. All to no avail.
Cardenas always carried a leather pouch filled with covert military intel charts that all in the troop figured had accurate tacks for the location of the elusive guerrilla chieftain. All hoped that the haphazardly gathered intelligence would finally convinced the captain that Thang was so invisible because in fact, he layed buried in an unmarked tomb at a village communal cemetery. That would signify the end of an obscure mission, troop disband and return of the Papa, Whiskey, Tango field company soldiers to their original units to wile away their remaining time in Vietnam.
Not quite. Duque recalled how primarily hellbent on exerting reprisal, Cardenas asserted the cunning Viet Cong commander to be alive and deadly, needing to be promptly humiliated, chastised for the rash of executions committed against US and South Vietnamese military officers. Secondly, Duque knew the captain needed to gain fame as a top Vietnam war theater intel officer. But the maps and the old French or Viet Minh tomes did not help his cause. In despair, honed in psychological warfare during his second tour in Vietnam, Cardenas turned to less worldly sources by shifting the quest towards the portals of the Vietnamese spirit world. The phantom chase led to Bao Cat.
Half stunned with such evocations, a gush of chemicals began suffocate Duque’s moribund brain. Memories became a slop of mismatched events and feelings, all swirling about in parallel threads. As his body bled in cinematic slow motion, Ulises felt himself sitting front row to his life drama. Dreamscapes in vivid, chromatic virtuality.
A Bao Cat’s deathbed, Duque felt a final hum of musical strands. The rhapsodies and diapasons of his soul in fugue. A melody for each moment in life. Varying tempos and beats for every ordeal. The inner music vibrated stronger as his body became weaker.
It had always been that way. In him, feelings always took a melodic mood. Emotions became wrapped in tonalities captured from the world around him. Jampa Kuchen, the monk had explained to him that it was the psyche inhaling the effluvia of vibes ejected by living things in the landscape. Duque’s way of metabolizing sentiment with musicality.
He marveled. In the present agony, Ulises evoked a lazy summer afternoon at Firebase Marshmallow when he shut down the grotesque roar of war and composed tunes to homesickness, fleeting love, youthful escapades and to the agony 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 / Use pineapple 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 morale uplifting of Latino grunts in Nam’s perilous 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 Vet commanders took a liking to the catchy rhythms and vigorous swing of 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 human voices. Some arrangements included a rustic, 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 setups at the rustic 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 the dusty dance floors of the military compounds. As Viet Nam Son’s sound spilled all over the boondock enclaves, even the grunt’s macaque mascots twirled and twisted on their perches. Long tails swinging to and fro. Duque conjured it all diaphanously.
“Tropical animals know too well the taste of a jungle sound,” proclaimed Cuban grunt and troupe main vocalist, Mimas Bolaños. Raised in Miami Beach’s rundown South Point, he got rid of the Castillian “ñ” motu propio because when he migrated to the city from Cuba via Spain 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. A succulent mix. Old World, Latin American and tropical music merged and went live to the US military jungle encampments.
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 Latino dance songs of the late 50’s to early 60’s and lots of Antillean calypso. Ah, some 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, the Bronx, majestic Havana. Plus, Duque threw in some mariachi euphoria for the chicano comrade-in-arms. When Viet Nam Son played Cherry, pink and apple blossom in mambo time up at the Marble Mountain Marine Base 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 day sun of the 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, 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 evoked how happily grunts at the firebases north, west and south of Da Nang, or troops arriving at replacement depots in Saigon, fell for Cardena’s musical charade The warriors revelled, stomped their feet, clapped and danced on the sands of China Beach to the polyphony of the impromptu troupe. For the emotionally mangled grunts, Viet Nam Son was but a 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, after all, one big, sonorous wallop. An upbeat expedition under the pyrotechnics of luminescent flares, clouds of purple landing smoke, zinging tracer bullets, to a soundtrack of conga drums and the roll of a thumping rumba. To Duque, at least it seemed so in those initial days of the Papa, Whiskey, Tango assignment.
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 out 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 their surreal days of war.
But, there were arms to 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 pangs of sorrow for all involved.
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