Page 26

Adventures In A Borrowed Cream Puff

  At 0900 hours on a Thursday in mid-September I was traveling alone,  unless you counted Otis, Jim, Janis, Jimmy, John, Paul, George, and  Ringo, who were all sitting stacked neatly on end in a makeshift tape  case. The only item on my agenda was to deliver some crates to LZ  Action, a fire support base near the entrance of the Mang Yang Pass.  When I arrived at the gate, a well-pressed MP waved me on.

The  war seemed to be on hold; helicopter noise was minimal, night-time  artillery shelling had come to a halt, and reports of fighting had  ceased. I pulled away from the camp without the usual nervous stomach  caused by fear and an uneasy sense of the unknown. But, I didn't have to  drive very far to be reminded of the war zone without boundaries. A  detour around a blown up bridge, a burned out truck rusting in a ditch, a  forest leveled by Orange, were all reminders that I wasn't on a  leisurely drive for a day at the beach.

The most unusual aspect  of this journey wasn't that I was driving fearlessly, but that I was  driving someone else's vehicle—a brand new deuce-and-a-half. The  odometer on this cream puff was still in double digits. When I ground  her gears as I headed through Pleiku, I, without question, felt guilty.

The  trip went smoothly; the day warm and breezy. The soft blue sky was  uncommonly clear.  It was the kind of day I wanted to bottle up and save  for the first wet, depressing, gray afternoon that was sure to darken  the calendar before the week was over.

Rounding a curve on Hwy.  19 just short of the Mang Yang I spotted a red sign that proclaimed in  bright yellow letters, “LZ Action—home of the famous Billy G Action—next  right—food—lodging— fire support.” Directly across the road from Action  sat the burned out rusted hulk of an M-42 Duster. I unloaded my cargo  in record time, and, without the temptation to visit, started on my  return trip. With a large chunk of the clock to kill, I decided to take  my time and a detour. The word was out that a bus station of sorts, out  in the middle of nowhere, had fresh American submarine sandwiches. There  was a rumor of real ham, roast beef, and turkey. After a short drive,  my hunt was over. I pulled into this strange oasis on a hilltop and  followed the smell. Moments later spread out before me on a makeshift  picnic table, was a big, sloppy sub with a variety of fresh produce  hanging out from between two pieces of a newly cut wheat roll. The smell  of the freshly baked bread brought an instant feeling of homesickness.

   I took a large bite and chewed for a long time, allowing this fantasy  feast to caress my taste buds. Each chew was a slow-motion grind that  gave all the parts of my anatomy involved the time to enjoy the sensual  pleasures of real food.

Washing down the first half of the  sandwich with a large swig of an ice-cold Coke, I watched a large, old  bus maneuver through the unpaved parking lot. The gravel crackled under  the weight of its over-capacity cargo. All the nearly bald tires needed  air. Each shift in direction created different sized rubber bubbles. The  front end of this mass of rusted metal just missed the rear bumper of  my borrowed cream puff.

The guts under the hood sputtered,  wheezed, shook and popped as it came to rest under a makeshift tin  canopy. The gray monster fell quiet, its door squeaked open, and the  first of its human cargo tumbled onto the gravel. A body, which I  couldn't discern to be male or female, looked at me as it pushed itself  into a wobbly standing position. I felt embarrassed as I caught myself  staring. I felt like a five-year-old at a mall, pointing at a one-legged  man. But a child would be curious and inquisitive. I felt pity and  revulsion.

Before me stood, with the help of makeshift crutches, a  rag-wrapped man I guessed to be middle aged, with open sores, white  scaly scabs, and stubs for hands and feet. His hair was wispy, dull and  patchy, not at all like the full, shiny black hair of most Vietnamese. I  lowered my eyes and gathered the remainder of my sandwich as more  heart-wrenching examples of nature's cruelty began to regurgitate from  the bowels of the big, now silent, bus. Men and women in various stages  of disease began to fill the lot.

I clutched my sandwich in one  hand, my Coke in the other, and slid along the picnic bench toward my  truck. I reached it without making additional eye contact with those in  the parking lot and flung open the door, almost hitting a teenage boy  who was asking me to buy some souvenir trinkets. While pointing to some  plastic jewelry I didn't need, I asked him about the people on the bus. I  handed him a handful of ‘monopoly’ money and looked at him for the  first time since we started our transaction. He was thin and dirty, but  quite handsome. He smiled at my overpayment of at least a hundred P  (Piasters; Vietnamese currency) and answered my question with one word,  “Lepers.” I responded with a simple “Oh” and stepped into my truck.

I  drove off into Mother Nature's contradiction; the sky was blue, and the  air was warm, but much of her human landscape was decaying. War and  disease, two of the ugliest realities of mankind, seemed to be  flourishing in the year 1969. I thought—how short a distance we've  traveled in such a very long period of time.

The main gate of  Camp Enari had just come into view when I spotted a small, shoeless boy  in very oversized clothes, limping down the road. He had a long cord  wrapped around his tiny fist.  Attached to the twine, dragging in the  dirt behind him, was a small wooden box. Glancing at my watch, I  realized I still had a couple of free hours.

Down-shifting  quickly, I stopped and jumped to the ground, landing evenly on both feet  in the dirt at the edge of the pavement. My movements had startled a  teenage girl who was straddling a ditch. With one foot planted on the  top of each ridge, she was in a full squat, peeing, when she spotted me.  She sprang up like a Jack-In-The-Box and ran off with her pajamas at  her knees and a look of panic on her face. What caused her to run was  one of the sad asides of war. All too often, the women and children of  the “host country” become tragic victims of sexual and physical abuse.  Many of the Vietnamese regarded everyone as the enemy: the Viet Cong,  the Americans, the NVA, the ARVN—everyone. I felt really bad that this  frightened child thought that I had stopped to molest her. I shouted  again and again that I didn't want to hurt her, but that just made her  run faster. If she didn't understand English, which was more than likely  the case, her imagination probably translated my shouts into some  terrifying command from the enemy.

When she disappeared into the  tree line, I turned my attention to the real reason I had stopped. I  squatted and began the ritual of trying to communicate with my new  little friend. I guessed he was nine or ten years old. He was still  giggling at the sight of the girl running across the field pulling up  her pajamas as she ran. He stopped giggling when our eyes met.

“Do  you speak English?” I asked. He held up his hand, created a space of an  inch between his forefinger and his thumb and thrust this measurement  of his English speaking skills within two inches of my face. I fell  back, landing hard on my butt. My sunglasses slid to the edge of my  nose. He grinned and giggled in response. His face was as dirty as his  clothes, but in the middle of that dirty face was the whitest, most  perfect set of teeth I'd ever seen on a Vietnamese.  He covered his  mouth as he continued to giggle.

Introductions seemed to be in  order at this point. I pointed to myself and said, “Tom” and then  pointed at him and asked, “What is your name?”

“I Little Shit,”  he answered without hesitation and with great pride. I guessed this was a  name given to him affectionately by a GI friend.

“Well, Little  Shit, do you want a ride?” He recognized the word ride right away and  began to repeat it and the word “yes” over and over.

When I  looked at his feet, I noticed some blood. “Hey, little buddy, how did  you hurt yourself?” I asked pointing to his right foot. Instantly, he  dropped to the ground, spit on his ankle and began to clean it with his  oversized shirttail. My guess was that he thought I wanted him to clean  his feet before getting into my nice unsullied truck.  “No, no, no,” I  said while waving my hands in front of his face.

As he pushed  himself up, I put my hands under his armpits and sailed him through the  air to the passenger seat of the truck. He was so light I flung him  higher than was necessary. It was like picking up a milk carton that you  thought was full but actually was empty. I interpreted his giggles as a  sign that he was enjoying the flight. I picked up his little wooden box  and put it on the floor in front of him. It also was surprisingly  light, almost as if it too, was empty. Making a u-turn in one full  sweep, we were on our way.

I pushed the play button on my  recorder and turned up the volume. The Beatles were now rockin' and  rollin’ down Route 14. I looked over at my small friend, saw those big  white teeth, heard that ever present giggle, watched his little fingers  tapping on his leg out of sync to the music and once again felt good  about my day.

 A minute into the trip he became fixed on my paper  wrapped package. He carefully tried to lift the corner of the paper to  see what was inside, watching to see if I noticed his curiosity. I did.

“Have you had lunch?” I asked while pointing to my open mouth. No response. “How about —do you want something to eat?” 

His  eyes lit up, and he repeated the word eat while he shook his head “yes”  in a rhythmic, jerking motion. I tossed the sandwich in his lap and  watched him tear into it with delight. He was obviously very hungry, and  the fact that the sandwich was half eaten made no difference to him  whatsoever.

   A short time later we arrived at the outskirts of  Pleiku. I asked him where he lived and received a blank look. He watched  my mouth with great concentration hoping I would say something he  understood. Pointing at him I asked, “Where your house?” I think he  understood “house” because he immediately pointed down Route 14 in the  direction we were traveling. A minute later he pointed to our left and  said, “House.”

There was a sign on the corner, which read  something to the effect of “No U.S. Military Personnel Beyond This  Point.” I read the sign to him, but he kept repeating “house” and  pointed with a thrust. His face was pleading. I guessed he would be the  big cheese in the neighborhood if a big new military truck dropped him  off. The event would be similar to us Americans being delivered to our  favorite restaurant in a chauffeured limousine. I should have also  considered the very real possibility that, depending on his  neighborhood's political orientation, he would be an even bigger cheese  if he handed over an American soldier to the VC.

The war seemed  to be on hold, and of course rules were meant to be broken, so I swung a  left and headed down the nameless narrow street, into the unknown. Two  turns later, I was in no-mans-land. The streets were full of holes  filled with standing brown water. The side of the road was a curb of  garbage for as far as the eye could see. The Vietnamese cared for their  own space but had little regard for the cleanliness of their country in  general. After four hundred years of war, this was somewhat  understandable.

There was minimal electricity and no plumbing.  Dingy clothes that looked as though they’d never been clean, hung on  lines to dry. Children, naked from the waist down, sat on the hips of  older brothers and sisters. Except for the elderly—somewhere in their  fifties for Vietnamese—there were few adults within sight.

As an  old man attempted to cross the road, I slowed to a crawl. He was beating  the backside of what appeared to be a cow. I glanced out the window to  my left as we inched forward, nodding hello to a man standing on the  side of the road left of my front bumper. My little friend quickly  dropped off the seat onto the floorboard, and hollered in a whisper,  “VC-VC-VC!”  

I coolly and calmly asked him, “What the  fuck—where? Shit! Where? Oh my God! Who? Where? Shit, I'm dead! Oh my  God! Shit! Hey, Little Shit, answer me, where is VC?”

He looked  up through arms draped over his head and pointed at the door on my side  of the truck. I looked out the window and again saw the man on the side  of the road. He was now directly to my left.

At five feet tall,  wiry, and clean, he was well-dressed in simple peasant clothes. His  expression was blank, and he held a small rectangular package. I blinked  my eyes many times, scanning from the man to the road and back at each  blink. Checking to make sure my M-16 was at a snatching distance, I  forced a smile as I nodded “hello” to him once again. I prayed that his  package was a present for his girlfriend and not an explosive device. He  stared at me; I nervously stared back. The truck inched forward. The  peasant and the “cow” had traversed the road. A few seconds later I  glanced at him in my side mirror, and he was still staring. I wasn't. I  was visually fixed on the road straight in front of me, clutching my  M-16. I grasped it hard and took a deep breath. As the man on the corner  became a speck in the distance, my heartbeat returned to normal—almost.

A  couple of blocks later Little Shit hollered stop. “Thanks boo coo  number one GI,” he said, without his ever-present grin, as he jumped  from the cab clutching his still unfinished sub. He ran limping into a  shack that was leaning badly to the left. I swung around in another  giant loop but was unable to turn around in one move. Pulling hard to  the left, I stopped, and then backed up until I ran into a pile of  garbage. There were children hanging all over my truck. I hollered for  them to turn loose and stomped on the gas. From my rear-view mirror, I  made sure that a little girl, with very uncommon, almost blond hair, an  obvious product of an indiscriminate French soldier, had landed safely  when she leaped from the running board of the truck.  

My stomach  was now in a knot, and my mind was in the same state.  “Please God let  me remember the proper turns in reverse and please don't have ole’  Charlie crouched in a doorway somewhere, in sniper position, staring in  my direction.” I was talking out loud to myself.

The trip back  through the off limit slum was mostly a blur.  I had the pedal to the  floor and hit most of the potholes without concern. Brown water flew  everywhere.  The engine roared, my heart pounded, civilians fled.

Route  14 appeared at last. I let out my long held breath, eased my foot off  the gas, and rounded the corner. Flipping the tape in my recorder, I ran  it to the song I was looking for and listened to John, Paul, George,  and Ringo sing— Penny Lane.

I arrived back at the motor pool late  and turned in my slightly tarnished cream puff. The brilliant sun was  just beginning to set as I prepared to leave the compound. The sergeant  in charge hollered, “Hey!”. I thought—oh shit, I screwed up his pristine  new truck. I grimaced and slowly turned to see that he was holding a  small wooden box. “Is this yours?” Returning to the truck, I took the  box and thanked him.

Sitting in my jeep with the box nestled in  my lap, I tugged at the twine tightly protecting it’s contents. I  snipped the cord with my pocketknife and removed the lid. Firmly stuffed  inside was a fluffy, chocolate-brown teddy bear. The bear's paw had a  tiny label sewn onto it. It read, “Hug Me.”

I never saw the  little boy again.    At 0900 hours on a Thursday in mid-September I was  traveling alone, unless you counted Otis, Jim, Janis, Jimmy, John, Paul,  George, and Ringo, who were all sitting stacked neatly on end in a  makeshift tape case. The only item on my agenda was to deliver some  crates to LZ Action, a fire support base near the entrance of the Mang  Yang Pass. When I arrived at the gate, a well-pressed MP waved me on.

The  war seemed to be on hold; helicopter noise was minimal, night-time  artillery shelling had come to a halt, and reports of fighting had  ceased. I pulled away from the camp without the usual nervous stomach  caused by fear and an uneasy sense of the unknown. But, I didn't have to  drive very far to be reminded of the war zone without boundaries. A  detour around a blown up bridge, a burned out truck rusting in a ditch, a  forest leveled by Orange, were all reminders that I wasn't on a  leisurely drive for a day at the beach.

The most unusual aspect  of this journey wasn't that I was driving fearlessly, but that I was  driving someone else's vehicle—a brand new deuce-and-a-half. The  odometer on this cream puff was still in double digits. When I ground  her gears as I headed through Pleiku, I, without question, felt guilty.

The  trip went smoothly; the day warm and breezy. The soft blue sky was  uncommonly clear.  It was the kind of day I wanted to bottle up and save  for the first wet, depressing, gray afternoon that was sure to darken  the calendar before the week was over.

Rounding a curve on Hwy.  19 just short of the Mang Yang I spotted a red sign that proclaimed in  bright yellow letters, “LZ Action—home of the famous Billy G Action—next  right—food—lodging— fire support.” Directly across the road from Action  sat the burned out rusted hulk of an M-42 Duster. I unloaded my cargo  in record time, and, without the temptation to visit, started on my  return trip. With a large chunk of the clock to kill, I decided to take  my time and a detour. The word was out that a bus station of sorts, out  in the middle of nowhere, had fresh American submarine sandwiches. There  was a rumor of real ham, roast beef, and turkey. After a short drive,  my hunt was over. I pulled into this strange oasis on a hilltop and  followed the smell. Moments later spread out before me on a makeshift  picnic table, was a big, sloppy sub with a variety of fresh produce  hanging out from between two pieces of a newly cut wheat roll. The smell  of the freshly baked bread brought an instant feeling of homesickness.

   I took a large bite and chewed for a long time, allowing this fantasy  feast to caress my taste buds. Each chew was a slow-motion grind that  gave all the parts of my anatomy involved the time to enjoy the sensual  pleasures of real food.

Washing down the first half of the  sandwich with a large swig of an ice-cold Coke, I watched a large, old  bus maneuver through the unpaved parking lot. The gravel crackled under  the weight of its over-capacity cargo. All the nearly bald tires needed  air. Each shift in direction created different sized rubber bubbles. The  front end of this mass of rusted metal just missed the rear bumper of  my borrowed cream puff.

The guts under the hood sputtered,  wheezed, shook and popped as it came to rest under a makeshift tin  canopy. The gray monster fell quiet, its door squeaked open, and the  first of its human cargo tumbled onto the gravel. A body, which I  couldn't discern to be male or female, looked at me as it pushed itself  into a wobbly standing position. I felt embarrassed as I caught myself  staring. I felt like a five-year-old at a mall, pointing at a one-legged  man. But a child would be curious and inquisitive. I felt pity and  revulsion.

Before me stood, with the help of makeshift crutches, a  rag-wrapped man I guessed to be middle aged, with open sores, white  scaly scabs, and stubs for hands and feet. His hair was wispy, dull and  patchy, not at all like the full, shiny black hair of most Vietnamese. I  lowered my eyes and gathered the remainder of my sandwich as more  heart-wrenching examples of nature's cruelty began to regurgitate from  the bowels of the big, now silent, bus. Men and women in various stages  of disease began to fill the lot.

I clutched my sandwich in one  hand, my Coke in the other, and slid along the picnic bench toward my  truck. I reached it without making additional eye contact with those in  the parking lot and flung open the door, almost hitting a teenage boy  who was asking me to buy some souvenir trinkets. While pointing to some  plastic jewelry I didn't need, I asked him about the people on the bus. I  handed him a handful of ‘monopoly’ money and looked at him for the  first time since we started our transaction. He was thin and dirty, but  quite handsome. He smiled at my overpayment of at least a hundred P  (Piasters; Vietnamese currency) and answered my question with one word,  “Lepers.” I responded with a simple “Oh” and stepped into my truck.

I  drove off into Mother Nature's contradiction; the sky was blue, and the  air was warm, but much of her human landscape was decaying. War and  disease, two of the ugliest realities of mankind, seemed to be  flourishing in the year 1969. I thought—how short a distance we've  traveled in such a very long period of time.

The main gate of  Camp Enari had just come into view when I spotted a small, shoeless boy  in very oversized clothes, limping down the road. He had a long cord  wrapped around his tiny fist.  Attached to the twine, dragging in the  dirt behind him, was a small wooden box. Glancing at my watch, I  realized I still had a couple of free hours.

Down-shifting  quickly, I stopped and jumped to the ground, landing evenly on both feet  in the dirt at the edge of the pavement. My movements had startled a  teenage girl who was straddling a ditch. With one foot planted on the  top of each ridge, she was in a full squat, peeing, when she spotted me.  She sprang up like a Jack-In-The-Box and ran off with her pajamas at  her knees and a look of panic on her face. What caused her to run was  one of the sad asides of war. All too often, the women and children of  the “host country” become tragic victims of sexual and physical abuse.  Many of the Vietnamese regarded everyone as the enemy: the Viet Cong,  the Americans, the NVA, the ARVN—everyone. I felt really bad that this  frightened child thought that I had stopped to molest her. I shouted  again and again that I didn't want to hurt her, but that just made her  run faster. If she didn't understand English, which was more than likely  the case, her imagination probably translated my shouts into some  terrifying command from the enemy.

When she disappeared into the  tree line, I turned my attention to the real reason I had stopped. I  squatted and began the ritual of trying to communicate with my new  little friend. I guessed he was nine or ten years old. He was still  giggling at the sight of the girl running across the field pulling up  her pajamas as she ran. He stopped giggling when our eyes met.

“Do  you speak English?” I asked. He held up his hand, created a space of an  inch between his forefinger and his thumb and thrust this measurement  of his English speaking skills within two inches of my face. I fell  back, landing hard on my butt. My sunglasses slid to the edge of my  nose. He grinned and giggled in response. His face was as dirty as his  clothes, but in the middle of that dirty face was the whitest, most  perfect set of teeth I'd ever seen on a Vietnamese.  He covered his  mouth as he continued to giggle.

Introductions seemed to be in  order at this point. I pointed to myself and said, “Tom” and then  pointed at him and asked, “What is your name?”

“I Little Shit,”  he answered without hesitation and with great pride. I guessed this was a  name given to him affectionately by a GI friend.

“Well, Little  Shit, do you want a ride?” He recognized the word ride right away and  began to repeat it and the word “yes” over and over.

When I  looked at his feet, I noticed some blood. “Hey, little buddy, how did  you hurt yourself?” I asked pointing to his right foot. Instantly, he  dropped to the ground, spit on his ankle and began to clean it with his  oversized shirttail. My guess was that he thought I wanted him to clean  his feet before getting into my nice unsullied truck.  “No, no, no,” I  said while waving my hands in front of his face.

As he pushed  himself up, I put my hands under his armpits and sailed him through the  air to the passenger seat of the truck. He was so light I flung him  higher than was necessary. It was like picking up a milk carton that you  thought was full but actually was empty. I interpreted his giggles as a  sign that he was enjoying the flight. I picked up his little wooden box  and put it on the floor in front of him. It also was surprisingly  light, almost as if it too, was empty. Making a u-turn in one full  sweep, we were on our way.

I pushed the play button on my  recorder and turned up the volume. The Beatles were now rockin' and  rollin’ down Route 14. I looked over at my small friend, saw those big  white teeth, heard that ever present giggle, watched his little fingers  tapping on his leg out of sync to the music and once again felt good  about my day.

 A minute into the trip he became fixed on my paper  wrapped package. He carefully tried to lift the corner of the paper to  see what was inside, watching to see if I noticed his curiosity. I did.

“Have you had lunch?” I asked while pointing to my open mouth. No response. “How about —do you want something to eat?” 

His  eyes lit up, and he repeated the word eat while he shook his head “yes”  in a rhythmic, jerking motion. I tossed the sandwich in his lap and  watched him tear into it with delight. He was obviously very hungry, and  the fact that the sandwich was half eaten made no difference to him  whatsoever.

   A short time later we arrived at the outskirts of  Pleiku. I asked him where he lived and received a blank look. He watched  my mouth with great concentration hoping I would say something he  understood. Pointing at him I asked, “Where your house?” I think he  understood “house” because he immediately pointed down Route 14 in the  direction we were traveling. A minute later he pointed to our left and  said, “House.”

There was a sign on the corner, which read  something to the effect of “No U.S. Military Personnel Beyond This  Point.” I read the sign to him, but he kept repeating “house” and  pointed with a thrust. His face was pleading. I guessed he would be the  big cheese in the neighborhood if a big new military truck dropped him  off. The event would be similar to us Americans being delivered to our  favorite restaurant in a chauffeured limousine. I should have also  considered the very real possibility that, depending on his  neighborhood's political orientation, he would be an even bigger cheese  if he handed over an American soldier to the VC.

The war seemed  to be on hold, and of course rules were meant to be broken, so I swung a  left and headed down the nameless narrow street, into the unknown. Two  turns later, I was in no-mans-land. The streets were full of holes  filled with standing brown water. The side of the road was a curb of  garbage for as far as the eye could see. The Vietnamese cared for their  own space but had little regard for the cleanliness of their country in  general. After four hundred years of war, this was somewhat  understandable.

There was minimal electricity and no plumbing.  Dingy clothes that looked as though they’d never been clean, hung on  lines to dry. Children, naked from the waist down, sat on the hips of  older brothers and sisters. Except for the elderly—somewhere in their  fifties for Vietnamese—there were few adults within sight.

As an  old man attempted to cross the road, I slowed to a crawl. He was beating  the backside of what appeared to be a cow. I glanced out the window to  my left as we inched forward, nodding hello to a man standing on the  side of the road left of my front bumper. My little friend quickly  dropped off the seat onto the floorboard, and hollered in a whisper,  “VC-VC-VC!”  

I coolly and calmly asked him, “What the  fuck—where? Shit! Where? Oh my God! Who? Where? Shit, I'm dead! Oh my  God! Shit! Hey, Little Shit, answer me, where is VC?”

He looked  up through arms draped over his head and pointed at the door on my side  of the truck. I looked out the window and again saw the man on the side  of the road. He was now directly to my left.

At five feet tall,  wiry, and clean, he was well-dressed in simple peasant clothes. His  expression was blank, and he held a small rectangular package. I blinked  my eyes many times, scanning from the man to the road and back at each  blink. Checking to make sure my M-16 was at a snatching distance, I  forced a smile as I nodded “hello” to him once again. I prayed that his  package was a present for his girlfriend and not an explosive device. He  stared at me; I nervously stared back. The truck inched forward. The  peasant and the “cow” had traversed the road. A few seconds later I  glanced at him in my side mirror, and he was still staring. I wasn't. I  was visually fixed on the road straight in front of me, clutching my  M-16. I grasped it hard and took a deep breath. As the man on the corner  became a speck in the distance, my heartbeat returned to normal—almost.

A  couple of blocks later Little Shit hollered stop. “Thanks boo coo  number one GI,” he said, without his ever-present grin, as he jumped  from the cab clutching his still unfinished sub. He ran limping into a  shack that was leaning badly to the left. I swung around in another  giant loop but was unable to turn around in one move. Pulling hard to  the left, I stopped, and then backed up until I ran into a pile of  garbage. There were children hanging all over my truck. I hollered for  them to turn loose and stomped on the gas. From my rear-view mirror, I  made sure that a little girl, with very uncommon, almost blond hair, an  obvious product of an indiscriminate French soldier, had landed safely  when she leaped from the running board of the truck.  

My stomach  was now in a knot, and my mind was in the same state.  “Please God let  me remember the proper turns in reverse and please don't have ole’  Charlie crouched in a doorway somewhere, in sniper position, staring in  my direction.” I was talking out loud to myself.

The trip back  through the off limit slum was mostly a blur.  I had the pedal to the  floor and hit most of the potholes without concern. Brown water flew  everywhere.  The engine roared, my heart pounded, civilians fled.

Route  14 appeared at last. I let out my long held breath, eased my foot off  the gas, and rounded the corner. Flipping the tape in my recorder, I ran  it to the song I was looking for and listened to John, Paul, George,  and Ringo sing— Penny Lane.

I arrived back at the motor pool late  and turned in my slightly tarnished cream puff. The brilliant sun was  just beginning to set as I prepared to leave the compound. The sergeant  in charge hollered, “Hey!”. I thought—oh shit, I screwed up his pristine  new truck. I grimaced and slowly turned to see that he was holding a  small wooden box. “Is this yours?” Returning to the truck, I took the  box and thanked him.

Sitting in my jeep with the box nestled in  my lap, I tugged at the twine tightly protecting it’s contents. I  snipped the cord with my pocketknife and removed the lid. Firmly stuffed  inside was a fluffy, chocolate-brown teddy bear. The bear's paw had a  tiny label sewn onto it. It read, “Hug Me.”

I never saw the little boy again. 

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