The Harbour front in Boston, back in October 2007. Ruth and I had just had brunch (Dimm Sun) in Chinatown, and were walking up to get a Ferry to Salem, to admire the American way of doing Halloween.
Khe Sanh – 1968
“The other marine was white, and if I’d seen him first from the back I’d have said he was eleven years old. The Marines must have a height requirement; whatever it is, I don’t see how he made it. Age is one thing, but how do you lie about your height?
His name was Mayhew, it was written out in enormous letters across the front of his helmet: MAYHEW – You’d better believe it!
He was young, nineteen he later told me, and he was trying to grow a moustache. His only luck with it so far was a few sparse bond clumps set at odd intervals across his upper lip, and you could not see that unless the light was right.
That night, probably sleeping, I heard the sound of automatic-weapons fire outside. I had no sense waking, only of seeing cigarettes glowing in dark without any memory of them being lighted.
Mayhew was grinning. “Listen to that fucker, listen to that, that fucker’s gonna burn out the barrel for sure.”
It was an M-60 Machine Gun and it was not firing in bursts, but in a mad sustained manner. The gunner must have seen something. “Lets go see,” Mayhew said, grabbing his rifle. We walked in the dark, figures appearing and disappearing in the mist around us, odd floating presences; it seemed like a long walk, and then Mayhew bumped helmets with someone.
“You wanna watch where the fuck you’re going?” he said.
“That’s, You wanna watch where the fuck you’re going, Sir” It was a lieutenant, and he was laughing.
We then heard what sounded at first like a little girl crying, a subdued, delicate wailing, and as we listened it became louder and more intense, taking on pain as it grew until it was a full piercing shriek. It was terrible, absorbing every other sound coming from the darkness.
A Marine brushed past us. He had a moustache and a piece of camouflaged parachute silk fastened bandana style around his throat, and on his hip he wore a holster which held an M-79 grenade launcher. For a second I’d thought I’d hallucinated him.
“Wait,” he said “I’ll fix that fucker.”
He paced the M-79 over his forearm and aimed a second before firing. There was an enormous flash on the wire 200 meters away, a spray of ornage sparks, and everything was still except for the sound of some bombs exploding kilometres away.
Nothing changed on the Marines face, nothing, and he moved back into the darkness.
“Get some,” Mayhew said quietly “Man did you see that?”
I poked his arm and we went back to bunker for some more of that sleep.”
Postscript: China Beach 1969
“They were from 26 Marines, Hotel Company, and they told me about what had happened to the outfit since April. I couldn’t remember the name of the one grunt I most wanted to hear about, and I was probably afraid of what they’d say, but I described him. He was a little cat with blond hair, and he was trying to grow a moustache.
They looked at each other, and I was sorry I asked.
“I know the guy you mean,” one of them said. “Yeah I know. He got killed, Took a fucking RPG round right in chest. God damn, I’ll think of his name.
But I already remembered it now.”
Michael Herr, Dispatches, London 1977
Vietnam War memorial – Washington April 2009
Calum Davidson was a a well-known regional planner and photographer. He described himself as a photographer with a day job, living in a very photogenic part of the globe, and who got to travel a bit to other almost as photogenic bits of the planet.