Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Pieces of Albert


Albert Gallagher and Bobby Lewis joined the recon platoon in the boonies on the same day. As replacements, they would be viewed as outsiders until they proved themselves. They were aware of this. They may have even given some thought to the fact that FNG’s (fucking new guys) wouldn’t be necessary unless the old guys had been killed or wounded. An optimist might have concluded they had served out their enlistment and survived to be sent home.


But there wasn’t much use for optimism in the jungles of Vietnam.


Albert and Bobby met in a sandbagged tent at a forward fire base the day before a helicopter dropped them into the midst of their new outfit. Overwhelmed, disoriented, and apprehensive, they soon became the most unlikely of friends, no doubt, in part, because of their shared FNG status.


Albert was from Connecticut. He’d been a high school nerd, complete with pocket protector and slide rule. His notable activities mostly included calculus or chemistry, and, therefore, involved none of the popular kids. His father made just enough money to disqualify Albert from Federal grant programs, but not enough to pay for the college he hoped to attend. One day, after arriving home from his job as a cashier at the local grocery store, his mother handed him the letter from the draft board. Her eyes were red and teary.


Every afternoon until he left, she would pace in the kitchen wringing her hands and then sit down to dinner barely able to hold a knife and fork because of her aching knuckles.


During basic training Albert was bullied, at first. But he discovered that the stubborn streak that drove him to spend hours solving mathematical and chemical equations also drove him to conquer obstacle courses and other advanced infantry training problems, once he’d added a little muscle.


In the army, he continued to wear thick corrective lenses in the black, plastic regulation frames. He soon discovered that spitting on them helped to keep them from fogging up in the heat and humidity of the dense jungle.


Bobby was from Alabama. He was a linebacker and co-captain on his high school football team, second baseman on the baseball squad. His academic pursuits mostly involved desperate measures to stay eligible for sports. He had begun working on the family farm as soon as he was old enough to be helpful. He had built his strength plowing fields, harvesting vegetables, wrangling animals, and tossing bales of hay around like pillows. He had also built his strength defending himself from his three older brothers.


He had enlisted because he thought it was the patriotic thing to do, something his parents would expect of him. When his father heard the news, he gave him an attaboy, clapped him on the back and walked away. His mother pretended nothing had happened. He took a cab to the train station the day he departed. After boarding, he sat and stared out the filthy window at other people’s families bidding goodbye to their sons. Bobby left behind a sweetheart who appeared to miss him, and even wrote him letters for a while.


Albert had never had a girlfriend.


The first night spent in a foxhole was the worst in both of their lives to that point. Bobby, accustomed to bluster and aggressiveness, could do nothing but stay quiet and try to stem the torrent of sweat dripping down on his face. Albert, who preferred to be controlled and analytical, was paralyzed with fear. Every shadow looked like a Viet Cong guerilla creeping up on them. Any leaves that fluttered in a rare, scorching breeze looked like a whole squad.


It never got better. But they got used to it.


The men of an infantry platoon form close bonds out of necessity, each one fighting for the man next to them, each one expecting to be fought for. This was especially true in recon outfits who were often far from support units or reinforcements. As Albert and Bobby gained combat experience, their sergeant and their platoon leader lieutenant assigned them joint tasks by default. They worked well together.


A patrol had to ease its way along narrow jungle trails in single file, spaced nine meters apart for safety. Someone had to guard the tail end of the line. He was the drag. Someone had to lead the front. That first man in the column was known as the point. Right behind him was the slack man, or slack. These were the most vulnerable spots if the unit stumbled into an ambush or failed to detect a booby trap. While it was customary for the men to take turns up front, Lieutenant King wanted Albert and Bobby on point and slack as often as possible.  


Albert was methodical and precise. He had the patience necessary to move with stealth and caution, eyes scanning the trail beneath his feet for trip wires and mines while still looking ahead for signs of enemy movement. He communicated using hand signals. He stopped frequently, to take deep breaths, to relieve the tension.


To spit on his glasses.


Bobby always carried extra ammo and grenades despite the strain of the added weight.  When they spotted the enemy in close proximity, he unleashed a destructive torrent, spraying an entire clip from his M-16 on full auto and then pitching grenades in a matter of seconds. While that was happening, Albert dove for the nearest cover and watched for any return fire while Bobby reloaded, and the rest of the platoon got into position.


They became the eyes and ears of the platoon. They were each other's eyes and ears as well. Their effectiveness added to the success of the platoon’s reconnaissance missions. But when success is measured not in terms of territory controlled but in terms of enemy killed, every patrol added to their enormous emotional strain.


A reconnaissance force was, by design, lightly armed, sacrificing strength for mobility. In the event of contact with a large enemy force, they would radio for help from artillery or close air support. The effect of these strikes on any NVA left exposed was catastrophic. Afterward, the platoon would ease forward to measure its victory in blood, pulling human remains from holes or tunnel entrances that hadn’t offered quite enough protection. This became normal, assembling corpses like gory puzzles so they could be added to the all-important body count.


            It was unusual for the same men to be on point and slack so often. But Bobby and Albert were good at it. They trusted each other. The rest of the platoon trusted them and were happy to avoid point and slack duty themselves. But they wore down, physically and mentally. Their energy drained. Their senses dulled.


One day, on a long patrol in the boonies, Albert stopped. He held up his hand to halt the men behind him. He stood still to listen for signs of the enemy and heard none. He took a deep breath, and then another. He pulled the glasses off his face to spit on the lenses and wipe them clean. He dropped one knee to the ground for a quick rest.


The concussion hit Bobby with the force of a car crash. He was blown backward by the explosion, landing at the feet of the man who had been standing nine meters behind him. He couldn’t see. He couldn’t hear. Everything hurt.


The medic ran forward and stooped to pour water from his canteen over Bobby’s face. The blast had filled his eyes with dirt and debris and burst his eardrums. Blood ran from both ears down the sides of his neck.


Albert had kneeled on a booby trap, an artillery shell buried upright in the middle of the trail with a contact fuse so it would detonate when enough pressure was applied. His body had absorbed most of the blast. When Bobby was able to sit up, he looked around the place where his friend had been and saw what was left. Ragged bits of burned flesh, bloody shreds of olive drab fatigues, broken white twigs that might have been bones.


Bobby couldn’t hear the radio operator making the call for the medevac. And he couldn’t hear the sound of his own screaming, but he could feel the vibrations in his head. There were no wounds from the blast itself, except the eardrums. In one sense, he’d been lucky. But the volume and frequency of his screams grew until the medic popped a morphine syrette into his leg out of desperation.


When the chopper arrived, four men grabbed Bobby and ducked under the downwash from the massive rotors to slide him on to the floor past the door gunner.


There was not enough left of Albert to grab.


Bobby was dropped at the evac hospital, but they could do nothing for him. He was conscious but not coherent. They sent him on to the main support hospital in Danang, then on to the Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu.


Unless he was heavily medicated, he was in a constant state of agitation. During the day, he would fidget in anger and despair, unable to focus or function. At night, sleep escaped him. He could be drugged into a coma that resembled slumber and it was possible that it was sometimes restful, but they couldn't be sure. Whenever they tried to let him drift off naturally, he would wake up screaming.


Every time.


And these were no normal nightmare reactions. He would kick and writhe in his bed and pull at the restraints that held him with a fierceness fed by some unseen fury.


But he never spoke a word. He never looked anyone in the eye. For months. And months. 


The army doctors wouldn't allow his parents to visit. They couldn't be sure how - or if - Bobby would respond.

The doctors began experimenting, constantly tweaking and titrating the chemical cocktail in his bloodstream. It was their hope that he could one day return to something resembling functionality.


After weeks of hopeless experimentation, weaning and adding, compounding and simplifying, liquefying and solidifying, they decided they were on the verge of a breakthrough. Someone thought there was an occasional twinkle in Bobby's eye. It sometimes appeared that he would glance to the left or right rather than staring vacantly ahead. So, they thought it was time to see if they could determine what it was that churned in his mind and denied his inner peace.


What was it, they wanted to know? Where was his mind during all the time he sat in a state of catatonia?


His eyelids lifted giving the appearance of awareness. His eyes shifted as if he were in thought. His face showed flashes of emotion no one there had ever seen; horror, anger, and then sadness. Desperate sadness.


This was encouraging, they thought. So, they prompted him. They prodded him. How could they help him? What image was so vivid in his mind when he tried to sleep?


He turned his gaze forward into the empty distance, the dim light left his eyes, his head tilted forward, and he said, “Pieces of Albert.”


Eventually, one of the men carrying a clipboard decided this was a sign of progress. Perhaps they were close to a chemical balance that would revive Bobby and maybe restore some sense of normalcy. Bobby was given stimulants during the day in the hope it would stir him into some mental or physical activity. But he continued to sit motionless in his chair. He would be loaded with intravenous liquids at bedtime and the nights would pass in calm silence.


No one stopped to consider what this metabolic roller coaster ride might do to him. They merely hoped he might emerge into a moment of sensibility and utter a few more words. This would be considered success. Then the clipboard carriers would take copious notes and perhaps even publish a journal article and earn praise from their peers.


As months passed, he did make progress. He still didn’t speak, but he could swing himself sideways out of bed, stand on his own, and place himself in the wheelchair they used to roll him into the day lounge where he could stare at the TV, or at anything else they placed him in front of. A few times a week, an assistant would roll him outside for a trip around the grounds of the institution. They felt Bobby behaved differently while being pushed around in the fresh air of the gardens – more engaged, more alert. And it was ordered that these outings should occur daily, the assistants smiling and chatting to him cheerfully, mindlessly.


Bobby, terrified, gripping the armrests, looking for trip wires.


As they made their rounds and talked to Bobby, the white-coated clipboard carriers would smile and scribble. The slightest movement of his head or the twitch of a finger was cause for celebration. To encourage his remarkable recovery, he was given more privileges. An occupational therapist would spend time trying to get him to feed himself. One day, after months with no apparent nightmares, no heaving, screaming fits, they decided he could now be left unrestrained at night.


This was a special night. The assistants were almost as pleased as the doctors to see Bobby making progress. To ensure a comfortable night’s sleep, they had Bobby sit in his wheelchair while they changed the bed. They found a complete set of linens with no holes or other evidence of wear; one of the nicer, blue blankets in the fresh laundry bin, a new pillowcase, a fitted sheet and a flat sheet. Pleased with themselves, they helped Bobby into bed, tucked him in, turned out the light and tip-toed down the hall.


And it was with that clean, white sheet that Bobby made a noose.



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