The Rizla paper folded neatly in the old man’s experienced hands. It rolled tightly around the tobacco inside, and stuck without a crease after he licked its edge. He placed the end in between his lips and raised the lighter. Flick. Flick. Spark. Memory.
“Delta-One-Niner this is Alpha Patrol, requesting immediate fire mission four klicks North of our position. Over.”
“Start ‘er up Sam-boy!”
“Repeat, this is Alpha Patrol. Come in Delta-One-Niner, we need assistance! Fire mission four klicks North of our co-ordinates, do you copy? Over.”
The pilot was stoned. The co-pilot was stoned. Shit, we were all stoned. Keefy was taking his turn as the chopper lifted off. Puff. Puff. Puff. I sat on the edge, looking out through hazy eyes at the ground moving further away and my feet dangling freely above it. I shifted my M-16 from the crook of my arm into my lap, so I could get a better look.
“Steady on, Albino” wheezed Sam-boy, who was half-passed out in the centre of the chopper, “You’ll fuckin’ fall out!”
“That’d be the day” I replied, “Short, sharp drop and then someplace better than this.” Sam-boy giggled and passed me the joint. It was almost finished. I took the remaining drags while watching the trees fly past and the huge mountain tops overlooking them, in the distance. It occurred to me then how minuscule this event was. Alpha Patrol. Vietnam. America. When all was said and done, these mountains would still be the same. They’re so old, perhaps they wouldn’t even notice what had happened, recovering like a person recovers from a grazed elbow. I began to chuckle at this, quickly becoming a laugh. Then Sam-boy started laughing too, and Keefy. We didn’t know what we were all laughing at, only that we needed to. If we didn’t laugh, we’d cry.
The lighter sparked and the flame ignited in the darkness of the street at night.
Boom. A flash so bright I had to turn away.
“Whooo-hooo!” screamed the pilot over the radio, swerving the chopper round to the left so we could get a better look. Keefy began laughing maniacally, swinging his M-60 machine gun around wildly, spraying bullets into the trees. I looked back and watched as the liquid fire of napalm stuck to everything it touched. The trees looked like they were melting. A small village burned bright orange, clouds of black smoke rolling up into the sky.
The smoke drifted upwards casually, looping in on itself in the slight breeze. The old man inhaled sharply.
“Fuckin’ VC bastards!” Sam-boy shouted, as people started to run from the burning houses, “Let ’em all fuckin’ burn!”
I gaped. The people were on fire. They ran in circles, screaming, blinded and maddened by their agony. A fierce anger rose in me and I leapt over Sam-boy to where Keefy was still manning the machine gun. I shoved him off and swung it round, pointing it at the burning huts.
“What the fuck are you-” Keefy started to protest, but I let rip before he could finish. The sound of the gun fire filled the chopper. Bullets rained on the people below. Leaves were shredded from the trees, huts were torn apart and people were torn to bloody pieces.
“Yes! Die you fucks, fucking die!” Sam-boy screamed, waving his fists in the air and laughing crazily at the carnage below him. Keefy was laughing too, spittle spraying from his mouth, smacking his hand on the side of the chopper cabin. I fired on, not letting go of the trigger. I didn’t stop until the bullet belt ran dry.
I earnt a lot of respect for that. Men from other platoons would come up to me and say things like “You’re the guy who cleared an entire village of Gooks? Fuckin’ A man.” But they didn’t understand. They thought I’d done it because of the guys we’d lost, or for freedom, or against Communism, or some other bullshit. They didn’t understand that I had to do it.
The old man took a drag on his cigarette. “Better to be shot,” he thought, “than to burn.” But in his heart, he wasn’t so sure.