—based on the actual events of 1973, this is an original short story by R. Warden aka Walker Christian
In a steamy, leafy, far-off land where the very next moment is often stranger than the last, dien cai dau is a term that simply means crazy.
And that’s just what he was—a dien cai dau—dog. Barely more than a puppy, he seemed cobbled together from leftover doggy parts; his furry little body sprouted stumpy legs too short, and ears that were obviously too long. His upright tail soared through the air like a hoisted standard that would forever betray his hiding places. His high-pitched cry could be heard from afar, as he yelped with an urgency that climbed the scales like a soprano on opening night.
Dinky Dow, as I named him later, was covering ground as fast as his pudgy little legs could scamper, appearing from the brassy glare of the completely unexpected, and heading straight for me, followed by a rising cloud of dust that witnessed the urgency of his approach. But that was just for openers! The crazy part of this oncoming spectacle was the bronze-colored monkey running close behind. The little monkey had Dinky by the tail with one hand and was smacking Dinky’s butt with the other, like a screeching little slave driver lashing his latest acquisition around the overbaked compound for a test drive. The more the monkey shrieked and slapped his butt, the louder Dinky yelped and the faster Dinky ran! Stark terror etched his hounded brows, and his long ears rippled in the wind with each grasping bound as he scrambled ever closer to salvation.
To add a bizarre dimension to this preposterous scenario, the petulant perpetrator with the puppy by the tail was no amateur antagonist. No indeed; this bantam-weight butt-buster was a monkey junkie—a full-blown unvarnished heroin addict.
Although poorly penned, I recognized his goofy little face from the hand drawn “wanted” posters stapled to fence posts around our perimeter. This miniature man-faced monster with the perfect rows of gleaming Chiclet teeth had been raising hell for the last month or so, and a sizeable reward for his apprehension had been issued by a recent victim with bite marks on his hands (and on his kneecaps too). Several troopers had already tried to nab the little fiend but none had succeeded. Now, it was my turn, and he was coming my way!
Dinky Dow and the Junkie Monkey veered in close enough to plow across the toe of my boot, which was hastily outstretched to discourage the siege, and then they continued on and around the corner of the hooch—a long screened-in hut protected by sandbags piled high and painted black—to vanish from sight.
I whistled my loudest doggie call as they disappeared from view and then I listened as the frenzied yelps and high-pitched screeches grew faint, and then louder again as Dinky circled the hut and headed back for another chance of deliverance.
I grabbed a two-gallon fire bucket from its hook by the entrance at this end of the temporary billet and I waited, perspiration stinging my eyes from exposure to the inferno of high noon in the hell of today’s existence. The red-painted can contained a stinky brown stew of floating cigarette butts, dead insects, and God knows what. Its purpose was to douse flames before they had a chance to spread. I would use it to put out Junkie Monkey–for the same basic reason. A situation rare? Au contraire! This was simply the latest in a never-ending series of improbable events contending for dominance in this level of purgatory.
As they cornered the building and galloped toward me on their next approach, I heaved the filthy brew into the surprised face of the menacing monkey marauder. He released Dinky’s tail immediately, executed a perfect back flip and landed on his feet.
He recovered quickly, waggled off the excess, paused for a moment to savor the flavor as it trickled down his impish cheeks, and then in a single shrieking bound he grabbed my leg and bit my kneecap through my flight suit.
Surprised, I kicked out hard, and Junkie the Monkey sailed through the air and crashed to the roof of a neighboring hut, thoroughly upset but apparently undamaged, undaunted, and unimpressed, as I would soon discover. He shook his furry body again, screamed his dissatisfaction, and with a flurry of unintelligible gestures, he scampered out of sight and vanished into the wavering haze of visible heat as it radiated from the tin of the roofs around us. Though I didn’t realize it then, my monkey war had just begun.
Panting heavily, Dinky collapsed at my feet, exhausted and obviously grateful. I picked him up and patted the top of his sweaty, flea-bitten head. He had puppy-flavored breath and cloudy black eyes that beamed intently from beneath wide droopy ears that obscured an adorable face. His coat was a mottled three-toned black, as though splashed from the night palette of creation. I couldn’t tell if he was sickly, poorly conformed, or both, but considering his origin and circumstance, I couldn’t help but smile and cradle him close. He licked my cheek with a long sloppy tongue, and in doing so, he welded our friendship for life.
This land is bold, beautiful, brazen and bizarre. Amazing daily wonders forge a staccato chain of steely events that compete for positioning in my overloaded memory. And so it has been, from the day I arrived, some four months back.
Everything here was different from anything I’d encountered or imagined before, and I sometimes fought the urge to check the bushes for camera crews, to see if I was starring in an upcoming episode of The Twilight Zone. The newscasts back home called it a conflict zone, but that was like referring to Gehenna as an interesting place to work on your tan.
Junkie monkeys and dusty puppies were a mere sampling of the surprises hidden herein. Just as a great big garden onion is composed of layers that can bite your tongue, water your eyes, and slander your breath, the threats of war are layered from the inside out and from the outside in, with no breaks between. Although the ancient Egyptians worshipped onions in the belief that their spherical shape and concentric rings symbolized eternal life, we knew better. We knew that onions can make you cry like a baby.
As air cavalry troopers, the outer layer of our onion consisted of the thin magnesium skin of our helicopters, and the urgent need to keep ourselves alive and aloft in the sky, as all manner of evil reached up and out to force our fall. If that layer failed and we fell down, the jungle opened its steaming hungry mouth and waited with an assortment of now-and-laters that crept and crawled and chewed and clawed and stung and squeezed you lifeless.
Booby traps, snipers, spider holes, bunkers, Agent Orange, friendly fire, pythons, vipers, fire ants, razor-edged elephant grass, scorpions, fist-sized tree spiders, malaria, dysentery, leeches, and more conspired to prevent our escape. Though the hazards in the air were high, and the risk of failure even higher, we were desperate to escape the stifling heat and never-ending perils that lurked within that six-foot-tall blanket of evil that covered the earth below.
Beneath the haphazardly laminated flora and fauna of the tangible outer coverings of our onion lay the internal factors that affected our chances of survival. This is where those little things like letters from home and moral support come into play. Needless to say, the neglect of our folks back home cost more lives than the jungle and enemy combined, as our people somehow bought the lie that we should be forsaken, despised, and forgotten.
The final layer at the innermost core of our existence held the sweet embrace of lunacy. We referred to it as a soft landing, because nothing really matters after you arrive, regardless of the rate of your slide. And just a few big bites of the combat onion can take you directly there, without tarrying at the indistinct stations that mark the arc of your trajectory.
The last stop before that oh-so-psycho soft landing is affectionately called Smiley, with a capital “S”. Attained through successive firefights, the pre-eminent stations speak for themselves. Smiley, however, had to be witnessed, or achieved, to fully appreciate its redemptive qualities.
By the time you get to Smiley, you’re long past the point of no return: you’ve become a genuine zombie. Smileys never laugh, dance, sing, play, or pray again. The softer parts of their psyche have been successively hammered out, with each blow driving them deeper into the shadows of existence, somewhere between this world and all that lies beyond.
Imminently reactive, Smileys stood apart, worked alone, and inhabited a twilight territory that none would choose to possess; a dimension where each reigned as king for a brief but certain period. Best of all, Smileys killed without compunction or conscience or delay. Bottom line, we didn’t want to become one, but we loved havin’ ‘em around!
The stress of intermittent yet savage encounters at every dinky-dau layer, coupled with negative moral support sent our survivors home in various stages of lifelong distress.
Some became automatons, lost in a fog of eternal distraction. Others died in prison or on the street, or within an ever-expanding maze of inescapable depravations, with walls so high that they blocked the sky and no escape was conceivable.
More would simply fade away, never to be remembered again. Few would recover from their trial by fire. Fewer still would digest the lessons of this overheated crucible and reintegrate into the society that had so happily abandoned them to their fates.
As for me, I was becoming hyper-perceptive, with a growing predilection toward apocalyptic nihilism; nothing fancy mind you but useful nonetheless, in a land where little makes sense to the sane. From a purely psychological point of view, starting a war with Junkie Monkey was not a good idea, but as I was already on my way to permanent irrelevance, why not chew off another big bite?
War was hell for the animals too. Dogs of any stripe lived for only a few months, as it was necessary to decimate their ranks with frequent fervor to prevent the spread of rabies. Our base camps were located in squalid jungle clearings, and the packs that roamed our compounds risked regular infection from the virulent bites of the wilding community. At the first hint of hydrophobic foam, our cooks, mechanics, and company clerks grabbed sawed-off shotguns and marched the measured mile, blasting every canine in sight. These and other defensive actions became a necessary part of our survival, yet there was no joy, nor glory, nor honor in their performance.
Monkeys were actively avoided. We knew the three-dimensional perils of their inquisitive, vicious, and incredibly adaptable natures. A local anecdote accurately described their talents; if they can’t eat it or screw it, they’ll surely crap on it or break it! This cautionary adage is no joking matter! Anyone who thinks otherwise will surely regret the lesson! Though we worked to evade them at every turn, their overwhelming curiosity often produced base-camp groupies, and a few became long-tailed fur-faced junkies.
Heroin was one of the more insidious schemes cooked up by the enemy. Knowing that GIs enjoyed their weed, the guerillas laced bags of grass with smack that was nearly pure in its potency. So pure that you could smoke it, and one joint was all it took. The soldier smokes the smack and then the smack smokes the soldier.
Unfortunately for the bad guys, this ploy often back-fired, as the American junkies morphed into single-minded Smileys that killed without contrition. Although it doesn’t make sense to those who have not experienced combat, it’s a great comfort when you’re on your face in the reaping creeping jungle to know that the troopers coming to your rescue will kill everything standing between them and you, and they will bring you home. Alive or tagged and bagged in pieces, you could be sure that you were coming home.
The heroin came in small plastic caps about the size of your fingertip. Once emptied, the containers were discarded. Lacking pockets, curious camp monkeys would stuff the empty caps into their cheeks, to await a later more leisurely inspection. Saliva did the rest, and in a couple of days, you had a bona-fide monkey junkie just like the one that had so recently invaded my onion.
The most unsettling difference in our world was not found in the land and its creatures, but in ourselves, as we learned to avoid emotional connections as though they harbored a curse.
We knew that to love anyone or anything was to watch it die or be destroyed, and then to follow in death ourselves, as emotional and cognitive shock triggered delayed reactions that hampered our ability to effect a timely defense. Friends, enemies, or strangers; it made no difference. Until we became Smiley ourselves, every death could put us at risk, as the mind faltered and stumbled to grasp the laser-like reality of each and every fatality.
Failure to abide this rule inevitably leads to inexpressible anguish–and a great big bite of the onion. In a time and circumstance when we desperately needed to love and be loved just one last time before dying, this irony of requisite detachment often proved disastrous for those who could not hold the line and keep their distance. For those who would survive the war, this ingrained detachment would forever leave them kissing through glass, even with those they loved most.
The monkey war began in earnest at dinner the next evening. I sat at a long wooden table in the muggy mess tent and was busily devouring lukewarm gray beef with greenish potatoes and fly-speckled gravy. I noticed a dome-shaped fringe of short bronze fur rising tentatively above the opposite edge of the table, followed by a pair of furtive brown eyes that twitched and then locked in my direction.
In a flash he sprang to the tabletop and was peeing with glee into my plate. I upended the food tray, flipping the contents onto his mischievous little head, and then I bounded backward from my seat on the bench. He screeched and dropped back off the edge of the table, leaving footprints that marked his escape.
Then he lunged under the table and bit me on the other kneecap. I kicked out hard and busted my shin on the bench where I’d been sitting but a moment before. Junkie shrieked in victory and began slinging the items within his easy reach, as I hopped up and down and tried to comfort, first my knee, and then my shinbone, like a Russian squat dancer on his very first date.
He flung plates, utensils, condiments, cans of warm soda pop, and anything else he could get his naughty little hands on. I came down on a plate which skidded away and dumped me on my ass under a frothing shower of sticky cola syrup, still juggling the tray and nursing my knee and my shin at the same time. Junkie leapt from the floor to the top of the table and started crapping in his hand and slinging fistfuls in my direction, like a miniature marksman with an unlimited supply of homemade ammunition.
I blocked with the tray and clipped him with a soda can as he bounded nimbly away and vanished into the withering wilds beyond. The troops at the neighboring tables, recovering from their initial incredulity and collateral damage, erupted with a roar of hilarious approval and promptly began placing bets on the ultimate outcome of my feud with the monkey junkie.
The next day, I was back in the air and flying again, leaving Junkie to escalate his assaults in my absence. He hid in the rafters and dropped onto the shoulders of our hooch maids, pulling their hair until they refused to return to their housekeeping and laundry chores. He chewed holes in my uniforms and my bedding, and shredded my only letter from home. Like an evil magician, he made my stash of C-ration peaches disappear and turned my jug of Jim Beam into a fragrant pile of shattered glass that glistened in a puddle on the floor.
And he synchronized his jogging schedule to coincide with my returns from the line at the end of the day, crossing my path each evening with Dinky by the tail for ass-smacking laps around the camp. Ever the showman, he was faithful to broadcast his latest successes with piercing squeals of delight–to anyone and everyone—within a mile of my immediate location.
Two days later, we were bounced for an early morning rescue of a jet that had gone down in the unrelenting jungle. As I jumped into my flight suit and harness boots, I felt something suspiciously squishy between my toes. I went through the door on a dead run, to the sound of a jubilant Junkie laughing uproariously from the roof above my head.
During the mission, I discarded my footwear from three thousand feet and spent the remainder of the day barefoot, much to the delight of the other gunners and chiefs, as more cash changed hands. Score another round for Junkie Monkey!
That evening, a contingent of pie-eyed gamblers came by to tour the now infamous site of our inter-species duel. They wanted to meet the fiddle-footed Dinky Dow, and inspect the tiny teeth marks on my kneecaps.
I showed them my medals instead, and my typewritten citations for valor. They asked me what I knew about monkeys. I replied that I could hypnotize chickens, load fat cranky pigs into the bed a small truck, and catch flies without using my hands. They laughed until they couldn’t stand up–which wasn’t easy after a quart or two of Jack Daniels Whiskey–and then they asked me what I knew about monkey junkies. I replied that I had once dated cowgirl twins, and that I could rodeo my way through any situation.
A raucous clamor ensued as they collapsed on the floor and then crawled out the door on hands and knees, tears of mirth running down their cheeks, like a column of teary-eyed trunk-to-tail elephants on their way to an uproarious three-ring event. As they disappeared into the night, a resounding echo announced that I was favored to lose this contest, as even goat-ropin’ country-raised cowgirl twins with a serious case of pre-menstrual syndrome couldn’t hold a candle to a single junkie monkey!
The next morning, I awakened to a light shower. It took a few moments to realize that it was Junkie peeing through the fan that sat on the divider in my sleeping area. He screamed his glee as an audience of hooch mates erupted in a frenzy of taunts and back-slapping exclamations and cash changing hands.
He somersaulted away as I slid my head under a pillow to hide my disbelief and indignation. Had the enemy recruited this irascible little bastard as some new form of guerilla fighter, I wondered, or was he just another nasty surprise in this dinky-dau layer of my combat onion? Could he have a rank, say Major, in the Monkey Corps? No matter; my father taught me that “…a man thinks best when his ass is on fire”, and my fuse had now been lit! It was time to jerk this junkie to Jesus! My brain began a slow but definite burn toward a suitable punishment for the little monkey futher mucker.
Some days later, I stopped at the clerk’s hut to handle some overdue paperwork. These guys had real walls, a concrete floor, and a noisy old refrigerator packed with cases of beer.
Who should be nodding on an unpainted ledge in front of their window-mounted air-conditioner but the little hairy hustler? And he was laying there on-the-nod, as cool as a steer in a snow storm!
“What’s he doing here?” I asked, nodding in the direction of the hairy nemesis.
“Who?” A clerk with an arm in a file cabinet replied, feigning ignorance behind a smirk.
“Whad’ya mean who?” I demanded. “Sleeping beauty, that’s who!” The other paper pushers froze in their seats, eyes widening and locking onto mine.
“Oh, you mean the champ?” The first clerk replied, as he withdrew a folder and closed the drawer. “He’s resting up for the next round against some idiot trooper down the line. That little operator’s making us a fortune!” His explanation broke the spell and the office erupted with a roar and a pounding of desks.
I remembered then that I was born and raised a soldier, and that I came from a long line of soldiers, stretching way back to the beginning of recorded history.
I remembered too that there comes a time in every soldier’s life when he’s ‘gotta cut the crap and start bustin’ some caps! And that’s what I did! I reached into my shoulder holster and whipped out a loaded .45 pistol and yanked back the slide.
Then I started blasting. Blam! The first shot missed his dozing nose and wounded the air-conditioner. Blam! Blam! Blam! The next shots followed Junkie around the room as he crapped his way through a whirlwind tour, the bullets blowing butt-sized holes in each spot he vacated.
The detonations and the stench were impressive! One of the pencil-pushers dove under his heavy government desk while the others tumbled out the door, arms and legs akimbo, followed closely by the rowdy little rump-ranger as he scampered over their backs and disappeared into the rising heat and glare of the day.
I stood in the center of the swirling paper and dung-laced carnage and coolly examined the collateral damage, which included the refrigerator, a radio, two file cabinets, and the bulletin board of our company commander. The air-conditioner expired with a shuddering cough as the dust cleared and the casualties were tallied. Chalk one up for the idiot trooper, I thought, as I reloaded my pistol.
Needless to say, that little incident came close to finishing my military career. But what were they going to do, send me to Vietnam?
Sunsets in the ‘Nam are exquisite and unforgettable, but are enjoyed with a melancholy trepidation by myself and others in the crews. After evening chow, the oppressive heat now waning, we would climb to the corrugated tin roofs of our hooches to witness the brilliantly hued canvas that displayed our reward for surviving the day. Swatting flies and an assortment of winged and stinging intruders, we sat in silence on the rusty dusty metallic ridges, each soldier lost within the shadows of his own reflections.
Although we were happy to have survived, another day would soon arrive, birthing a new set of challenges in a never-ending march that would surely end with our demise, either here or somewhere back in the world.
We knew what awaited us in the skies above the battlefield, and we knew what awaited us at home. We’d heard stories of those who’d returned before us–and how they were vilified, shamed for their patriotism, and scorned. Regardless of where we might wander, we knew that we’d been visibly scarred by this place, and like Cain in the Book of Genesis–we would carry that mark for the rest of our lives.
As the golden orb slipped through its final stages of glory, our thoughts invariably settled on home–or the world as we called it. Our sunset was their sunrise, as we travelled through time and space ahead of them. We wondered what they would do with the new day. Would they think of us? Would they write a letter, or send cookies? Would they pray for our safe return? Or would they gorge on the Pablum that passed for wisdom and continue their paths of self-absorption?
The sadness in our eyes and in our hearts could only be hidden by the comforting darkness that finally arrived with its cooling embrace, as one by one we swallowed our fears and slipped from our perches and returned to our bunks and the nightmares awaiting us there.
The monkey war continued. I moved Dinky Dow into the hooch for protection and to act as lookout. Junkie gravitated to the high ground–as all monkeys do–and continued to perfect his pitching skills, slinging anything and everything in my direction. This included empty cans, stones, and monkey turds, from the roofs and rafters of mine and neighboring hooches.
I trained Dinky to charge through the door ahead of me, until Junkie got wise and learned to wait for the taller target. Then I sent Dinky out one door as I exited another. Endless permutations followed, and Junkie learned quickly–too damn quickly, to the point that any semblance of base camp normality receded into taut and distant memories. Although Junkie seemed tireless in his repetitious assaults, the stress of constant vigilance was wearing me down.
When you’re not under enemy fire, life in a war zone is incredibly boring. It’s accurately been said that war is ninety-nine percent boredom and one-percent terror. That averages out to about 14 minutes of terror for every twenty-four period. Doesn’t sound too bad. But, there’s another rule that puts the issue into perspective: in a firefight, the life-expectancy of a gunner is about forty-five seconds. Heck, that’s less than a minute to say goodbye. Sobering.
Days later, while reminiscing with a gunner from a neighboring crew, I recalled an incident from my ever-industrious childhood. I recounted a sultry summer in Tucson when I was mowing yards to earn weekend spending money. I remembered needing to urinate one Saturday morning but not wanting to shut down the power-mower and then restart the damn thing afterward.
I pushed that mower around the corner of the house where no one could see me and then I unzipped my pants and happily urinated on everything in sight. I christened the flowers and then the bushes and then added my initials to the fence. Then I made the biggest mistake of my young life to date–and I peed on that damned mower. I learned in an electrocuting flash to never pee on the spark plug of a gasoline motor. In fact, peeing on any machine at any time was a grave mistake! In that flash of juvenile clarity, I began to understand what my father meant by hard-won wisdom.
In that moment of remembrance, a plan began to take shape in my brain. It took a few days to “condition” the monkey into thinking that my guard had grown lax, and to scrounge the items I would need for my scheme. These included the power cord from the deceased air-conditioner, a paperclip, some electrical tape, and a small metal plate.
I waited until I was sure that Junkie was nodding out elsewhere, and then I went to work on my trap. I split the cord and attached one bare wire to the metal cage of the fan in my sleeping area, and then I used the paperclip to attach the other bare wire to the flat metal plate. Then I shoved the plate up under the plastic base of the fan, and I plugged the cord into a wall socket. Any barefoot animal that happened to be standing on that metal plate while peeing through the cage of that fan would share an illumination from my childhood.
The other troopers in the hooch watched from their bunks in the shadows as I prepared the ambush, but since they didn’t speak monkey, they had no way to warn the Junkie, and thus the stage was set for his enlightenment.
As night fell to end each day of the following week, I parked Dinky in a neighboring hut and bribed a sitter to keep him quiet. Then I ripped a corner of the screen at the bottom of the door to my hooch, just large enough to provide an entrance that’s sufficiently enticing to the primate mind.
After preparations were complete, I climbed onto my bunk and resigned myself to haphazard slumber. Junkie was brashly accustomed to an audience, as long as they didn’t get too close, so any sleepless sentinels in the other bunks should not dissuade his forthcoming investigation, or so I hoped.
But he didn’t take the bait!
How could he know, I wondered? Do monkeys have a “gut” feeling when something doesn’t feel right? Did he sense our expectation? Had he smelled my scent on the preparations? Was he watching now from the fetid darkness, awaiting the optimum moment to strike another blow for the wilder side of the jungle? Did he die? Or had he simply moved on?
One night, then two, then more went by, separated by days of intermittent terror in the air, which somehow registered as comparatively unremarkable in light of our nocturnal expectations, and my personal search for absolution. At length, time took its toll, as oncoming challenges hammered their way to prominence. Ever so softly, the monkey war slipped into yesterday’s embrace and consigned itself to the history of all that never was but might have been.
The lights were off and the hour was late when I awakened from a dream about falling in flames to the canopy below. Something was wrong. I lay motionless and listened, straining for a clue to the silent alarm. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw him.
Standing there, eyes aglow and peering through the blur of fan blades as they carved the night into wavering slices of reality. In a single motion, I backhanded a prepositioned cup of water, from atop the crate next to my bunk, lobbing it high in his direction. He watched transfixed as it sailed up, and then came raining down. A loud pop and a crash ensued as the darkness erupted with motion, followed instantly by a high-pitched series of shrieks and wails that banged through the door and grew fainter as they were swallowed by the night and cacophonous jungle.
I almost felt sorry for the little bastard. Not fearing the water as it cascaded down, Junkie had grabbed that fan cage to keep from losing his balance on the room divider, thus making contact with the alternating electric current as it sparked through his nimble little body. If he hadn’t fallen away, he would surely have been electrocuted!
The crews in the hooch went nuts as the lights flickered on and I bowed to the audience and accepted the honor and cash that were rightfully mine. I became famous in the annals of air-cavalry combat that night, and the first recipient of the croix du monké award, which I humbly accepted on behalf of mankind. At long last, the monkey duel was over, and we could return—unimpeded—to our staccato slide toward oblivion.
A few days later, I returned from the line after a grueling day in the air. The compound was unusually quiet and still. The hair on the back of my neck stood on end, as it always does when Mr. Death comes to visit.
Dinky failed to meet me for our customary round of grab-ass and greetings. As I drew closer to the compound, a sense of foreboding and loss invaded my consciousness and I knew that my furry little four-footed friend had gone ahead without me. No more fetch or hide-and-seek. No more who chewed the boot, or whose crap is that, a game that was usually won by Junkie. No more reminiscing about those tag-teaming bouts and butt-busting jaunts with the villainous monkey monster.
All eyes avoided mine as I dropped my gear and stood rooted in the dirt, sobbing inwardly and unwilling to take another step through this unforgiving consequence. No one had to tell me what had happened. I could feel it as clearly as if I’d loaded the shotgun and pulled the trigger myself.
I knew that I had violated an immutable rule of combat: I had loved! I’d loved a goofy little dog—more than life itself—and he had loved me, in the most desperate months of my youthful existence.
I was eighteen years of age and knew that I would never survive this place, and in that moment, my will to endure evaporated. It was all that I could do to prevent the dam inside me from breaking toward that oh-so-soft landing that beckoned warmly at the center of the onion that had again and again brought grief to my life, and sorrow to my immortal soul. I was a soldier, born a soldier and raised a soldier, by a soldier. Not the best, not the worst, and not nearly as capable as I needed to be.
I had always known that this was a soldier’s lot in life–to face death–in all of its suddenness, in all of its sadness, and in all of the masks that it would choose to hide behind.
If I was lucky, I would die fast and without expression, as my name was added to the list of all that was lost. And then I knew. Hallelujah! I had arrived at last—at Smiley.
That evening, I pulled myself to the roof of the hooch and marveled at the newest masterpiece as it melted toward the rim of creation. The darkness wasn’t coming fast enough to cover the sadness of this day.
I heard a noise and turned to investigate–and there he was–the Junkie Monkey, sitting quietly a few yards away–like a hairy little version of Rodin’s The Thinker–staring out and over our onion together, and seemingly lost, like me, within the mists of primal meditation. He glanced at me and then he scratched his ass. Then he took a moment to contemplate the harvest beneath his fingernails. Then he peered at me again, and he chattered something that I almost understood.
“You’re right,” I replied. “This sure is a dinky-dau land!” And in that moment of mutual acceptance and uncommon kinship, I somehow knew that he agreed.
Years would pass and by God’s grace I began to write the stories that would immortalize the rites of our passage, in hopes that our abandoned generation might somehow be remembered.
Though I remained Smiley for many years, I embarked on a journey of reconciliation, and failing that, I hid my anguish in fluffy clouds of over-achievement, anxiously floating from one challenge to the next in a never-ending effort to stay high in the sky until the Lord calls me back, or barring that, I’d finally slide home for that long awaited oh-so-soft landing.
It’s much too painful to remember the people, but I always think of Dinky, and the little monkey too.
And on those forlorn days when the past is whacking my ass to run a bit faster, I still climb to the roof to watch the sunset–as it says goodbye and paints its way into someone else’s bright and shining morning.
And if I squint my eyes, I can still see the anguished ghosts of our foreshortened youth, and that steamy leafy dinky-dau land where junkie monkeys chase doomed little doggies, and discarded soldiers take extra-large bites of very bitter onions–a place where God alone measures the sorrow, and where a twilight masterpiece awaits the daily survivors.