The heavy monsoon rain kept the big choppers grounded. None of the Huey gunships could get up, either. All the forward observer could do was call in artillery strikes. A platoon of infrantry was being assaulted by a North Vietnamese Army regiment in the open. The Vietcong would hit and run but the NVA would stand and fight.
Mike Durham was in 105mm howitzer section number three. Under the tarpaulin, he cut the powder charge and then hustled out and handed the round base first to Steve McCormick who rammed the round home. All six howitzers of the battery were in continuous fire. Daylight was fading. The mud was a foot deep. Hardly anyone wore his waterproof poncho.
The battery fired at different intervals all night. The rain never let up. In the night the chopper crews started humping rounds from the chopper pad down to the gun crews. Mike had never seen warrant officers, lieutenants, captains and even a major hump rounds before. It made him feel so patriotic he felt embarrassed. The infantry platoon was saved from being over run. Mike Durham never felt that patriotic again.
Twenty-three years later Mike Durham sat with Steve McCormick in a tavern in Market Square in downtown Pittsburgh. Both worked in offices in the city but Steve lived in the suburbs. Mike was still a bachelor.
“I wouldn’t have gone,” said the young man who sat on the other side of the horse shoe shaped bar.
“Well we went,” Steve said.
Only a few customers, all middle age men, sat around the bar or at the six tables along the one wall. These men sat listening. The juke box was silent.
“What good did it do?” the young man said.
“We did what we had to do,” Mike said.
“Gentlemen,” the thin, gray headed bartender said.
“But you lost,” the young man said.
“We didn’t lose,” Steve said.
“There’s no more South Vietnam,” the young man said.
“Because of young candy asses like you,” Steve said.
The young man drank down his mug of beer, got up and walked out.
“Good old, Steve,” Mike said, patting his friend on the back. “Still not taking any shit.”
“I take plenty.”
“Still doing what you want to do when you want to do it.”
“That’s not me that’s you.”
Steve motioned to the bartender for two more bottles of Duquesne. The old bartender wiped down the entire bar top before he brought the beers. Mike watched him as Steve talked.
“Mike, listen, you got to talk to Denny. Jen and I can’t talk to him anymore. All he does is hang around with those weird friends of his skateboarding and getting tattoos. He got his lip pierced. You haven’t seen him lately. Yesterday he comes home with his hair cut in a spiked Mohawk. A spiked Mohawk. Who the hell does he think is going to hire him with a spiked Mohawk? That so-called job he has at that hole-in-the-wall record store is not going to support him. He’s talking about riding his motorbike to California. What the hell does he think he’s going to find in California? I told him we’d help all we could if he went to college. He’s got the grades. Jen and I work our entire lives to get out of the city and now he’s hell bent on getting back in it.”
A few days later Mike bumped into Denny downtown. They stood talking under the Kaufman’s clock at the intersection of Fifth and Smithfield as people walked by. It was a lovely summer day in Pittsburgh.
“They’re so vanilla,” Denny was saying.
“What are you going to do?”
“Cut loose. Who needs a house that size? The three of us living way out there. I don’t want to spend my life trimming hedges and mowing the lawn. You don’t have anything tying you down.”
“No,” Mike said. After a moment he said, “No, I guess I don’t.” He looked at Denny’s head. “That sure is some hairdo.”
“I knew you’d like it,” Denny said. “Dad showed me a picture of you from the seventies fronting this rock band with your hair down to your waist.”
“I remember that snapshot.” After another moment Mike said, “You still taking off for California?”
“He told you.”
“Yeah, he told me,” Mike said. “He told me.”
“Well,” Denny said, “I’d better get going.”
“Okay,” Mike said. “Sure. And, Denny, listen. Good luck in California.”