I never published this novella. Reader feedback would be helpful. I might even try to if there's enough interest.
By Dave Stancliff
Prologue: 1976 Humboldt County, California
When he woke up his arms ached. He was lying on his stomach somewhere in a dark place. A basement? Minutes crawled by as his brain attempted to clear the fog clinging to it since he opened his eyes.
Dawning awareness. His fingers dug into dirt. Soft, wet, smelly. Odor of decay. Not buried in it. Lying on it. His body pressed up against it. His arm muscles were spastic snakes, stilling his movements. He waited for them to settle down.
Alive. In pain, but alive. What happened? He raised his head slightly and felt a gentle breeze. His eyes, growing accustomed to the darkness, revealed he was under a house. He had no idea whose house. He could just make out some porch steps. Irregular rows of lattice-work lined the house perimeter. There were several broken openings.
What was he doing here? The thought paralyzed him. No memory at all. There had to be a reason why he was under this house. Who was he hiding from? More important, who was he? He didn’t even know his name. Or, how long he’d been lying there. More pain. Bright lights went off behind his eyes like slivers of lightning. His head sank back onto the cold earth. Throbbing. Suddenly a thunderous roar and muzzle flash, and his hip exploded in pain!
“I’ve got you now you son of a bitch!” A voice roared. He rolled over, off the wounded hip, and wondered what terrible thing he must have done to deserve an ending like this?
Chapter 1 - Freedom
Rafter Rabago barely managed to get his diploma from Covina High School in 1968, surprising friends, family, and the school’s entire faculty. Some of his detractors said he shouldn’t have graduated, based on the time he missed. His commonly known distain for the whole process of education had pushed more than one teacher to the limit.
He was never interested in organized school sports. His physical education coaches constantly tried to get him to play football, basketball, or to wrestle. The reason? He was probably the most gifted athlete in the school. Except he didn’t want to be an athlete. A jock. It drove his PE coaches crazy to watch him dribble the basketball around others and to slam dunk it with apparent ease during PE class.
When it came to football he could pass, defend, and receive the ball effortlessly. He was faster and more agile than any student in the school. At six-feet, and 180 pounds by his senior year, he was a force few physically challenged. In his physical education tests he did more push-ups, sit-ups, chin-ups, and pull-ups than anyone on the varsity football squad. He set school records in all of them. He was faster than anyone on the school’s track team, and tied the fastest 100 meters record in the school’s history as his PE coach clocked him in awe.
With all his physical gifts, Rafter should have been groomed as a professional athlete. The coaches daydreamed about his potential. Friends didn’t ask why he didn’t participate in sports. They knew why. He didn’t like the discipline. Didn’t like the idea of being told what to do, when to do it, and how to do it.
Rafter was not a good student either. That discipline thing was a problem in the classroom as he sometimes did have trouble focusing on the lessons. The teacher’s words sometimes sounded like angry bees in his head and his attention wandered off to other subjects.
As could be expected, this lack of attention hadn’t gone unnoticed by his teachers since
the first day of his first grade class. His eyes gave him away, staring into space. Or, his other extreme; Class Clown. Getting laughs while earning D's in Mathematics and English. Some of the contorted faces he made caused teachers to grin in spite of themselves. He was a natural clown. A rubber face. A teller of off-color jokes when adults weren’t nearby.
Despite being a poor student and a non-jock with a perfect record of never having made the honor roll in 12 years of basic education, Rafter was popular. People liked being around him because he exuded a certain air of adventure. Of discovery. And his sense of humor was a hit, especially when it came to getting girl friends.
Rafter was not what you’d call a good looking guy. You know, like Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise. Truth be told, he was very average looking with a pudgy nose and lips too full for his thin face. His mouse brown hair never looked combed, and was always borderline too long according to school regulations. One ear was lower than the other.
His golden brown eyes, topped with dark brown eyebrows, were the most intense feature of his face. His moods were reflected in them like serene twin lakes, or stormy seas, depending upon the moment. His voice was a husky baritone that carried well. It could sooth or terrify.
And what of his home life? Pretty boring actually. Mom and Dad both worked while he was growing up. Frank, a dentist, and Madeline, a bank clerk, were both active in community organizations. Rafter had a succession of babysitters until he was ten, at which time he declared his independence and right to be home alone while they were out doing their things. That was fine with his parents. It saved them money.
Speaking of “saved,” no one in the Rabago household went to church. It was never discussed. Rafter remained blissfully doctrine free throughout his childhood. The world around him talked about God and he formed a vague opinion of the omniscient Spirit from what he heard.
There were many times, during his school years, that God was mentioned. The Pledge of Allegiance, and songs like “God Bless America” were commonplace. Rafter saw and heard references to God in court houses, schools, and public buildings. Personally, Rafter did not know the God everyone referred to.
Talking with friends who did attend various churches gave him little insights into God. His over-all impression was of a wrathful supreme being who did not tolerate sinners (anyone who didn’t believe in him) and who had a long list of what was good and bad. That list was summarized in the Ten Commandments laid down in God’s Bible.
He did see an upside to a God who loved him no matter what he did. The idea of a loving Supreme Being sparked a longing in his lonely heart. He really wanted to be loved by someone. He longed to experience the magical feeling poets and singers conveyed when describing love.
He never told people about this longing. It was his secret between him and God…if God existed.
He didn’t have brothers or sisters. This was never explained. Not that it mattered. It was obvious early on his parents weren’t thrilled to have even one child. Listening to them late at night, when they thought he was asleep, he discovered at an early age that he was an unexpected surprise. Not a happy surprise either. No, he heard words like “mistake,” and “regret,” when they talked about his birth.
Even his name isolated him. Who else had a name like Rafter? No one he read or heard about bore his unusual first name. In bits and pieces of conversation between his parents over the years, he discovered the name Rafter was the Irish variant of Raferty.
His mother’s brother, Raferty O’Brian, a private in the Marines, was killed in World War II at Omaha Beach on D-Day. They decided on Rafter before he was born. If he had been a girl, his name would have been Shirley.
One thing was for sure. He hated the name. Especially when he found out that a group of turkeys was called a rafter! His classmates used this knowledge to mock him. He discovered his best defense was to roll with the laughs, and even walk and talk like a turkey for more laughs.
Rafter never let his parents know he knew how they really felt about him. He just stayed out of their way, caused a minimum of fuss around the house, and became a first class survivor. After he figured things out at age seven, he played the game to perfection.
He thought of them as Frank and Madeline. Not as Mom and Dad. Home was in name only. He never felt “at home.” Never felt ties to the place where he grew up. He slept and ate there. That was it.
He knew when to pick his battles and when to retreat. Catch them at the right time, when they were feeling guilty about their mutual lack of interest in him, and he got what he wanted. From a BB Gun to a Davy Crockett coonskin hat, he more or less got what he wanted with that strategy.
Rafter wouldn’t have been so lonely at home if his parents had let him have a dog. That was out of the question. When they gave him a laundry list of reasons why he couldn’t have one, he stared into space, pretending he was on another planet. Communication in the Rabago household was often strained. He grew up silently envying everyone he knew who had a dog. He loved animals of all kinds, and promised himself that one day, when he was on his own, he would get one. Picking the best breed was one of his favorite day dreams.
With the end of his formal education upon him, Rafter could honestly say he had no plans. College wasn’t a consideration. Up to this point he hadn’t had to worry about money. His parents bought whatever he needed. Food, clothes, toys, a weekly allowance; no problem. A roof over his head in a quiet middle class neighborhood. Check. It was all free. That was about to change. The independence he desired required getting a job and a place of his own. Oh, yeah. And a car.
When it was Rafter’s turn, he stepped up to the podium and accepted his diploma (it was a phony, you got the real one when you turned in your cap and gown) from Principal Sanderson. Family and friends in the front row of the auditorium waved happily as he strolled down the steps with a big smile. He waved the false diploma at them and followed the other students to the chairs provided for graduates.
Afterward, there was a Graduation Party at his house and relatives he hadn’t seen in years attended. He zombie-walked through the rituals, cutting the cake, opening cards and presents, and smiling. Lots of “Thank yous,” to people he barely knew. Lots of advice on what to do, also from people he barely knew.
Alone in his room that night, he added up the money inside the cards. It came to a staggering $2,240! He’d never seen so much money. All in hundreds and twenties like he had robbed a store or something. The biggest cash gift came from Frank and Madeline. A thousand dollars (ten $100 dollar bills) were stuffed into an envelope with a card that said, “Congratulations Graduate. To a wonderful son on his Graduation Day. Best of luck, Mom and Dad.”
The next morning, Rafter phoned his best friend Lenny, who had a Ford Mustang, and got a ride to “Angelo’s Used Cars” on Alosta Avenue. There were forty-two cars to choose from on the lot. He took his time and examined every one of them, occasionally asking questions.
He finally selected a bright red 1963 convertible Chevrolet Impala SS. Its jet smooth styling and powerful V-8, 409 cubic-inch engine with 360 horsepower made his heart jump with excitement and anticipation.
The car sported bucket seats and a shift console. There wasn’t a scratch on the body and the interior was like new. Someone had installed an eight-track cassette player just beneath the radio, and two Craig Pioneer 10” speakers in every door panel, and the rear window area.
The bargaining began. The salesman, who was actually Angelo, a short squat Italian with shiny pointed loafers and green silk tie, said the price was $1,400 out-the-door. Rafter got up, didn’t say a thing, and walked out of the office towards a waiting Lenny who was cleaning the windshield of his Mustang.
Angelo caught up to him. “Hey! Wait a minute, kid!” Rafter stopped and slowly turned around. “How were you planning on paying for the car?”
A calculated moment of silence. “Cash.”
Angelo’s eyes momentarily lit up.
“I see…maybe we can knock off a hundred. What do you say?”
Rafter should have been the salesman. Once again, he hesitated then countered, “I’ll give you $1,000 for it. Right now.”
Angelo gasped like a fish out of water and staggered backward a few feet.
“I gotta get at least $1,200, or I’m losing money,” he wailed.
Rafter thought about the drifter in “Hang ’em High” and imagined he could hear the Italian backround music that made Clint Eastwood’s “spaghetti westerns” so popular.
“I’ll give you $1,000. Take it or leave it.”
The sun beat down. It was pushing 93 degrees and Angelo hadn’t made a sale in three days. “You’re robbing me. Come on inside. There’s some paperwork we have to fill out before I give you the keys.”
It was high noon and Rafter had won the shoot-out.
Days later he found a one-bedroom apartment in Huntington Beach a mile from the ocean. It was furnished with a futon and a rickety wooden end table that supported a 19” Black & White television complete with a telescoping antenna. On good days, it worked well enough to get all three television stations.
The curtains were a dirty beige with a chicken foot design. The kitchen was a nook in one corner, with an electric plate, a small sink, two small cupboards made from cheap pine but stained a dark mahogany, and a table with dual chrome legs, big enough for two. Two chrome legged chairs with red vinyl seats, complimented the modest arrangement.
Rafter thought it was great. His first home. No long term lease either. Rent was due every month. Miss the rent payment one month and you got kicked out. It was really a temporary way station for single young men and women. It was meant as a place to sleep, sometimes eat, and to shave and bathe. The location was its greatest asset.
He could walk to the beach easily from his apartment. His mailing address was Apt. 4A, 2377 Ocean View Drive, Huntington Beach. He got a phone. A standard black rotary phone, but special because it was his first. Everything was special because he was a free man living near the beach. He spent days walking around the neighborhood, getting to know the area.
Months slipped by like the steady surf at the beach he enjoyed so much. Lenny, who worked Monday though Friday at a car parts warehouse, usually came by on weekends and they got drunk and chased women. He could have gone on like that forever but his money was running low and he had to find a job.
The newspaper was full of ads for unskilled laborers like Rafter. He applied at a plastic factory in La Mirada and got a job loading box cars with boxes of plastic products ranging from cups to plates.
They taught him how to drive a forklift so he could pick up pallets of boxes and supply himself as he filled a box car every shift. The warehouse was huge. Others like him worked at bay doors open to the railroad tracks and the hungry box cars. When it rained, the metal ramp to the box car was slippery and he had to watch every step as he carried the heavy boxes and neatly stacked them to the ceiling inside.
For two months the blood vessels in both arms and his chest looked like red spider web tattoos, until he finally got into lifting shape. He slowly adjusted to his new routine and became comfortable with it despite the physical demand.
Working the graveyard shift, he soon became a night owl. It was hell on his social life at first, but he wasn’t looking for a lasting relationship anyway. After a year, he had a half dozen friends at work, both male and female. They did the lunch thing at 3:00 a.m. every morning and shared life’s defeats and victories over warmed up leftovers, sandwiches, and snack goodies.
One of his female friends, LeAnn, was married to an abusive husband, and the other, Tina, was a single mom. Gary, Cole, and Lee were all single, and Ron was married with two children. Twins. The men enjoyed going to basketball, football, and baseball games. The five of them enjoyed playing basketball and formed a team. They called themselves the “Hoop Heads” and played other pickup teams at local gyms that offered open nights for hoopsters.
They were his inner circle. Tina and Rafter dated several times, but the sexual attraction wasn’t there for either of them. Their relationship settled into a platonic one based upon trust. Sometimes when Tina came to his apartment for a drink she got drunk and he made her stay on his futon. He slept on the floor without grumbling. Her safety was more important than ruining a friendship.
It was an easy, free flowing life, and predictable. Some might say boring. He seldom strayed outside his routine. He laid around on the beach during his days off, if
the weather was good, watching the pretty girls in bikinis. No desire to travel troubled his
mind. No dreams of being rich. He was content to put his years in with a company and to retire with a small pension and Social Security. He didn’t expect a gold watch, knowing he’d never stand out as employee of the month, year, or decade. Knowing he’d never turn in a money-saving tip to the suggestion box. Just an average Joe getting by.
If he didn’t like the job, or got fired, he could easily find another one. There was no shortage of manufacturing jobs in Southern California in 1968. There was no shortage of any kind of jobs when he graduated. Jobs for college grads, service jobs, and manufacturing jobs, were all abundant. Full time or part time.
He could have picked something more adventuresome to do with his life. He might have been a world record breaker in sports with his natural talents. An inspiration to average-looking humble guys everywhere. Or a seeker of truth with a college degree in Philosophy. A champion for the downtrodden.
Fate held a different future for him. One day Rafter checked his mailbox and found a draft notice! Uncle Sam had sent him an invitation he couldn’t deny. It arrived one year and three months after he graduated from high school and said he had three days to report to a processing center in Los Angeles for a physical. He stared at it while the sun suddenly hid behind gathering clouds in the sky. His steps were heavy as he slowly walked back to his apartment. The Army. He was going to be a soldier. His country wanted him. He was in trouble now!
That night he watched the six o’clock follies on the news, as soldiers charged through the rice paddies chasing little men and women in black silk suits with funny conical straw hats. The TV anchor man droned on about 234 enemy causalities and two wounded soldiers in the Valley of the Jars, which had been an enemy stronghold, but wasn’t any longer. There was no word about when the war in Vietnam would come to an end.
Chapter 2 - Army Training
Basic training happened by the sea, at Ft. Ord, the U.S. Army’s Training Center for Infantry in California. It was named after Major General Edward Cresap Ord, who served with Fremont’s Army in the early days of California.
Rafter and his fellow trainees in Company B, 1st Battalion, 1st Brigade, ran along the beach in the morning fog every day. They ran all over the base. Everywhere they went they ran. They sang as they ran. They moaned while running miles in full gear with their heavy M-14 rifles at port arms. They ran through obstacle courses. They ran carrying a buddy on their back. They ran in their dreams like dogs sometimes do.
Every morning they woke to infuriated drill instructors telling them to get their maggoty asses off their racks. The tension got worse every step of the way. Every day.
“You maggots have five minutes to enjoy Uncle Sam’s food. Then you better get out of here!” roared a drill instructor, as he strolled between the long tables during a typical breakfast. Scrambled eggs, bacon, toast, all disappeared down 140 gullets in record time each morning. Then it was time to run.
The trainees learned new skills every day. How to properly use a bayonet. How to get a linoleum floor squeaky clean with a toothbrush. How to sight your M-14. How to say - and act out a mime pointing at their rifle and their genitals, “This is my rifle, this is my gun. One is for shooting and one is for fun!” whenever they made the mistake of calling their rifle a “gun.”
On the firing range, metal barrels with fires burning inside of them, stood ready as each trainee blackened the sight of his rifle before trudging through beach sand to the shooting range.
Targets down range. Pissed off drill instructors screaming at trainees who missed whole targets. Their bullets screaming off in another, undetermined direction while range masters shook their heads sadly at the thought of sending lousy marksmen to Vietnam.
They would surely die if they couldn’t shoot better than that. A good grunt was a good shot. A dead grunt was the one who couldn’t hit the side of a barn. Charlie, their opponent in Vietnam, was a damn good shot, the drill instructors assured the trainees, hoping to motivate them.
Instead, it scared some so badly they panicked and fired blindly. The nearly bald trainees, mostly 19 and 20 year-olds, were clueless about what was happening in Vietnam. Some were still in shock at being drafted and were only thinking of ways to get out before someone put them on a plane to that bad place.
Rafter was blessed with a good eye and steady aim. He turned out to be one of three trainees in the entire company who earned an Expert Marksmanship rating. His platoon drill instructor, Sgt. Christenson, was pleased with him. It made a platoon sergeant look good to have one of the best shots in the company. It also made him look good that Rafter had the highest physical training scores in the company.
The downside, for Sgt. Christenson, was Rafter’s lack of respect for authority. Little things like saying “Drill Sgt! Yes Drill Sgt!” instead of “Okay Sarge” prevented him from being an ideal soldier. Sgt. Christenson stayed awake nights wondering what it would take to straighten him out? He lost a lot of sleep pondering that puzzle.
Rafter continued to do stupid things like whispering, laughing, and farting in formation. Infractions so dire that he was forced to spend hours doing push-ups, kitchen patrol, extra laps, and cleaning toilets with a tooth brush.
It bothered Sgt. Christenson that Rafter had the potential to be a Sgt. York or an Audie Murphy and didn‘t appreciate it. He could be the next hero for his generation. It bothered Sgt. Christenson that a chance of a lifetime was passing him by because of Rafter’s lousy attitude and lack of respect for his superior officers.
To be known as Rafter’s mentor, when he stood before the president of the United States and received the Medal of Honor, would have been a crowning achievement. Such a waste of grand thoughts. In his heart, he knew Rafter would be lucky not to get a dishonorable discharge for his rebellious ways.
When he thought about the situation long enough, he’d seek Rafter out after regular training hours, and make him do push-ups until he got tired of watching.
Graduation Day. Everyone in the company, except Rafter, proudly paraded before a grand stand full of relatives and friends, wearing their new Class A uniforms with private stripes. Martial music blared. The sun glared. Rafter shined pots and pans in the company kitchen and butchered the lyrics to “Come Together“ by the Beatles.
His failure to pass a final inspection infuriated the company commander, Captain Miles, who had planned to present him with his Expert Marksman Badge and tell the audience how he set a new record at the base range. Perfection. But no. The idiot’s locker looked like a bomb had exploded in it, and when reprimanded Rafter shot off his mouth, “Well what are you going to do? Send me to Vietnam?”
So it came to pass that Rafter’s shooting record was silently entered into the base history books by a bored corporal that afternoon. Orders were cut, and he was sent to Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri, a base fondly called “Fort Lost in the Woods” by former graduates who had braved the Big Piney River and woods during night navigation courses and other outside activities. It was especially challenging in the winter.
Rafter arrived in early October 1969, for his advanced individual training (AIT). He was assigned to AIT Bravo Company, 3rd Platoon, 2nd Battalion. The clerk told him to go to supply and get his winter duds. He walked outside, stuck out his tongue to catch the gently falling snow flakes, and went in search of the supply building.
What a different look his new home had. In basic training they had concrete bays, three levels high and lined up in endless rows. Here, the barracks were old vintage wooden buildings used during WW I, with pot-bellied stoves at one end that required a “fire watch” by one of the trainees every night. This was treated the same as being a sentry in a war zone and falling asleep meant big trouble.
The overall effect was depressing for Rafter at first. Perhaps it was the slate gray skies threatening snow or the dilapidated wooden buildings. It could have been a sense of being far from civilization, surrounded by trees in a place so unlike Southern California it was like landing on the moon.
Rafter noted the drill instructors didn’t seem as pissed off as the ones in basic training. They still shouted at the top of their lungs, but not as often. The Army decided to introduce the M-16 and other trainees like Rafter who had qualified with the M-14, had to requalify with the new lighter weapon.
It reminded Rafter of a toy. When one of the guys in his squad, Jason Henry, said the stock was made by Mattel Toy Company, Rafter wasn’t surprised. It was quite a shock going from a heavy wooden stock to a light plastic stock that could shattered if you did what you were taught in basic. That is, diving to the ground for safety, using the stock to break your fall. The Mattel stock would shatter with a good body slam like that.
This time, Rafter didn’t get a perfect rifle score. He missed a few. It might have been because he was shooting prone in a pile of snow at white pop-up targets during a snow storm. Or because he had trouble paying attention because of his frostbitten feet.
In any event, he still qualified as an Expert Marksman. With this eagle-eye ability, he should have been sent to Ft. Bragg, North Carolina to train with an infantry unit and become a sniper, but a pissed off Captain Miles at Ft. Ord instructed a bored Army clerk to send him to Ft. Leonard Wood to become a combat engineer.
There he could learn to drive heavy equipment, build bridges, roads, fire bases in hostile places, and mine sweep vital roads. Combat engineers were in big demand in Vietnam. To top it off, he would train in the harsh Missouri winter. As good a revenge as any.
One day the Company Commander, Captain Elias Thorton, asked Rafter if he’d be interested in boxing? The base held weekly “smokers” or boxing matches, and representatives from the companies fought for the glory and whatever perks they could get. Rafter had never boxed before. Never laced on a pair of gloves. Never hit a speed bag, or heavy bag. He liked watching Muhammad Ali. He told the captain that. The captain said he would train him if he was interested, and the company really needed a heavyweight. Rafter, who’d thrived on Army food, had gained an astounding twenty pounds and now weighed 200 lbs. Right at the weight limit for heavies.
Rafter bluntly asked, “What’s in it for me?” The captain smiled and assured him of special eating priviledges (steak every day), no kitchen duty, no fire watches, and a weekend pass once a month to the nearby town of Waynesville, where prostitutes gave military discounts. They shook hands in agreement, a decidedly unmilitary thing to do.
Why did the captain want him to box if he knew Rafter had no experience? Hard to understand unless you knew Captain Thorton. He fancied himself as the trainer for the next Heavyweight Champion of the World. He never stopped looking for prospects. Every training cycle he looked over the men’s records in search of a champion. He literally drooled the day he saw Rafter’s physical test scores. Rafter could be a diamond in the rough. And he was the right man to polish this powerful kid into a champion. All this soldier had to do was listen to him.
Rafter’s first fight was as ugly as it was instructive. With just two weeks of training in the gym he thought he could float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. His favorite fighter was Muhammad Ali.
Didn’t happen. His opponent used Rafter’s head for a punching bag for two rounds before he realized it was time to get serious. Halfway through the third and final round, Rafter pushed his shorter opponent back against the ropes and hit him with a solid right, breaking his jaw and sending him to the canvas, effectively ending the fight.
His opponent was one of the toughest heavies on the base and had never been knocked down, let alone out. The crowd broke into cheers, knocked back their beers, and started talking about Rafter as being the next Post Champion.
He fought six more opponents before his chance at the current base champion, Alex Harmon from Columbus, Ohio. They were messy bouts. He got hit a lot. Probably too much, but he always ended up knocking out his opponent. No decisions. His wins were undisputed acts of raw power and little technique. His left ear looked like a wrestler’s might after a long career. His nose was broken twice and looked pudgier than ever by the time he earned the right to fight Alex Harmon.
The big fight. Money was bet. Unit pride flared. Captain Thorton genuinely didn’t want to see Rafter get hurt, but he needed to see if there was a future for him. Knowing if Alex punched him in the head as much as his other opponents did, Rafter would go down like a sack of potatoes, he worked out a plan for him.
“Tie him up and don’t stand back and try to exchange punches,” he instructed. “Batter him inside. Keep your head on his chest and throw body blows.”
Rafter slipped off his warmup robe and shadow boxed around the tiny locker room. “I think I could, Cap,” he offered.
“You could what? No! Now listen to me, this guy was a Golden Glove champion in Cleveland, Ohio last year. He’s already a member of the regular Army boxing team, and these bouts are just warm-ups for him. His people say he’ll probably qualify for the Olympics.”
Rafter stopped and looked at him. “You do want me to win, don’t you?”
“Of course, I’m just telling you the best way to fight him, okay? Do your work inside. Keep punching in close. Mix in some uppercuts. Solar plexus punches will bring his guard down. Wear him out so he can’t dance around and hit you in the chops. The guy could drop a bull if he gets a clean shot. But if you work on him, punish him, stay close and use your strength, you can win.”
Did Rafter take the Captains’ good advice seriously? Of course not. The moment the bell rang he stood toe-to-toe and within one minute and twenty-two seconds he was
looking up from the canvas, surprised he got there but aware of someone counting:
“Two..three…four…five…six…seven” Rafter got to his knees. “Eight, nine..” Rafter got up. The ref held his gloves up and looked into his still unfocused eyes and shouted “Fight!”
Alex stepped up and unloaded another combination on him. Rafter took it mostly on his gloves. An animal instinct took over and he reached out and pulled a startled Alex toward him and head-butted his tormentor! Bright red blood spurted from the gash on Alex’s forehead and he backed up in stunned shock.
The gym was impossibly silent for a few seconds. The earth stood still. Then pandemonium broke out. Rafter, his blood up, closed in on Alex and punched him with jackhammers to the body and head.
All six-feet four inches and 245 pounds once destined to be a champion was a broken man within a minute. Alex would require three facial surgeries after his mauling. As he sank to the canvas the referee pulled Rafter away. Alex’s corner men jumped into the ring roaring for revenge! Chaos broke out in the rowdy audience. Beer cans flew.
Captain Thorton’s dream was as shattered as Alex’s face. Rafter was, of course, disqualified and Alex declared the winner. Like it mattered. Neither man would ever box again. Rafter was lucky to have the Captain in his corner that night as some of Alex’s friends, who dearly wanted revenge for their champion’s beating, might have evened the score. He became an instant Bravo Company legend. His boxing career was over. Rafter had to settle back into the regular training drudgery like tying knots and learning how to sweep for mines with big, heavy metal detectors that emitted painfully loud screeches at the hint of something metal. Captain Thorton, temporarily stymied in his search for a champion, waited patiently for the new cycle to begin.
Rafter knew he’d end up in Vietnam. Drill instructors since basic made sure he knew. The training cadre at Ft. Lost-in-the-Woods knew that most of the men were bound for Southeast Asia. There was a real need for combat engineers there. The cadre made sure not to get too close to the soon-to-be-condemned men. They didn’t want to know when they died, or how they died. They became jaded for their own sanity. It was much easier that way.
Chapter 3 - Vietnam
Rafter’s first plane trip was from California to Missouri when he reported to AIT. The second took him back to California with a one week leave to get his affairs in order before going to Vietnam. His third was the trip to Long Bien Air Force Base in Vietnam.
Before he left, he visited his parents. It was an awkward visit. They didn’t really know how to show they loved him, and he was pretty sure they didn’t. They let him use their garage to store his stuff, which amounted to three boxes of mostly clothes and tennis shoes. He parked his red 1963 convertible Chevrolet Impala SS at the side of the house and put a tarp over it.
A handshake with Frank. A peck on the cheek for Madeline. Murmers of “write” drifted after him as he climbed into Lenny’s Mustang. Next stop Los Angeles Airport. Before he got on the plane, Lenny cautioned him to be careful and said, “Don’t play John Wayne over there.” Rafter suspected it was the best advice he could have received.
The first thing Rafter noticed, after getting off the air conditioned plane, was the
incredible heat. It was a living thing. It shimmered. He was instantly bathed in sweat.
He stood dazed on the tarmac, sweat spreading from his armpits, while others disembarked from the civilian passenger plane. Finally he moved towards the main airport terminal and followed the others inside.
The “Night of the Living Dead,” reeled through his head, as everyone seemed zombie-like in their movements. Moving slowly in the heat and stench. The stench of the unwashed. The stench from overloaded trash cans with flies dive-bombing the contents. His nostrils quivered in disgust.
He reached a window after standing in a line for an hour. They gave him his orders and said someone would come out and get him. Not when. Just that someone would come after him. He found his two duffel bags, hauled them to a corner of the waiting room and sat on the concrete floor. There were no empty benches. He idly wondered if he would serve out his tour waiting for someone to get him.
His biggest immediate problem was food. There didn’t seem to be any place to buy any. No local vendors. Just a bunch of guys hanging around waiting for rides under this one big roof.
It sure wasn’t what he expected. He wasn’t sure what he really expected, but he thought someone should have been passing out weapons and cigarettes the moment they landed.
There was nothing dramatic about his first day in Vietnam. Actually it was kind of
boring if he didn’t think about the possibility of getting shot by unseen snipers in the jungle. If he didn’t worry about vipers while wading through rice paddies. If he didn’t think about a “Bouncing Betty” popping up and blowing his knee caps off.
Everything considered, hanging around in what must have been a safe area because they
didn’t need weapons, didn’t seem so bad. All things must end, or at least change, and eight hours later someone with a microphone called his name.
A three-quarter ton pickup truck with a canvas top gave Rafter and four other new
guys a ride to their new home in Phouc Binh. The driver, a grizzly vet with a Peace sign on his helmet and a doobie drooping from his thin lips, had no words of advice for the new guys. It was actually below his station, as someone who was so short in country (he was knee high to an ant short), to speak with such raw troops. They had a lot to learn. But not from him. When the truck stopped, he got out and walked away. A thin spidery man popped out of a hooch that had a sign declaring, “Company Clerk.”
“Over here newbies!” he called out.
Hours later the new men were settled in their own hooch. Each had been issued a cot, a wooden chest, one combination padlock, a pillow that could have passed for a brick, and a scratchy OD green blanket. They brought the rest of their supplies with them in the duffle bags. All five were assigned to bunker guard duty that night. They were instructed to check out their weapons at the armory when it was time to report.
That night, a truck took the newbies out to the bunker line and dropped them off, one-by-one at bunkers. Waiting for each of them was a tired, bored, or stoned guard sitting on the top of the sandbag bunker with a 50-caliber machine gun. Rafter scuttled up to the top and greeted the occupant.
“How ya doing? My name is Rafter Rabago.”
“Well, I’m being polite and introducing myself. Isn’t that the way things are done here?”
“Where are you from, boy?”
“I’m not a boy. I’m from California. Where are you from, smart ass?”
“Texas, and I sure don’t take shit from surfer boys so don’t mess with me. I’m going down below now, and don’t even think about waking me up unless Victor Charles is coming through the wire with bad intentions.”
“Lousy dreams cowboy!”
Rafter checked out the 50’s action and pointed it towards the rows of rolled razor barbwire. The ground leading up to the barbwire was stripped bare for a hundred yards. He could just make out tree tops in the distance. Claymore mines were carefully positioned for maximum effect. The only things moving were the clouds that slunk along the stygian skies like sappers. Look at them long enough and you could see things. Shapes. Faces. Odd things. Rafter imagined an enemy crawling around nearby looking for a G.I. to kill.
He recalled a humorous song on the radio back home about the 7th Cavalry being ambushed, “Please Mr. Custer, I don’t want to go,” went the lyrics, “There’s a Redskin out there waiting to take my hairrrr…” It didn’t sound so funny to him now. It sounded desperate. A plea to live. No matter how high the singer’s voice, it ceased being funny as Rafter stared towards a jungle that was home to his newfound enemy; the North Vietnamese regulars and the Viet Cong.
He knew they lived in tunnels that went on for miles. They were out there, just beyond the 100-yard perimeter - or possibly below him right now - plotting to kill the foreign devils invading their country. This stand off had been going on for years. He was just a small cog inserted into the machinery of the overall madness. His thoughts were interrupted an hour later when the whole bunker line suddenly came alive with
machine gun fire!
He scrambled behind the .50 caliber and squeezed off rounds in short bursts, wondering if a wave of sappers was going to engulf him. He didn’t see anything, but kept firing until the bunker line went silent. Then he went down the wooden ladder from his perch and pulled the Pancho door curtain aside.
“Hey Texas! You better get up fast! We were just attacked and Charlie could still come back!”
The bleary-eyed Texan, whose name was Beau Clayton, hocked a lugie in his direction and growled, “Damn newbie! That was just a mad-minute! Every night at a different time the whole bunker line opens up to remind Victor Charles we are awake and mean business. Now get the hell out of here!”
Feeling sheepish, Rafter went back topside and sat down next to the still warm .50 caliber. He wondered why no one had warned him of this nightly practice. It seemed everyone was out for themselves, and new guys didn’t get any breaks.
In the morning he saw a dead boar tangled up in the barbwire. His first kill. And it was a pig. Beau, who was up and smoking a cigarette saw the pig and immediately gave Rafter a knickname: Pig Killer. When the jeep came around to relieve them they weren’t talking.
Because he was a new guy, he got the shit jobs around the base. Literally. He had to burn shit in a barrel with JP-4 (jet fuel) that sent up oily black clouds. He wore a green bandana wrapped around his face, but could still taste the oily sludge polluting the air. Another job was to pull out, with a metal hooked rod, the cut-off 50 gallon barrels from beneath the latrine. He spent his first week in country inhaling shitty fumes and having the shits, from the daily quinine he had to take to fight malaria. The company medic told him it would take a month or two before his body got used to it. Meanwhile, he was advised to “live with it.”
There were other adjustments to make. The first time he went to the latrine he was shocked when, while he was doing his business, a young Vietnamese domestic worker came in, dropped her black silk pants, and plopped down on the seat beside him. Culture shock. She thought nothing of it. He was embarrassed and didn’t know what to say when she rattled off something in Vietnamese and smiled at him while wiping herself.
“Your not in Kansas anymore, Toto,” he reminded himself, and smiled back at her.
The food was universally lousy at the mess hall. The cooks were a surly lot. The head cook, Sgt. Batson, had a face full of pimples about ready to burst and a temper nurtured by eight months in county serving grunts who constantly complained about his cooking.
Rafter was assigned to a squad of combat engineers. The squad was at the beck and call of Alpha Company which meted out their missions. They were attached to infantry units to sweep roads, look for booby traps in villages, build firebases in the middle of hostile jungles, and hoochs in established base camps. They also laid pipelines and paved dirt roads with sticky black tar to keep the dust down.
There were nine men in Rafter’s squad. Their leader, Sgt. Borgalac, was an alcoholic with three years in Country. He kept re-upping rather than go back to the states. Two of the men were from California, Chandler and Gonzales; Goodson from Alabama, Montalvo from Puerto Rico, Enriquez from New York, Fernandez from Florida, and Elliason from Kansas. Rafter was a replacement for a man picked off by a sniper while driving an earthmover to build a firebase in the middle of the Ashau Valley. The old timer was Sgt. Borgalac. The next-in-line, with seven months in country, was Goodson, who had the most experience in disabling mines.
With the exception of Sgt. Borgalac, everyone in the squad smoked marijuana and/or opium. Montalvo was also hooked on heroin. The squad had a radio that went everywhere with them. They traveled (when possible) in a small convoy of two 20-ton trucks that broke down so often a mechanic was assigned to them on every mission.
Rock music, via Armed Forces Radio, blared from the open rear bed of the truck. Chandler kept his guitar in a trailer pulled by one of the trucks, unless he was playing it. This was not what one would call a gung ho squad.
Sgt. Borgalac aside, you had a group of misfits intent on going home in one piece regardless of the price. They spent a lot of time arguing about things “back in the world” but presented a united front if criticized by someone from the outside.
Rafter’s first combat mission was almost his last. The squad was assisting in a search and destroy mission at a village reported to have VC operating from it, when a hidden bomb went off in a hooch he was about to enter with a grunt from the 1st Brigade, 5th Infantry Division (Mechanized).
Parts of the soldier who preceded them filled the air with a red blur and flying pieces
of meat. Rafter’s ears rang and the world went silent as the blast knocked him over. Minutes passed before he was able to slowly sit up. He wiped his face and his hand came away with the blood of the unfortunate soldier. He looked at the grunt sitting up near him, holding the side of his head as blood spurted out where he once had an ear. He appeared calm. Eyes glazed.
When the others gathered around, the medic patched up the wounded grunt, and Sgt. Borgalac examined Rafter.
“Are.. you… all right?”
Rafter nodded. Minutes passed while his concerned squad leader babbled on. The ringing began to go away and he heard, “Damned dinks use our…” Then Rafter vomited. Afterward he was able to hear. Men screaming at each other. Frightened villagers wailing in terror. Old men. Women. Children. Choppers overhead. The medic came over after treating the earless soldier, and examined Rafter.
“How ya feeling?
“Good, that means you’ll make it. Gonna give you a headache for a couple of days. Here, take one of these when it hurts too much.” He handed Rafter a tiny plastic baggie with four white pills in it. “Painkillers,” he explained. Later, when the chaos settled down, Goodson and Montalvo carried Rafter on a stretcher to the back of their 20-ton truck. Goodson cautioned him to take it easy and rest.
Three days later, when they got back to Phouc Binh, Sgt. Borgalac sent Rafter to see a
doctor at Long Bien Airforce Base for a check up. The doctor, an Air Force captain who had nothing but distain for lowly grunts, looked him over and declared him fit as a fiddle. “You’re fine,” he assured Rafter, who still had headaches, and sent him back to his unit.
Right about that time, Rafter started smoking marijuana. Fernandez always had
doobies rolled up and ready to go. He kept them in a handy plastic cigarette case. One front pocket held the doobies. The other his Kool cigarettes. One day, when they had some rare downtime on base, Fernandez offered Rafter a hit from his doobie. Without a second thought Rafter accepted it, took a big toke, and coughed for nearly a minute! This greatly amused Fernandez, who asked if he ever tried pot before?
“No,” Rafter gasped.
“How can that be? You’re from California aren’t you?”
“Well shit. I thought all you California boys smoked weed. Here, have another hit and don‘t take so much in this time. Try to hold it in like you do with a cigarette.”
“I don’t smoke cigarettes.”
“I know that, ass. Just suck it in and hold it as long as you can.”
The process took two hours and two doobies were smoked down to tiny roaches before Rafter mumbled, “I think I’m stoned,” and promptly fell asleep where they were relaxing outside the hooch.
In the following days Rafter found refuge in the high quality Nam weed. When smoking with the squad, their favorite place was an old Buddist graveyard near the base, where he found a sense of inner peace and belonging. The boom box took them “back to the world” with hits from Credence Clearwater and Jimi Hendrix. The men bonded by telling stories about their lives back home. It was a place and time away from the war that swirled around them.
Chapter 4 - Hell
Things were cushy for about a month. All the squad had to do was go out at the crack of dawn and sweep for mines along 10 miles of Highway 1. Yes, there were mines, often buried beneath steaming piles of water buffalo dung, a tactic literally designed to make their removal a shitty experience. G.I.s didn’t like probing through the stinky excrement and Victor Charles knew that. They did it however, cursing the entire Vietnamese people for making them suffer this discomfort. It was almost a boring routine, if it weren’t for the possibility of ambush.
Two squads of south Vietnamese soldiers, ARVNs, came along at first to provide security. This arrangement lasted one week until a lone sniper shot at them and scattered the ARVNs like chickens on slaughter day. After that episode the squad demanded, and got, Americans to provide security. It was actually a good deal for the grunts because they got the rest of the day and night off, as did Rafter’s squad. In the big picture this was a low risk mission with good benefits.
Then disturbing rumors started circulating around the company. Some of its members were to be involved in an invasion of Cambodia. Real hard core stuff. On May 1st, Rafter’s squad was sent to hook up with U.S./ARVN forces near the small town of Snoul in Cambodia’s Fish Hook area. Rafter’s squad was to help clean out an enormous underground cache in a place dubbed “The City” by proud G.I.s. Sgt. Borgalac explained that the cache belonged to the NVA who were used sanctuaries like this in Cambodia because, up until now, Americans weren’t allowed to cross the border.
In his boozy assessment of things, “The political winds changed and Cambodia’s ruler, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who wouldn’t let Americans into his country, was ousted in a coup recently. The new guy, Marshall Lon Nol, asked Nixon to send troops in to chase off the Communists. And here we are.”
This seemingly inside knowledge impressed everyone in the squad. Their leader might be an alcoholic, but by God he knew the score when it came to this war. He was also an expert on the race situation in country. The “Brothers, or Bloods” as African Americans were called then, were okay if you weren’t a redneck or a “lifer.”
Blacks tended to stick together because they were treated like second class citizens at home, and they saw that more of them were in combat positions than the white boys. To further their solidarity, they used special handshakes called the dap that could take minutes to complete.
The dap had different variations. An elaborate synchronized ritual of slapping hands and bumping arms, it was awesome to watch. Some depended upon what part of the U.S. the “dapper” came from, and they also had universal daps that served them overseas.
There were other pearls of wisdom Sgt. Borgalac, who claimed he wasn’t a lifer, passed on to his men. For example, there was a certain ettiquette involved when “fragging” an officer became necessary. First there was a warning. A fragmentation grenade with the pin still in it was placed in the officer’s hooch. This was done to discourage stupid shit things like making the men walk on established trails that could be counted on to be ambush worthy. If the officer persisted in endangering their lives on every mission, they took the next step.
The pin came off the fragmentation gernade and it was rolled into the hooch while they slept. Sometimes, depending upon the severity of their stupidity, it was necessary to “cap” them and say it was an enemy sniper while on patrol. This is how things were done in Vietnam in 1970. This system produced officers afraid to follow orders that were unpopular with their men.
As the months passed, Rafter evolved. No longer a wide-eyed newbie, he became a hard-ass grunt determined to survive his time in Country, regardless. He shed pounds like water dripping off a monkey’s head. He smelled like one too, most of the time. His skin no longer looked lily white. His tan combined with a constant covering of reddish dirt made him look like a native American with red hair.
He learned to think nothing of relieving himself wherever he was. The Vietnamese habit of doing that was a strong influence. He wore a boonie hat with a Peace sign badge on the side. His dark blue granny glasses assured he was “out of uniform” according to the lifers, and that was why he wore them.
When lifers got after him for not saluting, or wearing non-regulation sun glasses, he waved his medical profile (nowhere in the wording did it say what kind of sun glasses had to be worn) at them and taunted, “What are you going to do? Send me to Vietnam?” He smoked pot whenever he could get away with it and developed a taste for opium oil smeared on his doobies.
In July, his squad was attached to a group of Marines building a fire base in the middle
of nowhere, otherwise known as The Song Ve Valley. They filled sandbags and built bunkers under the blazing sun for two days. Then at night all hell broke loose as a full-sized battalion of NVA regulars assaulted the base!
The obsidian sky was filled with red and green tracers and rocket flashes. Little figures of fury swarmed over the partially constructed fire base, shooting at everything in sight. They swarmed over the area like black ants. Rafter rolled out of his cot, grabbed his M-16, and greeted two NVA grunts who stuck their heads in his bunker with a stream of bullets.
Madness reigned. He heard shouts and screams of pain. As he looked around he saw the radio man talking frantically into his radio, right up to the moment his face disappeared in a red mist! He saw Goodson wrestling with one of the enemy. He plunged a knife into the North Vietnamese’s chest. Goodson stood up and looked surprised when red holes suddenly stitched a line across his body. Rafter shot his killer and ran blindly into the chaos.
Overhead, American jet fighters bore down on the embattled fire base’s perimeter with guns roaring and streams of deadly napalm. It was a scene straight from hell, as the fighting was hand-to-hand. The small company of Marines and Rafter’s squad were sustaining major causalities.
He saw Fernandez trying to pull Enriquez to safety by his arm while firing his M-16 at an oncoming group of NVA. When the clip was empty he and Enriquez were engulfed by dark bodies savagely bayoneting them.
The barrel of Rafter’s M-16 purpled and finally his weapon wouldn’t fire. He threw it down and ran. In the confusion he found the engineer trailer and opened the door. Inside
he saw a machete, sledge hammers, an ax, and rolls of detonation cord. Chandler’s guitar was propped up in one corner. “He’ll never play it again,” Rafter thought with a wave of crazy grief. He grabbed the machete and ran.
The fighting continued through the early morning hours. The shots and screams were more sporadic as it slowly became light outside. Then an eerie silence settled over the valley. Even the beasts of the jungle were still.
A pink and orange sunrise in the east. Bodies covered the hill like Autumn leaves. Rafter, hidden in a shallow depression beneath the body of a dead Marine, peered out and looked around. The stench of death and gun powder assaulted his nostrils.
Drops of rain fell. Slowly at first, but within minutes the clouds opened up and poured out their contents upon the carnage below as if to clean the earth of such abominations. Warily he crawled out from his gruesome hidey hole and stood up. It was hard to see anything as the rain poured down. He still stood in the same spot when the rain stopped twenty minutes later. The humidity was nearly unbearable. He watched steam rise from the bodies around him like souls escaping to a more peaceful place.
Look closer. Bodies missing legs and arms sprouting out of the mud and slime. Bodies that were nothing more than ragged dolls twisted into impossible positions. There were no NVA dead to be seen. It was as though a ghost battalion had struck and disappeared in the deadly hours of the night. It was the vengeance of the Eastern Gods of War for daring to invade their ancient country. Men fought and died with no witness to describe their last desperate moments.
No troop of Cavalry arrived at the last minute with bugles blowing and M-16s firing. Only the Gods of war had watched and they were pleased with the carnage.
Blood flowed down the hill mixed with rainwater. Rafter realized he’d have to move. He couldn’t just stand there and wait for something to happen. Nothing good would come his way here. This was Indian territory and he was an interloper.
He went from body to body looking for a weapon. The NVA ghosts had apparently seized all of them. Taken them underground into a tunnel complex more intricate than the catacombs of hell. Spoils of war. Guerrilla war.
Just as he was about to give up, he spotted Sgt. Borgalac slumped against a crumpled bunker. His eyes were open. On his lap, in his still hand, he held a .45 Army automatic. The rain had washed his face and the gash that split his forehead open was livid. White skull fragments were exposed. His body was riddled with bullet wounds.
Rafter imagined he went down taking some of the enemy with him, like Jim Bowie in the Alamo. The .45 was empty. He carefully unbuckled his squad leader’s utility belt with it’s canvas ammo pouches and hunting knife in a green metal sheath. His canteen hung on it, too. Rafter o