The Pretty Days

from a novel in progress

In Chu Lai the base was spread out in a fan of tents, once white, turned a rusty color.  Sand and wind.  Wind and sand.  South China Beach.  That wasn’t your first visual, though.  The first was the mountains.  The green of the hills.  The vast flats of rice fields.  And the river like a long blue-black snake.  All the places where you carried your guns, radios, half-empty canteens.  All of the places where you expected to die.

The best part about Chu Lai was the beach.  The sun, the crabs you caught and cooked, the bottles of tepid beer you drank, the hours you slept.  Until you woke up to the sirens.  And to the bright flares overhead, gold and red waves of light against the sky as you beat your way past the weight of sleep into the long, insistent sound of the sirens, of sergeants, of shouts that stretched out of the bunkers into the sand where, still, there lay the corpses of the crabs, their shells cracking under your boots, under your massive black boots.

And eventually the morning would come, more gold for your faces, your eyes like gashes against the early cloth of daylight.  And the fighting would dismiss itself like something only the dark was allowed to know and discuss.  Somehow there was breakfast and then more sleep, for some of you sooner than others.  An eventual swim in the dark waters beside darker fishing nets.  Another day, another blue sky.  You didn’t ask your purpose; you knew your purpose.  And yet it wasn’t that simple; it was clouded by the red dust of too many trails; it was complicated and out of control.  Still, you cleaned your weapon, packed your gear, and got ready for the next camping trip.  You knew you’d smell more than the sharp green scent of trees, you’d make your way through more than elephant grass, you’d flatten yourself into the days and then the nights and make it through.   

But for the moment the view through the rip in your tent was the beach and the sky and a thin line of horizon.  Those were the pretty days.  The days in Chu Lai.