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Reflections on a War

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  THE TIME (i remember): Chu Lia, Vietnam, 1965 Previous
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Albert French Albert French was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on July 5, 1943. After graduating from high school, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps in January of 1963. In 1965, he served as an infantryman with Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment in Chu Lia, Vietnam. Following his Marine service, Mr. French became a photo journalist and magazine publisher, then a writer. He is the author of critically acclaimed books, including the novels Billy (Chivers, 1994) and Holly (Viking Press, 1995) and the memoir Patches of Fire: A Story of War and Redemption (Anchor Books, 1997), which is based on his experiences during and after the Vietnam War. Mr. French lives in Pittsburgh.

by Albert French

Time crawled through the days and nights like a snake you couldn't see. Then sometimes you could see its head, its tail. Sometimes you could see it all; it could coil, hiss, spring at you, before you knew what you saw. But you'd feel its bite, then its poison would sting you.

Just sitting for a moment could be everything, precious time you didn't want to pass. Sitting on the sand bags, staring out into the night, watching the stars could be precious moments, before you looked down into the dark, watched it creep about, and you'd think about the nights gone by when fires burned, somebody screamed until they died.

Sitting back in the tent area could be a good time. Easy talk could take you everyplace, back home. It could take you to parties, warm beds and long, soft hair. Laughter could take you further than talk; laughter could take you away from yourself. It could make those fears, death thoughts you had in your mind go away. It could change it, until it became a billion little pieces of things that didn't make a difference.

Seconds could change time forever, stick it in your face, make you look at it, make you look at some guy's face. He's dead, you don't want to see him, see yourself lookin' at him and seein' you layin' there. Blood and everything else that flows is pourin' out of him. Flies are already gettin' stuck in the blood. But you would have to move on, take more steps. Time would walk with you, wait with you, then run off screamin' and leavin' you alone and stuck with your own fears. You don't give a damn about the time, let it run away. It don't mean anything here anyway, you're dead already. You been dead as soon as you got here. You don't want to say it, you just want to pretend your alive, still livin'.

The rain could become a part of the time, nighttime, daytime. It could come and not go away. It could make you a part of it, wet and cold just like it. It could fall on your face, keep fallin' in your mind, make you hear it all of the time. You're tryin' to see through it, you got to know what's comin', got to see where you're going. You want it to stop so you can clean your rifle off, get dry, but you know it ain't goin' nowhere. You got to keep going, wadin' through its mud and floodin' waters. Some snake is floatin' by, going the other way. It's wet, just like you. It's going where it doesn't want to go. Or maybe it's going home. You know you're not.

God can sneak up on you anytime, then leave quickly. Most of the time, he comes at night when you're alone in your hole. He can just be there, you can look his way, talk, whisper to him. You can ask him why, why, why. Sometimes, you won't talk to him. You don't want him close to you, messin' with your head. Things ain't never fair. Everything is upside down, everybody can get killed. Them little crosses hangin' around dead necks, didn't save a damn thing. Lewis was always readin' that black book, always crossin' his heart so fast you thought he was havin' a fit. The flies got in all his blood. That little girl was runnin' for her life, scared as hell. She couldn't have been anything else except a child of somebody's God. If God wanted to reach down and get her, it didn't have to be with that damn automatic. Makin' her cry.

Maybe God ain't here, maybe you're just talkin' to yourself, thinkin' he's here. Maybe when he gets here, he won't sneak up on you, get in your head and see you like this stuff sometimes. Like changing things forever, like the cold rains and dark nights, like hiding them, then sneakin' out and killing somebody forever. Maybe God stayed in the states, stuck on a penny. Maybe he's coming over when he hears about this stuff. Maybe he's going to let his angels sing at night, dance in the day. Maybe when he gets here, he'll put things back together, open up some bodybags and let guys live again. Maybe he'll let that little girl go play, sing, dance, love one day and have babies. Please hurry, God.

I remember one night, perhaps I had gone too far. Maybe God didn't want me to go no further, wanted me to live, tell about it, write about what he had to watch us do. I know now he cried, it was never raindrops fallin'. No, there ain't that much rain to ever fall.

I was so close to death, I could smell its ugly breath. A bullet had gone through my throat. I was standing in the dark, looking across the rice paddy. We were pulling back, and I was asking this guy if anyone was left back there. I couldn't see anyone, couldn't find my friends. The only thing I could see was patches of fire burning in the far tree line. This guy turned and looked back too, then turned to me and muttered only the dead. I turned, pulled back, came back. But I brought the time with me and turned it into words that will hopefully live forever.

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