Vietnam in Footnotes

Turning Sleep by Jill Lavetsky
“Turning Sleep” by Jill Lavetsky

Editor’s Note: Below is an excerpt from “Vietnam in Footnotes,” which is composed of twelve sections in its entirety.
By: Nicole Oquendo

Battle of la Drang

November 1965
la Drang Valley

At seventeen, my father ended up in South Vietnam, pressed between hills of rice and shell casings. Maybe he walked for days, weeks, or years in the jungle. His boots pressed fresh prints into the mud as he marched in line, or crushed tall grasses, or kicked away branches. No matter where he marched, over a hundred degrees of heat wound their way into his military uniform, sticky like leeches.

He was covered in sweat and gear as he walked through open jungle, where the trees and their canopies don’t widen enough at the top to block sunlight or rain, the sun itself a bamboo spear piercing right through him.

When he was hungry, there was a chance he could eat hot rations, or canned rations, or both rations. When he stopped marching, he would maybe brush his teeth with a capful of water, or bathe with the same, taking great care to dry his sockless feet with a small towel he also used as a headband or a wristband. Perhaps he and his unit forgot how to smell themselves and each other, instead focusing on the smells of brush land and bamboo, or in his case, the smell of rice, beans, plantains, apples, his mother.

It’s likely that before this march, he flew over American, European, and Asian landscapes, marveling at mountains, rivers, oceans, plains, deserts. His brothers—a formation of reinitas in the sky who likely did the same—travelled in separate groups. It is here he may have thought about the consequences of his first big lie—the American ground war began three months after his seventeenth birthday, but he had become a Marine before that. Perhaps the people in charge knew his birth certificate was doctored, but pretended not to know. Maybe they needed his flesh as much as his mother, sister, and other brothers needed his checks. Almost surely he was quiet, scared, the chop
of his helicopter, translating into a future of chopping paths through plants and others.

When he landed, the force of these blades would have bent the grasses, swirled the dirt. As he jumped from the helicopter, the whole heaping force of Vietnam would have spun around him and through him, two months before the start of monsoon season.

It’s likely that, just after the moment of his arrival, he and his team of Marines ran toward what looked like a fortress of trees—a triple canopy jungle—where there was shade, a place to hide. Perhaps he was energetic before the shooting started, when streaks of red and orange would spray across the same sky he had just flown through[1].

My father, as I know him, was born in Vietnam at the exact second the dust and rain aligned and caked into the mud that his first kill fell into. Maybe it was a boar, a tiger, a soldier, an enemy, a brother. Either way, he wore part of its remains wound around his body, just like everyone else.

We used to wear necklaces made of ears, he told me. To show off how many people we’d killed.

I was very small.


[1] The Battle of la Drang, taking place over four days, was the deadliest ambush for Americans in the entirety of the Vietnam War. Portions of this battle are depicted in books like We Were Soldiers Once…And Young, and in films such as We Were Soldiers.
Taxi drivers—not an officer—delivered telegrams notifying the families of the soldiers killed. It was too early in the war for protocol.


Fighter Pilot

Operation Rolling Thunder
March 1965- November 1968
South Vietnam & North Vietnam

It’s possible that what he says is true; that he marched a mostly straight path from the helicopter, through both dense and open jungle, heat and hottest heat, towards an F-105 Thunderchief[2]. When he arrived there, its likely that he ran the last few yards and pressed his hands hard against the outside of the plane. The metal would be hot, but smooth, and he would count all eighteen bombs with the taps of his fingers against his thigh, squirming, tapping his boot, tapping his jewelry, tapping his pack, ready to move, ready to fly, ready to take off into the Vietnamese sky and drop all eighteen of those bombs on mandated targets and other targets and whatever target was chosen for him, and he also chose himself while he spun the plane like a blooming flower farther and farther out like a dream or a book or a movie or a story because that’s what 17-year-olds do when you put them behind the controls of an aircraft or heavily armed anything—they lose their language and fly anxious fly reinita fly an F-105 Thunderchief and
                                                               bomb bomb bomb bomb bomb
                                                               bomb   bomb   bomb    bomb
                                                                         bomb bomb bomb                  
                                                                   bomb     bomb       bomb
                                                                               bomb     bomb
whatever you can see on the ground other than the airports and other essential targets because that’s what they told him to do. So he says[3].

[2] This requires a stretch of imagination, considering Thunderchiefs were typically piloted by the Air Force, not the Marines.
[3] I wonder if he knows what it feels like to be ejected from a plane; if he has ever been in a cockpit filled with smoke and buttons and dials.

Recon: Da Nang

April 1965
South Vietnam

It’s possible that he continued riding in planes or helicopters, never flying them himself. Instead, he flew by leaping out of an open door right into the sky around him, hundreds of times jumping over and over, spinning true, but this time falling, a comet, to the fields surrounding the airfield at Da Nang where his parachute sprang, where he still landed hard though he should have landed softly, pressed his boots into grass and ran for cover.

It’s possible he was born a third time—that he was created from the crack of gunfire vibrating through the jungle on his mission to defend the airfield. His bones, joints, skin, hair, fused together, forgotten myth, thunder god, lightning god, charging the barrel of his M-16 rifle, gaining force, pushing the bullet into the                            head
                                                                                                                                                                              of a                                                                                                                                                          North Vietnamese                                                                                                                                                                            soldier
                            shooting                                                                                                                        and stopped

in whisper and silence as seventeen years of too small too dark too poor balled up into thin metal with enough force to penetrate the head of a real live man just after it escaped his own head into his gun. It may be that this is the very moment where his life’s profession chose him, sculpted his future in the middle of all this shooting.

Every battle is his first.

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