“That’s the thing about this city, Penny, it’s got everything. And look at that view. It’s beautiful ain’t it?” After a brief pause, Clay’s eyes meet hers. “Just like you.”
“Ahh, Clay, you’re making me blush,” said Penny.
Even after all their time together, she was still enamored by him. She giggled and tilted her head. Her hair dangled in front of her face covering up her rosy, red cheeks.
Clay leaned in playfully.
“Penny, you in there?”
She continued to laugh as he divided her hair. They kissed.
Picnicking in a secluded and peaceful patch of green overlooking the blue pacific, the young couple loved to the soundtrack of the crashing waves as if it were their first—and last—time.
Their slice of heaven was located just south of Crescent City, a town of less than 10,000 known for its coastal beauty, soft-shelled crabs, and giant redwoods, but Clay and Penny simply knew it as home. Growing up as neighbors they had always been friends but only started officially dating two years ago as juniors attending Crescent City High School: Go Warriors. But to strangers and the uninformed alike, it looked like they had always been sweethearts.
The inseparable nineteen-year-olds knew each other like a glove knows a hand: every curve, every joint, every wrinkle. No matter the nuance. From the cute way, her nose crinkled when she sneezed to her dream of one day becoming an engineer at JPL. He kept telling her she was a shoo-in at NASA. She was that smart. Clay counted himself lucky loving a girl who was not only pretty but could outthink anyone in town, even on a bad day.
Clay’s father was killed during WWII shortly after he was born. As a boy, Clay became infatuated with everything military: toys, movies. He even bought camouflage army clothes and some questionable MREs from the army surplus store downtown. From playing army with his friends to joining the junior ROTC program in high school. When he graduated, and with the Vietnam War in its infancy, he saw his chance for glory and enlisted into the army, eager to serve and make his father proud. He kept telling a sobbing Penny it was something he had to do. He just could never explain to her what that something was.
Now, cradling each other under a blanket, Penny felt at home in Clay’s arms. Her head buried in his chest, “tell me again why you have to go?”
“You know why, sweety. It’s my duty,” said Clay in a reassuring tone.
With her emotions one tear away from exploding, Penny became silent. Her throat was tied in knots. She could only manage to hug Clay a little tighter. Clay was shipping out in the morning.
Vietnam and its violence were a lifetime away. And for all of Penny’s academics, or her naivety, she kept asking why? Why did her nineteen-year-old Clay have to go fight?
Clay swallowed the frog stuck in his windpipe, forced a grin to his lips, and said in a steady voice, “but don’t worry, I’ll be back before you know it. You’ll see. I’ll be covered in medals and holding a letter from President Johnson personally thanking me for helping him win the war. Just think of it, Penny. When I get back, and of course, after they give me a well-deserved victory parade, we’ll get married and start having kids right away. Just like we planned!”
“I love you so much, Clay,” said Penny, squeezing him tighter, her voice barely a whisper.
“I’ve always loved you, Penny.”
Clay looked out to sea. With the moon rising into the night sky, he dreamed of their future and nestled his head against Penny’s. He stared watching the sun kissing the horizon, sinking, and his heart went with it.
* * *
Humping through the jungle, day after day, can’t be described. It can only be experienced. No matter how much training the army throws at you, they can’t prepare you for a place like this. Experience, time in the trenches, whatever you call it, is the only teacher. You only hope you can learn enough, fast enough, to stay alive.
You’re always exhausted and scared. Those feelings never leave you. And they won’t until they fly you out of this hole in one piece. Starting before sunup and carrying an eighty-pound pack, you walk all day. Trudging through the foliage is tough-work. Sometimes the underbrush is so thick you can’t see your buddy in front of you. It's a slow slog. You’re riddled with bug bites, itching constantly, and the heat and humidity are unrelenting, punishing. You’re lucky if you have cigarettes, or better yet, pot or something stronger, to lower your anxiety.
After another long day, Clay's platoon stopped for the night. It was balmy, the cicadas were screaming, and the air was thick as soup—it just hung there. O'Neill relieved Elias on watch and took over while the rest of the ten-man infantry platoon scratched at quarter-inch long ants and dozed unsuccessfully.
The jungle came alive when the first shot was fired.
The round from the enemy’s AK-47 pierced O’Neill’s skull. He toppled over into the mud. The grunts answered back unloading their M-16s into the darkness. Gardner, a southern-boy with ripped biceps, was screaming bloody-murder firing his M-60 submachine gun mowing down everything in sight, making him a prime target. He paid the price in short-order. Others used pistols and tossed hand grenades. White smoke bombs were lobbed into the bush to help identify enemy locations.
Sgt. Barnes barked orders, pleading for his men to take cover and FIRE! FIRE! FIRE!
Clayed yelled out and hit the dirt. Reeling in pain, he grabbed his assault rifle with one arm and fired randomly. Replacing spent magazines with fresh ones throughout the battle. Clay emptied his weapon time and again, hoping to stop the insanity.
The chaos lasted only minutes. Just enough time to cut the platoon of ten in half.
“Here! I’m here! Keep talking so I can find you!”
While Sgt. Barnes took stock of the situation, the medic made his way through the haze of smoke to find Elias covered in blood.
“Doc! It’s Clay, look!”
Clay screamed and writhed in pain. His right arm was gone—blown off at the shoulder. His brachial artery was severed and spewing blood.
“Crap! There’s no place to apply a tourniquet! He’s going to bleed out! We don’t have much time. Here, hold this over his shoulder and apply pressure.”
“Doc, talk to me!” said an arriving Sgt. Barnes.
“He needs a miracle and I’m all out. Keep him alert and talking while I try something!”
With Clay in agony, the medic gives him a quick shot of morphine, then grabs a series of clamps hoping he can stem the flood of blood.
“Clay! It’s Barnes. You’re gonna be OK. You hear me, son? Look at me! Doc’s working his magic right now. It won’t be long. You hear me? Hang in there, son, hang in there!”
With the morphine kicking in and Doc working frantically, Clay lays flat on his back, motionless.
"Sarge, he's coming to!"
Slowly opening his eyes, Clay finds the light of a full moon peeking through the canopy. He sees the rays lapping through the trees like ocean waves hitting a beach. His lips begin to curl slightly at the corners.
“Penny,” Clay says serenely and closes his eyes.